God’s Plan And The World—A Reprise


For God so loved the world, John 3:16 says. And yet there are people who think Christians are some kind of exclusive club looking to keep out people who aren’t like us.

First, Christianity doesn’t belong to Christians. It belongs to God. Second, it isn’t a club, though it is a relationship—first with God.

Jesus told a story to illustrate how His plan of redemption and reconciliation works.

A rich ruler decided to put on a banquet. He sent out invitations, but one after the other the people he wanted at his feast sent their regrets: A new responsibility needed attention. Another important relationship had to take priority. Too busy to squeeze in the time.

Fine, the ruler said to his servants. They don’t want to come, then they don’t get to come. Invite people from all walks of life, no matter what their status, what their occupation, even the beggars.

When everyone arrived, there was still room for more people, so the rich man sent out his servants again, this time to the places where criminals were apt to hang out, and told them to compel the people to come.

At last the banquet got underway, but one person wasn’t dressed appropriately. Why aren’t you wearing banqueting attire? the host asked. The guest had no answer, so he was put out.

The banquet is a metaphor for the “marriage supper of the Lamb,” the great celebration God has prepare for His people. But “His people” aren’t necessarily who you’d expect. They aren’t an exclusive set handpicked for their charm, wit, intelligence, skill, power, prestige, or money. They are simply those who accepted the invitation. In contrast, those who are too self-important, too determined to go their own way, won’t accept the invitation. And some might accept but won’t come prepared.

This story, this word picture (actually two versions—one in Matt. 22 and the other in Luke 14—which I’ve compressed into one), makes several things clear. First, those who ended up at the rich man’s table, enjoying the feast, did nothing to earn their invitation.

Most of them were going their own way, expecting to do something different, be somewhere else, and suddenly the invitation comes—there’s a banquet, and you’re invited.

To accept such an invitation, it seems to me a person would have to realize what an honor, what a privilege had come their way. If they thought, No big deal; I can throw my own banquet if I want to—then chances are, they wouldn’t put a great deal of priority in attending. If they had plenty of food and weren’t particularly hungry, they could easily have thought ill of the invitation—what a bother, in the middle of the work day? he can’t expect me to drop everything and come just because he’s throwing a party.

But for the people who were out of work, who begged just to buy a scrap of food, who had never sat at a banqueting table in their lives, this invitation had to be the best news they’d ever heard.

Of course, there may have been some who didn’t think the invitation was real. What, you think you’d be invited up to the mansion for a party? You’re deluded. Or someone is scamming you. You’ll show up and somebody will jump out from the bushes and shout, April Fool, and you’re it. I mean, no one, no one in their right mind, invites a bunch of riffraff to share their table.

So the people who benefit from this invitation don’t earn it, but they must trust that the invitation is true.

The_Marriage_Feast_by_MillaisThe part of the story that has long given me trouble is the part about the guy getting put out for not wearing the proper clothes. I’d think none of those beggars or poor or the ones coming in from the highways and the byways would have the proper clothes either. I can only conclude, the banquet attire was something the host provided for his guests, so the man who was dressed inappropriately had no excuse. Which his silence would seem to corroborate.

So there’s God’s plan for the world. He invites, and we either accept or reject. Nothing exclusive about it. In reality, none of us can provide our own banquet. We might think we can, but that’s delusional. Only God can provide what we need. Our role in the matter is to recognize our need and His provision, then trust that He will give what He said He would give. That trust, I believe, is the proper clothing we need. Trying to go to His banquet all dressed up in our own rags of self-righteousness will surely get us barred from the table.

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in April, 2015.

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Love In The Wake Of Another Shooting


Happy Valentine’s Day! Oh, and at least 17 people died today at a Florida high school because a shooter committed mass murder.

I think it’s time we stop treating love as if it is some trivial sentiment, some result of the sex drive, or some meaningless emotion expressed by tingles and butterflies in the stomach. Perhaps worse is the idea that God is love and by that statement the person means, God is ONLY love.

Sadly we have turned love into permissiveness and toleration, when, in fact, love is not that at all. We’ve even come up with the adjective tough to differentiate love that goes beyond the lenient, indulging, pandering kind we so often mean.

