“Beloved” and “Favored”

Because we are saved by faith, what we say we believe matters.  “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” Paul told the Romans, “and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, (then) you will be saved” (10:9).  And so, more than once, through the years, I’ve been questioned about my beliefs. I’ve been asked about what I believe when I’ve joined a church, when I went to seminary, when I became a candidate for ordination, when I’ve met with pulpit committees, when I’ve taught classes and Bible studies, when I’ve met with church members and prospects, at hospital bedsides and cemetery gravesides. Well-meaning people have grilled me hard about my faith convictions and then welcomed me into their circle when they agreed with what I told them I believed, or treated me as something of a project – someone to be straightened out – when they didn’t.  And I get it, I really do.  After all, I’m someone whose whole life has been devoted to his faith seeking understanding. 

I’m inclined to agree with A.W. Tozer’s familiar observation that what a person believes about God is the most important thing about them because what a person believes about God has momentous consequences, not just for eternity, but for the here and now as well.  If you believe that God is just, then you will strive to be just yourself.  If you believe that God is righteous, then you will pursue righteousness yourself.  If you believe that God is merciful, then you will try to be merciful yourself.   If you believe that God is generous and kind, then generosity and kindness will begin to increasingly characterize the way you live.  And if you believe that God is welcoming and affirming, then you will become increasingly welcoming and affirming yourself.  What we believe about God matters spiritually and morally.  But I’m not sure that what we believe about God is the first question that needs to be asked and answered by us. The late John Claypool, widely regarded as one of the great American preachers of the 20th century, wrote –

From time to time, in church or elsewhere, you have probably been asked what you believe about Jesus, and this is an exceedingly important question.  [The turning point in the Gospel story of Jesus was when He asked His disciples – “Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15)?  Answering the question – “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42) – is what makes is Christians.]  However, I want to turn the issue around and ask, “What does Jesus believe about you?” (73)

It’s what we believe about God that shapes and directs how we behave, and that’s not unimportant.  And it’s what God believes about us that shapes and directs how God behaves, and there’s nothing that’s more important than that!  How God relates to us is determined by what God thinks of us, and I get a strong sense of what God thinks of us from Matthew 3:13-17, the story of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John, and what God said to Him when He came up out of the water – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (3:17).

I believe in something called “prevenient grace.”  Prevenient grace refers to the way that God’s grace always precedes the response of human faith.  “Pre” means “before. “Venient” means “to come.”  “Prevenient” refers to something that “comes before.”  Before we think about God, God has already thought about us.  Before we go looking for God, God has already come looking for us.  Before we believe in God, God already believes in us.  It’s prevenient grace that drives the Parables of Luke 15, perhaps the most famous and among the most beloved stories that Jesus ever told – one about the shepherd who went looking for his lost lamb (15:3-7); and another one about the woman who went looking for her lost coin (15:8-10); and the one about the Father who never gave up on his sons – the one who was lost in the far country, and the other one who got lost at home (15:11-32).  In each case, it was love that drove the search.  That shepherd loved his little lamb.  That woman loved her precious coin.  That father loved his two boys.  Their value – the value of the lamb, the value of the coin, and the value of the sons – was established long before they got lost and the search for them was launched.

I have a good friend in Dallas who, whenever he’s asked when he got saved, doesn’t talk about the day he went forward in church, or the day he got baptized, but instead says that it happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, ministered in grace and truth in Galilee, and was crucified and raised from the dead in Jerusalem. That’s an affirmation of Prevenient Grace.  Long before we cross the threshold of faith saying that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior, God has crossed the threshold of time and space coming in search of us. Technically, when my friend says that he got saved with the coming of Christ in human history, he’s wrong.  Long before the coming of Christ became the event that we read about in our Bibles, the coming of Christ was something that got decided in the eternal purpose of God. 

Revelation 13:8 says that “the Lamb [was] slain from the foundation of the world.”  Some Christians talk about this as the “eternal” or “everlasting” covenant.  It says that long before the first word of creation was spoken, that God had already decided on what He was going to so when the world went sideways through the choices we make.  When we turn and walk away from God, God doesn’t just stand there surprised and confused, no, God comes after us. When Gardner Taylor, the great African American preacher who was described as having a voice like God’s “only deeper,” was asked: “Does the Bible have a point?”  – he answered – “Sure it does – the Bible is about how God is out to get back what belongs to Him!”   And God’s decision to do this – to come after us when we wander off – is rooted in what God thinks of us, in how God values us, and that’s what I hear in the Father’s words spoken to His Son when He came up out of the waters of His baptism – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

While Scripture is very clear about the utterly unique relationship that exists between God the Father and God the Son, Scripture is equally clear that the reason why God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us was so that we might be restored to our proper place in God’s family as His sons and daughters.  And so, while on our first read through Matthew 3:17 – “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” – we should probably hear it as an affirmation of the unique status of Jesus Christ as the “only begotten Son of God,” and then on our second read through it, we should probably hear it as God’s declaration of what he thinks of us as well.  As Tim Keller explains, “In Christianity, the moment we believe, God says, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’”  And the only quibble that I have with this statement is that I don’t believe that it’s when we first believe that God says this of us, but rather, that it goes all the way back to the foundations of the earth, to the Lamb who was slain from eternity’s beginnings.

