Thursday, December 26, 2013

Glory to God

Day Twenty Five                   
Glory to God                          
Luke 2:4-20

So soon it is over. The gifts are over and, probably, laid aside. The wrapping paper, so carefully folded and neatly secured with ribbons and bows, lies strewn across the floor. Only the dog pays any attention to it. The great, celebratory meal has been prepared and cooked at length; it has adorned the festive table, but now it is gone. The kitchen looks like a war zone. It will have to wait until we all have caught our breath. It’s time to sit down, to share good company, and to reflect.

Has it been a good year for you? Have there been changes that you eagerly anticipated and towards which you labored? Has another chapter begun at school or at work? Has your family expanded, or has it contracted? Has death or divorce or some other kind of separation cast a shadow over your year? Is there an empty place at the table? Has Christmas become, for you, a time to look back wistfully, not a time to look forward hopefully? What does our faith have to say after the dinner is done, as we sit back and reflect?
I hope that you will reflect upon the reason for the celebration. Christmas is about as far from a secular holiday as it is possible to be. No matter what people tell you, it’s not “all about the family.” Or, rather, it’s all about His family. We become members of God’s family by faith; not our faith, but His. It is Christ’s faithfulness that overcomes our faithlessness. His sacrifice enables us to be adopted into the family and household of God. And that, certainly, is reason for celebration.

There is rich glory in these days, and it is all His. “We have seen His glory” says John. Personally, we haven’t yet set eyes upon Him, unlike those who walked the hills of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Of those who did, of course, some did not behold His glory. Herod ignored it. Caiaphas denied it. And, if he caught sight of it, Pontius Pilate quickly turned his face away. But John saw His glory, and what he knew, he wrote.

Christ’s was the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father. It was the glory of God, nothing less. There, surrounded by shepherds kneeling, a frightened Joseph and an exhausted Mary, watched over by a star and a hundred thousand angels, glory came down. In Christ that glory shone with an unparalleled blaze. Nothing could extinguish it, not even a Cross. There’s good reason for that – Christ’s glory is the Cross. His glory is that He gave Himself for us, in confirmation of the Father’s deep, deep love. His glory shines most brightly in whatever expresses divine love. There is glory in His birth, since it shows that He loved us enough to come and dwell among us; and there is glory in His death, because the Cross of shame is the throne of glory.
Celebrate the love that brought the Baby to Bethlehem. Don’t put it away with the decorations or leave it by the roadside like a discarded tree. In Christ the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Let that be your glory and your joy.

May the joy of the angels, the wonder of the shepherds, and the peace of the Christ Child, fill your hearts this Christmas; and may the blessing of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you now and always. Amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Made Him Known

Day Twenty Four                   
Made Him Known                 
John 1:15-18

Let’s say that you have a piece of information. It doesn’t really matter how it came into your possession. Perhaps you just happened to be in a certain place at a certain time and you saw something. You were just getting out of your car when you saw an envelope being exchanged between a known criminal and a respected official. Or, you were helping out at an election when you saw something that made you pay attention. It need not have been a bad thing. Maybe you saw a situation that could have turned ugly that was redeemed by a selfless act. Whatever it was, you saw something; you now possess important information. You must decide what you are going to do with it.

John tells us that we have seen something absolutely priceless in Jesus. We have been given insight into the nature of God. It wasn’t something that we saw by accident, either. God deliberately revealed His glory to us in the person of His Son. When the Word became flesh and we “beheld” His glory, we came into information that changed us. Now, we must decide what we are going to do with it.

In verses 17-18, John explains, further, that though the Law had been given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. He goes on to say that the unseen God has finally been revealed in God’s only Son, that God has “made Him known.” The word he uses is well known to every serious student of the Bible. “Exegesis” means the method by which the text is amplified and explained. Every good Bible study involves exegesis. The teacher “opens” the Word in such a way as to make it relevant and intelligible. As we study the Bible, through exegesis its truths are “made known.”

John says that Jesus came in order to make the Father known. Jesus is the exegesis of the Father; He is the exposition of the hidden truth about God. As we read about Jesus, our eyes are opened to the mysteries that once evaded us. As we look at Him, we see the nature and name of God. This should not surprise us. Jesus is the only Son of God; He has been at the Father’s side from the beginning; He has unique authority to reveal the Father. We have seen His glory.

Now, just as Christ, the Word, made known His Father’s heart, we have the responsibility to make Him known. We have seen something. We cannot “unsee” what has been revealed to us. We have a responsibility. We must share what we have seen. We cannot keep it to ourselves. This was not a private revelation intended for us alone. If the Child in the manger is who He claims to be, we dare not stay silent.

