Majesty for the Unworthy

The sky is dark.  The land is silent.  For the shepherds it is like any other night.  They watch their flocks as they always do, expecting nothing out of the ordinary.  But tonight is not an ordinary night.  No, something cosmic is underfoot.  God himself in human flesh; the Son of God become son of man.  It happens all so quietly.  A baby born like any other – born in a stable at that.  The moment is passing with the world unaware.

But not for the shepherds.  They are not respected.  They are not important.  They inhabit the lower rungs of the social ladder.  But to these, the lowly, there comes the message.  It is theirs alone to hear.

The messenger is terrifying, an angel in glory, but the message itself is pure grace.  A Savior is born, the Messiah, the Lord!  Then appears the heavenly host.  Something this great cannot go unannounced.  They herald his coming with praise:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14; NIV)

The announcement is made, but why here?  This is not the seat of power.  These are not the lords of the earth.  This is a field.  These are shepherds!  Everything is upside down!

Grace has a way of doing that – turning things upside down.  It visits the unworthy with majesty.  It happened to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, and it happens today to people like you and me.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  How can such a thing be?

In Christ God has visited us.  In Christ he redeems a world gone astray.  The gift is for all who by grace will receive it, and to them is promised an inheritance of glory.  Majesty for the unworthy, indeed!

And grace continues to turn things upside down, for the lowly become messengers of glory.  The shepherds find their sign in a stable and become heralds of the Savior themselves.  Through their lips pass the announcement of angels!  Can we who have also been visited by majesty become anything but the same?

Grace to you this Christmas season.  May you be visited by majesty.

Affirming the Sunrise

“Sun’s awake?” This is a question that we used to hear often in the Smith household. For a while, my daughter would wake up well before dawn and assume that the day had begun. After all, if she was awake then everyone else should be awake, too!

As it happened, this phase of my daughter’s early wakefulness coincided with the birth of my son, which meant that my wife and I were already sleep deprived. Needless to say, my daughter’s early morning wake-up calls weren’t exactly helpful to our rest or sanity. So we taught her that nighttime is for sleeping and daytime is for playing, a supposition that led to that all important question: “Sun’s awake?” If so, it was time for everyone to get up. If not, it was time to go back to sleep. Most often, this question bought exhausted parents a few extra minutes of sleep because the sun had not yet risen. For the followers of Jesus, though, the same question should have the opposite effect. For in Christ we believe that the sun is indeed awake, which means that we his people should be awake as well.

Of course, when we talk about the sunrise in Christ, we move into the realm of metaphor. We speak here of the sunrise of redemption breaking forth on a broken world. This is the moment when the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21 take shape, when brokenness gives way to wholeness, when God dwells perfectly with his people, and when there is no longer any mourning, crying, death, or pain. This is the object of Christian hope, and we wait for it expectantly.

But how can we say that the sun is already awake? The new heaven and new earth are certainly a worthy and compelling hope for the future, but how can we say that the sun of redemption is rising over a world that is so obviously broken? We hear of natural disasters and moral disasters on a regular basis, and it so often seems that we are cloaked in the deep dark of an unfriendly night. This broken darkness makes us long for that beautiful, future work of God already described, but can the sun really be awake now, in this pervasive darkness?

In a word, yes. Notice Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” This is a sweeping statement that speaks not of future hope but of present experience. It is also a statement that, when teamed with passages like Revelation 21, yields an important insight: New creation is the object of Christian hope and the content of Christian experience. Somehow that promised new creation has become present to Christ’s people in the here and now.

But how can this be? Resurrection is the key. In Christ’s resurrection new creation has sprung forth. Death has been defeated and the rebellious powers of this world have been put on notice. Our resurrected Lord now reigns victorious, and we wait with expectation for the day there when the victory won at the empty tomb will be made whole and complete! The goodness of this total victory, the fullness and totality of new creation, has now become the hoped-for inheritance of Christ’s people, and by our connection to the risen Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we experience its beginnings even today.

