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Lord's Day Liturgy

Manger Ministries

The good news of great joy is not that God is satisfied with you, but that He sent a Savior for you. The good news of great joy is not that you have produced enough, finally, for Him to accept you, but that He has accepted you in Christ, with grace and peace to you. Rejoice! Rejoice!

There is a helpful distinction, perhaps even a tension, that is worth maintaining even at the Lord’s Table. Our heavenly Father is pleased with us and still not satisfied. He loves us; in one sense He could not love us more, and in His love, He renews and refines us because we are not yet complete in Christ. He is pleased with us in Christ even as He is pleased to conform us more and more into His Son’s glorious image. There is true peace, even though we have not been made perfect yet.

The meal in front of us bears great similarity to the peace offering in the OT. It was a shared meal that recognized peace between God and men (and those men with each other) based on the sacrifices. The fellowship, the communion, was in God’s pleasure, which didn’t mean that all His purposes were perfected yet.

Consider this alt-view of the angel’s glory shown to the shepherds:

“Fear more, for behold, I bring you true news of great import, that I saw how you treated your wife before you left for work today, and this is the latest in a long line of disappointments to God. He wants you to clean it up.”

That is not evangel. Nor does Luke have any critical word that that the shepherds didn’t all quit their jobs and start a missionary effort under the brand: Manger Ministries.

Were they deserving? Was Mary? Was God satisfied with them? But was God pleased to share His blessings, favor, grace, and peace? Yes! Glory to God in the highest! There’s great joy for all the people in the Savior, Christ the Lord. (And as you have received, so give.)

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Following the First

Jesus is called the “firstborn son” of Mary (Luke 2:7). He’s called that because He wasn’t Joseph’s biological son, and because Mary did have other biological children afterward. The emphasis here is on His being born.

Jesus is also called “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Such a firstborn wasn’t a material question but a positional one. He created all things, all creation is by Him and through Him and to Him (1:16). The emphasis here is on His being highest.

Jesus is called “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). This is physical; He did rise in body on the third day. The emphasis here is on His being alive. It is also positional; related to His character and His crucifixion.

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18–20 ESV)

And it is numerical; more will follow. He is the “firstborn of many brothers” (Romans 8:29). The emphasis here is on His being first; there is more than one, more to follow.

We celebrate His coming as a son of Mary, God clothed in flesh. We worship Him as unsurpassed, God as Creator and God in Christ. And we wait for His coming again, when we will be raised in flesh to follow in His train (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Christmas

The primary way that the New Testament talks about the flesh is where the “flesh” represents the sinful pull in all of us. The lust of the flesh, the works of the flesh, the flesh as enemy of the Spirit is most definitely not what we should embrace.

But “flesh” in those respects is not referring to the matter, not the muscles and nerves and blood and bones, which is also the flesh. The physical flesh is the flesh that Jesus took at (what we celebrate as) Christmas. Though He shared our weaknesses and faced temptations as a man, He did so yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). If God created that flesh and also clothed Himself with it, it can’t be all bad.

The incarnation shows that the flesh is not God. God, in the Word who was God before creation, existed without one. So we worship the Maker not the material. God is outside, before and beyond, human flesh. Christmas truth should keep us from worshipping our bodies, let alone stuff.

The incarnation also shows that God identifies with human flesh. God, in the Word, became like us. “Since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself partook of the same things” (Hebrew 2:14). He took on our form, with the physical limits and needs and in every other respect. Christmas truth means that we don’t have to escape the flesh to please God.

As people of the truth we tend to prefer two-dimensions; three-dimensions are hard. We want our Word on a page, not in a body. Too often we have great Christmas ideas without glad sacrifices and generosity and being worn out and used up to spill grace onto others.

In your body love, be joyful, be patient, show kindness, do good, be self-controlled. Decorate, bake, clean, sing, give, cry, so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in your body (2 Corinthians 4:11), just as He was manifested in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). Let our celebrations not be spiritualized, but let us be filled with the Spirit to keep Christmas in our flesh.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

A Contumelious Wall

How do you measure if you’re celebrating Christmas in a godly way? How do you measure if you’re celebrating communion in a godly way? There is a connection.

