I got to see Tim Hawkins live in concert several years ago, and I wound up getting a migraine from laughing so hard. Others around me had the same experience. Never before had I gotten to the point of wanting a comedian to stop making me laugh, but it happened that night. He crescendoed to a rapid fire finale that was almost unbearable. Here are a few of his more gentle riffs, separated out so you don’t get a headache.
As members of the WVU swim team, we would sacrifice our Christmas vacation to go on a 2-week training trip someplace on the globe that was warm and sunny. During my years in college, that included St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Those trips were like “boot camps for swimmers,” with every day featuring triple sessions. The first session was an early morning swim practice lasting two hours. The second involved weight training, calisthenics, plyometrics, and/or runs on the beach for about 90 minutes. The third was an evening swim practice lasting two more hours.
On Christmas Day they lightened up on us, mandating just one two-hour practice in the morning; then they gave us the rest of the day off. (Thanks for that.) I remember how dreadful and depressing it was to have to practice on Christmas morning!
Below are some snaps from the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center. Once a week all the teams who had gathered to train swarmed the pool for what they called “Fifty 50s.” It was only a 2500m parctice, but the lanes were crowded, and there wasn’t much time between sprints. Finding a place to dive safely was a challenge. The whole thing was exhausting and annoying, even for this sprinter.
Between sessions we hit the beach or went out on the town, and after the 14 days of agony, we enjoyed a trip to Disney World. The rest of the time we ate or slept.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
Image Credits: pexels.com; nationalinterest.org; aurrpc.com.
Readers of TNL will likely know of my affection for detective, crime solving, courtroom, and spy shows, along with a few period dramas from time to time. My latest binge is Grantchester on PBS’s Masterpiece. The British detective series is set in 1950s Cambridge, England, and features the Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) developing a side sleuthing gig with Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green).
Father Chambers apparently gets replaced in a future season with a new vicar, William Davenport (Tom Brittney), but I’m just getting started. The best way to describe the series is “one part Endeavour smooshed together with one part Father Brown.” So far so good. My recent previous binges in this genre have included:
- Alias (Jennifer Garner)
- Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch)
- The Mentalist (Simon Baker)
- Covert Affairs (Piper Perabo)
- Broadchurch (David Tennant)
- Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck)
- Poirot (David Suchet)
- Father Brown (Mark Williams)
- Endeavour (Shaun Evans)
- Inspector Morse (John Thaw)
- Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately)
- Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Essie Davis)
- Columbo (Peter Falk)
Past and ongoing binges in the period-piece genre include:
- Victoria (Jenna Coleman, Tom Hughes)
- The Crown (Claire Foy, Olivia Colman)
- Reign (Adelaide Kane, Toby Regbo, Megan Follows)
- Downton Abbey (Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith)
- Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth)
- Sense & Sensibility (Hattie Morahan, Dominic Cooper)
And then there’s Stranger Things (Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown), which is in a class by itself, and the ubiquitous NCIS and Law & Order. Oh, and the Friday night Marvel binge with my son. (My waning love of professional sports has made more space for the arts and a better use of my brain.)
What are your favorite binges?
UPDATE (01.15.2021): As it turns out, Grantchester is rather slow moving, only marginally interesting, and unfortunately overt in its socio-political agenda. I’m not sure I’ll continue with it. Worst of all (for this genre, anyway), the viewer can never really solve the crime beforehand because important clues are concealed until the end. Where’s the fun in that?
Image Credits: mypostcard.com; medium.com.
Those who follow in the footsteps of Christ seek to align themselves with the mission of Christ. There are two wings on this bird, and both are necessary to fly well: (1) The followers of Christ will practice gospel messaging; and (2) the followers of Christ will practice gospel neighboring. The gospel, or course, is the good news announcement that a new emperor has ascended the throne—Jesus Christ, not Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:8-14; Phil 2:9-11). It’s the declaration of what God has freely done for his people in Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10a). In his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death, and those who believe in him now have their sins forgiven, and they receive a new life—not by righteous things they have done, but because of the finished work of Christ. In other words, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is making all things new in the restoration of the entire cosmos. That’s the good news, and messaging that news is part of the believer’s mission.
But gospel neighboring is the other wing, and it is vitally important, too. In fact, messaging the gospel without neighboring the gospel undercuts the credibility of the gospel (Jas 2:14-17). It’s empty words and hollow bluster. We become resounding gongs and clanging symbols (1 Cor 13:1). Moreover, Jesus said that next to loving God, loving our neighbor is the greatest commandment we could keep (Matt 22:34-40). To “love” our neighbors does not necessarily mean having warm, fuzzy feelings toward them. To “love” our neighbors means to regard them as valuable and important. However wretched certain people may be—and we all have a certain amount of wretchedness in us—they are still made in the image of God. They therefore have intrinsic worth, value, significance, and dignity, whether they’re living up to their lofty status or not.
