We repeatedly read the same Bible passages at Christmas. How can we keep repetition from diminishing our sense of wonder in the incarnation? It starts by slowing down.
I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas, or at least a lot of the trappings surrounding it. The struggle to create a “perfect” Christmas, the whole Christmas-karma nonsense… But one of the things I desperately struggle with is our lack of understanding of what Christmas is really all about.
Christmas—the incarnation—is a declaration of war.1
And yet, more often than not, we shy away from this understanding, don’t we? We joyfully embrace what happened that day and all the details of the story:
The Son born of a virgin, the shepherds attending Him, the angels singing, all of it.
But we forget to talk about why. Why did Jesus come to be Emmanuel—”God with us”? Why was it necessary for Him to come at all?
God With Us to Wage War on Sin
Of course, we know the answer. We know why Jesus came. The baby didn’t stay a baby; He became a man who would die in our place, perfectly satisfying the wages of sin. We know the Easter story… and yet we don’t seem to connect the it to our Christmas celebrations.
We need to connect the dots. We need to remember, as some have said, that Jesus was born in the shadow of the cross. To see, as Simeon did, who this baby truly was and rejoice as he did:
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon doesn’t rejoice simply because he’s seen the baby Jesus—he rejoices because he’s seen God’s salvation. He’s held Him in his hands. That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?
Can you imagine what our Christmas celebrations would look like if we had that same sense of awe?
Remembering Christmas as More than Jesus’ Birthday
This year, remember Christmas not just as “Jesus’ birthday” as some of us tell our kids, but as the day God waged war on sin and death. For when we do, it changes the celebration. It doesn’t remove the joy or the excitement. It doesn’t turn what should be thrilling into a funeral procession. If anything, remembering this only deepens our excitement.
For Christmas is the day God waged war—and it’s a war He wins.
- With a hat tip to Matt Smethurst for articulating it so well.
Think about the advice we hear, read, and maybe even share: Be true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Have faith in yourself. Stuff like this. Y’know, basically everything that you find in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, and Star Wars. Emily and I listened to a video where a ministry asked Jim Carrey to speak to attendees at an event, and his encouragement was much the same.[1. With some added “we are all God, God is in all of us” for good measure.] It’s the kind of advice that leaves us choosing our own paths, serving as our own guides toward our spiritual destinies.
The problem, of course, is when left to our own devices, we have no idea where we’re going. And this just won’t do, as Charles Spurgeon reminded his readers in Advice for Seekers. He wrote,
Too many say, “I am my own guide, I shall make doctrines for myself, and I shall shift them and shape them according to my own devices.” This is death to the spirit. To be abreast of the times is to be an enemy to God. The way of life is to believe what God has taught, especially to believe in him whom God has set forth to be a propitiation for sin; for that is making God to be everything and ourselves nothing. Resting on an infallible revelation and trusting in an omnipotent Redeemer, we have rest and peace; but on the other unsettled principle we become wandering stars, for whom is appointed the blackness of darkness forever. By faith the soul can live; in all other ways we have a name to live and are dead. (37)
Friends, none of us need to be our own guides, anymore than we need to follow blind ones. The way is before us. God has shown it to us, the way of life. The gospel. Let’s keep following it, and pointing others to it.
A number of years ago, I read a book by a well-known pastor that described a God-focused church as a praying church. That is, it is a group of people who are passionate about prayer. They’re fervently pleading before God, on their knees in tears. That’s certainly true, sometimes. But there are also times when prayer is a struggle. When my prayers feel weak, and nothing at all like what I’ve just written.
I know I’m not alone in this; it’s just that most people who feel weak as they pray, tend to not talk about it too much. And when we feel this way, most of the advice that’s given about prayer feels like a pile of burning coals being dropped on our heads. It is painful. It is punishing. And sometimes when I read these kinds of descriptions of what prayer “should” look like, I often think back on the tax collector and the Pharisee. One was a braggart, boasting of all that he did “for” God, and how observant he was. The other, a broken man, one who simply and weakly said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
It’s easy to default to looking at the former as an outwardly positive model of prayer. His prayers seem powerful, even if it’s just his boasting. But the tax collector is the one who shows us what truly powerful prayer looks like. He models what we need to always pursue: not a passionate form of prayer, but a passionate belief in the One to whom we pray. This is what Robert Murray M’Cheyne encouraged when he wrote, “Urgency in prayer does not so much consist in vehement pleading as in vehement believing. He that believes most the love and power of Jesus will obtain most in prayer.”
