Beware of Christmas Idols

Christmas idolatry

John finishes his first epistle with this practical exhortation: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. The holiday season brings its own unique challenges in this regard. If John wrote to us in our time and culture regarding Christmas and its false god’s pitfalls I suspect he might specify at least the following.

Keep yourself from the idol of possessions. Consumerism tops the list of things that can tempt us to seek our satisfaction in something other than Jesus. The Lord made it plain. We can’t serve God and money (Matt. 6:24). Determine to keep your spending in line with God’s plan for your stewardship.

Keep yourself from the idol of comfort. People often suffer from forms of depression at this time of year. Blocked goals, unmet expectations, pangs of loss, among other things, can tempt us to seek refuge in any number of counterfeit gods. Over indulging in food and drink, endless hours in front of the TV or surfing the internet, substance abuse, relational dependence, these and other strategies of self-medicating and escape have their root ultimately in digging broken wells rather than drinking from the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13). Take refuge in the Rock that never runs dry.

Keep yourself from the idol of control. Whether the circumstances surrounding idealistic plans for Christmas and New Years or the people in our lives with whom we engage in this season – family, significant others, friends, and acquaintances – who may or may not cooperate with our agendas — exerting power by way of manipulation, guilt, threat, passive aggressiveness or any other sinful strategy designed to make others comply with our demands boils down to a dependence upon things outside our control that fail to deliver the happiness we invest in them. Let a “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16-18) ethic rule your spirit at every turn of events that doesn’t go the way you hoped.

Keep yourselves this Christmas from the counterfeit gods that tempt you through the power of the living God made yours by your union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Not One, But Two

Opportunities, that is.

For what? Bending the gospel outward at OGC this weekend.

The first comes this Friday, December 20, in the form of a free Christmas concert featuring a new group getting airtime on Z88.3 FM in Orlando called “All Things New.” Here’s a sample of what you will hear:

You can go on mission with this option in one of two ways. First, you can volunteer to serve on one of the teams. We need greeters, parking attendants, security, among other things. Contact the church office if you want to get in on the fun. Second, you can bring a friend and use the time together as a chance to connect about spiritual things. For more information about the concert click here.


The second opportunity takes place the very next morning at 9 AM at the All Women’s Health Center in Altamonte Springs. Various churches from around the city will convene at this abortion center for a twenty minute Christmas caroling and prayer service on the sidewalk. The mill will be open for “business” during this time. I have been asked to lead in prayer as part of the service. For those who can, the group will proceed from there to other abortion clinics in the Orlando area. For more information, contact the church office and ask for me. Ample parking is available at Pharmacy Specialists just north of the center on Maitland Avenue. This is a no brainer mission opportunity for us at OGC since our facility is right down the street from this house of horrors. You won’t have to do anything more than pray and carol and trust God to work in the hearts of some folks that may lead to the rescue of one or more infants in the womb.

Come on church. Let’s bless the city and storm the gates that won’t prevail against the church of King Jesus!


More Blessed Than the Virgin Mary


As a kid I loved this time of year for all the reasons most children do. My romance with Christmas followed me all the way into my teen years as well.

However, things took on a whole new perspective in December of 1972. On the 14th of that month in that year the wind of the Holy Spirit blew powerfully into my life. I was born again. Jesus saved me and has faithfully kept me now these forty-one years. I find the season all the more gratifying since with it comes my spiritual birthday and the anniversary of the gift of gifts, my regeneration and union with Christ. Thanks be to God.

I say without equivocation that this makes me and any other blood-bought child of God more blessed than the blessed virgin Mary. Don’t get me wrong. Her privilege in bearing the Son of God put her in a distinguished, one-of-kind category. The angel greeted her with tiding of her station with the words “Hail, favored one!” (Luke 1:28). Her cousin Elizabeth greeted her later in that same chapter with the words “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Indeed. Who can even begin to imagine what it must have been like to travel Mary’s journey as the mother of Jesus?

That said, the fact remains, Jesus Himself made one thing very clear about the relative privilege between her station and that of anyone like me who belongs to Him by faith. I refer to Luke 11:27-28.

