Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The ending of a year: 2013 closes

By the time you read this, it may be 2014. I haven’t a clue when you’ll get around to clearing out your RSS feeds or your blog subscriptions, so you may have rung in the new year, watched 2 days of football, and be back to work, school, or whatever normal means for you.

So, as you’ll find in many corners of the Internet right now, I thought I’d look back at the year 2013 and say a few things about it. Here they are:

  1. The year started.
  2. There were 365 calendar days in it.
  3. The year ended. (Or is ending).

Wait, you wanted deep and thought-provoking?

Ok, here’s the deep part:

You had a great year. You had an awful year. You, over there, felt like the whole year was a waste. You, in the back, thought you were fortunate just to survive the year.

Here’s the deal: we each had 365 days. Some of them were spent in a coma—whether necessary or personally chosen is another story. Some of them were spent on survival. I’ve had years where 360 days were spent on survival. It happens.

Some of those days were spent chasing dreams and having dreams. Some were spent in skill building.

Every one of those days has an impact on your new set of 365 days this year. If you had a bad day and told off your boss, that can have a negative impact. If you had a great day and great things are echoing into 2014, that will have a positive impact.

You will start 2014, though, as the person you became across those 365 days of 2013. Your new set of days can be spent building on the past foundation, rebuilding a good foundation, or simply running from it all.

You, though, get to make a large portion of that decision. True, if you have responsibilities, those must be met. Your choice is to meet them with joy or frustration, not to abandon them.

The rest of it, though?

Make your decision. How do you want the year to go? More marking time? Or moving forward? Make turns as you need to, but get progressing in the right direction, even if just by inches.

After all, there’s always the first drop. Then comes the rain, which makes things grow, brings new life.

That’s a good thing.

So keep the last year in perspective: don’t let it destroy you, but don’t abandon the lessons learned.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book: Rest Not in Peace

Hugh de Singleton returns! After solving, though not truly resolving, the case of The Tainted Coin, our heroic surgeon and bailiff of Bampton is back to face the death of Sir Henry Burley. Mel Starr’s chronicles of Hugh de Singleton continue with Rest Not in Peace.

Rest Not in Peace is the sixth book in the series. Mel Starr, teacher of history, brings us back to the fourteenth century. We dwell in a land of knights and peasants, lords and serfs, ladies and maids…and diseases, superstitions, corruption in religion and government, and, of course, murder. (On a side note, the afterword of Rest Not in Peace points out that some village scenes in the popular Downton Abbey show are filmed near the location of Brampton.)

Now, I could go on sounding like ad copy for Rest Not in Peace, and indeed I wish to. While my first exposure to Mel Starr’s writing was a bit of a challenge and change of pace, I have since found myself loving the medieval world, though not longing to live there!

In Rest Not in Peace, we move from the death-at-large motif of The Tainted Coin and examine the death of a knight. Throughout, Starr gives us insight into the cultural situation of knights and noble ladies, and contrasts those with the servants, the basic free people, and the peasants. It is, truly, like a history lesson hidden in a novel.

Rest Not in Peace does depend somewhat on prior knowledge of the characters, as many series novels will. The reader can infer enough about de Singleton, et al. without reading other novels, but you will be uncertain on a few points if this is your first exposure to the setting. Further, the lay of the land is difficult to know precisely, but the imagination works pretty well. I will say that a little deeper knowledge of the history will help, but that’s a two-way street. Read this, and get a little deeper knowledge as well.

From a religious perspective, Rest Not in Peace does well in representing the mixture of truth and superstition of the times. I also liked some of the specific concepts included, like the theology of criminal justice. The idea expressed was that punishment now for crime helped avoid punishment in eternity. While it does not line up perfectly with evangelical theology today, it was a good viewpoint to include.

Is Rest Not in Peace for you? Do you enjoy a murder mystery? Do you mind spending a rainy afternoon or two in England, 1368? I’d suggest you give it a try. The content is clean, the book straightforward.

And, as with The Tainted Coin, there’s a helpful glossary to understand the words that are coming out of Hugh’s mouth. Plus, you can use those same words on Facebook and blow people’s minds!

I did receive a free copy of this book for review. No requirement was given that the review be favorable, but Mel Starr’s writing requires it.

Sermon Wrap-up for December 29

It feels like forever since we had a normal Sunday with two sermons to post. A few quick notes:

1. In the New Year, we will be working through the NIV Chronological Study Bible. That plan is different than the one in the NLT Chronological Study Bible or several other chronological plans. If you would like to join us for those readings, create a free account at Faithlife and join this group: https://faithlife.com/almyra-baptist-2014-reading-group/about (The Almyra Baptist Reading Group). Or follow this plan: http://www.biblegateway.com/reading-plans/chronological/feed/bg-reading.xml?version=NIV

2. With that plan, if you read along, the Sunday morning sermons will come from passages you have read, and Sunday night we’ll be doing questions about the reading and some preview of the coming week’s reading. Feel free to email questions or post them to the church FB page: https://www.facebook.com/almyrabaptist

3. Speaking of Facebook, do me a favor and “Like” the church Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/almyrabaptist and also “Like” the page for my writing here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Learning-Teaching-and-Laughing/626460030704911

Now, on to the sermons:

Morning Sermon:

December 29 AM from Doug Hibbard on Vimeo.

Audio Link is here

Evening Sermon:

December 29 PM from Doug Hibbard on Vimeo.

Audio Link is here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Reflections: The Lord Jesus Christ

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Four Day Six: The Lord Jesus Christ

“Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.” Revelation 4:11 (NASB95)

Christmas in 21st Century America is about many things. The retail world counts on Christmas to balance the books. The movie world waits to release award-worthy films around Christmas. The schools count on those two weeks to restore the sanity of the teachers. Many families count on Christmas to be the time they get together.

Christmas 1914 was the scene of something even greater. In the opening year of World War One, the young soldiers at the front lines of Germany, France, and England were not yet so bitter that they forgot about Christmas. Ignoring orders from superior officers, small groups of men joined together where tens of thousands had been killed, and where hundreds of thousands more will be killed, and exchanged gifts.

Why?

Christmas is about more than all the things we can list. Christmas is about even more than just peace among men. Christmas is about Jesus. It is about His coming. Christmas is a reminder that we were enemies of God and that He took the steps to bring us peace.

It starts in the ages of eternity past, when God considered Creation. The measurable time begins with that Creation, and we see the handiwork of God. We see the Divine Logic behind Creation, and then something even more amazing happens.

The Divine Logic, the Word of God, becomes flesh and dwells among humanity. Rather than having to guess at who God is or what God is like, He can be seen. He can be talked to, questioned. His answers can be examined and compared to the long-held beliefs of many.

He lives a life that perfectly fulfills the prophecies of the Messiah. This includes items He could accomplish intentionally and ones that He could only cause if He truly is God. After all, no one picks the city of their birth some seven hundred years before it happens, do they? He meets the death that He said He would.

Then He rises from the dead. Unlike the miracles He has performed, no one has to call Him forth from the grave or tell Him to get up. He just does. The stone rolls away and the people can see the tomb is empty.

A little later, He returns to Heaven to take His seat at the right hand of God. He does not go to Heaven through death like humanity will, but ascends directly there. He ruled the universe from the beginning, and rules it now from His throne.

He is Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, King of King and Lord of Lords. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is worthy of worship, worthy to receive glory and honor, worthy to receive power, and capable of using it.

And He came because His love and His mercy motivated Him. To a people who had rejected Him into a world that continues to reject Him, He brought love and the payment of the penalty for sin. He is alive forevermore and will come again.

Christmas is one of 365¼ days that are His. May we celebrate Him, starting now and on into eternity.

Scripture passage for the day: Revelation 5:11-13 (NIV)

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels,

numbering thousands upon thousands,

and ten thousand times ten thousand.

They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.

