Lighten Up and Laugh a Little

I just returned a few hours ago from three days in Vermont. I spoke briefly at a dinner on Thursday night, and then gave two speeches, the first on Friday in Montpelier (which is the capital city), and the second on Saturday at a conference in Burlington. Sitting here this morning, the only thing I can think to say is that I know for a fact God has a sense of humor. This is true, not only because he often displays it in His Word, but because we all still exist. No, I’m not cranky. I say this after a short layover last night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. What a place! If God lacked the ability to laugh at our ridiculousness, I’m guessing He’d have pressed heaven’s gigantic red destructo-button a long time ago. The fact that He hasn’t is confirmation that His humor is directly related to His patience, which, in turn, could only be born from His unfathomable love for His creation.

But again, the proof of His humorous side, especially the times when He has poked fun at us, are already visible in His Word. It’s likely I’ve shared some of my favorites with you before. For starters, when God describes by Solomon’s hand a beautiful woman engaging in indiscretion as a pig with a gold ring through her nose, that’s kind of a funny image to me (Proverbs 11:22). Or when eleven chapters later, God calls out slackers and their lame excuses (22:13), it’s as if Solomon knew what it was like to have kids who play video games all day long. I also enjoy the story of Elijah facing off with the prophets of Baal, especially that moment when God moves him to taunt them, calling out, “Cry aloud, for (Baal) is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Relieving himself? If the reader only knew what Elijah meant by that, he or she would likely blush.

I could go on and on, but that’s plenty. Okay, maybe one more from that grittier vein.

Have you read Galatians 5:7-12? God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, is upset with the Galatians for being led by the Judaizers back into thinking that the Law can somehow save them. In this section of the letter, Paul pokes fun at the belief that circumcision is one of the proofs of an Olympic-sized Christianity, and so he recommends those who are saying as much should just go all the way to the big leagues and “emasculate themselves” (v. 12). In other words, why settle for the minor league badge of honor with God, having cut off only a little, when you can step up your game of faith and take the whole thing off?

That, right there, is funny.

Truth be told, to even come close to discovering these biblical gems, you need a sense of humor. You most certainly need to be able to laugh at yourself. In my humble opinion, the ability to laugh at one’s failings—not proudly, but with a genuine admittance to one’s own stupidity—this is one of the ways of dominating the guilt that Sin, Death, and the devil try to impute. I mean, those times in my life when the devil tries to remind me of my Sin, it’s easy enough to say, “Well, what do you expect? I’m an idiot. Thankfully, the Lord loves and forgives idiots like me.” Unfortunately, the world we live in appears to have long since lost the ability to laugh at itself, and instead, epitomizes what Will Rogers meant by the words, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”

If there’s one thing we do a lot of in the Thoma house, it’s laugh. Sometimes we do it at each other’s expense. Trust me, it’s not cruelly intended, and I always receive my fair share, for which I’m glad. There are far too many miseries stalking the countryside beyond our walls, all of them promising ample opportunities for sadness. Thankfully, it seems that whenever we meet up with these meandering brutes, the Thoma family continues to prove an uncanny ability for discovering what’s funny about them.

A smile is something of a human wonder. And yet, there are few things better than a smile giving way to genuine laughter. God willing, this truth is not lost on you. Hopefully you’ve known a time or two with family, friends, or even complete strangers when you’ve found yourself laughing so hard that you nearly cried. During our recent time together in holiday quarantine, I can promise you that I and my family laughed a lot. In fact, I learned anew just how funny each of them can truly be.

To come at all of this from a different direction, I mentioned to the folks in the adult Bible study last Sunday that I’ve begun the application process necessary for pursuing a doctorate. I’m not fully vested in the idea just yet, mainly because I already have way too many irons in the fire—and not to mention, I have one child in college and two more nearing the same thresholds of expense. But we’ll see. Jennifer is supportive, and I know many of you are, too. That’s helpful. But either way, I haven’t even been accepted, yet, so there’s that. Still, those who know me well can affirm that I’m a fan of creative language, and so if I do go forward with the effort, I’ll likely settle on a course that has something to do with creative writing in service to the Church. I’m telling you this because, while scanning the horizon of relative possibilities, I found myself chuckling while reading an article written by a youthful PhD candidate suggesting that Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (best known as Lord Chesterfield in the literary world) was both a sexist and a pietist, being someone who prided himself on never laughing, even counseling his son in various letters to never be caught smiling, and to treat women with the same care you’d offer simple-minded children.

Again, I laughed when I read what this up-and-coming scholar had written. And why? Because he completely misread Chesterfield. For his era, Chesterfield tended to be somewhat of a “Bob Newhart” with his style. When you get a chance, just take a look at the portrait of him painted by Allan Ramsay. You can see the sly facetiousness sketched right into the contours of the man’s face. While his humor may have been dry, his wit was incredibly deep, and I’ve read enough of his scribblings to know he appreciated working in opposites. In other words, if he wanted his son to laugh more, he’d forbid him from laughing altogether, assuring him hyperbolically “that since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh.” If he wanted his boy to be respectful of women, he’d describe with an encouraging tone outlandish things the young man could do that would certainly put them off—like treating them in every way as one would treat children.