Fewer and fewer people in our society understand that “spoiling” a child is actually a bad thing, meaning we are doing damage, wrecking, ruining, destroying.

I’m not saying the Florida shooter was spoiled as a child—I don’t know anything about him. Except that clearly he has no understanding of love. He can’t love his family or the kids he once went to school with or the teachers, his community, state, country. He did a selfish, destructive, hurtful thing that has far reaching ramifications, and love was nowhere in his actions.

God’s love stands in stark contrast. He cleans up our messes, holds our hand through the valley of the shadow of death, and takes our punishment in His own body. He draws us, woos us, holds us, seals us. His love isn’t going to break down, and it isn’t going to let go.

There’s nothing trivial about God’s love. It sent Him to earth in a backwater town to an unwed mother where he was wrapped in cloths meant for a burial shroud and stuck in an animal feeding trough. And that was just the first few hours of his earthly existence. Things didn’t get noticeably better. But He came, lived, and died “for the joy set before Him.”

We’re that joy. Us, His people, whom He loved and determined to save.

I kind of think that’s the message we need to be teaching in our schools and churches, in homeless shelters and hospitals.

People are afraid and lonely and losing hope. We promise them falsely that this government program or that will solve the problem. If we just change marriage laws, allow whatever “loving” relationship a person wants, then we’ll all live happily ever after. But no amount of change in our outlook on “family” is reducing the growing problem of senseless shootings.

“It’s a mental health issue,” one commentator said. And maybe it is. Maybe all the shooters are simply mentally ill. But I think God loves the mentally ill, too. Jesus Christ died, even for the mentally ill. Shouldn’t we find a way to show the love of Christ to the most needy among us?

Of course, no one walks around with a sign that says, I’m a potential shooter because I’m mentally ill.

Rather, we’d actually have to take a risk and love someone we don’t necessarily find lovable.

Kids aren’t really in a position to do this, though they should start learning. Adults in the lives of troubled young people need to do this. But I don’t see it happening apart from God. It simply isn’t natural.

That’s why God’s love is so extraordinary. He loves us “while we were yet sinners.” He doesn’t demand we clean up first, meet His perfect standards, and then He will share His love with us.

On the contrary, He gives His love to us when we have done nothing to earn it. Because it’s a gift. I want to say, with God every day is Valentine’s Day. But His love goes beyond the hearts and flowers and special dinners. His love falls into that tough love category, so that what He gives us is what we actually need.

Sometimes that means a serious talking to or a time out or forty years in the wilderness. God knows. He’s not going to pander to us because He’s not going to do something now that will lead to our eternal destruction. Better to teach us, mold us, shape us in the image of Jesus Christ so that we can enjoy eternity with Him.

Of course some people ignore Him or actively push Him away. Those, He does what He so often did in the Old Testament—He gives them exactly what they want. Nothing could be sadder, because their end is destruction, their god is their appetite and their glory is in their shame. They simply set their minds on earthly things. And they miss the love God wants them to receive.

His love is so great because He knows us so well, because He’s invested in us to the point of going to the cross for us. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” and that’s precisely what He did.

God’s love is far from trivial, far from indulgent, far from silly and sentimental. His love is actually infinite. It’s complete. It’s life soaked in love.

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 6:16 pm  Comments (22)  
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Perfect People Aren’t Saved


No Perfect People

Yesterday I re-posted an article about morally flawed people, and the irony that many who accept their flaws without blinking still think they “deserve” heaven. Today, I want to address the opposite problem: people who think heaven is for good people. This article originally appeared here in May, 2013.

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Along with an erroneous view of the Bible, some people also have misconceptions about salvation. One of the most common is that it’s the good people that come to Christ—the people who like church and gospel music, who think a good time means going to a prayer meeting. Those are the people that become Christians.

Wrong.

For one thing, there are no “good people.” If someone is devoted to religious expression but has not believed the claims of Jesus Christ, he’s using his religion to get something he wants. In other words, religious expression can be an evidence of our selfishness, our desire to manipulate—either other people or even God Himself.

Good people aren’t saved. Sinners are saved. The lost are found, the broken are healed, those at the bottom of the pit are rescued. Jesus Himself said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12b). In context it’s clear he was referring to messed up people—“tax collectors and sinners.”

