Christmas

The Optimism of Christmas Carols

The Optimism of Christmas Carols

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

You may have noticed this point, but if not, I’d be glad to make it known this morning. Have you noticed the optimistic nature of Christmas hymns? A few examples will suffice:[1]

The very famous Isaac Watts Joy to the World! which says:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow,
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove,
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

R.J. Rushdoony commented on this hymn when he wrote:

“The Christian religion is a faith of ultimate victory, where the very gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ and His chosen people (Matt. 16:18).”

Another great optimistic hymn is: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which says:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace On Earth, Good Will To Man.

Or the language of Isaiah 11 is made clear in that famous hymn: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, where the final verse boldly rejoices:

For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of Gold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendor fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

“Hark! the Harold Angels Sing”, also joins in with the testimony of carols to the Kingship of Christ:

Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

The tidings of great joy are not good feelings during the Christmas Season; the tidings of great joy are comfort and joy to the world. This is what animated these hymn writers as they echoed the biblical message. And this is what exhorts us to sing loudly and confidently the words of the incarnation. “Give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ is born today…calls you one and calls you all to gain His everlasting hall.”



[1] Mainly taken from Rushdoony’s piece found here: http://bluebannermedia.com/the-postmillennial-character-of-christmas-carols/

The Benefits of Lectionary Preaching

When I arrived at my local congregation in Pensacola we were using the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL is a fine Lectionary and provides a wonderful tour of the Scriptures in a three year cycle. But as time went on I realized that the RCL was fond of omitting controversial texts in its cycles. Through the influence of man like Jeffrey Meyers and Jim Jordan I came to realize that there was an alternative Lectionary, namely, the Lutheran Missouri Synod Lectionary (LCMS) who not only dealt with the difficult passages, but also honored Reformation Sunday. We quickly switched to LCMS a few years ago and haven’t looked back.

N.T. Wright also noticed this trend in his own tradition when he wrote the following:

“Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.”

Anyone who has been sitting under Lectionary preaching is often more aware of the flow of the Biblical text since the sermons/homilies cover more territory in a year (on a typical year I will give my parishioners an overview of at least 10-15 books of the Bible. This has been my experience. On the other hand, Sunday School lessons can cover a more long term expository-based look into the Scriptures. Our former Sunday School teacher, James Jordan, spent over 30 Sundays on the “Exodus” themes in the Bible. Naturally, preachers are not bound to the Lectionary Lessons (especially during the Pentecost/Trinity Season). Certain times of the year may demand a more personalized sermons to address particular needs or concerns in the congregation.

As for the Lectionary, when it is not hindered by theological fears, it can serve as a remarkable immersion and re-immersion into the Scriptures every three years. It is incumbent upon pastors as they invest on these texts to provide a clear and fresh perspective on these narratives. Repetition is good. And the constant working through the broadness of the Gospel story can be a fruitful liturgical work.

Pastors too benefit greatly from it. As I navigate through the high church year (Advent-Easter) it is always encouraging to detail and consider these marvelous gospel texts that shape our faith and even our own lives.

Christ is risen!

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Exhortation: And So This is Still Christmas…

Merry Christmas! After all Christmas is with us until January 6th, which is Epiphany. The calendar is moving. Our final candle is lit. Christ has come! But he did not come the way it was expected by men; He came the way the Father ordained. And this is what we will see as we walk through the birth and life of Jesus: that he does not conform to the expectations of men; He does not act as we expect of a coming King. Everything Jesus does is remarkably paradoxical.

But this is the story of Christmas. Christmas is blessed not because it is common, but because its uniqueness provoked this historical tsunami that the world will never get over. Heaven comes to earth in the Eternal Son of God.

While modern culture entangles itself in debates over whether to allow manger scenes in certain public places, the Church says that Jesus is the king of all public places, because He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations know the wonders of His love. Let us prepare then to enter worship and make him room in our hearts and voices on this holy day.

Book Review: Bill Bennett’s “The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas”

There are too many unknown facts, as Bill Bennett rightly asserts. Much of the historical data is purely speculative with the exception of a few references, poems and prayers in honor of Saint Nicholas. The Roman Catholic tradition has largely exorcised ol’ St. Nicholas from the Church, while the Eastern Orthodox tradition continues to celebrate his life every December 6th.

Bennett provides a pleasant read filled with fantastical stories and a delightful context to the Bishop of Myra.

The records at the very least seem to concur with the general perception that the Saint Nicholas that existed in the days of Constantine (yes, he most likely slapped Arius!) was indeed filled with generosity and abounding in love for all sorts of people.

Bennett illustrates that Saint Nicholas, the Bishop, had become commercialized only a few centuries after his death. The entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well in those days. The life of Saint Nicholas was being used by manipulative men to sell and to attract business. This commercialization is no different than the Americanized Santa Claus (invented much later in the 20th century).

At the same time it is important to note that abuses are always prone to happen, and that simply doing away with the figure in order to avoid the tough questions is no way to handle the matter. Rather, there is a legitimate way to use the history of Saint Nicholas, and its subsequent re-adaptation– with all its colors and jolly-ness in the North Pole Santa Claus– to draw us and our children’s attention to those rare gifts and virtues of the Christian faith.

Bill Bennett connects the modern Santa Claus with the faithful Bishop who suffered and lived for the sake of His Lord. The connection provides us with a healthy knowledge of the origins of this delightfully rotund figure loved by many whose history is frequently forgotten. The book offered a portrait of an ancient figure whose life was dedicated to the giving of gifts and to relieving the suffering of many. For this reason alone, Saint Nicholas is to be celebrated and remembered.