This probably seems like a strange encouragement; at the very least, it could be twisted into saying, “Just believe harder.” Which is not what I’m saying at all. Instead, my point, and hopefully encouragement, for those of us who often feel weak in prayer is to focus less on our eloquence or our ability to outwardly display our thoughts, desires, and emotions. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’re praying faithfully. We might just like to hear ourselves talk. Instead, let’s continue to keep our eyes on the One who gave everything for us—Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. The object of our faith. Jesus is greater than our ability to express ourselves.
He is what matters most.
We Christians talk about people being blessed (as do many who are not). Usually when we use the word, it seems to be describing someone who is lucky, or maybe happy. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Just look at how Jesus used this word in Matthew 5, and you can quickly see that it does beyond any notion of luck. It’s something much deeper. Something that is such good news for us.
Here’s what Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the humble,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3-10, CSB)
We often come to the Beatitudes and see a list of “to-dos”. Be poorer in spirit and humbler. Be purer and mercifulerer. That kind of thing. Or we look at them as different categories of people. That there are some who are humble, some who are merciful and peacemakers, and so on. But that’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what the Scriptures say anywhere. Instead of commands, Jesus gave descriptions of the shared characteristics of those who belong in and to his kingdom.
So who is the person Jesus calls blessed? The person who reaches the end of him or herself. The person who knows they have nothing they can offer him. People who are painfully aware of their own spiritual bankruptcy. Their sinful nature that causes them to rebel against the Lord, and says along with David, “The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God” (Psalm 51:17, CSB).
That is who Jesus called blessed. They are people who know they need grace. And, thankfully, it is grace that Jesus freely offers.
It’s a word you never want to hear. But most of us have been affected by it in some way.
A few weeks ago, a well-respected comic book writer/artist and animator, Darwyn Cooke, died shortly after revealing he had cancer. Around the same time, Canadian music fans learned Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, had terminal brain cancer. About two years ago, I learned a family member I dearly loved had cancer. He fought hard, but died in 2015.
Almost all of us know some one who has lost the fight. And we’ve all probably seen at least one status update or tweet hashtagged with the f-word. When I see that word come out… Yeah, I know—many of us don’t like to use this kind of language.[1. I try to avoid it, but it occasionally happens.] However, there is a sense in which it seems to be the only thing that captures the outrage we feel about cancer.
And I think that’s right—at least to some degree.
What’s right about our outrage?
I have yet to see someone approach cancer with a blasé reaction. It inspires outrage. The disease itself is cruel. It is unrelenting. It is merciless and no respecter of persons. It confronts us with our own mortality in a way few other things do.
And I think that’s the biggest issue: when cancer strikes, we can’t escape the fact that we’re all going to die. And deep down, every one of us knows death is unnatural. Death is an interloper. It doesn’t belong in this world. Yet it is here. And we can’t eliminate it, try as we might.
This is what we’re reminded of every single time news of this illness comes. And that’s why it’s write (at least in one sense) to feel outraged over it. But, even so, there is not only bad news. There is something good—something we need to remember: death doesn’t get the last word.
Jesus stole that right away from death when he defeated it. When Jesus left his grave clothes behind, he sent a message: the death of death has begun. And there is a day coming when death will finally have no place, and where diseases like cancer will be no more. A day when everything that grieves us will be gone. When illness will never again afflict us. When our cells will never again turn against us. When there will be no need for chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or experimental surgeries. When the last hospice will close because no one needs it anymore.
This is the day when Jesus returns; the day he fulfills his promise to make all things new.
Looking forward to the death of death
And that’s what prevents me not just from using hashtags with curse words when I hear about cancer, but from feeling despair, even as I grieve. Cancer is cruel and merciless. It is a powerful tool of death. It is a blight. I want it to be gone.