Gospel neighboring also means serving those around us, whether they believe the gospel or not (Matt 5:43-47). It’s easy to be kind to those who are like us, but Jesus doesn’t let us get away with finding loopholes in the command to love our neighbor. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) drives home the point. But how well do we actually know our neighbors? Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” Do we even know? If so, how well do we know them? Gospel neighboring starts with getting to know the people who providentially surround us. But this challenge raises many questions. What if we don’t like our neighbors? What if our neighbors don’t like us? What if they’re loud, obnoxious, or annoying? What if they’re immoral, violent, or dangerous? What if I’m an introvert? What if I’m already insanely busy? We have many questions about how to do this well, and we’ll look at some of them over the course of this series. For now, we’re simply getting centered on our need to radiate the gospel.
Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.
1. Well, the decorations will have to wait (cf. #5 here). Slight sickness invaded the home yesterday, so out of an abundance of caution, we kept “Grandma” away from our side of the house to keep her safe. Consequently, our little forest of Christmas trees still stands. My son and I simply continued our Friday night ritual of making our way through the Marvel movies. (We both got Marvel pajama pants for Christmas—what a hoot!) Last night we watched “Guardians of the Galaxy, Part 2.” It wasn’t as good as the other flicks, story-wise, but the combination of live action and computer-generated imagery (CGI) is amazing. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to lumberjack the trees now, as Saturday is always a big prep day for Sunday. At least the sun is out today, though it’s frigid.
2. It’s interesting to see what holiday snacks remain now that all the festivities are over. In first place are my disastrous chocolate chip cookies. We didn’t set them out, and I snicker every time I see them, blushing and condemned in their hiding place. Time to toss them out, but I’m guessing even the birds won’t eat them. In second place are the smoothies—a mixture of white chocolate and butterscotch chips in little paper cups. I don’t eat them, but those who like them rave about them. (Maybe they lasted precisely because I don’t eat them. Ha! Actually, my sister-in-law made so many, there was no way to polish them off.) In third place are a handful of peanut butter cookies—but not the blossoms I made. My Wilbur bud creations disappeared quickly. A few other treats remain as well, but they’re all off limits now. I don’t miss the pain and inflammation that came with the carb overload of late December. It was a nice treat for a season, but it’s also nice to be back on a cleaner diet. Health goals—like business, academic, or athletic ones—require a lot of discipline.
3. Gotta share this little story—if only because “a little nonsense now and then” is a nice escape from the chaos and lunacy that has become the United States these days.
The Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about their squirrel infestation. After much prayer and consideration, they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and they should not interfere with God’s divine will.
At the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptistry. The deacons met and decided to put a waterslide on the baptistry and let the squirrels drown themselves. The squirrels liked the slide and, unfortunately, knew instinctively how to swim, so twice as many squirrels showed up the following week.
The Lutheran church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures. So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist church. Two weeks later, the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the waterslide.
The Episcopalians tried a much more unique path by setting out pans of whiskey around their church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning. They sadly learned how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.
But the Catholic church came up with a more creative strategy. They baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church. Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter.
Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue. They took the first squirrel and circumcised him. They haven’t seen a squirrel since.
4. There’s an old addage (variously attributed) that says there are only two plots in all of literature: (1) a person goes on a journey; and (2) a stranger comes to town. Here’s a golden oldie that seems to combine the two—a stranger comes and invades a person’s journey. For some reason, I woke up this morning with “Come Sail Away” by Styx in my head. I never really knew what the song was trying to say, and people still argue about hidden meanings, but it was a big hit long ago—part of the background noise when I was very young. So, here’s a throwback:
UPDATE: I’m told that Mrs. Mosby just ate a single Hot & Spicy Cheez-It today and didn’t even dash off to her water bowl afterwards. In fact, she then went back for more treats. She’s definitely Micah’s cat! I may have to pick up some sriracha for her the next time I go grocery shopping. We could put it on her Mice Krispies in the morning. And if her mouth gets overly heated, she can always lick a very cold mice cream cone. O.k., I’ll stop now. Please don’t hate me. I’m just feeling spicy today. 🙂
UPDATE 2: And right after posting about hot sauce and spice, I started making an omelette for the patient. When it came time to put salt in the concoction, the lid of the container flew off and ruined my masterpiece. Even my mustard-seed faith couldn’t remove the mountain of sodium chloride and cast it into the sea. Heavy sigh. Let’s see what I can accomplish next with the sugar in the house. Ha! Nothing like getting the whole range of flavors in one day…sugar and spice! LOL.