Epiphany Re-Gathering

The Epiphany season is a babelic reversal. It does not contain the fullness of the Pentecost reversal, but it is the beginning of this undoing. Babel was meant to be a flood-proof structure and empire. Jesus opens the flood gates, so the Gentiles may enter in.

Christmas Sermon: The Marriage of Heaven and Earth

Sermon: People of God, merry Christmas! On this joyful day Christians celebrate the birth of our Lord. We celebrate the humanity of Christ, and we celebrate our humanity. To be human is not to shelter an insignificant body, but a body that will become incorruptible at the resurrection.[1] In the end of the day, we are Christian humanists. Because of the incarnation, we are truly human. We do not despise our humanity. We recognize that in Christ we are better humanists. Stanley Hauerwas writes:

Christian humanism is not based on the presumption that our humanity is self-justifying. Rather Christians are humanists because God showed up in Mary’s belly. We are not an evolutionary accident. We are not bubbles on the foam that coats a stormy sea. We are God’s chosen people.[2] More

Is Celebrating Christmas UnReformed?

Mark Horne does a superb job in this piece, which is well worth a few minutes:

Super Calvin‘Tis the season to be informed–sometimes in gentleness, often with vigor–by a variety of Christians claiming that it is wrong to celebrate Christmas. I have no desire to force anyone to celebrate Christmas against their will. Indeed, it would be insulting to the high holiday to pretend that it needs enforcement. It offers to Christians an opportunity for praise and thanksgiving for Christ’s incarnation, good music, family fellowship, the giving and receiving of gifts, and a great many other blessings. What more could anyone want? Taste and see that the Lord is good! (This doesn’t necessarily apply to the fruitcake, but you can participate in the thanksgiving without that!) If anyone, for reasons of conscience, wishes to abstain from the festivities, that is his or her right. But I am not willing to let go unanswered the all-too-common assertion that celebrating Christmas at home or in Church is somehow sinful and unreformed. {read the rest}

Are You Going to Church on Christmas?

My good friend, Steve Wilkins, has already written a few insightful thoughts on the subject. It is not hard to find churches all over the country cancelling Christmas Sunday. In many ways this is a theological travesty. The celebration of Christmas on the 25th is a long held tradition going back to the 4th century. The Church elected this day to celebrate the birthday of our Lord. However, many in our day have imbibed of cultural Christmas, wishing to indulge in everything else, but the worship of the Triune God. How is it possible to celebrate an ecclesiastial holy day by abandoning the ecclesia? This makes no sense.

But as churches and church-goers debate whether they should gather together, not forsaking the assembly (Heb. 10:25), many of us have made a clear commitment to honor our Lord’s incarnation on this sacred day.

It is not often that (see note at the end) the church celebrates Christmas on a Sunday. Indeed a rare occasion that should be viewed with even greater enthusiasm by the Christian community. This is a wonderful opportunity to re-iterate our loyalty to Christ and his Bride. Christ and Church go together. Attempting to celebrate one without the other is biblically irreconcilable.

But what are the cultural implications for such a view? What does that say about our evangelical culture’s understanding of the role of the Church? It is safe to conclude that this perspective is openly hostile to the early church and the reformation, who stated unequivocally that outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. The ecclesia speaks salvation to the world. By embracing the world’s paradigm the modern church is being de-Christianized.

When any excuse serves as a substitute to not be present where God desires his people to be, then God’s people have in some way ceased to truly rejoice; they no longer sense the psalmist’s joy when he said, “I rejoiced when they said unto me: Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Am I going to Church on Christmas Day? As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Note: My friend Randy Evans correctly observes:  “Christmas was on Sunday six years ago last time – and the time before that it was eleven years. The next dates are 2016, 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044 and 2050.”

The Incarnation: Gospel, Deception, and Justice

The audio from my first sermon after Christmas.

Manuscript:

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Kinsman. Amen.

Sermon: People of God, this is not a silent night in Bethlehem. The barbaric Herod wants destruction and death; he wants a Christ-less world. He does want a joyful world, but a world of joyful tyranny. Illus. One of the untold stories of WWII occurred in 1943 in German occupied Denmark. The Danish people found out that 7,500 Danish Jews were about to be rounded up and deported to German concentration camps. The Danish citizens spontaneously came up with a plan and quickly rallied round to save their fellow people; and remarkably, almost all of the country’s Jews escaped and found refuge in Sweden from Hitler’s genocidal plans.[1]

We find a similar event in our gospel lesson, except the survival and security of this royal family does not come through ordinary people, rather it comes through the word of an angel in a dream. This narrative in Matthew’s gospel is quite simple to divide, because there are indicators in the passage. There are three sections in these verses. Each section concludes with a prophecy indicating that it has been fulfilled. This is quite significant. Three of the Old Covenant prophecies are fulfilled in verses 13-23. “What we are going to find is that Matthew understands Jesus to be the fulfillment not only of explicit prophecies, but also a fulfillment of Israel’s history. He is another Moses, another David, indeed, another Israel.”[2] The history of God’s people in the Old World foretold of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ because he was the object of that history.

In the first section from verses 13-15, highlight the departure of the holy family. Once again, Joseph serves an important role in redemptive history. The narrative illustrates a parallel between the Joseph of the new world and the Joseph of the old world. You may remember that in Genesis the old Joseph received revelation through dreams, just like the new Joseph (1:20; 2:13, 19, 22).[3] And just like Old Testament Joseph, this Joseph also takes his family to Egypt to find safety (2:13). Joseph is the new Joseph. His faithfulness is stressed again and again for us in Matthew. The angel told him to rise and flee to Egypt until an appointed time. In the very next verse, Joseph acts obediently by rising and taking his family to Egypt by night. Joseph takes action in the danger of the night. He knew the warning and he knew that the angel spoke the wisdom of God. More