Christmas Presence – The Presence of Our Need

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Christmas Reminds Us of Our Greatest Need and Our Greatest Gift.

As a kid, you know it’s getting serious when mom says, “Wait until dad gets home.” At other times dad shows up when a child is in need or, as we’re older, when we have car trouble or a financial need. Dad shows up when there’s a big announcement or a surprise. Sometimes dad shows up just to save the day. When the Father has to show up in person, it’s always a big deal. Think about it: at that first Christmas, God had to show up. He came in Person, to set things right. He didn’t come angry (“for God so loved the world”), but He did come to bring justice, to set things straight – not to punish us, but to rescue us from our sin.

But He had to show up in Person? Christmas begs the question: Why? Why did Jesus come? Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:15-17:

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Christmas Reminds Us of Our Greatest Need and Our Greatest Gift. “The true value of anything is known only when it is wanted.” J. B. Stoney

What did Jesus do? “… Christ Jesus came into the world…”

Matthew 1:23 says, He will be called, “’Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” John 1:14. This is Christmas presence. God showed up in Person.

Why did Jesus do it? “… to save sinners…” Christmas and the resulting Gospel, is not a gentle exhortation towards a more fulfilling life. It is the announcement of divine rescue from a life of self-destruction and an eternity in hell. The Good News of the Gospel is not that there is hope for you to change yourself, it’s that Jesus has “saved” you. This is why it’s not incidental that this story of redemption is called “Good News”. If it were merely information or a program for self-improvement, it would be called something else, like good advice or a good idea, or good enlightenment. Instead, Jesus came to SAVE sinners. Not improve them.

Reason and morality cannot show us a good and gracious God. For that, we need the Incarnation.

Why did He come in the flesh? - (Why the Incarnation?) Why did He have to show up in person? Couldn’t God (from heaven) just fix things? He came in the flesh:

  • to show us that God exists - How do you know God exists? He came here in person to tell us so, to show us that He does and how He would live “IN PERSON”
  • to empathize with us - to understand, to identify with us

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15 He came to sympathize with us- so that we would TRUST Him.

  • to live the perfect life on our behalf - He came not simply as our good example, He came as our perfect Substitute. He lived the perfect life FOR us, because we could not. God demands, not our progress, but perfection. And only in Christ is He satisfied.
  • to physically die on the Cross – This is why our Message is not, humanity and it improved, but “Christ and Him crucified”. Christ is not just our good example; He is our perfect Substitute.

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Hebrews 9:22

  • to physically be raised to life again
  • to be glorified in bodily form – Death results in the separation of the body and the soul. Our bodies go to the grave and our spirits go to the Lord. The separation continues until the resurrection. But w/ the Lord, He rose again, with a glorified body, the same as it was before & is now into eternity- and we will follow Him one day, at the final resurrection. He had to come in the flesh- to be born like us, to live, to die, & to be raised again, and to reign forever as the Risen King.

D.A. Carson: “If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”

What is my response? “… of whom I am the foremost…” Like Paul, we recognize our sinful state and humble ourselves before God. We will never truly celebrate Christmas until we realize how sinful we are. We will never be truly transformed by the Gospel until we realize how desperately we need a Savior.

For many of us, our greatest problem is not our badness but our goodness. We’ve concluded that “good people” are those who “do good” and “bad people” are those who “do bad”. Even our good works are done with sinful motives. Ironically, as theologian John Gerstner points out, “The main thing between you and God is not so much your sins; it’s your damnable good works. ”

Consider sin, not so much as breaking the rules, but putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge- through your own self-salvation project, it puts you in control. Sin is not as much about bad behavior up against good behavior. Sin is a condition of the heart. This is why we cannot rescue ourselves. Romans 3:23- “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, but that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances. We’ve forgotten that God demands perfection not progress. And He still does. Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. We say that we’re not saved by works but by grace, but many of do not believe that we’ve been saved by grace alone. We could say that we are saved by works, just not our own – we are saved because Christ fulfilled all of the crushing demands of God’s Law and He lived the perfect life on our behalf. In Christ, you are not defined by your past. You are defined by Jesus’ past. And His is perfect. Consider the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. The older son was kept from the feast of salvation, not because of his remorse over his bad deeds, but pride in his good deeds.