Lord God, You have opened my eyes. I’m dazzled by the light, but I’m grateful for it. I am no longer blind; at last I can see. But, having seen, I know that I must speak. Open my lips, just as You have opened my eyes. May I live to speak Your praise and to bear faithful witness to Your Son. For His name’s sake. Amen.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Truth and Grace

Day Twenty Three                
Truth and Grace              
Titus 2:1-14

Perhaps we should not make too much of the order of the words, but it remains the case that John did not write “The Word became flesh… we have seen His glory… who came from the Father, full of truth and grace.” As we have seen, John puts grace first. Have you ever wondered why?

To put truth second is not to diminish its importance. Christianity is all about truth. We don’t say, “Christ is Truth” as often as we name Him “the Resurrection and the Life” or “the True Vine.” Yet, it is certainly appropriate for us to call Him the truth. Jesus is, after all, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). But we don’t tend to do this very often. Others do so. Many of the cults emphasize their version of the truth before all else. Some eastern philosophies and religions also elevate truth as the primary characteristic of God. Christians do not. We are far more likely to speak of God in other ways. There’s a good reason for this. For Christians, the primary characteristic of God is not truth, it is love.

When you build your understanding of the nature of God on the primacy of truth, what you are really doing is constructing a philosophy. Certain truth claims undergird your worldview. The way you look at the world depends upon the foundational truths you affirm. Your actions grow out of your beliefs about the nature of the universe. Truth dominates. But Christianity is not really a philosophy, in the sense that it is not constructed upon core truths. Christianity is not, when it comes down to it, a philosophical system, it is a relational system. The core of Christianity is our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And the heart of that relationship is love. To say that God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life, is not to construct a philosophical premise, it is to name an act. God didn’t “so love the world” that He persuaded us about creation, or about a theory of the atonement. He “so loved the world” that He sent His Son. The defining feature of our faith is an act of love whereby God invaded history. It is grace in action.

Of course, to say that God loves us is, itself, a truth claim. As Christians, we must be eager, always, to stand up for what we believe to be true. But we should do so with grace. When the Word made flesh broke into our world we beheld His glory, the glory of the One and Only, “full of grace and truth.”

Lord God, I am grateful for Your grace. When truth alone would have condemned me, grace came and stood beside me and took my place. Help me, whenever I am ardent for the truth, never to lose the flavor of grace. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Grace and Truth

Day Twenty Two                   
Grace and Truth           
II Corinthians 12:1-10

It’s interesting that, in his description of the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh, John puts grace before truth. “We have seen His glory,” he writes, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This reminds us that grace comes first. It is God’s action in pursuing us that precedes our response. His amazing grace provides the first step toward us. We are not drawn by the concept of God, or by some commitment to natural justice; we respond in faith to the winsome, winning love that we encounter in Jesus Christ. Grace comes first.

Theologians, as is their way, disagree about this. They tell us that we should not elevate any of the attributes of God above another, since they are all important. They are probably right; we don’t need to argue about whether Jesus is the Good Shepherd before He is the Light of the world, He is simply both. Nevertheless, it does seem at least appropriate that, in John’s description, grace comes before truth. The first and highest attribute of God, as Christians understand Him, is love. Grace is love in action. The old carol has it right – “Love came down at Christmas.”

Grace has many technical definitions. George Stroup called it “the thread running through the whole fabric of Christian theology.” Thomas Goodwin called it “the freeness of love.” For Calvin, grace was the means by which sinners are reconciled to God through Christ’s blameless life and His sacrificial death, so that “we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father.” An easier definition is a simple acrostic. Grace is: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. We receive forgiveness through grace, the unmerited favor of God, who pours His love upon us as a result of the finished work of Christ. So, grace is God’s favor given to us when we had nothing to commend ourselves to Him. It is God’s love for the unlovely. It is God’s acceptance, given to us when we were far from acceptable. It is God’s redemption, given to the irredeemable.

John Wallace used to say that, although the favorite word of angels might be love, the favorite word of sinners is grace. Love reaches out on the same level, he explained, but “grace is a word with a stoop in it.” In Christ, God stoops low in order to lift us up. How glorious! And, we have seen that glory, full of grace and truth.

