Tag Archives: Christmas

Scrooge and the Death that Gives Life

Christ is alive: to begin with.

If Charles Dickens had been inspired to write a book of the New Testament, I suspect that it is how it would start—for that truth is the foundation of Christianity: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). It is instead, of course, an alteration of the opening line of his famous tale A Christmas Carol. This justly celebrated classic chronicles the terrifying but morally reformative experience of Ebenezer Scrooge, as unkind and callous a miser who ever stalked the earth. Successively haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Scrooge’s eyes are opened to his own wretched selfishness, prompting repentance and a dramatic alteration of his close-fisted and hard-hearted behavior.


Scrooge’s story is timeless because it is a spiritual story. His transformation echoes that of Zaccheus (Luke 19), the counterpoint to the rich young ruler whose inability to loosen his grasp on the things of this world introduces Christ’s teaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). When we first meet Scrooge, he is that rich man. His love of money has nearly extinguished the sparks of love and joy that sputter fitfully among the gathering shadows of his dark heart. His lamentable condition is brought into stark relief by being examined in the glow of Christmas, “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” when shut-up hearts are opened to let in the light of kindness and reflect it back again.

Not Birth But Death

Despite its long association with Christmas, Dickens’s tale begins not with a birth, but with a death—the death of Old Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner. In fact, death underlies the entire story: it casts a shadow over Scrooge’s bygone memories; it lurks behind the festoons of present revelry; it awaits its inevitable victims in the future. Scrooge is aware of death, certainly. He even recommends it to the poor as a means of relieving the surplus population. But it is clear that he has never thought about it as applicable or relevant to himself. That begins to change when he is confronted by the ghost of the departed Marley, who appears to Scrooge to make him accept death and the consequences of death—to warn him to turn from the dismal road he walks or suffer eternal punishments. Bound in the trappings of death and torment, he comes to offer Scrooge “a chance and hope” of escaping his own dreadful fate.

“You will be haunted by Three Spirits,” Marley tells Scrooge. The Spirits show him many things, but what they collectively reveal is Scrooge’s progressing separation from his fellow man. Still, Scrooge is not wholly lost. Small regrets begin to well up in him early in the course of the spectral visitations. The Spirits know their business, fanning these embers of remorse into flames of repentance. But it is the third Spirit, so frightful in aspect that he is referred to as a “Phantom,” who brings Scrooge to his knees, pleading for the chance to mend his ways. This Spirit is the revelation of death. The visions presided over by this menacing apparition, who provides not even the comforts of speech, are unrelieved by either the sweetness of recollection or glimpses of present joy. Scrooge is brought face to face with his own death, his final separation from the world. But it is not merely his death, but especially the kind of death that shakes Scrooge: a death un-mourned and even celebrated; a death that reveals the utter emptiness and selfishness of his life.

The result of Scrooge’s supernatural experiences is that he is reborn a good man. He begins immediately to reform, to show compassion and benevolence, the change in his heart displayed through good deeds: “and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas very well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” The shadow of death has brought forth life.

True Spirit of Christmas

When Marley first appears, Scrooge, ever the practical man, wishes to establish that the ghost is in fact real rather than a gastronomically inspired delusion. In fact, he begins the interview by flatly refusing to believe in its reality at all. Yet he must come to accept that reality if he is to undergo any moral correction, and the ghost insists that he do so. “What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?” Marley challenges. But the concern to establish the reality of the visitation is not the ghost’s alone: the narrator insists upon it. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am going to relate.” Not only must readers accept this as fact, we must also understand that Scrooge knows it too: “Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise?”

This episode recalls the appearance of Christ to the disciples after the resurrection. They knew he was dead, yet they saw him now alive. He appeared to them not as a spirit (that is what they fear) but in body with “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:37-39)—which he demonstrated by eating in front of them. He overcame even the most stubborn of the doubters, Thomas, by appealing to his senses: “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). The visitation is real. Christ rose from the grave and appeared before them, not as a tormented shade, but as the master of death and the king of life.

In Dickens’s story, Scrooge reforms his life with respect to his fellow man. But the reality of the resurrection is far more powerful. Faith in Christ does not merely reform, it also transforms. His death and resurrection means we are dead to sin but alive in Christ (Romans 6:11). We too have been visited by a Spirit, one who offers not merely “a chance and hope” but a certain victory over spiritual death. For all who believe, Christ’s death has brought about our rebirth. If we remember that grace, we shall keep Christmas very well.

The Violence of Christmas

Do yourself a favor before Christmas. Read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Then read Genesis 1-3. Then read Revelation 12. Then throw in Romans 16:20 for good measure.

That’s the whole Christmas story.

Christmas ViolenceIt’s not simply the poetic and sweet story of a child’s birth, welcomed by stars and angels. It’s a violent war story. A cosmic war story. A conflict between fundamental forces of good and evil. As Mary labored in a place far from home, heaven and hell thundered and took up arms.

