Either Way You’re Gonna Get Cut

vine“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” -John 15:1-2

Jesus tells us here that, whether you bear fruit or you don’t bear fruit, either way, you’re gonna get cut. “Come again?” If you’re someone just sitting in church, hearing the Gospel but not responding, not growing, not developing the faith and showing no signs of spiritual life you’re going to be cut by the Lord. AND, if you’re someone who has responded in faith, is growing, developing, deepening in your love by the Spirit’s power, and showing the good fruit of good works, you’re going to be cut by the Lord. This is straight from Jesus’ mouth.

The Gardener, The Vine, and the vines
But why? Because God is a Gardener, the Great Vine-dresser attending to the health and growth of the Church which draws its life from the Son, the True Vine. To get where this is going, you have to understand the image of the vine. The image Jesus uses here is one drawn from the OT. Israel is often compared to a vine that gives or does not give the fruit of true obedience. Here, Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine, the one that Israel was always supposed to be. He will do all that Israel should have done and be all that Israel should have been.

Now, building on that, he compares as branches that have been grafted onto a good vine. As Calvin reminds us, Jesus is using this image to tell us “that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength  — proceeds from himself alone. Hence it follows, that the nature of man is unfruitful and destitute of everything good; because no man has the nature of a vine, till he be implanted in him.” (Commentary on John 15:1)  On our own, we can do some relatively (outwardly) good things, yes, but to work truly spiritual works, those that are pleasing to the Father, producing true fruit, we need to be dependently drawing on the grace of the Son. In other words, the goodness of the Messiah only flows to us as we’ve been made a part of his people, being united by faith with Christ.

Here’s the thing, when you’ve been around long enough, you start to see that there two kinds of branches appearing to be connected to the vine. There are some branches that bear fruit and some that apparently have only been outwardly grafted on. Some people have joined up with the Messiah outwardly, but never started to draw life from him. Instead, at best they’re harmlessly taking up space on the branch, or at worst, they’re impeding the growth of the other branches. Others have taken hold of Christ by faith, or rather been grasped by Christ, and they’ve begun to take on the character of the original vine and are producing real fruit.

Thing is, as a good gardener, God cuts both. The dead branches get cut to clear them away for the health of the whole. If it’s not growing and giving off fruit, it’s dead wood.  The live vines he prunes so that they might give more fruit.

The Cutting Tool
Now, the interesting thing is that he uses the same tool to do it: adversity. It doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, but I think it’s a legitimate inference from the surrounding context. Jesus is preparing his disciples to deal with his absence. He talks to them about the comfort of the Holy Spirit, their need to remain in him, the opposition they’re going to face in life because of his name, and so forth. One of the main themes of the Farewell Discourses (John 14-17), is comfort in the face of adversity.

Adversity will often-times reveal the character of our faith; is it merely superficial, that of dead branches, or deep and true, one that draws life from the vine? How do we react when the bills start stacking up? Or marriage stresses? Or a difficult semester? Maybe a break-up? Divorce? Death? An unruly child? A church community divided against itself? Hostility from co-workers? Unrelenting health issues? I could go on for pages here, but you all know the adversity that life brings–the cuts.

And the cuts reveal the character. So, when adversity hits, do we get bitter, or cling harder? Do we shake our fist up at God for “failing” to give us what he never promised, or dig deeper into the gospel-blessings that he has provided for us in Christ? Do we feel robbed by God, or held by God? Does our faith deepen and grow, or die and grow cold? Do we strive for greater obedience and hope, or plunge ourselves into rebellious apathy? Will the cut lead to death, or deeper life? The same cut, the same adversity reveals the nature of the branch.

Believers need to know that Jesus never promises protection from the ordinary troubles of life, or the particular problems that attend with following him in the world. They need to understand that, so when the Gardener’s pruning tools go to work they accept it as the perfecting work of God in their life, instead of his careless abandonment. Again, either way, you’re gonna get cut–but for the person who has truly been in-grafted, they can know that the cuts come from the good hand of the master Vine-dresser whose aim is to cut away the dead parts of your life. We need those cuts so that the new, true life of Christ can flow more freely and result in even great fruits of righteousness and life. Trust the Gardener when the cut comes and remain in the Vine.

