For My Queen on Her Birthday

Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear: Forget your people and your father’s house; then the King will desire your beauty. Because He is your Lord, bow down to Him (Ps 45:10-11).

Psalm 45 was a song written for the king’s wedding.  Israel’s handsome, valiant and humble king was joined to a radiant woman who “is all glorious within” (v13).  In vv10-11, the the bride’s father gave her away to her new husband.  He didn’t mean for her to forget her family as if the never existed.  He meant the King-Groom was crazy about her.  Any thought of homesickness would pale in comparison to how much he desired her.  She need not fear if she’ll be taken good care of or provided for.  Her new husband desired her and what was best for her.

Hebrews 1.8-9 quoted Psalm 45.6.  The psalm finds its ultimate glory displayed ultimately in Jesus Christ and his union with his bride, the church.  Jesus is the fair King with grace-drenched lips (v2).  Jesus is the Mighty One who is splendorous and majestic (v3).  Jesus earns his victory with meekness and righteousness (v4).  Jesus is God enthroned (v6) and praised forever (v17).  He loves his Bride, who leaves the world in which she was born to live forever in the loving care of Israel’s King.

There’s no more fitting text to honor my wife, my Queen, on her birthday.  She is indeed “all glorious within” and Jesus is her King.

When Idelette died in 1549, John Calvin wrote of his wife:  “During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.  From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.  She was never troublesome to me throughout the entire course of her illness; she was more anxious about her children than about herself.”  I am no Calvin, but I’m as proud to say the same of and to my wife.  I can know Jesus loves me because she loves me.

She is my Queen.  Jesus is her King.  And I am a pauper who feasts on the crumbs at the King’s wedding reception.

I love you, my Queen.  Happy Birthday.

Death by Analytics (Why Stats Choke the Life Out of Your Church)

“but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal 6.13).

Baseball has its BABIP (batting average on balls in play).  Basketball has its PER (player efficiency rating).  Football has its AYPA (adjusted yards per attempt).

“Analytics” has taken professional sports by storm.  Calculus before coaching.  Algorithms over experience.  Xs-and-Os on a clipboard only arrange 3-D mathematics.  Losses once explained by how a fickle ball bounces are really the result of complex and predictable equations.  Successful coaches must play the averages, not the man.  Don’t take any chances.  Do the math.  Or else.

Players once valued for their leadership, guts, character and instinct (i.e. the “intangibles”) are now merely the sum of their stats. We mathematize a player’s every move and dehumanize the player himself!  Life-like video games and video replay are removing the need for real men to play and referee the real sport.  We need only the collision of statistics to know the thrill of victory.  We aren’t competitors, but producers.

Of what relevance could hockey’s Pythagorean Won-Loss Formula have on the church?

The church also suffers from its own dehumanizing advanced analytics.  We evaluate churches based on their BBB (buildings, budgets and baptisms). How many square feet do you have or did you build last year?  How much is your budget?  How many did you baptize?  Increase equals faithfulness. Decrease or stagnancy equals decline.

If trending downward, we expect the pastors do less exegesis and more analysis to ensure we produce more.  Pastors feel compelled to pad their résumés with attractive statistics. Rarely can pastors appeal as Paul did when the Corinthians demanded his stats: “you are our letter” (2 Cor 3.1-3). Instead, they must show a track record of increasing attendance, giving and building to keep or find a job.

The Gospels show us the nature of Christ’s kingdom.  His kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18.36) and therefore not measured by the finest MIT has to offer.  Crowds and worldly acclaim didn’t impress the Gospel writers.  They were impressed by occasions when Jesus confronted, healed, changed, loved persons.  A Samaritan woman.  A man born blind.  A father pleading for his sick son.  A short tax collector.  In fact, the “crowds” don’t typically fare well in the Gospels.  People with names and faces do.

Paul confronted the Galatian Judaizers who sought to seduce Gentile converts into a Torah-dependent life.  In a scathing rebuke Paul said, despite their pious rhetoric, they only wanted notches on their Mosaic belts (Gal 6.13).  They demanded circumcision so they could boast in the flesh.

Would Paul say the same to us about our baptisms?  Do our stats tend to tempt us to vain-glory?  Do we care more about who we baptize than how many?  Do we boast in baptizing 500 last year but ignore the 200 professing Christians who stopped coming altogether. Using Jesus’s otherwordly metrics, does it matter how many we baptize if we pay little attention to their perseverance in Christian faith?

