The Gospel Unchained, Part 1: My Dear Son (2 Timothy 1:1-2)

Goodbyes are not easy, but sometimes they are necessary. What we say in those moments often captures what’s most important to us in life—and what we think will most benefit the other person. For example, what do we say when we drop our children off at college, and we won’t be able to see them for several more months? 

What do we say when we bid farewell to our children who depart for military service abroad, or move a long way away from home after they get married? Or what do we say to a loved one whose life is nearing its earthly end? At those times, everything seems to come into focus, and only important things are said—things of value, things of love, things of eternity, and things of God.

Second Timothy is Paul’s goodbye letter to his young apprentice, Timothy. Paul is going to be executed soon, and he knows it. What is on his mind at that moment? What claims his attention? What does he regard as most important for the sake of his dear son in the faith? The letter we call 2 Timothy tells us. And that’s why it has often been called, “Paul’s last will and testament to the church.” It’s his “swan song,” his final message, his parting words. Believers, then, do well to lean in and listen to what he has to say.

When the letter is written (ca. 67 A.D.), Paul is lonely, cold, and in prison—again. Timothy needs instruction, counsel, and encouragement—again. And Paul is preoccupied with the gospel of Jesus Christ—again. Broadly speaking, his charge to Timothy, and to the church at large, is centered around the gospel:

  • Guard the gospel (2 Tim 1:14).
  • Endure hardship for the gospel (2 Tim 2:3, 8-9).
  • Continue in the gospel (2 Tim 3:13-14).
  • Share the gospel (2 Tim 4:1-4).

What is this gospel that the author is so passionate about? It’s the gospel that had the power to convert a former terrorist (“Saul”) to Jesus Christ and become a worldwide evangelist and writer of a significant portion of the New Testament (“Paul”). Simply stated:

The gospel is the good news announcement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived the life we should have lived, died the death we should have died, and rose again from the dead, sharing his life with all who believe in him. He ascended into heaven, taking our humanity with him into the Trinity, and now stands vindicated by his Father, reigns triumphant over the powers of darkness, and works to make all things new in the great restoration of the cosmos.

Paul wants young Timothy—and the church universal—to know that the gospel of Jesus Christ is unchained and unstoppable. Indeed, around the world today, approximately 190,000 people will put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That is, every two seconds someone comes to faith Christ. That’s over 60 Pentecosts every day! Quite significantly, 40,000 will be in the People’s Republic of China; 30,000 will be on the African continent; and 25,000 will be in India. Moreover, around the world today, 500 new churches will be planted, and 40,000+ Bibles will be distributed.

If you’re part of the church of Jesus Christ, you are part of something that cannot and will not fail. There may be setbacks and persecutions along the way—just like in the book of Acts—but the destination is guaranteed. As Woodrow Wilson once said, “I would rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.” The gospel will not fail.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

A Supernatural Walk (Matthew 14:22-33)

The Apostle Peter did something that no other mortal has ever done. He walked on water at the invitation of Jesus. He also sank like a rock after a few steps because he was distracted by the wind and became afraid. At that point he needed a lifeguard and a towel. Mercifully, Jesus rescued Peter out of his predicament.

Such is often the case for Christ’s followers today. Jesus calls us to a supernatural walk with him, but so often our lives lack a supernatural component. Honestly, when is the last time something truly supernatural happened to you or through you—something that can be explained only in terms of God having done it?

A miracle? A divine healing? A real and specific answer to prayer? A deliverance from some sort of bondage? A victory over some sort of besetting sin? A restoration to wholeness and true contentment, whatever the circumstance? A divine love that God gives you for the unlovable? The ability to forgive someone who sinned against you? Could it be that we’re just too comfortable in our Christian boats, never stepping out of them in faith, where the chances of sinking are greatly multiplied?

