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.”

The Light Still Shines

–December of 2004

The Light Still Shines

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not extinguish it.” (John 1:5)

In a great piece of music, the composer often begins by stating the themes which he is going to elaborate in the course of the work.  That is what John does in the opening of his gospel.  Light is one of the great words upon which John builds his testimony of Jesus.  John describes Jesus as a light that has come into the world to light the life of every man.  Another one of John’s key words is darkness.  John saw a darkness in the world that was very real and very hostile to the light.  This darkness represents evil.  Sinning man loves the darkness and hates the light, because the light exposes their wickedness.   John takes these two themes and shows their natural opposition.  He portrays a universal battleground where the forces of dark and light are arrayed in an eternal conflict.   The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.  The darkness seeks to eliminate the light of Christ—to banish it from life, but the light will not go out!

This conflict is played out in the pages of sacred history.  The Old Testament lets us witness everything from individual struggles with evil to heavenly warfare for the soul of a Nation.  In the New Testament this conflict emerges with intensity around the cradle of the incarnate Christ as the forces of darkness unleash Herod’s sword in a futile attempt to eliminate the light.  The ultimate battle, however, was staged on the Cross of Christ.  The rulers of this age and the powers of darkness thought if they could only nail Christ to the cross that darkness would win once and for all.  They thought the crucifixion of Christ would be the ultimate defeat and their final triumph.  In fact, it proved to be just the reverse.  Out of the darkness of his death came the blinding light of His resurrection victory.  The light of this good news exploded out of the confines of Palestine and across the known world like a quickly spreading flame until, in a few decades, the gospel had impacted every major population center of the Roman world.

The powers of darkness responded with persecution and torture.  But wild beasts and boiling oil couldn’t put out the light and the blood of the martyrs only fueled the flame.  When persecution from without did not succeed, the forces of darkness turned inward and awful darkness settled down over the church.  But out of the heart of that darkness, reformation fires began to burn and the light prevailed.  Every counter move by the forces of darkness to extinguish the light only brought revival fires that would break out and save lives, transform nations, and change the course of history.

The darkness has used all sorts of political ideologies, human philosophies, and false religions to advance its cause.  But the light always breaks through to enlighten the mind and hearts of men.  Alumnus Rick Hutchison told recently of standing in the front yard of Nikita Khrushchev’s summer home and holding Easter morning services.  As the sound of Christian hymns lifted toward heaven, Rick couldn’t help but think of the irony of the situation.  He was preaching the gospel in the front yard of the atheist dictator who declared he would bury Christian America without a shot.  Another alumnus, Rodney Jackson, e-mailed me the story of how he was able to give a Bible to an Iraqi woman while he was serving in Iraq.  He watched the tears of joy run down her cheeks as she expressed appreciation to her American liberators, but he knew that what he had given her would bring a greater liberation and drive the darkness and despair from her empty eyes.

As you gather with friends this Christmas season, light a candle and lift your voice in praise for light has come into the world and the darkness has not and will not overcome it!

“We Didn’t Know Who You Were”

–December of 2003

“We Didn’t Know Who You Were”

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.

I’ve spent the last several months studying the gospel of John for the specific purpose of learning how to model the life of Christ in my own life.  The revelations have been startling.  As I looked for Jesus in John’s narrative, the first thing I learned was that it’s very easy to miss Him because of looking for the wrong thing.

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.

The Word Became Flesh

–December of 2002

The Word Became Flesh

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 are no others?”  The nurse responded in the affirmative, but she has 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 of the Crown.  He was moved to tears as he offered each man his 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 mighty 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.  After a moment to regain himself, the Prince leaned over the bed, and calling the soldier’s 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 and in the most tender tones poured out the deepest thanks on behalf of his country.  Then stooping lower, he kissed the disfigured brow of the dying solder.  This was a condescending moment for the noble Prince of the English throne.

There is One who has stooped far lower to plant the kiss of redemption upon the wretched brow of lost humanity.  No human story, however noble, compares with our Savior’s condescension.  The King of Glory came down!  The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  The Lord of eternal glory and splendor wrapped Himself in the fading garment of our humanity and pitched his fleshly tent on a bed of straw, in a lowly stable, under a brilliant 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.  By taking our sin upon Himself and dying—the just for the unjust.

Why become flesh?  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 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.  Only through His incarnation could he take our place and be crucified.  Only through assuming a human body could he suffer the sting of death, break the bars of the grave and make it possible for us all to shout, “O death where is thy sting?  O grave where is thy victory?”

Why did Christ come down in human flesh?  He came down that His mysterious incarnation might reunite us to God; that His atoning death might purchase our justification and 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!