The Light of Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  I know it’s a dubious admission for a church blog.  Nevertheless, I find some of Chevy Chase’s humor to be, well, humorous.  My favorite line in the movie comes when cousin Eddie surprises Clark after they arrived in time to see Clark finally successfully got the Christmas lights on his house to work.

Eddie asked Clark “You surprised?”  Clark, who is not very fond of Eddie, responded “Surprised, Eddie?… If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”

While watching this Christmas movie recently, however, I discovered it contained a pernicious lie about Christmas.  Near the end Clark reflected on seeing a light in the neighborhood, identified by Uncle Lewis as the light from the sewage treatment plant.  “It’s the Christmas Star, and that’s all that matters tonight. Not bonuses or gifts, or turkeys or trees.  See kids, it means something different to everybody.  Now I know what it means to me.”

This feel-good, postmodern comment by Clark doesn’t enhance the meaning of Christmas.  Rather, it attempts to destroy it.  See, kids, if Christmas means something different to everyone, Christmas has no meaning at all.

To Clark, the true meaning of Christmas was to give his family a wonderful Christmas experience and to bless them with a pool.  To Clark’s boss, Frank Shirley, it was to cancel Christmas bonuses and give out one-year subscriptions to the Jelly of the Month Club.  To Margo and Todd it was to avoid things that are dirty and messy and corny and clichéd.  But these different meanings ultimately clashed.  Clark’s meaning of a loud, celebratory Christmas interfered with Todd and Margo’s meaning of a subdued, secluded Christmas.  Frank Shirley’s idea of Christmas that did not mess with the company’s financial bottom line conflicted with Clark’s Christmas ideal of making his family happy.

Because postmodernism doesn’t believe in a fixed, absolute truth, everyone defines his own “truth.”  This failed philosophy is irrationally comfortable with believing in contradictory, and self-refuting truth claims.  “There is no truth.”  “Truth is not knowable.”  “No one has the truth.” What’s true for you may not be true for me.”  “Christmas means something different to everybody.”

Despite Griswold’s postmodern philosophy, Christmas has a fixed meaning.  This meaning has been the same for 2000 years.  That Christmas message is that Light has come into the world to make a way for us to escape the darkness.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:5, 9.  “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their works are evil.”  John 3:19.  Light brings knowledge of God.  “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  2 Corinthians 4:6.

Some, however, want to extinguish that Light because they prefer the darkness.  Groups like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation swoop onto military installations with supposed complaints from anonymous service members to get Nativity scenes removed from places like Shaw Air Force Base and Guantanamo.  Brave warriors, trained to fight despite fear, then cower at MRFF’s demands and remove the offensive Light without a fight.  This type of cowardice goes on throughout our country where public schools remove “Christ the Savior” from “Silent Night” and a Christmas tree from school grounds.

What turns brave men into moral cowards?  Atheism really is not to blame.  The philosophy that has been the most successful in creating moral cowards by hiding the Light of Christmas is the postmodern philosophy of Clark W. Griswold.  The reason why there is a war on a specific meaning of Christmas is not because people do not believe in God.  This war is because a majority of the rest of the country believes just like Clark Griswold, that Christmas means something different to everyone.

You see, kids, if we can define our own meaning of Christmas, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of sin.  We get to choose our own morality and define our own “reality.”  We can then believe in God and still reject His sovereignty.  Clark Griswold’s philosophy has even been expressed by our Supreme Court in its terrible Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision where it reaffirmed the right to kill children in the womb.  “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The philosophy of Clark W. Griswold, and the Supreme Court, is wrong.  Christmas cannot mean something different to everybody.  The ultimate meaning of Christmas must mean the same thing to everyone.

The only true meaning of Christmas is the Gospel of Christ.  He is that Light and is the only source for our salvation.  That meaning of Christmas handed down from generation to generation is that the Light had come into the world that first Christmas morn.  That Light of Christmas is the only hope for mankind that wallows in sin and error pining.  The only meaning of Christmas is that the Light was born that man no more may die.  That Light was born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.  Because of that Light, the Christmas bells can peal more loud and deep, “God is not dead, nor does he sleep.”  Justice now revokes the sentence.  Mercy calls you, “Break your chains.”  Because of that Light we have hope that the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will to men!