How many did your church baptize last year?  Do you know their names?  Are they still faithfully pursuing Christ?  Do you know who is discipling them?  Better to baptize one whose name we know and progress we see than 100 whose names we forgot and progress we ignore.

Did we boast in our acreage or square footage last year?  Do we pride ourselves on having land/buildings we’ve never really needed and will probably never really use? A better indication of your church’s health could be how much land it sold or gave away.  Did your church do with less so that others in the kingdom could have more?  Perhaps not building for the glory of God is better than building for it.

We don’t enjoy sports because we love math.  We enjoy sports because of the inherent humanity in them.  Analytics rob us of that humanity and make competition about equations rather than people.  They choke the life out of the living.

Such is infinitely more true of Christ’s kingdom.  His church plays by different rules and rejoices in what cannot be measured.  When you have a crucified Savior, formulas never measure faithfulness.  We rejoice in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22) rather than the numerical outcome of strategies. We rejoice in particular names and faces more than numbers and trends. We don’t care as much about counting noses as looking into eyes. Not how many in the seats but who has Jesus saved.

When you gather with your church next Sunday don’t count the crowd and boast in (or bemoan) the math.  Look in the eyes of those sitting next to you and give them Christ’s peace.  Jesus calls us by name, not by our number (Jn 10.3).  We couldn’t ask for a better Coach.

Jesus Makes Nothing out of Something (and That Means Everything)

Paul wrote Galatians to confront and combat the attempted Judaization of the church.  Such was arguably the backdrop behind many of the New Testament letters. Intoxicated by the air of religious supremacy, Jews sought to enslave (Paul’s word for it) Gentiles under the burdensome yoke of Torah (cf. 4.7, 25; 5.1). Anyone wanting to be part of Yahweh’s people (i.e. Abraham’s people) had to come under the authority of Torah.  And the front door to the kingdom was circumcision (Gal 5.2-6).

But Christ had lived, died and lived again.  He was cut off in the flesh so that entrance into the new covenant would be faith, not a scalpel (cf. Col 2.11-12).  There was no going back to time when that hadn’t happened.  Therefore, the gospel of Christ revolutionized the nature of God’s covenant people.

While high-minded Jews insisted the mainstay of God’s salvation was Torah, Jesus’s (Jewish!) apostles taught otherwise.  All who were “baptized into Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “belong to Christ” were “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” and therefore Abraham’s children (Gal 3.26-29).  There was no need for Gentiles to become Jews because Jesus was the New, True Israel and they were “in him.”  You were either in him by faith or otherwise eternally excluded from God’s salvation (i.e. Abraham’s promise and inheritance).  Gentile Christians were as much a part of Abraham as any Jew thought himself to be, and in some cases even moreso (Rom 9.6).

Gentile Christians met all the demands of Torah because Jesus is the end/goal (Rom 10.4) and fulfiller (Mt 5.17) of the Torah.  There was no need for any Gentile (or Jew, for that matter) to be “in Moses” because even Moses was now “in Christ” (cf. Mt 17.1-5).  Need Paul remind them that Abraham never observed Torah either (Gal 3.16-18)!  The Jewish Messiah had to come just as far to save the Jew as the did the Gentile.

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.4-6).

Paul could even say to the Galatians:  “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4.12).  Paul, a Jew of Jews (Phil 3.4-6), had become a functional Gentile:  a sinner brought into God’s covenant by grace through faith in Christ (Rom 11.1-6).  And now he pleaded with Galatian Christians tempted to become functional Jews to consider themselves Gentile sinners again.  In perhaps history’s greatest irony, they’d traded redemptive places!

Because of the gospel the arrogant oneupsmanship had to stop.  Anyone assuming themselves superior to others, no matter their heritage, was antithetical to God’s purposes in salvation.  No one was to seek vain-glory (Gal 5.26).  Even those restoring a weakened, sin-whipped brother should be aware of pridefully assuming they were above his sin (Gal 6.1-3).  They weren’t, and to assume they were was as much sin as anything the restored brother committed.

Such was the warning in Gal 6.4-5.  You may consider yourself “something” (i.e. superior to another) but God makes no such comparison.  He doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re accountable for your own sin on its own demerits.  You are not “something” but “nothing” when measured against the perfections and demands of the God who made you.

Calvin thusly commented on Gal 6.5:

“To destroy sloth and pride, he brings before us the judgment of God, in which every individual for himself, and without a comparison with others, will give an account of his life. It is thus that we are deceived; for, if a man who has but one eye is placed among the blind, he considers his vision to be perfect; and a tawny person among negroes thinks himself white. The apostle affirms that the false conclusions to which we are thus conducted will find no place in the judgment of God; because there every one will bear his own burden, and none will stand acquitted by others from their own sins.”

