December 10, 2008

Hope For a Ruined Humanity

The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—because at the Father's will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross.

—J. I. Packer, English-Canadian theologian (1926–)

December 9, 2008

Is This Idea Picking Up Steam?

Yesterday I read (watched) Mike's post concerning an Advent Conspiracy. (Sounds subversive...I LOVE the image of undercover agents dressed in Santa suits!) And today I received some snail mail concerning the idea of "redefining Christmas" which has been the topic of some on-line discussion over at the Chicago Tribune. I haven't poked around a whole lot but I'm wondering if this idea is one that is growing. I know it's growing on me.

For any of you planning to buy Yours Truly a gift this year I don't need a new shirt, new pair of pants, new tie, or a new trinket to add to my already overcrowded desk. New tools will simply be misplaced by my well intentioned children or misused by my wife's well intentioned husband ;-). New books...well now, let's not get carried away!

Allow me to make a few suggestions for your gift giving this year.

Make Way Partners is taking on the monstrous problem of human trafficking and forced prostitution. Be sure to check out "Mary's crosses" as a way to donate and give!

Play Pumps International gets my award for the most innovative and creative idea for changing the quality of life for people. Their catch phrase, "Kids play, water pumps" sums it up. Clean water and free time for people to focus on other issues like education, labor, creative endeavors.

Voice of the Martyrs gives voice to otherwise un-reported or under reported abuse, violence, and persecution of Christians throughout the world. Have YOU heard about the incredible attacks in Orissa, India? Probably not. You can read about them here and your donation will help some of these families survive.

1 Way Ministries has a simple mission, "Reach the world, teach the Word." JT and his team are helping churches in the U.S. to engage people down the street and around the world. Give them a look and pray about sharing with them.

Mission Team Inc. has a scholarship program for first time mission trip takers. It would make my day if someone gave to this fund! I LOVE to see people take that first step of obedience with missions; it is a life changing moment!

Let me not forget...

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. I know of no better way to touch more people with the hope of the gospel than this offering. Supporting more than 5000 missionaries who are making a difference in the here and now through medical clinics, water projects, disaster relief efforts, and educational opportunities as well as making a difference in the hereafter with over 600,000 baptisms reported last year. Give so others may hear.

The Alabama Baptist Children's Homes are a constellation of ministries that make me proud to be an Alabama Baptist. Your donation will help transform the life of "throw away" child or an abused youth. The stories of hope and redemption are humbling.

Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief responds to disasters all over the world. Following the 9/11 tragedy, Alabama Baptists, and others like them, became the "preferred" clean up teams because the good people of New York learned they could trust them not to steal the things in their homes (apparently companies for hire had some problems with this...). Southern Baptist disaster relief is the third largest disaster relief organization in the US behind the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Your donation will make a difference the next time disaster strikes.

There's a short wish list. May your Christmas be filled with giving.

December 8, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Heart

Do you have a favorite Christmas decoration? My Beloved and I do; it's a little glass bell with a Santa Claus inside. It's not the most expensive or beautiful ornament we have but it, far and away, has the best story associated with it.

This little bit of decorative joy joined our family during our first year of marriage and it found a place on a low hanging limb on our Christmas tree. Our little mutt dog, Nikki, discovered that when she nosed this little ornament it made a wonderful little sound. Every year the Santa bell was given a place of honor on a low hanging branch and Nikki would always find it and ring it again. We still hang it low even though our beloved pooch is no longer with us.

I asked our church family about their favorite decorations or their most memorable Christmas gift and the responses were touching, engaging, hilarious, and meaningful; from the man who actually got a Red Rider BB gun (and he still has both eyes!) to the lady who choked up as she talked about hanging decorations made by her children years ago. It was a great time of sharing about the external things that make Christmas special for us.

In 1 Samuel 16:7 God reminds Samuel that they don't see things quite the same way. God tells Samuel, "You're looking at the outward appearance, I'm looking deeper. I'm looking at the heart."

God knows our propensity to get caught up in the externals and miss the internal significance.

  • The second of the the Ten Commandments is "No idols!"
  • The Pharisees and other religious types of Jesus' day asked for a sign and He refused telling them the only sign they would get was "the sign of Jonah" as He referred to His pending death and resurrection. They too were looking for some tangible hook on which to hang the intangible fact of faith.
  • The Old Testament prophets make for interesting reading as, time and again, God takes His people to task for their worship. Phrases like "Away with the noise of your music!" or "Oh that you would shut the doors!" or "I will not listen to your prayers!" fill the mouths of the prophets.
Once again God's people had become enamored with the external, secondary issues and missed that which was, and is, most important. They were showing up at the right time in the right place with the right stuff but they were a long way from God. His words through Isaiah speak clearly to us today, "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me." (Isaiah 29:13)

If ever there was a season for us to be aware of this it is Christmas. There is no other time of year that is so "externals" intensive: decorations, shopping, gifts, food, family gatherings, wrapping, bows, ribbons, stockings, Christmas cards, clothing that only gets worn this time of year. The list is long and the effort immense to pull all of the external things together to make it "Christmas."

