Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Firing First and Painting Later

A Call for Sharpshooters in 2005

You might not realize it, but there are two approaches to expert marksmanship. The first is to train the crosshairs on the exact center of the target, take a deep breath, exhale about halfway and hold it, and slowly squeeze the shot off, holding your aim steady on the bull’s-eye the entire time. The second approach is to forget all that disciplined skill and just shoot the rifle. Then, you just go paint a target around the spot where the slug leaves a hole. Pretty simple, huh?

Wait a second… You don’t believe me? You don't think that second approach would be accepted as “expert marksmanship”?! Well, you’re right. That’s not how sharpshooters are made—by firing first and painting later.

But sometimes that’s how we live our lives, isn’t it? We don’t really aim for much; we just do what comes naturally and then see where we end up. How strange! And how unbiblical!

Ever notice how many people in the Bible purposed to live a certain way or aim for a specific goal? “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food, or with the wine that he drank.” (Dan 1:8). “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1) Even Paul himself: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). These people are sharpshooters! They have an intended target, and they are aiming directly at it.

So here we are, on the brink of a brand new year. Hmmm… I wonder where we’ll be when the holidays roll around again. Will we be more faithful in our devotions? Will we have talked to anyone about Jesus? Will we know God better through prayer and meditation on His word? Will we have given Him our best every day, or will we give only enough to get by?

Here’s what I’d like to suggest… Take the next couple days and evaluate your life—spiritually, socially, educationally, etc. Pray a lot. Think hard. Then write down a few specific “targets” you’re going to aim at during this new year.

After you write down your goals, do one more thing. Read over and pray about them at least weekly. In reviewing them this often, we’ll be following the great example of Jonathan Edwards, who used to read his list of personal resolutions weekly, too (a list that grew to 70 goals by the time he finished!).

Let’s aim for something significant this year, OK? No more firing first and painting later!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Defined by the Details

What the Birth of Jesus Says About You

The trimmings of the season were all around me during my devotions this morning: the massive Christmas tree next to my oversized chair, the glow from the seasonal lights over the fireplace reflecting off the pages of my Bible, mellow carols quietly playing on the stereo in the next room. It seemed a strange setting in which to read the passion narrative, but since that’s where my Bible reading plan has me this time of year, that’s what I read—John 19:16-42.

Surrounded by all these reminders of the birth of Christ, I read and pondered John’s description of the death of Christ. All at once I was struck by the parallel details in the two accounts, similarities I had never put together before. Here’s what I saw…

Both are marked by stunning humiliation. The humiliations of His birth—the social status of His family, the tedious journey to Bethlehem, the rejection at the inn, the manger-bed—these details seem warm and wonderful to us now, all wrapped up in the packaging of Christmas as they are; but they are still humiliations nonetheless. Those of His death are equally well known to us—the nakedness and mockery, the accompaniment by known criminals, the abandonment by His closest friends, the absolute disgrace of execution by crucifixion.

Both offer a special notification to others about who Jesus was. At Christ’s birth the special announcement came to the shepherds via the angels. At His death it was via a sarcastic sign posted above His head by Pontius Pilate.

Both are accented by a high concentration of fulfilled prophecies. The prophesies surrounding His birth (His name, the virginity of His mother, the location in Bethlehem, etc.) and those surrounding His death (the dividing of His garments, His thirst, the piecing of His hands and feet and side, His burial in a borrowed tomb, etc.) make these two periods the most prophesy-intensive of His entire life.

Finally, both offer unusual details about how He was clothed and where He was laid. At both His birth and His death He was wrapped in linen cloths, a peculiar little detail that has always made me curious about why the biblical authors felt inclined to include it. In addition, both accounts are careful, for whatever reason, to tell us exactly where He was laid: in a manger at His birth and in a friend’s tomb at His death.

So what’s the point of it all? Here’s what I think… It seems to me that these details are little hints that we ought to see the birth of Christ in light of the death of Christ. The romantic details of Bethlehem foreshadow the horrific details of Golgotha. In other words, we miss the point of Christ’s birth if we don’t recognize the point of His death.