Soli Deo Gloria

Salvation in Living Color

Rembrandt sketchHebrews 10:1 says that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.”

Commenting on this truth, Calvin expands on the relation between Law and Gospel given in this verse:

He has borrowed this similitude from the pictorial art; for a shadow here is in a sense different from what it has in Colossians 2:17; where he calls the ancient rites or ceremonies shadows, because they did not possess the real substance of what they represented. But he now says that they were like rude lineaments, which shadow forth the perfect picture; for painters, before they introduce the living colors by the pencil, are wont to mark out the outlines of what they intend to represent. This indistinct representation is called by the Greeks σκιαγραφία, which you might call in Latin, “umbratilem“, shadowy. The Greeks had also the εἰκὼν, the full likeness. Hence also “eiconia” are called images (imagines) in Latin, which represent to the life the form of men or of animals or of places.

The difference then which the Apostle makes between the Law and the Gospel is this, — that under the Law was shadowed forth only in rude and imperfect lines what is under the Gospel set forth in living colors and graphically distinct. He thus confirms again what he had previously said, that the Law was not useless, nor its ceremonies unprofitable. For though there was not in them the image of heavenly things, finished, as they say, by the last touch of the artist; yet the representation, such as it was, was of no small benefit to the fathers; but still our condition is much more favorable. We must however observe, that the things which were shown to them at a distance are the same with those which are now set before our eyes. Hence to both the same Christ is exhibited, the same righteousness, sanctification, and salvation; and the difference only is in the manner of painting or setting them forth.

 -Commentary on Hebrews 10:1

rembrandt-paintingMy wife and I went to the Getty Museum a couple of years ago to see the Rembrandt exhibit. There was a room full of his marvelous sketches, each one distinct and the result of crushing brilliance. I could have studied them for hours to great profit. And yet, when we stepped into the room with his finished products, the difference was unmistakable. Where before was the outline, here was the fullness, the brilliance, the subtle extravagance of his handiwork. Both unmistakably came from the same hand, while the one clearly outshone the other.

Calvin tells us here that in the same way, the Law is good and true, pointing forward to Christ. But the Gospel sets out a salvation in “living colors” that is “graphically distinct”, where there were only “lineaments” before. As different and superior as the sketch is to the finished product, so Christ’s work is from the sacrifices that prefigured it. In fact, I would argue that that even that picture falls short of what Hebrews or Calvin are teaching us here. Instead, as far as the sketch is from the living model, so the shadow of heavenly realities found in the Law, while faithful, inevitably falls short of the beauty of our living, breathing salvation in Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. It’s even worse when you’re ‘unique’. Paul David Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual; impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. –Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, pg. 164

unique2While it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair

I remember when this point flooded my mind with light in college. It was a particularly angsty time for me; school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I had just met my future, life-long friend, Kierkegaard and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death–probably my favorite of the pseudonymous works–and he was tracing the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our understanding of ourselves. In a particularly eye-opening section, he points out that pride can take many forms, even the devious negative pride of thinking you’re beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking that no one understands–not even God. I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse, post-Hegelian language to expose my folly–to prise open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained, beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be twenty again (shudders).

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that, in fact, people do understand. Maybe not each particular person knows your particular pain–the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless. Still, someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, and failed as spectacularly, maybe even more so, as you. The good news is that you’re not unique. You don’t have to grieve alone or heal alone.  