I use the same style while teaching and with public speeches, whether my audience is comprised of youth or adults. I became more aware of this style’s value through my favorite seminary professor (who also preached at my ordination), Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer. He’s the one who stoked the coals of this comfortable style that helps make the details of just about any topic of conversation more memorable. And why does it work? Because it changes the rules of communication in drastic ways, ones that force the listener to do more than just take in information. A person must think abstractly, analyzing the ridiculous in comparison to the obvious, taking what’s genuinely bad and setting it alongside what’s genuinely good.

What kind of dolt completely misreads this skillfulness in Chesterfield? My guess is either the kind of person who has no sense of humor, or the kind who wants to do what so many others are doing these days—which is to rewrite history in order to cancel goodness. Unfortunately, I think it’s the latter rather than the former. It seems one can make a name for his or herself in today’s academic world by coming up with radically overanalyzed premises intent on canceling what society has long understood as good, and Lord Chesterfield hasn’t been spared.

In the end, the rest of us—the normal people who aren’t offended by every little rhetorical barb causing the slightest discomfort—will continue to laugh at funny things, all the while enjoying the ability to laugh at ourselves. We’ll do this because we know we are sinners who are already well-deserving of any jab we might get, all the while recognizing the value that even God sees in humor. It’s an exceptional way of bringing insight to dimly lit situations, ones that need a little bit of jostling in order to make sense of them.

I need to get along to other things, so to close this all out, I’ll end with a joke from the movie “Big Fish,” which is a favorite (and an incredibly underrated) film by Tim Burton that Jennifer and I revisited last week. Interestingly, the main character, Edward Bloom, played at various ages by Albert Finney and Ewan MacGregor, in many ways epitomizes what I’ve already described. For instance, in one scene, Bloom describes with great seriousness for his daughter-in-law a recurring and terrifying dream he used to have as a child. He told the story of a crow that came to him and said his aunt was going to die. When he awoke, he was so rattled, he went to his parents and told them about the dream, but they brushed off his concern. The next day, his Aunt Stacy was discovered dead.

“That’s terrible,” the daughter-in-law said.

“Terrible for her,” Bloom replied, “but think about me, a young boy with that kind of power.” He continued, “It wasn’t three weeks later that the crow came back to me in a dream and said, ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ I didn’t know what to do. I finally told my father, but he said, ‘Oh, not to worry,’ but I could see he was rattled. The next morning, he wasn’t himself, kept looking around, waiting for something to drop on his head, because the crow didn’t say how it was gonna happen, just those words: ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ Well, he left home early and was gone for a long time. When he finally came back, he looked terrible, like he was waiting for the axe to fall all day. He said to my mother, ‘I’ve just had the worst day of my life.’ ‘You think you’ve had a bad day,’ she said. ‘This morning the milkman dropped dead on the porch!’”

Bloom never broke his stare of seriousness, making the moment even more impactful.

Now, this short theatrical exchange I just shared could offend you as being in poor taste, or it could make you laugh, because in a memorable way, it allowed genuine human beings the opportunity to own the foolishness of thinking we can forever hide our transgressions, especially from the divine; or that any seemingly serene context is free of Sin’s fingerprints. These are important lessons to be learned. But as I said, whatever your preference may be, I’ll leave it to you to laugh as you become wiser, or to frown from offense. Just know that if you are offended, give me at least until Monday to let me know. I’m far too tired right now to respond.

Perspective and Perception

I mentioned last week that due to illness, I spent a portion of my time between Christmas and the New Year revisiting the films of my youth. One of the films I ended up watching with the whole family was “The Karate Kid.” This specific movie selection was inspired by time with the Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which is a show that meets up with the principal characters from the three “The Karate Kid” films. Jennifer and I figured if our children were going to truly understand the turbulent dynamics between Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, they’d better go back to the beginning. And so we did.

At one particular point in the film, I turned to Jennifer and asked somewhat rhetorically, “We’re not watching the same movie we watched as kids, are we?” I asked this during the scene in which Danny arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house covered in pasta sauce, having just collided with a waiter in the kitchen at his girlfriend Ali’s country club. When he walks in, Mr. Miyagi is drunk and singing, making saké toasts to an old black and white image of a woman. Within a few minutes, we learn that the woman is his wife, and that after Miyagi had gone off to fight in World War II on behalf of the United States, she was moved to a Japanese internment camp where she and her unborn son died during delivery. We hear Mr. Miyagi tearfully mumble a sliver of these details, but we don’t finally understand the gravity of the scene until Danny reads a letter he discovers in a shoebox among some prestigious war medals, which, if you look closely, are the Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.

As a kid, the most I remember taking from the scene was that for as simple as Mr. Miyagi appeared, he had a rich past, one in which he must have done some incredibly heroic things in order to earn the medals in the shoebox. What those deeds may have been is left to imagination. For a kid, the revelation interprets Miyagi as an “action hero” of sorts, suggesting that the Cobra Kai villains didn’t really know who they were up against. But watching this scene as an adult, namely as a husband and father, I experienced an altogether different moment. Instead of sensing the electrifying potential for overcoming impossible odds and the villains that pose them, I experienced the pain of human frailty, of a man who still mourns the loss of his wife and child, two people he was helpless to save.

My comment to Jennifer was an acknowledgment of perspective. As a kid, I perceived the scene one way, but as an adult, I perceived it another.

Something else came to mind at that moment.

