Archive for December, 2008

Guest Blog by Rob Swarzwalder

December 26, 2008

My friend Rob Swarzwalder is a great thinker and writer. He serves as chief of staff to Congressman Bill Sali of Idaho. Let him and me know what you think about his “brief Christmas meditation.”

To paraphrase a song of the season, although it’s been said many times, many ways, racism is a sin against the God Whose image all persons bear.

Scripture teaches us that all persons have a common set of parents (Genesis 1:27).  Paul echoed this teaching in his landmark sermon to the philosophers of Athens: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).

If all persons descend from Adam and Eve (Genesis 2), and if all persons are stamped with the ineradicable image and likeness of their Creator (Gen. 1:26), then to claim that someone’s skin complexion or hair texture makes him or her less than human is to affront the Holy Trinity and asperse His wisdom, volition and purpose for all those whom He knits in their mothers’ wombs (Ps. 139:13).

With his characteristically relentless logic, Abraham Lincoln drove this point home when, in 1854, he wrote that if racism was justified by color, “the lighter (have) the right to enslave the darker.”  Similarly, if racism was based on intellect, “By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.” 

The Great Emancipator would no doubt be pleased that America has elected a black man President (although he would likely have differed strongly with the President-elect on a host of issues).  This is a resounding affirmation of the distance we have traveled in our national journey, including from the still-remembered days of Jim Crow laws and an era when a film about interracial marriage “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) was seen as controversial. 

Racism has a sad history in America, but one inimical to the principles of our Founding.  Our seminal national document, the Declaration of Independence, affirms that “all men are created equal” in terms of value to their Creator and accession to the “unalienable rights” with which He has invested them.  Racism is anti-Christian and anti-American, concurrently.

Small pockets of overt race-hatred still exist in our country like ugly blemishes on a beautiful tapestry, and will continue to do so far as the curse is found (OK, I’m in a Christmas mood and even the grimness of the topic at hand cannot dull it).  Sin is intransigent.  Racism is sin.  Ergo, the sin of racism is here to stay.  Yet surely we can rejoice that throughout the mainstream of society, the Ku Klux Klan rightly is viewed as a minor forum of the evil and ignorant rather than a political force whose devotees could march, en masse, down Pennsylvania Avenue as recently as the 1920s. 

Racism is unbounded by geography.  The Arab attacks on ethic blacks in western Sudan (Darfur), the brutal tribal violence of the Congo and, in the early 90s, Rwanda, the “ethic cleansings” of Bosnia and Serbia and the ongoing specter of murderous anti-Semitism that, in beleaguered Israel, is a daily fact of life.  Evangelicals who love their Savior must stand with those suffering by virtue of racial or ethnic heritage through prayer and by giving to (and, if so called, actively participating in) ministries that bring material help in the Name of the Gospel.

Here at home, American Christians must welcome one another in love, with race and ethnicity ignored as qualifiers of esteem or affection.  They are in the body of Christ together, a body where all part join to, and operate under, One Head.  Some, still unsettled by close association with persons of other races, must take the risk of social discomfort and reach out to one another with the grace of Christ.  A racially-healed American church: Jesus, to Thee be glory given by letting it be so.

The Mysterious Incarnation

December 24, 2008

“For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world.” John 18:37

Jesus never wasted a word. In a world-famous conversation with Pilate, and in what amounts to a flashback to Bethlehem, he hints at two profound aspects of his origin and person. I’m not sure the governor actually grasped what Bethlehem’s Child was saying. But since we have a more complete revelation of the Savior in the Scripture, we can make some theological assumptions.

“For this I have been born” speaks of his humanity. In once sense, Jesus came into the world as everyone else does. He was born in the ordinary way.

Mary became pregnant, albeit by the Holy Spirit, and her baby grew through the normal gestation period of nine months. Then in the fullness of time (okay, a phrase that indicates his arrival wasn’t so ordinary) Jesus slid through the birth canal and entered the same world in which we live. I’m sure he cried as all babies do moments after delivery. The cows mooed. The sheep went baaaah. A tear welled up in Joseph’s eye. Mary pondered. And yes, the angels sang. John 1:14 says it this way, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Beyond amazing.