Jesus, the High Priest and Our Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this is particularly true for the Christian:

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(2:10, 14-18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside of us. In the Incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all that we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even then, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation–in order to resist it, he had to bear it’s full weight.) Jesus knows our pain. Jesus knows our suffering. He knows our struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, being human alongside of us, tasting the full range of human experiences and loss, even to the point of death, so that he could overcome it. Bottom-line is the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix it. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery, but a company, a whole world-wide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside of in the church. Your local church is full of ‘unique’ people just like you. People with deep scars that Jesus is healing, broken hearts that Jesus is mending, histories of slavery that Jesus is redeeming, and lonely silences that Jesus is speaking into. It’s kind of like I told one of my students the other day, “Everybody here has a story just like yours. It’s just the details that are different.” And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories, all the broken twists and turns, to speak grace into the lives of his children by His Spirit.

Break the Silence

Coming back Tripp’s quote, the point is you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin–you’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to somebody. Let someone in on your anger issue. Talk to someone about the family trauma that’s tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Finally admit to the absolute terror you experience whenever you think about your future. Invite someone to know where you’re really at. It’s only when we confess what’s truly going on in our hearts and lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort and the healing can truly begin.

The long and the short of it is you don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The Gospel means that you can be saved just like everyone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Mark, and the God You’d Never Notice

Let's be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

Let’s be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

For those of us growing up in church, we’d like to think we’d recognize Jesus for who he was if we were there, right? I mean, if we were in the crowds, watching him get baptized, we’d see it–the divine glow, the radiance of the godhead, the words dripping with holy wisdom–we’d never doubt. We’d stand apart, push others aside, let him walk by in his numinous otherness. I mean, how could anybody doubt? It’s just so obvious. He stands out head and shoulders from the crowd.

As R.T. France points out, that’s not necessarily the case. Writing of Jesus’ baptism by John:

There is no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself saw or heard what happened after the baptism (1:10-11), or that the crowd had any reason to identify him with the (mightier one) of John’s prophecy. No one else witnessed the confrontation with Satan and the animals, or saw the angelic intervention. All that people saw was an unknown man from an obscure village joining the many others who responded to John’s call to baptism. It is only Mark’s readers who, as a result of his prologue, are in a position to see more clearly who Jesus is…

For the time being…the coming one is incognito (and will remain so for the actors in the story, since the revelations of vv. 10-13 are not publicly available, but offered only to the privileged insight of the reader). John’s enigmatic words would presumably, in the narrative context, be understood as a prophecy of God’s eschatological coming; only Mark’s readers have been given a hint that there is a human (mightier one) waiting in the wings. –pp. 58, 70, The Gospel of Mark

Yes, eventually he would perform miracles, preach, teach, get crucified, and rise from the dead, but even then, you were making a decision about a man–a very normal-looking man, a Nazarene who’d grown up in a village not much different than yours. You were deciding on a paradox, whether this man, this contemporary of yours, was, in fact, the eternal stepped into time. In a lot of ways, Jesus is the God you’d never notice, and when you had, it was still up for grabs.

This is the kind of point Kierkegaard loved to press in order to puncture that easy sort of “historical” assurance in his works. As he pointed out, after 1,800 years, in the context of Christendom, Jesus looks pretty obvious. I mean, look at his impact on world history, right? He’s got to be truth; it’s so clear. But that’s not how we’re supposed to come to Jesus. At some point we have to make a decision about the Christ who is contemporaneous with us–a Christ whose claims, when taken seriously, are a bit ridiculous–indeed blasphemous, if false. We have to make a decision about a man at whom we might take offense.

Christians ought to be sobered by this thought in two ways.

First, if you’ve never been struck by the offense of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ claims, there’s a good chance you have not processed the Gospel. I’m not saying you’re not a Christian. It’s a silly, romantic idea that everybody has to suffer some intellectual crisis of faith in order for their faith to be authentic or valid. I’m saying that the message of the Gospel, that God himself has come to save us in this man, Jesus, is a bold, brilliant, non-obvious claim which confronts our human sensibilities at every level. It’s kind of like the ontological counterpart to grace: if it’s stopped astonishing you and converting you, or it never has, you may need to do some self-examination and see whether or not you really heard it in the first place.