New creation has begun, but it is not yet complete. Theologians call this the “already/not yet” dimension of God’s work in Christ. We already experience it, but we have not yet experienced its fullness. Thus, we Christians find ourselves at the moment of twilight. The sun itself is still just below the horizon, but its light has begun to mingle with the darkness. The light is present, but the darkness has not yet been dispersed. We are a people caught in that moment between night and day.

Which makes my daughter’s question an important one. How should we live in this in-between moment? Well, if the sun is awake, as we believe it is, then we should act like it. Though we exist in a moment when darkness still covers the land, we are to live according to the light that has become present to us in Christ. We are to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit, knowing that this unfriendly night must eventually succumb to the full, unyielding light of day.

“Sun’s awake, daddy?” Yes, sweetheart, it is. And that makes all the difference.

A Christmas Meditation

The scene is more lowly than idyllic. A child has been born and wrapped in cloth. He lies in a manger because no guest room can be found. We’ve heard the story so many times that we can miss the stark backwardness of it all. The Son of God should have come in trappings of greatness. He should have been born to power and ease. Yet he spends the first night of his human life lying in a feeding trough.

There is a scandal of lowliness in the nativity.

But the scandal goes deeper than this. The child is born in low estate, but the true wonder of the nativity is found in the birth itself. The One through whom and for whom all things were made has become a part of his creation. The Infinite has taken on finite existence. The One who sustains all things by his powerful word has become completely dependent on the sustenance of another. God the Son has taken on human flesh and become the Son of man. And on this night and many to follow, he lies helpless and dependent in the frail existence of a newborn child.

There is also a scandal of humanness to be found.

This is the force of the incarnation. The great has become small. The infinite finite. The uncontainable contained. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV)

Augustine waxed poetic on the same theme: “He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.” (Sermon 190 3, 4)

The rich has become poor. The strong has become weak. And all this that we might become rich and strong through him.

We are used to speaking of the love that led Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps we should also speak of the love that led him to his birth.

In the nativity, God the Son has poured himself out and taken human form, and in this we see the nature of God on display. Jesus, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:6-7, NIV) It is in the nature of God to pour himself out on behalf of others, and though it is scandalous to us, it is natural to him. Such is the wonder of the God we serve. Such is the splendor of a newborn baby who bears the weight of the world. Such is the beauty of Christmas.

Give Thanks

Thanksgiving is a discipline. It doesn’t come naturally. We have to teach our children to say thank you in acknowledgment of the contributions of others. Even then, a verbal acknowledgment is no guarantee of heartfelt thanks. And this is not an issue only for the young among us. In a culture that drives us to always amass more, to upgrade to the latest model, to keep up with the Joneses, being thankful can be a challenge. After all, if our eyes are always on the lookout for the next “big thing,” they aren’t focused on the many blessings that we already have.

The above observations are put on vivid display by one of the great ironies of our culture: Thanksgiving Day, a day set aside for remembering and giving thanks for our blessings, is followed closely by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both of which are days set aside for insatiable consumption. No sooner have we heard the call to count our blessings than we hear the call to take advantage of “great deals” to amass more. It seems that our culture believes that giving thanks and wanting more go hand in hand, but can this really be the case? Can we really focus on both at once?

I suspect that we can’t. Giving thanks is a matter of remembrance and gratitude, while consumption is so often a matter of forgetfulness and discontent. Yet we allow days of consumption to invade our day of thanks, driving us away from the very purpose of Thanksgiving!

Am I arguing that we boycott Black Friday and Cyber Monday? No. I’m just pointing out one glaring irony that is probably representative of many more of the same in our lives. The point is not that we fool ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, though many of us certainly do. The point is that we fool ourselves about thanksgiving all of the time. Thanksgiving is a discipline, and perhaps especially so in our North American context.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s practice a discipline that we should adopt all year round. Let’s enter into the discipline of giving thanks. Let’s take a moment to refocus our eyes toward the blessings that we enjoy. Let’s notice our material blessings. Let’s notice the relationships that we treasure dearly. Let’s take note of the spiritual treasures that we possess in Jesus Christ. Let’s take a moment to see, to truly see, and then offer thanks – first to our good God and then to the people who are such blessings in our lives.