Have you ever seen a photograph that you thought captured something truly breathtaking? I have. I used to be quite fond of Ansel Adams’ portraits, specifically the landscapes he photographed at Yosemite National Park in the late 50s. Even in black and white, his images seemed capable of encapsulating the beauty of God’s creation. But then I visited Yosemite National Park while in college and I realized how limiting Ansel Adams’ portraits were. Not only were they absent their vivacious colors, but they were inadequate in scope. A look to the left, a scan to the right, a glance upward from one of Yosemite’s mountains and I could see there was so much more beyond the edges of what Adams was allowing us to see through his lens. That, too, was a moment for the acknowledgement of perspective.

Someone once said that perception is everything. Unfortunately, that’s likely true. I say “unfortunately” because perception is born from perspective. This means if one’s perspective is skewed, then the perception it generates will be skewed, too. Consider the familiar examples. If a person’s perspective is normally pessimistic, they’ll likely perceive the glass as half empty. The opposite is true if they view things optimistically. Or, how about a Michigander’s January perception of a bright blue sky? From a place of seemingly forever-grays, it’s likely just one blue sky packs more of a punch for joy than a Floridian might experience in a whole year.

Perspective and perception are inseparable, and yet perspective seems to be more important. Without the right perspective, what you’re attempting to perceive won’t truly make sense.

I guess I’m thinking about this today for two reasons.

The first comes from conversations I’ve experienced in the past few weeks with Christians who are clearly divided from Christ. For the most part, it seems they’re comfortable taking sides with ungodliness while at the same time being offended by what the Author of the scriptures would actually call good. A person could only be found so foolish if his perspective, and thereby his perception, of Christ is miscalibrated. That, dear friends, is an avoidable tragedy (Matthew 7:21-23).

The second reason for this morning’s thoughts on perception and perspective arise from the changing of the Church Year’s season. It’s interesting how each of the seasons is in place to provide perspective of Christ and His work to save us. Move from one season to another, and the field of faith’s vision is honed or expanded. For example, we just left the Christmas season, one in which we beheld what God was willing to do to rescue Mankind from Sin. He loved us so much that He sent His Son—God incarnate. We leave this season for another—Epiphany. For the most part, Epiphany highlights the beginning of the incarnate Son of God’s ministry and the miracles He performed. From Epiphany’s vantage, we can see that Jesus is not like any man of God before Him. He can heal the sick. He can calm storms with a word. He can raise the dead. He can do things that only God can do. From this perspective, Epiphany perceives that when He finally makes His way to the cross to defeat Sin, Death, and hell, He will succeed. This perception will be good to have when the perspectives change again in Lent and Holy Week—when, like the disciples, the only thing we see is our Lord’s apparent submission in weakness to dreadful events leading to His death.

As we continue to make our way into the New Year, I pray that your primary perspective in all things will always be one of faith—that you’ll grow more and more to see things through the lens of the cross and empty tomb. Observing in this way, you’re sure to see things as God sees them, discovering that when it comes to mortal perspectives, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Even better, I pray you’ll discover along the way that God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways His ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Counter to the inclination of our perspectives, Word and Sacrament ministry is paramount. And why? Because He would not discard the sinner. He would be found loving the unlovable. Keeping with this line of divine sight, I pray you’ll proceed into the New Year “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, setting your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).

Don’t Change the Channel

2022 has arrived.

I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.

The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.

Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.

As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.

In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.

Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.

Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.

But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.

Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.

In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).

No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.

God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.

Words are Important

You may or may not know, but the infamous virus has managed to invade the Thoma residence.

Currently, Madeline seems to be on the upswing. She was pretty sick, but now is bright-eyed and symptom-less. Harrison is still struggling a bit, but as of last night, I think he’s turning the corner. His asthma was a concern. Although, he’s only had to use his nebulizer once. Jennifer felt terrible pretty much all day yesterday. She hadn’t yet experienced a fever, but woke up early this morning with one. I’m keeping a close eye on her. As for Evelyn and me, I think Evelyn has already had it, and with that, is doing fine. I’m not experiencing any symptoms. I tested negative on Christmas Eve, and once I get a batch of quick tests tomorrow, as the days go along, I’ll keep checking to make sure.

Once we knew it was in our midst, we started a regimen of care: Ivermectin, Zithromax, and vitamins D, C, and Zinc. In addition to these, I’ve maintained my evening dose of vitamin W, typically about two ounces of something at least twelve years old, and usually from the highland pharmacies of Scotland. Still, your prayers are coveted by the Thoma family. We pray to be through this, soon. Of course, our most fervent prayer is that the Lord’s will would be done among us.

Now on to something else worth considering this morning.

You’ve heard me say it before: Words are important.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking, “Of course you’d say that, Thoma. You’re one of the wordiest people I know.”

Well, whatever. The premise stands. Words are important.

I’m one to believe that while words are essential for basic communication, the best words in the best order can and will do so much more. They become a means for carrying ideas so that not only the mind is listening, but so that the heart is listening, too. With this, words can do so much more than bridge two humans. They have a deeper power. Ask the poets. Or ask the Twain’s, Dickens’, Austen’s, and Hawthorne’s of this world. The right words well placed can move to sadness, stir anger, sow joy. They can rally to a cause. They can tease even the stoniest temperament of a would-be enemy into amity.