In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,

to receive power and wealth and wisdom

and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven

and on earth and under the earth and on the sea,

and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

be praise and honor and glory and power,

for ever and ever!”

Hymn for the day: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day #187

Prayer: Jesus, You are everything. You brought peace between God and man, and You alone can bring peace on earth. There is little more to say than to express gratitude that You accept me not for what I have done but because You paid for my sins. My life is Yours, both this Christmas Day and every day afterwards. Let all I do be for Jesus’ name and His sake, Amen.

Advent Reflections: Magi and Shepherds

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Four Day Five: Magi and Shepherds

“So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.” Luke 2:16 (NASB95)

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Matthew 2:10 (NASB95)

Two groups of men. Two similar reactions. Two very different backgrounds.

One group spends their nights with their eyes on the ground, watching sheep and guarding against thieves and predators. The other group spends their nights with their eyes on the skies, watching stars and guarding ancient wisdom against the ravages of time. One group is surrounded by smelly sheep and the general disdain of respectable people. The other group is the epitome of respectable people in their land. Shepherds and Magi are two groups of people whose paths would rarely, if ever cross. This is certainly true of the shepherds and Magi in the Christmas story: the shepherds are in Israel. The Magi come from “the east,” which is likely Persia or beyond.

Yet both find their way to Bethlehem. The story shows the shepherds come and find Jesus in the manger and the Magi find Him in a house.[1] There likely was a time delay between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Magi (or Wise Men, but I like Magi). How much is one of the great debates of Christendom, but I will not try to solve that one here.[2]

The shepherds come charging in from the fields, while the Magi come ponderously from the East. The Magi stop in Jerusalem to see if anyone knows about this “King of the Jews” while the shepherds stop people on their way out of town to tell what they saw. The Magi leave quietly, the shepherds leave loudly, but neither is ever heard from again.

Seriously, neither group shows up in the story of the life of Christ. The Magi go back to their own country, the shepherds return to their sheep. What becomes of them? That’s a question I would love to answer, but I cannot. Let us consider these men. Let us see the lesson in their disappearance.

We know that neither group just went out and dropped dead. The text records the Magi returned, they survived the return trip. The shepherds also went back and glorified God, so they made it back to the field. Where they went next is the question I want to answer, but I cannot.

These groups point us to the danger at Christmas. The danger for Christians is not government censorship or consumerism. Our hearts, if given to Christ, cannot be censored by the courts and will not tolerate the idolatry of consumerism. Our danger is more subtle. It is the danger to make much of Christmas and little of Christ.

It is the danger to make the celebration of a single event greater than the life of worship and service, commitment and love, intimacy and submission, that the event should have sparked. Where is your heart this Christmas? There is no harm in celebrating the day, keeping Christmas well in your heart upon that day.

Yet there is great harm in keeping a day when we are meant to keep a life. Let the shepherds and Magi teach us this: December 26th should be different because of December 25th.[3] If it is not, we have missed the point.

Scripture passage for the day: Luke 2:20 (NASB95)

The shepherds went back,

glorifying and praising God

for all that they had heard and seen

just as had been told them.

Hymn for the day: We Three Kings of Orient Are #215

Prayer: Ever-faithful God, I disappear sometimes. I am not always good with follow-through and follow-up. I ask for You to help me here, that I would persist where I am. That I would have the strength and courage to not vanish after one day but to celebrate You with my life in all my days. Jesus did so much more than come at Christmas, and in His name I ask for help, Amen.


[1] I know, at Epiphany. Thank you my liturgical brethren.

[2] The Great Debates of Christendom are the issues in the Bible that only get argued about by Christians that live in relative ease and safety. There’s bound to be a book in that somewhere.

[3] Another Great Debate of Christendom: Is that date right? Irrelevant: take the point instead. Is today different because of whenever you have considered the birth of Jesus?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Reflections: Angels

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Four Day Four: Angels

“And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.” Luke 2:9 (NASB95)

Yes, week four is for people. No, angels are not people. Not now, not ever, no matter what the movies show[1] us. The Christmas story needs the angels, though. So, let us take a look at angels and see what we can about them.

First, to address the angels are not people line. This is true as far as can be told from Scripture. It appears in Scripture that angels are created as angels and people are created as people. Eternity does not see that line blur or dissipate. Through it all, the angelic beings retain their distinction from the human ones.

That is not to say that angels are not important. Throughout Scripture, angels pop up to share God’s messages or reinforce the grandeur of His presence. They serve as the army of God in ways that people never do and work to accomplish His purposes. In the Christmas story, angels bring messages to Mary and Joseph, and proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.

Throughout the whole story, angels are there. Angels go hand-in-hand with the Christmas story. The nativity scene needs its angels, the Christmas pageant needs one or two, and the songs about angels are, perhaps not legion, but many. Congregational singing has many more songs about angels than about Joseph.

Yet the most significant story in the Bible is one where the angels are conspicuously absent. The heavenly host that proclaimed “Glory to God in the Highest” is silent. The warriors who protected Elisha are nowhere to be seen. The sky is dark and no radiant angels illuminate it.

It is a day somewhere around thirty-three years after Christmas. The baby from the manger that caused so much exaltation is now the man on the Cross. Jesus, whose incarnation, was celebrated that Christmas is now dying for the sins of the world. Rather than angelic light turning night into day, rather than an extra star in the skies, the sun is obscured and darkened.

The angels could have stopped it at the command of Christ.[2] He did not command them. He went to the Cross for you and for me. When we have a moment to consider the minor happenings behind the great grace that is the Cross, consider this: the angels obeyed God’s will to do nothing that day. And it saved us all.

Action is a part of our life and obedience. Our action, though, must always be in obedience. The old saying of “Let’s do something, even if it’s the wrong thing” cannot be the rallying cry of the Christian. Like the angels of old, let us do when commanded and do not when commanded as well.

Scripture passage for the day: Luke 2:14 (KJV)

Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace,

Good will toward men.

Hymn for the day: Angels We Have Heard on High#184

Additional reading: Originally published as Cosmic Christmas, though now republished as An Angel’s Story, Max Lucado wrote a fascinating story looking at Christmas from a different perspective. No, it’s not Scripture. However, while it strains the imagination it does not put more strain on the text than can be borne. Reading it is worth your time. If you can find a copy.

Prayer: Lord, what can I say? There are realities and beings that I do not fully understand. What I do know is this: Jesus is the One who died for me, the One who rose again. I will follow Him and trust Him to command the angels as He sees fit. I also commit myself to act and wait as You direct. Let all my action glorify Christ, in whose name I pray, Amen.


[1] Yes, I like It’s a Wonderful Life. No, entertainment media is not a good source of theology.

[2] Matthew 26:53

Advent Reflections: Joseph

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

Week Four Day Three: Joseph

“Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,” Luke 2:4 (NASB)

Joseph. The other half of “Mary and Joseph,” one of the most famous couples in world history. When you read the whole story, you discover something I consider extraordinary: he has no lines in the Bible. There are places where he obviously had to say something: after all, you have to say “I do” or the wedding does not count.

Yet besides these points where it is implied that Joseph has to have said something, we do not know anything he actually said. You could cast a Christmas movie with Joseph played by any “strong, silent type” actor. As long as he looks like he would not panic in a pinch, you have a Joseph.

Most of us cannot do that. We have to talk, we have to express. Words flow from our mouths from the moment we get up until the hours after we go to bed. Some people even use computer software to keep talking. Yes, there’s an app for that.[1]

We could learn from Joseph. Joseph secures his place in the Christmas story by what he does more than by what he says. The story of Joseph is an action story. He takes Mary, he keeps her a virgin, and he travels to Bethlehem. From there, he gets up, flees to Egypt, and then remains there. Then, Joseph with family in tow goes and dwells in Nazareth.

