Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Introducing 'When God became man' to the blog

Linda and I put together a devotional booklet seven years ago for the households in our church family titled “When God became man: A 31-day celebration of the Christmas event.” I plan to blog those 31 devotions in December with likely only slight, if any, alterations. Feel free to use them individually or as a family during the month. A new alternative for use during Advent is a devotional guide produced by The Village Church, a Dallas church pastored by Matt Chandler. You may access it online here.

Here is a condensed version of the introduction to “When God became man:”

Christmas has produced a variety of responses from followers of Christ. Most celebrate the occasion, while some refuse to do so. In our culture, the observance is largely inescapable. Given society’s often misguided absorption with Christmas, is there a biblical way to approach the event? Yes, it appears there is, and it would seem to be by looking at the big picture.

The birth of Christ clearly is not an end in itself. It is a part, an integral part, of God’s redemptive work. To say it another way, there is no crucifixion and no resurrection without the incarnation. That word, incarnation, speaks of an appearance in human form. As we use it in the Christian sense, it is at the heart of our faith: God became a man. Think about that. It is a mind-boggling consideration. A man lived who actually was God. He was totally man while still being totally God.

In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer wrote some classic words about the incarnation:
It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.
We believe Christians can observe the birth of Jesus in a way that is faithful to the biblical account of God’s redemptive work and is glorifying to our Sovereign Lord. The devotions that follow in December are posted to help celebrate the glorious act of God becoming a man to purchase our salvation. Each includes a brief Scripture passage, comments on these verses and a suggested song to sing on that date. These brief, daily messages may be only a starting point for the contemplation of the incarnation by you and your family.

May we join with the apostle Paul in saying as he did in II Cor. 9:15, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”

Marriage myth No. 7: Singleness makes me a second-class Christian

'Built to last' photo (c) 2008, Andreas Levers - license: single adult – whether never married, divorced or widowed – is a second-class Christian. There is no caste system in the kingdom of God. I can understand why some singles in the church have felt like second-class members who don’t fit in. As churches and pastors, we see the importance of helping establish strong marriages and families. Those are worthy goals, but we need to make certain we don’t give singles cause to think they are on the outside looking in. And both single and married believers need to make certain they are thinking biblically. We are not united in the church on the basis of our marital status but on the basis of our union with Christ. To be in Christ is to be united to all other believers, especially those in the same church body. We all relate to one another first and foremost by being related to Him. The focus of the New Testament is not marriage between a man and a woman but the marriage of Christ and His bride. The central unit in the New Testament is not the biological family but the eternal family of God. For those who are married, you should act to make sure you welcome singles of the church into your lives and homes on the same basis as you do those who are married. For those who are single, you should act to make certain your acceptance of singles and marrieds in the church, and your perception of their acceptance of you, has the same basis. For both marrieds and singles, it is about our acceptance in Christ. By His blood, we are part of the same forever family.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Preaching the gospel to yourself makes a difference

Here is the testimony of Milton Vincent in the introduction to his book A Gospel Primer for Christians:
Over the course of time, preaching the gospel to myself every day has made more of a difference in my life than any other discipline I have ever practiced. I find myself sinning less, but just as importantly, I find myself recovering my footing more quickly after sinning, due to the immediate comfort found in the gospel. I have also found that when I am absorbed in the gospel, everything else I am supposed to be toward God and others seems to flow out of me more naturally and passionately. Doing right is not always easy, but it is never more easy than when one is breathing deeply the atmosphere of the gospel. I am confident that you will find the same to be true in your life as well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

An 'above all' command for the church

“Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8).

What does masculine leadership look like?

Last week, I posted definitions of masculinity and femininity provided by John Piper in his book What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible. He defines masculinity in this way:
At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.
Since the word “lead” means different things to different people, Piper offers nine clarifying statements to help provide a better understanding of “mature masculine leadership.” They are:
1. Mature masculinity expresses itself not in the demand to be served, but in the strength to serve and to sacrifice for the good of woman.

2. Mature masculinity does not assume the authority of Christ over woman, but advocates it.

3. Mature masculinity does not presume superiority, but mobilizes the strengths of others.

4. Mature masculinity does not have to initiate every action, but feels the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative.