You see, it’s not insignificant that God said –“this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – at the start of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, long before He had said or done anything particularly “Messianic.”  Jesus didn’t earn this affirmation by His performance.  It was “prevenient,” it “came before,” and so does ours. Just as Jesus Christ was God’s “beloved” and “well-pleasing” to God because God chose to love Him and because God decided to favor Him, so we are God’s “beloved,” and we are “well-pleasing” to God because this is something that God settled at the foundation of the world. 

We can’t earn “beloved.”  It can only be offered.  Being called God’s “beloved” has a long history in the Biblical tradition.  Go home this afternoon and take the twenty minutes that’s required to read through the Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon.  If you’ve never done this before, then I guarantee that you are going to be surprised.  On the surface, there’s nothing terribly transcendent about this little book.  If you’ve ever fallen in love with somebody, then the Song of Solomon is going to be familiar terrain.  It’s just a love poem full of the passion of courtship.  But to the Biblical mystics, both Jewish and Christian, the Song of Solomon is a parable – a story about a common human experience that serves as an open window into the ways and will of God.  Just as the story of young lovers is a story of passion and pursuit, so in the story that the Bible tells, God pursues us passionately.  That’s what it means to be “beloved,” and so we are by God.

If the talk about being “well-pleasing” to God sounds familiar, it’s because it was Christmas, and we just heard the angels singing to the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks the night when Jesus was born – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased” (Luke 2:14).  The root word translated “well-pleasing” is grace, and grace means favor.  Pastor Mark Lauterbach told the people of his congregation to close their eyes and to imagine looking up into the face of God. And then he asked them – “What did you see?” “What was the mood of God’s face?”  “What was the look in God’s eyes?”  Was it disappointment? Disapproval? Criticism? Condemnation? Or, was it delight?

I’m going to give you a verse to live with all week long.  It’s Zephaniah 3:17.  I think I’m safe in saying that Zephaniah is nobody’s favorite book of the Bible.  In fact, most of us don’t even know that there is a book of Zephaniah in the Bible, and that means that we’ve never seen Zephaniah 3:17 before, and that’s too bad because this is one of the Bible’s most dazzling verses.

The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will dance [rejoice] over you with joyful songs.

God delights in you with gladness.  God dances over you with joyful songs. You are His beloved in whom He is well-pleased.

It was a tradition of the church that I served in Dallas to ask each person who came to be baptized to write a personal “Credo” – an “I believe” statement of faith that could be read by an elder from the pulpit before they were immersed.  Most of the “Credos” I heard through the years were short and predictable.  People typically talked in John 3:16 sorts of ways about their experiences of believing in Jesus Christ, being born again, and receiving forgiveness and eternal life as the result.  It was pretty much “Christianity 101” each and every time – standard, solid, simple, Scriptural statements of faith.  And then we baptized her.  She came to the church through our Divorce Recovery ministry.  She had been shattered by an unexpected divorce.  Her husband came home from work one day and told her that he didn’t love her anymore, that he had fallen in love with his secretary instead and that they were going to get married and live the life that she had lived with him for more than a decade.  This woman came to church broken.  Her self-worth had been decimated.  Her life’s purpose had been destroyed.  She experienced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a life preserver thrown to a drowning person.  She grabbed hold of it and refused to let go.

On her baptism Sunday, this woman took God the Father’s affirmation of Jesus Christ on the day of His baptism – “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” – and she applied them to herself!   In her “Credo” she told the church that her baptism was her public acceptance of God’s estimation of her value as a person.  “I am a beloved child of God,” she told us, “God is well-pleased with me.”  And she was right.  We all are.  All of us sitting here in church this morning, and everyone we will meet this week – “beloved” and “favored” – not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Not because of what we do, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Not because of what we decide, but because what God decided at the foundation of the earth.


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“A Peek into the Heart of God”

At the church I served in Dallas we always encouraged people at the beginning of each New Year to make a commitment to read their Bibles through from cover to cover as one of their New Year’s Resolutions.  It’s always bothered me that Christians like us who say that the Bible is our authority for all matters of faith and practice aren’t actually reading our Bibles in any sustained or systematic sort of way. And this isn’t just true of church members, it’s true of the ministers of churches as well.