When was the last time you realized your need? When was the last time you were truly broken over your sin? When was the last time you expressed your need for Him or thanked Him for it? The only thing that we bring to the table, is our sin that makes Christ’s sacrifice necessary for us.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one?” – Romans 3:9-12. Christmas begins with the recognition of our great need for a Savior. Christmas Reminds Us of Our Greatest Need and Our Greatest Gift. It all starts with a recognition of our need. J. N. Darby, (a theologian/author in the 1800s) said it this way: “Wisdom and philosophy never found out God; He makes Himself known to us through our needs; necessity finds Him out. The sinner’s heart- yes, and the saint’s heart too- is put in its right place in this way.

“Necessity finds Him out.” Only in your need for God do you find Him. Do you live with a constant realization of your need for Him? If so, I know this about you: you are a worshipper. You live in constant gratitude for God’s grace to you. Let’s let Christmas Reminds you of your Greatest Need and your Greatest Gift. Christmas brings forth worship.

Paul’s response was worship: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” When you have an awesome dad, you know what you do- when he shows up to save the day? You praise him, you thank him. You talk about him. You tell all of your friends about him. You want everybody to meet him. God came in the flesh and the response of the angelic host was worship. Luke 2:14 says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

Christmas Reminds Us of Our Greatest Need and Our Greatest Gift.

We know whom to thank.

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Have you heard the one about the atheist who, on Thanksgiving Day, suddenly realized he had no one to thank? Thanksgiving is explicitly, a theist’s holiday. But it’s a good day for everyone to pause and to, “Know that the Lord, He is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” Psalm 100:3.

The atheist must acknowledge that you cannot get something from nothing. It’s simple logic and it’s scientifically impossible. Nor can you get living matter from non-living matter. Scientifically impossible. Simple cause and effect is proof of the existence of God. Every effect must have a cause and God is the Cause of all things. This means that He has created us and we are His. God has created us to seek Him and to find Him. We were created to worship Him.

Herein lies the challenge for the atheist. To acknowledge God ultimately means you are accountable to Him. For many, this comes as bad news. Initially, for all of us, this is bad news. Because we all know intuitively that, if there is a God, He is holy, just, and all powerful. We know God exists but we do not want to acknowledge Him. Romans 1:21 says, “Although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” But to those who understand the Gospel, this is Good News. Though He is holy and demands perfection, we know that Jesus has lived the perfect life on our behalf. He has fulfilled all of the crushing demands of God’s Law for us. He died on the cross for our sin and became the perfect sacrifice for all who would receive His gift of grace. He rose again, conquering death and hell so that we might live in power over sin and experience the freedom of living as God created to, all to His glory.

We know whom to thank. Don’t miss this. In the midst of all that is Thanksgiving, enjoy all the great gifts of God’s grace, but pause to acknowledge Him as the Giver of these gifts. The greatest of which is the gift of Himself in the Person of Jesus. May thanksgiving give rise to great hope that the God who has so richly provided for us will continue to reveal His grace to us as it continues to increase for all eternity as He shows us “the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” Ephesians 2:7.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”- Ephesians 1:3. The grace we’ve seen thus far is only a taste of the grace that is to come. Practice your thanksgiving now. Be ready for much more to come. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever”- Pslam 136:1.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Ten Traits of a Healthy Family

At the beginning of this school year, it’s a good time for you to consider how to be intentional with your family and not lose yourselves in the activities of a new school year. Years ago, Stacy and I decided that our family would be marked by these traits. Consider posting this somewhere in your home and talk about it together. Then practice these things diligently and you’ll see God move mightily in your family this year.

1.  We have an irrational commitment to each member of the family. 

We will display an illogical love for one another, spread lavishly and without discretion. (1 John 3:1)

2.  We communicate with truth and grace. 

Mom and Dad model Ephesians 4:15 and create an atmosphere where truth can be discussed, regardless of how difficult it may be to talk about.

