Christ Came Down At Christmas

At the close of the First World War, Prince Edward of Britain visited a hospital that was caring for thirty-six of Britain’s greatest war heroes. The Prince was taken first to a ward of twenty-four men. Before leaving, he asked, “Are there not others?” The nurse responded in the affirmative, but she had questioned whether or not the Prince wanted to see those who were more seriously wounded. Demanding to see them all, he was taken to another room of eleven men. The Prince was stunned at the awful condition of these noble defenders to the Crown. He was moves to tears as he offered each and deepest appreciation for his noble service.

Again upon leaving the room the Prince remarked that if he had counted right, there was still one more. The nurse remonstrated rather strongly about seeing the last one since that veteran was in isolation and his condition was so critical. The Prince demanded a visit. The nurse protested that the situation of the man might truly be unbearable to the royal visitor. Edward would not be dissuaded and was soon standing by the bedside of the dying hero. He was not prepared, however, for what he saw. The brave soldier had taken the worst of a fiery explosion. Much of his body had been either blown or burned away. His face was disfigured beyond recognition. The stench of death lay heavy in the room. The Prince shuddered as a wave of horror swept over his soul from what he saw.

However, after a moment to regain himself, the Prince leaned over the bed, and calling the soldiers name, told him who he was. The old warrior’s eyes twitched; and the stub of an arm on the right side of his body jumped in an effort to salute. Prince Edward stooped down in the tenderest tones poured out the deepest thanks on behalf of his country. Then stooping lower, he kissed the disfigured brow of the dying soldier. This was a condescending moment for the noble Prince of the English throne.

There is a greater One, however, who has stooped far lower to plant the kiss of redemption upon the execrable and wretched brow of lost humanity. Oh what incomparable condescension! The King of Glory came down. He wrapped himself in the fading garment of our humanity and pitched his fleshy tent in silence on straw in a stable under a star. Why did he come? He came to save! How would he save? By identifying completely with our humanity, yet remaining the sinless Son of God.

You see, God had created man but he had never been a man. He had watched men toil, but he had never blistered his own hands with a carpenter’s tool. He had never felt the onslaught of the tempter, or had his soul been pierced with the sorrows of life. He had seen men sink into the hopeless depths of the grave, but He had never felt the cold grip of death or spread His omnipotent shoulders on the bottom of a sepulcher. But He would yield Himself to be judged and unjustly condemned at Pilate’s bar, so that we might be acquitted at the tribunal of heaven. He took our place and was crucified as a despicable wretch, so that rebellious sinners might be reconciled to God and sent forth as kings and priests. He suffered the sting of death, yet He broke the bars of the grave so that we might cry, “O death where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory?”

Why did Christ come down? He came down that His mysterious Incarnation might reunite us to God; that His Atonement would purchase our justification; that his death would become the spring of our eternal life; that His resurrection would be the pledge of our glory; and His ascension the triumph of our souls!

Hallelujah! Christ came down at Christmas!

God’s Wonderful Gift of Life

The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern, is a story about a man who wants to accomplish something in his own life but is so busy helping others that life seems to pass him by. Despondent over what appears to be a very ordinary, if not a wasted life, he wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish, and through the help of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never lived. After viewing life from such a unique perspective, he concludes that life is indeed a wonderful gift. Though Stern never found anyone willing to publish the story, it finally found its way into the hands of filmmaker Frank Capra, who turned it into the all-time Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

I have not had a life-changing visit from a kind guardian angel, but I have had my perspective on life altered in recent years. I have always thought that because of our fallen condition in this fallen world that life, as we know it now, was quite pitiful in comparison to the life that is yet to come. Hence, it has not been very tempting for me to sink my roots too deeply in this present world.

