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Lord's Day Liturgy

A Condescending Lesson

A common Christian abuse of Christmas poses itself as spiritual behavior. The abuse occurs when Christians reluctantly, or plainly refuse to, love others who don’t rise to the level of understanding that we think they should have about Christmas. In other words, since they don’t get Christmas like we do, they’re not worthy to share our Christmas joy. I might be a relative, it could even be how parents treat their kids. If only they would just grow up, then we wouldn’t have to teach them a lesson by being so condescending.

This behavior reverses the gospel. It abuses Christmas.

Jesus didn’t wait for people to get it before He came. He didn’t take on flesh because that’s where the glory was. Flesh is precisely not where the glory was. He came to redeem and restore fallen men, the very ones who didn’t get it. That’s the point of Christmas.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6)

In some ways, Christmas is the anti-holiday, at least as the Hallmark channel portrays it. The birth of Christ in Bethlehem was the anti- “everything is just right” moment that brings people together. We’re stressing to arrange all the details to be perfect. Jesus came because nothing was perfect, and He came in an inconvenient and unacknowledged way. And, of course, 2000 years or so later, we’re still talking about it.

We want to be with people when they get it. Jesus went to people because they didn’t. May your joy in Emmanuel come first, like a gift to your people, rather than held back like a wage that they must earn.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Will of His Throne

I recently finished rereading Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of his poetic journey that starts with a tour through hell and ends up in the highest heaven. The whole epic is called The Divine Comedy because it has a happy ending, at least for those in heaven.

One part that stood out to me again is an explanation given by an occupant of the lowest part of heaven that Dante encountered, and, according to his celestial geography, the part furthest away from God’s throne. Dante asks if those in this circle are disappointed that they are not and cannot move closer. Here is the answer:

“If we desired to be higher up,
then our desires would not be
in accord with His will Who as-
signs us to this sphere;

Indeed, the essence of this
blessed state is to dwell here
within His holy will, so that
there is no will but one with His;

While I don’t think the distance imagery is accurate, this description of heavenly desire is gold. What is heaven? To have our wills match God’s will perfectly. Heaven is where we desire exactly what He desires, perfect contentment with the blessings of His will.

I enjoyed reading Dante’s imaginative effort about heaven while reading the apostle John’s inspired vision in Revelation 4 and 5. At the center of John’s sight is the throne, the place where the Lord God Almighty sits. The throne communicates His glory, and His authority. It is the place where He wills what happens.

Isn’t this exactly how we get into trouble? At best we are ignorant of His will, or we forget it, or we reject it. Of course that is misery, not joy. It is rebellion, not worship. It is hellish, not divine.

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9–10)

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Identity Requires Faith

Recognizing our identity requires faith.

Many of the ladies in our church have been reading and discussing a book about identity. Being a woman is part of one’s identity (if you are a woman), as is being a man. Recognizing that difference does not require wisdom, though in our day it does require honesty and courage. Some are young, some are old, and God speaks to the different glories of each kind. We are not all the same part of the body, we do not all have the same spiritual gifts. These categories, and others, belong with who we believe ourselves to be as image-bearers of God and as disciples of Christ.

I mentioned a few months ago the difference between optimists and pessimists, not regarding world history per se, but regarding personal sanctification. I want to cover that ground again from a different angle because identifying ourselves correctly affects our hope.

Christian, are you a sinner or are you saint? Are you guilty before God or justified in Christ’s righteousness? Are you a conquerer, or are you a coward, a compromiser, a loser?

Here’s the giveaway: if you are asking those questions, the answer is obvious. If you are not asking those questions, there is an obvious problem.

If you struggle to identify as a saint, knowing that you sin and that you have to repent from sin and that you hate sin, then the Bible commands you to identify as “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 5:11). This is not telling yourself a lie, it is the way you reckon with having died with Christ to sin. If you see that you are wretched, and long for full deliverance from sin (Romans 7:24), then you must acknowledge that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Are you weak, are you groaning, then you should know that in all these things you are more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37).

This is not trying to convince yourself of something to make it true, this is the life of believing what Christ said is true.