Our only response is to come and worship Christ, the newborn King!

 

Forgiving the Jerks

Traffic Jerks

Three things in this world really irritate me: being late, being lost, and being in traffic.  If I’m late, lost and in traffic, you probably should avoid talking to me.   I am not likely in a forgiving mood.  But, it’s just like God to take our kryptonite and demonstrate His glory.

The commute to my job takes me from southern Maryland to Arlington, Virginia…every Trafficday.  An hour and a half commute on average days.  A four hour commute on the worst day…so far.  I hate traffic.  To intensify my distaste for traffic are the traffic jerks.  You know them.  They ride the shoulder just to get two car lengths ahead.  They tailgate you.  They weave in and out of lanes without signaling.  They speed up to narrow the gap because they saw your signal to get over.  They honk at you to move when there is only a half-car’s length of space in front of you.

Let’s be honest.  They are jerks.  They might have come from a long line of jerks.

The cultural, bumper-sticker wisdom is not to get mad, just to get even.  So, to respond to these jerks, the inner jerk awoke in me.  “You’re honking at me to move?  I guess I can sit here a few seconds longer.”  “You want to cut me off?  How do you like my brake lights?”  “You want to ride the shoulder?  See if you can get around me while I ride the shoulder at the pace of the slow traffic.”

Ah, yes.  The immediate pleasure of revenge.  Yet, something never sat right with me after I dished out my cold vengeance.  Revenge never satisfies.  It may be sweet to the lips, but it is bitter to the soul.  This bitterness festers towards people created in the image of God.  The cancer of revenge produces callousness towards people.  Revenge often is disproportionate to the offense.  Revenge begets revenge.

My Bible reading took me to Romans 12:17-21. “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

God has not given us the ministry of wrath.  He has given us the ministry of reconciliation.  2 Corinthians 5:18.  Revenge never produces reconciliation.  Revenge on Forgiveness reconciliationthe world has not been God’s plan.  Reconciliation has.  “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:19.  Jesus rebuked the Sons of Thunder (James and John) for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus.  Luke 9:54-56.  Some ancient Bible manuscripts include Jesus’ admonishment “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

Jesus’ example towards the wickedness of the jerks was to forgive.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Luke 23:34.  Jesus didn’t just forgive his friends.  He sought forgiveness for those who put him to death.  After all, what reward is there in only loving those who love you?  Matthew 5:46.

In my commute, God wanted me to practice forgiveness.  He wanted to take my weakness and show Himself strong.  So, I embarked on a journey to forgive the jerks.  To my surprise I found it more difficult than I had thought.  When I decided to forgive a jerk, I did not get an immediate peace inside of me.  I found out that forgiveness really hurts.  Why does forgiveness hurt?

One answer to that question is found in the nature of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not simply an ignoring of an offense.  For God to simply ignore our sin would mean that He is not a just God.  Justice demands that offenses must be recompensed.  God offers forgiveness for our sins, not because He ignores them, but because Jesus paid for them with His suffering and death.  God does not ignore our sin.  He Himself bore the punishment for our sin.  He took the debt on Himself.

That reality is why I found that forgiveness hurts.  Forgiveness means that I must refuse revenge and must bear the offense of the jerk.  I pay the debt the jerk owes to me.  I do not make him pay.  That hurts.  Yet, that is the easy burden and light yoke to which Christ has called his disciples.  Through our acts of forgiveness, God has provided the message of reconciliation.

Day after day, commute after commute, forgiving jerk after jerk, I started to get weary of forgiving people.  “God, why do I have to forgive these people?  Day after day, there is no end to these jerks.  Some of them are the same jerks I forgave yesterday.  They don’t deserve it.  They don’t even want it.  When is enough enough?”  Then God gently reminded me that by my practice of endless forgiveness  I reflect His image because, day after day, He offers me forgiveness.