I think of The Fifth Element’s Leeloo, who descends to Earth at the beginning of the movie, pursued by evil forces bent on the planet’s destruction. She is perfect and innocent, but she’s also here to fight. To spend her life redeeming a planet. Read those passages and watch the film again; it’s a Christmas story.

I think of Alan Furst’s spy novels, where whispers behind enemy lines invoke fury and danger. Where the small, the unsuspected, the few pave the way for the forces of good to erode and ultimately invade a land held captive by forces of evil.

And of course, I think of Die Hard, which we already knew was a Christmas movie, but think a layer deeper: a hero travels to a far-off land (McClane is a New York cop in Los Angeles) to reconcile with his estranged bride (she’s changed her name) and has to rescue her from evil powers that hold her captive. Yippee-ki-yay.

Doomed by a Baby

In Genesis, a serpent slithers into a perfect world and begins lying, eroding its foundations. In Revelation, this evil one has grown into a furious dragon: his power and dominion are far more menacing. He fumes and rages and casts down stars from the sky. But he’s still doomed.

And the first attack against him isn’t marked by the shout of warriors, the flash of swords, or the thunder of cannons. It’s marked by the cry of a baby.

The world didn’t welcome him. We only offered his laboring mother a reeking stable to protect her from the weather. The Christ child was born and laid in a manger, a place where animals eat. Later, while breathing his last upon a cross, he’d quote from a psalm that describes his death like this:

Like lions they open their jaws against me,

roaring and tearing into their prey . . .

My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;

an evil gang closes in on me.

They have pierced my hands and feet.

(Psalm 22:13,16)

The baby took his first nap in a feeding trough, and 33 years later, his death would be likened to being torn apart by wild animals. He would also tell his followers to feast on his body and blood, a way of symbolizing and experiencing union with him; to taste and see that he’s good, that he’s victorious over Satan, sin, and death. Think about that symbolism: only by tearing him apart and devouring him do we participate in his redemption.

There should be no question that Christmas is the greatest cause for joy that the world has known. Imagine if Christ hadn’t come. Imagine a life where there was no eternal hope, where we were left to try to redeem ourselves.

Stop and Think

Christmas is also a time for us to stop and think. Remember the whole story of Christmas, not just the easily marketed warm-and-fuzzy side. Remember that all of it—Jesus’ condescension as a baby, his birth in a filthy stable, his sleep in a manger—reminds us of the muck he found us in. The nativity, so often depicted as cute and kitsch, is actually a painful depiction of our sin and fallenness. As Jerome once put it, Jesus was born in a dungheap because that’s where he knew he’d find us.

Remember, too, that the Christ-child’s birth caused hell to erupt with fury. Remember that their resistance was futile.

And remember, most of all, that the violence and humiliation of Christmas happened because God loved us enough to suffer all of it on our behalf and by our side. In Christ, we never have to be alone in our sorrows, pain, and humiliation again. The one who made the world entered it as a child and experienced all of its hardships and injustices so that by God’s grace, he could be our comforter in the years to come.

Which is why at advent, we proclaim:

“Comfort, comfort my people,”

says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

Tell her that her sad days are gone

and her sins are pardoned.

Yes, the LORD has punished her twice over

for all her sins.”

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,

“Clear the way through the wilderness

for the LORD!

Make a straight highway through the wasteland

for our God!

Fill in the valleys,

and level the mountains and hills.

Straighten the curves,

and smooth out the rough places.

Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,

and all people will see it together.

The LORD has spoken!”

(Isaiah 40:1-5)

The Shocking Implications of Incarnation

If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of Christ’s incarnation, it is because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners. In fact, the incarnation is so appalling that it separates Christianity from Islam and Judaism. The Jerusalem Talmud says, “If man claims to be God, he is a liar” (Ta’anit 2:1), while the Qur’an says, “Allah begets not and was not begotten” (Sura al-Ikhlas 112). Jews and Muslims understand how ludicrous it is to think that a holy God would humiliate himself by becoming human.

south-african-nativityThe holiness of God is fearful. But if we want to know God and ourselves, we must begin by seeing how much God loves his holiness and cherishes his purity. If we do not start here, the gospel will become cheap to us. As A. W. Tozer wrote, ”Unless the weight of the burden is felt, the gospel can mean nothing to man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them” (The Knowledge of the Holy).

Under the old covenant, people responded to the holiness of God with awe and reverence. When Moses met the Lord, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Then, years later, when he begged to see God’s glory, God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). When the ark of the Lord was being brought back to Israel, some men looked inside of it and, as a result, the Lord struck down 50,000 men. The people despaired, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” (1 Samuel 6:20). When David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem, one man merely touched it, and God struck him down immediately. “And David was afraid of the LORD that day, and he said, ‘How can the ark of the LORD come to me?'” (2 Samuel 6:9). The nearer Ezekiel approached the throne of the Lord, the less sure his words became: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face” (Ezekiel 1:28).