It’s common for Christians, who at least are the ones who care about godliness, to take a simplistic approach to godliness by building a contumelious wall between the spiritual and the material. We read, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” Does that settle everything? But, God said to love our neighbor, and he is certainly “in the world.” Even more, “God so loved the world,” and that is why He sent His Son into the world.

Some of what we need to do is define our terms. “World” (or cosmos in Greek) has perhaps 16 different uses/referents in the New Testament (see A. W. Pink’s Appendix in The Sovereignty of God). When the apostle John wrote not to love the world, he then defined what he meant: “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of possessions” (1 John 2:16). There are things/loves/pursuits/attitudes that can ruin Christmas. But Christmas itself, just because it is in the world, isn’t for our ruin at all.

Back to answering the first paragraph questions. You measure your godly celebration of Christmas by the degree of love for God and neighbor while setting up the tree, et cetera, just as you measure your godly celebration of communion by the degree of thankfulness as you eat the bread and drink the wine. Godliness isn’t simply about getting out of the body or out of the world, otherwise God wouldn’t have taken on a body and come into the world. “As often as you eat this read and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Not a Puddle under the Pine Tree

Is it possible that God finds our celebration of Christmas not too hot but too lukewarm? Is it possible that we are too half-hearted in our worship of the Word become flesh? Will we give an account for how we gave gifts, or not, in Jesus’ name?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I’ve continued to meditate the past few weeks on the awkwardly phrased phrase in Romans 2:7. The context of Romans 2 is not seasonal, in fact, it’s not just year round but all of one’s life. God judges according to what He sees the whole way down into what you’re baking, not just the drizzle of icing on a holiday morning.

Those that receive eternal life are the ones who by endurance of work of good seek for glory and honor and immortality (Romans 2:7).

Though not limited to the advent season, it at least applies. So, are you wanting not just the glory of a great Christmas, are you wanting the glory from God in reward for having greatly honored Him this Christmas?

This does not mean that you must buy the most gifts you’ve ever bought, it does not mean you must spend the most money you’ve ever received in a stimulus check. It does not require a modern-day missionary journey to every relative’s house. It does not demand the turkey to be stuffed with duck to be stuffed with chicken. If these are opportunities for you, great. If your opportunities are other, also great.

It does mean that you must not be selfish (see Romans 2:8). It means that you must not collapse into a puddle under the pine tree, but rather endure. Seek the glory of God in the highest, and He will glorify those with whom He is pleased.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Communion with Immanuel

Mary was not the only one to get a pre-birth announcement from an angel. Matthew recorded the dream given to Joseph.

behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:20–23 ESV)

Joseph also was told about the miraculous conception, less to answer his questions about the biological possibility and more about the legality and the propriety. The angel affirmed that Mary had not been unfaithful.

The angel also told Joseph the child’s name: Jesus. It meant something: “for he will save his people from their sins.” Savior was His name, part of His identity.

The angel also quoted Isaiah, not only to connect Jesus’ origin with the prophecy about a virgin birth, but also as a further part of His identity. He is named Jesus, and Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”

Beloved, the bread and wine before us are signs of the cost of our salvation and signs of the Son’s flesh and blood. We eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus, Immanuel, our Lord.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Free to Love Christmas

Most of us who are parents grew up in families that focused our seasonal celebration on Christmas day, while many of your families now think about Christmas day as the cap to your celebration of Advent, the four Sundays and/or the all days between now and December 25th.

Whether or not you are a big Advent and/or big Christmas person/family, do rejoice in the Incarnation of God’s Son and love Jesus Christ? If yes, how do you show it?

I first remember learning these categories about six years ago from a book titled The Things of Earth. These two approaches will help you answer the question.

Consider your love for God and His Son by way of comparison and by way of integration. Usually we hear more about the comparative side; that’s where the Christmas guilt usually gets applied, while the integrated aspects may be happening, even if not so obviously pursued or passed on to our kids.