Second, for those of us looking to teach and preach the Gospel of this Jesus, the paradox, we must be aware of our hearers. For those of us in the Christ-haunted parts of the culture where Jesus’ name still evokes a sort of ill-informed respect, or reverence, it may be profitable to inject a little Kierkegaardian-note into things. Let people hear the offense and decide on Jesus, not simply persist in their vague, pleasant, respect for him. On the flipside, many in the culture no longer have the feeling of 2,000 years of history backing Jesus’ claims, making him more plausible, or obvious to them. For them, Jesus is just another Jew going down to get baptized with the others who happened to have a lot of high-sounding claims made about him. In a lot of ways this is a blessing. We don’t have Kierkegaard’s problem of re-introducing Christianity to people who already think they believe it. We have far more first-time hearers than before. Still, that means the offense is live for them. We need to be conscious of that. If we go about our preaching and teaching as if Jesus was equally obvious to all, we will fail to actually engage our hearers.

May we never forget the offense, the shocking ordinariness of Jesus, the God you’d never notice.

Soli Deo Gloria

For the Love of God Read Your Bible This Year

The title of the blog’s a little cheeky.

On one level I’m quite serious–in order to love God better, it’s a good idea to read your Bible this new year. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading your Bible will silver-bullet style immediately kill sin and light up your heart for Jesus. I mean, the Holy Spirit could do that, but typically not so much. Instead, you might think of it more like a balanced diet or vitamins. Eating one good meal or taking 2 or 3 vitamins won’t help much if 99% of your diet sucks. Still, day after day, week after week, month after month, getting the right nutrients and supplements will improve your health.

bibleIn a somewhat similar fashion, daily engagement with the scriptures, starting with something like just 5-10 minutes a day will, over time, give you a greater appreciation for the story of Bible, knowledge of God, Jesus Christ, your sin, the power of the Spirit, the sweep of salvation, and the Gospel message that saves. And really, that’s what changes your heart, what fills it with love for God in light of who He is and what He has done–the Spirit applying the Gospel of Jesus to your heart as you engage with it. Diving deep into the Gospel, meeting Jesus, is what will save you from the million different ways you try to sinfully save yourself throughout the day (money, sex, power, busyness, etc.). Being daily reminded of his glory, of his patient dealings with Israel, the eternal scope of his love, the suffering and triumphant Savior, the falseness of idols in comparison with his matchless beauty–all of these things are what will, over time, overwhelm sin with love.

Now, many of us know this but we struggle knowing how to go about reading our Bible more each year. We start out thinking we’re going to read it through cover to cover, but right about the time the Israelites are wandering in the desert, dying of thirst, we give up, or wish we could join them. Leviticus seems like it was written as part of the judgment on that first sinful generation.

Part of the problem is that we don’t have a guide, or a good plan to lead us through the wilderness sections of scripture, or even to know what we should be enjoying in its oases. We want to, but we don’t know where to start, and when we start, we don’t know what we’re reading. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. O who will save me from this reading of death?!

Love of GodEnter D.A. Carson
This last year my wife and I went through the first volume of D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God daily devotional based on the Murray M’Cheyne reading program and it’s been great. Robert Murray M’Cheyne designed a daily reading program that, at about 4 chapters a day, gets you through the New Testament and Psalms twice and the Old Testament once in the course of a year. So, for instance, January 1 begins with Genesis 1, Matthew 1, Ezra 1, Acts 1. It goes on from there. Originally the first two columns were labeled “family” intended to be read with the whole family, and the second two columns were “private” for personal devotion. It’s not necessarily the lightest program, but the arrangement is much better than most of the chronological reading programs or even some of the mixed year-long Bible programs.