The mysterious Incarnation is the perfect blending of humanity and deity. Before we get to the deity part, let’s consider his humanity.

Jesus was every bit a human being that we are, yet without sin. He laughed. He cried. He ate. He grew thirsty. He fell asleep in a boat. He was tempted. He welled up in righteous passion when he saw the moneychangers turning his Father’s house of prayer into a shopping mall. He wept at his friend’s graveside, grieved over a friend’s betrayal, and due to an unimaginable amount of stress he sweat drops of blood. He was despised and rejected. And yes, real pain electrified his body when the nails pierced his hands and feet. The only pain management he received while hanging on the cross was an offer of vinegar on a stick.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Christmas introduces us to a Savior who was born into this real and physical world full of pain.

“And for this I have come into the world” speaks of his deity. The phrase implies that Jesus existed long before his birth in Bethlehem. It speaks of his eternal nature. As the Creator, he slipped into the world he created, unnoticed by some and celebrated by others.

So what? Why does all this theology matter? Because Jesus lays claim to the truth, not in an abstract sort of way, but in the way of personally bearing witness to the truth at Bethlehem and later before Pilate, in the same way he said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6).

Jesus wasn’t some nutcase who stood up one day and said, “I am the Messiah. Follow me!” He is the eternal, preexistent God and the incarnate Christ. Every bit of authority granted to him by the Father rests in the true nature of his God-man person.

The Gift of Truth

December 22, 2008

You might not have thought of it this way, but every year Christmas bears witness to the truth. We think Christmas is about “peace on earth” and “good will toward men” and it is. But peace and good will are difficult to come by in the absence of truth. I get this idea from a passage of Scripture not often linked with Christmas found in John 18.

Leave the tranquil scene in Bethlehem and fast forward to the end of Jesus’s life and ministry. The soft lullabies heard in the stable give way to the shouts of a frothing crowd calling for the Rabbi’s crucifixion. The flogged and bleeding Messiah is face to face with a savvy politician named Pilate. The governor is looking for a way to release Jesus and escape from having to order his execution. He doesn’t want the blood on his hands.

Pilate is full of questions. He turns to Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” With supernatural composure, Jesus answers Pilate’s question with a question. “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”

Jesus was not playing politics with the politician. He wasn’t evading the question. He was forcing Pilate to look inside his own heart. In an unexpected turn of events, the defendant becomes the prosecutor and places the judge on trial. Pilate might have been asking about a Roman or Jewish king, but Jesus turned his political question into a spiritual one.

Pilate responds with a twinge of sarcasm. “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me; what have You done?”

Rumors of Jesus being a king began in Bethlehem and followed him throughout his life and ministry. When the wise men came to worship this new born king, another governor named Herod was so threatened that he ordered the holocaust of every Jewish boy under the age of two. Miraculously and according to Scripture, Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt and kept the boy safe.

Even the shepherds knew from the angelic announcement there was something special about this baby. The religious leaders thought they could get Rome to do their dirty work by convincing Pilate that Jesus was an insurrectionist who threatened Caesar’s kingdom. It worked.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

With a confused look on his face, Pilate asks, “So you are a King?” Jesus’s reply is a flashback to Bethlehem,

“You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth, hears my voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)

Pilate asks a question for the ages. He didn’t know he was staring the Gift of Truth in the face.

Why Christmas?

December 15, 2008

world_21891_1I’m asking a simple question this Christmas. Why Christmas?

Why do we celebrate this holiday? Why do we trim the tree, deck the halls, put up lights, exchange gifts, cook special food, listen to special music, eat, attend parties, concerts and plays, eat more, visit family we otherwise try to avoid, endure shopping malls, and spend more money than we can afford, only to wake in January with a financial hangover. Why do we do this year after year after year?