Even today, I think some Christians have the idea that a person needs to clean up a bit before coming to Christ. Jesus seems to say the opposite. He first encountered people where they were at, and knowing Him then brought about change. In some instances, such as His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, He told her to sin no more. In other instances, such as with Zaccheus, the sinner himself volunteered to clean up his act after his encounter with Jesus.

Either way, Jesus saves sinners, not because they get rid of sin but because they can’t get rid of sin and they know it. They repent but it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. It is His Spirit that gives each sinner the desire to live in newness of life.

By our nature, none of us wants to worship God and serve Him [atheists call this our “default position,” not realizing that they are defining the sin nature]. We want to worship ourselves and serve ourselves. We do unto others so that they will do unto us. In other words, we largely look at relationships as trade-offs. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And woe to the person who doesn’t follow through on his promise. Revenge awaits! Justified revenge, because people are supposed to come through for me (even though I don’t always come through for them).

The interesting thing is, those who think they are good don’t see any need for God. Why would they? They don’t think they need saving.

So it’s ironic that people falsely think good people come to Christ. People good in their own eyes are too busy with their perfectionistic ways to pay attention to what Christ is all about. They are making sure that they recycle, give to the charity of the month, teach their children to be tolerant of all lifestyles, and do their fifty percent of what it takes to have a good marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. When a person comes to Christ, he changes. A thief like Zaccheus doesn’t want to keep stealing. Just the opposite. He has a passion for making right the wrongs he’s done. But his new life is a result of his relationship with Christ, not a cause of it.

He didn’t come to Christ because he stopped stealing. He stopped stealing because he came to Christ.

Too many Christians don’t really understand this new life we experience. We’d like all the old desires to be gone and for some people, they are. For others, it’s a fight to the death, or so it seems. The old desires seem to raise their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Some people experience gradual and constant improvement. What they used to do, they hardly do any more. What they want to do to please Jesus, they find delights them now, too.

The process, we’re told, is sanctification—growing up into our salvation, becoming like Jesus through the supernatural transformation of His Spirit. Most of us think it’s a long process that doesn’t show a lot of results to most of those who are close enough to us to see our warts.

And because we fall down so often, because lots of people think only the good come to Jesus, we give Christ’s name a bad reputation—because clearly, Christians sin. When we think about it, it grieves our hearts because we’re dragging Jesus’s name into the mud. We’re letting people think poorly of our Savior because we wallow in the sins we say He saved us from.

Christians aren’t good people. We’re saved people, and it’s important that we let others see who we are: a people who have received mercy, who have been pardoned, redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, and who one day, when we see Jesus face to face, will be like Him. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

Hagar


Not important enough to merit more than a black and white picture.

If the book of Genesis was a novel, Hagar would be considered a minor character. If it were a play, she’d be a bit actor. In truth, she has very few scenes and even fewer lines. And the thing is, the lines she does have, the scenes she is in, don’t show her in a very good light.

First off, Sarah gives Hagar, her Egyptian maid, to her husband to be a concubine. Stop right there. Hagar is of “foreign” descent. She’s a maid to a nomadic woman. I’m not thinking she has much standing in the world.

And then she becomes a concubine. As a servant, she apparently has no say in the matter when her mistress hands her over to the head of the house, Abraham.

But to Hagar’s delight, her union with Abraham bears fruit. In fact, she’s so delighted that she’s pregnant, she looks down on her mistress. That’s the start of some serious domestic problems. Sarah ended up treating Hagar so harshly, she ran away. To the desert. She had to be desperate.

There she encountered an angel who told her she was pregnant and should return and submit to her mistress. And here’s the turning point in her life:

Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”

Just a servant girl, one who was apparently a bit haughty and given to flight, but God saw her.

She returned and gave birth to a son who she named Ishmael—God will hear.

Sounds to me like Hagar—the Egyptian, the maid, the concubine—had a relationship with God. She knew He saw her. She knew He heard her. At her lowest point, God came to her.

Well, maybe not her lowest point.

When her son was a teen, and no longer an only child—Abraham had a son by his wife Sarah—he did what boys will do. He teased, and probably bullied, young Isaac. So much so that Sarah persuaded Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. All they had was a “skin” of water and some bread. And God, watching out for them.