I do not at all mean that my life hasn’t been enjoyable and blessed. To the contrary, I have had a good life, a happy marriage, wonderful children and adorable grandchildren. I have been privileged to meet some of God’s choicest saints in places all around the world. I have been able to work in a very rewarding ministry and develop some wonderful friendships. I feel that what I have done has had tremendous meaning and value. I feel I have had a truly full life! So any time God is ready for me to go, I am ready. I have no sad stories, no regrets about leaving, and no struggle to grasp a few more fleeting moments of time here on earth. It’s been a great journey! (For those who are shocked by this, no, I am not depressed; and, yes, I would like to see my grandchildren grow and have children of their own.) But earnest Christians live with a very loose grip on this present world. Right?     We are only pilgrims passing through this land of shadows headed for the real world – the eternal one. Right? This life is inferior at best, and the sooner we slip the bonds of mortal existence and are clothed with the eternal, the better. Right?

Some time ago God began to speak to me about the wonderful gift He has given us in our earthly physical life. It should not be minimized or demeaned. It shouldn’t simply be endured until we are liberated by eternal life. Rather, it should be lived with deep gratitude and respect as a wonderful gift from God. It is good, not because I make it so, but because He has made it so.

God created life and declared it good. God gave Adam and Eve each other and the created world around them to enjoy richly. He considers this physical life sacred and reserves the severest penalties for those who destroy it. The first promise attached to a commandment was the promise of a long life. God often promised length of days as a way of honoring His faithful servants in the Old Testament. All of this is still true, despite the fall of man and the curse of sin.

Obviously, God sees the life He gives us as very good! Don’t confuse God’s gift of life that is good with what the world calls the “good life.” The two are polar opposites. The citizens of this present world chase after the “good life”; grabbing all they can get and holding it as tightly as possible. They generally succeed in keeping it long enough to make themselves thoroughly miserable before losing it all. Christians, however, have given up the “good life” so that they may enjoy a life that is truly good.   They do not grab for what they can get but rather hold everything they possess in an open palm. They clutch nothing to themselves. Thereby they can enjoy all things without those things affecting their joy.

If God views our earthly life as good, then His perspective ought to become our perspective. We should see every moment of our life here as a blessed gift to be richly enjoyed. A glorious journey marked by His grace. I don’t need health or wealth or popularity or beauty or anything else to make my life good. All I need is to walk with Him and remain in Him moment by moment. Such a view of life is neither a shallow optimism nor a refusal to acknowledge the deep darkness that life can bring. It isn’t ignoring the curse of sin and its awful physical consequences. But it is refusing to let those things blind us to the ultimate goodness of this life. It is acknowledging that every day is a gift from God—a gift that when received gratefully can transform the most common and ordinary moment into joyful living. It is a statement of faith that says pain, sorrow and trouble do not define my existence, determine my happiness or have the final word!

It is doubtful that anyone was ever influenced toward the life to come by someone who despised the one he or she was living now. Life is good, and as Christians we should demonstrate that goodness to those with whom we interact.

As we celebrate God’s unspeakable gift in Christ this Christmas season, it would be good also to celebrate another of His wonderful gifts—the gift of life. Important celebrations require planning and thought. One Christmas morning, before my family and I opened our gifts, we read the Christmas story, prayed together, and then I read some prepared remarks about how good God had been to our family and how grateful I was for each of them. I then mentioned some specific things about each one that I deeply appreciated. After I finished, each family member did the same. At times we were so overcome with emotion we couldn’t speak. When it was over, we embraced each other and realized anew how wonderful life really is! If you’re alone, read a prepared letter to God and thank Him for the life He has given you. You will not be alone for long! Whatever your circumstance, don’t miss an opportunity this year to celebrate all of life. Because it really is wonderful!