With Carson’s devotional, you get a about a page of highly-readable biblical, theological, and pastoral commentary on one of the chapters by a top-notch theologian and scholar. Really, I compare the notes you get in this little devotional to the top-level commentaries sometimes and it’s amazing how he is quickly and, in an understandable fashion, making available the best scholarship and then moving to apply it to your daily life. I can’t begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed and personally benefited from both the daily Bible reading and Carson’s commentary. The arrangement of the chapters is helpful because it keeps you going through whole books of the Bible as they were intended to be read, instead of the “open and point” method that lands you reading a random chapter in Zechariah, leading you to think the prophet was on acid. Also, usually at least 2 of the chapters are in non-boring books, so you never have to truck through Leviticus all by itself.

No Sweat
Many of you might be intimidated at the thought of 4 chapters a day. Realize that’s only about 20 minutes total which can be broken up throughout the day if you have to. Still, that’s about 2% of the time you probably spend on facebook in a given day, so you have more time than you think. Also, you may choose to simply go through one book of the daily readings and whatever chapter Carson happens to be commenting on that day. Know that you might might miss a day. Or a week. Or a month. That’s fine, but just get back to it when you remember. When I asked my wife if we wanted to do volume 2 this year she said yes, because even though she didn’t get to it every day, she still had read more of her Bible this year than in any year prior. Sounds good to me.

Finally, if you’re worrying about dropping that 10 bucks on something you haven’t cruised through, or period, then you should know that D.A. Carson’s blog over at the Gospel Coalition is actually just his daily devotion. This last year they’ve been posting through volume 2, so next year will be volume 1 again. So, you can go check it out, or just use the blog as your daily devotional. You can even do it on your computer at work (on your break or lunch, of course).

The point of all of this is, for the love of God, read your Bible this year. It’s worth it and it just became a whole lot easier.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #11: God Listens to Prayer, But Don’t Expect Him to Obey

Time and again I find myself coming back to Luther because, even though he shoots his mouth off from time to time, you almost always come away with theological or practical wisdom you needed to hear. Take this gem of a quote on prayer:

It is impossible that God should not hear the prayers which with faith are made in Christ, though he give not according to the measure, manner, and time we dictate, for he will not be tied. In such sort dealt God with the mother of St Augustine; she prayed to God that her son might be converted, but as yet it would not be; then she ran to the learned, entreating them to persuade and advise him thereunto. She propounded unto him a marriage with a Christian virgin, that thereby he might be drawn and brought to the Christian faith, but all would not do as yet. But when our Lord God came thereto, he came to purpose, and made of him such an Augustine, that he became a great light to the church. St James says: “Pray one for another, for the prayer of the righteous availeth much.” Prayer is a powerful thing, for God has bound and tied himself thereunto. -Martin Luther, Table Talk

Luther clearly lays out a couple of key points we need to remember to keep straight for the sake of our theology and just general spiritual life.

  1. I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    I wonder what my spiritual life would be like if I were trying to be Alfred instead of Batman.

    God is God. When you pray you’re making a request of your Lord, not commanding a servant. We often-times think about God and prayer as if he were our butler, like a divine Alfred (Batman’s butler/mentor) who manages to be very resourceful in helping us fulfill our missions out in the world. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. God is equipping and aiding us in being his servants, doing his will. You are not Batman. You are not the hero of your story–God is.  If we don’t get this straight, we end up thinking God failed us when it turns out he’s simply decided in his infinite wisdom that the “measure, manner, and time we dictate” are not the way that he wants to do things. God is not in your employ. He is not someone to be fired or reprimanded. He is not waiting for your year-end performance review. He really does know what he’s doing.

  2. God Listens. At the same time, God really does listen to prayers offered up through Jesus Christ. (John 14:13; 16:23) Whatever else we think about predestination and foreknowledge, we are told that God listens to our prayers for Christ’s sake. He has “bound” himself in that way, through his promises in Jesus. So many of us do not pray because we think God will not hear us. We think we’re too guilty, too small, too silly, too insignificant. Jesus reassures us that whatever might be true of us, in Christ, we are beloved of the Father and he will always hear us. (John 14:21) He is a God who keeps his promises, even if not always in the way that we expect them.

Luther tells us to keep these two truths in mind as we approach prayer. Between them we’re able to approach the God of the universe with the bold humility of faith–and that’s the goal isn’t it?