When the water ran out, Hagar really did reach her lowest point. She couldn’t stand the thought of watching her son die, so she left him under some bushes and went off alone. Once again God rescued her. He opened her eyes so that she saw a well, and He gave her a promise that her son would also be the head of a great nation.

She gave Ishmael the drink that he needed to live and they settled there in the wilderness until he grew to be a man. Then Hagar arranged for him to marry an Egyptian, and he did in fact fulfill the prophecy God gave his mother during that “dark night of the soul.”

The main thing I learn here is this: in the midst of Abraham’s story and the promises and miracles God performed for the man who was later referred to as “a friend of God” (see James 2:23), God also took care of a lowly maid, someone not in the Messianic line. And as some would be quick to point out, a woman.

God is no respecter of persons. He really isn’t. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that because the Jewish nation is referred to as “the apple of His eye.” They are “the chosen people.” But in truth, God chose them, not because they were numerous or strong or great in any sense of the word, but because they were weak and few in number so that His grace could shine through.

He wanted the world to see Him through His relationship with the nation of Israel, just as He now wants the world to see Him through His relationship with the Church. The point is and always has been to give a picture of what everyone can have. After all, God didn’t just start loving the world when John 3:16 was written.

So in Christ’s genealogy there’s an adulteress, a woman who slept with her father-in-law, a foreigner from a nation that was banned from entering the temple, and an unmarried virgin. Why?

God wants the point to get through to us: salvation is not for an elite group of special people who do things just the right way. It’s for the Hagars of the world who reach bottom and who look up to the God who hears, to the God who sees.

He, in turn, pours out His grace and rescues those who recognize their need for Living Water.

Published in: on January 29, 2018 at 5:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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From The Archives: Holiness Means What Again?


Pole_vault_barThis article is a revised version first of one that appeared here back in May 2011 as part of a discussion with author Mike Duran about the meaning of holiness.

To understand holiness we need to start with God because He alone is holy. Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (“And [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” -Heb. 1:3a), gave us the insight we need in His “Sermon on the Mount.”

In part He said the following:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, …

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [selected verses from Matt. 5, emphasis added]

raise the barThe point I’m making is that Jesus set the bar where it belonged—at perfection, starting not with our external actions but with our thoughts and intentions and desires.

In so doing, He exposed us all because none of us is perfect. We all know this, even the most convinced atheist who doesn’t even believe in a moral standard. But because our hearts are desperately wicked, because we are so easily deceived, Jesus laid it out for us.

Now we can’t think evil thoughts about another person, while on the outside smile and help him fix his flat tire, then come away with a sense of goodness. Those evil thoughts pin us to the wall. Sure, we might fool others, and even ourselves if we refuse to look closely, but we aren’t fooling God.

The very pride we might feel at living an externally moral life, or at pointing out someone else’s activities which we categorize as moral failings, shows the real problem: we are, at heart, people who want to be God. That’s the sin the Fall infected us with.

We Christians are missing the point if we look at drug addicts or homosexuals or rapists or corrupt politicians or corporate criminals and think their problem is their external behavior. No doubt their external behavior complicates their lives, but their problem is their rejection of the grace of God He has lovingly and generously supplied through Christ, that which would provide the forgiveness they need.

No amount of “clean living” will change what they need—substitutionary payment for the insurmountable debt they owe. Their lives are forfeit. Putting away cigarettes, unplugging from pornography, taking the four-letter words out of their vocabulary, or any other external and all of them combined, isn’t going to change their standing before God.

Or mine.

We can enter His presence, enjoy a relationship with Him as His child, by grace alone.

But what about holiness? That’s where this started. Holiness is my response to my holy God.

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For related posts, see “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” and “Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Revering God’s Name – A Reprise


Anne Elisabeth Stengl's rescue dogSome years ago I saw a Facebook ad: “Hit ‘Like’ if you love Jesus.”

Is it wrong or sinful or a bad testimony to join the over 9,000 people who hit “Like”? I’m not ready to go that far, but the first thing I thought when I saw that was, How cheap.