Not only did people tremble at his holiness, the Lord himself frequently spoke about it. Through Isaiah, he said, “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? . . . All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:1317). When Job finished calling his character into question, the Lord answered from the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:24).

Jesus embodies the holiness of God because he is God and has been with God from the beginning. This means that, when God acted under the old covenant, Jesus—as part of the godhead—was right there with him. This is why the incarnation is a shocking miracle. In Christ, God has effected self-disclosure. Our holy God, who told Moses, “for man shall not see me and live,” became incarnate. People saw him and lived. Our holy God, who struck down a man for touching the ark and another 50,000 for looking inside of it, became incarnate. People spit upon him and lived. Our holy God, whose throne was so magnificent that Ezekiel failed to find words to describe it, became incarnate. He was born as a baby in a manger, not a throne. Our holy God, who demanded blood sacrifices to atone for sin, became incarnate. He allowed himself to be butchered on a cross. Our holy God, who asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” became incarnate. He was born in an insignificant little town and worked as a mere carpenter in Nazareth.

Incarnation Today

What does the incarnation mean for us today? First, the incarnation means that we live in the world, but not of it. As Jesus prayed for his disciples, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16). In other words, we pursue holy lives of obedience and sacrifice even as we engage in our cities, neighborhoods, and families.

Second, the incarnation means that we seek opportunities to deny ourselves. Self-denial is not a popular topic in our culture, but it is the starting point for Christian growth in the mind of Christ. When Jesus became incarnate, he voluntarily denied himself the privileges of being God in order to be mocked and killed. He did this because he longed to redeem us and knew that, in order to accomplish our salvation, the demands of his holiness had to be met. We could not meet them, so he met them for us. We, in turn, are to have the same mind, “do[ing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves” (Philippians 3:3). We deny ourselves to love others.

Third, the incarnation means that we do not love money. God is the richest being in the universe. Everything is made by him, through him and for him. Yet as he looked upon the world and decided into what family he would come, he chose the poorest of the poor. When Mary and Joseph went to the temple after the birth of Jesus, Luke recalled, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord . . . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons'” (Luke 2:22-24). Under the law, the regular sacrifice was a lamb, but there was a provision for poor mothers: “If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons” (Leviticus 12:8). This is what Mary brought. Jesus, who had all the riches of the world at his disposal, chose to be incarnate into a family that could not even afford a regular sacrifice. Let us not love riches.

Fourth, the incarnation means that we should not overvalue physical beauty. Our culture loves external appearances, but the incarnate Christ chose to come as someone who had no physical beauty or majesty. He is the most glorious person who has ever lived, but we did not recognize his glory. Thousands saw him with their eyes, but they saw nothing with their hearts. We, in turn, must look for beauty in our world with the eyes of our heart. What will we see when we look at the world this way? We will see that, today, the Lord lives in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. As Jesus taught, when we care for such people, we do this unto him.

Finally, the incarnation means that God is for us. Paul was not merely referring to the crucifixion when he wrote, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). He was also referring to the incarnation, when Jesus left the side of the Father to become man and accomplish our salvation. The incarnation means that God is for us. Jesus left the godhead and all the privileges thereof to die. He lived a humiliating and self-denying life to bring us to God, where there are pleasures forevermore. He veiled his awful and fearful holiness so that we could touch him, see him, know him and love him. No longer does he say, “No man can see my face and live.” Today, he says, “See my face and be satisfied” (Psalm 17:15).

When we live in light of the incarnation of Christ, our lives will be shocking to others. Although we are sons and daughters of the King, we will humiliate ourselves by serving others. All things may be permissible, but we will deny ourselves certain things or activities so that we can grow in our love for God and others. We will earn money, but we will strategize how to give it away for the sake of the kingdom. Living in a physical world, we will spend more effort on cultivating our inner beauty than our outer beauty. We will trust in the promises of God more than our circumstances because we know he is for us.

When we live this way, people will think we are ludicrous. They will find our choices shocking. Yet we will point to the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. Our lives will testify to the great news of Advent: Christ has come, God is with us.


This article has been adapted and originally appeared at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Christmas According to Luke

It’s that time of year. Many of us are encountering the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel afresh as we prepare to celebrate our Savior’s birth.

Produced in partnership with LifeWay, The Gospel of Luke: From the Outside In is a 12-session group study offering a thorough look at the life of Jesus through the eyes of Luke and the interpretation of scholars David Morlan and D. A. Carson.

The following excerpt from the lesson on Luke 1-2 features written commentary from Morlan and video teaching from Carson.


Long Story

Luke Outside InIn the first two chapters of his Gospel, Luke highlights that Jesus didn’t arise out of a contextless situation. God didn’t choose him from any random family or people, nor did he just drop him in out of nowhere. Jesus was connected intimately with what God had been doing with Israel through ages past. Indeed, the story Luke tells about Jesus isn’t a new story, but rather the culmination of one reaching back thousands of years.