For all that, this story is primarily about the identity of Christ. Jesus says to Peter, “It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Matt 14:17). Literally, Jesus says: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” That’s a reference to the divine name, “Yahweh,” that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3). Moreover, Job 9:8 says that God alone “stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” So, here on the Sea of Galilee we have another declaration and another demonstration of the deity of Christ. He is God in human flesh.

We also have a revelation of Jesus’s gracious character: (1) Jesus responds to our cries for help (v. 31a); (2) Jesus rescues us in our time of need (v. 31b); and (3) Jesus reminds us to keep our faith in him (31c). That’s because without Jesus we’re sunk. Or, as Jesus himself said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

After Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat, the wind died down (v. 32). That’s not coincidental timing; it’s another indication that even nature bows to the lordship of Christ. If all nature bows to Jesus, shouldn’t we bow to him as well? That’s where the supernatural walk begins. And if we should stumble along the way, Jesus is right there to catch us (v. 31).

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God’s Delight at Christmas (Luke 2:6-20)

Do you believe it’s possible for God to delight in you? That he loves you? That he takes joy in you? That he treasures you? Many people say, “Not me” in response to such questions. “God could never delight in me. You don’t know where I’ve been, and you don’t know what I’ve done.” 

Maybe not. But we do know where King David has been and what King David has done. For the most part, he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), but he also committed adultery at one point during his reign. And then he arranged a murder to cover it up. He stumbled badly on several other occasions, too, leaving him with some awful red marks on an otherwise good report card. 

And yet King David could write, “God rescued me because he delighted in me.” (2 Sam 22:17b). God didn’t delight in David’s sin, but he did delight in David. He was part of the covenant. So, believers today can dare to believe that God delights in us, too. In his famous Christmas carol “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley includes these heart-stirring lyrics:

Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

The truth is, God is more excited about Christmas than we are! He sent his Son into the world for the ultimate rescue. Why? Because he delights in us. In this message, we look at four delights of God at Christmas: 

God delights in SURPRISING us (Luke 2:6-9).
God delights in SAVING us. (Luke 2:10-12).
God delights in SATISFYING us (Luke 2:13-14).
God delights in STIRRING us (Luke 2:15-20).

He does these things through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. He’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He’s the Name above every name. He’s the blessed Redeemer, the Emmanuel—the God-with-us. He’s the Rescue for sinners, the Ransom from heaven. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords. And he’s the only one who can remove those awful red marks from our report card. Trust in him so that your Christmas can be truly merry.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Mirror in the Manger (Luke 2:25-35)

Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.

Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.

In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Here’s Your Sign: Shepherds and the Swaddled God

“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

A manger? A barnyard feeding trough? Seriously? Is that where they set the baby Jesus right after his birth? A place where snorting animals just nuzzled their feed and insects are still foraging for food? What a crude cradle for such a lofty child. The old carol asks, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” 

Whatever the answer to that question, it set the shepherds in motion that night with a message they couldn’t keep to themselves. The swaddled Christ was a dynamic sign to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth to everyone they could find (Luke 2:17). What did they see that we might be missing?

The temple was the center of worship in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on feast days. Where did all those lambs come from? They were bred in the fields of Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless and without blemish, or they couldn’t be offered.

The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet, and they can slip and fall quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom to prevent injury. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of hay so it wouldn’t bruise itself. If it did, it couldn’t be used in worship.

But these weren’t just any old cloths that encased the new lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white linen robes worn by priests during the daily ritual at the temple. After regular use, the priestly garments got so covered in blood, sweat, and filth, they had to be swapped out for new ones.

Normally, the priests didn’t throw out their old garments. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them—much like our country’s old flags. The military doesn’t throw them away; they remove them from circulation with ceremonies for honorable disposal. The same was true for the old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.

This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told (Luke 2:12). Later that night they saw a human lamb wrapped in faded blood-stained garments. To the Bethlehem shepherds, such a sight would have been loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He will be the bloodied and unblemished priest who will purchase your salvation. That’s how much you are treasured by the Lord.”

God was speaking the shepherds’ language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first. Deep down, they knew God had just shown them their own value by giving them the most valuable thing he could give—his own Son. 