We live in a world filled with words, but our actions reveal who we truly are and what we truly believe. Joseph could have paid flowery words of lip service to God and then bolted for Parthia after the angel appeared to him. He does no such thing and instead says home in Nazareth, takes his wife, and raises God’s Son in his home.

What will your actions be this year? It is easy to get involved in the uproar that surrounds Christmas in modern times. Every year there is a push to insist that people remember this is Christmas and not a generic holiday. Every year there is a pushback to keep school kids and public parks playing only Jingle Bells instead of Silent Night.

Christians can burn up a lot of words about keeping Christ in Christmas and about remembering the reason for the season, but do our actions drown them out? One calm face among the madmen on Black Friday (or Christmas Eve shopping!) can keep Christ in Christmas to a store clerk. A customer that smiles, says “please” and “thank you”, and leaves a charitable tip can say more to a waitress than demanding music about Baby Jesus in the restaurant.

Spending the time with your family at peace rather than dragging them from mall to store to mall to shopping plaza to find everything on everyone’s list may just speak the volumes about focus and love that you have been trying to say. Letting the feast be smaller but the fellowship more relaxed will kill no one and might enliven the hearts of the ones involved!

Let your actions this year be the biggest part of your Christmas.

Scripture passage for the day: Matthew 1:24-25 (NIV)

When Joseph woke up,

he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him

and took Mary home as his wife.

But he did not consummate their marriage

until she gave birth to a son.

And he gave him the name Jesus.

Hymn for the day: O Holy Night #194

Prayer: Lord God, my actions speak so loudly that my words cannot be heard. Help my actions to glorify You so that my words are additions and not corrections. Let me speak in word and deed this Christmas, and may it become a habit that honors Jesus throughout the year. In His name I pray, Amen.


[1] Yes, I have that app. It stores items I want to put on Facebook and Twitter and posts them all around the clock. It’s called Buffer and it’s at Bufferapp.com.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Reflections: Mary

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Four Day Two: Mary

“Behold, the bond-slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38 (NASB95)

The focus on people in the story of Christmas has to include Mary. Though we cannot cross the line and attempt to place her equal with the Lord Jesus Christ, she is still critical to message of the Gospel. Her willingness to carry and deliver a child echoes as an example of sacrifice to this day. She alone could testify to the truth of His being born of a virgin, fulfilling Isaiah 7:14. She alone would know for certain how special her Son was, knowing who His Father was.

Her words are recorded in Luke and remembered in these days as The Magnificat. Her words remember the work that God had done and look ahead to what He will do. I will let her speak for herself in today’s Scripture passage.

Scripture passage for the day: Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV) The Magnificat

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear

him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Hymn for the day: Silent Night #206

Special Music: I would highly recommend that you acquire a copy of Brad Paisley and Sara Evans’ duet “New Again.” The single file can be downloaded or the song is on the CD Playlist: The Very Best of Brad Paisley. If you can get that disc for under $8, as it is available online, then the price is worth it for that song.

Prayer: Almighty Father, I understand that You do not need another Mary in Your plan. I thank You for her willingness to serve You and bear Your Son. I ask that You guide me and use me to do whatever is critical in Your plan. I will serve and glorify You in it all, for Jesus Christ is my Lord and in His name I pray, Amen.

Advent Reflections: The People

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year. This week features double-posts to finish by Christmas.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway. 

 

Week Four Day One: The People

“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.” Luke 2:1

It is impossible to think of the Christmas story without dealing with people. Even the most introverted person has to acknowledge that Christmas happened among people. Luke gives us this verse, in which Caesar wanted to count all the inhabited earth. That would be a lot of people! While history helps us understand that Caesar Augustus meant to count the whole Roman Empire, I would not doubt he ordered it as a census of the whole world. After all, for an Emperor of Rome, there were only two parts of the world: Rome and the people Rome intended to conquer. He likely wanted a count of both.

What he got, at least in Judea, was a crowded inn. Here we again see people. People are everywhere in this story! The inn is so crowded that a couple, including a pregnant woman, takes shelter to deliver their baby and lay Him in a manger. Even there, people come. Shepherds from their fields come. These shepherds tell others, who tell others, who tell…well, you get the point.

Matthew gives us the picture of the family in a house in Bethlehem, and then on to Egypt. Guess what there is in Egypt? Yes indeed: more people.

Christmas just does not happen without people. There are certainly key people in this story: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the Magi. Yet let us not miss on the people we write off as background clutter in Christmas musicals. The people that are choir behind the soloists, the background faces in the painting, all of these are important.

Why? Because Jesus came for them, too. They are important as we look at the story because they should remind us of the background faces in our life. There are people we encounter on a daily basis that we never know. It may be the family that is on the same milk-buying schedule you are on at the grocery store. You know the ones; you see them every Tuesday afternoon when they pick up a gallon of two percent. You have joked together about disregarding the expiration dates because milk does not sit still in your households!

The background people are the rest of the multitude in the doctor’s office waiting room. They are found in the other parts of your school or the next office over from yours. Perhaps they are in the unload section of your hub, while you spend all day in the load section.[1] When you try to think of them, their faces are kind of blurry in your mind. It is likely true that yours is blurry to them as well.

Our challenge is this: consider those faces. They are real people. Real people that Christmas happened for just as much as it happened for you. Jesus came for that guy in the store as much as He came for you. He came, not just for your political party, but for the opposition. Not just for your team, but for the other team. He came for the band members, too, and the groundskeepers and the people who could not care less about sports at all.

If all of these are worth Jesus covering the distance to be born, what should they be worth to you?

Scripture passage for the day: Luke 2:38 (NLT)

She[2] came along just as Simeon

was talking with Mary and Joseph,

and she began praising God.

She talked about the child to everyone

who had been waiting

expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.

Hymn for the day: O Little Town of Bethlehem #196

Prayer: My Lord and my God, You see people. Help me see them as well. Help me to love others as You love them. Work in my life to be the instrument of Your love for the world around me. Guide me to specific actions to take and give me the courage to do them. As Jesus came to us, I commit to go to others. In His name I pray, Amen.


[1] That’s for my UPS people. FedExers, too.

[2] Anna. The whole story is Luke 2:21-38 and worth your time to read it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent Reflections: The Sacrifice without Replacement

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Three Day Six: The Sacrifice without Replacement

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place.” Hebrews 10:19–20 (NLT)

The last point about Jesus as our sacrifice is that He is the sacrifice without replacement. There is no substitute for Him to be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. Without holding to this truth, Christmas becomes less than just another day. It ends up as a colossal drain on your energy and a big mess at the mall for no good reason.

This idea bears both repeating and expanding: Jesus is either the sacrifice without replacement or Christmas, nay Christianity, is a complete waste. For Him to be without replacement, two things must be true: He must be without equal and we must be without options.

That we are without an option is made plain by Jesus Himself. He stated that He is “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through” Him.[1] This leaves us only two choices: believe Him or not. If He cannot be trusted with telling us about God, than can we trust Him with anything else? Here is a man who claimed to also be God. His statements are recorded by people who allege that He was born of a virgin, that He raised the dead, that He fed thousands with snack lunches, and that He got up and out of a tomb after a Roman crucifixion.

Disbelief is the only option open to us. We cannot pass Him off as less than He claimed or as only partially what the Gospels tell us about Him. If He is not real in all He did, what is the value of any of it? The world sees many moralists and motivators. Why would we need one from a troubled Roman province of two thousand years ago? The choice is not Jesus among many options. The choice is Jesus or no Jesus.

The reason is that Jesus is without equal. He is called the “only begotten” or “one and only” Son of God by the Apostle John. There is no one who can claim equality with Him. None of the prophets of old ever claimed to fulfill the promises of God. John the Baptist quickly distanced himself from the high praise and even the angel at the end of Revelation points to God alone as worthy of worship.

