A few weeks ago my family and I stayed overnight with some friends out of town. As soon as we had gone into their home and set our bags down, our hostess brought out some gifts she had gotten for our daughter: a coloring book, some markers, and a stuffed animal. There was no occasion for these gifts; it was not our daughter’s birthday or another holiday. Our hostess had gotten these gifts for our daughter simply because she wanted to. Watching these gifts be given by our hostess and received by our daughter at the very beginning of our visit made a big impression on me, and set the tone for the time we would spend with them.
Many people suppose that when God meets us his first word to us must be something like “Stop it!” or “Do better!” We imagine that God has had it up to here with our messes, and that if we are to stay in his home, if he is to do anything for us, then we must agree and adapt to his terms and conditions. First, we suppose, we must earn God’s favor by our obedience.
But this is not the God I read about in the Bible. In the Bible, I read of a God who creates a good world and gives our lives to us in that world as a gift. I read of a God who rescues a helpless people out of slavery and gives them a place to call home as a gift. I read of a God who shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners he sent his Son to die for us as a gift (Rom. 5:8). God has instructions and commands, he wants to make us holy as he is holy, but first—and always first—he gives us a gift.
The gift of gifts that God gives is himself: his Son “who, though he was in the form of God . . . emptied himself . . . taking the form of a servant, [and] being born in the likeness of men . . . humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:6-8), and his Holy Spirit, the Helper, by whom God makes his home in us (John 14:15-24). Yes, we must eventually learn to give ourselves back to God and to give ourselves to others, but our giving will be impossible unless we first receive what God has given.
This week, as we reflect on the birth of Christ, our first duty as believers is to receive the gift of God. That means that before we do and give and serve and act for God and for others we must receive God from God. Until we do this (and learn to do this over and over again) we are doomed to frustration, burnout, and competition in our attempts to obey. We must remember that God’s first word to us was not a commandment or an ultimatum, but was his Word that became flesh, dwelt among us, and died for us (John 1:1-5, 14). Thank God that first, before he had given us his commandments and before we had become holy as he is holy, God gave us the gift of himself. May that gift make a deep and lasting impression on us, and may it set the tone for all that follows in our lives.
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
I ran a marathon last Saturday. I hesitate saying I did because I did so poorly. It didn’t go like I had planned. In fact, by mile 10 I had all but run out of gas, and as I watched the half-marathoners split off from my course, I yearned to follow. But I had much farther to run.
I am a young man. I turned thirty less than a month ago, and, if the Lord wills, there is much life left ahead of me. I know only a little about this race and the sorrows it can bring. I understand so little of it now and so little will I understand before I am old. I have had change thrust upon me and there are changes still to come.
But, I have always had my heroes.
As a boy I had many heroes: the boys basketball team from my hometown’s high school that went to state, the men I read about in Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, my own big brother. Through the years I have kept heroes, though, compared to those of my childhood, they seem pretty prosaic today: old men and old women who have stayed faithful to God and who have stayed faithful to one another; old men and old women who, in their old age, have not grown gray in their zeal for God or become wearied in working for the Church.
These are my heroes.
And, from this young man, on behalf of young men and women in the Church, I want to urge the old: Press on. Do not stop or change courses so close to the end of your race; stay faithful to God, stay faithful to the men and the women at your sides, and finish your race. There are others still behind you, looking to you for the strength to keep going.
Today, I am around mile 10 of my race. There are many miles left for me to plod and I know that I know less of this course than many of those running around me. And, as I look up ahead to those so close to the finish line, I see many still running, some struggling even to walk, some stopping, and some dropping out. I speak for a young Church when I say to the old—risking sounding audacious and impetuous in my youth—“Finish.”
Lord, give me this grace, and give all this grace: to run with endurance, to run well, and to finish. And when I grow old, may others look ahead to me, and watch as I lift my arms in celebration, having made it to the home stretch.
“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Advent is the season we celebrate light, the coming of God’s light to us in the person of Jesus. “I am the light of the world,” he said. “Whoever follows me will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The birth of Jesus was the first advent; his second coming will be the next. We live now between these two comings of Christ and are called to be “the light of the world” in the meantime (Matt. 5:14). “Now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8).
If our churches today talk about “light to the nations” we very often talk about overseas missions. From the perspective of the pews in which we sit, “the nations” are on the other side of the globe. Clearly, the impulse toward foreign missions is correct: the church needs to be in the business of bringing Christ’s light to those still in darkness, the world over.
But, from the pew from which Isaiah, John, or Paul wrote the Bible, “the nations” is us. From a Palestinian perspective, Beebe, Arkansas 2018 is “the nations” and these writers would have rejoiced to know that the light of Christ had traveled so far. Thus, light to the nations doesn’t only mean from here to there, from the U.S. to Timbuktu, but also from there to here, from the Jews to the Gentiles, from Jerusalem to our living rooms.
I am not trying to say that the church has arrived in some complete sense and that we can bring all of our missionaries home—far from it! The church must always go. But her going must be to those far and near, to those both there and here. God’s light must shine wherever there is darkness, and, looking up from where I write this note, I see that there are shadows in our neighborhoods, schools, and homes that Christ’s light has still yet to touch.