Was Calvin a racist?  Of course not.  He simply stated the obvious.  We will take any advantage to vault ourselves above others given the context. We will find a way to convince ourselves and others we are better than those around us.  In fact, we might go out of our way to find those contexts to feed our lustful ego.

(As an aside, we should remember black/white racism and related civil rights issues are nothing new.  We’re not the first to tackle these issues or morally superior to previous generations because they didn’t have hashtags.  Here is Calvin in the 16th century addressing a contemporary issue that was as much a problem in the church then as now. And the answer then is the same as now: the one and only gospel Paul commended to the Galatians.)

Perhaps Calvin recalled the famous quote by Desidirius Erasmus (43 years Calvin’s senior): “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” If there is vain-glory in being white then even the tan-skinned will consider himself white among the company of his darker-skinned brothers.  The opposite would also be true.  If there is benefit to being black then the tan-skinned will consider himself black in a room full of white folk.

In a room of adulterers, the faithful husband deceives himself to think he is superior (i.e. less guilty) in God’s eyes.  In a room full of thieves, the hard-working union man assumes himself more honest in God’s eyes.  In a room full of sinners, the Sunday School teacher assumes herself less sinful in God’s eyes.  In a room full of convicts, the innocent man assumes himself more innocent in God’s eyes.  In a room full of Arminians the Calvinist assume himself holier. In the end, everyone in the room is “nothing” (Gal 6.3) and those who are Christ’s realize that.  And the gospel is having its way among us when all the nothings in the room love the other nothings as though they’re everything (Gal 5.6, 13).

Christian maturity is the process of becoming lower.  We are growing in gospel grace when our noses turn downward, our hearts reach upward and hands reach outward.  You are no different than I and I no different than you.  We’re not equally impressive, mind you, but equally condemned and cursed by sin.  If you’re a Christian, Christ became as much a curse for you as he did me (Gal 3.13).  He has freed us both from the tyranny of vain-glory (Gal 5.1).  Therefore, let’s lock arms, bend knees and rejoice we need never be like the other but that Jesus became like us.  And we’re together because we’re forever “in Him.”

I Am Mephibosheth (Christ’s Glory in Fostering & Adoption)

“So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table as one of the king’s sons. . . . Now he was lame in both feet.” (2 Sam 9.11b, 13c)

“While we were children, [we] were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons. 
So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Gal 4.3-4a, 5b, 7)

We woke up one April morning in 2008 with one child.  We would go to sleep that same night with three.  As foster parents, God schooled us about children, the State, welfare and depravity.  He still schools us in the gospel.  We’re all grandsons of Saul, lame in both feet, and dependent on the King’s mercy.I am glad to reprise some thoughts we had at the time and hope to encourage anyone considering foster/adoption.1. A real world of darkness and depravity is not nearly as far away as you think.  It’s not out there.  It’s right there.  Hell is real and gleefully torments the least of those among us and next door to us.  My middle-class, white, suburbanism could neither isolate nor inoculate us.  Nor should it.

2. During our process we heard from Christians a strange misunderstanding and misrepresentation of God’s sovereignty. Many said, “I couldn’t foster children because you put so much into them only to have them leave one day.  I couldn’t take that pain.”  Or, “What if the birth parents come and take their children back?” (obviously, there are careful legalities to prevent this).  How should we answer?

One, if a foster child returns home it will and should be painful.  That’s the price of love. We trust God will meet us with strengthening grace then. We believe God will help understand more of his own love and become more like Jesus through it.

Two, why not have the same perspective with biological children (or anything else for that matter)? Does God owe your “biokids” another day simply because they’re genetically yours? As certainly as God may send our foster children back home tomorrow, can he not call your biological child home all the same? We must hold all God’s gifts loosely. Thankfully and joyfully, but loosely.

Three, God did not temper his commitment to us by the amount of pain that commitment might cause. If we only did those things that carried little-to-no risk of pain we’ll never know the abundant life of Christ (Phil 3.10).

3. The State is God’s gift for restraining evil and rewarding good (Rom 13.1-7). But it is not a parent. God intends the State wield the sword, not a rattle. More Christians need to be involved in fostering and adoption. I say that as a recovering pious snot who who not so long ago thumbed his nose at “those people who need to get a J-O-B.”  It’s just not that simple.