And the good news is, I know it will. I know the death of death is coming.
Friends, do not lose hope. Grieve, yes. Hate death, yes. Weep and mourn with those who mourn, yes. But do not lose hope: Jesus is coming. He is making all things new. And someday, cancer will be no more.
Photo via Visual hunt
Before I became a Christian, most of what I knew about Jesus came from pop culture. Kevin Smith’s Dogma and other assorted films, books featuring a “historical” Jesus that was merely a man, the odd glimpse of a message from the Crystal Cathedral while flipping channels hoping to find some cartoons on Sunday morning…
Which means I had no idea who Jesus was at all.
Then I became a Christian, and learned an important lesson: many professing Christians may be just as confused about who Jesus really is. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer: For some, Jesus is essentially a spiritual guru, leading you on the journey to your best life now. Others look at him as a UFC fighter or a sort of William Wallace figure, who wants to defeat sin and kick some tail (and he’s all done defeating sin). Others still paint him as our best friend, someone who is always standing by with a warm hug and a box of Kleenex.
The reason for this is we tend to gravitate to a certain aspect of Jesus ‘ personality as we see him in Scripture, and so we emphasize (or perhaps overemphasize) those elements, leaving us with someone who is Jesus-ish: a Jesus of our own imagining. “Guided by our delicate sensibilities, we mold Jesus into a deity we can handle, conformed to our own preferences,” writes Daniel Darling in his new book, The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is (14).
But this Jesus, or rather, these Jesuses are no Jesus at all. And in this short, punchy book, Darling examines ten of the most common counterfeits while encouraging readers to look to Jesus as he is, not as we want him to be.
A simple, but effective, approach
Readers will notice right away that each chapter of The Original Jesus follows essentially the same pattern: identify and describe each counterfeit, and explain why the biblical Jesus is better than the one we’ve made up. As a result of this approach, many will quickly notice that each chapter more or less stands on its own. There’s a part of me that would have liked to see each chapter build off one another, but, honestly, I’m not sure it would change the effectiveness of what Darling has written.
And make no mistake, what he has done in this book is extremely effective. Let me give you one particularly meaningful example.
Washing off the Braveheart paint off
When I became a Christian, it was right around the time that a bunch of “no more Christian nice guy” type messages were gaining steam. Brave—er, Wild at Heart was encouraging every dude to take up caber tossing, beard growing and dragon slaying in the name of Jesus. Churches were holding UFC nights. And Mark Driscoll was being… well, Mark Driscoll. Because I grew up without a male role model at home, I wasn’t sure what to think of a lot of this. All I knew was I was being told that being kind of artsy, and enjoying a latte wasn’t God’s plan for my life. And if I didn’t start lifting weights and mainlining Redbull, a tatted-up Jesus was going to get off his white horse, and smack me with a sword.
Okay, I’m exaggerating (a little). This counterfeit came to be due to the perceived “feminization” of the church—that church was boring for men because it seemed like a place designed for ladies. And while charge, depending on who you ask, might be fair, rather than a correction, we got an overreaction. Darling writes,
The answer to a confused manhood culture is not more chestbeating and MMA but a very real picture of what a man of God looks like. Young men need to understand that courage is not defined by the size of their gun collections or by the ruggedness of their hobbies. Courage is defined by the willingness to humbly and boldly follow the risen Christ. (53)
“True masculinity models Jesus in his roles as both warrior/king and gentle shepherd/suffering servant,” he continues (54). “Like Jesus, real men find no shame in weeping over loss (John 11:35) or expressing maternal love for those in our care (Luke 13:34).”
For a guy like me, who was figuring out the whole how to “man” as I went along, it was really easy to get swept up in the hoopla of Braveheart Jesus. But it wasn’t long before I saw that this was, at best, a half truth. And I noticed it most clearly in my attitude. It didn’t make me love others more gladly. It didn’t develop in me a spirit of self-control. It didn’t challenge my tendency toward anger. If anything, it gave me an excuse to be kind of a wiener.[1. Apologies to anyone offended by this reference.]