I have heard it said that Christians are the only Bible many people in the world will ever read. I’d like to add that Christ’s coming in us may be the only advent many people in the world will ever know. Christ has come, yes, but his light still has some distance to go. There is darkness in our world, in our communities, right in front of our faces; we have friends, neighbors, and co-workers who do not know Christ, and we are called to be his light. It is not enough for God’s light to have come there, to Bethlehem so many years ago; God’s light must also come here, wherever there is darkness. May Christ come, and may his light come through you and through me.
December is the month of gift-giving. Many of us will wear ourselves out trying to think of perfect gifts for friends and family. Some of us will nearly empty our checking accounts in order to purchase things for others. A few of us may even strike out with some of the things we give that we thought were good ideas only to realize too late they were not.
1 Corinthians 13 is the Bible’s great chapter on love, and the first three verses of that chapter always knock the wind out of me. The claims in these verses are some of the boldest in all of scripture. There, Paul writes, “If I give away all I have . . . but have not love, I gain nothing.”
I do not think that Paul had the month of December in mind when he wrote these words, but I do find this verse to be appropriate reading for this time of the year—a time of year when we give a lot of things. Perhaps, as we begin this month of gift-giving, this verse merits our reflection.
The perfect, most expensive, or ingenious gifts you give to others this season won’t mean much without love. We know this, I know, but it is worth remembering. Please don’t take this bulletin article as warrant to skip the gifts this year (I’ll have all the kids in the church mad at me if you do), but we must remember that our children, our spouses, our friends, and our families do not need more stuff: they need love. They need our attention, our energy, our smile, our time, and our words.
I hope you are able to give gifts this season and to know the joy of giving a good gift. I hope your gifts are thoughtful and meaningful and meet the needs of the ones to whom you give, and that you don’t strike out. But more than all this, I hope that whatever you give, you give love.
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another).”
Miss Maudie, To Kill a Mockingbird
Imagine you are out and about and someone sees you carrying a Bible and asks, “Is that a good book?” We, as good Christian people, would answer an emphatic “Yes!” without even having to stop to think it through. The Bible is a good book because the story within it is good, it was given to humans for good purposes, and because its Author is very good. The Bible is good. Who would dare to call it otherwise?
Once when I was in Ghana I had the privilege to go to Cape Coast and Elmina castles. These are old stone forts built on the sea by European powers in the heyday of Colonialism. They are now known notoriously as “slave castles”. On a tour of the grounds we descended into the dungeon where slaves were kept: dark and small stone rooms with low ceilings, damp odors, and floors mercifully sloped for the sake of draining excrement. We walked through the “Door of No Return” which opens out onto a rocky beach where boats docked to acquire their purchase and set sail for a New World.
When we had ascended from those chambers and our eyes had readjusted to the midday sun, we saw in the center of the grounds a Christian church sitting directly on top of the dungeon we had just left. The irony was not lost on our group. To this day I wonder what the men and women of those dungeons knew of the Europeans’ God. I wonder if they ever heard through their stone ceiling the faint tunes of a strange worship taking place on a Sunday morning. And I wonder if we could ask them if the Bible is a good book what they would say.
The Bible has been used to support injustice, to justify sin, to increase hatred for the infidel, and to decrease concern for this life out of concern for the next. Not only has the Bible been used for evil, but, more frequently, it has not been used at all, and the good it was intended to do has often died in the womb. Sure, these are perversions of something inherently good, but what sin is not?
So, is the Bible good? The answer I have given to this question since I was a child is still my answer. But today my answer contains more nuance: I contest that the Bible is not a good book—or not fully good, at least—until it has done good. If, after years of handling the Bible, your heart is not filled with good, and if the lives of the people around you have not been filled with good through you, then perhaps in your particular case the Bible is not a good book.
“Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep.”
It often takes great faith to say at the end of a job, “That’s enough.” Sure, there are jobs that we are ready to quit before we start, and others that weary us to a breaking point—these may not require great faith. But there are some jobs that we simply do not have enough hours in our lifetimes to finish. These are jobs like learning to use a day well, rearing children, and growing in holiness. We can reach a level of excellence in these duties but we can never perfect them. There comes a point when we simply have to abandon them to God.
The spirit of our age tells us that we can control outcomes. All we must do is wake up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, work through our lunch breaks, and read one more book on time management. But every time I set one task upon my workbench to master, I knock another two to the floor. My frail hands can only hold so much for so long.
What I believe is called for is faithful living. By this I mean living a life full of faith. But faith in what exactly? Faith in a God who is able to take our work and make it enough.
This means two things. It means our first duty is to work, “to act, that each to-morrow find us farther than to-day,” as Longfellow put it. We must work because God must have something of ours to work with. But it also means that we must rest, because our work alone will never be enough. Only in the hands of an infinite God could it ever be.
I recently saw a church marquee that read "Because the tomb is empty, the church should be full." At first glance I get it, and I appreciate the clever play on words. I also can sympathize with the Marquee Changers of the world who struggle to express coherent and quality thoughts in such limited space. (If you thought tweeting was hard, try that!) Although this quip earns points for catchiness, it's nonetheless false.