 

Resurrection – Touchstone of the Christian Faith

William Sangster, the venerable British preacher of yesteryear, was stricken late in life by incurable muscular atrophy.  As the merciless disease advanced, rendering his muscles useless and robbing him of his voice, Sangster was eventually forced to surrender his pulpit and retire his anointed pen.  However, he did manage to find the strength one Easter Sunday to feebly scrawl these words in a letter to his daughter, “It is terrible,” he wrote, “to wake up on Easter Sunday and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’”

With these words Sangster underscored the dynamic of the Christian message, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Indeed, it is the fulcrum upon which turns every other Christian doctrine.  Without resurrection, the divinity of Jesus is in jeopardy.  Without divinity, Christ sinlessness is debatable.  If He is sinful, Calvary loses its atoning merit.  Robbed of its atoning merit, the cross—indeed the entire gospel story—is a sham.  Or, as Paul expressed it centuries ago, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. 15:17).

In his book, Reality of the Resurrection, Merrill Tyney notes that many aspects of the Christian faith are echoed (if only vaguely) in non-Christian religions.  For instance, some religions claim, as does Christianity, to have divinely inspired writings.  Muslims boast of the Koran; the Mormons of their “Golden Tablets.”  Similarly, many pagan religions offer their followers the promise of life after death.  Like Christianity, philosophers and religionists of all eras have proposed various systems of ethics for the governing of the human race.  However, Tyney rightly declares that the distinctive attribute of the Christian faith is its belief that “the supernatural power of the living God was manifested historically by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”

The resurrection marks Christianity off from all other religions, past, present and future.  No other faith underpins its belief system with the doctrine of a risen Saviour.  To the Christian the Resurrection: authenticates scripture, validates salvation by faith, provides the power for victorious living, and sustains the promise of our future resurrection!  It is the cardinal doctrine among cardinal doctrines.   It was central to the preaching of the early church.  It sustained the hopes of first-century martyrs, and it is a message that has been faithfully transmitted across the centuries and entrusted to those of us who number ourselves among the followers of Jesus today.  The resurrection message is non-negotiable.  It must never be surrendered or compromised.

However, the greatest danger in the Christian community may not be the temptation to erase the doctrine of the resurrection from the time-honored creeds of Christendom.  In fact, any suggestion to alter this tenet would immediately be voted down in most of our conference meetings or our academic forums.  Rather, the greatest danger in our circles is that of relegating this basic doctrine to the dusty archives of church history.  Having been hammered out on the anvil of controversy by our forefathers, the resurrection story tends to become so commonplace that it is by sheer neglect demoted to second place in our thinking.  The resurrection and its manifold implications have become supplemental themes that we take off the shelf once a year.  Sadly, they seldom maintain a central place in the perennial preaching and teaching of the Church.

Sangster lamented to his daughter that he had no voice with which to shout the resurrection message.  But he then added these searching words, “It would be more terrible still,” he concluded, “to have a voice and not want to shout.”  Join with me in the centuries old anthem, “He is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!”

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

–December of 2007

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern, is a story about a man who wants to accomplish something in his own life but is so busy helping others that life seems to pass him by. Despondent over what appears to be a very ordinary if not even a wasted life, he wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish, and through the help of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never lived. After viewing life from such a unique perspective, he concludes that life is indeed a wonderful gift.  Though Stern never found anyone willing to publish the story, it finally found its way into the hands of filmmaker Frank Capra, who turned it into the all-time Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

I have not had any life-changing visits from a guardian angel, but I have had my perspective on this life altered in recent months.  I am one of those Christians who truly believe the best is yet to come!  It has not been tempting to me to spend any time or money collecting the trinkets and toys of this present world. I have not craved houses and lands.   I have had a good life, a happy marriage, and wonderful children who are grown and established – so any time God is ready for me to go, I am ready to depart: no sad stories, no regrets about leaving and no struggle to grasp a few more fleeting moments of time here on earth . It’s been a great journey! (For those who are shocked by this, no, I am not depressed, and yes, I would like to know my grandchildren). After all, earnest Christians live with a very loose grip on this present world. Right? Right! We are only pilgrims passing through the temporal headed for the eternal. Right? Right!  This life is inferior at best and the sooner we slip the bonds of mortal existence and are clothed with the eternal, the better.  Right? Not quite!