It’s those who say that they don’t have sin who God identifies as liars (1 John 1:10). So speak the truth, confess your sin, as overcomers of the world by faith that Jesus is the Son of God.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Not a Hands Off God

Discipline hurts. Discipline is not entirely the same as punishment, though the pain part may overlap. God says in the book of Hebrews that discipline stings, at least in the moment (Hebrews 12:11). But He also says that the sting is not the point. Punishment aims at pain. Discipline aims at the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Throughout the Bible God reveals that His discipline is like that of a father (as in Proverbs 3:11-12). The starting assumption is that to discipline like a father means to discipline in love. A father knows what is right, he is honest when his son doesn’t do what is right, and he doesn’t wait around for everything to just work itself out. A loving father speaks up, decides consequences, provides training, and some of that may be painful.

What are the disciplined supposed to learn? As mentioned, they are supposed to learn what is right, and that doing right has a different pain than not doing right. God’s discipline leads to holiness, and that is good (Hebrews 12:10).

But isn’t it also true that discipline teaches a son that he is loved? Love cares about what is right and about the other person and about the other person learning to love what is right. Love isn’t hands off. Love trains to transform a son to grow up so that he can discipline his son in love. Discipline turns sons into kings (see Revelation 3:21).

Our Father has a fully stocked discipline arsenal. When He sees His children disobey, with discontented or tepid souls, He has limitless ways to get our attention. Is He disciplining you? It is because He loves you.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

He Gives Gratitude-Power

The wise Preacher once observed a heavy and hideous scene.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–2, ESV)

Here is an illustration I’ve always appreciated. “God is the One who gives things, and God is the one who gives the power to enjoy things. These are distinct gifts…just as a can of peaches and a can-opener are distinct gifts” (Wilson, Joy at the End of the Tether). God could give a man a warehouse full of canned peaches, and get that man on the talk show circuit about his terrific warehouse management techniques, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Who knows how many things he has to be thankful for? Sounds, Scripture, salvation; food, family, friendship; life, liturgy, literature; ice cream, the Internet, ibuprofen; butter, bread, beauty; kids, congratulations, compassion; potatoes, promises, pies. These are all wondrous gifts, with whip cream on top, to mankind.

But there is one more gift that puts all of those gifts in place. One other gift that keeps us from serving the gifts as gods or from fearing that we will. The great gift is the power to give thanks. Gratitude itself is a grace. Not letting us think that we have gotten all these things by our own power (see Deuteronomy 8:17), but turning us to the God of generosity and abundant blessings is His own work in our hearts.

Give thanks to God who works and wills thankfulness in your hearts.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

A Bad Identity

I am not the first to register it, but I definitely want to repeat it: being a victim is a bad identity.

There are genuine victims. Some victims have been treated brutally. This is a world of sin, and sinners sin against others in wicked ways, and not always because the other person brought it on himself. Decisions are made that are unfair, contracts are broken, payments extorted, acts committed that really do damage others.

There are also bogus victims. Some victims have never been a situation that they couldn’t twist to find themselves into the victim’s role. It could have started with a small misperception turned into a federal case, it could be a complete misrepresentation of reality, a lie to cover your own conduct with a story that keeps throwing the bucket in the sympathy well. There are micro-aggression chasers, how-have-you-hurt-me-today journal keepers, and these demean real victims while doing no good for themselves.

Christians will be tested, reviled, beaten, lied about, discriminated against, and even killed. They will suffer, unjustly, and Jesus said: Don’t be surprised (1 Peter 4:12). Jesus also said: Rejoice (1 Peter 4:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; Philippians 4:4).

Jesus also became the ultimate sacrificial victim in order to give you a new name, a new identity. He laid down His life so that you could have life, not so that you could more accurately complain, with Bible references and everything.

If you are a true target of another’s sin, trust God. Repent from your sin, and obey. If you are tempted to blame your bad feelings on others, if you always see yourself as the Oppressed, if you find it easier to live by complaint than by faith with thanks, repent. Your identity is Whose you are, not what has been done to you.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

Jesus Is King

We’ve been talking at our house about how no one could have predicted that the two people doing the most for Christianity on a national level in our day are Donald Trump and Kanye West. They are not having influence for Christianity the same way; to talk about how the President’s influence works is another discussion. I’m also not bringing them up in a belief that influence must be national in order to be God-honoring and important. But this definitely seems to be an example of God drawing straight lines with crooked sticks.

