Shadows of the Cross, Part 1: The Carcass in the Garden (Genesis 3:21)

It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.

But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.

If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.

But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact? 

In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus

God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick. 

Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.

Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him. 

No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us. 

Are we listening? 

The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.

For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before. 

We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this: 

Men are homesick in their homes 
And strangers under the sun…
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where Christmas was begun.

If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator. 

God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.

Even if you’re a wizard.


Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.

Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!

Image Credits: shutterstok.com; shepherdthoughts.com; countryliving.com.

Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God

From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day. 

We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained. 

After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.

Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.

Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.

Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen. 

In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve. 

“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.

Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.

Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.

Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are? 

Image Credits: shutter stock.com.

Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.”
– Al Stillman


No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message? 

In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed, the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!

After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…

  • His life showed us how to live. 
  • His death made us ready to die. 
  • His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end. 

At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.

Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).

That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby! 

It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was the ultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God. 

As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.

So, welcome to Jesus.

And welcome home.

Image Credits: shutterstockcom; wallpapers.fansshare.com; theconversation.com; studios.vidangel.com/the-chosen/.

Two Hebrew Words for Forgiveness

There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.

The first word is transliterated nāśā.

The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).

Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words: 

Who is a God like you, 
who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression 
of the remnant of his inheritance? 
You do not stay angry forever 
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us; 
you will tread our sins underfoot 
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.

This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.

The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.

The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.

Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned: 

Let the wicked forsake his way 
and the evil man his thoughts. 
Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, 
and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].

And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:

The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.

Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says: 

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.

According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).

“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49: 

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.

Image Credit: centrostudismmaddalena.

He Is Coming, Part 4: “Be Available” (Luke 1:26-38)

December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.

Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.

All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Toothpaste and Torment

Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach. 

Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired. 

Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible. 

His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse. 

“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?” 

And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”

Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves. 

“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:

Have mercy on me, O God, 
according to your unfailing love; 
according to your great compassion 
blot out my transgressions. 
Wash away all my iniquity 
and cleanse me from my sin.

With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; 
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 
Let me hear joy and gladness; 
let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 
Hide your face from my sins 
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, 
and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 

David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”

Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).

Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too. 

Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.

He Is Coming, Part 3: “Be Vibrant” (Luke 1:39-56)

Mary’s famous Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) reveals that the young Jewish girl who gave birth to the Messiah knew her Bible well. She weaves together at least 30 echoes, allusions, and citations from the Old Testament into her composition. The resulting scriptural tapestry bears a striking resemblance to the prayer of Hannah, a woman who was barren, yet God miraculously gave a son—the Prophet Samuel—whom she dedicated to the Lord. But it’s more than just Hannah’s prayer that stands behind the Magnificat; it’s myriad other references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, too. Her song is saturated and marinated in Scripture. It’s a musical medley that we might consider in our day something akin to a biblical mashup.
 
Mary likely composed the piece in her head on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Judea, singing it to Elizabeth upon her arrival. She had several days to think about it, and now she cuts loose. It’s also likely that these words became a lullaby sung to Jesus in utero and postpartum. If so, Jesus had sacred words ingrained in him from the very beginning of his earthly life. It’s no wonder, then, that he quotes the Psalms more than once from his cross. It’s even possible he sang those words to the extent he was able—almost like a duet across the years with his mother, who’s standing there at the horrible spectacle of Calvary. He sings back to her now the words she sang to him from infancy. Both their lives are bookended by the Word of God.
 
Some rabbis in Mary’s day said, “Keep the Torah far away from women; they will corrupt it to go near it. If they so much as touch the scroll, you must burn it.” One can be glad Mary and her family didn’t adhere to such a foolish tradition, for Mary’s burst of praise becomes part of sacred Scripture itself—God’s revelation to the world. And Elizabeth is not her only audience; we, are too. In this passage, Mary is “rightly dividing the word of truth” from the Old Testament, pulling it together and describing for us how God is bringing the Messiah into the world, and what he will do when he comes. She teaches us the Scriptures—anticipating the promise in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy [i.e., speak forth the Word of God].” Mary leads the way on this declaration. Indeed, she’s an extraordinary reminder that a spiritually vibrant life is marked by Scripture, praise, and humility. While certain traditions overly exalt Mary, others greatly under appreciate her. Neither extreme is warranted. She is truly a model for the ages.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