Christmas, then, is God bankrupting heaven to put a price tag on earth. No wonder Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

Yes, Jesus came to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 1:21), but that’s because a marred masterpiece is still a masterpiece. Indeed, three times in the Gospels Jesus called his people “valuable” (Matt 6:26; 10:29-31; 12:11-12). Moreover, he said we could never trade our souls for the whole world without us somehow being cheated in the transaction (Mark 8:36). 

To the God who made us, we are worth the price of restoration. That’s why Paul calls us God’s “workmanship” or “poetic artistry” (Eph 2:10). God is restoring his people to the original beauty and goodness we had from the beginning.

On that first Christmas, the Master Artist painted himself into our canvas, landing by design in a manger and subjecting himself to all the cruelties we humans brought into the picture. And now he restores us from the inside out—in more ways than one. 

May your own soul feel its incredible worth this holiday season. Indeed, there’s no other way to be truly merry at Christmas.

The Calm before the Gospel Storm

I appreciate this portrayal of Christ’s Nativity by Gari Melchers, a 19th-century American artist who captures a rare moment in the life of the holy family. 

Before bug-eyed shepherds burst through the door to gawk at the mangered infant, before Magi from the East come kneeling in homage to present their costly gifts to the tiny Christ, before a nervous King Herod dispatches hardened thugs on a murderous rampage to commit deicide in Bethlehem, there’s a quiet moment of peace and stillness. 

Mary is exhausted from her labors of love. Joseph is contemplating the mysteries of all that has happened and all that lies ahead. Before them both is the baby who will change everything, not even aware of his own sacred identity and the heavenly glory that was his just nine months ago. It’s the “dawn of redeeming grace” and a moment for all to breathe. Indeed, it’s the calm before the gospel storm.

I also appreciate that the scene takes place in a house, which is likely where the incarnation happened (see my article, “Why Lies He in Such Mean Estate?”), though that’s not an issue to quibble about. Jesus came, and that’s all that matters.

Karl Whiteman has said, “I love the fun and excitement of Christmas, but I cherish the quiet moments to stop and gaze at the baby.” Amen. May all of us find moments to reflect on this profoundest of all miracles in such a busy time of year. 

Tomorrow I’ll post my own Christmas reflection for 2021, called, “Here’s Your Sign.” After that, our own church services and family celebrations will be set in motion. In the midst of it all, I’ll be looking for true peace from the Prince of Peace. How about you?

Lord Jesus, help us meet with you in the midst of all our Christmas activities, preparations, and festivities. Without you, there is no Christmas. With you, everything changes. Amen.

O Holy Night, Part 4: Chains Shall He Break (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Ephesians 6:5-9)

It’s easy to overlook the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves. Every slave who has ever lived, then—whether in physical shackles or some other kind of bondage—has a friend in Jesus. He can identify with the struggle, which is a tremendous source of encouragement to the oppressed of this world.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.

Cappeau’s reference in verse 3 of “O Holy Night” to the equality of all persons, whether slave or free, got the song banned by the church hierarchy in the early years of its popularity. Congregations all over Europe, however, sang it anyway. Such was the French revolutionary spirit. In a qualified sense, St. Paul may have agreed with that sentiment, having written to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor 7:21).

Once again, Sullivan Dwight’s theology—not Cappeau’s lyrics—drives the English translation. Dwight elevates an important biblical ethic (viz., loving others and standing against oppression), but he eliminates part of the gospel in the process. Lost in Dwight’s translation in v. 3 is:

  • The concept that Christ, the Redeemer, has already broken all shackles
  • The concept that Christ has already freed earth and opened heaven
  • The concept that Christ was born, suffered, and died for all humanity
  • The concept that gratitude is a proper response to this good news

Dwight really did a hack job on Cappeau’s lyrics. And yet what remains is true and beautiful. In this particular message, we focus on two admonitions to two groups of people: (1) to those under authority—remember the contentment of Christ; and (2) to those wielding authority—remember the kindness of Christ. Indeed, we can begin to conquer our own sense of oppression by adjusting our attitudes even before adjusting our circumstances.