3.  We affirm the value and uniqueness of each member of the family. 

Each person is loved for free and without judgment. (Romans 15:7)

4.  We vow never to abuse, shame, control, or intimidate one another. 

Understanding that children are fragile, no emotional, verbal, or physical abuse is tolerated in any way and is immediately confronted. (Philippians 4:5)

5.  We share a strong spiritual foundation. 

Parents recognize that a “mild dose” of God and His Word, will never cultivate a life that has Christ at the very center, guiding every aspect of life. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

6.  We teach respect for others. 

Racism, arrogant superiority, or disrespect for people who are different is never tolerated. (Matthew 22:39)

7.  We instill a sense of responsibility in one another. 

Each member knows that they must take responsibility for their own actions and face the consequences of their poor choices. The consequences do the teaching. (1 John 1:8-10)

8.  We play together. 

Laughter and fun mark a family that builds strong relationships with one another. (Proverbs 17:22)

9.  We mark moments and celebrate traditions together. 

We know that the love and commitment of the family will never change – this year, next year, forever. (Job 8:8-10)

10.  We seek help when we come to an impasse. 

We understand that all families have issues that may need outside or professional help and we are not afraid to ask for help when needed. (James 5:14-16)

Calm Faith in Anxious Times

… and why it’s a great time to be a Christian.

 

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

We live in troubled times. In America we find ourselves in a political season that is unprecedented. Our country is more divided, volatile, conflicted, and confused than it’s been in my lifetime. Recent news of the UK’s departure from the European Union reveals that we are not the only ones. At a recent gathering in Charleston, on the anniversary of the massacre of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. nine, I was reminded of how much further we have to go to bridge the racial divide in our country. We have a long way to go. Today the stock market is in a spiraling free fall, terrorism threatens us domestically and abroad, and immigration, sexual identification, abortion, financial disparity, and mental health, all top the news. Even as I write this, I discover that at least 36 people were killed and more than 100 were injured in an attack at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, by suicide bombers who blew themselves up. Is there any question, we live in fearful times? Understandably, these events result in skepticism and unbelief for many, while a few see the birth pangs of a coming new Creation. As a pastor, I’m reminded every day of this undercurrent of cultural anxiety, that inevitably surfaces in our personal lives- in our relationships, marriages, families, the workplace, and yes, in our churches.

I would like to offer the crazy notion that these are the best of times to be a follower of Jesus. In this cultural moment, we have an opportunity to bring forth a Gospel witness that we have not had in a long time. Indeed, every day is a good day to share the love of Christ and the hope we have in Him. But light shines brightest in the darkness. It is dark, and this is Good News. Hang with me; the Church needs to hear this.

The Jewish Rabbi, Edwin Howard Friedman, was a family therapist who applied family systems theory to congregational leadership. Years ago, I read his book, From Generation to Generation, in which he explains that one of the qualities to effective leadership is a non-anxious presence. He says parents must offer this non-anxious presence in the family in order to bring security, peace, and direction in the home. This, he describes, is the capacity to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes through self-differentiation. This differentiation involves the willingness to be exposed and vulnerable and includes “a persistence to face inertial resistance”. He describes a self-regulation of emotions in the face of volatile criticism. This self-differentiation is not simply an emotional detachment, though it may lead to some, but is more the ability to attach one’s core identity to something outside of the role of leadership and all that entails. It is this self-differentiation that produces the necessary non-anxious presence.

This is what we need in our day. And no one can display this kind of non-anxious presence like those who have found their truest identity in Christ. One’s ultimate self-differentiation is found in Him. Christ offers Himself as the primal example. He defined Himself only in relation to the Father. He was the Beloved Son of God the Father, pure and simple. In John 12, He says He did not speak on His own authority, “but the Father who sent me has Himself given me a commandment- what to say and what to speak” (v. 49). He only did what the Father told Him to do and He only said what the Father told Him to say. Jesus differentiated Himself from all else- His followers, His circumstances, His personal well-being – and found His identity solely as the Beloved Son of the Father. If anyone ever had a non-anxious presence, it was Jesus. And yet, He lived up close and personal- incarnational- fully engaged.

