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.

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.

Making Much of Missions at Advent

I find myself often praying portions of Philippians 2:5-11 with folks during this Christmas season.

Where would we be if the Son of God had not counted equality with God a thing to be grasped and had abhorred the virgin’s womb? Lost – eternally, horribly, hellishly lost.

But the news is good! He humbled himself, took on the form of a bondservant, became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. None of which He could have accomplished if He hadn’t come. None of which He could have accomplished if the Father hadn’t sent Him.

No gospel-motivated missionary on the planet fails to get the significance of this. They have gone to the ends of the earth because the Father sent the Son to seek and save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). That means, for me and for my house, among other things, that we must remember missions and missionaries during the Advent season.

One way we have sought to do that practically, along with the partnership of our OGC growth group, is to collaborate together to send a Christmas care package to the Valiquette family serving in Salerno, Italy with the Acts 29 Network in church planting.

Last Tuesday evening our group gathered around a bunch of gifts we had purchased and wrote Christmas cards to Jutty, Abbey, and the children in an effort to remind them they have a sending church at home that loves them and supports them in their gospel endeavors.

Whether you do something on your own or in cooperation with a group, before the season completely escapes you, might you also take some initiative as a sender to bless a goer on some field, whether an OGC missionary or not?

If you choose to go the care package route, here is some helpful counsel I found online for your consideration:

Ask the missionary before sending your care package. This is important for a few different reasons.  First, there are some things for which the missionary may end up having to pay a duty or other tax.  Second, if the missionary is in a sensitive location, they may prefer certain things to be delivered to a different address (to be hand-carried in).  And finally, you may be sending the missionary something which they can already get in country.  We were once sent toothpaste and a large box of tissues – both of which are in abundance where we were.  Try to find out from the missionary what items they really can’t get where they are.  Trust me, most will not be shy about telling someone what they really want if they are asked!

One other thought. These days finances seem to constrain a great deal. You may not find yourself in a position to do anything that costs you money. But don’t let that rule you out in terms of making some gesture to encourage someone on the mission field. Send a note, write an email, but connect in some way.

Let them know you care about their/your cause and that this Christmas you praise God they have gone to where they have gone in the name of the Sent One who came for the lost.

Beauty & the Betrayer

Today’s message from John 13:21-30 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summarized the flow of the message:

As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning, feast your eyes on and give your tastes to the beautiful Savior. Having heard the preached Gospel, we now have it made visible in the elements of the bread and the cup. What amazing, devoted love would for the joy set before Him, despise the shame, endure the cross, and lay down a life so sweet, so pure, so divine? The love of Jesus. Do you see this beauty in all its distress, in all its devotion, in all its determination? Will you not go the way of Peter and John and move toward Jesus to rest your all on Him or will you go the other direction into the night, not just the dark night over the Mt. of Olives that fateful evening in John 13, but the pitch black night of sin’s evil that refuses His friendship and loves something, someone more than Him.

Making the Most of Advent

Last Sunday, November 27, marked the beginning of Advent, traditionally the beginning of the church calendar year. The word advent comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming. Advent focuses our worship for the four weeks which precede Christmas on the significance of Christ’s incarnation. Christians began to organize worship around various seasons of the year as early as the second century. In more liturgical churches the entire calendar often revolves around these seasons of the year.

At OGC we celebrate a tradition in Advent worship involving the lighting of an Advent wreath. Each Sunday before Advent, as well as on Christmas Eve, different individuals/families lead us in the lighting ceremony with appropriate readings from Scripture. An Advent wreath communicates many powerful things. Its circular form stands for the eternity of God. The burning candles represent Christ, the light of the world, (John 8:12). The evergreens in the wreath speak to eternal life. The use of colored candles originated in Eastern Germany prior to the Reformation. Traditionally, the three purple candles symbolize the penitence due from sinners at the prospect of Christ’s coming. The single pink or rose candle calls for joy at the idea of the Son of God incarnate. And the white candle in the center, of course, points to Jesus Christ in all His purity and power.

May I encourage you this year, as in previous years, to form an intentional strategy for making the most of this coming Advent season? Without a plan we can easily fall prey to a worldly tis-the-season-to-be-frantic kind of December that leaves us at best exhausted and at worst resentful.