But just in case we miss these subtle details, there is explicit evidence right in the birth narratives that this event points directly to the cross. For example, the angels told the shepherds that the one born in Bethlehem was “a Savior” (Lk 2:11). And the song sung by the angel choir pointed toward our forgiveness when they sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) Simeon’s prophecy also foreshadowed the crucifixion when he told Mary: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:34-35) Clearly, Christ’s birth cannot be separated from His death.

One more point about these similarities between the manger and the cross… Though these details come in similar form at Christ’s birth and at His death, they have directly opposite effects on some people. Some, like the shepherds, receive the announcement of the angels with gladness, but they also, like the Jews, receive the declaration of Pilate’s sign with derision. Some who love the humiliation of His birth scoff at the humiliation of His death. Some who find the linen wrappings around the babe in the manger to be irresistibly romantic also find the burial shroud around the corpse in the tomb to be irreparably repulsive.

So what does all this say about you? These parallels are meant to forge an unbreakable link between Christ’s birth and His death. Do you rejoice at His birth but scoff at His death? Or do you worship at His birth precisely because it points you to His death? How do the details define you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Oversight or Insight?

Looking Carefully at a “Mistake” in the Bible

In reading through Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth recently, I noticed what appeared to be an embarrassing mistake he made in applying a verse from Isaiah to Jesus’ birth. Here’s the passage:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). Mt 1:18-23
Did you see the mistake? It’s in the names. Look closely. The angel says “you shall call his name Jesus” but Isaiah’s prophecy says, “they shall call his name Immanuel.” And to make matters worse, Matthew clearly says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken…” If he hadn’t been quite so broad, we might have been able to slip off the hook by arguing that he was only talking about the “born of a virgin” part and not the names part. But he had to go and use that word “all.” Hmmm…

So I pondered and prayed and reread the verses, and then I think I found the answer. It’s in the tiny word “for”—the one followed by the clause “he will save his people from their sins.” But before I explain how that one word solves the problem, we need to think for just a moment about the two names themselves.

Matthew defines the name Immanuel for us right in the verse: “God with us.” The meaning of “Jesus” isn’t quite as explicit, though it is implied. Just like the Hebrew name Joshua, Jesus means “Jehovah saves.”

When the angel told Joseph to name his son Jesus, he was choosing a name that declares the exclusive position of Jehovah as the only savior of His people. But remarkably, he follows the name immediately with “FOR he will save his people from their sins.” In effect, the angel says: “Name your son ‘Jehovah saves,’ because he’s going to save you.” Apparently, this baby is going to do something that previously was done by Jehovah Himself: save His people. The point is unmistakable: this baby must be God!

Thus, when Matthew saw in Isaiah 7:14 that the virgin’s baby was called Immanuel—“God with us,” he saw the perfect fulfillment in the angel’s announcement to Joseph. Since only God can save His people, and since this baby is going to be named “Jehovah saves” precisely because he (the baby) will save His people from their sins, this baby must be God. To say that this infant will be our Savior is just another way of saying that this baby is God with us!

And then, instead of criticizing Matthew for his careless oversight, I was thanking God for his profound insight. Like John Piper says, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but sometimes you find diamonds.” Thanks, Matthew, for the Christmas diamond!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

From Devastation to Elation

The Journey Back to God

OK, so it’s last Friday, and I am utterly collapsing (or so it feels to me…) under the cumulative weight of a dozen different problems that have added up to become one gargantuan spiritual crisis. Everywhere I turn, things look disastrous: my relationships are in ruins, my responsibilities are overwhelming, my resources are spent, blah blah blah. Fast-forward three days to Monday, and it’s hardly recognizable as the same life. There, see me? Yep, I’m the dude whistling as he trots up the sidewalk to the office. Life is goood! Why the drastic change? Well, it was a combination of causes…

First, I got in the word, because I know that “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). Moses said it just like I experience it: “it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Dt. 32:47). If I don’t get in the word when I’m struggling, I’m dead! In fact, most of my struggles start precisely because I’ve been neglecting the word.

