Tuesday, December 26, 2017

When the Last Present's Been Opened

I really enjoy Christmas. I always have, and I hopefully always will. Whether it is the nostalgia from watching childhood Christmas specials, the excitement of our own children, or the tastes of the season’s dishes, I try to slow down and take it all in. Have a cup of hot chocolate. Watch a cheesy Hallmark movie. For as many Christmases as I can remember, the buildup is exciting, and there is always a touch of sadness when the holidays are over.

Putting away the decorations means I won’t see them for eleven more months. I won’t be signing along to Bing Crosby until after Thanksgiving. The joy and excitement that dominated the previous month quickly dissipates as we settle back into the grind of life, the not-quite-as-jolly routine that is January through mid-November.

But there is good news. Just because Christmas is over doesn’t mean that what we celebrate is likewise over. If you are like me and get a little down after Christmas, just remember what Christmas is about. The birth of Jesus continues to change us throughout the year, not just in December. I want to share with you a poem I wrote called “When the Last Present’s Been Opened.”

Stores are overcrowded, fights are breaking out.
I’ve got so many things to do, I just want to stop and shout.
But it’s OK because Christmas time is here;
In the midst of all this chaos, there’s still holiday cheer.
The gifts are piling up underneath the tree,
Children shake them eagerly, wondering what they might be.
The entire Christmas season always goes by fast,
And it won’t be long at all until the season is past.

When the last present’s been opened, and the gifts are given away,
The decorations have come down; there’s no “Merry Christmases” left to say.
There’s no more “Season’s Greetings;” no more Christmas cheer.
The spirit of the season won’t be back for another year.
When there are no more Christmas parties, no more carols left to sing,
Take joy in knowing this: Jesus is still the King!

May we continue to celebrate the Savior all year.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Christmas Bells

In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem he called “Christmas Bells.” The poem was written on Christmas Day and was a reflection of the emotion that Longfellow was feeling at the time.

The poem was shortened considerably and made into a Christmas carol in 1872, and it has been a favorite of many ever since. Here is the original poem in its entirety: 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
their old, familiar carols play,                                   
 and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom                         
Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
the world revolved from night to day,                                 
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
 the cannon thundered in the South,                 
 And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
 the hearthstones of a continent,                                       
And made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;                           
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;          
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men."

The poem begins with the happy thoughts of Christmas, with the joy brought about by the bells. But the joy turns to sorrow before finally ending in joy again. The references to the cannons in the South and the hearthstones of a continent being rent remind us of the Civil War, which was dividing the Country when this poem was penned.
But the emotion that Longfellow was feeling was born from something deeper than a nation at war. Longfellow’s son Charles, a lieutenant for the Union, was mortally wounded that November in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. 
The sound of his son’s death no doubt drowned the carols of peace on earth, good-will to men. 
And in despair he bowed his head. But his grief was not only for the loss of his son. Longfellow’s wife died tragically a year and a half earlier when she caught her dress on fire. Part of Henry died that day; he later wrote that he was “inwardly bleeding to death.”
While Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, you may well relate to Longfellow, who in despair once thought, “There is no peace on earth.”  Maybe you are a widow who wishes Christmas felt like it used to. Perhaps you are recently divorced and feeling lonely this time of year. It could be that Christmas coincides with the anniversary of the death of a loved.
There are a number of reasons that Christmas can really stink. Many people feel like they have to “just get through” the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way if we can see the big picture. I love how Longfellow concluded his poem.
The Christmas Bells rang with a stronger message than simply indicating the coming of Christmas; the message of the bells was a reminder: God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The Wrong, which breaks our hearts at times, will ultimately fail. The Right, which may feel far away, will finally prevail. 
Christmas can be sad and lonely if family, presents, or anything else gets the primary focus. While those things are great, we need to remember that Christmas is a symbol of the birth of Christ, which drawn out, takes us to the cross and empty tomb, where our sins can be forgiven. If you are a believer, then you are never alone because you have a relationship with God Himself. 

That should give us all a reason to join the voice, the chime, the chant sublime, of peace on earth, good-will to men.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Was Mary Really a Virgin?

One of the most common facts about the Christmas story and the birth of the baby Jesus is the miraculous nature in which He was born—to a virgin.

In both Testaments of the Bible the virgin birth is mentioned; it is prophesied in Isaiah 7:14, then fulfilled in Matthew 1:23. The word virgin is peppered throughout Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth, as well as in Isaiah’s prophecy. 

Some like to point out that the word virgin doesn’t just refer to a person who has never had intercourse, but that it can also simply mean a young girl or bride. Does this present a problem to the biblical account? If Mary was not a virgin then the birth of Jesus doesn’t involve the supernatural elements of divinity. 

But the truth is that it really doesn’t matter what the word virgin means. Consider a few things.

First, since it was against the law for any unmarried people to engage in intercourse, all young girls were virgins. The terms were interchangeable, and Mary would have been both an abstinent virgin and a young girl. 

Second, the prophecy in Isaiah was actually about a young girl, not a virgin. The prophecy wasn’t about Mary at all. Isaiah gave this prophecy to King Ahaz as proof of his message that God would destroy the king’s enemies. The sign of the promise would be that a virgin (or young girl or bride) would have a son and name him Immanuel—“God is with us.” Matthew saw the birth of Jesus as the second fulfillment of this prophecy. If Isaiah’s prophecy were only about Mary, she would have named her baby Immanuel instead of Jesus. Jesus is rightly thought of as Immanuel because God came to mankind, thus making Matthew’s reference all the more meaningful. Isaiah’s prophecy was not a miraculous virgin birth, but a natural birth to a young bride.