But the way the Bible describes Jesus is the model of self-control. It’s not that he doesn’t have emotions—it’s that he knows how to express them perfectly. He was the epitome of the call we read in Paul’s epistles, to be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:3), “not arrogant or quick tempered” (Titus 1:7), and “dignified” (1 Timothy 3:8). And these, Darling reminds us, “are character traits every man should aspire to, since they are virtues that should characterize every Christian” (57).
Poking at the Jesuses of our own preferences
I hope The Original Jesus frustrates you as you read it. Because it should. No reader should walk away from it cheering, “Yeah, he really showed them,” because if they do, they didn’t really read the book. Darling isn’t writing to rally his audience against the mythical “them”—he’s encouraging us to deal with our own tendencies to remake Jesus in our own image.
Reading this book left me reflecting on my flirtations with MMA Jesus, but also my occasional strolls down the beach with many of these myths. And through this book, Darling refocused me on the truth I already know: “The real Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture, is compelling. The only logical response is to bow the knee and worship him as Lord and King” (33). And I’m not sure you can ask for a better reading experience than that.
Title: The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is
Author: Daniel Darling
Publisher: Baker Books (2015)
Buy it at: Amazon
Last week, I was listening to a few messages by a guy who leads a great big church. Nice guy—very warm and friendly in his style. One of the things I could tell about him right away was he really cared about his hearers living better lives. By that, I don’t mean rolling into church in a shinier car and makin’ it rain when it’s time to pass the plate, but to live wisely and responsibly.
He had myths to expose, principles to explain, actions to take. He even peppered in a reference to a Bible story or two and brought things around to a verse at the end. He offered lots of good advice—sound advice that if you were to follow, really would help you live a better life, and maybe be a better person.
And rarely have I been more heartbroken than when listening to his talks.
This speaker was just that—an inspirational speaker. He was telling me how I could change my life… but he never told me about the one who died to not only change my life, but to save it. And because of that, what he said at the end of the day was good advice—but not good news.
But this man isn’t doing anything you or I haven’t done a thousand times before—maybe even this morning. We look to the Bible to discover what we must do. How we can change ourselves. How we can fix our problems. We recast Jesus as a self-help guru, one more accurate than the others, but no more able to help us with our greatest needs.
But a Jesus who merely offers good advice is no Jesus at all. We need something greater. My friend Dan put it this way:
We need a victorious King, a sacrificial Lamb of God, a Savior, a Lord, a Creator. Gurus rise and fall. Inspirational figures die. Powerful and benevolent leaders, even at their best, cannot restore and renew the fallen cosmos nor can they close the gap between man and God. Only Jesus the God-man can do this.[1. Daniel Darling, The Original Jesus, 33.]
Guru Jesus can’t help me the way this one can, this Jesus who doesn’t offer good advice, but proclaims good news—because he is good news. That’s the real Jesus. And he is the only kind of Jesus we need.
What’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear “Sermon on the Mount”? When I come to Matthew 5-7, I always jump to one word: grace.
Those chapters, despite containing some of the most difficult teaching you’ll find in the entire Bible—”Judge not, that you be not judged” anyone?—they are a great source of comfort and joy. Why? Because they remind me that, with Jesus, grace always comes first.
Those who know their need for grace
Think about it: these chapters open with the Beatitudes, where Jesus describes those to whom the kingdom belongs as “blessed.” That is, one who is approved of God. And those who are blessed—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and so forth—these aren’t disparate individuals: it is a single group of people sharing similar characteristics.
Those who are approved by God, those who are blessed, will inevitably display these attributes. They are like those whom the psalmist describes in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” People who know of their own need for grace.
The promise of grace for those in need
And what’s more, Jesus is faithful to answer their need with the promise of grace. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he said. They shall be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, and receive mercy. “They shall see God [and] be called sons of God.”
Is that not amazing grace? For God the Father to bring this promise to those who are profoundly broken by their sin, to those who place their trust in him and in the finished work of Jesus on the cross is astounding! It’s as though he is saying, my kingdom is yours, for you are my children and I love you.