It’s like taking the most valuable human relationship you can imagine and saying, “Show how much you love your spouse or your kids by hitting ‘Like.’ ” Does hitting “Like” really show how much you love them?

It reminds me of an era gone by when there were bumper stickers saying, “Honk if you love Jesus.” Really? Honking or Liking shows you love Jesus?

Honk if you want that driver to wake up and realize the light turned green; honk if a dog is sitting in the road and won’t move, honk if another driver doesn’t see you and starts to swerve into you, but honk if you love Jesus?

Hit “Like” if your friend posts a cute picture of her new puppy, hit “Like” if a commenter says something you agree with, hit “Like” if someone cheers for your same sports team, but hit “Like” if you love Jesus?

These kinds of soundbite responses are typical of our culture, but I’m troubled when we reduce our relationship to our Savior and Lord to a one-second button push or, in the olden days, a tap on the horn.

I’m wondering if such a costless and near anonymous declaration isn’t also meaningless, and maybe worse. When we put Jesus on a par with the thousands of other things people can “Like” on Facebook, aren’t we actually demeaning Him?

Scripture says, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness of Deity to dwell in [Christ]” (Colossians 1:19). Yet we’re saying, treat Him the way you treat your favorite actress or singer or politician. Or your friend’s real estate business or restaurant or antique shop.

Clearly, not everyone treats God this way–because some never had any reverence for Him and others believe Him to be high and Holy and beyond a gimmicky “Like” button. Sadly, I don’t see the former group taking much notice of God because a group of people are hitting the “Like” button to say they love Jesus.

If we truly love Him, we’ll obey His commandments. That’s what He said. And His commandments were two-fold: love God and love your neighbor.

If we truly revere God and His name, we’d do an act of kindness for our neighbor–something significant that cost us in time or in money. We wouldn’t honk as we drove off for the day, shouting out the window, I just wanted you to know I love you. We wouldn’t flash a “Like” sign when we spotted them walking to their front door.

Those are cheap expressions that might make us feel warm and fuzzy for a few seconds, but they in no way lift up God’s name or show Him as the one we worship as Creator and King.

How can we expect a world in need of our Savior to give Him a second thought when we treat Him in such a cavalier, perfunctory way? How could anyone believe we have a genuine relationship with someone we treat with such disrespect? How can they believe He is God when we so clearly don’t treat Him as a person who is worthy of our highest praise, not our quick hit of the “Like” button.

David said in Psalm 18

The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock
And exalted be the God of my salvation.

Declaring God’s greatness and His attributes and His work to rescue us, deliver us, enlarge our steps, and set us on our high places is far removed, in my view, from hitting the “Like” button.

Of course we’re not all poets like King David was, but we can sing out the praises he wrote, and we can scratch out our own praises in our poor prose, we can certainly cry out our thanks to God in prayer.

And we can “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects” (Col. 1:10a).

Hitting the “Like” button . . . may we think better of God than that.

This post first appeared here in October 2013.

Published in: on January 11, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Christ At The Center Of Christmas


Whatever else Christmas once meant in another culture at a different time, and no matter what it means to those today who don’t know Jesus, the reality is, He has made such a big impact on the world that there’s hardly a place that doesn’t acknowledge His birth at Christmas.

In truth, His coming changed the world. We are right to give Him praise.

Great is the LORD and highly to be praised,
And His greatness is unsearchable. (Psalm 145:3)

For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1Peter 1:20-21)

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.

When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20)

May God richly bless you this Christmas.

Published in: on December 25, 2017 at 5:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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God Started It – Reprise


Nativity_Scenes004When I was growing up, my brother, sister, and I had . . . disagreements from time to time. We squabbled about silly things—whose turn it was to do the dishes, who got to sit in the front seat of the car (or if Mom and Dad said we all had to sit in the back, who got the window seats), what TV program to watch, who got the Sunday funnies first, who got to sit where at the dinner table—silly things.

Inevitably our disagreements would escalate, and Mom or Dad would intervene, scolding whoever had caught their attention. Just as sure was the response from whichever one of us was in the hot seat: But he started it! Or she. We were not the instigator. Ever. At least as we saw things.

In truth, there is one time when in fact that line is true. When it comes to our relating to God, He started it.

