feeling-disappointed[My blog is a little longer than usual. It is based on my Christmas Eve (2013) meditation preached after a dramatic presentation of the book of Ruth.]

Perhaps some of you were a little disappointed with the content of our service tonight. It may have seemed strange that we told the story of Ruth and Boaz instead of Mary and Joseph. “Didn’t seem very ‘Chrismassy’ to me; not what I expected” you might have said.

However, life doesn’t always happen the way we expect, does it? Naomi never expected her husband or her sons to die. Ruth never expected her husband to die and to have her life become entwined with her mother-in-law Naomi. No one prepared them to live as widows in a culture where one had to have a husband or a son to protect her. In addition, no one expected Naomi’s distant relative (Boaz) to fulfill the role of redeemer; marrying Ruth and providing protection and care for Naomi, as well as a grandson, who became the grandfather of the great King David, and the 24x great grandfather of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed. -Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. -Linus

Poor Charlie Brown; life is like that though, isn’t it? There is often a gap between what we expect and what really happens, which is what often leads to disappointment. Maybe some of you are disappointed in your marriages because they are not what you had hoped they would be. Still others of you are disappointed in what your life has become; it is not anything like you had dreamed about when you were young. Maybe for others, like Charlie Brown, Christmas has become a disappointment because you have recently lost a loved one, or you are going through economic hardship, or maybe you just think that God no longer cares for you.

Our disappointments, on the one hand, are an ever-present reminder of the brokenness of life. On the other hand, our disappointments are a reminder that we need a redeemer. One website psychologist offered this advice for dealing with disappointment: “We might try and prepare and devour some delicious food, with our favorite beverage… in the company of family, of lover, of friends. Also, we might try and do some magic breathing exercises of power, or we might try and do some more social sport, some swimming, or go and diligently till a garden, so that we may forget that our life is so boring, or so disappointing.“

However, like most of us know, escapes are momentary, but brokenness stays until we are put back together again. Boaz redeemed the brokenness of Ruth and Naomi by his action. The word redeem means more than just to buy or take back; it also means to repair, to restore, and to help. It is a beautiful word; and so Boaz was a redeemer to these poor women.

What we want you to know on this Christmas Eve 2013 is that the brokenness of your life can be restored by the One who is greater than Boaz—Jesus Christ. We are not saying that He prevents bad things from happening—like Sandy Hook, just a year ago—because our world is broken. We are saying, however, that Jesus can restore, repair, and help you in your brokenness. He has promised to those who trust in Him, “‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5)

This is the essence of what Pastor Martin Niemoller (himself a prisoner) preached to a bunkroom of skeleton-like prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp on Christmas Eve 1944: This is what is so singularly (unique) in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, “You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.” Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, “Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.”

An incredible message of hope embedded deep within a world of despair! Is Jesus Christ your Redeemer? Have you come to him in all your brokenness and sin and asked him to forgive you and help you? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

I close with this quote from J.C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican Bishop and lover of God: Oh, you who want unfailing comfort, I commend you to Christ! In Him alone there is no failure. Rich men are disappointed in their treasures. Learned men are disappointed in their books. Husbands are disappointed in their wives. Wives are disappointed in their husbands. Parents are disappointed in their children. Statesmen are disappointed when, after many a struggle, they attain place and power. They find out, to their cost, that it is more pain than pleasure, – that it is disappointment, annoyance, incessant trouble, worry, vanity, and frustration of spirit. But no man was ever disappointed in Christ.

“Plural Marriage” the new normal?

plural marriageNew Mexico has now become the 17th state to recognize same-sex “marriage.” The dominoes are falling. Most of us knew this would happen, but many people did not recognize the other unintended doors of social change that might open as well.