Image Credit: wallpaperaccess.com.
I got to see John Branyan do this riff in concert about seven or eight years ago. As something of a word nerd myself, with an affection for good literature, I had my socks knocked off, and I snortled my way through the whole thing. So, this clip is a gift for all my word-nerd friends out there. It’ll have to suffice until I’m able to play the real “Words with Friends” game with you again. 🙂
Note: The first minute is the remnant of a riff on marriage. That’s funny, too.
1. Proverbs 26:20a says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” The message is clear enough. You want to minimize contention? Then stop talking for a while. Our nation should try it. The last thing anyone needs right now is another opinion on social media, which can only become fuel for the dumpster fire that has become political discourse in our country. As such, I will say very little today. De-esclation is sorely needed after yesterday’s riot and storming of the U.S. capitol by protesters. There’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7b), and I will stay largely silent for right now.
2. What I will say is the obvious—what everyone should be able to say across the board without equivocation: I condemn violence and destruction in the attempted furtherance of any political agenda, whether it comes from the left or the right. I also condemn the hot, biased, and inflamed rhetoric of our corrupt media. They are as guilty as any politician or protester. Alas, I’m not optimistic that they will do any self-reflection in this crucial moment.
3. For now, I have said everything I wish to say about politics here. Additionally, Carey Nieuwhof has a good post here on “Why Your Words as a Leader Matter (Far More Than You Think).” There is some overlap there with the study I did on TNL called “Oh, My Word.”
4. One of the joys of teaching at the master and doctoral levels is the depth and quality of work from my students that I get to review on a regular basis. I’ve been fed and inspired by projects submitted for my courses in preaching, ecclesiology, semiotics, outreach, and Old Testament. The students really hit it out of the park this semester. I’m also looking forward to serving as a member of the dissertation committee for three Th.D. students over the coming months. Not only are their topics fascinating, their passion and scholarship are coming together in such a way that I get to be the beneficiary of their labors.
5. Is it “de-decorate” or “un-decorate”? I’m not sure, but the time has come. Epiphany Day has passed, although the season remains for a little while longer. Putting the Christmas decorations away has always made me a bit melancholy. And this year we can’t have our Epiphany party for the neighborhood because of the virus. (Even this introvert misses that special get together.) Were it not for the bright sky today, I’d probably be sitting in the sad seat. So, let’s hear it for the appearance of the sun! Time to go out and make my FitBit happy, not to mention my spirits.
6. One last thing for now. We’re finally singing “The Blessing” this Sunday at church. I’ve already written about that song in this space, and I’ll post it again soon as it will be new for most of the folks in our congregation. “May his favor be upon” each and every reader of TNL, especially now since my frequency of posting has to drop for a while. Ugh!
The Lord bless you and keep you
Make his face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn his face toward you
And give you peace
A Bonus—Just for Grins
My son and I had way too much fun with this comic. We’re not sure if the two guys are to be understood as skinheads, or if the bear is to be understood as a butt-head. Either way, it…uhm…cracked us up.
Image Credit: pexels.com
It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
So trust in him. Lean into him. Wait on him.
Whether you’re coming or going.
Image Credits: wallpaperflare.com; ineedit.club; canstockphoto.com; writersinspire.org.
I already miss not blogging on a daily basis, but duty calls. Today would have featured glistening pics from the all-too-brief dusting we had this morning in south central PA. It was stunning, yet I almost missed it! I got up at 5:15 a.m. but didn’t discover until around 8:30 a.m. that it had snowed. So much for my powers of observation. By the time church was finished, we were just walking around outside in a slushy mess as the temperatures went above freezing and it started to drizzle. All the more reason to make it a hot chocolatey kind of night.
Instead of pics, I’ll share a vivid piece I came across while studying for today’s message. It’s Frederick Buechner’s description of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. It was originally published in his Peculiar Treasures, the second book of his popular lexical trilogy, where he profiles more than 125 of the Bible’s most holy and profane people—and one whale. It contains lively and witty prose, and the other volumes are going on my wish list pronto!
ZACCHAEUS APPEARS JUST once in the New Testament, and his story is brief (Luke 19:1-10). It is also one of the few places in the Gospels where we’re given any visual detail. Maybe that is part of what makes it stand out.