5. Mature masculinity accepts the burden of the final say in disagreements between husband and wife, but does not presume to use it in every instance.

6. Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.

7. Mature masculinity expresses itself in a family by taking the initiative in disciplining the children when both parents are present and a family standard has been broken.

8. Mature masculinity is sensitive to cultural expressions of masculinity and adapts to them (where no sin is involved) in order to communicate to a woman that a man would like to relate not in any aggressive or perverted way, but with maturity and dignity as a man.

9. Mature masculinity recognizes that the call to leadership is a call to repentance and humility and risk-taking.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Preparing for corporate worship November 27

“The just for the unjust.” That five-word phrase in I Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” -- is at the heart of the Christian faith. It also will be at the heart of our corporate worship this Sunday. Christ, the lone person who was without sin and therefore was and is just, died in the place of and for those who did not and would not live justly, which describes all other human beings – including you and me. It is how Paul could say in Romans 3:26 that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” We will gather this Sunday because Jesus has brought us to God by dying as “the just for the unjust.” May our time together reflect this reality -- that we worship God only because we have been counted righteous by the death of the perfectly righteous One as our substitute. That calls for humility, gratitude and fervency in our worship of the one true God. May it be so among all of us this Sunday.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving thanks

Here are two items to ponder as we celebrate an American holiday, Thanksgiving. As Christians, we especially have reason to give thanks to God on this day and all others. The posts may seem to contradict each other, but I believe a close reading of both will show they do not.

First, here is a blog post from yesterday by Ray Ortlund, lead pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tenn.:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5

As Francis Schaeffer used to remind us, the devil rarely gives us the luxury of fighting on one front only. We see a monster in front of us wanting to devour us, and we back away in dread. But if we’re not careful, we’ll walk right into the jaws of another monster right behind us. We usually fight on two fronts at once.

Today we fight against materialism, especially the so-called Prosperity Gospel. But there is also the danger of asceticism, which denies the goodness of God in all things. This ultra-serious “holiness” is attractive, in a way. But it is also fraudulent. It tells an audacious lie about God and about us.

The truth is, everything created by God is good and is to be received gratefully. This beautiful truth includes marriage and sex and food and mowing the lawn and flying a kite and paying the bills and sharpening a pencil and sitting on the porch in the evening and playing Monopoly with the kids and laughing at hilarious jokes and setting up chairs at church, and on and on and on. There is so much divine goodness all around. To push it away, to be above it, would insult our gracious Creator.

Our earthly human existence is where true holiness can thrive. How? By thanking the Lord for it moment by moment, and by applying the word of God to it moment by moment. It is written, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Not ultimate, but good. Good enough for God. Good enough for us too.
Below is a video of Stuart Townend and fellow musicians doing sort of an Irish/bluegrass version of “My Heart is Filled With Thankfulness,” a song he co-wrote with Keith Getty and our church has done in corporate worship. Below the video is the story behind the song provided on Keith and Kristyn Getty’s website.

Even in our thankfulness, we can often betray what unspiritual beings we are.

If we examine our personal devotions, or listen in on a prayer meeting, our thanksgiving often focuses on health and position, family and friends, home and belongings (and all these are right and good; the Bible tells us to give thanks in every situation).

But the prayers of the early church in the New Testament never follow this pattern. The strong emphasis there is on giving thanks to God for spiritual blessings – the blessings that have true value beyond life on earth.

In “My heart is filled with thankfulness” we give thanks to God for spiritual blessings past, present and future. What Christ has done for us, for forgiveness and new life, which only he could bring by coming here to earth and suffering for us. How he walks beside us each day and having lived, breathed and walked here on earth[, h]ow he promises to be with us whatever our future hold[s].

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Masculinity and femininity by the Book

I am in the midst of a short preaching series on women in corporate worship. The fact there are distinctions between males and females, though the sexes are equal, is inescapable in looking at Scripture.

A short book by John Piper published in 1990 seeks to get at the heart of what it means to have a biblical view of these differences. As most of you know, Piper is a well-known author and pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. The book is What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible.