Right after he became a Christian, Jeff Robinson of the Gospel Coalition says that he asked a longtime pastor he knew how many times in his life he had read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. “Never,” was his reply, “but I hope to do it someday.”  And what the research shows is that this isn’t all that unusual.  72% of the pastors surveyed admit that the only time that they actually look at their Bibles each week is to get ready to preach or teach, and this directly corresponds to the experience of most church members whose only exposure to the Bible each week comes through the sermons and lessons that they hear at church.  This is why the faith of so many churches and Christians, to borrow the vivid  language of Andrew Fuller, resemble “a rickety child”.

Jason Allen, now the President of Midwestern Seminary up in Kansas City, remembers taking his Bible to church when he was a kid. He says –

“I grew up in a church… (where) the Bible was emphasized… (and so) I had a Bible of my own that I took with me to church each week. (And) every Sunday on our way home from church I would put that Bible in the pocket on the back side of the front seat of my mother’s car. It made perfect sense to me to put  it there because I knew that I was going to need it the following Sunday morning, I had no plans on using it again until then, and I knew where it would be when I needed it next… Looking back now, I have to laugh at this idea that the only time I would need my Bible was when I was in church.  But it made perfect sense to me when I was a kid.  Sadly, I find that this is how most people in church think today.”

The excuses I regularly heard from people in Dallas about why they wouldn’t or couldn’t make a commitment to read through the Bible in a year boiled down to three: “I don’t have the time,” “The Bible’s just too hard for me to understand” and, “The Bible’s more than I can handle.”  As far as not having the time to read through the Bible in a year, all you really need to know is that it takes approximately 70 hours to read through the Bible from cover to cover.  70 hours – that’s roughly the equivalent of the national average for our monthly television viewing.  As the grandmother of a friend of mine in high school used to tell him, “If you’ve got time to read a comic book, then you’ve got to time to read your Bible.”  Allow me to update this advice – if we’ve got enough the time to watch “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Ninja Warriors,” then we’ve got enough time to read the Bible through from cover to cover this year.

As far as thinking that the Bible’s just too hard for us to read it with understanding, you need to know that our spiritual heritage as Protestant Christians says – “balderdash.”  At the heart of the Reformation was this idea that if a Bible was put into your hands, you would be able to read it with enough understanding to get saved.  They called this idea the “perspicuity” or “clarity” of Scripture, and what it means is that “the Bible is basically clear and lucid, …simple enough for any literate person to understand its basic message” (Sproul 15). Theologian Wayne Grudem says his spiritual life began with this conviction.

“As a boy of seven or eight, I began reading the Bible for myself… sounding out the hard words and plowing forward, …with some nourishment to my soul.  I simply assumed the Bible could be understood.   And then a few years after that, I got baptized believing that what the Bible said about salvation could be understood, and that I, at the age twelve, had understood it!  …A belief in the clarity of Scripture is implicit in every [sermon that gets preached, otherwise after the weekly Scripture reading we would just stand around, shrug our shoulders and say, “Who knows what that means?”

And as far as the Bible being more than we think we can handle, we just need to step back far enough to be able to see the forest for the trees. The Bible’s a big and complicated book to be sure, but there’s something simple that holds all of its different books, and characters, and stories, and teachings together.  The Bible’s got a core message, a basic plot, a governing narrative, and it’s not hard to understand at all.

I’ve heard of a seminary professor who, on the first day of every class he teaches, asks his students to close their eyes, randomly flip their Bibles open, and to drop their finger onto the page that’s in front of them.  Whatever verse their finger touches is their first assignment.  He wants them to write an essay that explains what the verse their fingers are pointing to has to do with Jesus?  They say that every road in every English village leads to London.  And in the same way, every verse in the Bible leads to Jesus Christ and to the plan that God has to save us.  Take the familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) about how the Magi came from the east, following a star, to visit Jesus in Bethlehem after He was born

Matthew wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience.  This is why it was put first in the New Testament by the church.  It functions as the front door into Christianity from the Old Testament.  Matthew wrote his Gospel to convince his readers that Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the fulfillment of all the promises that God made to Israel.  So, what are these Gentiles doing in this Jewish story?   And the answer is that Gentiles have always been part of the Jewish story.

Matthew began his Gospel with a genealogy.  The very first thing that Matthew wanted his readers to know about Jesus was that He was descended from Abraham according to the flesh. That’s an important thing for a Jew to know because Abraham is the Patriarch, their “Father.”  Biblically, the Jews are the “Chosen People” because God chose Abraham.  The story of this choice is told in Genesis 12 –

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (1-3)

This is the text on which the story of the Bible turns.  John Stott called it the “most unifying verse in the Bible,” and he said that “the whole of God’s purpose is encapsulated here.” 