Hear this: If you are “in Christ”, you too are a beloved son or daughter of God. By receiving His grace, through His death upon the cross, by faith, you are now found in Him. His identity is yours. The truest thing about you is found outside of your circumstances. The stock market, terrorism, political polarizations, relational conflicts, personal failures, nor any other thing can separate you from the love of God in Christ.

In anxious times, Scripture takes on new meaning; but only as is applied. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39

We are not defined by the circumstances around us; or perhaps we are. Our anxiety, anger, and fear, reveal our hearts and point others to our idols. Let us prove where our hope lies. Let us show the world the non-anxious presence of those who have been differentiated by the love of Christ. Now is the time to put our faith into action. Now is the time to differentiate ourselves as God’s beloved. Be the non-anxious presence others are looking for, and point them to the One who has made you so.

 

Dads: What your children really need to know about you.

 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1

Paul sets forth the greatest leadership principle a father can practice: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Many Christian men know that this principle makes sense but few actually follow it. We’ve come to believe that we can say we believe one thing but live out another thing. And unless your children are under two years old, you’ve already figured out that you can’t fool them. They have a built in bull detector. In fact, you’ll do more damage than good, claiming to be or teach one thing, but do another. You will instill distrust and confusion in the life of your child.

The only way to be a great father (or a great leader in any arena of life) is to pursue something greater than yourself. As Christian fathers, we pursue Someone greater than ourselves. In Luke 7 we find the one time in all of Scripture that Jesus was actually “amazed” at someone. Consider how difficult it would be to amaze Jesus. A centurion had come to Him, begging Jesus to heal his sick and dying servant. He explained to Jesus that he believed if Jesus would just say the word, his servant would be healed. Luke 7:9, says,When Jesus heard this, He was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, He said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” But it wasn’t simply a blind faith that impressed Jesus. It was the centurion’s understanding of Jesus and who He is. The centurion understood a powerful lesson of leadership and of fatherhood. The depth of his understanding is revealed in Luke 7:8, as the centurion explains, “For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” The centurion knew that Jesus was under the authority of the Father and He had been given the authority to do what He needed to do. This is the first guiding principle of fatherhood. Dads, you are under the authority of God almighty. You have been given the role as a father by God Himself. Fatherhood is a stewardship; it is temporary; and you are accountable.

If you want to ask your children to follow you as you follow Christ, then you must first understand the guiding principle of fatherhood- that more is caught than taught. In fact, most of what you pass on to your children is caught, simply by watching you day after day. Apply these five principles as you seek to be a father worth following, and then experience the joy of leaving the rest up to God Himself, to shape and mold your children into His image. In the end, life is all about worship. Who/what you worship guides everything else in your life. It’s all about love. What you love is what gets your time, your energy, your thoughts, your money, and your life. Jesus said what you love is where your treasure is (Matthew 6:21). It reveals what you value most. The problem with most of us is that we practice “disordered love”. Augustine said that all of our sins are the result of love out of order. We love good things, more than the Supreme thing. Show your children how to love by putting your loves in order.

1. You love Jesus above all else.

Show your children how to live out of a Gospel identity. Show them that you love Jesus above all else by spending time with Him daily. When your children wake up in the morning, let them see a father pursuing Jesus first, above all else, in His Word. Show them a man who is in passionate pursuit of Jesus. And make Church a priority, above travel, the lake, golf, or whatever your other loves may be. Lead the way. Make it your life’s goal to follow Jesus every day. I’ve seen children watch their dads go to church every week but not follow Jesus every day and if you do so, you will present a false, distorted view of Christianity. Indeed, simply a religion that bears His name. In his book, Risk, Kenny Luck writes, “No man’s life for God will ever outperform his view of God.” He says the biggest challenge facing Christian men is not the world, so much as their view of God. We need men willing to risk and aggressively pursue God. Your view of God will determine your spiritual direction. It’s revealed in His Word and confirmed through your obedience. If a man’s view of God in Christ is accurate, there will be an aggressive and bold spiritual commitment and courage in leadership.