Here are some suggestions to that end:

  1. Refuse to abandon time for reflection, worship, and contemplative disciplines. Mary, the mother of our Lord, excelled as one who kept all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19). Determine to hold a tenacious line against the tyranny of the urgent and give yourself to the priority of seeing the unseen and eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).
  2. Beware temptations to covetousness and greed which surround the cultural trappings of Christmas. Jesus warns in Luke 12:15 Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses. Madison Avenue bombards us daily with just the opposite message. Ask God to help you not let the world squeeze you into such a treacherous mold (Rom. 12:2).
  3. Zealously call to mind the words of Jesus as quoted by Paul in Acts 20:35It is more blessed to give than to receive. Consider creative ways to practice giving that go beyond the material. Bless someone with the gift of words of encouragement, time spent in fellowship, ministering to a need. Alter your Christmas budget this year in terms of what you normally spend on yourself, family, and friends and give toward a worthy global missionary enterprise or some charitable cause.
  4. Make corporate worship a non-negotiable priority, even if you travel. David spoke of the sanctuary as the place where He saw God uniquely in His power and glory (Psalm 63:2). Ask the Lord to reveal hidden sins in you that grieve His Spirit and hinder your fellowship. Every time you see a purple Advent candle pray for a spirit of insight into the depths of your depravity and give yourself to confession and repentance. But don’t stop there! Ask God to fill you with a spirit of rejoicing and celebration. Every time you see a rose candle offer up praise and thanksgiving for some treasured aspect of Christ in His incarnation and all He has won for you in regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification, etc.
  5. Determine to bring Advent worship into the fabric of your home. Heads of households – let us function as believer priests on behalf of our families and lead in Advent devotions that serve to focus our spouses and our children upon things that truly matter this Christmas. Let us watch less in the way of endless Christmas specials devoted to the inane and trivial and read more of the Word that extols the Christ of God and listen more to the music that declares His praises and fellowship more with the people that embrace His Lordship and witness more to the lost who languish without His hope.
  6. Say No more and Yes less so that the obligations of the season do not run away with you. Stay in control of your calendar. Prioritize ruthlessly as best you understand given God’s priorities for you. If you struggle to do that on your own, ask someone else to hold you accountable and give you counsel about what you should and should not commit to during this last month of the year.
  7. Arm yourself with Paul’s promise in Phil. 4:13 that in Christ you can do all things – including making the most of Advent. This may prove especially true for you if you have experienced some significant loss this year or if you are battling some form of depression for whatever reason. Navigating the demands of the holiday season cannot be accomplished in one’s own strength. It takes the power and all-sufficient grace of Christ (2 Cor. 12:9).

May He grant us ever-increasing amounts of grace to sing these words of the hymn writer and mean it:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.



Why Giving Makes Sense at Christmas & Always

Last night’s Christmas Eve message from 2 Cor. 8:1-9 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here is the quote from Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) with which I closed the sermon:

And shall we not pause and bestow a thought of admiration and gratitude upon Him, who was constrained to stand in our place of degradation and woe, that we might stand in His place of righteousness and glory? What wondrous love! what stupendous grace! That He should have been willing to have taken upon Him our sin, and curse, and woe! The exchange to Him how humiliating! He could only raise us by Himself stooping. He could only emancipate us by wearing our chain. He could only deliver us from death by Himself dying. He could only invest us with the spotless robe of His pure righteousness by wrapping around Himself the leprous mantle of our sin and curse. Oh, how precious ought He to be to every believing heart! What affection, what service, what sacrifice, what devotion, He deserves at our hands! Lord, incline my heart to yield itself supremely to You!

May the Lord do a deep work in all our hearts toward the end of our sacrificial giving in all aspects of our lives because we know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When Deity Dissolved Over Dying

Today’s message from John 11:28-37 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here is the quote by B. B. Warfield characterizing the depth of emotion displayed by Jesus as fundamentally rage.

It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, “as a champion who prepares for conflict.” The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but — as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative (compare especially, verses 24-26) — a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.

Praise God for Jesus our champion who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10)!

What You Need To Hear When You Think You Know God But Don’t

Last Sunday I preached on John 8:48-59, the closing paragraph of the chapter. You can listen to the entire audio of the sermon here.