Second, people got in my face. Well, not just “people”…rather, people who know me well and love me anyway. And with their God-centered words and God-filled lives, they brought me back to a Godward orientation. Not all of what they said was fun to hear, but I guess that’s because salt usually stings as it cleanses: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6).

Third, I surrendered. God had been asking for something, I knew it, and I just wasn’t going there. And so that lead-balloon feeling in my gut began to intensify. I resisted pretty well until the steel girders of my soul—hope and joy and peace—were twisting and cracking from the stress. The inexpressible relief and buoyant feeling when I finally surrendered was like… well, (to alter the image a bit) it was kind of like the pleasure you get when you finally stop smashing your thumb with a hammer.

And fourth, I worshipped. Psalm 73 provides one of my favorite biblical illustrations of the stabilizing power of glimpsing God in worship. Asaph’s soul is reeling from doubt and confusion in the first half of the Psalm, but in the last half he’s all fixed up. The change comes in verses 16-17: “when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God…” And what was significant about entering the sanctuary? It’s where Asaph saw God.

Seeing God has a wonderful way of reorienting your soul. It’s like dropping a massive ballast into the bottom of a tipping ship or drawing all the planets into orbit around the sun (both analogies from John Piper). In fact, I would argue that glimpsing God is at the heart of every one of these corrective influences in my life: the word reveals God, people communicate God, surrender opens the heart to God, worship unveils God…

And so what I conclude from all of this is that the “gargantuan spiritual crisis” of Friday was fundamentally a shortage of God in my life. And that’s the basis for my appeal to you. If you read the description of my Friday and said, “Yep, that’s me,” then take that as a little “heads up” that, in one way or another, you need more of God. So get in the word, talk to your wisest friends, surrender what He’s calling for, worship, or whatever—whatever it takes to reorient your life with God at the center.

So why not get going on your journey back to God? One more thing… For those of you who feel like you have too far to go and you doubt whether you can make it, here’s a promise to spark your hope and steel your resolve: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Can’t beat that for a little assistance along the way!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Standing (and Falling) on Grace

Finding Hope in Being Normal

Am I the only one whose Christian life tends to run in a cycle—up, then down, then back up again? Usually it’s not extreme Jekyll and Hyde shifts here, like some out-of-control rollercoaster ride of the soul. But my desire for God and joy in God definitely ebb and flow. Sometimes a lot. Even my best weeks are hardly a steady climb up the “Jacob’s Ladder” of spiritual bliss.

Chances are, most of you know what I’m talking about. For example, last Friday God seemed light years away, and life was excruciating. Today, life is sweet. I know exactly what caused the change, and when I have an opportunity to write more I’ll explain it and also offer some practical advice for what to do when you’re down. But today, let’s just be encouraged knowing that we’re not the only Christian who faces ups and downs along the way. For example, John Piper writes: “Normal Christian life is a repeated process of restoration and renewal. Our joy is not static. It fluctuates with real life.” (Desiring God)

And Charles Spurgeon wrote from his own experience when he penned: “Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy.” And lest we think only spiritual weaklings struggle this way, he gives us a great historical example: “The life of Luther might suffice to give a thousand instances, and he was by no means of the weaker sort. His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” (Lectures to My Students)

The Bible recognizes this struggle, too. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). If all is well all the time, who needs reviving? Even David struggled from time to time, for he wrote: “He restores my soul” (Ps 23:3). Apparently even the man after God’s own heart had bad days.

So what should we do about the fickleness of our own heart? Well, like I mentioned above, I’ll give some more advice in future posts, but for now, here are two thoughts to keep in mind. First, recognize that what you’re experiencing is pretty normal. Strive to stand, but don’t feel like you’re all alone when you fall! Second, whether you’re up or down, realize that grace is your only hope. When we stand, we stand on grace; and when we fall, we fall on grace.

I think the late songwriter Rich Mullins drew a pretty good bead on how to view the ups and downs of life when he sang:

If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you
And if I sing, let me sing for the joy that has born in me these songs
And if I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.