In the grandest scheme of things, of course, He started it because He started everything! But specifically in relating to Humankind after the first man and the first woman turned away from Him, He started it. And on a personal level, with me, He started it.

The grand scheme refers to the cosmos. God created. The specific dealing with humanity refers to God’s plan of salvation—sending His Son as the sacrifice to expiate our sins. The personal refers to His work to bring me to Himself.

At no time did I or anyone else initiate with God.

He started everything by making Man in His image, after His likeness. Like any child, Adam was helpless when it came to deciding what color hair he’d have or how tall he’d be or how smart he was. He didn’t decide to be like God, with a will and emotions, with the capacity to create and to communicate. It was God who wanted us to be like Him, and so He made us.

It was also God who loved the world, who determined to love us while we were yet sinners, who chose to express His love by His actions. He gave His Son, and His Son died that He might cancel out the certificate of debt we each owed.

And speaking of “each,” God chose me, called me, rescued me. It’s very personal—not some generic salvation, as if he tossed his net into the sea of humanity and scooped up the ones who couldn’t get away, so I was caught along with a myriad of others.

The point is, I wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be a Church of which I am a part, and I wouldn’t be His child if it weren’t for the fact that God started it. John said it plainly in his first letter: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (KJV, 1 John 4:19).

Paul spelled out God’s initiating activity more fully. First our condition:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

Pretty hopeless—if God didn’t enter the picture. There was no way for dead people to be made alive without a miracle. There’s no way for sons of disobedience to become righteous and holy, apart from God transforming our lives. There was no way for children of wrath to become children of peace and reconciliation except by the power of God to cause us to be born again.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10, emphasis added)

Love is the fourth and final quality our church is emphasizing as part of the Advent season, and certainly love seems to be a part of Christmas. We are reminded of the love of our families—some traveling many miles in order to have a few days together with loved ones; most spend hundreds of dollars and precious hours shopping in order to give gifts to those we love.

We even include a “love” tradition—the hanging of mistletoe—as part of our Christmas celebration. And the holidays aren’t complete without at least one Christmas romantic comedy or classic story with romance.

Then when we look at the events of that first Christmas, we’re aware of Mary’s love for her newborn child, of Joseph’s love for his little family, of the wisemen’s love and devotion that took them far from home to worship the king.

But none of it would have happened if God hadn’t started it. He formulated the plan before the foundations of the earth, Peter said:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18b-20)

And Paul verifies the plan:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6).

There was no salvation until the kindness of God and His love for mankind appeared. There were no deeds we could do to earn a righteous standing with God. The great change from dead men walking to alive in Christ came because God started it. And He did so as an expression of His great love.

This post first appeared here in December 2014.

Published in: on December 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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God Come Down-Reprise


This article, excluding a few revisions, first appeared here in December 2010.

On Sunday, the USA Weekend magazine that comes with my newspaper splashed the word GOD across the front cover. The lead article was “How Americans Imagine God.”

I have a problem right there. God is not formed by our imagination. Consequently, what person A “imagines” about God has no relevance whatsoever as a means of actually knowing Him.

I could say that I imagine the core of the earth is stuffed with daisies, but that would not make it so.

Oh, but someone may say, scientists know about the core of the earth. They’ve done science to prove that it’s most certainly not filled with daisies. However, no one can know about God, so we have to imagine him.

Actually, we can know about God more certainly than we can about the core of the earth. That’s where Christmas comes in. Yes, this actually is a Christmas post.

The whole point and purpose of the first Christmas was God coming to us, like us, so we can know Him.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; … And His name will be called … Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).

Paul explained in Philippians 2 that Jesus, who existed in the form of God, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men.”

Then in 2 Corinthians 4:4 he said “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (emphasis mine).

Not your typical Christmas verses, I realize (except perhaps Isaiah 9:6). But here’s the point. Jesus—God Himself—came to earth that we might know Him.

He walked the roads that other men and women walked, debated Scripture with scholars, touched and healed beggars and blind men, preached to crowds of thousands and counseled a single woman. He shared Passover with His followers and blessed a number of little children.

In other words, He didn’t live His life incognito. He rubbed shoulders with people of all economic and social strata and was open about Who He was.