During finals back when I was in school we were always told to read the question on a test carefully before beginning an answer.  Well, in the Bible, the question gets posed for us in the stories we are told in Genesis chapters 1-11, and that question is – “What’s wrong with us, and the world?”  The rest of the Bible, Genesis 12 through Revelation 22, is the answer.  The rest of the Bible tells us what God is doing about what’s gone wrong.  And Genesis 12:1-3, the story of God choosing Abraham to be the launching pad for His plan to fix us and the world, is the moment when Abraham and his family became God’s chosen people.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to pray that she would be a pencil in the hand of God, an instrument God could use to make known His will and to accomplish His purposes, and this is exactly what God chose Abraham’s family to be and to do in Genesis 12. God chose Abraham’s family not to make them special, but to use them as the servants of His will.  They weren’t called to privilege, but for a purpose (Arnold Come).  They weren’t chosen to be separate from everybody else, but for the sake of everybody else. “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) – that’s what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well.  Israel isn’t the final circle of the saved, but Israel is the channel through which God’s salvation flows into the world. 

“In choosing Israel… God never took his eye off the other nations of the world; Israel was a minority called to serve the majority.” (Johannes Verkuyl)

The Magi are in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah because the promise that God made to Abraham wasn’t just good news for Jews, it was good news for the whole wide world.  “I will make of you a great nation,” God told Abraham, “and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  The Magi are in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah because by blessing Abraham and his family,  God has blessed “all the families of the earth.” 

When we see the Magi kneeling in Bethlehem, what we are being given is a peek into the heart of God.  God wants everybody everywhere to kneel there with them, to receive the gift of His love embodied in that little baby who grew up to be the Savior, not just of the Jews, but of us all.  One of the final visions that we have in the Bible of the fulfillment of God’s eternal purposes is Revelation 7:9-10 –

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

The Magi in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah are a foreshadowing of this eternal outcome. Bethlehem’s baby, Abraham’s greater son, is how God has gone about blessing all the families of the earth.  And it’s because we know that this is what God wants, it’s because know that this is what God is doing, that we as a church now hear and take up God’s call to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ from our front door to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The Bible verse that formed William Carey’s life was Isaiah 54:5 – “The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.” Just as soon as Jesus Christ had become his Redeemer, William Carey began to be burdened by the fact that He was the Redeemer of the whole world as well, but that there were parts of the world that didn’t know this, there were people on earth who had never heard this good news.

William Carey was a cobbler.  He made shoes.  With scraps of leftover leather he fashioned a map of the world that he put on the wall above his workbench.  He wrote the name of every country he knew on that map and any bit of information he knew about the people who lived in those countries. And then, as William Carey worked at his bench each day, he would study that map and pray for the people of each country that somehow the message of God’s great love for them in Jesus Christ would reach them.  And then one day, as William Carey was praying in front of his map, he realized that it was time for him to step into his map.

“Within a few years William Carey would leave his cobbling to become a pioneer Protestant missionary to India and open the floodgates of the modern missionary movement. Carey did more than study a map; he entered it.”

And Bob Black, an instructor at Southern Wesleyan University, writes –

“We need maps, too – maps of our neighborhoods, maps of our towns and cities, maps of our counties and states – maps hanging in our hearts if not on our walls. We need an awareness that [there are  people in this world who still don’t know that God loves them, and that Jesus Christ came to save them].  We need to glance up occasionally from our preoccupation with the immediate to catch a glimpse of our destiny in the eternal.  And somehow, in some way, we need to enter our maps just as William Carey entered his.”

The Magi in Matthew’s story of the birth of Israel’s Messiah are a reminder that it has always been God’s purpose to bless “all the families of the earth,” and a challenge for us to look around every time we get together and ask ourselves – “Who’s not here?” and – “What am I doing to invite them to the feast of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that we enjoy, and to welcome them in when they show up at our front door?” There are Magi wandering in the wilderness today, searching for the Redeemer/King we know.  Let’s be the light God uses to bring them home to His love.

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The Color of Christmas Extended (Excerpts) Emilie Griffin

It was cold and rainy on the January night when I approached the door of our small Catholic cathedral in downtown Alexandria… When the cathedral door opened, the grace of the moment overwhelmed me. Our small but elegant “pocket cathedral” was filled with music, color, and song.

…In Roman Catholic practice the cathedral is “the bishop’s church.” In a few brief years as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Alexandria, Bishop Ronald Herzog has sponsored musical and creative events at the Cathedral, often with an ecumenical breadth. At our cathedral concerts and through the Red River Chorale, Bishop Herzog has emphasized gathering, rejoicing, celebrating—and reaching out to others, including those who do not fully embrace the Christian faith.