We’re told that Zacchaeus was a runt, for one thing. That is why when Jesus was reported to be en route into Jericho and the crowds gathered to see what they could see, Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to get a look himself. Luke says the tree he climbed was a sycamore tree.
We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a crook—a Jewish legman for the Roman IRS who, following the practice of the day, raked in as much more than the going tax as he could get and pocketed the difference. When people saw Zacchaeus oiling down the street, they crossed to the other side.
The story goes like this. The sawed-off shyster is perched in the sycamore tree. Jesus opens his mouth to speak. All Jericho hugs itself in anticipation of hearing him give the man Holy Hell. Woe unto you! Repent! Wise up! is the least of what they expect. What Jesus says is, “Come down on the double. I’m staying at your house.” The mob points out that the man he’s talking to is a public disaster. Jesus’ silence is deafening.
It is not reported how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore, but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment. He said, “I’m giving everything back. In spades.” Maybe he even meant it. Jesus said, “Three cheers for the Irish!”
The unflagging lunacy of God. The unending seaminess of man. The meeting between them that is always a matter of life or death and usually both. The story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel in sycamore. It is the best and oldest joke in the world.
Buechner’s description reminded me of a bit from George Target, as quoted in And Jesus Will Be Born. It highlights the ridiculousness of the “mutterers” in Luke 19:7—those religious up-tights who were against all the right things, but you somehow knew they were missing out on the abundant life that Jesus had promised.
They don’t smoke, but neither do they breathe fresh air very deeply;
They don’t drink wine, but neither do they enjoy lemonade;
They don’t swear, but neither do they glory in any magnificent words, neither poetry nor prayer.
They don’t gamble, but neither do they take much chance on God.
They don’t look at women and girls with lust in their hearts, but neither do they roll breathless with love and laughter, naked under the sun of high summer.
It’s all rather pale and round-shouldered, the great Prince lying in prison.
Jesus was the key to Zacchaeus’ prison door, but he wasn’t the only person in Luke 19 who needed to be sprung from his cell.
Be blessed in the beauty that is winter!
Image Credit: pixels.com.
If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters!
So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.
Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart,
And love that soul through me;
And may I bravely do my part
To win that soul for Thee.
Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.
“I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.”
1. Christmas Day has passed, and members of the extended family have all returned home. The house is quieter now (always a delight to us introverts, though still a bit depressing after all the excitement), but the Christmas season continues through January 5 on the liturgical calendar. Epiphany Day is Wednesday, January 6, and the season after the Epiphany extends through February 16, which is the day before Lent begins. Normally we would leave our decorations up and have an Epiphany Party for church members and the neighbors, but the virus makes gathering a real problem right now, so I’m not sure when the decorations will go back into hibernation.
2. The general theme of the Epiphany and the season that follows is Jesus’ manifestation of himself as deity. (The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance”). In lectionary churches, Bible readings and sermons during this time of year typically deal with Jesus’ identity. In the eastern Church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ. In the western Church, Epiphany commemorates the natal star and the arrival of the Magi, with the following week focusing on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. So, there is much for believers to look forward to, and any post-holiday spirits that are flagging can be reinvigorated by these great truths. In my experience, emotions can be like sine waves for many people (myself included); they go up and down in patterns, sometimes exhausting us in the process. Thankfully, Christ is the steady, unchanging “x-axis” that cuts through all the motion and commotion. That’s not a cliché; it’s an anchor for the soul when we’re feeling blue.
3. The civil calendar is fast heading toward January 1, which is New Year’s Day for most of the world. We find ourselves, then, living in between high moments. I suspect many people this year will be welcoming the calendar change from 2020 to 2021. That’s understandable, as a lot of awful things have happened this year. At the same time, believers are instructed to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). That’s easier said than done, but it does mean that God always has a purpose in the our pain.
4. Yes, God is always up to something good, even in the challenges we face. And, of course, he’s always faithful to his people in the midst of those challenges. I’ve been thinking of Matt Redman’s song “Never Once” as I look back on 2020 as a whole. It’s a good reminder that God has never abandoned us—not once.
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
5. As I look back on the fourth quarter of 2020, and especially the month of December, I do so with a good deal of gratitude and satisfaction. It’s been a joy to put more time and energy into This New Life, establishing a number of templates for future posting. I especially enjoyed preparing the articles I did that focused on the Incarnation—one of my favorite theological topics to research and ponder. I’ve never been a huge fan of “The Little Drummer Boy” song, but I’ve been thinking about one line in it for several days now: “I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.” What do I have to offer my Lord except what he’s already given me? Absolutely nothing! Moreover, there’s not a single thing he ever needs from me—a mere human being with faults and flaws all over the place. He is, after all, the sovereign king and creator of the universe; he has no needs.