In the end, we celebrate the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves to set us free. Consequently, no one who knows Jesus can ever live perpetually with a victim mentality. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 3: He Knows Our Need (Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15-16)

Verse 2 of “O Holy Night” contains these two lines: “In all our trials born to be our Friend! / He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” These concepts are biblically true and spiritually encouraging. Once again, however, the translator’s theology, not the original lyrics, are driving the carol’s rendering into English. 

Lost in translation is the sinful pride of humanity for which Christ came to die as an atoning sacrifice. But by eliminating the reference to human brokenness, the good news is not as good as it could be. For example, it’s certainly amazing that a holy God would befriend sinful people, but that’s amazing precisely because in our natural state, we were first his enemies (cf. Rom 5:8).

What the translator did is what so many people try to do today—keep the good news of the gospel while eliminating the bad news that it answers. But if there’s no bad news, what is it that makes the good news good? The lack of a contrast renders the word “good” almost meaningless in such a context. It’s like the medical community announcing a great cure for some disease nobody has. So what?

Christmas is the announcement that God has a great cure for the spiritual disease everyone suffers from—the disease called sin. It’s a condition that manifests itself preeminently in human pride, as the author originally wrote. And pride needs to be confronted by the preaching of the gospel. So, yes, God knows our need, and let’s not minimize that need. By properly understanding it, we better appreciate God’s solution for it, and the lengths to which he went to deliver it to us on that first Christmas.

“He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” Our passages from Hebrews 2 and Hebrews 4 bear that out. God cares about our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our spiritual needs. Indeed, Christmas shows that God cares about our every need. He is attentive to our condition because he loves us. And his love for us is why he sent us his Son (John 3:16).

That’s why Jesus came. He would go on to suffer and die in our place on the cross. He made our hell his so that he could make his heaven ours. Our response of faith to such amazing grace is to “walk as Jesus walked” in this regard. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward other people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We serve humanity because the ultimate human served us. To our weakness that ultimate human—Jesus—is no stranger. So let us not be a stranger to him.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 2: And the Soul Felt Its Worth (Matthew 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12)

Do you feel valuable? Significant? Important? Not in the sense of an over inflated ego or an attitude of superiority toward others—but in the sense that you matter, that your presence here on Earth is significant, that when you make a footprint in the sand it means something?

We meet people on a regular basis who are down on themselves, down on hope, and down on life. And, really, all of us have some regrets, disappointments, failures, and wrong turns that we’ve made in our day. Consequently, as life unfolds, we sometimes feel used, abused, abandoned, and confused. We feel cheapened. Sometimes we even feel worthless.

Life has a way of leaving its skid marks on our soul. It has a way of drawing its map on our face, and those lines cut deeply—not only into the skin, but into the heart. Sometimes it’s because other people have been cruel to us. Sometimes it’s because life has simply dealt us an unfair hand. Sometimes it’s because we ourselves have made poor choices.

We get involved in worthless pursuits, and over time we feel worthless ourselves. As it says in verse 1 of “O Holy Night,” “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” Sometimes it gets so bad for us personally, we don’t even feel valuable to God any more, the one who made us. We say things like…

  • “God could never love me.”
  • “God could never be pleased with me.”
  • “After what I’ve done, God could never consider me valuable.”

Such thoughts are understandable, but they’re also wrong. Three times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus states that human beings are “valuable” (Matt 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12). Moreover, the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. I first learned that lesson on eBay about 10 years ago. I was trying to get a few things from my childhood Christmas—silly decorations, like ShinyBrite Christmas ornaments, little red pixie dolls, Santa pins with noses that light up when you pull the string. I kept getting outbid, so I wound up going to my maximum bid right away. I refused to be outbid by anybody! 