And why the birth of Jesus? My birthday doesn’t get near the attention his does. Neither does yours. The world doesn’t pause. Wars don’t cease. Businesses don’t offer “black Friday” sales. The Commerce Department doesn’t track consumer spending around the time of my birthday. So why does Jesus’s birthday get all the attention?

These are the kind of questions an unbelieving world asks. For example, did you hear about the ad campaign sponsored by the American Humanist Association? Appearing on Washington D.C. busses throughout the month of December are ads that read, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” The atheists are spending $40,000 to get their message out. 

Why Christmas? A four-letter word explains it. Are you ready for this? L-O-V-E.  Christmas is God’s way of saying, “I love you!” Love is the essence of who God is. God doesn’t have love; he is love. We wouldn’t know what love is apart from God.

Love demands expression. Love is a verb. Christmas gives full expression to God’s love. Love is Christmas and Christmas is love.

The Bible answers the “Why Christmas?” question in twenty-six words. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

How does one begin to talk about the love of God? We’ve diluted the word love so much that I find myself saying “I love pizza” and “I love my wife, Cathryn” in the same breath. We also confuse love and lust. A teenage boy says to his girlfriend in the backseat of a car “but, I love you” and for the rest of their lives they have a difficult time giving and receiving love. Sometimes we look at love through dark and painful glasses like abuse and wonder why we have a hard time embracing God’s perfect love for us.

Even in the best of circumstances, the love of God is difficult for us to grasp. The apostle Paul interceded for the Ephesian believers this way,

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:17-19 NIV

I love this prayer! (see how easy it is to weaken the word) It describes the multidimensionality of God’s love. Pull out your tape measure. Make sure it’s a long one. God’s love has breadth, height, length and depth.

The Message paraphrases Paul’s words by talking about “the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love.” It encourages us to, “Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.”

Why Christmas? Consider the extravagent dimensions of God’s love.

Playing Hide-N-Seek with God

December 8, 2008

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Genesis 3:7-8

God warned Adam that death would be the consequence of his disobedience. In the Bible, death is separation from something. Physical death happens when our spirit separates from our body. It took Adam 930 years before he actually experienced physical death. Spiritual death happens when our relationship with God is separated by sin. And eternal death (also called the second death) happens when a person is permanently separated from God in a place called hell.

Adam and Eve did not die at once physically, but they did die at once spiritually. They experienced immediate alienation in their relationship with God. And they would have died eternally had God not protected them from the tree of life with the flaming swords of the Cheribum (3:20-24).

When Adam and Eve took a bite from the forbidden fruit, they immediately knew something had changed. The serpent promised them enlightenment, “Your eyes will be opened” (3:5). What they actually experienced was more twisted and hideous. They became aware of their nakedness. Suddenly the holy and pure gift of God was polluted. Their eyes were opened alright, but to a new and unholy consciousness resulting in shame, guilt, and lost innocence.

Furthermore, they knew good and evil as the devil said they would, but not exactly like God. God knows evil like an oncologist knows cancer. Adam and Eve learned evil like a cancer patient knows cancer. They did what they could to cover themselves. But man’s “fig leaves” are never good enough in God’s eyes. The Bible teaches that salvation is “not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9).

They also tried to hide from God. Have you ever played hide-n-seek? We try to avoid people with whom we have an estranged relationship. Adam and Eve thought they could hide from God in the trees and bushes. How sad and foolish. Sad because the trees that once brought them delight became a place to distance themselves from God, and foolish because “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13 NKJV).

Are you trying to hide from God? Maybe the last place you want to be is anywhere near a church or around God’s people. Are you trying to cover up your shame and guilt because you fear what God might do to you? Know this, God loves you. Yes, he loves you enough to confront you with your sin and point you to his grace in Jesus Christ.

Ron Jones is a pastor whose greatest passion is to introduce people to Jesus Christ through anointed biblical preaching that transforms lives.

 

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