Nothing can equal Jesus. Attempting to add our own merit to His sacrifice denies that His work remains enough. There is nothing to add, for the work is done. Out of gratitude, out of a heart set free to follow Him, we ought to do what He says, but it is not for our salvation that we do it. It is for His glory.

Nothing can equal Jesus. Attempting to add the worship of a good man or woman denies that His glory remains enough. There is nothing to add, for worship belongs to God alone. Out of gratitude, out of a heart filled with joy, we worship Him. Oftentimes we worship Him with others, we have those who guide and lead our worship, but they never stand equal to Him. They do not stand above us, but only slightly in front to serve as guides.

Nothing can equal Jesus. Attempting to add the paths that diverse from Him denies that He knew the whole truth. There is nothing to add, for His truth is all that there is. Out of gratitude, out of a heart cleared of darkness to see Him clearly, we know Him and His Word. We share His Word and His work with others. Men and women help us to see His truth clearly, but they cannot add to it.

The manger holds the only hope for mankind. The irreplaceable sacrifice without spot or blemish, freely given for the world is there. He may not seem like much. He may seem easily mislaid among the divisions of mankind and especially of those who claim Him as their own, but He is there. He may seem easily hidden behind other kings and counselors, priests and intimates, but He is there. May we seek Him with all of our heart this Christmas and throughout the days to come.

Scripture passage for the day: John 5:24 (NASB95)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word,

and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life,

and does not come into judgment,

but has passed out of death into life.

Hymn for the day: Go Tell It on the Mountain #182

Prayer: O Lord my God, You are truly without parallel in this world. Nothing can truly equal You, yet my heart sometimes tries to replace You anyway. Help my unbelief, my struggle with this. Help my whole heart, the total of my will and emotions, to be locked in to worship and service of You and You alone. Further, mold my life to be the spark to draw others to Your light. In the precious name of Jesus I pray, Amen.


[1] John 14:6, modified to fit the 3rd person grammar of the sentence.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Reflections: The Sacrifice without Coercion

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

Week Three Day Five: The Sacrifice without Coercion

“The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John 1:4-5 (NLT)

The lead-in to Christmas, the time when we celebrate Advent, is many things in our culture. Not all of these things are positive. This time of year, the ‘holiday season’ seems to also be that time of year when the guilt-machine in society is turned up an extra notch or two in intensity. During Christmas, we gather with people that we avoid throughout the year, we sandwich in trips to distant relatives that in all honesty, we can barely afford.

We buy gifts for people we do not like, and sometimes for people we do not even know. Rather than say no or express our own needs, we do and give out of a guilty compulsion. It is just a part of the American Holiday Stress Syndrome.[1] Now, sometimes we try to lay off as guilty compulsion someone urging us to do what is right in the first place. After all, Christian Believers, “Honor your father and mother” is still applicable in the 21st Century.

Still, whether guilt sends us to do what we should do or just something we do not want to do, we hardly do everything this time of year of our own free will. Even in the normal doings of life, free will is somewhat of a sideline. After all, it takes a decent amount of nutrition to exercise a free will and sometimes you do what you do not want to get that nutrition!

Christmas, though, starts with free will. Jesus did not come to this earth as a baby that night in Bethlehem because He had to. He chose to. It was of His own loving choice that He emptied Himself and dwelt among us. Really and truly, God could have simply ignored mankind or sent us packing on into eternity early. After all, He could have just made new people, right?

Instead, Jesus chooses to come to this world. He does this because He loves us. He does this because He wants to. He does this because we are trapped as the enemies of God and someone must show us the way to peace with God.

The way to peace with God, though, is through death. The universe has certain unbreakable laws. One is that sin cannot come into the presence of the Holy One. There is no loophole for this, no sneaking past the Alps to get there, no magnetic fields to shield the two opposing forces. It takes death, because death begins to remove the blemish. Death was and remains the wages of sin.

Therefore, when Jesus chose the manger, He also chose the Cross. He chose to pay for the peace between God and man, to suffer the wrath of God for the sins of men. His death on the Cross was the natural pairing of His trip into this world at Bethlehem. He came for one great purpose: to die for the sins of man. Much of the rest of His life was spent in accomplishing secondary goals and attesting His identity before the Cross.

Gloriously, the story of Jesus is not just the story of the Manger and the Cross. It is the story of the Manger, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb. For death cannot hold Him: in Him is life, not death. He is the fullness of God in the flesh. He is born to show the way, dies to atone for our sins, and rises to everlasting glory!

Consider this at Christmas this year: none of what He did was compelled. It was done for one reason and one reason only: the love of God for humanity. Take that for what you can, but for me it is the key to thankfulness and celebration at Christmas. The One who could choose to bring life did choose to bring it! With the choirs of history, I will sing and shout “Hallelujah! Praise the Lamb!”

Scripture passage for the day: John 10:18 (NASB95)

No one has taken it away from Me,

but I lay it down on My own initiative.

I have authority to lay it down,

and I have authority to take it up again.

This commandment I received from My Father.

Hymn for the day: Joy to the World! #181

Prayer: Lord Jesus, my will gets in the way. I see how much "want to" interferes with obedience. I thank You that You made the choice to come, to live, to die for sin, and to rise again. Thank you for being the mediator between God and humanity. In Your name I pray, Amen.


[1] Not a recognized disease. At least I don’t think so.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Reflections: The Sacrifice without Spot and Blemish

Week Three Day Four: The Sacrifice without Spot and Blemish

“I will not take what is yours for the Lord[1] or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” (King David) 1 Chronicles 21:24

It is easy for us to picture Christmas in light of the Hallelujah Chorus and sing “Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!” This is certainly the celebration of the overall character of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth in Bethlehem anchors our celebrations. Yet Christians recognize not one Advent but two. The second is the one yet to come: when He returns and initiates the visible Kingdom of God in all things. The first Advent leads us to Bethlehem and the manger.

In the gap between the two Advents, something else had to happen. We return to the Old Testament for the picture of the system of sacrifices and offerings. Soon after Adam and Eve eat the fruit they should have left alone, we see Cain and Abel offering sacrifices. They take some of their labor and present it to God in both apology and gratitude.

The system develops, and then in Leviticus and the rest of the Law, God puts clear direction on sacrifices. There are clear examples and prescribed choices to be used as sacrifices. One key requirement was that any animal used as a sacrifice had to be as near to perfect as could be found. Diseased, lame, injured animals were not acceptable: God expected the best from His people.

A problem is evident, though, when you consider this. The best sacrifices are never quite good enough. The most sacrificing does for a lamb, ram, or turtle dove is hasten its death. It was going to die eventually. That blemish has been present ever since death entered this world at the hands of Adam and Eve. All living things die.[2]

There was only one exception to that rule. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He came without death within Him. He came in perfection to the imperfect world. He was spotless: His death was not guaranteed in the natural course of events.

Beyond this, His life never required His death for His own sin. He committed none in the years of earthly life. He was, and is, truly without spot and without blemish. He is the only One capable of being the sacrifice for sin.

Scripture passage for the day: 1 Peter 1:18–19 (HCSB)

“For you know that you were redeemed

from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers,

not with perishable things like silver or gold,

but with the precious blood of Christ,

like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.”

Hymn for the day: Blessed Redeemer #258

Prayer: Your holiness, O God, is more than I can bear. My spots and blemishes show up clearly in Your light. Thank You, Lord God, for Jesus who redeems me. In His name I pray, Amen.


[1] The word Lord renders the Hebrew covenant name for God and should be understood as distinguishing the God of the Bible from the other gods of the regions around Israel. See the inset panel on page 65 of The Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook from Baker Books or the introductory material on the NASB, NIV, or NLT about the name: Yahweh.