Lord Jesus, You came to me when I had nothing to commend me to anyone, and You raised me up. Out of the mire of sin, You lifted me to the heights of Your glory. Thank You for the grace that reaches out to me, for the grace that sustains me, and for the grace that will bring me back to my Father’s heart. Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Full of Grace and Truth

Day Twenty One          
Full of Grace and Truth         
II Corinthians 5:11-21

What does John mean when he tells us that Jesus, the Word made flesh, was “full of grace and truth”? Let’s think about what it means to be “filled” in this way. We sometimes describe optimists as “half-full” people, whereas pessimists are called “half-empty.” We imagine a half-filled glass of water and then judge people on the basis of how they interpret what they see. Of course, most of us are neither total optimists nor utter pessimists. Generally, we’re a bit of both. Depending upon our circumstances we often see things differently. In other regards, too, we tend to be a mixture of darkness and light. Nine times out of ten we can respond calmly to the situations we encounter; but on the tenth occasion we can erupt with frustration and anger. We are a mixture of good and evil. The struggle between our old nature and our new creation in Christ continues throughout our lives. One day, sin may appear to be in the ascendency; the next day we may celebrate a victory of grace. We are not really “full of grace and truth.” Both grace and the ugliness of sin reside within us. Truth and error are often to be found in equal measure. But in Jesus Christ the fullness of grace was found. In Him was no trace of error. In Him there is grace and only grace; in Him there is truth and only truth.

One of the greatest stains on Christian witness is inconsistency. At its worst we call it hypocrisy. To be a hypocrite is to knowingly do the opposite of what you know you ought to do, and what you say you will do. It is to affirm a certain set of beliefs and values, and to act in violation of the principles you espouse. Contrary to what the world will tell you, outright hypocrisy is relatively rare in Christian circles. Nevertheless, we all act inconsistently. Sometimes our failures are intentional, but more often they are merely incidental. We did not really intend to break the moral code, yet we did. Our inattention caused us to revert to the habits of our life before Christ. We did not mean to sin, but in a moment the act was done, the lie was told, the promise was broken. Goodness gave way to evil; grace was, momentarily, overcome.

Grace was never overcome in Jesus. In Him, principle and practice met. He was filled with grace, there was no room for sin; in Him truth overflowed, error was banished. Unlike us, Jesus was not a battleground for opposites. That’s why we can trust Him absolutely. Unqualified grace and unadulterated truth met in a manger, in Bethlehem.

Father God, come and dwell in me, by Your Holy Spirit, until my dreams and deeds are one. I know that I shall not be perfect until I see my Savior face to face, yet this I ask: in the struggles I shall face today, may I be filled, more and more, with Christ. In His name, I pray. Amen.

From 'He' to 'We'

Day Twenty                           
From ‘He’ to ‘We’                  
Acts 2:29-32

A subtle change happens in verse 14 of John chapter one. For the first time, the author steps into the story. He stops describing events in the third person, as a dispassionate observer. In verse 14, John moves from “He” to “we.” For the first time, John shows us his hand. He cannot continue to write about the coming of Christ as though he was not personally involved. John is no longer a reporter, trying to be evenhanded in describing events; it is no longer possible. Having walked with Jesus for so many years; having witnessed so much of His ministry, having endured His agony, and having experienced the ecstasy of resurrection, John knows that he must bear his own testimony. He tells us what he saw – “we have seen His glory.”

There comes a time, for all of us, when it is no longer possible for us to view Christianity from the outside. Many people begin by treating Jesus Christ like any other man. We listen to the stories of His life and we put together a biography that, we think, will enable us to understand Him. But it doesn’t work. Jesus doesn’t fit into our neat, prearranged pigeon holes. He blasts through them. He demands that we make our minds up. He’s not like Alexander the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte. We may treat the source materials in the same way, but we soon realize that, if even a tenth of what we read is true, then Jesus does not belong in the same category as any man. His claims are greater; His actions are without parallel. Napoleon’s exploits led to the death of thousands, but he did not raise a single person to life. There is no Lazarus in his biography. Alexander conquered vast tracts of land. His empire covered half the known world, but with his death it evaporated. Jesus, on the other hand, never commanded an army. He had little more than the clothes upon His back when He was led away to die, crucified between thieves. But, today, millions call Him “Lord.” No army marches with His banner, but He is loved by believers in almost every land. How do you write a biography about someone like that? Do you discount the miracles as make-believe, just because no one else has made the lame leap for joy like Jesus? Do you refuse to accept the resurrection, because “things like that don’t happen”? Do you reject the virgin birth as an old wives’ tale, meant only for children?

At some point, you have to ask yourself, “If even one tenth of what I read is true, how can I not put myself in the equation? How can I claim to be dispassionate when what I see and hear rocks me back upon my heels?” That’s when the story has to move from being about “what Christians believe” to “what I believe.” That’s when you finally understand that the Word did not become flesh to satisfy an abstract principle of Law; He came for you.