Christians exhaust themselves complaining about the welfare system. Its the government’s fault kids are wasted and schools are dangerous. That may be true in part but our inaction has demonstrated faithlessness in the gospel to remedy social ills. We’ve buried our heads in the sand, refusing to put God on display to the world. Fostering and adoption provide a tremendous opportunity to prove that the gospel-centered worldview can and will do far more than “the system.”

In fact, the system is largely set up to perpetuate itself.  More federal dollars for more impoverished people mean keeping people impoverished to get more federal dollars. Children become the commodity that drives the market.

This is not a political issue, but a spiritual one. You want to see public schools change in fifteen years? You want to see children who know more about God’s glory in creation than man’s glory in XBox? Don’t look to a secular government for help. By faith, foster and/or adopt. Multiply that perspective throughout the church and our communities look much different in a decade.

Is our faith in the government or the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Do we believe King Jesus to be a far better caregiver than Caesar?

Not all Christians should foster and/or adopt children, but more should than do. Let’s not couch this in terms of “calling.” We often justify disobedience to Scripture by claiming we’re not “called” to this or that (see Jas 1.27). There is one “Calling” and that’s to Christ (Eph 4.4). All efforts thereafter are outworkings of faith in that Calling.

Is fostering/adoption something you’d like to do? Do you have opportunity? Refuse to look on paper and calculate all the possible outcomes to all the “what ifs.” Don’t overthink it or you’ll never do it. Step out on faith, start the process and see if God prospers it. Be willing to put God on display for all your world to see. What better picture of the gospel could we paint for our communities than reaching into darkness to rescue helpless children from condemnation?

Know, though, it will be hard.  Very hard, with many dim, heart-wrenching days.

4.   Poverty is not necessarily sin and I am not a better parent because I could provide a few more toys.  I regularly and foolishly thought, “Clearly our home is better.  These kids shouldn’t go home to a one-bedroom apartment to live on food stamps.  Obviously, we’re better because we’re wealthier.”  May God have mercy.  We weren’t doing the world a favor.

Better that children have less and be loved more.  May God protect our children from becoming as snotty as I was.  Poverty doesn’t make anyone a bad parent. In fact, I wonder if affluence might do more to hinder good parenting than poverty.       

5. Fostering/adopting have helped us understand the gospel better. We have a small, but real, taste of God’s compassion for us. Staring into the eyes of abused children is to stare into a mirror. Children stuck in hellish situations is a part of a world where all of us are born slaves to sin. As bad as an abusive home is in this life it’s nothing compared to hell’s eternal abuse. To pity wards of the State is to understand God’s pity for me, otherwise a ward of Satan.

Fostering/adoption is making a child in fact what he/she is not by nature. God makes us in fact what we are not by nature: his children with all the rights and privileges of heaven. We are lame children who sit at the King’s table and feast on his finest menu. We don’t call him “Mr. God” but “Abba, Father” like Jesus (Rom 8.15; Gal 4.6). Therefore, to foster/adopt is to write a living tracts, a living parable, of God’s love for the least.

We also understand a little better that for there to be redemption, God must tolerate (in fact, sovereignly allow) abuse. Our joy in fostering has come at a huge expense.  A family had to dissolve and children had to suffer abuse. Likewise, God’s joy came at the universe’s ultimate expense: the death of his One and Only Son (see Acts 2.23; 4.28). It’s a hard truth to stomach but God must let sin takes its course so that grace can be grace.

While I’m thankful for two new children in whom we’ve invested for seven years now, I’m more thankful for children through whom God has invested in me. They’ve helped me understand that I was born on the other side of the tracks, too.

I am Mephibosheth.

Moonlight Graham & Christ’s Field of Dreams

Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham was a baseball player.  He was also a doctor.  He was immortalized in the classic American baseball film Field of Dreams.  And he can illustrate the glorious mystery of Christ’s incarnation.

Moonlight Graham spent seven seasons in the minor leagues, even having a cup of coffee with the Memphis Egyptians in 1906.  His claim to fame, however, was not what he did in the minor leagues.  It’s what he didn’t do in the major leagues.  After being called up to the New York Giants on May 23, 1905, Graham sat the bench until June 29 when he assumed right field in the bottom of the eighth inning.  He was on deck in the top of the ninth inning preparing for his first major league at-bat.  Claude Elliot flied out, however, ending the game.  Moonlight finished the game in right field but never played another major league game.  He was sent back to the minor leagues having never batted in the big leagues.