[2] Enoch and Elijah are another matter entirely for another day.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent Reflections: A Sense of Destiny

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

 

Week Three Day Three: A Sense of Destiny

“For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” John 12:35 (NASB95)

The sensation that is myrrh, though, does not stop in everyday use. Myrrh was a portion of the anointing oil of the Tabernacle. In fact, it was the largest portion of this oil. Exodus 30 records this oil and its purposes. Whatever was touched by this oil was considered holy. It was to be used on the priests and the implements of sacrifice. It was used on the altar and on the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant was the symbol of the center of God’s presence in those times. He never expresses Himself as limited to wherever the Ark is, but for the Israelites of those years, the Ark was where they could know God certainly was. The Ark was to be kept near to the altar for sacrifice and to be kept separate from the people by a heavy curtain.

Why? Because the presence of God is so great that people cannot stand before Him. He is beyond humanity in holiness and righteousness and is unapproachable by us. In this desperation, we carry a sense of despair.

Yet the gift of myrrh shows us a sense of destiny. In the earlier covenant, God’s presence was represented by the Ark of the Covenant. In the end, though, it’s just a gold-covered box. True, the artwork is magnificent and the item carries immense historical value. The Old Testament contains a few references to God’s power affecting the Ark. In the end, though, it remains a box that God chose to use.

Jesus is different than the Ark. He is not merely the symbol of the presence of God, but the Incarnate God Himself. Incarnate means to “put on flesh,” and that is what God does through the manger. He puts on flesh. He becomes one of us, though He does not discard His true Godhood at the same time.

The myrrh He receives should draw to mind all the holy objects that were anointed with myrrh in the Old Testament. Christ fulfills the need for those and exceeds their value. He becomes the One who can bring men to God. He is eternal, which the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Ark have proven not to be. His destiny was shown in the myrrh: He will go past the heavy curtain, He is the Holiest.

Scripture passage for the day: 1 Timothy 6:15-16 (HCSB)

“God will bring this about in His own time.

He is the blessed and only Sovereign,

the King of kings, and the Lord of lords,

the only One who has immortality,

dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him,

to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen.”

Hymn for the day: Good Christian Men, Rejoice! #183

Prayer: Almighty, Most Holy God, I cannot express enough my gratitude at what You have done for me. The more I know myself, the more I realize that it took more than I could ever do to come to You. My sin, my heart, my affections are rarely clear as they should be. Thank You for making the way through the veil for me. I know that it cost Jesus His blood, and it is in His name I pray, Amen.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent Reflections: A Sense of Intimacy

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Three Day Two: A Sense of Intimacy

“All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia; Out of ivory palaces stringed instruments have made You glad.” Psalm 45:8 (NASB95)

For now, lay aside the thought of myrrh as a burial spice. Instead, let us consider myrrh and its place among the fragrances of intimacy, of relationship, of celebration. Myrrh carries a picture in the Old Testament that is quite different than what we see in the few references to it in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, myrrh is a part of the marriage celebration. The Scripture above, from Psalm 45, is a good reference point for that use. The whole of Psalm 45 is a celebration of marriage. There is some discussion about the date and target of the Psalm. The initial frame of reference is the wedding of one of the kings of Judah in the dynasty of David. Looking back over the Cross to the Psalm, most Christians see this Psalm as celebrating both the king’s wedding and the glory of Jesus.

How does that work? One thing you should notice when you read through the whole Bible is the frequent use of marriage imagery to discuss the relationship between God and His people. Many of us see the picture in Ephesians 5, but the Old Testament prophets also use the picture.

The idea that we should gather here is one of intimacy and commitment. Those are the two keys of marriage. Now, do not take intimacy and pare it down to one thing. Intimacy is about knowing and being known. Life intimacy knows not just the surface of a person. Not only knowing how they act in restaurants but how they act at the breakfast table. Not seeing only shiny shoes but the dirty sneakers and flip-flops. The great thing about drawing near to God is seeing that He is always consistent. It is slightly terrifying to realize that He knows us and our inconsistent nature.

Intimacy is beyond the shallow words we often use. When next you encounter a group of people, ask them all how they are. See how many give you a “fine.” Then watch the rest of the day—I would give you good odds that at least one is not “fine.” I see it frequently from people who are guarded in real life but less so on social media. A person who is “fine” in the morning is “continuing to battle the depression that darkens every day” on Facebook in the afternoon.

Myrrh should remind us that God is not distant enough to miss this. He is right there, with us in all things. He is intimate with our days and our actions, our hopes and our setbacks. There is a relationship offered, a grace extended beginning at the manger and it goes on forever. It is to be known and loved.

Intimacy is not the only key, though. Commitment is the other. The two things go hand-in-hand, after all. How can you have intimacy if you are not committed to the one you are intimate with? Commitment says: your real self is safe with me. I will not run away no matter what I find out. I will hold true to my word in all things.

That kind of commitment is hard to do. Many of us struggle to be that committed to another. There is a point at which we back away. Yet God is not that way. The Manger as much as the Cross shows us His commitment: He came too far to turn back. He will not leave you now.

Scripture passage for the day: Deuteronomy 31:6 (NLT)

So be strong and courageous!

Do not be afraid and do not panic before them.

For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you.

He will neither fail you nor abandon you.

Hymn for the day: How Great Our Joy (or While by the Sheep We Watched) #202

Prayer: Lord God, I admit that I fear being known. I see my own heart clearly and know how I would react to someone like me if I knew them fully. I would struggle to hold my commitment even to myself. One of my greatest needs is to take You at Your word and believe that You will not abandon me. I know that I am not perfect, and that You are. I know that You are working to make me more like Jesus and commit to letting You work. It is in His name I pray, Amen.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Reflections: Senses and Sacrifice

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

Week Three Day One: Senses and Sacrifice

“Then their father Israel said to them, ‘If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.” Genesis 43:11 (ESV)

Coming to the last gift, we find myrrh. Myrrh, like frankincense, was an all-purpose spice. It is another agricultural product. Well, more like a silvicultural product since it comes from trees, but you get the point. It is not something valuable because it is rare. It is instead valuable because people liked it.

How do I know people liked it? If you look through the Bible alone for the uses of myrrh, it shows up in many places. The above passage is the gifts Israel, or Jacob, sent to Pharaoh during the famine. Exodus places myrrh into the sacred oil used to anoint the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. Proverbs and Song of Solomon[1]move myrrh into the intimacy of marriage.

It is, apparently, a pleasant scent. Unlike frankincense, myrrh is nice on its own: frankincense is burned to release a smoke and an aroma. It can be heavy and oppressive, while myrrh is lighter. Myrrh even has medicinal effects, with some research indicating it can help with pain and cholesterol.[2]

The main use of myrrh, though, was in embalming. Ancient Egypt used myrrh in the preparation of mummies and many other nations used it for a burial spice. In prior times, deceased bodies were packed in spices to alleviate the odors involved with death.

It should not seem odd to you that the same fragrance is associated with worship, intimacy, and death. After all, modern Americans do the same thing with flowers. You find flowers on Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and at funerals. You find them in hospitals to cheer the sick and on tombs to mourn the dead. We use flowers for apologies and for congratulations.

Myrrh had a similar function: it was congratulatory and conciliatory, celebration and consolation.

It is nearly the perfect fragrance for Christmas. Christmas is about the senses and the sacrifice. About God becoming man so that our senses could understand better. About Jesus being the atonement for our sins, the sacrifice that we needed for forgiveness.

Scripture passage for the day: John 19:39-40 (ESV)

“Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night,

came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes,

about seventy-five pounds in weight.

So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices,

as is the burial custom of the Jews.”

Hymn for the Day: Nothing but the Blood #223

Prayer: My senses, Lord God, are easily distracted. I ask that You help me focus them. I also realize I need to understand better what it is that You are my sacrifice. There can be no doubt that I need Your help to draw near. I ask that You work through me in Jesus’ name, Amen.


[1] Or Song of Songs, or Canticles, if you prefer.