God’s mercies are new every morning.  His infinite mercy offers infinite forgiveness.  Because we are created in His image to reflect His glory, we must also offer forgiveness continually.  See Matthew 18:21-35.

I wish I could say that I have matured to perpetual forgiveness, but sadly, the jerk of my flesh wars against the spirit.  Last week, on my commute home, the streets of Alexandria were jammed.  I had to get from the middle lane to the right lane in order to turn right on the next street.  I put on my blinker and noticed the jerk in the Dodge Ram trying to close the gap so I couldn’t get in front of him.  I was able to get over.  But, his proximity to my rear bumper let me know he wasn’t happy.  The car in front of me started moving and was about a half-car length ahead.  Because I hadn’t started moving quickly enough, the jerk proceeded to honk at me.  The choice to forgive presented itself.  Instead, I let evil overcome me.  Playing the jerk myself,  I waited just a little longer to move, which inspired another symphony from his horn.  I turned right at the next street and proceeded to the left lane, but a vehicle was stopped in the lane.  Realizing the Ram was getting over to pass me on the right, I immediately got over and slowed down.  After I went through the next traffic light, I got in the left lane and the Ram sped dangerously fast around me, exhaling black exhaust while running a red light.

Upon seeing that, I was convicted.  My lack of forgiveness produced in me just enough hatred to repay evil for evil.  My heart hurt as I realized that the anger I stoked in him caused him to put the lives of others at risk.  I imagined him getting home, still stewing from his commute, and snapping at his wife or kids.  My unforgiveness of a small traffic slight could have been the catalyst for even greater evil.

Putting to death the things of the flesh in order to forgive is hard.  It takes practice.  I still Forgiveness reconciliation2have a lot to learn about forgiveness.  Those of us who are in Christ are new creations.  Therefore, we are to act differently from the way those in the world act.  Jesus commands us to forgive because forgiveness fosters reconciliation.  We must show forgiveness, and take on the little debts of those who wrong us because our Master has borne our greater debt.  Man’s reconciliation with God is the summary of the gospel message.  As we practice forgiveness, we will become better at it and fulfill our ministry as ambassadors of reconciliation.

The Gospel Proclaimed

The+Gospel+Proclaimed

The explicit gospel is summed up in Romans 1:1-4.  This gospel is that the Father sent the Son to be resurrected from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit to graciously bring us back into obedient reconciliation with God for the sake of His name.

All throughout Scripture God acts for His name’s sake. 1 Samuel 12:22; Psalm 23:3; Psalm 79:9; Psalm 106:8; Psalm 109:21; Psalm 143:11; Isaiah 48:9-11; Jeremiah 14:7, 21; Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22; Ezekiel 36:22; Daniel 9:17-19; 1 John 2:12.  God acts for His glory.  Romans 11:33-36; 1 Timothy 1:11;  Philippians 2:11.

The explicit gospel is not about us.  It is about God.

The Church, however, has not done a good job of proclaiming this explicit gospel so the gospel has become obscure.  Christians have a tendency to treat our response to the gospel as if it is the heart of the gospel.  We focus on what we do (loving our families, devoting our lives to broken and hurting people, helping the homeless) instead of focusing on what Jesus did on the cross.  Matt Chandler, lead pastor of a church in Dallas stated “If we confuse the gospel with response to the gospel, we will drift from what keeps the gospel on the ground, what makes it clear and personal, and the next thing you know, we will be doing a bunch of things that actually obscure the gospel, not reveal it.”[1]

Making the entirety of the gospel about our doing things turns Jesus into merely a social justice warrior, the poster boy for every preferred progressive public policy.  If the gospel is merely about helping people overcome obstacles in this life, then people’s feelings become paramount.  The gospel then gets molded into how best to make people happy.  The gospel becomes a tool for political gain.  Abortion, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” gender fluidity are then justified by that gospel.    

Making the gospel about our good works and right living instead of what Christ has done is merely a self-help behavioral modification program and is all about our holiness.  A gospel that is merely about cultivating our righteousness becomes about living our best lives now, and about earning the favor and blessings of God.  This gospel is transactional: we behave and God blesses.  Rub that lamp, and get your three wishes.  God owes us for our efforts at obedience.  The more favor you have with God, the more He will give you the things that you “claim.”