What if none of it happened?

Let that question hang there a moment....

God is not the least bit concerned with the...

  • Tree
  • Lights
  • Docorations
  • Gifts
  • Food
  • Family visits
  • Shopping trips
  • Christmas caroling
  • Baked goodies
  • Christmas cards
  • Charlie Brown's Christmas (or any other "favorite")
  • Smell of evergreens in your home
  • ____________ (you fill in the blank)
As He told Samuel, "the LORD looks on the heart."

As disinterested as He may be with the externals God is intensely interested in the condition of your heart. As He is looking, and there is nothing hidden from Him, what does He see?

  • Anger?
  • Bitterness?
  • Disillusionment?
  • Lust?
  • Desire for stuff?
  • Dread?
  • Fear?
  • Anxiety?
  • Pride?
  • Envy?
  • Greed?
  • Gluttony?
  • ________ (you fill in the blank)
Is it possible that what we truly need is not a nice tree in the living room but rather a change of heart?

Enjoy this bit of wisdom from Dr. Seuss as you consider the relative importance of the external and internal this season. May I encourage you, faithful blog reader, to pause long enough to read this out loud?

"It was quarter past dawn...All the Whos, still a-bed, All the Whos, still a-snooze When he packed up his sled, Packed it up with their presents! The ribbons! The wrappings! The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!

Three thousand feet up! Up the side of Mt. Crumpit, He rode with his load to the tiptop to dump it! "Pooh-Pooh to the Whos!" he was grinch-ish-ly humming. "They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!" "They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!" "Their mouths will hang open a minute or two Then the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry Boo-Hoo!"

"That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply MUST hear!" So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear. and he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low. then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing! Without any presents at all!

He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?" "It came without ribbons! It came without tags!" "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

And what happened then...? Who-ville they say That the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!" (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss)

Maybe our hearts need to grow a bit this season. Maybe they need to be set free from the constraints of the externals in order to enjoy the meaning of the heart of the season. Perhaps we need to draw near to God with more than the outward motions of the season and seek Him with the inward movements of the heart.

You see, the joy of Christmas is not found in the externals but in the internal. It is truly a matter of the heart.

December 4, 2008

About the Photo - Agua Volcano, Antigua Guatemala

This cloud shrouded magnificence can be seen from just about anywhere in central Guatemala. It and its sisters, Fuego and Acatenango, dominate the skyline everywhere. Fuego and Acatenango are active volcanoes with ash plumes regularly rising from their peaks and lava visible in the darkness of night. Being in the proximity of volcanoes, especially active ones, is a little - ok, a lot - unsettling! Thankfully they all behaved during our brief visit. This particular photo of Agua was taken from the central market place on the day we visited beautiful Antigua.

The scripture I had posted with this photo is one that is often associated with mountains but is usually terribly misinterpreted. I have Eugene Peterson to thank for peeling back the crust of time and helping me to understand this from the perspective of the one who wrote it.

Psalm 121:1-2 reads "I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

Most often this verse is associated with just this sort of photo, an imposing and enduring mountain. Our culture equates mountains with strength, majesty, and endurance and therefore the natural understanding for us is that in looking to the mountains we see an image of the strong, majestic and enduring God who helps us. That is a nice image but it is dead wrong when it comes to what is being declared in this marvelous Psalm.

Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms of Ascent that would be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to worship. Undoubtedly one of the sights along the way were the many mountains that surround Jerusalem. Though those mountains and hills may have possessed an intrinsic beauty that is not what would have caught the eye and attention of the pilgrim on their way to worship the one true God. The pilgrim would have seen smoke rising from those mountaintops in worship of many other gods. It is as if this song is asking "Which god is going to help me?"

I can see that pilgrim on their way to worship the one true God looking around at all these other gods and asking, "Is Baal going to help me?" "How about Ashtoreth?" "Molech?" "Chemosh?" "Dagon?" And the answer was "No. No. No. And no." The only help, the only reliable help, the only sure help would come from the LORD.