[2] This is not a medical endorsement: there are experiments about this, not certainties. Do NOT go buy some myrrh and use it for your ailments. Talk to a medical professional.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent Reflections: Priest Above Me

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Two Day Six: Priest Above Me

“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NRSV)

Now we come to the crux of the matter. Jesus is certainly the Priest above all religion, practices, problems, and divisions. Yet what about you? Do you recognize that Jesus is alive to be your High Priest?

It is not enough to say that He is greater than all else. Doing so would be true, but it remains a distant truth. I readily recognize that I could not go three rounds with George Foreman. What of it? The question is irrelevant: no one expects me to box and everyone knows Foreman can.

Recognizing Jesus as the High Priest above me is bringing this entire discussion home. Sure, Jesus has the answer for the world’s problems. Do I admit He has the solution to my problem? Do I admit that He is the answer to the divisions I have with others?

More even than that: do I recognize that I cannot, on my own, make my way back to God? God is holy, righteous, and perfect. He is fundamentally different than I am. I am in one place at one time, limited in ability, knowledge, and judgment. God is not limited to locations and times, His abilities exceed my comprehension---and He understands Himself. He never makes a mistake, while I hope to avoid making fatal mistakes.

That a mere human cannot come to God without help should not surprise anyone. It should astound us that there is anyway made possible. Jesus makes that possible. The manger makes it possible. The manger is that moment when God opened the door. He put the mediator in place that could bring us back to Him.

Is that personal for you? No other mediator will work: your pastor, your friend, your parent or your child cannot stand between you and God to bring you to Him. There is one mediator. God closed the whole gap that night in Bethlehem.

Where do stand at the manger? Do you stand near or behind another? The grace of God is this: there is room enough in the front row for everyone. You do not have to take that back seat. It works, really, the other way. There is only a front row. Those who are one row back are outside, and will stay there unless they come themselves into the presence. The way is open for all who would take it. He is the High Priest above all things, and that includes individual people.

Scripture passage for the day: Revelation 19:1 (NIV)

After this I heard what sounded

like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,

Hymn for the day: Good Christian Men, Rejoice #183

Prayer: Lord God, help me see Jesus as the only one between You and me. I ask for your help to move up to the front row, where nothing and no one stands between us. The only thing that should matter is You. Help me to live that truth. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent Reflections: Priest Above All Problems

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

Week Two Day Five: Priest Above All Problems

“Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.” Exodus 18:15-16

If a train leaves New York at 0545 traveling 60mph on the same track to Philadelphia as a train leaving Philadelphia leaves for New York at 0600 headed to New York traveling 45mph leaves on, how much time does the dispatcher have to warn both trains to stop?

Sound like a major issue? Maybe not if you live in Atlanta, but if you are on one of those trains, it is a huge deal. Yet what you see above is a typical story problem from a math book. It is, however, lacking information. For example, how far is it from Philadelphia to New York? How big of a train? After all, it takes longer to stop a 100-car banana train than to stop a 10-car passenger train.

Without that information, can you actually solve the problem? I’m not asking if your math skills are up to the division, multiplication, and addition necessary. You can see, though, that you do not possess all the information to solve the problem at hand.

This is considered a simple problem, one that a fifth grader may find in a math book. What about the problems we face in adulthood? Should I take this job? What do I do about my children? What is wrong with people these days that they just do not seem to care about their neighbors?

There is a huge demand for problem solving in our world. We take medications for our mental problems, take therapy for our emotional problems, and ask the courts to solve our family problems. Political problems have no solution and international problems cause more sleepless nights than midnight espressos.

Usually, this is because we plainly lack the whole information. Parents lack the total insight into the mind of their child, employees cannot fathom what the boss is up to, and no one knows what Congress will do. We might feel sad but not know if we have true depression, a bad day, or a nutritional problem. Then we take this solution: we go to an expert.

Except for this little issue: the experts often do not know either. If you go to the doctor, the first question you will be asked is “Why are you here?” or “What is the trouble today?” I have always resisted the urge, but there are days I am tempted to say: “You’re doctor, doctor, you tell me!” Yet our experts, the doctors, auto mechanics, lawyers, and therapists of this world are all dealing with a shortage of clear insight to the problem.

Sometimes the experts help us. A counselor says the right thing, a doctor prescribes the right medication. Maybe a Congressman makes a reasonable law or a diplomat actually persuades warring groups to make peace. On rare occasions, mechanics and computer techs actually fix the problem the first time!

Yet when this happens, something else goes wrong. So, we retain problems. They grow and compound, take on a life all their own. All around us, the world gets a little crazier every day.

What can we do? It certainly does not seem that a small baby in a manger can fix it. Yet it is only people with problems that know what Advent is really about. If everything is perfect in your life, what are you waiting for? You have no needs, no concerns, and no expectation for improvement. In fact, your biggest fear is losing the perfection. For you, there is another book or sermon to speak to your issue.

For those of us who wait for things to get better, though, that is the spirit, the feeling, of the Advent season[1]. It is a recognition that the solutions to our problems will not come from us. The answer is not only to look outside of us for help, but to look at a plan that we cannot fathom. The answer to the world’s issues is a baby? This is both undying truth and undeniably crazy from our perspective. How can this child help anyone?

He can, because His presence shows that God has not abandoned us. He is here to know what it is to suffer, to know hunger, sadness, tiredness. He is here to be tempted and overcome, to face trials and death.

And to overcome them all. There is nothing He cannot handle. Will the solution always make perfect logical sense to you and I? Of course not. I would not have sent a baby to a virgin who would have to give birth and lay Him in a manger, either.

God sees and understands the depths of our issues. And He presents Jesus, the High Priest as the solution to all of our problems. Let us see this for the truth and glory it is this year.

Scripture passage for the day: Matthew 10:26 (NLT)

“But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you.

For the time is coming when everything

that is covered will be revealed,

and all that is secret will be made known to all.”

Hymn for the Day: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel #175[2]

Prayer: Lord God, You already know this, but I have problems. Some of my problems are big to me, and some are small to me. Compared to other people’s problems, mine seem big most days and small other days. However, the key to me is this: these are my problems. My issues. The things that keep me awake at night. I commit myself to do two things about these problems. The first is this: I ask that you show me problems I can solve and help me solve them. I will do this if I am solving my problems or someone else’s problems. The second is this: I ask for Your help, but I will wait for Your solution to my problems. I will stop trying to replace You with me. I trust that even if I cannot see how, through Jesus there is a solution. In His name I pray, Amen.


[1] If you would like to see this idea well-developed, read God is in the Manger, selections from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I owe an unpayable debt to this and other writings of Bonhoeffer for the work you are reading and my own preaching, teaching, and growth.

[2] For those of you who like Country Music, I recommend Sugarland’s interpretation of this song. Available as an MP3 download from Amazon or their “Gold and Green” album. I do not know if the rest of the album is worth it, though.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent Reflections: Priest Above All Practices

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

 

Week Two Day Four: Priest Above All Practices

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:24 (NASB95)

If you live in the South, you probably realize that many Southerners do love football. Especially college football. The traditions and excitement that surround Saturdays between September and December overtake even the most casual of fans, and cause some of the sanest of people to do some rather crazy things.

The traditions of college football are as diverse as the crowds that do them. In Oxford, Mississippi, the well-dressed members of the football team walk through the tailgating crowd to get to the stadium. In Arkansas, grown people stand up and shout “Woo! Pig! SooIEEEE! to call the Hogs. Auburn University lets an eagle fly around the stadium.

Even the idea of “tailgating” is a strange one: essentially, people show up around the stadium way too early for the game, cooking food, sharing food with total strangers, and sometimes just eating without bringing anything at all. There are reports that some people go just to tailgate, and then sit outside with their big-screen TVs in the back of a pick-up truck and watch the game there.