Just as words matter between humans, they matter to the Lord, too. Any honest student of the Bible will affirm the unfathomable depths of divine genius displayed by the simplest of words chosen and placed so precisely on a page; plainspoken truths found to be so piercingly deep, and all set into an arrangement that has nothing less than our salvation in mind. This is proof of a God who cares.

Words are important. They should be wielded with care. If we cannot, we must not. In an age of social media, this is even more so important.

That being said, I don’t need to tell you that the Church Militant—the body of believers in Christ on this side of heaven—is facing unprecedented challenges. Or perhaps I do need to tell you. It seems the more I bring the Word of God to bear on these challenges, even among my own church members, the more resistance I get. Nevertheless, believe what you will. With the forthcoming New Year, while it promises new possibilities, it also guarantees no escape from the same recycled evil that continues to haunt us.

Essential to facing off with these challenges, the Lord of the Church calls so simply for faithfulness.

The Lord calls for this faithfulness in countless locales throughout His Word (Matthew 24:13, Jude 17-25, Revelation 2:10, Hebrews 10:23, 2 Thessalonians 3:5, Psalm 37:28, and so many more). One place in particular, by way of the inspired words of the Apostle Paul, God reminds us that we can actually be faithful, not because we are somehow impervious to whatever we’re facing, but because “God gave us a spirit not of fear” (or equally translated, “cowardice”). Instead, we’ve been given a one “of power” (2 Timothy 1:7). Paul’s words assume courage by that power, and then he names two more things in particular as its fruits.

Paul writes that the spirit of power is demonstrated in “love and self-control”—or better translated, “sober-mindedness.” Interestingly, neither the types of challenges nor their ferocity are defined in relation to these characteristics. Paul doesn’t see the need for that here. God, the One inspiring his words, has already shared that information in plenty of other portions of His Word, being sure never to veil the fact that the challenges will sometimes be terribly troubling and horrifyingly painful. But no matter what we’re facing, it’s unquestionable that we have been given courage for leaning fearlessly into every ungodly obstacle, armed with love and self-control. And why wouldn’t this be true of God’s people? The Lord not only prepared us for such things by His gracious forewarning, but by His Gospel, He has placed into us a knowledge that we have nothing to fear even if the challenges overtake us. Through faith in Jesus, we are His. He is ours. And great is the reward in heaven for His faithful people (Matthew 5:11-12).

But consider where this morning’s conversation started. What does faithfulness look like when it comes to our words? What does it mean in relation to using those seemingly artless devices meant for carrying what’s in the heart and mind of one person and putting it into the heart and mind of another?

I’d say we are to remember that however we use language, we must remember it is powerful. Aware of this, its usage must bud and blossom from love and self-control.

That being said, let’s clarify something. Does love and self-control mean that we must tiptoe through hostile moments requiring a clear confession of truth?

Indeed, there are those times when the Lord took swift and seemingly vicious strokes, pointing His divine finger at others and speaking in ways that brought stinging clarity. But as we behold our God in the flesh doing this, we notice He usually did it to those who should already know better, namely church leaders who are well-equipped for understanding and exhibiting faithfulness to His Word but aren’t—the Chief Priests, the Teachers of the Law, and sometimes even His apostles. He demonstrated a thinning patience for such people who, knowing the truth, made deliberate choices to side with evil. In these instances, the Lord was rarely gentle, having no commendation for those out front who willingly reject Him, and by doing so, pall the Gospel, thereby injuring an observing world He desires to save. He is saddened by this behavior, seeing the confused onlookers as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

As all of this meets with the words we use from day to day, we remain mindful that where Jesus is always the capable surgeon, we are forever the bumbling assistants with very dull skills. The Lord knows our ineptness, and even so, still He leaves no loopholes for us to avoid sharing the truth with the neighbor, no matter the situation or the level of sting the truth might bring (Ephesians 4:25). We keep in mind that He rarely gives license for cutting at the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), and He almost never gives the charge to attack. Instead, He gives us a spirit of fearlessness for explaining and persuading (Acts 19:8; 2 Corinthians 5:11). He urges us to season our speech with grace (Colossians 4:6), and to speak even the hardest of truths in love (Ephesians 4:15). To make sure we haven’t missed this crucial mandate relative to our words, He fills the pages of His Scriptures with this preempting extension of the Gospel mandate, with Jesus always being the first to demonstrate it (Mark 12:34), and thereby showing us a perfect Word in the perfect order from the perfect heart of God. This kind of word-slinging has the power for converting and convincing the heart of enemies of God to become His friends (Romans 1:16).

So, why am I writing this? Because the New Year is upon us, and as usual, I intend to make at least one resolution that leads to a deeper faithfulness to my Lord.

This year’s resolution is relatively simple. It first involves having no intention of relenting in my efforts to communicate God’s Word of truth as it meets with the world around us. Only by Christ’s truth can anyone in this world be set free to become an inheritor of the world to come (John 8:32). This has me eager to explore 2022, and along the way, observe its corridors with a readiness to either encourage or warn my fellow travelers, so that together, alive or dead, we would emerge in 2023 with a tale of faith to tell, one that demonstrated Godly endurance steered by steady courage.