A main part of the book is Piper’s attempt to define masculinity and femininity. He acknowledge the definitions below are not comprehensive but an effort “to get at the heart, or at least an indispensable aspect, of manhood and womanhood.” He also says these descriptions call for further comment, which he provides in the book.

I commend them for your thoughtful consideration in an age of great confusion over this issue. His definitions are:
At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.

Marriage myth No. 6: I should delay marriage until I have experienced life

'Built to last' photo (c) 2008, Andreas Levers - license: myth, or a version of it, seems to have become increasingly accepted in recent decades. There are likely a number of factors involved, but the age for first-time marriages has increased in American society at large. The median age for first-time marriages went from 23.2 in 1970 to 28.2 in 2010 among U.S. males and from 20.8 to 26.1 among females. It appears the median ages for evangelical Christians are earlier but not by a lot. The ideas that feed into this myth – for instance, that you should have fun before settling down in marriage or you should focus on building a career – can undermine the path God has designed for most people. Before I say more, here are a couple of disclaimers: (1) No Christian should marry until God has provided him or her with a person He wants you to take as a spouse, and (2) some people will remain single in God’s providence. The more pressing problem today seems to be delaying marriage rather than rushing it. Many people appear to rule out marriage until their mid to late 20s, if not later. Ladies certainly are not immune to this, but the problem seems to be especially acute among men. There seem to be many Christian ladies who desire marriage but have yet to be pursued by a godly man they believe would be appropriate for a husband. There is a sense even within the church that too many men are content to extend their adolescence for years while not stepping out to accept the responsibilities God has designed for them. For both Christian men and women, please don’t intentionally postpone entrance into the relationship God intends to use in your lives to help demonstrate the gospel and to help you grow as disciples of Christ.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Assurance on Monday morning

Here are some reminders from Scripture that our hope is in what Jesus has done once for all time, not in what we have done or will do:
Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit (John 19:30).

For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up himself (Heb. 7:27-27).

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God . . . (I Peter 3:18a).
Take comfort – and live boldly with the bedrock assurance of this truth.

A prayer for parenting by faith and grace

This prayer posted Nov. 14 by Scotty Smith in his blog at The Gospel Coalition website is reprinted with the hope all Christian parents – those in our fellowship and elsewhere – will pray in the same manner and be encouraged to take hope and to practice grace-governed, gospel-centered parenting.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:1-3

Heavenly Father, it’s a liberating joy to address you today as the architect and builder of your own house — including the household of faith and my children’s place in your family. No one cares about and loves our children more than you. I know that now better than ever. Our kids are your heritage.

I grieve the years I spent in pragmatic parenting, assuming if I prayed and parented just right, my kids would be converted at a young age, would never get into big trouble and would be protected from all harm. How naïve on my part. But my rejoicing is much greater than my regretting, for you’ve proven yourself faithful to your covenant love . . . even when I was overbearing and under-believing.

I praise you for rescuing me from parental “laboring in vain” — assuming a burden you never intended parents to bear. O, the arrogant pride of thinking that by our “good parenting” we can take credit for the encouraging things we see in the lives of our children. O, the undue pressure our children must feel when we parent more out of our fear and pride, rather than by your love and grace. O, the miserable unbelief of assuming that by our “bad parenting” we’ve marred our children forever and have limited what you’ll be able to accomplish in the future.

Father, only you can reveal the glory and grace of Jesus to our children; only you can give anyone a new heart. You’ve called us to parent as an act of worship — to parent “as unto you,” not as a way of saving face, making a name for ourselves, or proving our worthiness of your love. I really believe this, but the move from parenting by grit to parenting by grace has often been three steps forward and two steps back. Take me deeper; take me further.