So if the story Luke is telling connects Jesus with the story of Israel in the Old Testament, then that means the God connected to Jesus is the Lord of Israel. The God who called Abraham and spoke through the ancient prophets is the same God whose plan unfolds in the opening scenes of Luke’s narrative.

Echoes of Creation

And a major character at work is the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the language used for the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35) echoes the language for the beginning of creation itself. Genesis 1:2 says, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Just as the Spirit “hovered” over the deep before God’s great miracle of creation, so he “overshadows” Mary before the miracle of Christ’s conception.

Luke assures his readers that “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). This previews a special relationship between Jesus and the Spirit that will become increasingly evident as his ministry progresses. It also reveals the magnitude of what the Father is doing in Jesus—it is an act on the scale of creation itself.

Superior to John

If the story of Israel and activity of God come together dramatically in the person of Jesus, what does this tell us about him? Jesus is utterly unique. And the main way Luke demonstrates this is through a comparison with John the Baptist. John is an immensely important prophet like Elijah who prepares the way for God’s people; Jesus is God’s own Son who will rule on David’s eternal throne. While John’s conception occurs in the conventional way, Jesus’ comes about through the creative work of the Holy Spirit. While John, like the Old Testament prophets before him, points to salvation, Jesus actually brings salvation. John’s father, Zechariah, gives him the role of prophet and forerunner while directing his attention mostly to the one who “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69). Even as an adult John admits his baptism was just with water while he pointed to Jesus’ baptism being with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:15-18).

By providing a comparison of John and Jesus, Luke wants us to see how truly unique Jesus is. If John, a great prophet of God, wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, what does that tell us about Jesus? If Jesus says “among those born of women none is greater than John” and concludes “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” what does that tell us about the importance of the kingdom Jesus is establishing (Luke 7:28)? John was great, but Jesus was absolutely unique.

Worldwide Significance

Luke doesn’t only situate Jesus within the history of God’s people, but within world history as well. The events he recounts happened “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” during the rule of “Caesar Augustus . . . when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). The following chapter further roots Jesus’ public ministry within world history: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1).

By doing this, Luke is indicating that Jesus will not just affect Jewish history, but the history of the world. The stage is set for global ramifications. The borders of his kingdom will stretch to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Indeed, this baby will be a “light of revelation to the Gentiles”—an ancient vocation Israel had forsaken long before (Luke 2:32; cf. Isa. 49:6).

The Orgastic Future, the Problem of Death, and the Weight of Glory

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once compared the meaning of Advent to life in a prison cell. “One waits, hopes, and does this, that or the other,” but “the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”1

For those of us living in the already-but-not-yet, Advent is about more than looking back to Israel’s story for insight into Christ’s birth. It’s our opportunity to enter that story, to reflect on our experience for a clearer sense of our need for redemption. Only with a clear-eyed view of darkness—of sin and sorrow and loss—will our hearts perceive the beauty in his coming and long for the day of his return. Where have you tasted your need for Jesus this year?

Fits the Season

A few months ago I reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a group of friends. We’d all read it before under duress. But we wanted a fresh look before the latest film adaptation hit theaters this summer. Granted, Gatsby is a far cry from an Advent devotional. But in a way it fits the season. It’s had me thinking a lot about the passage of time, about the relentless approach of death, and about the effect of these realities on the joys we can know in this life.

The novel follows Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of what Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, calls the “orgastic future” (189).In a sense Gatsby embodies the promise of the Western frontier—given freedom and opportunity, anyone can make for himself a future that rises above the circumstances of his past. By reputation, the book is a riff on the American Dream. This was certainly my impression the first time through, and it’s not completely off the mark.

But there’s a perceptive nuance to Fitzgerald’s account of the quintessentially American self-made man. The driving energy of this story is nostalgic to its core. Gatsby’s dream—the essence of his “orgastic future”—hinges on the recovery of what he had loved and lost. Chances are if you know anything about this story you know it centers on Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. The two were sweethearts when Gatsby had nothing but an army uniform. But while he fought the Great War in Europe, Daisy—unable to wait for him—married an old-monied, polo-playing football star from Yale. True, Gatsby is the poster child for Prohibition Era opulence. But his pursuit of wealth and all its attendants—the otherworldly mansion, the fancy cars, the wild parties—is always aimed at winning Daisy back. His greatest desire for the future is to repeat his past. His chief arrogance is that he believes he can do it.

Time Marches On

The great adversary to Gatsby’s ambition is not Daisy’s husband. It’s not the seedy connections through whom he makes his money. It’s not the impoverished anonymity of his upbringing or the ill-formed sensibilities his excessive spending can’t hide. His great adversary is time. By one count Fitzgerald uses 450 words related to time throughout the story.Gatsby’s “orgastic future” is the full enjoyment of what he’d once known only briefly and in part. But time always and only marches on. That’s why Carraway describes Gatsby’s imagined future as one that “year by year recedes from us.”