He earned his medical degree in 1905.  After hanging up his spikes in 1908 he doctored Chisolm, Minnesota for the next fifty years.

That much is true.

In the fictional movie, a much-older “Doc” Graham was afforded the opportunity to realize his dream on Ray Kinsella’s magical Field of Dreams.  Old and some long-dead players were transformed into their younger selves to play baseball.  “Archie” (the younger version of Moonlight Graham) hit an RBI sacrifice fly against White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte.  It was enough to make grown men cry.

Here is where an illustration of Christ’s incarnation comes in.  Graham was suited up for another game when Ray Kinsella’s (played by Kevin Costner) daughter fell from the bleachers.  She wasn’t breathing.  As panic set in, Kinsella’s eyes met Graham’s who was in left field with the other players.  There was no time to wait on a doctor and Archie Graham knew it.  What he knew, however, that Kinsella didn’t was that if he crossed the baseline to help the girl he would never be able to return to the field.  His baseball career would be cut short again.

In a pregnant moment, Archie Graham stepped off the field and immediately became old “Doc” Graham again.  He saved the girl and went home to his wife who he joked might think he had a girlfriend.

Such is the pregnant moment of Christ’s incarnation.

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.5-11).

Jesus did not become man for thirty-three years and then return to his pre-incarnate eternal form (whatever that was).  He became man and stayed man–the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 8.29).  He exists now as he always will: as the God-Man.  Our older brother, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.  Christus Incarnatus.

When the eternal Christ crossed the threshold between heaven and earth he knew he was never going back to the way things were.  He was baptized in our Jordan, immersed in our sin, tempted by the prince of our world, crucified by our hands, buried in our tomb and risen on our soil.  To save God’s children he had to become like us, live like us, die like us (Heb 2.14-18).  He humbled himself, laying aside his rightful privileges to breathe life into those who choked on sin and death.  The only scars in heaven will be his.

No wonder the apostles loved the word “mystery.”  Only God could condense Christ’s pre-world, pre-time glory into human form (Jn 17.5).  The eternal second Person of the Trinity, fullness of deity in bodily form (Col 2.9), exact representation of God himself (Heb 1.3) forever compacted in a Man.  A Man like us.  A Man for us.

The fullness of glory wrapped in the fullness of humility.  This is our God.  This is our Christ.  At the right time, indeed the fullness of time (Gal 4.4), he sacrificed so that we could come home.

Praying Like Jesus (Not Just More or Better)

Eugene Peterson writes in Tell it Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers:

Prayer can be learned only in the vocabulary and grammar of personal relationship: Father!  Friend!  It can never be a matter of getting the right words in the right order.  It can never be a matter of good behavior or proper disposition or skillful manipulation.  It can never be a matter of acquiring some information about God or getting in touch with myself.  It is a relationship, exclusively and unendingly personal.  And so it is imperative that we watch our language, for the personal is constantly and increasingly in danger of suppression by the arrogant and blasphemous claims of technology, the apotheosis of the impersonal (pp51-52).

The pressure to pray more and pray better weighs heavy on the Christian soul.  We all want to pray more and pray better.  By that we mean praying more words and better words.  Peterson, however, suggests it’s precisely when we try to pray more and pray better that we actually hinder praying at all.  We fear getting prayer wrong or boast in getting it right that we aren’t even praying at all, even (or especially) when pious words flow from our mouth in Shakespearean rhythms.  Either we pray or we don’t.  And what I often consider prayer isn’t.

We’ve assumed certain rules in prayer that do more to hinder prayer than help it.  Rather than “lift up our soul” (Ps 25.1) we lift up our words.  So the church’s opening prayer will sound much like last week’s, and last decade’s.  Of course, the offertory prayer must ask God to “bless the gift and the giver.”  The pre-meal prayer must include “nourishment of our bodies” as surely as prayers for the sick must address “the Great Physician.”

We assume prayer is “a matter of getting the right words in the right order.”  It’s all so rote.  So rehearsed.  So impersonal.  So prayerless.  The harder we try to make prayer sound “prayerful” the less prayerful we become.

Or, we attach prayer to our behavior or disposition.  We can only pray when we feel really holy or have spiritual capital built up against which to draw.  We pray as if God were some cosmic banker that charges overdrafts on our heavenly account so we’d better have enough clout to collateralize our requests.