Since our children and grandchildren are your inheritance, teach us how to care for them as humble stewards, not as anxious owners. Give us quick repentances and observable kindnesses. Constantly remind us that you call us to be faithful parents, not “successful” parents. More than anything else, show us how to parent and grandparent in ways that reveal the unsearchable riches of Christ. Keep teaching us how to love and lead your covenant children “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14 NIV). Father, dazzle and delight our children with your grace. So very Amen we pray, in Jesus’ faithful and loving name.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A prayer for savoring and celebrating Jesus' kingship

May this portion of a prayer by Scotty Smith help ignite a blaze in our hearts that will spread among us in true worship of our Savior as we gather as His church this Sunday:
The only King who could say, “Behold the world I have made,” is the only King who would say, “Behold the people for whom I die.” King Jesus, the greatest sanity is gospel sanity. Keep us sane . . . keep us gospel sane. We choose to lift our eyes to heaven today and fix our gaze on you — the author and perfecter of our faith, and we cry with unfettered, unabated joy, “Hallelujah, what a Savior! Hallelujah, what a salvation!” Your kingdom has come, your kingdom is coming! So very Amen we pray, in your name and for your glory.
You may read the entire prayer here.

Preparing for corporate worship November 20

We will gather this Sunday to worship God for the sake of His name. A name represents who someone is. In God’s case, His name stands for all his glorious perfections, including His attributes. In Psalm 148, the psalmist exhorts the vast array of creation, including human beings, to praise the Lord. Then he writes, “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven” (v. 13). God’s name and his glory are powerfully linked. God is far more committed to exalting His name and bringing glory to Himself than any of us are. For instance, it was for His name God delayed full judgment on Pharaoh (Exodus 9:16), saved His people by delivering them through the Red Sea (Psalm 106:8) and judged His people for their rebellion (Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22). May glorifying God and lifting high His name be at the forefront of our purpose and thinking as we meet Sunday as the people of God.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Acceptance with God: Religion vs. gospel

It is vital we recognize – and regularly remind ourselves of – the ground of our acceptance by God. Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, writes about this topic in his foreword to the new book Gospel by J.D. Greear, lead pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. In part, Keller writes:
[A]s Martin Luther noted, religion forms the default mode of the human heart. It is essential, then, that we distinguish religion from the gospel. Religion, as the default mode of our thinking and practices, is based upon performance: “I obey; therefore, I am accepted by God.” The basic operating principle of the gospel, however, is, not surprisingly, an about-face, one of unmerited acceptance: “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore, I obey.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The suffering of our Somalian sisters

Last Sunday, Nov. 13, was International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. As we all know, many of our fellow Christians in other countries are suffering greatly because of their faith. Jeff Sellers, editor of Compass Direct News, filed a report on the kind of persecution some of our sisters have undergone in Somalia. He interviewed them in Kenya, and his report was posted Nov. 11 on a blog at National Review Online. Here is nearly all of that report:
The women, who had fled to Nairobi from war in Somalia, are Christians who have paid the price for their faith not because they were bold in proclaiming it, but because they were unable to hide it. Before our translator showed up, I found myself waiting with some of them in silence, wondering if I should break the language/culture/gender barrier by showing them photos of my wife and baby.

I was glad I didn’t. There was Amina, a 28-year-old refugee from Mogadishu whose husband divorced her after kicking her and their four-year-old son out of the house when she converted to Christianity; he’s now threatening to take the boy away from her. There was Shukri, whose husband was killed by Islamic extremists from the al Shabaab rebels fighting the transitional government in Somalia; her late husband’s mother took her twin girls, born [in] 2006, to keep them from being raised Christian.

There was Kamila, who lost her truck-driver husband to an accident and who still bears the knife scars on her mouth and chin from her fellow Somali women; the brother of her late husband had sent them to attack her as part of his attempt to snatch her then five-month-old baby from her. According to custom, the brother should attain all of her late husband’s property, including her son, in order to keep him from being raised a Christian. A court ruled that the baby should stay with Kamila until he is weaned, and she took that opportunity to escape with him to another area near Nairobi; he is now five.

There was Sahra, who wears a full-body burqa in her Somali neighborhood in Nairobi to keep from being recognized and abused. Her husband was killed in fighting in Mogadishu in 2006. Her relatives have cut her off because of her Christian faith, and she said she can feel the same shunning from her fellow expatriates. “When they see you are low-income and have left your religion, they see you as sick in the head,” said the mother of two young daughters who survives by working odd jobs.