Surely Isaac Watts had it right: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.” Just as surely, Fitzgerald captures all of us as those who “beat on, boats against the current” (189). The lasting resonance of The Great Gatsby stems from this insight into our basic human longing. Few of us will ever experience anything like the decadent luxuries of the roaring twenties. But all of us know what it is to struggle against the corrosive effects of time—to preserve, protect, or restore what we love. And we know from experience what Gatsby illustrates so well: ours is a fruitless struggle. The passage of time renders the best of joys unsatisfying and incomplete. Even in the moment our joy is weighed down by the sense that the things we love don’t last.

Only the Henchman

I’ve said Gatsby’s chief adversary is time, but that’s not precisely true. Time is only the henchman of what the apostle Paul calls our great and final enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). Gatsby looks to Daisy for deliverance from what he fears most—a monotonous everyman’s existence followed by the nothingness of death. But the same current that carries Gatsby further and further from his imagined future carries him—carries us—to the grave. It is the knowledge of our inevitable mortality, that life itself is only a breath, which gives apocalyptic significance to our experience of loss, regret, or disappointment.

To state the matter positively, written into every experience of transitory joy and irretrievable loss is a yearning for eternal life. And precisely in light of this longing, the gospel’s promises of redemption and resurrection come to life. Only when we acknowledge the inescapable tyranny of death can we celebrate the glory of one born to set his people free.

Foretaste of Joy

The light of Christ transforms what we’ve known as irretrievable loss into a mere foretaste of far greater joys to come. If death is final, then the loss of what we’ve loved in this life is final too. There’s just nothing for it. But if Jesus lives, then death is defeated. If Jesus lives, the fleeting pleasures of this world are ours to enjoy with open hearts but also open hands, an aperitif en route to glory. The transitory objects of our love are not a sign that all is lost. They’re a sign that we’re made for more than what this world can offer.

Reading Gatsby this time through I couldn’t help but think of that passage in The Weight of Glory where C. S. Lewis reflects on the power and place of nostalgia. For Lewis, nostalgia is one of the names we give to the instinctive desire for “our own far-off country.” He writes, “If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious.”Trapped in time, the things we love if loved too much “turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.” What joy we know in them always turns to longing for what is past. But the coming of Christ reorients our longing for a full measure of the beauty we’ve tasted in this in-between age. Those good things time carries away we recognize as “only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”5

The Advent season calls us to savor the sweet promises of the gospel by looking to Christ through our longing for something more. The promises are true. Come, Lord Jesus.

Letter to Eberhard Bethge, November 21, 1943, in God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, ed. Jana Reiss (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 13.

2 This and all subsequent citations are from F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, with notes and a preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli (1925; repr., New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995).

Ruth Prigozy, “Introduction,” in The Great Gatsby (1925; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxxi.

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (1949; repr., New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 29.

Ibid., 31.

What Joseph Can Teach Us About Biblical Manhood

Like many other pastors, I recently began our annual “journey toward Bethlehem” by preaching from Matthew 1:18-25. During my study I began to notice some exciting—and somewhat unexpected—landmarks in the life of Joseph, each relating to the subject of biblical manhood.

As the heading in any of our Bibles will tell us, this story is clearly about the birth of Christ, not biblical manhood. However, just because the birth of Jesus is the “main point” doesn’t mean it’s the only point. I don’t believe we should shy away from making the other points so long as we’re faithful to expound the main one.

In this article I want to share five lessons we can learn from Joseph’s life about what it means to be a godly man.

1. Godly men care about God’s Word.

Matthew tells us Joseph was a “just man” (v. 19). While we may read this phrase simply as “Joseph was a stand up guy,” the word here for “just” is describing Joseph’s posture and orientation toward the law. As a devout first-century Jew, he cared deeply about what God had to say about life. As we might put it today, Joseph was a godly man who cared deeply about the Bible and wanted to live it out.

Could the same be said of us? Are we devoted to God’s Word and living it out in daily life? If not, why not? What might need to change?

2. Godly men are more concerned with what God thinks than what others think.

This story highlights the amazing event of the virgin conception—a truth apparently not embraced by Joseph at first. At this time, for a young bride-to-be like Mary to turn up pregnant during her betrothal period was a crime potentially punishable by death (Deut. 23). Though ancient Jewish communities didn’t always enforce this law, they often did seek to publicly humiliate the adulteress. So being a “just man,” Joseph had to somehow respond to Mary’s perceived “indiscretion,” or he would have been naturally seen as guilty as well. But even in the wake of her untimely pregnancy, Joseph loved Mary and didn’t want to see her publicly shamed even if it meant he could clear his name. Instead, he was willing to endure a measure of shame.

I know what you are probably thinking: In the next verse, he decided to “divorce her quietly.” How can this be commended? Because of their betrothal Joseph was required to take some kind of action, and the law contained a provision allowing for a private “divorce” (breaking of the betrothal) in such situations. I believe Joseph’s plan was evidence of his effort to be faithful to God and the law in a way that was as kind to Mary as possible.