2. You love their mom more than them.

The greatest thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. I’ve learned over the years that the greatest security you can bring to your children is to love their mom. Fathers must express that love boldly and kindly in every day interactions. Again, it’s being caught by your children. Our sons will love their wives as we love ours. Our daughters will be loved and love, as we love our wives. When your children are young, establish clear parameters about who is most important in the family. It’s not the children. The child-centered family is certain to produce selfish attention addicts. The parent-centered family is clear about who’s in charge and which relationship is most important, above all the others. Do not let your young children interrupt adult conversation or adult time. Time for husband and wife supersedes time for children. Over time, this pattern brings great security in the lives of the children. Keep your relationship with your wife the priority, then you’ll be ready to guide your children. In our day, as never before, our sons need fathers. Our daughters need fathers. A father is the son’s first hero and the daughter’s first love. John Eldredge, in his great book, “Wild at Heart”, writes, “What we have now is a world of uninitiated men. Partial men. Boys mostly, walking around in men’s bodies with men’s jobs and families, finances and responsibilities.” Like food through the body, boys become men by spending time with men. And the father is the primary giver of manhood to his son.

3. You love your family more than your job.

One of the most common disordered loves in the lives of men is our God-given love for work. We were designed to work, to build, and construct. In his book, “Choosing to Cheat”, Andy Stanley sets forth a provocative principle: When it comes to balancing work and family, you’re going to cheat someone. He explains, “Everyone is busy. All of us have more to do than we will ever get done. We all have to cheat along the way. When you cheat strategically, you leverage your busyness for the sake of what’s most important. Cheating strategically allows us to communicate the message our families long the feel–you are important to me. You are more important to me than anybody or anything else in the world”. The idea of “cheating” is simply another way to talk about decisions made according to our priorities. Too many fathers pray, “Lord, help my family thrive while I’m in such a busy season and unable to be present in their lives.” Instead, there are times we need to pray, “Lord, I place my work in your hands. Allow my work to thrive, even as I seek to be present with my family during this critical season of their lives.” Throughout any career there are seasons of intense focus at work that will demand your time, but there are also critical moments in the lives of your family that will demand your time as well. In the end, Jesus never talked about “balance”. He talked about an all-out pursuit of one thing: the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). There’s only one first, and when we determine to follow Jesus every day, He will guide us when those tough decisions must be made.

4. You love others without condition.

Show your children how to love others like Jesus loves them. As you parent with grace, forgive and forget, your children will do the same. But you must also teach them to love others outside your family. Especially those who are very different from them. Watch for opportunities to offer biblical commentary on the issues of the day. The way you extend grace to others is the way they will. Show them by your actions how to love others unconditionally. Talk to your children about issues of race, religious pluralism, and sexual orientation. It’s even more important to show them what you believe. Befriend others who are not like you. Introduce them to your children. Have them in your home. You will teach your children how God loves them by showing them that you love people who are not like you at all. If you are not intentional about this you will inadvertently teach your children that you are only comfortable with people who are like you. This is not the way to help them experience God’s grace in diversity nor is it the way to prepare them for a future of growing (and necessary) diversity.

5. You love being with them.

The most important way to show love to your children is by being with them. The old adage that children spell love, T. I. M. E. is true. You can talk about how much love your children and even tell them how much you love them (often via texts or voice mails for some), but nothing surpasses your presence. I love the story of the little boy who was talking with his classmates at school about who had the best dad. “My dad is very busy and has a really important job. He makes lots of money and tells a lot of people what to do every day.” Another boy, seeking to one up the other, said, “My dad is the president of his company and flies in his own private jet to get to meetings all around the country. He’s the best!” Finally, the third little boy spoke up excitedly, “My dad is here!” His dad then joined his son and his classmates for lunch. If you are going to call your children to follow you as you follow Jesus, they must see you do so firsthand.

Dads: be there.