Here’s how I closed the message and summarized the passage:

It’s conceivable that you may be listening to this message and think you know God when you don’t. There is only one way to tell. Do you hear the words of Jesus so as to keep, obey, treasure, guard, observe them? If not, you aren’t of God. You’re of a different father, the devil. And you need to hear certain things again: the truth of Jesus’ relationship to His Father –mutual devotion; the truth of Jesus’ relationship to His mission – singular dedication – yet one more time today He comes to you and holds out the promise – truly, truly, if you keep his word, you will never see death; and the truth of His relationship to spiritual giants of the past, like father Abraham – Before Abraham was He is. Don’t harden your heart against the words of Jesus today. Believe in the Son of God. Honor Him and then and only then will you honor the Father. Then you will be of God and never see/taste death because He tasted it for you (Heb. 2:9).

Throughout the sermon I interspersed six practical lessons for sharing our faith especially when we have the chance to do so with religious people. Here they are for your review:

  1. Don’t give up too soon on someone. You may need to share the gospel multiple times with someone even as Jesus did with His hearers.
  2. Expect persecution. The servant is not greater than the master. If they persecuted Him, they will persecute us.
  3. Do not revile in return when insulted.
  4. Stick to the message of the gospel. Keeping bringing things back to the cross.
  5. When given the opportunity, share the whole truth about the gospel, even the potentially most offensive truths.
  6. When necessary, shake the dust off your feet and move on. It is not fitting to cast the pearls of the gospel before “swine.”

You can listen to the whole message here.

Why We May Safely Believe Jesus' Claim to be the Light of the World

If you missed this morning’s message, here is the summary. The sermon should be posted on the audio portion of our website in the next day or two.

The text of the message was John 8:12-20.

12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.

We may safely believe Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world because of His knowledge of self as one who came from God and went back to God, because of His oneness with God – He does not judge alone but the Father who sent Him, they judge together, because of His witness of two – Himself and the Father, thus fulfilling the requirements of the law in a most superior way.

So how are we to apply this challenging section of Scripture? Let me suggest a few things. First, Jesus claims to be the light of the world. Without Him you are trapped in darkness and subject to eternal death. Believe and follow Him, trust His death on the cross for your sins and you will have the light of life. Second, maintain a healthy suspicion of fleshly capacities to judge. Rely on the Spirit to help you make judgments not according to human appearances, superficiality, and sinful distortions, but according to the things of the Spirit and the word. Third, given who Jesus is and what He claimed, hang on His every word and seek to follow him in obedience. Beware the most dangerous activity found among men, hardening the heart to Jesus’ word which results in total blindness and ignorance. Fourth, remember that unbelief never has enough evidence. These men didn’t know God because they didn’t know Jesus and refused to follow Him. Fifth, rest in God’s providence as evidenced in the hour to which Jesus was subject. Nothing can befall you at any time apart from God’s sovereign appointment and timing. Sixth, if you follow Christ, the light of the world, that makes you a light to the world. Let it shine in your good works and gospel words as you engage people where you live, work, and play.

Jesus is the light of the word. Believe, follow, and you most certainly will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life. Amen.

The Vain Bright Lamps of Creation

saturn

Were he to have had access to modern technology and therefore able to view the likes of Saturn in this photo would John Calvin have referred to it, though stunningly bright and glorious, still vain in some respect?

Absolutely. Creation, though brilliantly putting the glory of God on display, especially in the far reaches of the universe, serves only to leave man without excuse as to God’s existence. It cannot, in and of itself, lead man to a personal knowledge of God and rescue him from his condition of fallen sinner (Rom. 1:20).

This is why Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, speaks of the vanity, of even so many bright lamps.

In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path. Some sparks, undoubtedly, they do throw out; but these are quenched before they can give forth a brighter effulgence. Wherefore, the apostle, in the very place where he says that the worlds are images of invisible things, adds that it is by faith we understand that they were framed by the word of God (Heb. 11:3); thereby intimating that the invisible Godhead is indeed represented by such displays, but that we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God (Book First, Chapter 5, No. 14).

At this Christmas Eve of 2009 are we not indeed grateful for not just the general revelation of creation, but even more so the special revelation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 1:14), and the sacred writings that are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15)?

A million Saturns on display in the universe cannot bring forth that necessary internal revelation from God which only His Son and the holy Scriptures can. The people who walked in darkness have indeed seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2)!