Rest

The New Year is upon us, prompting many of us to assess our current places in life.  Sometimes we are pleased with what we see.  Often we are not.  For many, the New Year provides a unique moment when we allow the problems that we have been ignoring to come to the fore.  We have known that we are not healthy enough but have largely ignored this fact.  Now, with the sense of new beginnings, we seek to face it head on.  Or we know that we have not paid enough attention to our spiritual lives.  For months this knowledge has tickled at the back of our consciousnesses but has remained largely unaddressed.  But now in the moment of newness, we seek to blaze a new trail of spirituality that does justice to the faith we profess.  These commitments are called New Year’s resolutions, and they have the potential of bettering our lives.

At the same time, New Year’s resolutions prove difficult.  The discipline required to overcome habit is elusive, and many of our resolutions fall by the wayside.  Thus, New Years becomes not only a moment of great potential for change, but also an opportunity for guilt.  Knowing our less-than-stellar track records, many of us simply pass over the newness of New Years in order to spare ourselves the same cycle of commitment and failure that we have endured in the past.  There is a realism in this choice, but there is also a sense of defeat.  Or we make our resolutions half-expecting to abandon them in short order.  This, after all, is how it always works.

Into the midst of this frustration, I don’t have much advice on how to do a better job of sticking to resolutions.  I expect that we can watch any number of the morning news shows to glean such pointers.  Instead, I offer a thought for possible reflection: As we focus so much on the problem areas of our lives and our past failures, it is easy to forget that we are loved.  One of my favorite stories from Jesus is the parable of the prodigal son.  In it, we see a wayward son who has dishonored his father and squandered his inheritance.  In a low moment, he chooses to throw himself on his father’s mercy in hopes of being given a lower place in his father’s household.  Whereas he was once a son, the young man now hopes to simply be taken on as a hired hand.  As he focuses on his shortcomings and failures, those problem areas of his life, he doesn’t expect much.  Even being accepted to the point of becoming a hired servant is a gamble.

But the father is surprising.  Instead of waiting with a stern demeanor for his son to come crawling home in shame, he sees his son in the distance, and he begins to run.  Running is not befitting for a man in this culture during this time.  It is unseemly.  Yet the father throws decorum aside and rushes to meet his son.  Instead of finding a stern and cold reception, the son is met with compassion and is swept up in the father’s embrace.  He will not be a hired hand.  No, he will be restored as a full son to the household, and the father throws a party to celebrate his return.

As we begin a New Year that is fraught with potential for both success and failure, perhaps the place to begin is here in the Father’s embrace.  For we, like the wayward son, have also been met with compassion and grace if we have turned in faith to Jesus Christ.  And while the Father does indeed lead us by the Spirit to make changes for our good, his first word to us is not one of disappointment or disapproval.  His first word is love: “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, NIV)  In Jesus, we have been caught up into the Father’s embrace, and in the cross, we know the depth of his love.  Of course, God’s love for us militates against the destructive and apathetic areas of our lives, just as the love of an earthly parent trembles to see the self-destructive behavior of his or her child.  The call to change is an act of love as well.

In the moment of newness that is the New Year, perhaps rest rather than activity should be our starting place.  Instead of focusing on our shortcomings, perhaps we should simply rest in the Father’s love.  And as we rest, perhaps we should then listen to the words of a loving Father who desires our good, who does indeed call us to change.  But let us remember that love is the first word, not shame or guilt.  And let us also remember that God does not leave us alone.  If he calls us to it, he walks with us through it, no matter how we stumble and fall.  The call is to keep walking and relying on grace as we do.

May you rest in the Father’s love this New Year.

Majesty for the Unworthy

The sky is dark.  The land is silent.  For the shepherds it is like any other night.  They watch their flocks as they always do, expecting nothing out of the ordinary.  But tonight is not an ordinary night.  No, something cosmic is underfoot.  God himself in human flesh; the Son of God become son of man.  It happens all so quietly.  A baby born like any other – born in a stable at that.  The moment is passing with the world unaware.