Secondly, I intend to do all of this by giving even more care to the words I use, both in spoken and written forms. Understandably, I’m not so foolish as to think I can change laser-focused, opinion-driven minds by what I write or say—especially not in an American kingdom blistering with radical individualism. In that regard, I am a Christian intent on leaving the converting and convincing to the Holy Spirit while I take every available care for crafting my words with love and self-control. I want what I’ve said to be received in a way that persuades rather than incites. Again, will this even be possible in 2022? I don’t know. But what I do know is that God blesses faithfulness, and with that, I’m going to stay the course. I hope it serves us both well.

In conclusion, if you are making a New Year’s resolution for 2022, may I suggest something on the flip side of this discussion? Perhaps you could make a deliberate effort to read and/or hear the words of others through the divine filter of love and self-control. Be intentional with your efforts to discover the avenues for peace between your assumed opponents.

Man’s Deepest Need

Merry Christmas to you and your family!

I wanted to take a quick moment to interrupt your morning festivities by sharing a few potent sentences from a Christmas Day sermon given by Martin Luther in 1531. He wrote, and subsequently preached:

“The world is happy and of good cheer when it has loaves and fishes, means and money, power and glory. But a sad and troubled heart desires nothing but peace and comfort, that it may know whether God is graciously inclined toward it. And this joy, wherein a troubled heart finds peace and rest, is so great that all the world’s happiness is nothing in comparison.” (W.A. 34. 11. 505.)

Luther’s words demonstrate a firm grasp on the meaning of our Lord’s arrival at Christmas. Within a relatively short span, he describes how the world sees Christmas as little more than a passing opportunity for happiness born from selfish indulgence. Not much has changed in the last five hundred years. The world still takes comfort in transient things—food, money, earthly authority and the prestige that accompanies it, and so many other trappings. It does this forgetting that all of it has an expiration date. In contrast, Christians know that when it comes to meeting the challenges faced by an honest heart cognizant of its eternal predicament and its absolute inability to do anything to change it, something more than what the world can give is needed.

Christmas is the first movement of the divine “something” put in place to meet the need.

The birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, is God taking aim at Mankind’s deepest need in preparation for pulling the Good Friday trigger. And when this ferocious need is finally met on Calvary’s cross—when Sin, Death, and the devil are taken down once and for all by the provision of God’s Son—for whoever believes this, Luther describes the eruption of an otherworldly joy that simply cannot be outclassed by anything the world might think to offer in trade.

A troubled heart will never know more peace than what the Gospel gives. Money can’t surpass it. Power cannot compare. Not even a life of glorious ease will ever come close to the rest God promises that lasts through and into eternity.

As it meets with this wonderful Gospel, my prayer for you this morning is two-fold. Firstly, I hope as you are opening gifts you will remember the temporary nature of such things, and as such, will know to give thanks to the One who has given you the greatest gift this world could ever know. Secondly, I hope you’ll be moved to interrupt the temporal moment of gift-exchanging in order to join with your brothers and sisters in Christ in an eternal moment—holy worship—meant for receiving the merits of the greatest gift given.

The Lord bless and keep you.

And again, Merry Christmas.

What Child Is This?

Once again, the night of nights is upon us. Tonight the Church of all ages and locations, of all time and space, marks and celebrates the inbreaking of the only One who could ever do what was necessary for our rescue.

Tonight we are reminded in no uncertain terms that God has acted. The fabric between heaven and earth is torn. Angels step through it. By God’s authority, they tell us He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring peace between God and man. We hear these details from the Gospel writer, Luke. In his divinely-inspired way, it’s the Gospel writer John who so eloquently records that this Son of God is the very Word that “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).

The angels speak of an accomplished peace. John refers to an unmistakable emittance of glory. Together, these do not mean what many might think they mean.

Perhaps like me, you have favorite hymns. One of mine is “What Child Is This.” This caressing Christmas hymn is one of the few that stirs me emotionally every time I hear it. It’s a hymn that is not only meant to be sung in solemnity and reverence, but at certain moments along its course, it invites a measure of vigor that few other hymns do. I’d say this is true because of the hymn’s innate understanding of the newborn Christ-child’s task for establishing peace through the display of His truest glory.

Right in the middle of the fantastical scene described by stanzas one and three—a scene that portrays the Virgin Mary holding the newborn Jesus close to her bosom, all the while shepherds are kneeling beneath a glistening nether sphere filled with invisible angels swirling on divine melodies—suddenly, there is the abrupt contrast brought by a more sinister sketch. Shattering the landscape’s serenity, stanza two crashes into the hymn like a meteor impacting the surface of the world. It wonders rhetorically why the divine Child has so crassly begun in the mean estate of society’s dregs. It even implies mortal embarrassment at the Son of God having little more than a manger—a feeding trough—to serve as His first cradle.

And then it hits.

“Good Christian fear, for sinners here,” stanza two continues, its momentum beginning to build, “the silent Word is pleading.”

The hymnographer refers to the Word made flesh sleeping in Mary’s arms as an imploring that’s aimed at the whole world, but even more so the Church. It calls for us to pay attention. We are urged to remember that the very presence of God in the flesh is a visible admission to what’s coming, to what absolutely must be accomplished. For as lovely as this night might seem, this Child was born to die: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”

The Christmas tree sparkles. The candles flicker with gentle splendor. The tranquil setting gilded in seasonal magnificence is indeed an incredible sight. And yet, among all these things, the truest glory of Christmas, the genuine peace accomplished between God and mankind, will always be located in the death of Jesus for sinners.