Lord Christ, forgive me for the times when I have judged You, when I have attempted to read the story of Your coming as though it had nothing to do with me. Teach me to see myself in Your motivation, and to believe that, in Bethlehem, You were born so that I might step into Your story, and be saved. Amen.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Only One

Day Nineteen                  
The Only One                     
Colossians 1:15-23

“The problem with you Christians,” we hear, repeatedly, “is that you have taken a remarkable man, and you have made him out to be more than he ever claimed for himself. Jesus of Nazareth was a wonderfully gifted teacher, but you have made him into the divine Christ.” The complaint is far from new. For centuries, critics have argued that Paul took the simple message of Jesus, that we should love one another, and made it into a complicated theological conundrum called the Trinity. If only, they say, we would return to Jesus, we would stop being so judgmental. We would recognize the supremacy of love over all things, and we would see the spark of the divine in all people and every religion. It is Christianity that has ruined the message of Jesus.

The problem with this is that it is impossible to drive a wedge between Jesus and Christ. As C.S. Lewis pointed out many years ago, if Jesus did not claim to be divine, then His words make no more sense than a man who claims to be a fried egg. Jesus is either “cracked,” in that He is not in possession of His faculties; or, He is a criminal, in that He seeks to deceive us; or, He is Christ, and His claims are correct. It simply will not do to call Jesus a wonderful teacher without taking seriously the claims He made.

Christians have long understood the central claim of the New Testament to be that Jesus of Nazareth was and is God. Uniquely, among the claimants to the throne of the Messiah, Jesus did not stop at prophecy. He was so much more than a uniquely gifted human being. In Bethlehem, God came down to us, in the person of the Son. This is heresy to the Jews; it is nonsense to the Greeks; but it is what we believe. Jesus was “true God of true God, Light of Light eternal,” begotten, not created.

The first chapter of John’s Gospel assumes the divinity of Christ. By identifying the Word with the child born to Mary, Jesus ascribes divine status to Jesus. This can also be seen in the unusual phrase found in John 1:18. “No one has ever seen God,” writes John, “but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.” There can be no doubt that, as in verse 14, John is using very precise language to identify Jesus, the “One and Only,” as God, the One who makes the Father known. We do not need to understand this fully in order to accept it. Here, as in so many other places, faith precedes understanding, and leads to praise.

Lord Christ, I praise You. In ways too deep for words, You have opened my eyes to the Father’s glory. Now, seeing You, I am able to respond in adoration and praise to the God who made me and sustains me day by day. I kneel in wonder beside the manger and bring You the offering of my heart. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The One and Only

Day Eighteen                         
The One and Only                 
Mark 1:1-11

We have grown tired of superlatives. The latest and greatest of any sport, or in popular music, is feted as the best, the most wonderful, the greatest of all time. It is either ignorance or arrogance that causes us to elevate those we admire. Either, we really have never seen anyone throw a football like the latest exponent of the trade, thereby justifying a salary larger than most of us can imagine; or, we choose to believe that our generation has been blessed in ways that previous generations were not. No matter how our parents and grandparents revered Joe Namath or Ted Williams, our chronological superiority makes us doubt that such heroes can rival ours. In the same way, we corrupt simple mathematics to claim that our favorite ball player always gives 110%, forcing those who disagree with us to claim ever-higher impossibilities for those that they favor. Eventually, it leaves us all a little jaded. We have seen too many teenage superstars flare brightly, only to plummet to earth and to obscurity. We have witnessed too many careers cut short by stupidity. The world is full of “nearly men.” Most of our heroes prove to have feet of clay.

So, what are we to make of John’s phrase, when he describes Jesus, the eternal Word, as “the One and Only”? Is this just another attempt to mark a man as unique and special? Is this John’s attempt to claim a slice of immortality for himself, having seen and known and walked with God’s One and Only? Hardly! The claim belongs to Jesus, not to those who follow Him. It is more than a metaphor. John is not trying to say that, as far as saviors go, Jesus is the best. There is, in fact, no hint of comparison in his words. Jesus cannot be compared to any rival, since no such person exists. He is unique. Jesus is the only One to have received His Father’s glory. John enables us to see, albeit fleetingly and partially, into the heart of the divine. There, Jesus is without rival. He is the Father’s One and Only Son. No one can be compared to Him. The glory of the Father is His.

There are echoes of Jesus’ baptism in these words. When He emerged from the Jordan, having been immersed, somewhat unwillingly, by His cousin John the Baptist, a voice came from heaven identifying Jesus as the Father’s beloved Son (Mark 1:11). That is exactly what He is. He is more than a hero. He is the One and Only.

Lord Jesus, You are not one among many. No one compares to You. Yours is the Father’s glory, since You are the only Son. As such, I worship You. Forgive my partial praise. May my “hallelujahs” ring out for You and You alone. Amen.