But he does accept our gifts when we offer them in sincerity of heart—like parents who open a small, homemade present from their young children on Christmas morning. The parents’ delight in that moment is not manufactured; it’s a genuine response of gladness to the relationship, more so than the intrinsic value of the thing itself. It was the love with which the gift was made that sparks joy in the parents. I have a few things like that from my own kids, and they’re precious to me.
Looking back on this past month, I can honestly say, “I wrote my best for him,” seeking to honor and somehow articulate the incomprehensible miracle that is Christmas. Jesus doesn’t need my pen, but I gladly give it in service to him, as I can think of nothing more incredible to write about. My earnest hope is that he was pleased with my literary drumming. (And I hope it didn’t keep baby Jesus awake!)
6. Perhaps there is one thing more incredible to write about than Christmas, and that’s the other end of Jesus’ earthly life, where on the cross something truly astonishing happened: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). When that kairos moment took place, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom—a highly symbolic and theologically rich act of God that will be the focus of my dissertation. My broader work on Israel’s tabernacle has been narrowed down to explore the significance and implications of that one incredible portent at Herod’s temple in the first century. What exactly happened? Why did it happen? Why does it figure so significantly in the book of Hebrews? What does it mean for us today?
7. So, my research and writing efforts must now shift to that project during the first part of 2021. It will be labor intensive, so I need to disappear from TNL for a while—though not completely. I’ll continue posting a few things from time to time, but not as much as I have been these past several months. I’ll keep scanning my favorite blogs when I can (because I love your stuff, and it gives me hope and inspiration!), but I won’t be able to generate as much content for a while—just sermon summaries, classroom handouts, weekly songs in the sidebar, and occasional updates and fun stuff as time allows. All prayers are appreciated for this new venture, as I cannot do it alone. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and he was right. So, thanks for your support!
I look forward to getting back in the blogging groove again after this major project is completed, and I can say with Jesus, “It is finished!”
Love to all in Jesus’ name. Be blessed on your journey in 2021.
God will not abandon us.
UPDATE: WordPress stats indicate that my post popular post in 2020 was “Have Yourself a Snarky Little Christmas.” Thanks for reading! Much appreciated!
A few slices of wit and wisdom to enjoy or ponder.
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”
It is clear from Scripture that God is worthy to be praised, but why does he want to be praised? Indeed, why does he demand to be praised (cf. Deut 6:13)? The first commandment allows no room for any other gods besides Yahweh (cf. Exod 20:3). Such a claim seems narrow and exclusive in an age of pluralism and tolerance. Here’s a God who says that alternatives and substitutes are off limits to his people.
That raises the question of whether or not God is ego-heavy after all. Is he not humble? Is he needy in some way? Is he insecure? Why must he always get top billing? People who act like that are considered narcissistic.
C. S. Lewis pondered the question, and he was troubled for some time by its possible implications. Is God, he wondered, like “a vain old woman seeking compliments?” After soaking his head in the book of Psalms, Lewis came to an insightful conclusion. In Reflections on the Psalms he writes:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
“The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Still, the question remains: Is the first commandment somehow a violation of meekness? Is there something arrogant about God wanting to be regarded as utterly supreme in the universe? No. God is utterly supreme in the universe! Moreover, he wants his people to live in sync with reality; anything less would be insanity.
Ancient gods that were the products of people’s imaginations—idols that needed to be fed, dressed, bathed, and cared for by the priests in order to function—were not and are not ultimate; therefore, they are not worthy of worship. Serving such gods is a delusion, a waste of time, and ultimately disappointing. Only Yahweh is authentic, supreme, and able to “deliver the goods.”
Recognizing this theological truth is the beginning of wisdom and the first step toward living in accordance with reality. Deviate on this issue, and everything else will be askew—like missing the first buttonhole in a shirt; every other button is wrong, and the entire garment is misaligned. But to be properly aligned by recognizing the supremacy and exclusivity of Yahweh, and worshiping him alone, brings with it its own spiritual benefits, not the least of which is genuine life transformation. As Archbishop William Temple once said:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
Such selfless adoration is indeed a great pleasure. Gone, for the moment, are all the cares of this world during true acts of worship. As Lewis said, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
“The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
In the end, God allows people to reject him, disbelieve him, and not worship him as God (at least for now). And that’s the very definition of humility—to have infinite power to compel submission while putting oneself in a position to be rejected.
Like Father, like Son.
Image Credits: crosswalk.com; Lori Thomason (Pure Devotion).