These are false gospels of idolatry, leading us back to self-reliance instead of dependence on God.  The Church focuses its gospel preaching on meeting physical needs and teaching people how to behave, and neglects the heart of the gospel: the transformation of sinful, rebellious mankind from being enemies of God to a place of reconciliation by the power of the grace of God in order to give Him glory.  Christian author and apologist Ravi Zacharias often says “Jesus Christ did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.”[2]  The gospel is about resurrecting those who are dead in their sins to become alive in Christ, not about lives of comfort and ease.

A song I recently heard that is popular in Christian circles falls into the same trap.  While the song generally has a good message, it misses the mark severely when it comes to the gospel.  “Dream Small” is Josh Wilson’s debut single.  Its message is about loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing small things that “change the world.”  He lists several of these small things: 

It’s a momma singing songs about the Lord.  It’s a daddy spending family time the world says he cannot afford…It’s a pastor at a tiny little church, forty years of loving on the broken and the hurt…It’s visiting the widow down the street or dancing on a Friday with your friend with special needs

The song writer encourages us to “Live well” and to “find little ways where only you can help.”  He declares “These simple moments change the world.”  Josh Wilson insists the God who makes oceans from rivers and rivers from raindrops, can add up your little things to do bigger things.  The “gospel” in this song is that our good behavior and our good deeds are the things that change the world.

Now, I do not want you to think that I believe the Bible teaches that we are not to do good works.  Jesus said that when we do not help the least of us, we refuse to help Him.[3]  Paul said in Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works.  But he also said “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”[4]  James, the brother of Jesus, said that faith without works is dead.[5]  Good works are the fruit of a redeemed life.  But, these good works must be first and foremost for the kingdom of God.[6]

I do not despise the song when I criticize it.  But, this song’s nice sounding message is not the explicit gospel. The fault of the song is not in the fact that it encourages good works.  The fault lies in the emphasis of our good works that “change the world.”  Be nice to people.  Your kindness just might make their day.  Pay it forward and it will come back to you.  Buy the world a Coke and all will be in harmony. (OK that last reference is a little “old school.”  I’ve provided a link to help you get what I mean.)  Being nice to people does not tell them how to be reconciled with God. 

These good works are not the gospel.  They are our response to the gospel.  Matt Chandler said “We live through faith, and we die through faith.  Everything else is garbage.  Even good works of righteousness, if not done through faith, are works of self-righteousness and therefore filthy rags.”[7]  We can go to church every Sunday, attend a life group, participate in church ministry, volunteer at the food pantry, be nice to our neighbors.  But, if we do those things trying to earn the favor of God we may still be dead in our sins.  The result of making the gospel about our works is to inoculate ourselves to the real Jesus and the true gospel.   If we do those good works as the goal of the gospel, we obscure the gospel.  We essentially preach a cross with no power, grace without repentance, and a God who requires nothing of us.  Our nice deeds give people good feelings, but leave them without the good news.  We can do the same thing by singing about buying the world a Coke.

This false gospel of good works to change the world has a popular saying often (incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”  However, Romans 10:14-17 insists the presentation of the gospel will always require words, not simply our good works.  Our example should certainly be one of obedience to Christ, but it is not our works that transforms sinners.  It is the Word.  Paul writes in Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….”

Do not assume that your nice deeds will preach the gospel.  The gospel must be preached explicitly with words. 

This true gospel—where, for His glory, God the Father tore apart and bled out the body of Son of God instead of pouring out His wrath on us who deserved it—has the transformational power to make those who are dead in sin to become dead to sin and alive in Christ.  This is the explicit gospel Christians need to believe and the Church needs to preach.

[1] Matt Chandler, with Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 83.

[2] https://twitter.com/ravizacharias/status/403333034134364161?lang=en

[3] Matthew 25:45.

[4] Ephesians 2:8-10.

[5] James 2:17.

[6] Matthew 6:33.

[7] Chandler, Explicit Gospel, 85.