If you don’t get to sing this hymn at some point during the Christmas season, then you’re missing out on something extraordinary. And if you do get to sing it, but the musician doesn’t lay into stanza two with some intensity, then you’re missing some of the hymn’s genuine import, too. “What Child Is This” answers its own question—the question of all questions—right in its middle. This Child is the One who has come to bring eternal peace. He will do this in a dreadfully gruesome, and yet, a most glorious way. His powerful death will be the piercing of heaven’s joy through and into this world’s helplessness in Sin.

I pray this joy for you this Christmas, namely, that you would cling to this glorious Savior—his person and work—and by faith in Him, you would be found confident for each of your remaining days in this life.

Merry Christmas.

Summer is Coming

In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.

Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.

Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.

It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.

To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.

Only the real summer sun will do.

The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.

Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.

I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.

I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.

Truth Can Win

I’m guessing you heard the news about Jussie Smollett. He’s an actor who claimed he was attacked by two white men in Chicago because he’s both black and gay. He said they hit him, used bigoted slurs, put a noose around his neck, poured an unknown substance on him, and shouted, “This is MAGA country!”

Almost as soon as his story made the news, he was the golden child of the Democrats and the progressive Left who, together with their partners in the mainstream media, were doing all they could (and still are) to frame conservative America as deeply intolerant and unforgivably racist. Suddenly, Smollett’s relatively less-than-profound career had found powerful traction. He became a prominent guest at events, went on talk shows, and was even granted a primetime interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts.

I watched the interview. Smollett cranked up the emotion and Roberts fawned, almost grotesquely. It was hard to watch, and not because I sympathized with him, or because I felt shame for being a conservative, but because something wasn’t right with Smollett’s story. Like so many others who watched it, I didn’t believe what he was saying. The thing is, much of the law enforcement community involved with the situation disbelieved him, too. Still, a few higher ranking officials in Cook County managed to pull enough strings to shield their celebrity friend from any attempts to reveal what was, even in their minds, looking to be a hoax.

Eventually, the tables turned. A fair-minded prosecutor was presented with the evidence, namely, that the men involved in the supposed attack were not even white, but black, and Smollett actually hired them. As it would go, Smollett was charged with six counts of orchestrating a hate crime against himself. Last week, the case and its facts unfolded before twelve jurors, and on Thursday, Smollett was found guilty of five of the six counts. Truth defeated untruth.

But it almost didn’t, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, I’ll let you in on a little secret—and I’ll bet it’s one to which others who do what I do for a living would likely nod in agreement.

It’s likely the reason I choked on the believability of Smollett’s interview with Robin Roberts is because pastors are pretty good at spotting liars.

If the job is being done right, no small portion of a pastor’s time involves interfacing with the underbelly of Sin’s grossest offenses. Lies rule in this realm. In one sense, this is true because the devil, the father of lies (John 8:44), labors tirelessly to maintain this dimly lit kingdom. Pastors know this. They know he uses lies like a model maker uses glue, connecting this and that misshaped part to create a seemingly insurmountable monstrosity that’s eventually found capable of hiding truth in its shadow. Still, I won’t place all of the blame on him. Even without his crafty influence, sinful humanity is more than capable of maintaining a kingdom of deceit. The Sin-nature is a powerful wellspring that feeds every human being’s ability to lie to others, and perhaps most disturbingly, to lie to oneself. What’s most troubling about this tendency is not only that it so often demonstrates itself with a twisted joyfulness—as if to suggest that without the ability to lie, humanity would be overcome by boredom—but that lying seems to be the first thing people will do to acquire what he or she wants, or to defend what he or she already believes.

Again, if pastors are doing their jobs, it’s likely they know the telltale signs of deception. They know the signs because they’ve heard and seen the same forms of dishonesty in countless situations. For example, all too often the man who confesses to having fallen out of love with his wife eventually proves he’s had eyes for another woman all along. He didn’t fall out of love. He lied to justify his desires and get what he wanted. Pastors see this all the time. Another example that repeats itself: It’s not uncommon for disgruntled church members to blame their unhappiness (or non-existence) on the pastor or a fellow member of the church community, landing on just about anything they’ve done or said as cold, unloving, or offensive. In my experience, the disconnect usually has to do with the wayward person’s desire to embrace an ideology or behavior contrary to God’s will and Word. It’s only after the pastor and church community have spoken truthfully to the errant Christian about the dangers of his or her living that the trouble begins. It’s then that the ones reaching with the truth are no longer counted as friends, but rather as unloving accusers. And yet, they’re not unloving. That’s a lie. They’re being faithful to both God and neighbor. They’re seeing a fellow Christian in need, and rather than closing their hearts to the opportunity for expressing God’s loving concern, they act. As Saint John points out, they epitomize love “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17-18). On the contrary, the one who stubbornly refuses the truth is living in a perpetual darkness ruled by lies (1 John 1:6-9).

I could go on and on sharing similar examples, but I promised an explanation to my previous comment about truth nearly losing to untruth in the Jussie Smollett situation. What I meant is that if those who knew the facts had decided not to go the extra mile for truth, had those who were bothered by the lie being guarded by the people in power chosen to remain silent, an already monstrous narrative of untruth would have gained a deeper footing in America. But honest people took a chance at confronting dishonesty. They took a chance at offending the false narrative. They pursued truth, and truth won.