…Christmas—an extended time that begins with Advent, runs throughout the days of Christmas, and is summed up in the Epiphany—is a banquet for the affections, a time to glory in the amazing story of Christ incarnate, the full meaning of the Trinity in Christmas dress… The whole drama of salvation is acted out in the season that begins with Advent, moves through the twelve days of Christmas, and ends with the January feasts including Epiphany… The story of Jesus is what matters. As Christian missionaries throughout the world have told us, it is the story that converts. The full celebration of Christmas embeds the story in almost every day of this long season… The whole drama of salvation is acted out in the season that begins with Advent, moves through the twelve days of Christmas, and ends with the January feasts including Epiphany…

Our worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gives us a sense that our childhood hopes are still alive, that the child Jesus has them well in hand, that new hopes and new beginnings are possible. But these two great feasts, the Vigil of Christmas and Christmas Day, are only opening a door. It is something like the cathedral door that opened for me when the… music poured out. A flood of grace is waiting for us as we enter into worship and into the heart of Christ. When we come into the cathedral we are looking for the child in the manger, the Christ child in Mary’s arms. We find him, yes. But if we are open to it, we find Christ in his fullness, the second person of the Trinity. We find God the Father and the Holy Spirit as well… The light of Christ penetrates our darkness. The color of Christ’s presence spills out of the church doors and floods into our sometimes discouraging world.


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“To You Who for Refuge to Jesus Have Fled”

“How firm a foundation you saints of the Lord 
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word. 
What more can He say than to you He has said, 
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled.” 

I really love to sing this hymn.  It’s been my experience that musicians tend to choose hymns based on their musical quality. But as a preacher, I know that I tend to choose hymns based on their theological integrity.  There are some hymns I won’t sing because of their bad theology, and I am good friends with lots of musicians who won’t sing other hymns because of their bad musicality.  But “How Firm a Foundation” is a hymn about which most of the preachers and musicians I know can agree.  Both musically and theologically “How Firm a Foundation” is a “sound” hymn and a “good” sing. It does what all the best hymns do. “How Firm a Foundation” informs the head of faith with truth while, at the very same time, moving the heart of faith with passion.

Based on the parable that Jesus told at the end of His Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (7:24-27) about the person who built his house on a rock foundation compared with the person who built his house on a foundation of sand,  “How Firm a Foundation” names the “firm foundation” that has been “laid for our faith in God’s excellent Word,” and then describes the experience of believing it as “fleeing” to Jesus “for refuge.” I love the way that this hymn integrates the head and the heart of faith.  As Francis Schaeffer put it, Christianity does not call for “optimism without a sufficient base,” and the Gospel does not “hang hope up in a vacuum.”

In the January/February 2019 issue of “Modern Reformation” (Volume 28; Number 1), Cameron Cole wrote a deeply personal essay – “Theology of the Cross” – about what helped her through a profoundly personal experience of loss.

“Since the unexpected and sudden death of my three-year-old son, I have spent a great deal of time analyzing writing about the theological foundations that offer me hope, comfort, and stability. Before Cameron died mysteriously in his sleep, I feared that a tragedy, such as the loss of my child, would ruin my faith.  I found myself surprised that, in fact, my confidence in Christ became stronger at his death.  I had greater resilience in this ‘worst of the worst’ tragedy than I demonstrated with the commonplace disappointments of my young adult days… I have found that theological orientation has everything to do with our ability to trust God in the wake of tragedy… the cross provides a foundation that can sustain a person’s faith and comfort their heart, even in unimaginable pain.”

This is why the Apostle Paul, in I Thessalonians, comforted his readers (5:18) who were dealing with the loss of loved ones and friends, by “informing” them about what happens to Christians when they die (5:13).  Paul “oriented” the Thessalonians theologically so that they would not grieve as do those “who have no hope” (5:13).   Paul understood that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of His Second Coming (5:14),  were the “firm foundation” that would provide the Thessalonians with the “refuge” that they needed.  It’s the “hard historical facts” of the Gospel and not just our expressions of mutual sympathy and solidarity as human beings with those that grieve that “can sustain a person’s faith and comfort their heart, even in unimaginable pain.”  As another hymn that’s based on the imagery of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders at the end of the Sermon on the Mount puts it –

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. 
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name…
When darkness veils His lovely face I rest on His unchanging grace. 
In every high and storm gale, my anchor holds within the veil…
His oath, His covenant, His blood, support me in the whelming flood. 
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my Hope and Stay… 
On Christ the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. 
All other ground is sinking sand.”

I will begin 2019 attending the funeral of a friend.  Sue was a member of the church that I was privileged to pastor in Dallas for 21 years.  In my 44 years of ministry in local churches it has been my experience that roughly 10%of the Sunday morning worship attendance of a church will participate in a pastor-led Bible Study, and that that 10% will be among the most engaged and committed members of the church.  My friend Sue was in that 10% of the church I served in Dallas.  Every Wednesday at noon for years and years Sue was in her place at the table for the Brown Bag Bible Study that I led, and usually with friends that she had invited to come with her.  I could always count on Sue to be there, and not just there, but anywhere she was needed, at any time. Generous, faithful, supportive, and enthusiastic, Sue was the kind of church member that a minister wants his or her church to be full of.