Soli Deo Gloria

Have a very Hipster Indy/Metal Christmas (Or, the Spiritual Value of Christmas Music)

I have to confess that historically-speaking I have deplored Christmas music. (ducks) No, really, I just haven’t been the biggest fan. I liked classic Christmas hymns (“What Child is This?” Awesome!), and the occasional Jimmy Eat World song, but otherwise, I pretty much could do without it. Then a few years ago, I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. It was kind of just lost in the shuffle of the year. Like, I knew it was important. I probably understood it at a theological/spiritual level better than I ever had (Incarnation of God, Chalcedon, virginal conception v. virgin birth, etc.). Still, the experience of the season, preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas was not something I’d encountered once I got over the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood. I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (cue Peanuts Christmas special music)

The Decision
In order to rectify this, I decided to listen to Christmas music the next year. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmas every morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. I picked this album specifically because:

a. Stevens is a musical genius. His melodic, quirky, indie, whimsical-yet-pathos-filled compositions are not your average Christmas fare. For example:

b. The album has 42 songs which makes it harder to get sick of quickly. (42?! How does that even work?!)

c. Did I mention that Stevens is a musical genius?

It turned out to be a spiritually significant move for me. As I intentionally created space, embraced a disciplined rhythm to reflect on the season through the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens,  I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel”, and excited about the herald of the angels, proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; the month-long, discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.

This year, I’d encourage you do something similar. It’s so easy for the rush, the bustle, the technological hustle of life to keep us so busy we’re unable to reflect on what we’re celebrating: the birth of the Godman, grace incarnate, the reunion of God and humanity in one person. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas isn’t something to scramble past, or merely survive, but rather is something to be entered in, treasured, and cultivated.

If you’re trying to think of where to start, I’d suggest the Stevens’ album already mentioned. Also, here are two more options:

Sufjan Stevens “Silver and Gold” Yes, I know this is another Stevens’ album. No, this is not a mistake. Stevens just followed up his 2006 anthology this year with an even longer album (58 tracks) filled with more classics and something like 18 original compositions. I broke my usual “no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving” rule just to check it out. Apparently I’m not alone in this as Christ and Pop Culture‘s Jason Morehead writes:

Call me a Grinch, but there’s absolutely no reason for getting into the Christmas spirit when Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened yet (Sorry super mega-department stores with your early Christmas decorations). But I will make an exception when it comes to Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas offering, Silver & Gold.”

If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, I don’t know what else to say.

August Burns Red “Sleddin Hill; A Holiday Album” Now, I understand that many of you might like a little more testosterone around the holidays. Being a semi-metal-head myself, I know I have. In the past I’ve mostly found awesome one-song pieces of genius like Becoming the Archetype’s “O Holy Night.” This year another one of my favorite metal acts, August Burns Red, decided to save the day and put out a full album of Christmas music. So maybe this isn’t the most reverent or meditative Christmas album you’ll find this year, but with furiously festive renditions of classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Carol of the Bells” this album doesn’t disappoint Christmas-loving metal-heads.

The point is, whether you celebrate in a hipster key, or a metal one, or maybe just some old-fashioned melodies, be sure to include some Christmas music in your life this year–it just might save your Christmas.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel According to Bach

Because Chris Tomlin just wasn’t good enough for Reformation Sunday, our choir performed a majestic rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 4 this morning. Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a neanderthal and growing up in the churches I have, great as they were, I was never really exposed to high church culture; it’s not my natural jam. Still, I was deeply moved by this piece.

Musically, it was Bach–’nuff said. Lyrically, again, it was Bach, but this particular piece was based on Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in Death’s Cold Prison.” While it was meant to be heard, not merely read, I’d encourage you to take some time this week to work your way through the verses, meditating on the deep, Gospel truths about Christ’s death for sin, and hard-won victory of the powers of hell and the grave. It is heavy with theological and spiritual substance; rich food for the soul. Eat up.