Several months ago I wrote an article on “serial marriage” after seeing a program about a man living with two women. Only one was his legal wife, but he considered the other woman his “wife” as well. I had asked on what basis our society could deny the right of this man to marry both women if it has already crossed the line of redefining marriage. I suggested that there will be other attempts to press for individual rights in this area now that marriage has fallen from its created design between a man and a woman (see the words of Jesus in Matt 19:4, 5).

Yesterday, in the Chicago Tribune, there was an article titled Utah ‘plural marriage’ wins round in court. “Advocates for so-called plural marriages are applauding a ruling by a US District Court judge (who else?) that struck down key segments of Utah’s (where else?) anti-polygamy law, saying they violated constitutional rights to privacy and religious freedom.” The headline is a little misleading and we have to dig deeper to understand the significance of this decision. The ruling preserved the law against bigamy—being officially married to more than one spouse at the same time. However, the ruling claimed that the presence of additional “unofficial wives” in the same family should be recognized as “religious cohabitation.”

“Proponents say that polygamist cohabitation among fundamentalist Mormons traditionally involves one marriage certificate; and additional wives represent religion-based relationships that are protected under the Constitution. They say the judge’s ruling has preserved laws against bigamy, which involves more than one marriage license.” Essentially the judge ruled against the language of the Utah law that says, “or cohabits with another person.” Advocates have also said that “the judge’s ruling grants polygamists the same legal standing as same-sex couples.”

What we see here is a road to social and moral change that has been traveled before. A movement starts small merely advocating to be recognized; it appeals to legal and constitutional rights; it cries out for respect and dignity; it argues that the government should stay out of the business of defining “family”; it presents its case in the media (the TV reality series on TLC “Sister Wives”; and generally there will be some type of persecution of the movement that becomes a rallying-point (the Mormons have plenty of examples from the assassination of Joseph Smith to the “banishment” of Brigham Young); it appeals to the “civil rights” given to other minorities; and the movement usually finds its initial success in the courts, not with the electorate (e.g. Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriage because of a 5-4 decision of the State Supreme Court).

There is one more ingredient for social change; an idea must have time to develop and trickle down to a new and more tolerant generation. (It should be noted that there are Christian polygamist groups who base their beliefs on the Bible, but they will always remain on the fringe and will never travel “the road” of social change.)

“He who stands for nothing will fall for everything.” The quote is attributed to GK Chesterton from a line in one of his Father Brown Mysteries. In a culture where truth is redefined as “truthiness” and conviction is regarded as bigotry, this quote sounds terribly intolerant. Nonetheless, mark my word; the dominoes will keep falling as our society continues to implode. The late Francis Schaeffer said that he no longer prayed for God to bless America, but for God to have mercy upon America. “Let your steadfast love be upon us, O Lord, even as we hope in you” (Ps 33:22).

Knocking on the Cemetery Door

doorAdvent manifests the humility of God who was made flesh for us in Jesus Christ. He who was the very Royalty of Heaven became a poor mortal. As Athanasius said, “He became like unto us that we might become like unto Him.” There is a wonderful hymn, unfamiliar to most evangelicals, with words taken from a prayer written in the fourth century. This prayer was used by the Orthodox Church in Constantinople and still recited by Orthodox Christians to this day. The tune is based on a French carol melody called Picardy. It was translated from the Greek in 1864.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six-wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

And so Advent reminds us that we mortals must bow in humility before the One who bowed low to become our Savior. Pride, hubris, power, and self-proclaimed righteousness have no place before the One who emptied Himself for us. How can we ever think that our earthly credentials could ever impress or gain entrance to the Courts of Heaven?  

Yesterday, I attended an annual Christmas prayer breakfast held in our county and heard the speaker refer to the fascinating burial custom of the house of Hapsburg in Austria. The funeral cortege comes to a halt before the door of the Capuchen convent in which is located the royal crypt where Hapsburg Kings and Emperors have been buried for centuries (the last one being His Royal Highness Archduke Otto of Hapsburg-Lorraine in July 16, 2011). The Grand Chamberlain who leads the procession knocks three times on the door with a sliver cane. From inside, a monk asks “Who is there?” The Chamberlain replies with a long first- person oration of the royalty’s name and titles:  “I am ….., Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.” The monk inside then replies “I do not know you.”