In all, football around here leads to some strange practices. There are unwritten rules and written rules for these matters. In most places, the written rules are posted and have to do with how much space you can take up, what methods can be used to cook, and how early you can be there. These rules may address bringing generators, tents, or rolling out fake grass. The unwritten rules are a different story. Some places, those rules include not using profanity around women and children. Some places, those rules are about how much food you have to bring if you want to eat other people’s food. The rules may apply to how loud your music is or if fans of the opposite team get to eat or get harassed.

As Shakespeare might think, though, here’s the rub: do you know the rules? Many people that participate know the rules at home, but they are clueless on the road. Others, like me, have heard the rumors and the legends, but have never participated. So I have no idea what the actual rules would be. I actually do not even know if the rules are different from War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock to Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, and the same team plays both places!

When faced with so many ways to celebrate and congregate, how does one educate? How do the rules get passed on? Well, if you are fortunate, you get to start off life taking part in these times. You go as a kid and learn as you grow. Perhaps you come later, but have a friend who teaches you the rules.

And all this is just about football. What about something that really matters? We count down the days until game day, but we are also counting the days until Christmas. Not just because last-minute shopping just excites us, but because we look forward to celebrating the greatest that could happen. God comes, steps into history, and makes it possible that we can come to Him.

That excites me more than football. It ought to excite us all more than anything else that happens. Yet what are the rules for that excitement? That answers seems to parallel tailgating as it really does vary from place to place. One group would like you to dress this way, another that way—try showing up in a “contemporary” church with a tie on and see what reaction you get. One group celebrates so calmly that you hate to wake them up to end the service, while another group rattles the roof more than raises it!

So who is right? Jesus is right. He told the Samaritan woman above that worship was about “spirit and truth.” One good way to understand that is this: it is not about location, for God is everywhere. It is not about right opinions, but about God’s truth. Worship is about Him.

As you next read the Christmas story, look for how the shepherds, Magi, or even Mary and Joseph worshipped Christ. The Magi brought gifts, certainly, but did the shepherds? Who sang? The biblical story records no singing in the whole situation. Yet the shepherds know something important is happening: the angels told them. The Magi know, for they would not have made the trip for a hunch. Mary and Joseph certainly know the truth.

Yet their worship is not about the specific practices. When Jesus is the High Priest, it is not about the practice of worship. Worship is instead about the object of worship. Worship is about Jesus. The Christmas story records little of how the people worshipped the Baby Jesus because the story is about Jesus, not about them.

Considering Jesus as the High Priest above all practices reminds us of this: our focus on Him is what matters. If you walk away from worship speaking of the music and the feelings but not of Jesus, then you have missed the point. If you walk away from worship and speak of nothing or worse, complain of the hard pews or the time taken, then you have missed the point.

The practices are to run second to the Person of Christ.

Scripture passage for the day: Psalm 150:6 (HCSB)

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

Hallelujah!

Hymn for the day: What Child is This? #198

Prayer: Lord God, let my worship focus on You. I want to be less concerned with how and more concerned with whom. I repent of demanding the perfect environment to worship, and commit myself to worship as long as You and You alone are the object of my efforts. Thank You for grace through Jesus, in His name I pray, Amen.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book: The New Calvinism Considered

Well, it’s book time around these here parts. I’m staring at a shelf full of books that I’d like to get through, so I’m going to work back towards the book-a-day posting. Today, we’ve got The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker. Provided by EP Books.

I get nervous when we have “new” theologies based on theological ideas that have been around for centuries. It’s like we have a modern idea, but are afraid to claim that idea or trust it to stand on its own, so we package it and label it with an historic-sounding name, whether that’s “Calvinism” or “Traditionalism” or anything else that comes to mind. That’s not so much a critique of today’s book as it is a generic rant.The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker

Moving away from that consideration, let us consider The New Calvinism Considered by Jeremy Walker. It’s published by EP Books, weighs in at 124 pages, is burdened by endnotes instead of footnotes, and can be read twice in a week. It looks like this: Further, it’s available from Amazon on Kindle as well as other sources.

Rather than dissect this book completely, because by the time you validated my dissection, you could read the whole thing yourself, I’ll give you some quick hits on Walker’s work here.

The first is this: The New Calvinism Considered is an inside-job discussion. Walker is clearly part of the overall batch of theology that considers itself “reformed.” I find this as a strength, just as Wesleyan self-examinations are more valuable in understanding what Wesleyans think. Walker may not identify with some of the “New” Calvinist proponents, but he clearly identifies with the overall sweep of Calvinism. Walker does not do a take-apart on the major headlines of the Doctrines of Grace or the Reformation. So do not look here for a heavy-lift on the theological side.

That much is not a drawback, given the subtitle of “A Personal and Pastoral Assessment.” The New Calvinism Considered isn’t presented as settling out the theological issues. It’s about the practical outworkings of the theology.

In this, we see the second aspect of Walker’s work. He presents the New Calvinist movement with both its blessings and some of its major failings. The New Calvinism Considered does not spare the celebrity fandoms nor the excesses among some who identify with the theology.

As a note on these excesses, though, Walker has not demonstrated that the problems with Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald are inherent to any form of Calvinism, new or old. He does, however, show that these are among the trouble spots for holders of Calvinistic doctrine in The New Calvinism Considered.

Walker’s writing is easy to follow. As stated above, you could read this twice in a week if you wanted to, and you’d be well-served to do so. The New Calvinism Considered touches on the good and the bad, providing positive examples alongside cautionary tales. This is not, however, the book to persuade someone to embrace a Calvnistic theology nor to discard one. Rather, it’s a valuable illumination for those who already hold these views. For the budding Reformed Theologian in your life, it should fill their stocking—or other Regulative Principle-approved gift receptacle.

Outside the Reformed views, though, I do not see The New Calvinism Considered having wide applicability.

For more on Jeremy Walker, check out either the blog tour page for The New Calvinism Considered or this blog: http://eardstapa.wordpress.com/

(Note: free book in exchange for the review)

Advent Reflections: Priest Above All Division

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Two Day Three: Priest Above All Division

“For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all.” Ephesians 4:4-6

There are, unfortunately, divisions among those who claim the name of Christ. We tend to argue about things great and small. Where else can you find arguments so bitter that a person will not speak to someone five feet away?

Some of the arguments are necessary. It often happens that we take our eyes off the Cross and get greatly distracted. When that happens, wrong goals appear and wrong ideas are taught. Those times, the division is necessary. Sometimes, our vision gets blurry and we choose foolishness in our arguments.

This is sadly unavoidable because we are drawn to our self-interest more than anything else. We must remember that the debate should not be solved by our opinions or personal preferences. Rather, we must come back to our High Priest. We must come back to the manger.

Consider the manger: what division can we find in Bethlehem? The division between God and man is closing with the baby. He has come the greater difference, made the longer journey.

When we consider that, can we continue to bicker with one another? What distance are we refusing to cover?

The answer to our arguments must always come back to Him. Foremost in our mind must be this realization: Jesus is the standard of right. The follower of Christ recognizes that only Jesus has the authority to declare right from wrong. We can determine from His Word right from wrong, but it is not based on our own opinion.

As we have divisions within the family of believers, ask this: When the issue is presented to the High Priest, how will He see it?

This is not a question of unity ahead of truth: all unity among believers starts in three places: the Empty Tomb, the Cross, and the Manger. Unity without truth is more than an oxymoron: it is impossible. Rather, we should look at our divisions in light of Christ and the manger: where would be without Him at all?

We could not be divided about the time of His return, for we would not know it. We could not be divided about miracles and teachings, followers and successors, for there would be none of these things to discuss. If we start at the manger, start with remembering the relief that is finding God with us, many of those issues begin to fade in their importance.

Scripture passage for the day: Luke 2:17-18 (NIV)

“When they had seen him, they spread the word

concerning what had been told them about this child,

and all who heard it were amazed

at what the shepherds said to them.”