By comparison “there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You” (Psalm 73:25). Love God with all your heart. If you had to choose, Christ or Christmas, there must be no contest. If you chose Christmas (and any of your favored traditions), you would have chosen an idol no matter how good the name. You shouldn’t love the gift more than the giver, you shouldn’t love any giver more than God. At the least, when we assemble to worship, we test the hierarchy of affections in our heart. God first.

And that same God who commands our love to Him above all, is the same God who gives us gifts. This God says “all are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:22). Is this a cruel temptation? Why all the work (and parties) and extras during a season in which we’re supposed to focus on the Incarnation? It’s because most of the time He wants our love for Him integrated in what we do. Love Christ more than Christmas, and then your heart will be free to love Christ as you do all the cookie baking and gift wrapping and calendar crunching.

Do not let your heart off the hook in either direction.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Seven Spirits of Grumpiness

I have given similar exhortations before, and this should wrap up and tie a nice flip-sequin bow on the recent mini-series about emotional control.

Christmas is a perfect test of our emotional control, especially when it comes to our responses. Parents are typically worn out, kids are typically wound up, and that can make for a vicious vortex of unpleasant feelings. There are unmet expectations to manage, there are unmanageable relatives coming to dinner. Your nerves are stretched as precarious as that old strand of lights you hoped could make it through one more season. How will you respond?

All of that is blessed-case scenario. Some of you are approaching Christmas for the first time without the presence of a loved one. Some of you are in isolation, or you are isolated from those in isolation. The ostensible physical protection from viruses contrasts with the obvious discouragement of hearts. How will you respond?

Kids ripping into presents too quickly is better than ripping into their siblings too quickly, and being heavy with burdens is better than never having known a full table. But these are not actually the hardest parts of Christmas.

The most difficult emotional effort is rejoicing with joy inexpressible and filled of glory (1 Peter 1:8). The angels announced good news of great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10). It is much too easy to be dull to the King of David. How will you respond?

Emotional control for the Christian is more than casting out the seven spirits of grumpiness. If your emotional house isn’t run by the strongman of gladness and love, the unclean spirit will return and plunder your joy tank (see similarly Matthew 12:29, 43-45; Luke 11:24-26). “Let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Heavenly Food

If I could only keep one, Christmas or communion, I would choose communion every time. This is not just because Jesus ordained the ordinance of the Lord’s Table, which He did, and which overrides whatever seasonal sentimentality might get in the way. I would choose communion every time because as important as it is that Jesus took on flesh, Jesus said that it was necessary that we eat His flesh.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

The King was betrayed, and beforehand He broke bread and said, “This is my body which is for you.”

In our blessed position, we don’t have to choose between two good things. Even in the verse from John I quoted, Jesus said He “came down.” John’s gospel opens with the eternal Logos, the Word, taking on flesh, and John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Christmas and Easter, the King’s birth and death and resurrection, go together like garland and lights. This once-weekly part of our liturgy presumes the annual reminder of the incarnation, our more-than-mental-worship by bread and wine repeating the sounding joy.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

(“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”)

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Christmas Communion

Perhaps you’re curious what the fourth advent communion meditation is going to be. If you’ve been following for the previous three, you probably remember that we’ve talked about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in relation to Christmas. The gift of a Savior was the Father’s idea, the incarnation was the Son’s identification with us, and it was accomplished by the Spirit’s work. There are only three Persons in the Trinity, so what’s left?

Communion. Love would also be a good choice, so would life. But communion is what love wants and what life is.

Why is the Incarnation so glorious? It does reveal the Father’s generosity, and communicate the Son’s humility, and remind us of the Spirit’s interests. The Father sends, the Son was born, and the Spirit still says, Come. But why?

Christmas is not primarily a story of angels and stars and shepherds and a manger. The details are true, and the details point to the good news. Peace on earth! Here is good news to those who had offended God. The star led wise men to the King of Israel. Here is good news to those who were far off. There was no room in the inn. Here is good news that the Spirit makes room in our hearts for Him to dwell in us.

God was not merely making a point about His creative ability or His dramatic timing or His embrace of humble beginnings. All of those make a point about what He aimed to achieve through it all: reconciling God and man through the God-Man. We desire to be together with family because we are made in the image of the Triune God.