As I've dug into the resurrection over the last several weeks preparing for my sermon series on this topic, I'm more than ever convinced that "the empty tomb" is not at the heart of our faith. On the one hand, I understand the sentiment being expressed here without being a jerk literalist. But on the other hand, I think that something crucial is missing from an empty tomb.
A closer look at the Gospels reveals just how little the discovery of an empty tomb changes. At best (even with the messengers explaining that Jesus had risen!) the women and the disciples leave there with a little excitement and a lot of bewilderment concerning what these things meant; at worst, they leave in sadness and fear (Mark 16:8; John 20:11). The scenes following depict the disciples struggling to believe this news (Mark 16:14) and hiding behind locked doors (John 20:19). Little is changed.
If the empty tomb changes nothing, then what does? The answer: meeting the resurrected Lord. It's only then in the Gospels that the disciples' lives are transformed. Doubt persists (Matt. 28:17), but without encountering the risen Christ there is no transformation. It makes me wonder: Perhaps the skeptics of the resurrection of the last few centuries are on to something when they mull over the empty tomb and are left with speculation and bewilderment. That just so happens to be what an empty tomb left the earliest disciples with, too.
The issue today is not whether one knows the tomb is empty, but whether one has met the resurrected Lord. The resurrection is not solely about the absence of death found in the empty tomb, but the presence of life. The empty tomb simply leaves space for this living Lord. A similar critique might be leveled at Christians today: Christianity is not about a mere lack of death, but the presence of life to the full.
In sum, then, it's fair to ask where one is most likely to meet this risen Jesus. Many answers might be given, but one will suffice. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that Jesus has a body still present on the earth, and his body continues to live and serve today. That body is the church, and if one seeks an encounter with the living Lord, then being in community with his people is a good place to start.
"We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
God has designed us for community, and there is no community more essential to our lives than our Christian family, the church. God's design for Christians is that our lives would be intimately intertwined into one.
A body needs all its members and all its members need the body. For a body to thrive to its potential, it needs its members. For the members to thrive to their potentials, they need the body. It's a two-way street. Most of us easily buy into how this plays out in one direction, namely, that for the body to be its best, all the members need to be doing their parts. The church can only be all we can be when everyone joins together and does his/her role.
But this works in the other direction too. For the members to be the best they can be, they need the body. We can only be all we can be when we are serving in our rightful roles in the church. God has designed you for community, and therefore, in order for you to find your true identity and purpose in life, in order for you to realize your fullest potential, and in order for you to be the best you possible, you need to be intimately intertwined into a body of believers.
So, what does "intimately intertwined into a body of believers" look like in real life? It looks like being here to hold the communion tray for the mother trying to wrangle kids in the pew with you. It looks like showing up on workdays to do the pedantic tasks of preparation and repair that our facilities need. It looks like giving a call or dropping a note to the elderly man who isn't in his usual spot this morning. It looks like showers, and Bible classes, small groups, and informal get-togethers. It looks like family, and we want you to be part of it.
"But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."
Bumps, bruises, and bangs, scratches, scrapes, and sprains—all our bodies have been battered to varying degrees. We stub our toes, nick our knuckles, bite our tongues, and throw our backs out of place. For all this, our bodies remain incredibly resilient to the damage done them. Our scars are proofs that we've recovered from many hurts along the way.
My hurts are my hurts, and your hurts are yours. If you break an arm I can "feel your pain" in many metaphorical ways, but my arm will remain unbroken. In like manner, your ability to heal from that fracture will be your own. As healthy and unbroken as my arm is, I cannot transfer any of its wellbeing to you.
As fixed of realities as these are, God chose to get around them one time—not in his favor, but in ours. God chose to reverse the pronouns, so that what was ours is his and what was his is ours. Jesus took upon himself the wounds that we deserve and gave to us the blessings he deserved. His scars are proofs of our healing, as the song says,
"Why should I gain from his reward? I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart his wounds have paid my ransom."
Jesus seems to come down pretty hard on his disciples for their lack of faith: "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" I wonder what tone of voice Jesus used when he asked this question. Was he scolding them? Scoffing at them? Encouraging them?
There were numerous occasions in the Gospels when the disciples doubted and when I would have doubted too: "Why did I doubt? I doubted because the storm was out of control and we are in a tiny boat! I doubted because there is no food in this wasteland and we have thousands of people to feed! I doubted because I began to drown! I doubted because they killed John the Baptist! I doubted because your teachings are hard to understand!" I would not have been short on answers to his question. In fact, reflecting on all those terrifying situations, I think my answers are better than Jesus's question. Why would he even ask such a thing?
Yet, the question lingers. And as I think about it some more, I realize that what I really meant to say was, "I doubted because I don't know you yet, Jesus, and I don't trust you." Isn't this the very response of the disciples? "What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?"
Suddenly, the focus shifts from the storm and the fear to the identity of this man with them in the boat. And this is where faith is found: By turning our attention from our hopeless situations and our horrible insufficiencies to the One who is with us in it all.