Christ lay in death’s cold prison
bound fast for our transgression;
but now he has arisen
and brought to us salvation.
Let us all be joyful, then,
praise God and give thanks to Him
and sing Hallelujah,
Hallelujah!

O Death, you spared no mortal soul
of any race or nation,
for all were under sins control,
none was without transgression.
Therefore came grim Death so soon
and with swift advance it brought our doom,
and held us in its realm of terror.
Hallelujah!

Our Savior Jesus, God’s own Son,
here in our stead descended.
The knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended!
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death’s gray shell;
It’s sting he now has ended.
Hallelujah!

It was a war of majesty,
of Life and Death together;
but Life gained the victory,
and did destroy the other.
Scripture has proclaimed it so,
how one death devoured its foe,
and mocked its fleeting power.
Hallelujah!

Here is the spotless Easter-lamb,
that God the Lord did give us,
who high upon the cross was hung
and sacrificed to save us.
On our doorposts is his blood,
The price he paid to conquer Death:
the Strangler now cannot destroy us.
Hallelujah!

Then let us keep this holy feast
with all delight and pleasure,
which God the Lord makes manifest;
he is our light and pleasure,
who through the splendor of his grace
has lightened our most sacred place.
The night of sin has vanished.
Hallelujah!

So Christians, feast with joy each day
on Christ, the bread of heaven,
the Word of grace has purged away
the old and evil leaven.
Christ alone, our holy meal,
the hungry soul will feed and heal;
faith lives upon no other!
Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Stuff on the Holy Spirit and Being Used by God and Stuff

“Can God ever use someone like me?” I’m sure if you’ve been in church for a long enough time, you’ve either heard or wrestled with that question. It’s almost inevitable when thinking about the majesty of God, the weightiness of his kingdom-work and then considering our own weakness and frailty that we’ll doubt that we can ever play a part in it.

The quick answer to that question though, is, yes. Why? “Jesus?” Well, close–the Holy Spirit.

See, all throughout the Scriptures we see this thing happen when God wants to use someone, he sends the Holy Spirit on them. Whether it be prophet (Num. 11), king (1 Sam. 10:6), judge (Judg 3:10), or temple craftsmen (Exod 31:3), if God was going to use you in a spectacular way, he empowered you to do so through his divine breath of life, his ruach, his Spirit. It didn’t matter who you were before the Spirit got a hold of you, if God’s Spirit was with you, his purposes were accomplished through you. Samson, “an arsonist, an informer, and a brawler” was used powerfully by the Spirit of God to liberate God’s people time and again. (Judg 15)

In order to understand and act in light of this, we need to know two things about the Holy Spirit.

Spirit of Life The first thing we need to know is that He is the Spirit of life. See, some of us doubt we can be used because of the handicaps we face. In our view, we’re simply limited. It might be a physical handicap connected to illness or one that we’ve struggled with from birth that hobbles and defeats us. Possibly we struggle financially in ways that make doing something beyond earning a paycheck seem like a nice fairy-tale. Others of us wonder if we’re smart enough, loud enough, or skilled enough. So often it seems to those of us raised in American Christianity that only those fit to be on stage leading the show are the ones doing things for the Lord and we’re just not that kind of person.

We forget that the Spirit of God is the one who was hovering over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2), bringing life and form out of the chaos. He is the Spirit that puts flesh on dry bones and makes them live again. (Ezek 37) He is the Spirit who holds even our fragile life together as we speak. (Job 34:14-15) This Spirit is the one who empowered the earliest Christians, simple fishermen and uneducated tradesmen to testify and work miracles in the name of the Lord. This is why Gideon, the cowardly member of the smallest family of the smallest tribe in Israel was able to overcome the Midianites, when “the Spirit of God clothed him.” (Judg 6:34) Whatever your weakness, whatever your handicap, when you confess Christ you can be assured that you have the Spirit and therefore have been clothed with his strength to accomplish whatever good work God calls you to. (1 Cor 12)

Spirit of Holiness The other thing we often-times forget is that this is the Spirit of holiness we’re dealing with. See, for some of us the road-block is past failures. Maybe we came to Christ later in life, or we racked up some heavy mileage getting there in a short of amount of time and we struggle with shame, wondering if we can ever really be clean enough. Others of us wonder if our current weaknesses would disqualify us. We look at our current spiritual struggles, the anger, insecurity, apathy, shame or lust that fills our hearts and wonder, “Me? Really? Do you know what’s in me?”