Could the same be said of us, husbands? Are we willing to lose face if it saves some shame from someone we love? If not, what does this reveal about the nature of our hearts and our identity?

3. Godly men step up and do the right thing even when it’s hard.

When we get to verse 20, the clouds begin to lift. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to fear. God is behind these happenings, so he needs to continue moving toward marriage with Mary. Simple enough. But this plan includes the caveat that Joseph must name and raise a son who will be the Savior of the world—a son not actually his.

Can you fathom this commission? All of us have struggles and challenges, but I think Joseph tops us all. Thankfully, he does the right thing. He names and raises Jesus. That’s what godly men do. They step up and do the right thing even when it is hard.

Could the same be said of us? Do we step up, by God’s grace and for his glory, when others step back? Do we inspire the same kind of courage and conviction in our sons? Do we teach our daughters to look and wait for this kind of man?

4. Godly men follow through and pursue purity.

Joseph did all God wanted him to do. While we know God is sovereign, let’s not miss the significant human responsibility. Joseph’s word was his bond. He followed through on his commitments. Joseph maintained his and Mary’s sexual purity until their wedding day. In this way, Joseph provides a particularly poignant example for single young men.

Would others describe you as someone who follows through? What about in the area of purity? Are you by God’s grace “fighting the good fight”?

5. Godly men are willing to care for children who aren’t biologically theirs.

Even from a surface reading of the story, it’s apparent Jesus both is and also isn’t Joseph’s son. In this light it’s not a stretch to think of Jesus as adopted. That Joseph was willing to step in and adopt the boy provided the needed human connection for Jesus to come through the line of David. And let’s not underestimate the lifetime of questions Joseph would have endured by seeking to care for this child. But again, that’s the kind of thing godly men do. They care for orphans and widows and seek to look out for the fatherless as a reflection of the heart of God.

Make no mistake: Christmas is about Jesus.

The story in Matthew 1 is about the birth of Christ, and we should honor it as such. But isn’t God kind to allow us to learn other truths along the way to Bethlehem? Joseph is a hero in Scripture who points us to the Hero of Scripture. May God give us the grace to follow in his steps.

You Can Be Hospitable Even with Little

I love to host people in my home—the more the merrier! The idea of one day owning a bed-and-breakfast and preparing a meal for strangers who have traveled far and wide, preparing all the Southern fixin’s you can imagine (eggs, bacon, grits, biscuits, gravy), makes this Tennessee girl jump for joy. Hospitality is a joy for me—not a burden. But a recent move has left me with far less space to host. It’s easy to excuse our inhospitable attitudes due to inadequate space or messy homes. Yet during this move I’ve been reminded that hospitality is a matter of the heart, not square footage or neatness.

bed breakfastMy family recently moved from a three-bedroom, full basement, ranch-style home across our long state and into a two-bedroom apartment. The apartment is spacious enough but definitely smaller. When we first moved into the area I hesitated to say that I lived in an apartment when people would ask me where I lived. Instead I’d say something like, “I live in the neighborhood off the major interstate.” It wasn’t long before the Lord convicted me of pride and fear of man. Worldliness and covetousness had crept into my heart. Thank you, Lord, for that revelation and the repentance that followed! But then visiting friends began to request to stay in our apartment.

There’s a temptation to want to wait until everything is “perfect”—as in a large, clean, beautiful home—before allowing someone in. Our new home felt like it was too small to truly be welcoming. And because of the lack of space, boxes were still piled up in public places. So we lived in a box, filled with boxes, so I thought. Did I mention that we have two children? So it’s a box, filled with boxes, and toys. There’s no way, I thought. In the middle of holiday season, I imagine many others share my concern about whether we can adequately care for guests.

Hospitality Is About Love

Peter got to the heart of hospitality when he urged his readers to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). Hospitality was a matter of survival in the first century. So Peter reminded Christians not to complain during this common activity.

Surrounded by that Scripture on hospitality, Peter tells us to “keep loving one another earnestly,” and “as each has received a gift, use it to serve one another” (1 Peter 4:8, 10). Hospitality is a practical way to love your neighbor as yourself and fan into flame the gift that God has given you.

Hospitality Is About the Heart

It is possible to have a completely clean home, every room in order, large space, and a meal that a five-star restaurant would envy, and yet not be hospitable. Perhaps you’ve done it. Everything is neat and tidy, but you still run around like Martha “distracted with much serving” rather than sitting and enjoying your guests like Mary as she sat at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38-42). Love transforms hospitality. When we begin to think about serving others and sharing not only our spaces but also our hearts, we can open the doors with gladness.

Paul charged the early Christians to “contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13). Hospitality and caring for the needs of others marks our faith. Nowhere did Paul qualify his command. He did not say, “Show hospitality but only if you have a lot of room and all of your possessions are neatly stored.” We don’t wait until everything seems perfect—we offer what we have and trust God to bless our guests.