Some months ago God began to speak to me about the wonderful gift He has given us in our earthly physical life. It should not be minimized or demeaned because it is not as blissful a state as the life to come, nor should one just endure it until liberated by heaven. Rather, it should be lived with deep gratitude and respect as a wonderful gift from God.  It is good, not because I make it so, but because He has made it so.  God created life and declared it good. God gave Adam and Eve each other and the created world around them to enjoy richly.  He considers this physical life sacred and reserves the severest penalties for those who destroy it.  The first promise attached to a commandment was the promise of a long life. God often promised length of days as a way of honoring His faithful servants in the Old Testament. All of this is still true despite the Fall of man and the curse of sin.  Obviously, God sees the life He gives us as very good!

Don’t confuse God’s gift of life that is good with what the world calls the “good life.”  The two are polar opposites. The citizens of this present world chase after the “good life,” grabbing all they can get and holding it as tightly fisted as possible.  They generally succeed in keeping it long enough to make themselves thoroughly miserable before losing it all.  Christians, however, have given up the “good life” so that they may enjoy a life that is truly good. They do not grab for what they can get, but rather hold everything they possess in an open palm.  They clutch nothing to themselves but God.  Thereby they can enjoy all things without those things affecting their joy.

If God views our earthly life as good, then His perspective ought to become our perspective. We should see every moment of our life here as a blessed gift to be richly enjoyed, life as a glorious journey marked by His grace.  I don’t need health or wealth or popularity or beauty or anything else to make my life good. All I need is to walk with Him and remain in Him moment by moment.   Such a view of life is neither a shallow optimism nor a refusal to acknowledge the deep darkness that life can bring.  It isn’t ignoring the curse of sin and its awful physical consequences. But it is refusing to let those things blind us to the ultimate goodness of this life. It is acknowledging that every day is a gift from God – a gift that when received gratefully can transform the most common and ordinary moment into joyful living.  It is a statement of faith that says pain, sorrow and trouble do not define my existence, determine my happiness, or have the last word!

If God sees life as good then His perspective should be reflected in the way we live it.  God has given me some real-life object lessons to illustrate this point. Oscar Johnson, a dear friend, died recently after battling cancer for several years.  Oscar’s life taught me so much about how one should truly enjoy each and every day. Oscar knew for over two years that he was dying.  The joy and optimism with which he lived those years was a powerful witness to hundreds of people.  During his last hospitalization, I was alone with him and took the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to my family and me and to say goodbye.  That opened the door to talk about dying.  He said to me, “Brother Avery, I have never walked this way before.  I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re dying.” And then with a big smile he said, “So I’m just going to enjoy my family, witness to my doctor and take a nap.” Oscar was holding life in an open palm.  He was rejoicing in every moment he had, and others were incredibly impacted by that joy.

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of alumnus John Case, Jr.  John died suddenly from a rare form of cancer at the age of forty-two. Hundreds came to the viewing and the funeral.  His life had impacted so many people for what appears to be one primary reason – he loved life and it showed!  From the twinkle in his eye, to the lilt in his voice, to the humor in his words, John left those around him with the feeling that life is good and he was enjoying it!  A simple phone call from John could be the bright spot in a person’s day.  What a great way to live!  It is doubtful that anyone was ever influenced toward the life to come by someone who despised the one he or she was living now.  Life is good, and as Christians we should demonstrate that goodness to those we interact with.

As we celebrate God’s unspeakable gift in Christ this Christmas season, it would be good to also celebrate another of His wonderful gifts – the gift of life.  Important celebrations require planning and thought.  Last year on Christmas morning, before my family and I opened our gifts, we read the Christmas story, prayed together and then I read some prepared remarks about how good God had been to our family and how grateful I was for each of them.  I then mentioned some specific things about each one that I deeply appreciated.  After I finished, each family member did the same.  At times we were so overcome with emotion we couldn’t speak.   When it was over, we embraced each other and realized anew how wonderful life really is! If you’re alone, read a prepared letter to God and thank Him for the life He has given you.  You will not be alone for long!   What ever your circumstance, don’t miss an opportunity this year  to celebrate all of life.  Because it really is wonderful!

Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas

–December of 2006

Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas

The early American spiritual, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” has a profound insight running through its lyrics.  The writer appropriately reflects the world’s failure to recognize the incarnate Son of God when He says: “We didn’t know who You were.”  The third verse proves to be even more remarkable. “The world treats you mean, Lord, treats me mean too, but that’s how things are down here. We don’t know who you are.”  The writer deliberately shifts from a historical ignorance to a present-day failure to recognize the Son of God and then to live out the implications of knowing Him.

The world completely missed Him on that first Christmas (John 1:5, 10).  Their kings were born surrounded by pomp and circumstance.  But Jesus came silently, in a stable, with only a few shepherds to pay him homage.  Their kings lived in palaces, dressed in splendor, dined with heads of state, and traveled in gold plated chariots pulled by majestic steeds.  Their vision of a king was one to be served, feared and honored from a distance.  Jesus wore the garb of common men, had no place to lay his head, traveled by foot, rubbed shoulders with the poor and diseased, held children on his lap and first revealed His glory at the wedding of a poor village girl.  The very thought of a king, dying on a cross to redeem his people and establish His kingdom, was to the world foolishness.

His own people missed him (John 1:11).  The Jews were looking for a conquering warlord that would throw off the yoke of Rome, liberate their country and return them to the golden age of Solomon.  But Jesus said His kingdom was not of this world, spoke of going the second mile, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies.  The Jews watched in complete horror as He healed a Roman’s Centurion’s servant, talked to a Samaritan adulteress, stayed in the home of a tax collector and spent most of His time with a group of ignorant fisherman.  For their Messiah to be crucified on a Roman cross as God’s perfect sacrifice, proved to be a huge stumbling block.

His disciples had problems recognizing who He was.  Peter, speaking for the twelve, announced at Caesarea Philippi that, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.”  Jesus’ response to that was to explain that being the Christ involved a cross.   To which Peter replied, “Not so Lord.”  When Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, Peter’s paradigm of the Messiah came out again, and it was not one of self-sacrificing servanthood.  Even after three years, His disciples saw His death and resurrection as the ultimate end rather than the consummate victory.

You don’t have to miss Him.  Those who were in tune to God’s redemptive plan and activity recognized Jesus right away.  Simeon and Anna recognized Him as God’s means of salvation when He was still a babe in His mother’s arms.  The wise men worshipped Him, John the Baptist announced Him as the “Lamb of God,” and the woman of Samaria said to her friends, “Is not this the Christ?”

Even a Roman Centurion who witnessed His crucifixion said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

If Jesus were reincarnated among us today, would we be prepared to recognize Him?  Or have we created a Jesus so much to our own liking that we would never know the one walking through the pages of our New Testament?  This Christmas season, go back to the gospels and look for Him.  You will be awed by what you find.

Between the Cradle and the Cross

–Winter of 2006

Between the Cradle and the Cross

Christmas gives the Church a special opportunity to gather around Bethlehem’s manger to glory in the incarnation of God’s own Son.  In like fashion, Good Friday grips the Christian world with hallowed silence as it remembers Calvary’s cruel cross, while Easter leads us triumphantly by the empty tomb on resurrection morn.   These holy days allow us to focus on specific aspects of our Lord’s redemptive work.

But the church has no special day to celebrate what happened in between those two great events.  For in between lies the perfectly lived life of Jesus – a life that we are called to celebrate, follow after, and be conformed to.  A life that is far too easily lost among the parables, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracles, and the great gospel narratives.

I hear some reader saying now, “You can celebrate an event but how do you celebrate a life?  How can you take years of activity, pages of discourse and passages of truth and package it in a single moment of celebration or reflection?”