When I heard that Sue was in trouble after a recent surgery, and then, that she had died, I thought about all the Bible Studies that we had shared together through the years, and the firm foundation that had been laid in her life from God’s excellent Word.  Long before the crisis came that took Sue from this life, she had fled to Jesus for refuge and had found in Him the hope, comfort, and stability that she needed when “all around her soul gave way.”  The life built on Christ the solid rock will stand when the rains come down and the floods come up.

The last book of the Bible I studied with my friend Sue was 2 Timothy.  2 Timothy presents itself to us as Paul’s last letter.  As one of my professors in Christian College used to put it, Paul could hear the footfalls of the Centurions on the pavement of the Roman prison outside his cell door coming to lead him to his execution as he put the finishing touches on this, his final letter.  Tradition says that 2 Timothy was Paul’s last will and testament, a letter written by a man who was fully aware that his days were numbered.  The Puritan Theologian Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691) said that he preached as “a dying man to dying men,” and that shaped both the urgency and the content of his preaching.  And 2 Timothy is positioned in our New Testament as the last words of a dying man addressed to dying people, and that idea intrigues me. 

2 Timothy was the last stone in the theological foundation that I was privileged to help put into place in my friend Sue’s life and faith seven months before she died, and so I’ve gone back through 2 Timothy in these days since her passing, thinking about her, and looking for what there is in this last letter of Paul that might have strengthened Sue’s confidence in Christ as she passed through the valley of the shadow of her death, and what hit me with particular force was the word  “appearance” ~ “epiphany” in Greek.

Paul began 2 Timothy by reminding Timothy that God had entrusted them both to be preachers and teachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who “appeared” to “abolish death and bring life and immortality to light.”  Paul began 2 Timothy with a general affirmation that the saving work of Jesus Christ was God’s solution to the problem of death.  This is one lens through which to read the metanarrative of Scripture.  Our core problem as human beings is death, and Christ’s death and resurrection are God’s solution  (Genesis 2:17; Luke 1:77-79; 2:29-32; John 11:25-26; Romans 6:23; 5:12-21; I Corinthians 15:20-28; Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelation 1:17; 20:6; 21:1-8).  Christ “appeared” to abolish death and to restore life in its fullness.

And then, at the end of 2 Timothy, Paul returned to this idea that what God “appeared” in Jesus Christ to do was to solve our problem with death, only, in what we read as his last words, Paul applied this saving work personally to himself and to his own immediate situation –

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (4:6-8)

It’s been said that Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but unless and until Christ is born in our hearts, it really doesn’t mean that much to us, and this is the movement of faith that we track in the 2 Timothy.  In 2 Timothy chapter 1 Paul said that Christ appeared to abolish death.  And then in 2 Timothy chapter 4, Paul said that Christ’s appearance to abolish death is what gave him comfort, stability, and hope as he approached his own dying, and Paul was quick to note that this same confidence is available to all who, just like him, love His appearing. 

Back in the day we sang a song in youth group that gave voice to this essential movement of faith from what’s generally true to what’s personally true –

I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history,
Sure, He came to set His people free, but what is that to me?                    Till by faith I met Him face to face, and I felt the wonder of His grace,
Then I knew that He was more than just a God who didn’t care,
That lived a way out there and now He walks beside me day by day,
Ever watching o’er me lest I stray, helping me to find the narrow way.
He’s Everything to me.

Sue believed the general truth of the Gospel.  Objectively, Sue knew that Jesus Christ appeared in time and space to abolish death and provide the gift of eternal life.  But for Sue, this was also a personal truth.  She loved Christ’s appearing, and because she did, I know that Sue had a theological foundation for her experience of Jesus Christ as her refuge when the storm broke full force upon her in recent weeks. When all around her soul gave way, I trust that Sue found that the Christ who appeared in time to abolish death was present with her in her own dying, abolishing death and bringing her into life eternal. DBS +

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“What’s the most important thing you know about God?”

A Christmas Eve Meditation

Whenever I ask that question to a group of Christians, the answer I get more than any other is that God is love, and that’s a true enough statement, thoroughly Biblical – I John 4:8 and 16.  It’s really good to know this, to know that God is love, but I’ve got to tell you that it’s not the most important thing that I know about God.

When I was a senior in high school a girl named Cindy told me that she loved me.  That was the first time that a girl who wasn’t my sister told me that. It was a wonderful moment.  In fact, it was one of the best things that happened to me in the first 17 years of my life.  And then one day, Cindy told me that her feelings for me had changed.  She didn’t love me anymore.  Now, she said, she loved someone else.  And it was terrible, one of the worst things that happened to me in the first 17 years of my life.  But, as it turns out, it was a really good teaching moment.

You see, the abrupt ending of that high school romance taught me that the most important thing to know about God is not that God loves me, but rather that God is always going to be faithful to me.  Being loved is wonderful, until the day comes when you’re not loved any longer.  If love is fickle, something that comes and goes, ebbs and flows, starts and stops, then, as wonderful as love is, it’s not the most important thing.  What’s even more important is commitment – an unchanging commitment.