He Is Coming, Part 2: “Be Repentant” (Mark 1:1-8)

Prior to the writing of the New Testament, the Greek word for “gospel” (euangelion) referred to “the good news announcement” of a military victory on the battlefield, a legal victory in a court of law, or the birth and/or ascension of a new king to the throne. One ancient inscription refers to the birth of Caesar Augustus as “the beginning of the gospel,” the exact phrase Mark uses in the opening line of his account of the life of Christ. Mark actually “hijacks” that reference to Caesar and reassigns it to Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has won the ultimate battle over evil, sin, and death, and rules now from his throne in heaven. What unlocks the “good news” in a person’s life is faith and repentance—making a turn from going in one direction in order to go the other way and follow Jesus. 

Ultimately, “repentance” is a positive word, as God graciously allows his people to leave their path of destruction and avoid disastrous consequences. God’s offer of repentance means there is still hope. It means God hasn’t given up on us. It means there’s still a possibility to participate in his kingdom renewal efforts here on earth. As John Climacus has said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. It is not despondency but eager expectation. . . . To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become.”

The difficulty for us is letting go of trying to be the boss of our own lives and letting Jesus call the shots instead. A well-known bumper sticker in our day says, “God is my co-pilot,” but the truth is: If God is your co-pilot, switch seats. He wants to be the pilot of our lives. Yes, God sees us as we are and loves us as we are, but by his grace, he does not leave us where we are. Indeed, he is ever ordering our lives in such a way that we can learn to make him our highest treasure.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Real ID

Fifteen lies of identity:

  • I am what I do.
  • I am what I’ve done.
  • I am what I have.
  • I am what I look like.
  • I am how I feel.
  • I am where I’m from.
  • I am how I was raised.
  • I am my genes.
  • I am my failures.
  • I am my accomplishments.
  • I am my preferences.
  • I am who other people say I am.
  • I am nothing more than my worst moment.
  • I am nothing less than my best moment.
  • I am no one going nowhere.

The one truth of identity:

I am who I AM made me to be—a human being loved by God and created in his image.

The challenge, of course, is to align our thinking to this reality on a regular basis. To do so is an act of faith. And a declaration of war against the father of lies.

Image Credit: militarybenefits.info; Leonardo da Vinci; Tim Valentino.

He Is Coming, Part 1: “Be Ready” (Mark 13:24-37)

People don’t usually have too much trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ first coming. The story is largely soft, gentle, pleasant, and disarming. There’s a star in the east, a gaggle of shepherds, and a baby in a manger, asleep on the hay. It doesn’t look like very much, nor does it seem to threaten anyone (except, perhaps, King Herod). People tend to have a lot more trouble with the biblical description of Jesus’ second coming because it’s exactly the opposite of the first. Instead of a star in the sky, we have stars falling out of the sky. Instead of local ruddy shepherds, we have majestic angels and saints from all over the globe. Moreover, Jesus is not a harmless little baby anymore, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Instead, he’s the returning victorious king wrapped in clouds of glory, functioning now as the Judge of all the earth. It’s a cosmic and cataclysmic scene, and everyone will recognize his lordship when it happens.

Exactly when will all this take place? Jesus gives the illustration of a budding fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) and the illustration of alert servants (Mark 13:32-37) to remind his followers, “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33). So, the doctrine of the Second Coming is not given as a prophetic jigsaw puzzle to be solved, but as a motivation for practical faith and godly living until the consummation of history. All told, the passage reminds us that Jesus is coming again, so be ready for his appearing. Knowing the precise timing of his return could lead some to procrastinate their faithfulness—to put it on hold, or to suggest that loyalty to him is no big deal. “Not so,” says Jesus. “I’m coming again, and you don’t know when, so be watchful. Be ready for my return.” Ultimately, the doctrine of the Second Coming is a source of great hope and comfort for believers because it portrays the heart of the gospel: the Judge who will judge us has already received our judgment at the cross.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

We’ve been talking this week at This New Life about God’s abundance. The Lord has revealed himself to be generous and openhanded, not stingy and tightfisted. His provisions are bounteous and plentiful, not paltry and miserly. He overflows with love and compassion for his people, not reticence and standoffishness. In short, God is for us not against us. 