An interesting, and often overlooked, practice of English translations is the use of the word LORD in all capitals to represent the personal, revealed name of God. Anytime you see this used in scripture the point is being made that its not just any god that is being discussed but this particular God. This specifically named God. This God with a known and revealed character. It is this particular God that the song was, and is, referring to as sojourners make their way to worship.

This holds tremendous truth for us today as we face a world fraught with uncertainty and danger. Just where will our help come from?

Will it be from the recently de-thoned "masters of the universe" who ruled Wall Street?
I don't think so.

Will it be from Barack Obama's promises of hope?
I don't think so.

Will it be from T. Boone Pickens or Sarah Palin with their promises of energy independence?
I don't think so.

Will it be from the bail-out brokers on Capital Hill?
I don't think so.

This list could go on and on and the answer would be the same. There is only one source of genuine hope. Perhaps it's time we lifted our eyes a little higher to see the one that is more powerful, more enduring, more majestic and more reliable than the mountains.

"I lift my eyes to the hills - from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

Here's to looking up!

December 1, 2008

Monday Morning Message - The Reason

Joy! We hear it in children's voices. We see it on faces at family gatherings. We hear it sung in the familiar carols "Joy to the World!" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." We will see it broadcast at every commercial break and advertised in every publication. It is a season for joy.

My sermon series for the month of December will center on this joy-full theme with this, perhaps unexpected, verse as the centerpiece. "Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2)

It is easy to find joy in the birth of a baby. Just ask anyone who has experienced such a moment lately. Grandparents will immediately whip out photos and gladly bend your ear ad nauseum about the marvelous happening. Parents will smile with tired eyes and tell you about the latest accomplishment of their unique darling. Even total strangers will stop and coo at small child.

Yes, finding joy in the birth of a child is easy. Looking to a cross and sacrifice and blood and beatings and sin makes it difficult to find joy. Maybe this is why we so readily celebrate the birth of Jesus and so tacitly speak of His death. I find it interesting and instructive that the Bible speaks very little about His birth but testifies at length about His death and resurrection. Could it be that we have the focus out of focus?

The next four weeks I will offer messages designed to refocus our attention in this season of joy.
  • November 30 - "The Reason" Luke 19:10 - The joy of Christmas is not found in the cradle. The joy of Christmas is found at the cross.
  • December 7 - "The Heart" 1 Samuel 16:7 - The joy of Christmas is not found in the externals. The joy of Christmas is found in the internal.
  • December 14 - "The Call" 1 Timothy 6:12 - The joy of Christmas will not be found at the mall. The joy of Christmas will be found in the call.
  • December 21 - "The Coming King" Revelation 22:12-21 - The joy of Christmas is not in the coming of a child. The joy of Christmas is in the coming of the King!
So, with all this celebrating and all this joy and all this singing, what is it all about? It is about the coming of Christ. It is about the birth of a child. But this is no ordinary birth. Three words, three big words, three theological words tell the story.

Incarnation. A Latin word meaning "in the flesh." In Jesus, God becomes one of us. Eugene Peterson beautifully, and memorably, phrases John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." Imagine that! God moving in just down the street from you. In Jesus, that is exactly what happened.

There are some who would say Jesus was just a man who exhibited godly qualities. Others would say He was just God who took on some human qualities. This simply is not an option from the Biblical witness. Scripture is abundantly clear that Jesus was God in the flesh. The creator come to the creation. Or, as W.H. Auden wrestles with this mystery, "How could the Eternal do a temporal act,/ The infinite become a finite fact?" (For the Time Being, W.H. Auden)

Let's be clear, God did not take on human flesh in order to better understand us. He took on human flesh so we could better understand Him! Our understanding of Him is clarified once and for all at the cross, which leads us to another big word...

Substitution. We all understand the concept of substitution. We've experienced substitute teachers or been a sub in a basketball game or accepted a substitute item at a restaurant that was out of what we wanted. A substitute takes the place of another and that is just what Jesus did for us. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God." He takes our place. Jesus pays a price He does not owe. The price you and I owe.

Again, let's be clear, Jesus did not take our place because He owed some sort of debt. He took our place because we owed so great a debt we could never pay it. He took our place because He loved us. The incarnation was necessary for Jesus to become our substitute. And in His substitutionary death we discover the third big word....

Salvation. Jesus made it abundantly clear that He was here for one reason, "to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10) In case you are wondering just who the lost are, it's us. Every single one of us.

"We never outgrow the fact that we are sinners still, totally dependent each day on the grace of God to the undeserving. We do not come to offer in the first place; we come to receive...We are the hungry, coming to be fed. We are the undeserving welcomed freely at the Lord's table." (Michael Green, "His sacrifice and ours")