By the grace of God, I did not hesitate for long before we invited guests into our new home. In fact, we’ve seen more feet travel through our 1,200-square-foot living space than we ever did in the same short period of time in our house.

As Christmas approaches, let’s remember that hospitality isn’t about the what, when, and where. It’s about the who. Hospitality is about the person we get to welcome in and love. We can trust that the Lord will bless those who come into our doors if we have hearts to serve and love them. Your guests might not remember your space, but they will surely remember your care.

Opening your home may seem like a major undertaking. But it’s small thanks to the Lord who gave everything to live among us and die on the cross in our place.

Finding Rest in the Merry-Thon

Santa Running

For many, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas leave us grateful but gassed. In the name of holiday festivities, December means attending multiple Christmas parties, traveling to see family and friends, and standing in line to get the ever-elusive “perfect gift.”

As much joy as Christmas brings, if we aren’t careful, holiday cheer can sap our energy and steal our joy. It is a great irony that the season of light often feels heavy. What can we do to find rest in this annual merry-thon?

Unlikely Christmas Verse

Though we don’t think of Matthew 11:28 as a Christmas verse, it is. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” tells us why Jesus came. Although earthly labor is a good thing, in a fallen world our best works leave us tired and increase our unrighteousness before a holy God (Isa. 64:6) Therefore, like drinking water from the Dead Sea, our greatest efforts to find rest leave us thirsty.

To this universal problem, Jesus offers a solution. He invites us to come, that in service to him we may work under his easy and light yoke. Such a promise of rest is at the core of his gospel and fundamental to his incarnation.

Significantly, Jesus’ invitation follows the announcement of his arrival. Earlier in Matthew 11, a weary sinner sends a message to Jesus asking about his identity. The inquirer is John the Baptist, and his good works have successfully landed him in Herod’s jail. Of course, John isn’t perceived to be a “sinner” like the woman in Luke 7. He is a faithful prophet of God who suffered much for the sake of righteousness. In Jesus’ own estimation John is the cream of the old covenant crop (Matt. 11:11). Nevertheless, as a fallen son of Adam, he is weary and heavy laden.

So John sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect another?” Jesus replies with a Christmas catena—not cantata (those come later)—of Old Testament verses. Citing Isaiah’s “gospel,” he declares: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5; cf. Isa. 26:18-19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 53:4; 61:1).

Jesus doesn’t give John a straightforward yes. He gives him something better. He recalls the Word of God, which foretells his coming. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true in his life and ministry. John isn’t suffering in vain. Instead, Jesus is offering him rest.

Put Away the Running Shoes

Twenty centuries later Jesus still offers us rest. Yet Americans have so commodified Christ’s birth that rest has been replaced with running. Even if we know the reason for the season, Black Friday sales and white elephant gifts make us red-faced and green with envy. We need to rest and reconsider the race we’re running.

What if we spent less time doing Christmas and more time delighting in Christ? What if instead of gearing up for the marathon, we put away our running shoes and took time to rest in the boots of gospel peace? You won’t need a gift receipt for that purchase.

Rest will look different for every person and every family. I don’t know what it might mean for you, but Jesus does. He is the one who provided a straw-filled stable for two road-weary teenagers about to witness the final fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. He is the one who quieted John’s fears with an appeal to the Old Testament. And he is the one who invites you and me to take up his light and easy yoke, so that we might rest awhile with him.

This December let’s not take advantage of Jesus’ advent to do more stuff. Instead, let’s take advantage of the holidays to press into the spiritual rest that Christ gives us in his advent.

Restoring Rest to the Restless

To put this meditation into practice, here are five things you might do to cultivate spiritual rest.

1. Unplug. While there’s a place for Christmas specials and live nativities, doing something smaller, with less pomp and circumstance, may be exactly what you need to cultivate rest. Such a change might give you the margin you need to be still and know that he is God.

2. Say no to something old. If your schedule includes multiple family meals, Christmas parties, and gift exchanges, find one (or more) to which you can say no. We are finite creatures, and it is good for us to draw boundaries.

3. Say yes to something new. Sing Christmas carols in a nursing home. Serve meals at a local mission. Take groceries to a needy family in your church. Christ’s invitation to rest is not a call to complacency; it is a chance to work in his strength (Col. 1:29).

4. Feed on the Word. As much attention as we give to savory meats and holiday treats, we should give more attention to God’s Word. This might mean reading Advent scriptures or picking up a book on Christ’s birth. However it looks, spiritual rest always involves hearing the promises of the gospel. 

5. Pray. With your family or with others, carve out time to praise God for the birth of Christ. Pray for the persecuted church and those who are suffering this Christmas. Pray for missionaries and for those who don’t yet know Christ. 

Whatever you do this month, put Christ at the center. And whether you finish the month rested or restless, take comfort that ultimately his life, not ours, secures our Sabbath rest. In this month’s merry-thon, remember that Christ has come to be the good news of great joy for weary people.

What Kind of Sweet Little Christmas Picture Is This?