The pattern of the promise
And what’s even more incredible is that this is no isolated incident. It is the pattern we see in all Scripture. For example:
- When God looked out on the world and saw all mankind doing evil only continually, he showed favor—or grace—on Noah and his family.
- In the giving of the Mosaic Law, God gave commandments not so that he might redeem the Israelites and make a people of them, but because he already had!
- Virtually every one of Paul’s letters starts with a reminder of what God had done. In fact, the book of Romans starts with an 11 chapter explanation of all that God had done in history and how he was (and is) restoring all things.
And in the Sermon on the Mount, the pattern holds. Jesus offered no ethical teaching and issued no commands before he had offered grace. He offered good news for all who were weary and heavy laden, to free them from the guilt of their sin and their failure to keep God’s commands—calling together a people for whom he would obey all the commands of God perfectly.
The greatest grace of all
And perhaps that’s the greatest grace of all in the Sermon on the Mount. For when we look at its ethical teaching—I mean, really look at it—it’s easy to see that there isn’t a single command that can be fulfilled through human effort.
- We can’t address our own issues before looking at the problems of someone else—nor can we even fairly evaluate others. (Matthew 7:1-5)
- We can’t muster the energy to persevere in prayer. (Matthew 7:7-11)
- We can’t even do to others what we would have them do to us! (Matthew 7:12)
It’s ludicrous to think that we’re capable of obeying anything Jesus commands us without his grace empowering us! The burden of even something that seems insignificant is too great for us to bear.
But grace bears it for us. And it’s grace that allows us to persevere. It’s grace that allows us to persevere in prayer, trusting that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask. It’s grace that allows us to be careful of how we judge, examining our own hearts before passing judgment on another. And it’s grace that allows us to put others before ourselves, doing to them what we would have them do to us. No amount of will power will allow us to do these things.
Only God, by his grace, can.
One of my favorite things is to hear my kids tell me they love me. Hannah, my middle girl, always wants me to be home. Always. In fact, after coming home from one trip, she told me in tears that I should never go away again. I should just stay home, and go to work, and then come back home again at night. When I get home from work, Hudson excitedly shouts, “Hey guys! Dad’s home!” and then rams his head into my pelvis while giving me a hug. Abigail loves nothing more than to cuddle, whether it’s convenient or not.
I am indeed, a much loved and very blessed man, friends. I try to do lots of fun things with the kids whenever possible, but they don’t love me because I’m the “fun” dad. They love me because, along with their mom, I help provide stability to their world. That’s what we do with schedules, routines and even discipline. And because they have a stable home, they are free to be themselves.
Strangely, we don’t seem to look at God the same way. While it’s understandable for the non-Christian, sure, but even many believers struggle to be thankful that God is on his throne. Many seem to want him to be anywhere but. Many would prefer a god of love—a god who is love, but who wields no authority. What they want, though, is god they can control. And when they’re reminded that this god doesn’t exist, they lash out.
Spurgeon reminded his hearers—and us today—of this truth when he preached,
Men will allow God to be everywhere except on his throne. They will allow him to be in his workshop to fashion worlds and to make stars. They will allow him to be in his almonry to dispense his alms and bestow his bounties. They will allow him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends his throne, his creatures then gnash their teeth; and when we proclaim an enthroned God, and his right to do as he wills with his own, to dispose of his creatures as he thinks well, without consulting them in the matter, then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on his throne is not the God they love. They love him anywhere better than they do when he sits with his sceptre in his hand and his crown upon his head. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon his throne whom we trust.
We don’t want a God who has authority in our lives. We want one we can control. We think it’s easier. We think it’s even possible. But it’s not. Even if we believe in a toothless god, we don’t really love it, because we know in our hearts it doesn’t exist. And we don’t have any confidence in such a god anyway, because we’re left without any real sense of stability. We merely have what seems right in our own eyes. And that is an unstable foundation for even the most consistent person.
But we do have something, or rather, someone, better: the true God—the maker of the heavens and the earth, and Father of our Lord Jesus. The one does sit on his throne, and who does what is right and just, whether we like it or not. This is the God we ought to run to because he is the only one worthy of love.