We can learn from these nameless advocates.

By their diligence, a deception was uprooted, and justice was served. What’s more, the blast radius of truth’s detonation revealed the scoundrels intent on weaponizing the lie. Thankfully, those frauds were silenced. Whether or not those same people are dealing honestly with themselves when it comes to public opinion, I don’t know. I will say that until they come clean, they’ll continue to simmer in their own foolishness in a glaring way. In other words, if I were Robin Roberts, or any of the other liberally progressive automatons who condemned anyone who questioned the verity of Smollett’s story—and this includes Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and countless other ever-droning agendizers in government, Hollywood, and mainstream news and entertainment outlets—I’d apologize to America soon, all with the hope that my gushing foolishness would be soon forgotten. I’m sure the social media giants at Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are certainly doing whatever they can to help scrub the crime scenes.

In the end, my real hope is that the shame these people are experiencing will not only shepherd them toward honesty, but will encourage them to measure their responses in the future. Admittedly, my hopes are not high in these regards.

So, why bring any of this up? Well…

A man is a man. A woman is a woman. Stand up to the lies that claim otherwise. Maybe take a chance and write a letter to the NCAA. Push back against their woke policies allowing transgenders to hijack women’s sports, ultimately stealing away so many well-deserving female athletes’ aspirations. The Smollett case has shown us that truth can win.

A person is not inherently evil because of the color of his or her skin. Fight in your communities and school districts against the deceptive race theories that claim otherwise. Go to the school board meetings. Call your local representatives. Do these things knowing truth can win.

An unborn child is a unique person, both dignified and worthy of life. Muster as much muscle as you can against the pro-choice devilry that would call this untrue. Get involved with your local Right to Life chapter. Give of your time and treasure to the cause. Be present at the gates of a Planned Parenthood to pray. Do this. As we’ve seen, truth can win.

Again, I could go on and on with this. The list of topics that would benefit from truth’s pushback is long. And yes, it also includes much of the pseudo-science that’s driving so much of what Americans are being required to endure these days. Against these looming deceptions, know that truth is forced into the shadows when those who are to be its hands, feet, and voice remain quietly indolent. Perhaps worse, truth teeters at the edge of burial when we wait for someone else to act.

I suppose in conclusion, whether any of us chooses to engage on behalf of truth, we can all rest assured that truth won’t settle for our disregard indefinitely. It certainly won’t forever tolerate those in the Christian community who, having been offended by it, take their marbles and go somewhere else. As I’ve said on countless occasions from the pulpit here at Our Savior, eventually the Last Day will come and the divine light switch will get flipped. In the bright-beaming streams of Christ’s return, even as every human being alive and dead will be found on their knees paying homage to the approaching King of Kings, all will see and know what is true and what isn’t. Joy or regret will be the two available emotions as all deceptions are stripped away and the final standards of judgment are laid unquestionably bare. By God’s grace at work through His revealing Word right now, Christians are equipped for that day. Through faith in Christ—the One who is truth in the flesh (John 14:6)—we are not only rescued from the perils of Sin and the regret it brings, but we are given hope for that moment of moments. Just as wonderfully, we are changed to know and desire truth in the here and now (John 8:32; James 1:18), and we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to protect and defend what is true (1 John 4:6).

By that same Gospel of deliverance in Christ alone, be strengthened to stand for truth. I say this knowing that if anyone is truly destined for the job, indeed, it’s Christians.

Misplaced Concerns

I received word that a childhood friend passed away recently. She wasn’t a best friend, but she was part of a circle of families close to my own. Hearing the news, more than a few memories were stirred—summertime at the public pool in Danville, Illinois, where I grew up; riding together like a gang through the neighborhoods on our mag-wheeled Huffy bikes; jumping dirt hills on KX-80s; trick-or-treating as our favorite Star Wars characters; Friday nights at the roller rink; all of these were wafted to remembrance.

I suppose my first reaction was to wonder what Death was doing by reaching out to such a young woman. But then I rose from my chair, heard my knees crack, and remembered my own age. Naturally, I humbly withdrew my reaction to Death’s dealings. Perhaps my departed friend wasn’t as young as I preferred her to be, and as it would go, what did that mean for me?

It means I’ve arrived at the edge of a shadowy land where, both chronologically and biologically, Death is making more rounds among the citizenry.

I could say I don’t want to think about it, but that would be foolish. I’m not going to live forever, that is, there’s no gate strong enough, no lock steely enough, no wall sturdy enough to keep Death out when its carriage arrives at my door. As it was with my childhood friend, no matter what I think is right or fair with regard to Death’s dealings, the exchange will be made, and I will go. To believe differently is to live by lies.

Of course, it’s just as inappropriate for me to dwell on these things as it is to ignore them. To dwell on Death would be to live in fear. To live in fear is to be cursed with finding Death and its dread hiding behind everything. It would be to epitomize an insightful line from Don Quixote, the one that goes something like, “Fear is sharp-sighted. It can see things underground, and even more in the skies.”