So there were eye witnesses who talked with God, face to face, because they talked with Christ. Some of these eye witnesses, then turned around and wrote down what they had experienced, so the rest of us have their eye witness accounts of some of the more memorable words and acts of God Incarnate.

Let me ask you. Of late have you talked to anyone who has visited the core of the earth?

Me either.

Yet we Americans are so sure of what’s at the core of the earth, but we can only imagine God. I find that ironic and sad.

In reality, we can know God through Christ. Not all there is to know about Him, certainly. But we can know Him.

Someone who says they imagine God is this, that, or the other, is missing out on a real relationship with a real person. We can’t change Him by what we wish Him to be. He is who He is, and He hasn’t kept His identity a secret.

Published in: on December 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Trappings Of Christmas


I love Christmas decorations. I love the lights in particular, but I love wreaths and mistletoe, presents under decorated trees, bells, and candy canes, manger scenes, all of it. I even like Santa and his reindeer, the elves, too, and Frosty, to a lesser degree. I’m not sure how Snoopy has insinuated himself into Christmas, but he has. I don’t hate him there. Or the Grinch.

What I’m not so crazy about is the need some people seem to have to find or create a Christian meaning behind every bit of tradition. The Christmas tree, for instance, can remind us of a cross because it’s made of wood, and because the cross provides life, which the evergreen tree suggests. Couldn’t it just be a pretty tree decorated with lights and ornaments?

The funny thing is, I love symbols. I love them. So when Jesus said He is the Light of the world, I think the metaphor speaks volumes. When He said He’s the door to the sheepfold or the Good Shepherd or Living Water or the Vine, the Bridegroom, even the Temple, I think there’s so much to discover and to think about with each comparison, I never tire studying them.

And of course I love fantasy, which is pretty much one gigantic symbol of the inner workings of the human heart.

So what’s my problem with the Christian explanation of the Christmas traditions?

Well, I said it, didn’t I. I have a problem with the “explanations.” If a symbol works, it doesn’t really need to be explained. It stands on its own. But if someone explains a symbol, it reduces it somehow. It becomes a thing more than a concept, an idea, an event.

At the same time things are occasionally just those things. Not every frog is a prince. Sometimes a frog is just a frog. And sometimes a bit of holly garland is just a nice decoration to liven up a room, to add a bit of festive.

But maybe that’s just me. I personally like the fun things of Christmas—the stuff that makes little kids squeal with delight. I remember trying to memorize ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas when I was a kid. I remember wanting and wishing and hoping for snow. I remember the year someone gave us an Advent calendar and we got to open one of the little windows each day in December. I remember trying to stay up until midnight to see if Santa Claus would really show up and drink the milk and eat the graham crackers we left for him. I remember hanging stockings and waking up as early as I could to come into the living room Christmas morning.

These were fun things. And anticipating the fun the other 364 days only enhanced the joy. Every time a Christmas song came on the radio, the anticipation ramped up.

I’m pretty sure that if I were still a kid, all the same fun and anticipation and joy would be there as part of Christmas.

But now, as an adult, I have a deeper joy, a greater anticipation, not of Christmas morning, but of Christ. I know now what Christmas means. Not because someone has explained the red and white stripes of the candy cane or taken away all the Santa things that “compete with Jesus.”

I don’t worship Santa. I know he’s pretend. I know that Christmas Day came into being as a way to counter pagan celebrations. I realize no one knows the actual date of Christ’s birth.

But so what?

So what that we have fun on Christmas and so what that we celebrate Jesus’s birthday without knowing when it really occurred?

The important thing at Christmas, as far as I’m concerned, is this: God gave us His Son and made a miraculous announcement of his birth to a group of lowly angels. Before they even saw the sign which the angels told them would verify this Child’s birth, they said, Let’s go see this thing that’s happened. They didn’t need any more explanation. They only needed to believe the announcement: For today there has been born for you in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

That’s the story of Christmas, right there.

The fun things, are just fun, and we can take or leave them. But shepherds saying yes to God’s message, that’s the symbol that ought not be explained, that means what it means and more. That is filled with a wealth of truth that we can study all our lifetime and never reach an end to the richness of what occurred.

Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 5:17 pm  Comments (2)  
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