Unfortunately, many people believe that God couldn’t possibly love them like that. He can love other people, perhaps, but not them. Maybe it’s because of their wretched past. Maybe it’s because of some traumatic family-of-origin issue. Maybe it’s because of a deep existential crisis at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s their struggle to be on the receiving end of things rather than on the giving end all the time.

Where do we even begin to help them overcome their reluctance to accepting their acceptance in the grace of God? We commit to being as patient with them as God has been with us. We keep loving and serving them as best we can. And we keep telling the Story that has transformed our own lives—as winsomely as possible.

One story within the larger Story that has always fascinated me is the outlandish request Moses made of God nearly 3,500 years ago. In Exodus 33:18, Moses said to the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” It’s difficult to imagine a greater request that one could make of God. It’s even more difficult to comprehend how God could ever answer such a request. 

In the context of Exodus 33, God’s humble sanctuary was not enough to satisfy Moses’s spiritual longings, but his divine glory would have been far too much for him to endure (cf. Exod 33:20). As a result, God responds to Moses’ request in a mediatorial way, showing him an unparalleled revelation of himself while hiding him in the cleft of the rock: 

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’” (Exod 34:6-7a; emphasis mine). In many ways, the rest of Scripture is a commentary on that one verse, as the statement is repeated in various forms at least twelve more times throughout the Old Testament (cf. Num 14:18; 2 Chron 30:9; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 111:4, 112:4, 116:5, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nah 1:3). Allusions to it are also scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. It’s no stretch, then, to consider this passage the John 3:16 of the Old Testament.[1]

To be sure, the mediatorial nature of God’s self-revelation implies a certain moral inability on Moses’ part to survive a full-throated theophany, but it is important to remember that the story of Scripture speaks of Original Blessing (Gen 1:22, 28) before it speaks of Original Sin (Gen 3:6-7). It is truly glorious, then, to be a human being, even a fallen one.

Indeed, Scripture indicates that all persons are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen 1:26). Consequently, they possess an intrinsic value, unique significance, and lofty status in creation. Nona Harrison notes that the word “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 “involves (1) dignity and splendor, and (2) a legitimate sovereignty rooted in one’s very being.”[2] This “being” is truly sacred. That’s why Walter Kaiser, reflecting on the sixth commandment, notes that to kill a human being with malice aforethought is “tantamount to killing God in effigy.”[3]

Kaiser’s memorable phrase captures the dignity and splendor of what it means to be human. In fact, five times in the Gospels (Matt 6:26, 10:31, 12;12; Luke 12:7, 24), Jesus declares human beings to be “valuable” (diapherō). In Ephesians 2:10, the Apostle Paul calls human beings “God’s workmanship” (poiēma). Members of the human race are God’s “poetry,” says Paul—a significant affirmation in light of his observation earlier in the chapter that human beings are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1). 

A thousand years earlier, King David asked God with great wonder, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than God (ʾělōhîm), and crowned them with glory (kāḇôḏ) and honor (hāḏār)” (Ps 8:4-5). God in his wisdom has conferred upon the human race a certain majesty, dignity, and splendor. Finally, David saw himself as “knit together” by God himself in his mother’s womb, and “fearfully [yārēʾ] and wonderfully [pālāh] made” (Ps 139:13-14). 

All told, it is “very good [ṭôb]” to be human (Gen 1:31). In fact, it is beautiful to be an image bearer of the beautiful God (cf. Ps 27:4). So, it is never helpful to start talking about Genesis 3 before talking about Genesis 1-2. Not only does the concept of Original Blessing precede the concept of Original Sin, there is copious grace flowing like a mighty river even in Genesis 3 where the fall of humanity takes place: 

  • the gentle pursuit of the fallen pair by the one dishonored and spurned; 
  • the provision of suitable garments for the covering of their nakedness; 
  • the proto-euangelion (pre-gospel) promise of the Seed of the Woman;
  • the fiery sword placed at the gate to prevent humanity’s irreversible damnation. 