Do you know who Kanye West is? Some don’t want anything to do with him, others attach to him for reasons that aren’t great, others reading this maybe really don’t recognize his name. He’s an A-list celebrity hip-hop artist, married to an A-list celebrity Kardashian. In his rap music Kayne used to celebrate all the sins that unbelievers exalt. But he’s changed his tune. A few months ago he professed that he became a Christian. His new album came out a couple weeks ago titled, “Jesus Is King,” and all ten songs made the Billboard top 100 list last week.

I wasn’t in to hip-hop, or Kayne before his profession of faith. If I was a single man I probably wouldn’t have heard any of his new album. But I keep seeing videos where Kanye keeps doing things that aren’t cool for no apparently good reason except for Christ.

He’s spoken out against abortion. He’s lamented the damaging effects of pornography. He’s described new convictions about how he wants his wife to dress more modestly. He’s explained that he loves his wife and kids, that he hopes to have more kids, that he thinks having kids is the greatest treasure. And when asked directly about the difference between his current life and not that long ago, he said that Jesus has caused him to wake up (also part of the previous video). He even wrote an ode to Chick-fil-A.

What should we do with all of that? We must give thanks, because God says to (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and it’s not actually that hard to find reasons. We can also pray for Kanye and his life as a new professing believer. But also, we should pray to be that sort of not ashamed of the gospel. Jesus is King. Kayne has been giving true, clear, and honoring testimony to Jesus. Even if, in the unlikely but possible worst case scenario, this gospel seed is on rocky soil or among thorns, and only grows for a short season, it’s still a challenge to those of us in good soil to bear the fruit of bold witness for our King.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Sin of Seasonal Humbug

I hate Christmas for a different reason than I used to. I used to hate Christmas when I thought I was more of a saint. Now I hate it because I know how much more I am a sinner.

Christmas used to provide a great platform for my self-righteousness. My strong seasonal humbug spiced up my holiness. Obviously, I was so serious about Jesus that I couldn’t be dragged down into the fray of shopping and sweaters and wassail. I worshipped Jesus better by not getting involved.

I realize now that my “worship” was mostly defined by how I wasn’t like “those” people. Yet many of those people went down from the outlet mall more sanctified than me. Not all of them. An idolator will use any reason to worship his idol, even if that reason is named Jesus. I hated Christmas because people abused it. But I threw the Baby out with the busted LED lights.

I hate Christmas now because it exposes the atrophy of my celebration muscles. I can’t lift much true cheer even though the burden is light. I realize, of course, that this means I don’t really hate Christmas, but Christmas does cause me to hate my sin more. I am not like Christ. I do not naturally give myself away, serve from love, or laugh when it’s hard. I prefer to stay away from mess rather than take it on.

That said, Christmas is JOYFUL because Jesus did come. He took on our weaknesses so that He could fill us with His joy. As we remember that He came we remember why we need Him. We also remember what He gives us: peace, hope, and joy.

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Lord's Day Liturgy

The Hardest Part

The hardest part about Christmas is not shaking off the lingering effects of tryptophan at 2 AM while shopping on Black Friday. The hardest part is not squeezing SUVs into compact parking spaces at the mall or outjoying cranky checkout clerks. The hardest part is not choosing the perfect (and budget fitting) gift for the picky person in your life. The hardest part is not securing the tree straight in the stand. The hardest part is not troubleshooting strands of dead lights or even dealing with deadbeats around the dinner table. The hardest part is not paying off all the credit card bills by May. The hardest part about Christmas is caring.

No sentiment from a Hallmark holiday movie or lick from a thick peppermint stick can guarantee to get your heart in the mood. No matter how much the thirsty needles on your tree smell like they might burst into flame, no decorated indoor fir can catch your heart on fire. Celebrating the first coming of Christ and letting that party push us to wait even more eagerly for His next coming is hard heart work.

The liturgy of the season is an advantage to us if we repent and believe. As is true of our worship every Lord’s day, confessing and communing, offering and singing, praying and receiving the Word challenge us to be renewed in love for Christ. So setting up trees and giving gifts, baking ham and greeting family, all provide cover for cold hearts or provide discipline to melt them.

Is your preparation for the 25th increasing your anticipation of the great day? Are you pursuing holiness more these days, not only so that you’ll be ready for righteous rejoicing on Christmas, but also so that you’ll be ready for Christ’s return? If not, now is a great time to confess the sin that strangles sanctification and hope so that we can enjoy more of both on Tuesday.