The Chamberlain knocks a second time on the door and the monk asks “Who is there?” The Chamberlain this time responds with just the name: “I am ….., his Majesty, Emperor, and King.”  The monk again replies “I do not know you.” Finally, there is a third knock and the same reply “Who is there?” This time the Chamberlain simply says, “I am ….., a poor mortal and a sinner.” The monk opens the door and says “come in and welcome.” (Check out a dramatic portrayal of this in German at http://nobility.org/2011/07/11/burial-protocol-austria/ )

May this Advent season find us bowing low before the One who is “the King of Kings, though born of Mary” and giving Him the worship of ceaseless praise.


“Butt-dialing” and the Providence of God

Butt-dialing-cell-phone-005Last week, Reuters carried this story with the headlines: ‘Butt-dial’ call foils suspected Arkansas murder plot. The more discreet of us would call it “pocket-dialed.” Anyway, a would-be Arkansas murder plot came undone when one of the suspected co-conspirators sat on his phone and “pocket-dialed” the targeted victim, who heard details of the planned hit and alerted police. James Macom, 33, last week overheard his former employer Larry Barnett, 68, telling a suspected hit man to “make the killing look like an accident.” The potential victim contacted police and filed a report at the station and returned with police to his home, where an intruder had apparently broken in and started a gas leak. Barnett apparently “was looking up Macom’s contact information on his phone to give to the hit man and accidentally dialed the number from his pocket” [so it was pocket-dialed], police said. Barnett was arrested last week for conspiracy to commit murder. Jonesboro, where the incident occurred, is 120 miles northeast of Little Rock.

I have been preparing to preach a sermon this Sunday on Tamar and Judah from Genesis 38. This account is a part of the larger story of God’s providential care for Israel (through Joseph and his famine-relief plan) and ultimately for the world through the Messiah, whose lineage is traced back to this unlikely couple, Judah and Tamar. Divine providence is the means by and through which God governs all things in the universe. The doctrine of divine providence asserts that God is in complete control of all things. This includes the universe as a whole (Psalm 103:19)), the physical world (Matthew 5:45), the affairs of nations (Psalm 66:7), human birth and destiny (Galatians 1:15), human successes and failures (Luke 1:52), and the protection of his people (Psalm 4:8). Islam also has a very interesting belief in the decrees of Allah (Qadr), but that will be for another time.

Some folks would argue that this concept of God destroys any possibility of free will. If God is in complete control, how can we freely make our decisions? In response, I would ask a few questions of my own. Is it really true that in order for our will to be free, there must be some things which are outside of God’s sovereign control? What if that were true? Would it not possible for us to somehow slip through the cracks? Paul says in Philippians 1:6 that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” If God is not in control of all things, then how can we believe that he can make good on his promise?

In addition, if God is not sovereign, then he is not All-Powerful because there would exist contingencies outside of God’s control—namely, our “free will” which can trump providence. In my recent blog on this subject, I mentioned that the solution is not found in pitting human freedom against divine sovereignty or creating a hybrid of the two (as in Islam). Rather, we should keep the tension by holding them in “antinomy”; the apparent incompatibility between two seemingly irreconcilable truths which are both held as undeniably true. Thus divine providence does not destroy our freedom, but mysteriously works together with it and through it to accomplish God’s justice and righteous purposes in this world.

Dave, are you trying to say that this butt- (I mean pocket) dialing incident is part of God’s providential care for his universe? Yes. Are all pocket-dialing incidences providential? Probably not, but then again we don’t know what they eventuate in, do we? We do know that not every evil situation is prevented from happening by God’s providence, however, a biblical worldview would suggest that there may be more than we will ever know.