But not for the shepherds.  They are not respected.  They are not important.  They inhabit the lower rungs of the social ladder.  But to these, the lowly, there comes the message.  It is theirs alone to hear.

The messenger is terrifying, an angel in glory, but the message itself is pure grace.  A Savior is born, the Messiah, the Lord!  Then appears the heavenly host.  Something this great cannot go unannounced.  They herald his coming with praise:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14; NIV)

The announcement is made, but why here?  This is not the seat of power.  These are not the lords of the earth.  This is a field.  These are shepherds!  Everything is upside down!

Grace has a way of doing that – turning things upside down.  It visits the unworthy with majesty.  It happened to shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, and it happens today to people like you and me.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  How can such a thing be?

In Christ God has visited us.  In Christ he redeems a world gone astray.  The gift is for all who by grace will receive it, and to them is promised an inheritance of glory.  Majesty for the unworthy, indeed!

And grace continues to turn things upside down, for the lowly become messengers of glory.  The shepherds find their sign in a stable and become heralds of the Savior themselves.  Through their lips pass the message of angels.  Can we who have also been visited by majesty become anything but the same?

Grace to you this Christmas season.  May you be visited by majesty.

Be Still

As many of you know, Emily and I spent a few days at The Cove (near Asheville) this past month.  The Cove is a beautiful place where time seems to slow down.  We stayed in a suite with no TV.  With no schedule other than mealtimes, we moved at our own leisure.  Without responsibilities, we “wasted time” by exploring hiking trails, visiting the chapel, and perusing the bookstore.  We met other Christians during mealtimes and engaged in slow and meaningful conversation.  And we also took time to ponder God and his leading in our lives.  The time was refreshing to say the least.

Throughout our stay, we were often confronted with the words of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” which were displayed in various places.  I don’t know about your experience, but my own points to the difficulty of being still.  Sometimes it seems that life is driving me rather than the other way around.  There is always something else to be done, always something that needs attention.  And when things do let up, I just want to veg for a while in front of the TV and be entertained.  Life can get put on auto-pilot, and I end up wondering where all of the time has gone.  Or I set aside time to “be still” and find that circumstances won’t allow it.  Children wake up early or something pressing demands my attention.  Being still is not easy, nor is it natural in an age of constant motion.  Yet it is the call of the disciple who would know and please God.

Emily and I went to The Cove in hopes of gaining perspective.  We came away with the blessing of refreshing stillness.  We remembered God.  We remembered his calling on our lives.  We stood in awe of the one who created such beauty and trusted in his power to undergird us today.  Being still proved to be a needed and refreshing experience!

Now we’re back to the daily grind where stillness seems so elusive, and that elusiveness can be frustrating.  The stillness that came so naturally and even unexpectedly at The Cove does not always come so easily in the midst of everyday responsibility.  And yet the experience carries forward.  Stillness at The Cove led to renewed perspective on what is truly important in our lives.  More than this, it led to a renewed vision of God.  These things can’t help but inform our living.

And maybe this is the point of stillness; not that we stay in a beatific state, but rather that our stillness would give us perspective and strength to live well before God when we return to the everyday.  After all, Emily and I don’t live at The Cove.  We live in Durham.  This is the place of our life and work together.  And this is the ground of our calling.  The beauty of The Cove is not that it is a place to perpetually stay.  No, the beauty of The Cove is found in that it came home with us.  It informs our lives today.

Not to say that we won’t return to The Cove or some other place like it!  Emily and I are talking about making stillness retreats a regular occurrence in the Smith household.  After all, every journey needs rest stops along the way!  Our recent experience has taught us this, and we are thankful to God for meeting us in the stillness of our time away.

I wonder if you have found time to be still before God lately.  Or are the demands of life driving you instead of the other way around?  May you experience rest in God’s presence.  May you receive a renewed vision of who He is.  May you gain perspective on life now.  May you carve out time to be still and know that He is God.