Actually Jesus did just that in the opening statements of His prayer in John 17.  This part of His prayer is packed with the very essence of His life and work.  Verses 4-8 encapsulates his earthly life in such a concise way that it allows one to get the big picture of what His life was about.  Notice the three aspects of what Jesus says in these verses: “I have glorified thee (the heavenly Father) on the earth by fulfilling the work which thou gavest me to do,” “I have manifested Your name,” and “I have given them the words which you have given to Me and they have received them.”  These statements embrace the ultimate purpose-driven life.  A closer examination will be helpful.

I have glorified You by fulfilling the work you gave me to do” – The only way to glorify God is to obey Him.  Jesus lived His life in submissive, loving obedience to the Father’s will.  He glorified the Father by obediently carrying out what He knew was the Father’s will for Him.

I have manifested Your name   The world needs to know who God is and how He works.  Jesus lived His life in both word and deed to reveal to His disciples and the world the very character and nature of the Heavenly Father.

I have given them the words which you have given me and they have received them.”-  

God has a message for fallen man.  That message must be passed on.  Jesus successfully transmitted it to His disciples, and they in turn passed it on to the world.

The Master Teacher prayed these words in His disciples hearing for a reason. He wanted them to know what the essence of His life was all about—1. Fulfilling the Father’s will        2. Revealing the Father’s character   3.Sharing the Father’s message.

After leaving the Upper Room, each disciple, in his own way, wrapped his life around this same trilogy of purpose.  The book of Acts shows them: “speaking with boldness His word,” “obeying God rather than man,” and “revealing the person and character of Jesus.”  After Paul’s conversion we see the same pattern surfacing in his life. He tells King Agrippa that he was “not disobedient to the Heavenly Vision.”  To the Philippians he said, “this one thing I do.”   His epistles reveal the nature and character of God in Christ, but his life was so much an example of Christ that he could tell the Corinthians to, “imitate me.”   In his final letter to Timothy, Paul tells his young successor that, “the things you have heard from me, commit to faithful men who will be able to tell others.”

You and I can only glory in the birth and death of our Lord, but we can certainly share in the life that was lived in between.  It is a life worth celebrating and certainly one worth following.

Peace on Earth

–December of 2005

Peace on Earth

The Advent season summons the Church away from its normal activity to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Christian pilgrims from around the world will descend upon the ancient town of Bethlehem.  Manger square will be filled with the sounds of Christmas carols, the reverent tones of public prayers, and the glow of a thousand candles.

Most of us in America will celebrate Christmas watching our children parade timidly in front of church congregations, re-enacting the Christmas story.  We will all smile proudly, nod our affirmation vigorously, and join with these little ones as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”  (Luke 2:14).

The words “peace on earth” will slip by most of us without notice.  Yet the cynic, as well as the serious saint, will recognize that the world has not found the formula for peace.  The god of war continues to stalk up and down the earth, threatening men and nations with bloodshed and destruction.  Terrorism has robbed law abiding people of any sense of security.  The Middle East is a boiling cauldron of tension, spilling over in outbreaks of violence.  Here in America broken-hearted families will stare at empty chairs this Christmas because of loved ones who lost their lives in the war in Iraq.

The god of this world also goes about seeking whom he may devour.  He has wrought havoc in a world now haunted by demons, disease, and death.  Sin has ruined men by violence and squalor, misery and hatred. Stress and tension fill our homes and destroy our health.  The piercing words of the prophet, “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked,” are painfully accurate.

Is there any hope for meaningful peace in our world?  Can men find calm in the midst of such chaos?  Oh yes!  The Prince of Peace has offered it and millions of souls have found it. But it can be realized only in obedience to the divine formula for peace.  The divine formula is expressed in the form of a cross.  Paul said, “He has made peace through the blood of His cross.”  The cross of Christ has made inner peace possible now.  It can bring about an end to the inner warfare and outward misery of any man’s life.

The prospects of world peace look dim to those who gaze with a temporal eye.  But the Savior who came as a babe in Bethlehem’s manger will one day return as a conquering King.  He will put all enemies under His feet and bring to pass a reign of “peace on earth, good will toward men.”