When we think of the ‘holy’ in Holy Spirit we usually often focus on the fact that this Spirit is holy and therefore pure; we think of it as a description of the Spirit’s own holiness. That’s mostly a good thing. The problem comes when we forget that it’s also a job description. The Spirit’s job is not only to be holy but to make holy. He is the one who sets us apart and sanctifies us. He is the one who takes what is common and unclean and makes it holy to the Lord, purifying us for use in the Temple of the Lord. (1 Cor 3, 6) He is the one that leads us in the life of righteousness. (Rom 8) The long and the short of it is that yes, despite your past, despite your present, God can use you. If he can take Paul, an ex-murdering, racist and turn him into the greatest missionary and theologian who ever lived, then the Spirit can take you, set you apart, and use you for his kingdom-work as well.

This is a pitifully tiny glimpse into the work of the Holy Spirit, but hopefully it’s enough of an encouragement to know that, yes, you can be used by God. Your weakness, your frailty, your sin are not obstacles too strong for the Spirit of Life to empower you or the Spirit of Holiness to set you apart for God’s good works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Jesus Actually Smart?

It’s really a good question and one that I hadn’t considered until encountering Dallas Willard’s masterpiece The Divine Conspiracy in college. I had not thought about it in a while until Dr. Todd Hunter came to guest-teach at our church this Sunday. He was making the basic point that unless we actually consider Jesus to be a competent instructor about life and reality, we will never actually listen to him and follow him. This called to mind one of my favorite passages in The Divine Conspiracy where Willard calls our attention to the simple fact that Jesus is really smart:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one  who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for this help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matter we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.

And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?

That is exactly how his earliest apprentices in kingdom living thought of him. He was not regarded as, perhaps, a magician, who only knew “the right words” to get results without understanding or who could effectively manipulate appearances. Rather, he was accepted as the ultimate scientist, craftsman and artist.

The biblical and continuing vision of Jesus was of one who made all of reality and kept it working, literally, “holding together” (Col 1:17). And today we think people are smart who make light bulbs and computer chips and rockets out of “stuff” already provided! He made “the stuff”!

Small wonder, then, that the first Christians thought he held within himself, “all of the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). This confidence in his intellectual greatness is the basis of the radicalism of Christ-following in relation to the human order. It sees Jesus now living beyond death as “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth…the first and the last, the living One, ” the one who can say “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever more, the master of death and the world of the dead” (Rev. 1:5, 18)…

He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 94-95

When considering this reality, the fact that Jesus is the all-competent Lord of the universe who holds all things together, it has to strikes us that he must be absolutely, colossally wise, and an excellent guide into the reality of all things. In which case, we have to ask ourselves, why don’t we listen to him more often? Why is it that of all the places to go for an opinion, a point of view, sound advice on any and all questions concerning my relationships, my family, my work-stresses, my finances, I always seem to come to Jesus last? What are the areas that I seem to act like I know more than he does? “Well, Jesus, that’s a nice thought, but you see, my situation is a little different than what you were talking about in your sermons…” Really? Honestly? Jesus is God, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about when it’s your life, because you’re so special? Hmm….

This is where the rubber hits the road. Do I really trust Jesus as Lord or don’t I? If I trust him with my death, I ought to be able to trust him with my life. Even more to the point, if I don’t trust him with my life, am I really trusting him with my death?

Friends, we can trust Jesus. He won’t let us don’t or lead us astray. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s really smart.

Soli Deo Gloria