As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

I don’t think Jesus meant to dismiss outright the extraordinary responsibility embraced by His earthly mother. Rather He sought to impress upon His followers the enormity of blessing that comes with receiving God’s grace in salvation. No privilege remotely compares in this life with God’s tuning your heart to sing His grace and tendering your will to obey the Scriptures.

Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

Great was the privilege which God bestowed on the blessed virgin Mary, in granting that of her should be born the Son of God; that a person who was infinitely more honorable than the angels, who was the Creator and King of heaven 220px-Jonathan_Edwardsand earth and the great Savior of the world, should be conceived in her womb, born of her, and nursed at her breast, was a far greater privilege than to be the mother of the child of the greatest earthly prince that ever existed. But yet, surely that was not so great a privilege as it was to have the grace of God in the heart, to have Christ, as it were, born in the soul, as Christ himself does expressly teach us.

From the depths of my heart this December 14, 2013, I rejoice by His grace to have God in my heart, Christ as my King, born in my soul, and pray humbly for that same grace to keep me for another year and for as long as I shall live.

Praise for the Incarnation

Another benefit of my recent search for Advent resources came in the form of this lovely piece by the Puritan, John Newton.

Sweeter sounds than music knows
Charm me in Immanuel’s name;
All her hopes my spirit owes
To his birth, and cross, and shame.

John NewtonWhen he came, the angels sung,
“Glory be to God on high;”
Lord, unloose my stamm’ring tongue,
Who should louder sing than I?

Did the Lord a man become,
That he might the law fulfil,
Bleed and suffer in my room,
And canst thou, my tongue, be still?

No, I must my praises bring,
Though they worthless are and weak;
For should I refuse to sing,
Sure the very stones would speak.

O my Saviour, Shield, and Sun,
Shepherd, Brother, Husband, Friend,
Ev’ry precious name in one,
I will love thee without end.

May this be our praise and prayer this Christmas and always.

An Advent Strategy for Your Joy


In this season of preparation for the Christmas holiday, we can so easily get overwhelmed by the demands it brings into our lives. Using each of the letters of the word ADVENT, I offer this approach to the holidays as one more likely to promote our joy in God than not.

A – Ask the Lord often to keep you mindful that Jesus is the reason for the season.

D – Deepen your insight into the wonder of the incarnation by regularly reading the gospel nativity accounts at the beginning of Matthew and Luke as well as John’s prologue in chapter 1.

V – Venture to share your faith with someone by giving your testimony, walking them through the gospel, and/or inviting them to a Christmas Eve service.

E – Encourage someone struggling at this time of year through a note of appreciation, spending some time with them, or an act of kindness they don’t expect.

N – Nurture your worship quotient by listening to some sacred music of the season like Handel’s Messiah.

T – (and most importantly) Take to heart more than ever the gospel, the good news of great joy, that though you are more sinful than you could ever imagine that still you are more loved by God in Jesus then you could ever dare dream.

Christmas Uncut

CU Cover.inddWhile surfing the web recently in search of Advent resources to use for our church, I stumbled across a little book with a provocative title. Christmas Uncut: What Really Happened and Why it Really Matters, by Carl Laferton (The Good Book Company, 2012, 64 pages), offers an unusual take on the Christmas story that engages, informs, and convicts on several levels.

Laferton cleverly and humorously launches the book and each chapter from a playful reminiscing of church-goers’ nativity pageant experiences to take the reader into an study of the gospels and a look at the real Christmas story, uncut as it were. His aim is to rescue the heart of the season’s message from what it has become. He explains:

When children act out the nativity, it doesn’t have much in common with the historical Christmas. Over time, we’ve cut huge, crucial bits out. We’ve added nice but completely made-up details. We’ve made it into a tale for children, and forgotten the real events. (Did you know that there were no kings or donkey?!)

We’ve turned Christmas history into a nativity play.