Sure, it’s good to know that God loves me.  But it’s even better to know that God loves me staunchly, surely, dependably, reliably, constantly, and unwaveringly. And that makes this the most important thing that I know about God.  In the Old Testament this is called God’s “steadfast love,” and you’ll come across it 246 times as you read your Bible – 26 times in just one Psalm – Psalm 136 –

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the God of gods,   for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords,   for his steadfast love endures forever… (1-3)

And that’s how it goes for 26 verses – “His steadfast love endures forever.”  What this means is that God loves us with a love that’s not going to change no matter what, and one of the best proofs of this, if you ask me, is Christmas.

The very first promise of Christmas in the Bible is found at the  beginning of the book of Genesis.  Right after creation had been spoiled by their disobedience, as God was explaining to Adam and Eve how this changed everything, God told them that a struggle with the serpent would continue to dodge their descendant’s footsteps until the day came when the head of serpent would finally be crushed under the foot of a son of woman, but not before that serpent had struck his heel.  That’s Genesis 3:15, and it’s known by Christians as the “Protoevangelium” –  or, the “first Gospel.”   It’s the very first reference to God’s saving work in the Bible, and it’s about a birth.  It’s about Christmas.

This is why both Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels that tell us about the birth of Jesus both have long genealogies that trace the family line of Jesus back through the long history of Israel.  Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes all the way back to Adam and to that promise in the Garden that one of Eve’s great, great, great grandsons would be the Savior (Luke 3:38). By my count, there are 73 names in Luke’s genealogy between Jesus and Adam, and after every single name on that list we could very well say – “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  

There are names of good men and bad men on Luke’s list. “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  There are names of famous men and compete strangers on Luke’s list. “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  There are names of men who lived long deeply satisfying lives and men who lived short completely miserable lives on Luke’s list. “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  There are names of faithful men and unfaithful men on Luke’s list. “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  And that’s the point.

When God makes a promise, God keeps that promise, no matter how long it takes, and that’s the most important thing that I know about God.  He’s faithful.  God always does what God says He’s going to do.  And so, when we peer into the Christmas manger and see that sweet little baby there asleep on the hay, of course it should stir in us feelings of love.

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine. Love was born at Christmas,  Stars and angels gave the sign

But even more importantly, it should reassure us that God is faithful, and that we can trust Him and His promises completely.  Christmas is a celebration of God’s love, a love that will not let us go.

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“God in a Box”

Years ago, I read about an ordination interview in a Christian magazine.  The candidate was bright and clever.  The committee was sincere and focused.  And with every question that the committee asked about some aspect the church’s traditional faith and practice, the candidate’s answers became fuzzier and fuzzier, reflecting the theological complexity to which he had been exposed and embraced in the course of his seminary education. As the ordination interview proceeded, the questions from the committee became sharper while the answers from candidate became muddier.  Finally, a layman on the committee, frustrated by what he perceived to be the candidate’s obfuscation on matters of real importance to his own Christian faith, leaned in close and looking the young man straight in the eye, asked – “Young man, do or do you not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?” Adding – “And no trick answers!”

For the past few years I have served on my own denomination’s Committee on the Ministry.  My judicatory produces more ordained ministers for my denomination each year than any other in the country, which means that I have participated in dozens and dozens of ordination interviews in recent years, and I have to tell you that I have often had the same visceral reaction to candidates’ answers to our questions in those interviews as that layman had in the story.  How often have I just want to hear a straight answer to our questions!  It can be a different answer than mine, that’s okay.  I can deal with that.  What I can’t deal with is the constant retreat behind the curtain of “mystery” that seemingly gets drawn before every question that gets asked. 

Question: “Do you believe in the Trinity?” Answer: “Well, God is such a mystery that I can’t really say.”

Question: “Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins?”   Answer: “Well, what happened on the cross is such a mystery that I can’t really say.”

Question: “Do you believe that we go to heaven when we die?” Answer: “Well, death is such a mystery that I can’t really say.”

Back in 1982 Leonard Sweet wrote an essay for the Christian Century that I believe ought to be required reading for every seminarian – “Not All Cats Are Gray: Beyond Liberalism’s Uncertain Faith” [https://www.religion-online.org].  Dr. Sweet said that if conservative Christians like me are “certain of too much,” then liberal Christians like him are probably “certain of too little.” He wrote –

“Certainty holds too many terrors for liberalism, and uncertainty too few. In the interests of intellectual exactness, social relevance and ecumenical dialogue, liberalism has frequently settled for unresolved tensions, stretchy ambiguities and impenetrable mysteries when dealing with “the truth question.” Alternating between a belief that absolutism lurks just behind absolutes and a suspicion that truth is a human construct, liberals are accustomed to offering opinions instead of truth. At their best, they have demonstrated that the love of humanity sometimes takes precedence over the love of truth. At less than their best, however, liberals have been too certain of uncertainty. Liberalism has exhibited a lazy satisfaction with proclaiming cross-eyed paradoxes and crossroads ambiguities, large questions and tiny truths, as if this is the best we can hope for.”