Or, we use prayer as “skillful manipulation.”  Jesus would call this hypocrisy and I’ve done my fair share of it.  My heart feels one way (and necessarily cries out accordingly), but I say words that betray my heart.  Like a child trying to say just the right thing to manipulate her father, I try to pull one over on God by saying words he wants to hear while he is seeing the words my heart is screaming.  We can do that with other people but we never fool God.  Yet, our God patiently listens while I lie to him because Jesus suffered the punishment due liars.

Jesus warned us against convoluted and pretentious prayer (Mt 6.5-15).  Despite my bloated opinion of myself, God knows such is not prayer.  It’s “meaningless repetition” and “many words” that do nothing but perform before men.

Christ’s followers pray simply, honestly, genuinely and openly both alone and together.  We don’t pray as though God or men are grading our prayers.  We pray because God is a Friendly Father, a Fatherly Friend, who knows our heart.  And he’s not offended by it because Jesus assumed all the offense.

Prayer is not about our character but about God’s.  Not about our ability or fitness but about God’s mercy.  He knows what our heart cries so we do well to let those cries loose through our mouths.  Jesus has liberated us to pray with the lid off.  God knows, hears and is quite able to handle what he already knows about us.

This year, let’s not resolve to pray more or better.  Let’s resolve to pray.  Jesus didn’t teach us a class on prayer.  He prayed . . . and forgave.

So get around those who lose the rules and rhetoric.  Pray with those who resist pretense and protocol.  Pray with those who know Jesus as a faithful–and personal–High Priest.  Pray with those who know the Father, not merely impressive words about him.  Who habitually commune with him.  Pray with those who don’t merely repeat the word of God, but reflect the word of God by forgiving.

Let’s not pray as God’s customer, performer or employee but as his child.  His beloved child.  Like Jesus.

 

Christmas: The End of a Family Feud

For many families Christmas is as much about family feuds as it is family feasts.  But there is no greater family feud than that on display at the first Christmas.

As God entered our world through the ghetto, Satan stirred in the palace.  Herod the Great heard that someone Greater had been born (Mt 2.2).  And in Bethlehem no less, which only added to the Messianic lore (Mt 2.5).

There had been pretenders before.  For some 40 years, the ruthless Herod wasted no time “neutralizing” them be they kith or kin.  Messiah or not, this kid in Bethlehem would be no different.  Herod plotted to handle this threat himself but Plan A failed (Mt 2.7-12).  So he sent out his henchman to deal with yet another Messianic upstart.  Killing all toddling boys in Greater Bethlehem should do it.  Another rival up, another rival down.

Little did Herod know God had already outmaneuvered him the night before.  The Greater One slept peacefully in Egypt (Mt 2.13-15).

There was more to this power play than often meets the eye.  Herod the Great was a bit player in an age-old drama.  You see, Herod was an Idumean, or Edomite.  Edom was the land of Esau (cf. Gen 36.9).  Herod was a son of Esau.

Jesus was a Bethlehemite, from the land of Judah (cf. Micah 5.2).  Jesus was a son of Jacob.

The “slaughter of the innocents” was yet another iteration of the feud between Jacob and Esau.  The chosen younger son versus the rejected older son. The one whom God loved versus the one he hated (cf. Mal 1.1.-5; Rom 9.10-13).  Esau could never kill his brother Jacob, but not for lack of trying (cf. Gen 27.41).  Rebekah helped Jacob escape by night then (Gen 27.43-45) and God helped him again now.

But Esau would neither rest nor care about the collateral damage.  No wonder Rachel wept (Mt 2.18).  Her enraged brother-in-law was at it again and her children in Bethlehem suffered for it.  Still Jacob lived and would inherit what was rightfully his–the Father’s eternal inheritance.

The feud between Jacob and Esau was nothing new, either.  In fact, it was part the age-old family feud stretching back generations: Isaac vs. Ishmael, Abraham vs. Haran (via Lot), Shem vs. Ham and Abel vs. Cain.  It would manifest itself time after time thereafter: Joseph vs. his older brothers, David vs. his better brothers, Amnon vs. Absalom.  And so on and so on and so on.

It was always the unlikely younger son that triumphed over the older, rejected son. God always raised up a Seth: “another offspring” to carry on the younger son’s favor and call upon the name of the Lord (Gen 4.25-26).  Ultimately, however, this all stretches back to the very first feud: the seed of the woman vs. the seed of the serpent (Gen 3.15).  Her son would suffer bruises but the serpent’s son would suffer defeat.