Besides, I’m a Christian. Living in fear is not what Christians do. And why? Because even though I said I won’t live forever, the truth is, I will. Yes, Death will arrive. I don’t know when, where, or how, but it will. When it does come, I will go. Still, Death won’t own me in that exchange. I have another Master to whom the fateful carriage will transport me. By the power of the Holy Spirit in faith, I can live and breathe and move within each day apart from a strict attachment to this world knowing that even though “in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). That awareness from Saint Paul is nothing less than a faithful interpretation of Christ’s promise to Martha in John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Death had come for Martha’s brother, Lazarus. It sounds like it came in a dreadful way—through illness. Jesus didn’t debate the fact of Death or its means. Instead, He comforted Martha with a better fact—a Gospel-fact—not only that Death wasn’t the end-all, but that the One who was stronger than Death was now on the scene. With Him, Death is defenseless. With Him, the bright-beaming rays of eternal life on hope’s horizon are visible. From that vantage, Death and its fear are neutralized by the Christian confidence of faith. Faith in Jesus is the antidote for fear.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I wonder if there’s more to consider when it comes to how the world around us views Death and its fear. I sometimes wonder if too many people have things somewhat out of order. What I mean is that perhaps people have lost sight of the seriousness of Death’s finality and what comes after it because they’re too distracted by the concern for the ways it might arrive—COVID-19, a school shooting, cancer, or whatever. Again, Death is coming for everyone. What happens beyond that moment is the more crucial concern. Still, so many have traded the momentousness of Death’s eternal irrevocability for the temporary nature of its occurrence. They’re afraid of dying, not necessarily the specter of Death itself.

It would seem this misplaced concern has given birth to a sharp-sighted and irrational fear strong enough to prevent people from actually living. They see danger in everything, and as a result, they’re afraid to visit family and friends, they’re afraid to return to work, they need this and that preventative measure in place before feeling safe enough to do just about anything. I read just this morning that the State of Oregon is considering establishing a permanent indoor mask mandate.

Perhaps worst of all, this fear is still keeping some Christians distant from Christ and the gifts He gives in worship.

But remember, with Jesus—and being strengthened by the Gospel means He provides—Death and its fear is counteracted. Christians don’t have to be afraid of COVID-19 or any future variants. They don’t have to live in fear of a school shooter. Certainly, Christians are mindful, using their reason and senses attuned by God’s Word to watch, discern, serve, protect, and defend against Death’s means. Indeed, we are mindful of Death. And we should be. Compared to the world around us, we know and understand its dirty dealings the best.

But we don’t dwell on them.

By faith, we have been grafted into the One who defeated Death (John 15:5). We have the One who has given us the promise 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 8:38-39).

With promises like these in hand, when we feel the creeping nudge of fear’s tendrils, we can know to run to, not away from, Jesus. It’s only with Him that we’ll receive what’s necessary for facing off with Death and its fear. It’s only with Jesus that we’ll have what we need for living in Christian confidence, come what may.

The Helplessness Isn’t Permanent

Advent begins today.

It’s unfortunate that far too many churches these days have jettisoned the traditional observance of Advent. I’d say they’re missing out on a lot. Historically, the Church revisits her course at this moment, making sure her heading is sound and her crew is ready.

For all of the cultural twinklings surrounding it, Advent is a darker season dealing in two contrasting images.

The first is the darkness of penitential concern. It’s a time for recalling the very real predicament facing the world because of Sin’s infection.

With this in mind, Advent takes aim at Mankind’s impotence in relation to Sin’s chief product, which is Death. It also anticipates the final day when the Lord returns to judge both the living and the dead. Together in these, all time and opportunities will have ended. A last breath will have happened, or the Last Day will have arrived, and you will go. The time for even the most foolish negotiating will have passed. There will be no discussing or bending the standards. There will be no convincing God to your side with explanations that you did your best to keep the Law (the Ten Commandments). You won’t find room between the two of you for slight disagreement on what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Advent strips away all hope for leniency by works of the Law. It helps to remind us that “in Adam, all men die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). It puts before us the divine cue that the Law silences everyone, holding all humans accountable to God’s perfect standards (Romans 3:19). And lest we forget, Advent reminds us of the inescapable predicament of the Sin-nature in all of us. Standing beside the Law’s requirements, we’ll discover the impossibility of ever being counted righteous by our deeds (v. 20).

Advent teaches the hopelessness of human effort against all that plagues us when moving from this sphere to the next.

Advent also teaches that this dark night of helplessness isn’t permanent. Not only will it come to its completion at the Last Day, but Advent carries us back to the day the solution to the Sin problem was given—when Death was put on notice, and all of the long-foretold promises of God were completed in the God-man born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Advent looks to Christmas. It brings us back to the same sense of anticipation that’s ours as we await our last breath or we await the Last Day, except by faith, this time it’s fearless. It reminds us that the midnight concern of our lostness more than faded away in the sunrise of the Savior’s birth.

This is hope. Advent preaches this. It keeps before us the effervescent fact that God’s love moved Him to send His Son, Jesus, to save us, and faith’s grip on the merits of Jesus will, without question, see the believer through to eternal life. For believers, even though we die, yet shall we live (John 11:25). The One born on Christmas morn said this. In the same way, for believers, the Last Day will be like the celebration of Christmas. It won’t be a moment of terror, but rather a moment of bright-eyed joy. In fact, it will be a moment of familiarity, one that recalls the angels’ words to the shepherds about peace being accomplished between God and Man through the oncoming work of the newborn Christ. In that final moment before the returning Christ, such peace will be experienced as never before, and it will wash over us as we hear the voice of the One who once laid in a manger say, “Come and receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).