To arrest this tendency in himself, Leonard Sweet engaged in a process of identifying “the great rocky facts” of his own faith, the spiritual truths that he could personally punctuate with “the exclamation mark of an absolute, the colon of a secure conviction, the dash of a dependable axiom, the period of a ‘center that holds.’”  He came up with 12 of them for himself and his faith.

Leonard Sweet’s essay is a good read, and his exercise is a useful spiritual discipline for all of us to undertake.  But it’s real value, if you ask me, lies not so much in the final list itself as it does with how what’s on that list got there.  You see, I’m much more interested in the geometry of faith than I am in the algebra of faith.  I don’t just want to get the right answer in the end (that was my experience of algebra in school, and I hated it), I want to understand the process of how to get to that right answer (and that was my experience with geometry in school, and I loved it).

Little did I know it at the time, but in my first semester of Christian College back in the fall of 1971, three of the books that I was assigned to read were going to become foundational building blocks for my life and faith: Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason (IVP – 1968), Elton Trueblood’s A Place to Stand (Harper & Row – 1969 ), and E. Stanley Jones’ Christ of the  Mount (Abingdon – 1931). These three books are still in my library, and more importantly, their content is an important part of my thinking and believing. Thank you Dr. Rice and Dr. Bixler, both now of blessed memory. 

These three books, each in its own way, probe the question of how do we know anything at all as human beings, especially about God – who He is, what He’s done, and what He wants – and how can we have any confidence in what it is that we think we know.  Here 47 years later (47 years? What! When did that happen?), I would argue that this is in fact the watershed issue of Christianity, the foundation on which the whole edifice of our faith is built.  Is our knowledge of God just a matter of our best hunches and guesses, our deepest wishes and dreams?  Or, do we have some way of actually accessing the truth of God’s being and doing? Biblical Christianity says that we do –

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” [Hebrews 1:1-3]

So, here’s the claim, concisely stated – God has “spoken,” first through the prophets of the Old Testament, and then through His Son who is “the radiance of His glory” and “the exact imprint of His nature.”  Merry Christmas!  This is what we mean when we sing –

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord;Late in time, behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.  Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Todd Wilken, a Lutheran Pastor, called a Christmas sermon he preached on Luke 2:6-7 – “God in a Box” [http://www.issuesetcarchive.org].  He explained that you’ll sometimes hear somebody say – “You can’t put God in a box.” What this means is that we can’t put a limit on who God is, or restrictions on what God might do. And there’s some truth in this.  When King Solomon was dedicating the Temple that he’d built for God in Jerusalem, he wondered out loud, “Will God dwell on earth?  If the heavens can’t contain God, then how can a building that’s built with human hands possibly hold Him (I Kings 8:27)?  God is too great and too grand to be put in a box.  And yet, Pastor Wilken said, because “all the fullness of God” dwells in Christ “in bodily form” as Paul told the Colossians (1:19; 2:9),  when Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger,” what she was doing, quite literally, was putting God in a box.  And there’s more.

Before Mary laid God in the manger, Mary held God in her arms.  And for nine months prior to that, Mary carried God in her womb…. And right then and there… King Solomon’s question, “Will God indeed dwell on earth?” was answered…  The baby in Mary’s womb, the baby in Mary’s arms, the baby lying in the manger is God in the flesh.  There at Bethlehem, the fullness of God was found in a box at Mary’s feet

Does this mean that we know everything that there is to know about God, that there remain no mysteries?  Of course not!  But it does mean that we can know some things about God with clarity, confidence and certainty.  The Biblical balance gets nicely stated by Deuteronomy 29:29  –

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…”

There are secret things that belong to God alone. There is mystery, and the proper response to mystery is modesty.  This is what our tradition means when it tells us to be silent when and where the Bible is silent.  But our tradition also tells us to speak when and where the Bible speaks. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean that we can’t know some things. Not everything is a mystery. I find it significant that virtually every time the New Testament uses the word “mystery” (24 times by my count), it is almost always to tell us about what has now been revealed about God and his plans for us in Jesus Christ rather than to tell us that there are still things about God and His ways that we do not know. 

Christmas means that there is light and not darkness when it comes to knowing who God is, what God is doing, and what God wants.  God speaks has spoken in various and sundry ways, partially and fragmentarily through His prophets, but preeminently and climactically through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3).  Revelation and Redemption is the work of Christ, and because what He does depends on who He is, Christmas is the crucial  disclosure of His nature.  In Christ, God “speaks and shows,” and the result is that we can know God and be saved.

Merry Christmas!

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