Esau took his best and final shot at the cross where he’d finally gotten rid of his brother. Once a sellout, always a sellout.  No more Jacob.  The tyranny of God’s sovereign favoritism was over at last.  The seed of the woman was buried and her children scattered.  Esau would rule with birthright in hand.

Or so he thought.  Esau’s brother was a sacrificial lamb, for sure.  But he was also the Lion from the tribe of Judah (Rev 5.5).  His brothers will praise him because he always wins (Gen 49.8).  The Son has risen and the feud is over.  The Son of the woman has dealt the serpent its fatal blow (Mt 28.18; Eph 2.19-23). There is a New Jerusalem with a New King: Jacob the Great (Gal 4.21-31).  Rachel weeps no more.

Carol of Joy, Eileen Berry

We recently enjoyed the annual Festival of Carols at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis.  During it we sang this beautiful poem by Eileen Berry entitled “Carol of Joy” (2007, Beckenhorst Press) set to music by Dan Forrest. It’s nearly impossible to add anything substantial to, much less improve upon, the church’s traditional coterie of Christmas hymns but this is a worthy addition:

Green leaves all fallen, withered and dry;
Brief sunset fading, dim winter sky;
Lengthening shadows,
Dark closing in…
Then, through the stillness, carols begin!
Oh fallen world, to you is the song!
Death holds you fast and night tarries long.
Jesus is born, your curse to destroy!
Sweet to your ears, a carol of Joy!

Pale moon ascending, solemn and slow;
Cold barren hillside, shrouded in snow;
Deep,empty valley, veiled by the night;
hear angel music–hopeful and bright!
Oh fearful world, to you is the song.
Peace with your God, and pardon for wrong.
Tidings for sinners, burdened and bound,

A carol of joy!
A Savior is found!

Earth wrapped in sorrow, lift up your eyes!
Thrill to the chorus filling the skies.
Look up, sad-hearted.  Witness God’s love;
Join in the carol swelling above!
Oh friendless world, to you is the song!
All Heaven’s joy to you may belong!
You who are lonely, laden, forlorn:

Oh fallen, oh friendless world!
To you, a Saviour is born!

Incense Rising: The Aroma of Israel’s Fertility

“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.  For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'” (Lk 1.13-17)

Zacharias and his priestly squad were in Jerusalem for their bi-annual temple assignment.  His number came up to burn incense on which Israel’s prayers would waft to heaven.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a priest.  In Zacharias’ case, it was also a once-in-an-eternity event for Israel and the whole world.

Time had long past for Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth to have any children (Lk 1.18).  We can only assume they stopped praying for a son years ago after Elizabeth went through menopause. Still Zacharias performed his priestly ministry with all faithfulness and hope in Yahweh (Lk 1.6). So here he was, praying that Israel have a son–The Son–even if he never would.

Zacharias was the latest in a long line of priestly pray-ers.  In fact, Israel had been praying 400 years for Elijah to come (cf. Mal 4.4-6).  One hundred generations of smoke had filled Zion’s temple in hopes that pregnant prayers would bear a pregnant woman.  There had been many hope-to-bes and wanna-bes along the way but they never lived up to the promise.  No matter how hard Israel tried she simply could not produce a Savior.  God would have to do that for them, and in them.  With each passing generation one wonders how much hope passed with it.  But there were still some faithful few and there they stood while Zacharias took their prayers to the smoldering altar.

As Zacharias fanned the aromatic smoke Gabriel showed up unannounced.  Angels always do.

God had smelled the aroma.  God had heard the petition.  Elijah was finally coming.  Israel would have a son.  Israel’s son would be Zacharias’ son, too.  Little did Zacharias know the prayers he offered on behalf of Israel had included those dormant prayers he and Elizabeth had long stopped praying.  Israel would have a son because Elizabeth will bear a son.  And if Elijah was coming then Messiah wasn’t far behind.  Zachariah’s “joy and gladness” would pave the way for Israel’s repentance.

The whole scene explodes with heavenly majesty.  That Gabriel appeared where and to whom he did shows us Elizabeth’s infertility was also a metaphor for Israel’s barrenness. After 400 years of prophetic silence, royal weakness and Messianic absence, Israel was barren and “advanced in years” (vv7, 18).  Yet what remnant there was followed priest after priest year after year, decade after decade, century after century to the altar of incense. Praying.  And praying.  And praying until God heard the petition and opened Israel’s womb.