Third, Mary referred to herself as a virgin when she asked the angel, “How can this be, seeing I have not known a man (Luke 1:34)?” Forget what the word virgin means for a second—Mary had never slept with a man. We can debate the original word all day, but Mary had never been with Joseph or anyone else. 

Finally, if the Bible only teaches that Mary was a young bride and not a virgin, then why did the Holy Spirit place the baby inside her (Luke 1:35); why did Joseph seek to divorce Mary (Matthew 1:19); and why did Joseph refuse to sleep with her until after the baby was born (Matthew 1:25)? Each of those events points back to a virgin birth. Joseph knew he had not impregnated Mary, and he chose to not sleep with her until after Jesus was born so that it could still be a virgin birth.

Skeptics can play word games to undermine God and His Word, but there is no merit to the claim that the Bible teaches anything other than the virgin birth.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Worship God Alone

I’ve spent the last three weeks writing about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation that he is credited with initiating. There have been untold millions, if not billions of people positively impacted because of one sarcastic monk. But I want to make one final point about Luther before moving on; he should not be idolized or worshipped.

For all his strengths, Luther had many weaknesses. He was short-tempered and thin-skinned, a dangerous combination for such a prolific writer. Anyone who remotely crossed him or differed on a minor point would feel his wrath in his next booklet. He was offensive and crude even on his best days. Worse yet, Luther hated the Jews with a passion that Hitler would have envied. In his 1543 tract brazenly titled On the Jews and their Lies, Luther argued for the destruction of synagogues, as well as Jewish books, schools, and even homes; their property should be confiscated, and Jews themselves forced into hard labor. He concluded that it was not a sin to kill a Jew.

Years later in Germany, where Luther remained a hero, Hitler was sure to furiously copy and distribute Luther’s tract, using it to rally support for his own twisted ends. The same man who inspired Protestants in Germany was now posthumously inspiring them to approve of the Holocaust. Luther is rightly remembered for his contributions to Christian history, but he is a classic example of why we worship God and not man. People will always let us down because even the best of us is still imperfect.

The same can be said of Protestants in general. With five hundred years of history now in the books, some has been commendable, but some regrettable. While Protestants were the loudest voices against the Nazis in Germany and the slave trade in England and America, there were many who quietly looked the other way or justified the evils for their own gains. We cannot worship churches or denominations, because they are composed of imperfect people.

Like John on Patmos trying to worship an angel, we may need to be reminded that we should worship God alone.

And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which showed me these things. Then he said unto me, “See that you do not do that… worship God.”

Revelation 22:8-9

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The First Thanksgiving

Over the last few weeks I have been writing about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. If you are wondering why I care so much, it is not just because I am a history nerd (which I am), but because our understanding of salvation is directly traced back to it; indeed, the greatness of this country is traced back to it.

Luther’s reformation spread throughout Europe, giving rise to many smaller groups striving to reform their respective homes. One group in particular, the Puritans, left England and ultimately settled in the New World, believing it to be a place where they could worship God the way the Reformers taught, free from the corrupted influence of the papists and the state-run churches. Their leader, John Winthrop, referred to their Massachusetts colony as a “city on a hill,” invoking biblical terminology; he warned, “If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work…we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” They are much more than that today.

But didn’t they come here and kill the Native Americans and steal their land? No, not the Puritans. The Puritans developed relationships and partnerships with the locals, including Squanto and Samoset. The Puritan plan was to evangelize the Natives, whom they recognized as “the rightful owners of the country.” It was the traders sent from their respective monarchies that brought harm to the “savages,” a position widely condemned by the Protestants at that time.

The Puritans, and later the Pilgrims (more Protestants) wrote that “the propagation of the gospel to the Indians” was what they “profess above all.” They desired to teach them “the knowledge of the true God.” This led to the first Thanksgiving (a holiday not so titled until the days of Lincoln), as the Native Americans and Christian settlers worked together to bring forth a great harvest.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I am thankful for the brave Protestants who came to this new land with the desire to spread the gospel; that mission statement that was “above all” is what paved the way for our enduring religious liberty in this great country.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Luther’s Five Solas

After Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door he became a marked man in all but his hometown of Wittenberg. The dangers he faced afforded him the time to devote himself to the study of Scripture and the writing of his books and commentaries. As the Reformer continued to grow in his understanding he ultimately developed his “five solas (sola means only or alone in Latin).”

Sola Scriptura. Luther concluded that everything a person needs to know in order to be saved is be found in Scripture alone. As Paul noted in Romans 1:16, the gospel “is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.” As the English Reformers would later declare in their Thirty-Nine Articles, if something is not written in Scripture, it “is not to be required…or necessary for salvation.”

Sola Gratis. Martin Luther realized that salvation is by grace alone, as clearly stated in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you are saved…” Were it not for the grace of God no human could ever have the opportunity to be saved. No saved person can boast of their salvation unless they are boasting in God’s grace.

Sola Fide. Ephesians 2:8 continues, “you are saved through faith…” Luther learned that grace is God’s part, but we must respond in faith alone. Buying indulgences, confession before a priest, making pilgrimages, and observing the mass cannot save a person; it is only by grace through faith.

Solus Christus. Neither grace nor faith would be possible were it not for the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no other, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Soli Deo Gloria. Everything must be done for the glory of God alone (1 Corinthians 10:31). Even our salvation brings God glory, but the warped actions of the priesthood glorified man in place of God. Luther fought to put the focus on God alone.

If Martin Luther could speak to you today, he would want you to make sure your salvation is founded on Scripture alone, because of grace alone, with you responding in faith alone, based on the work of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.