At the epicenter of the great spiritual kaboom, then, is a spiritual bunker or “fallout shelter” provided by heaven. “Behold the kindness and severity of God” (Rom 11:22). And the kindness keeps trying to win (Jas 2:13). 

As such, be assured that God knows how to bring people to himself. He knows what it will take to open their eyes to his incomprehensible love. So, watch and wait. Pray and trust. Hope and rest—in “the compassionate and gracious God” who is “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Amen.

Image Credits: getalongwithgod.com; onlyfreewallpaper.com; laparks.org; biblicalarchaeology.org; pexels.com.


[1] John 3:16 in the New Testament says, “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.” This verse is reportedly the most translated sentence in human language, ostensibly because it encapsulates the gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ and the only appropriate human response to it—faith.

[2] Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 90.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 91.

‘Plenty Too Much’: The God of Immeasurably More

What are some of your highest and best thoughts about God? How incredible is he in your mind? How awesome do you conceive him to be? Now multiply those thoughts by a billion, and what kind of picture emerges? Raise them to the millionth power, and what do you find? No matter how lofty our thoughts about God may be, they will always fall short of his infinite greatness. 

And to that I say, “Thank God!” His ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:9). Clearly, our finite minds run out of steam while the infinite mind keeps going and going. We’re a tiny drop of water in the vastness of God’s unending ocean. I used to be frustrated by that, but I’ve come to see it’s a genuine comfort to worship a God whose greatness cannot be exaggerated. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” The challenge is trying to express God’s greatness in human language with all our inherent limitations. How can we even come close to doing it justice?

In the soaring conclusion to his lofty prayer in Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul strings together a series of “loaded” Greek words to say what cannot fully be said. First he uses the word hyper, which means “above” or “beyond.” Then he uses the word panta, which means, “all,” “every,” or “any.” Then he uses the word hyper again, this time connecting it (without precedent) to the word ekperissou, which means “excessively” or “all the more.” How would you translate this stack of superlatives? 

  • “infinitely more”?
  • “immeasurably more”?
  • “far more abundantly”?
  • “exceedingly abundantly above”?
  • “beyond all measure more”?

That’s the best our translators can do, and you might recognize some of these expressions from your own Bible reading. Perhaps Eugene Peterson captures it well in The Message, where he paraphrases the sentence like this: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”

All told, these words allow Paul—and us—to burst into jubilant praise about God’s majestic abilities, all of which come to fullest expression in the love of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:18, NIV). 

Paul also indicates here that God is not limited by our asking but can go way beyond our hopes, dreams, and expectations. He’s like a cascading fountain that not only flows but overflows. As many of us used to sing in Sunday school when we were children, “My cup is full and running over.” That’s because God delights in pouring 24 ounces of iced tea into a 12-ounce glass. The resulting mess is part of his message: “I am the God not only of abundance but of superabundance.” 

This mindset runs in the family, too. Whenever Jesus, the Son of God, multiplies food for the masses, there are always multiple basketfuls left over. He, too, is a God of superabundance. And his love overflows to the ends of the earth. To borrow a phrase from the pidjin English used on mission fields around the world, God loves us “plenty too much.” This love sustains us as we walk the (sometimes painful) road of sanctification to which we’ve been called, “grow[ing] in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). 

I hope that God has done “plenty too much” for you this year, difficult though it may have been amidst a global pandemic and a widespread sense of national angst and polarization. If not, may his blessings cascade beyond your wildest dreams in the coming year. Do not give up! He has not abandoned you. It’s not in his character to do so. 

Image Credits: wallpaperflare.com; wallpaperstock.net; shutterstock.com.

The God of Yes: He Is There and He Is Not Stingy

Across the street from where I grew up in East Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a vacant lot where we used to play stickball every chance we could get. We lived in a middle-class section of rowhomes, and about eight of those homes featured backyards that lined up perfectly to serve as the outfield “bleachers.” Our goal, of course, was to hit the ball into one of those yards for a home run. (We always used soft rubber balls, so cracking a window was unlikely. It only happened once.)