By opening Elizabeth’s womb God was doing something of Abrahamic proportions (see Lk 1.73; cf. Gen 18.11-14).  Out of barren darkness he would bring life and light (cf 1.67-79). Israel was fertile again.  The world could hope again.  God was recreating history.  Once again, the Aaron the priest (cf. Lk 1.5) and Elijah the prophet (cf. Lk 1.17) would prepare the way for David the King (cf. 1.69).  A new Spirit-born Adam was soon to breathe.

Like those faithful and prayerful Israelites, the New Israel eagerly awaits the return of her King after two millennia of delay.  Nevertheless, “the end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer” (1 Pt 4.7).  The incense still rises (Rev 5.8; 8.3-4), the Priest still intercedes (Heb 7.25) and God still smells the sweet aroma.  Maranatha.

Does God Love {Insert Your Name}?

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn 3.16)

I once read a cartoon Scripture memorization pamphlet to my youngest daughter.  It was a story written to help her memorize John 3.16.  The pamphlet was nicely done and broke the verse down into helpful, digestible parts.

As we worked on the first part of the verse (“For God so loved the world”) the pamphlet suggested inserting her name for “world.”  I absolutely want each of our children to know and relish God’s love for them.  But I’m not so sure replacing “world” with their name in John 3.16 helps to that end.

We should absolutely emphasize God’s love for saving persons like you and me, but inserting our name for “world” distracts us from the glory of John 3:16.  If Jesus (or more likely John) wanted to individualize the verse he certainly could have.  He could very well have said “God so loved you” and does so elsewhere (cf. 1 Jn 4.10, 16) but he didn’t in John 3.16.  John used “world” for a specific reason and not as a synonym for you or me. The direct of object of God’s love in John 3.16 is not any individual person but the “world” in which all individual believers must first consider themselves a part.

For John “world” (cosmos) is not the earth in general or even all earthlings in general.  John considers “world” as the realm of hostility toward God, especially as that hostility is expressed toward Jesus.  The “world” stands for darkness-loving (3.19) Christ-haters (7.7; 15.18f.).  It’s the world Jesus is not from (8.23) and what Satan rules (12.31; 14.30; 16.11).  John’s “world” cannot receive the Holy Spirit (14.17) or provide peace (14.27).  It’s the realm where Christ’s followers are left as life-losing ambassadors (17.5-25) (cf. Jn 1.9f., 29; 3.17; 8.12, 26; 9.5, 39; 10.36; 12.19, 46f.; 13.1; 14.17).

The emphasis of John 3:16 is not on how many or what exact people God loved.  Rather, John stressed the kind of people God loved and the unexpected, remarkable way by which he loved them.  God loved his worst enemies by giving them his highest treasure.

We reserve our finest gifts for our beloved friends, not our worst enemies. God, however, loved the world (i.e. God-haters) by giving his only son to be hated by the very world he loves (Rom 5.8, 10).  And after that world hated Jesus to death God saved out of that world those for whom Jesus died (i.e. “whosoever” believes and obey the Son, Jn 3.36).  The scandal of the gospel according to John 3.16 is not primarily that God loved any given one of us (though he does), but that he gave his eternal treasure to those who’d always hated him as if they’d always loved him.  And if God treats his enemies that way then how he will treat his friends (Rom 5.10)!

I know my daughter because I know me.  Inserting her name will tempt her to think God loves her because she is so lovable.  But that’s hardly John’s point.  He is not stressing the inherent lovability of individual worldlings but the God who would love a realm so hostile toward him enough to give it his most precious Gift.  Inserting her name shifts the attention from the magnitude of God’s great love for great sinners to her perceived, personal “lovability.”  It individualizes what John meant to be categorical.  God loved the “world” (his sinful enemies) and she must first recognize and confess herself a part of that world.  Jesus didn’t come to save the righteous, but sinners (Lk 5.32).  Not the self-professed found, but the lost (Lk 19.10).  To know God’s love for her she must first confess to be part of the “world” that hated and rejected him.

The point is not that God loved [your name] because it’s [your name].  There is no inherent virtue in loving persons who are easy to love (Mt 5.44-48).  Only God is self-sufficient enough to love his enemies.  He loved the “world” and I must first see myself a part of that rebellious world.  Only then does God’s love reach its zenith and I am compelled to believe Jesus for eternal life.  The “whosoever” that believes must first confess to be part of the God-hating world he loved.

Inserting your child’s name in John 3.16 is by no means heretical or eternally dangerous.  I wonder though if it might distract from and weaken its force.  There are certainly other texts where it would be most appropriate.  But as for John 3.16 my daughter and I understand God’s love for us better if we insert our names in the world it rather than for it.