I don’t want to be a spoilsport. Nativity plays are part of the whole Christmas experience, along with desperate last-minute shopping and sending cards to people who you didn’t make the effort to see last year, and won’t make the effort to see next year. . . . It’s just that the real Christmas is much more interesting than what we’ve turned it into. It’s worth rescuing and re-telling. . . . What there was at the first Christmas was scandal. Controversy. Massacres. Mystery (p. 6).

In the brief chapters that follow, the author seeks to accomplish three things. First, correct misconceptions. By taking the reader through the biblical texts, he tells the real uncut story and sets the record straight. Second, make application. He skillfully spans the horizons between the first century and the 21st showing how the uncut details of the Christmas story can and should make a difference in our daily lives. Third, answer objections. Realizing that his book may well fall into the hands of skeptics and hoping, I suspect, that believers will put copies there, Laferton offers some “Yes, but” chapters at the end addressing answers to questions as to the authenticity of the gospels, the identity of Jesus, and the historicity of the resurrection.

I can see this resource serving multiple purposes in the Advent season. First, if you feel the need for a fresh look at the story of Christ’s incarnation to jump start your joy in God this Advent season, I believe this will help. Camp out in these pages throughout December, maybe a chapter every couple of days, and ask the Lord to revive your enthusiasm in Him as you read its pages.

Second, if you are the head of your household and want a tool you can use for family worship for you and your children, I think you will find this just the ticket. Kids will resonate with the artwork as well as the nativity play humor. Additionally, Lafteron writes in a straight forward, easy-to-understand style, that will communicate with just about everybody.

Third, if you have been building a relationship with someone who doesn’t know Jesus, you could give them this as a Christmas gift. Ask them to read it and discuss it with you. This may be Lafteron’s biggest contribution in writing Christmas Uncut. While the apologetic details of the final chapter only provide a minimum of ammunition for answering the skeptic’s questions, it will give you a starting place.

I read this little book in one sitting and found my heart all the more grateful for the tidings of great joy that lie at the heart of the Christmas story uncut. I trust you will too.

Holiday Peacemaking 101


With the holidays each year comes increased opportunity for conflict in relationships. Unrealized expectations, margin-less schedules, extended family demands, and a host of other stress-escalating factors conspire to heighten the potential for relational strife. In the spirit of Rom. 12:18, “so far as it depends upon you be at peace,” consider these principles for making it to 2014 without suffering a conflict train wreck.

First, check your expectations at the front door of the season. Idealistic notions of the holidays with their feel-good promises often fall short of the realities of dealing with family and friends whose total depravity doesn’t automatically take a break from Thanksgiving to New Years.  Remember that everyone you engage could legitimately compete with Paul in 1 Tim. 1:15 for the title “chief of sinners.” While you’re at it, assume that you qualify for the label over and above anyone else at the party and you will go a long way toward enjoying the blessedness of a peacemaker this Christmas (Matt. 5:9).

Second, overlook offenses. A lot. Assume folks will do and say some things during what the recovery movement calls “the silly silly seasonseason” just because so much of the craziness is just that. Exercise more patience than usually required. Proverbs 19:11 counsels, “Good sense makes one slow to anger and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Overlooking can get overlooked as among the virtues qualifying as glorious. One reason the overlook strategy makes good sense comes into perspective in another wisdom saying in Prov. 17:14. “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.” Count the cost doesn’t just apply to financial decisions but relational ones as well. It may not pay to start the battle in the first place, so let it go whenever in good conscience you possibly can.

Third, when you can’t overlook for the gravity of an offense, go straight to the person involved – do not talk to someone else about it – and seek to resolve the matter between you and him in private (Matt. 18:15). Treat the person the same way you would want to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot. Let texts like Gal. 6:1-2 dictate your timing, approach, and most of all objective – bearing a fellow-sinner’s burden by helping rescue them from the trespass you believe has ensnared them.

Fourth, overcome evil with good through not returning the same. Rather, determine to heap coals of love on a head when you get the chance (Rom. 12:17-21). The holidays typically bring us into close quarter contact with folks, including relatives, with whom we might otherwise prefer not to associate. Make conversation. Ask questions. Serve quietly. Don’t just look out for your own interests but even those of your obnoxious cousin (Phil. 2:3-4).