Hymn for the day: The First Noel #180

Prayer: Almighty God, I like to have my way. Even when “my way” is to avoid making decisions, that is what I want. This habit does not help many people, and it can bring harm and division. Yet when I gaze in wonder at the manger, I realize that I cannot embrace bitter divisions. I will not accept a false unity that denies You, but I want to live with joy alongside my fellow followers of Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray, Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

On the Judgment of Religions

Religion is the coordination of beliefs about the nature of existence and practices that are line with those beliefs. That one would judge a religion, for good or for ill, based on one-seventh of those practices is second in foolishness only to those who would judge a man’s devotion to religion, for good or for ill, based on how he performs in one-seventh of his life.

It is akin to ending a hockey match halfway through the first period, a football game on the second possession, or a baseball game before the lineup has batted through. One would not deem The Lord of the Rings to have been read adequately at the Council of Elrond.

Yet we will determine that a religion is good or bad because of weekly worship. We will determine that a person properly represents a religion because they perform well for an hour, or that they fail for not performing in that hour.

This does not make us wise in the evaluation and consideration of belief. Rather, it makes us fools, as the child who answers a question that is not even fully asked yet.

Advent Reflections: Priest Above All Religion

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Two Day Two: Priest Above All Religion

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 (NIV)

The first place our minds go when we hear that Jesus is a “priest” is down the road to religion. Left to that path, we are headed to an unmitigated disaster if we do not put some hedges and explanations on that. The truth carries a much tighter focus than many of us like.

Most religions build on a structure of priesthood. The structure is this: there is something beyond what normal people understand, but there are a few that grasp the full truth. Those few then serve as intermediaries between ordinary folks and that something. You get this in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Mormonism. You get it even in Buddhism and Atheism—yes, atheists have priests and prophets, too, who are out to “enlighten” everyone about the real truth that religious people ignore.

Even some forms of Christianity twist His truth and place additional layers between man and God. This pattern is so pervasive to religious belief that I think it is just an extension of human nature. We like to see what we worship, and if we cannot see it, we want a representative. So, the search continues throughout cultures, history, and time.

Except that people are troublesome. Too often, the people we look to as our examples and intermediaries resemble us more than they resemble the truth. This is our problem: those we would pick make poor examples and those who offer themselves are rarely any better.

Yet into this world, Jesus is born. He is born into a pluralistic society with a plethora of gods and goddesses. Wait, you thought He was born in Israel, land of the One True God, right? Except Israel is not independent, they are ruled by the Roman Empire. Rome was one of the first generally secular empires in world history. Rome had few gods of their own, but instead just adopted the gods of wherever they conquered. You could worship nearly anything or anybody you wanted in Rome as long as you paid your taxes and did not rebel against the government.

Jesus is born into a religiously diverse world. True, Islam does not exist at that point: Mohammed is born nearly 600 years later. When He came, He faced that diversity. Christmas did not happen in the world of the Jews.[1] It happened in the world of fallen humanity.

This same Jesus offered the quote above. That He is the only way to God. Not through rabbis or pastors, priests or imams, scientists or séances, but only through Jesus. Your religion, in the grand scheme of eternity, actually does not matter.

What matters is your response to Jesus. Do you recognize Him as The High Priest, the One Way to God or do you reject Him? To live out that serving and knowing God is Jesus and your religion calls Him a liar. To live out that serving a religion that ignores Him altogether is to marginalize Him.

To marginalize and insult Him is to the same to God. He came to show us God, to give us the representation that we need, to provide the guidance back. Even in the days when the path is dark, following Him closely will provide the steps we need. If we place any other person between us and Him, we may mistake the way.

Scripture passage for the Day: Psalm 31:24

So be strong and courageous,

all you who put your hope in the Lord!

Hymn for the Day: He is Born #190

Prayer: God, You alone are God. And only through Jesus can we come to You. I ask for help to strip away the forms and formalities that I have placed between myself and Him. Help me to see clearly the One who You sent, that I may clearly serve You and worship. Thank You, Jesus, for coming. In Your name I pray, Amen.


[1] Not to deny the importance of Israel in the plan of God. There’s just more to the story.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent Reflections: The Great Priest

A couple of years ago, I wrote out a self-published e-book of Advent Devotions. You can still buy it from Amazon.com here: Advent Reflections. However, I’m going to re-use the whole thing for daily blog posts here on the blog this year.

Hymn numbers are from the 2008 Baptist Hymnal/Worship Hymnal from Lifeway.

Week Two Day One: The Great Priest

“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;” Hebrews 3:1

The next gift mentioned in Matthew is called frankincense. This is where a good many of us get lost, since we do not often have much sense regarding scents. It is obtained from balsam trees, specifically ones that are indigenous to regions of Arabia and the Horn of Africa. In ancient times, it held a great value because of the localization of the economy.

Today, though, frankincense does not seem to be that big of a deal. At this moment, I can order a pound of frankincense from Amazon.com for under twenty dollars! It does not have the intrinsic worth that gold has. One reason is this: as long as you can grow a Boswellia tree, you can make more. It’s like maple syrup: there is a specific source and varied conditions can cause a shortage, but if you can grow the tree and learn how to tap it, you can have more next year.

Why, then, is frankincense valuable? We can see that it is: if you look at Exodus, frankincense is part of the holy incense prescribed in the Torah. It can also be found in Song of Solomon as a part of social and intimate life. It was part of the sacrificial system in Leviticus. Even non-canonical books mention frankincense. 3 Maccabees mentions that elephants were given frankincense and wine to drive them mad! The stuff shows up in various places.

The main use, though, is not to drug elephants. That story is actually not very reliable anyway, but it is entertaining. The primary use of frankincense is in religious observances. It is, as mentioned, part of sacrifices, anointing, and Song of Solomon puts frankincense into the marriage celebration. Why is a tree product that valuable?

As I said above, it was difficult to obtain in a non-globalized economy. It requires effort to obtain. One can pay enough for it, but one could also find a way to grow it and prepare it yourself. God is gracious like this: wealth is not the key to worship. Effort is. Action that reveals the heart of the worshipper is more important than how big of a check was written. It was valuable because God commanded it.

And frankincense represents that. It was a necessary part of worship: it was used to anoint the High Priest and used in the most important sacrifices. It was a part of the smoke of the fire on the altar that went up before God constantly. Its presence signified the presence of God.

The Magi bring it to Jesus. Whether they fully understand how He is the High Priest for all time is a question that I cannot answer. I know that they could have read of His coming from one of their predecessors, known to them as Belteshazzar. He was a wise man of Babylon who went on to be a wise man of the Persian Empire, and it is from Persia that the Magi have come. Belteshazzar has mentioned the coming of a glorious one, and based on his experiences with telling dreams, reading miraculous handwriting, and surviving lions’ dens, his voice would likely be remembered.

Daniel (that was Belteshazzar’s other name. You might remember that one better, it was the one his mother gave him!) had spoken of the coming Anointed One in his writings[1] and the Magi are standing before that One. They present Him with a gift that does not acknowledge His kingship, but rather His Priesthood. As High Priest, He represents God to the people, and the people to God. He is the embodiment of religious truth and greatness.

Let us take time this week to examine Jesus as the Great High Priest.

Scripture Passage for the Day: Hebrews 8:1-2 (NASB95)

“Now the main point of what we are saying is this:

We do have such a high priest,

who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,

and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord,

not by a mere human being.”

Hymn for the Day: Come Thou Long Expected Jesus #176

Prayer: Almighty God, I have often sought to bring to you what I consider valuable. Yet Your priorities are different than mine, and I must learn to worship You as You command. I ask for help: Jesus came not only as my King, but as the only priest that I need. Help me to come to You through Him. Through His work and His word. I have learned to say I pray in His name, but help me learn what it is to pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.


[1] Daniel 9:24-25; Messiah means “Anointed One”

Sermon Recap for September 20

Good evening! We had some major technical difficulties this week, so we don’t have the music part of the service, and you get the video from...