Have you ever noticed that when you look at a picture with you in it, you always check to see how you look first? Do thoughts like, Is my nose really that big or is that just a bad angle? or Wow, I am actually pretty good looking, run through your head? It doesn’t matter if the picture was taken with the rest of your family standing in front of natural beauty as glorious as the Grand Canyon, the first thing you see is you.

old_fashioned_family_christmas_greeting_card-p137189365088978807tdtq_400I’m old enough to remember when Christmas cards actually had a picture of the manger, magi, shepherds, a star, and the Christ-child on them. What do our Christmas cards look like now? You guessed it: they are photographs of the family standing in front of the Grand Canyon (and yes, I actually sent out one of those) or with our favorite pet or in front of our new car or house. Like with everything else, we’ve made ourselves the center of the Christmas story, and we’re using it to trumpet our own story . . . a story about our family and how wonderful we are . . . actually, the story I’m most interested in is the one mostly about how wonderful I am.

Then, for a brief moment, something else starts to take center stage, and the whole world begins talking and singing about Someone else . . . at least for a few moments, because the Christmas story is the one story we can’t find ourselves in. It is the one story strong enough to pull us out of our story and into it. And even though we keep trying to find ourselves there, I am pretty sure that none of us has any prenatal photos of angels trumpeting our birth to a group of shepherds in the Middle East. And although I am fairly certain that I was pretty much a perfect baby, I’m also certain that I was conceived in the normal way. No world ruler set out to kill me because he felt threatened by my birth, and although my grandma did bring my mom a handmade blanket, that is nothing compared to gold, frankincense, and myrrh offered by magi to foreshadow my destiny on a bloody cross.

The story of the Nativity, the story of the second person of the Trinity becoming an infant, wet with amniotic fluid, wrapped in coarse rags, seeking sustenance from his mother’s trembling little body, is meant to shock us, to force us to look away from ourselves for just one moment, to him, to his birth. This birth is a glorious picture of scandalous humility and terrifying love beating in a little baby’s heart. Who could imagine that his love would make him serve us like this? Why is the one whom the angels worshiped lying there in a cold stone feeding trough surrounded by smelly and warm cattle manure? What kind of sweet little Christmas picture is this? And where are we? Where is the portrayal of our family standing in front of the Grand Canyon looking all put together in our cool (or uncool) Christmas sweaters?

Even though this is what we say we believe, and our hearts say “yes” and “thank you, Lord” when we hear this story, we still want Christmas to be about us and our delicious cookies and our mad present buying skills. We keep inwardly yelling, Look at me! while there he lies, first in this manger, then in a cold stone tomb. And he says,

No, you look to me. I’m the only one who will bring you peace. I’m the only one strong enough to take center stage and hold it . . . and I love you even though you’re always trying to take my place. I’m here to save you from your self-focus and all your sins and I will do it. You can believe because I’ve done this, I’m lying here like this. My name is Jesus, and I’m your Savior.

Born to Raise the Sons of Earth

There’s a line in the carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” that caught my attention this year that I don’t think I’ve noticed before. The line immediately prior, “Born that man no more may die,” has long been meaningful to me as one touched by the pain of death. Its truth has given me perspective in the midst of great sadness in the Christmas season by reminding me that what began in a manger will culminate on a cross where Jesus will “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Yet here we are, living in this world where there is still so much death. We keep thinking that if God were good he would sweep into this world and our lives and protect us from all this loss and pain, that he would put an end to disasters and disease and death.

And one day he will.

That’s the solid hope found in the next line of the song, which says, “Born to raise the sons of earth.” The good news about this baby is not that he will keep those who love him from suffering physical death. And the good news is not just that when we die, we will go to be with him—as good as that is. This Christmas carol is pointing us to the solid foundation and substance of our hope—the resurrection of all who are in Christ to an endless life with him.

The apostle Paul wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). This passage draws a distinction between those who grieve with no hope and those who grieve with hope; and we want to be people who grieve with hope. So what is the nature or substance of the hope held out to us in this passage?

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with rhese words. (1 Thess. 4:14-18)

Notice that Paul didn’t command us to comfort one another with the truth that deceased Christians are in heaven, though we know that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Rather, the apostle tells us to comfort one another with the promise of a day of resurrection to come. The substance of our hope is not merely a spirit-with-no-body existence in the presence of God. The substance of our hope is our spirits being reunited with our resurrected bodies fit for eternal enjoyment in the new heavens and new earth.

Our great hope is not just going to heaven when we die, though that is so wondrously good. But God has much grander plans. Our great hope is that Christ will come again, not as a helpless baby in a manger, but as a magnificent king on a throne—a king who will be close enough, and gentle enough, to wipe every tear from our eyes. He will personally put an end to everything that has brought his people pain. He will “raise the sons of earth” by transforming “our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21) to live with him forever on a gloriously renewed earth.

The wonder of it made the herald angels want to sing. And as the wonder of it begins to sink in, it makes us want to sing, too.