There was Mana, whose husband was kidnapped by al Shabaab Islamists in July after they discovered he was a Christian. He was able to escape last month with the help of residents of the area where he was held in Somalia, but his tortured body is still too fragile to be moved, so he cannot yet be reunited with his family in Kenya. He is still spoon-fed, the militants chopped off three fingers from his right hand and two from his left, and there are no fingernails on those that remain.

Finally, there was an older Somali woman, some of whose children are now grown. Her oldest is 25, but she nearly lost him when six Muslim neighbors, who surmised that they were Christians meeting secretly for worship, cut his hands with a knife and belted his face with a metal bar on Oct. 31, before leaving him unconscious, naked, and bleeding at the entryway of an area church. Every Friday the Muslim women in her Somali neighborhood in Kenya used to invite her to the mosque, and she would tell them she wasn’t feeling well. Eventually they figured out that they were Christians.

If ever there was an inconvenient truth, it is the lordship of Christ for these women. In their world, there is much shame associated with their status as refugees in a bleak economy and as Christians in a Muslim fishbowl, but they know what it is to live 1 Peter 4:16, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

And so it is that the older Somali woman who found her son in a pool of blood, echoing the attitude of the others, could tell me, “Although he has been beaten, we trust God to protect us. We don’t feel like we’re going to return to Islam; we will stand with Christ.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

A prayer for Covenant Community Church

I am grateful for Covenant Community Church in Fredericksburg, Va. I am grateful to be a part of this body of believers. I am grateful to be an elder and the pastor of this people. I am grateful for God’s gracious work among our fellowship, including the love and refreshing the saints have given to one another. Today, I am especially grateful for the evidences of His grace among us in the last few days.

I shared the following at our members meeting Nov. 11 as a prayer of thanksgiving for our fellowship. Except for the words “brothers and sisters” at the end instead of “brother,” they are the words Paul wrote in verses 4-7 of his letter to Philemon. I offer them again as a prayer for our church:
I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, [brothers and sisters].

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Our Master, not our maitre D

Here is a good reminder from a prayer by Scotty Smith as we prepare to worship our Lord tomorrow. Smith, founding pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn., blogs prayers on The Gospel Coalition website. You can read his entire prayer from Nov. 10 here.
Forgive us when we demonstrate a greater preoccupation with the “victorious Christian life,” than with you, the victorious Christ. You are our loving Lord, not our private masseuse; our gracious Master, not our maître D; our coming King, not our bottled genie.

Forgive us when our prayers reflect a greater commitment to our comfort than to your kingdom. Free us from “claiming” things you never promised. Give us a greater joy in serving you, and, indeed, in suffering with you. Wherever you lead us in your triumphant procession is the best place to be. However you spread the fragrance of knowing you is the best way to live. So very Amen we humbly pray, in your name and for your glory.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Preparing for corporate worship November 13

Reminding himself of the gospel of Jesus and the grace he had received prompted the apostle Paul to break into praise to God: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (I Tim. 1:15-17). May we gather together this Sunday filled with rejoicing in God’s great gospel grace toward us and with praises to His glorious name.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Marriage myth No. 4: Life will really begin when I get married

'Built to last' photo (c) 2008, Andreas Levers - license: you enter marriage with this mind-set, you likely will find life still hasn’t begun – or, at least, your vision of what life is hasn’t begun. If you are a Christian, Jesus is your life (Col. 3:4). Whether single or married, life began for you when you cast yourself upon Him and His work for you on the cross. Marriage is not intended to give you life. If you think it is, then you have substituted marriage for Christ. In your case, marriage is an idol, a substitute god. Substitutes do not bring life. Only Jesus does. Marriage is intended above all else as a display of the relationship between the eternal bridegroom, Christ, and His bride, the church. As a Christian, you bring life – in the person of Jesus – into marriage that the world may see the eternal marriage on exhibit, that you and your spouse may know true joy, and that God may be glorified.

Back to the blog

I regret the lack of posts for more than a week, but I am back to blogging again after being away from home and from a good opportunity to blog.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

'The critical question'

From John Piper in his book God Is the Gospel (thanks to Justin Taylor):
The critical question for our generation — and for every generation — is this:

If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

And the question for Christian leaders is: Do we preach and teach and lead in such a way that people are prepared to hear that question and answer with a resounding No?