Most neighbors would sit out on their porches and cheer us on as the game unfolded. If ever we hit a ball into one of their yards, they would simply get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back to us, and the game would continue. Unfortunately, there was also a grizzled old dame in the bleachers—enshrouded in a bright babushka, and far too rickety to stand up straight—who would always pick up the ball, cuss at us in Pennsylvania Dutch, and then harumph her way back into the house, taking our ball with her. End of game. (It wasn’t even her window we broke that one time.)

Sadly, many people today picture God more like the crabby old lady with a foul mouth than the kindhearted neighbors who served as our cheering section. He’s in the heavenly stands with his arms folded and his hands fisted, always perturbed and glaring at us, eager to convey his divine contempt whenever we send one into his upper deck. We’re major league sinners in his book, and we always will be. If we strike out too much, he’ll send us down to the minors. Or worse. End of game.

Theologian Kosuke Koyama once said that Christians need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions: “[We] need to decide whether the God of Scripture is a generous God or a stingy one.”[1] The context of his statement was soteriology, but we can broaden it to include the entire sweep of Christian theology. 

When I first made that shift in my own thinking, it helped me realize how important it is that Genesis 1 and 2 precede Genesis 3. That’s a simple observation, yet it’s vital in the grand scheme of things. Life on planet earth was good—“very good” (Gen 1:31)—before it was ever bad. As such, my theology cannot start in Genesis 3; it has to start where the Bible starts. It has to start “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1). 

Specifically, to help us answer Koyama’s challenge, we can notice that God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29; emphasis mine). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God. We can safely conclude, then, that generosity is a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Trust the story. It tells us that God gave about ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Read that sentence again. Don’t pass over it too quickly. God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotcehtey God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.”

In the end, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final “yes” to every good promise he ever made (2 Cor 1:20). As Paul put it, Jesus is God’s “yes” and “amen.” That means he really is for us (Rom 8:31), not against us.

Is this the God you know—the one who cheers you on as you’re trying to find your swing? Or is he the god who cusses you out whenever you strike out? Is he the god who benches you after making an error in the field? Is he the god who tells you to hit the showers early when you’ve had a bad inning? If so, maybe you’re on the wrong team. In fact, maybe you’re playing for Baal instead of Yahweh. Ask to be traded.

Francis Schaeffer famously said of God, “He is there and he is not silent.” To that we can add, “He is there and he is not stingy.”

Image Credits: thoughtco.com; inklyo.com; depositphots.com; pennlive.com.


[1] Kosuke Koyama, as cited in Richard J. Mouw, “More Thoughts about Generous Orthodoxy,” NetBlogHost.com (March 29, 2011).

A Look at ‘Love (III)’ by George Herbert, from ‘The Temple’

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a highly regarded poet and priest in the Church of England. His “metaphysical” poetry is top-tier reading in my world—always passionate, ponderous, and elegant in its devotion to Christ. His composition “Love (III)” is a gem of image and inspiration, written as a dialogue between a host (divine Love) and a guest, who is the speaker.

The poem comprises three stanzas with six lines each, and an ABABCC rhyme scheme. The meter alternates between a loose form of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. It can be read as a prompt and response. Below is the text of the poem, my brief analysis of it, and a short reflection on why it speaks to me. Additional biographic information on Herbert can be found here

George Herbert ( 1593-1633). Welsh-born English poet, orator and Anglican priest. Engraving, 18th century.

1
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 

                              Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 

                             From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

                             If I lacked any thing.

2
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

                             Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

                             I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

                             Who made the eyes but I?

3
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

                             Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

                             My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

                             So I did sit and eat.

Introduction

In the preceding poems, “Love (I)” and “Love (II),” Herbert has labored to rescue the word “love” from its inferior meanings in secular usage. God, he claims, is the “Immortal Love,” and his “Immortal Heat” is totally other than human love, which is often selfishly expressed. Here in “Love (III),” Herbert shows the selfless nature of divine love, portraying not only that God is “Love,” but how God is “Love”—he is a gracious and welcoming host to broken people.

Analysis

Lines 1-2
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.