Fifth, and most importantly, take your cue from the One the Bible calls the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6-7), drawing strength from Him and the power of His gospel, in your determination to live at peace with others throughout the holiday season. In her article, “Walking in Peace Amid Holiday Strife,” Tara Barthel writes:

If we are to walk as people of peace during the stress of the holidays, we must first begin by remembering the greatness of God and all that he has done for us in Christ. Then we can move on to how we are to live in light of these truths. If we try to skip the first step and move to the changing of our behavior, we will probably end up frustrated both by our own failures as well as the fallenness of those around us. Our only hope is in God—he justifies us, redeems us, delivers us from our shame, and conforms us to Christ (Romans 8:29). Such a God! Such a Savior! This is the Jesus whose birth we celebrate during this Christmas holiday season.

What she said.

May the Prince of Peace fill you with the spirit of peace for the making of real peace in the face of your holiday conflict, if and when you eventually tangle with it.

Testing the Grinch Within

Teddie’s out of the office for her annual year end vacation this week and next. That means, among other things, I get to type up and send out the connect card prayer requests. No big deal. Glad to do it.

Among the requests that went out to the leadership team were my own. They included this one: for my servant heart – our son and grandchildren are in town for the week.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are multiple joys attached to the yuletide invasion of Joel and his tribe. But it also tests the reality of the gospel in my heart during an already busy time of year. And I can find myself easily irritated and Grinch-like.

For example, I went to take a shower earlier today. All I ask for is a relatively few minutes of uninterrupted, hot water streaming from above until I get myself clean. Any idea how hard that is to come by with four extra people in the house, three of them children?! It amazes me how little patience I can have with inconvenience. Perhaps I should have gotten that prayer request out on Monday instead of waiting until today!

Jesus warned against sins of hypocrisy (Matt. 7:5). I seem never to be far from putting on airs or keeping up masks in my flesh.

One thing that helps is focused self-examination, always, of course, under the lavish grace of the gospel.

Recently I came across this test for self-evaluation proposed by John Wesley for waging war against hypocrisy.

Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I’m a better person than I really am? Do I laugh at the mistakes of others, reveling in their errors and misfortunes? Do I insist on having my own way? Is there a tendency for me to put others down so that I’ll be thought of more highly? Do I pass on to others what is told to me in confidence? Am I thoughtful in expressing ‘thanks’ to people for what they’ve done for me, no matter how insignificant it seems? Am I a slave to dress, a slave to friends and their opinions, a slave to work or habits? Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying? Did the Bible live in me yesterday? Did I disobey God in anything yesterday? Did I insist on doing something about which my conscious was uneasy? Did I handle discouragement well or did I have to be coddled? Am I enjoying prayer? When did I last speak to someone about Christ? Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize or hold resentment toward? If so, what am I doing about it? Is Christ real to me?

Frankly, I don’t ever want to take a walk down a road lined with signs asking those questions without gospel grace bracing me from condemnation. Still, giving ourselves to this kind of disciplined testing of ourselves to see that we are in the faith is commended to us in Scripture (2 Cor. 13:5) and and can reveal to us some measure as to how much the gospel is working itself out realistically in our every day lives.

Might 2013 be a year where at least once or twice a week we take a test for self-evaluation and not just at Christmas? Here’s to keeping the Grinch at bay and granting Jesus free reign.

Free Advent eBook

I received this from our friends at Desiring God today:

Dear Friends,

I’m excited to tell you about a new free eBook for Advent from Desiring God. It’s called Good News of Great Joy, organized specifically for this Advent, 2012.

The team here at Desiring God did a deep dive into our thirty-plus-year reservoir of sermons and articles, and selected brief devotional readings for each day of Advent. Our hope is that God would use these readings to deepen and sweeten your adoration of Jesus this Advent… (Continue reading and download the eBook)

John Piper
and David Mathis, Executive Editor

If you are looking for a devotional guide for personal and/or family use during this Advent season, this just may be your ticket.