In the presence of pure Love (i.e., God), the poet instinctively shrinks back. The next couplet explains why, but the opening line communicates Love’s disposition by echoing the sentiment of Song of Solomon 5:6, “I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.” The reason for the poet’s hesitancy is then revealed; he feels “guilty” in the presence of Love. Indeed, he is guilty—on two counts in Herbert’s theology: he is sinful by birth (“dust”) and sinful by action (“sin”).

Lines 3-4
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack / From my first entrance in,

Love is portrayed here as an attentive host, noticing immediately the poet’s hesitancy (“slack”) to be in his presence. The adversative “but” indicates a strong disposition on the part of Love to overcome the poet’s hesitation. Who will win the battle of wills—the poet or Love?

Lines 5-6
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, / If I lacked any thing.

Love steps toward the reluctant poet, not in aggression but in gentleness. He comes “sweetly questioning” him, harkening back to God’s gracious pursuit of the disobedient Adam in Genesis 3, an encounter that arguably features more grace than judgment. Moreover, Love acts here as both a selfless and other-centered host, asking if the poet “lacked any thing.” Clearly Love wants to overcome the poet’s fear and shame of being in his presence, speaking and acting in such a way as to put him at ease.

Lines 7-8
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here: / Love said, You shall be he.

The poet responds that he lacks a person worthy to be in Love’s presence. In other words, it’s not so much that the poet has a lack; he is the lack! He feels that he does not deserve to be there. Love disagrees, resolutely stating that the poet himself will be deemed worthy.

Lines 9-10
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, / I cannot look on thee.

The poet refutes Love’s contention that he could be considered worthy. After all, his defining attributes include being “unkind” and “ungrateful”—the very opposite of Love’s defining attributes. Such a disparity in moral character renders the poet incapable of looking directly into the eyes of Love (“I cannot look on thee”).

Lines 11-12
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?

Love initiates a gentle touch, employing a smile to indicate acceptance of the poet and delight that he’s there despite his feelings of guilt and shame. Love poses another question, forcing the poet to consider a new, more hopeful perspective: “Who made the eyes but I?” The implication is that Love is the poet’s Creator, and he did not create those eyes to look away from him in guilt but toward him in fellowship. Love is pressing the poet here to find his identity in Love’s original design for him, not his sullied record.

Lines 13-14
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.

The poet protests again, resisting Love’s continued kindness because he has “marred” (i.e., stained or compromised) his eyes through un-love, possibly referring back to the deficient expressions of human love portrayed in the previous sections of the poem. The moral crimes producing his sense of shame render him worthy of condemnation and, thus, unworthy of Love.

Lines 15-16
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve.

Love reminds the poet that Someone “bore the blame” for his moral crimes, a reference to Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Captivated by the reminder that no blame remains, the poet now feels compelled to serve Love (“My dear, then I will serve”). His attitude is reminiscent of the prodigal son’s intention to return to his father as a hired hand, not as a son (Luke 15:18-20). 

But as the next couplet indicates, such an economic arrangement is not Love’s intention. The poet is made worthy by Love, so Love will serve him, not vice versa. The image is taken from Luke 12:37, where, quite shockingly, cultural norms are stood on their head when the master starts serving the servants: “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.” The biblical scene is almost scandalous, but this is what Love looks like, and this is what Love does. 

Lines 17-18
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.

In the end, Love wins (“So I did sit and eat”). But he wins by overcoming the poet’s reluctance with kindness, not coercion. And “winning” here takes the form of Love serving the poet a meal made by his own hands (“my meat”). Love doesn’t win by punishing the poet for his moral crimes; the claims of justice for those crimes have long since been satisfied. Consequently, all that remains now is for the poet to allow his guilt and shame to melt away in the presence of Love. When that happens, a delightful meal of peace is shared at the table of brotherhood. That was Love’s aim all along.

Why This Poem Speaks to Me

I could well be the broken poet. I have plenty of moral crimes to my name, and they render me “unworthy” in the presence of Love. But God’s deepest desire has never been to play the part of my vindictive Judge; his desire has always been to be my gracious host and share a meal with me at his table (cf. Rev 3:20). He can do so without compromising his holiness because Someone “bore the blame.” My blame. 

Consequently, my own guilt and shame can melt away in the presence of Love, and I can look at God again—in the face of Jesus Christ.

So can you.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about how to begin a journey with Jesus.