Now, all of those objects were old, dirty, and defective, and probably meaningless to most people—but I was willing to pay top dollar for them. Why? Because I wanted them. They were valuable to me. If the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it, then look at what God himself was willing to pay for us. When we begin to do that, we quickly realize that God could not have paid a higher price for us than he did.

God the Father bankrupted heaven for us on that first Christmas. That’s why Christmas happened in the first place. God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. We can all be glad the song doesn’t end with, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” It goes on to say, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Take a listen to this message, and dare to believe that your soul can feel its worth, too!

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

He Gives Me Breath…and Takes My Breath Away

“Yahweh.”

It’s the personal name of God (Exod 3:14). 

It comes from the Hebrew verb “to be”—the verb of existence.

In context, it refers to the true and living God—the self-existent God who rescues his people and owes his dependence to no one and no thing. 

God just is.

And was.

And always will be.

God says, “My name is I AM.”

You are not a God created by human hands
You are not a God dependent on any mortal man
You are not a God in need of anything we can give
By Your plan, that’s just the way it is

You are God alone from before time began
You were on Your throne
You are God alone and right now
In the good times and bad
You are on Your throne
And you are God alone

We’re not really sure how “Yahweh” was pronounced—and it was seldom pronounced out of reverence for ha shem, “the name.”

But it was something approximating breath.

The sound of breath.

Breathing.

To say God’s personal name is to sound like you’re breathing.

Like you’re being.

Like you’re being a human being. 

So, go ahead. Take a breath. 

In and out. 

Do it again. 

In and out.

It’s something we do about 24,000 times a day—unless you’re just a few days old. Then it’s even more.

I was reminded of that when I got to hold Samuel for the first time last week. It was an indescribable joy to hear him breathe and watch him sleep.

Short rapid breaths.

In and out.

Each one softly stating the name of God—“Yahweh”—the God who knit him together in his mother’s womb (Ps 139:13).

Every single breath is a light movement of air, wind, spirit, ruach, pneuma—praising the self-existent God who is.

The self-existent God who beautifully creates in his own image.

You give life, You are love
You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore
Every heart that is broken

Great are You, Lord

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You only

Even better is watching Samuel when he’s awake. Looking around. Watching me. Watching others. Watching his fingers. Exploring his brand-new world.

Crying.

Oh, there’s lots of crying. 

Stronger movements of air, wind, spirit, ruach, pneuma—praising the God who is.

The God who beautifully creates in his own image.

The deepest praise can come through the hardest tears.

And all of it comes from the breath of God.

“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7).

Every moment thereafter, we say his name.

“Yahweh.” 

“Yahweh.” 

“Yahweh.”

In and out. 

Out and in.

In our waking and our sleeping.

In our coming and our going.

“Yahweh.”

“Yahweh.”

“Yahweh.”

This is life.

And when I think about all this, it takes my breath away.

But only for a moment.

To stop breathing permanently is to stop saying, “Yahweh.” 

To stop breathing permanently is to die.

Think of it! Death is so pathetic it cannot praise God. It cannot say his name.

Even a newborn can do that!

Poor death. He seems so strong, but a baby can best him.

Little Samuel can best him.

But death gets all of us in the end, doesn’t he? 

He comes to where we are, and we stop breathing.

So, is Death the final victor? Will he succeed in getting us to stop saying “Yahweh” forever?

Will he prevail in getting us to stop praising God just by breathing?

Will the silence of the grave mock the God who is and was and will be? The God of life?

No.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).

But then—in resurrection life—Jesus breathed again.

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia! 
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia! 
Dying once our souls to save, Alleluia! 
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia! 

The Son of God is still breathing today.

In fact, he will never not breathe again. He is life itself. 

“Before Abraham was born,” said Jesus, “I AM” (John 8:58). Like Father, like Son!

Indeed, Jesus breathes on his creation to give us new life.

Eternal life.

“Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).

The holy air, wind, spirit, ruachpneuma—that which praises the self-existent God who is. 

The self-existent God who beautifully RE-creates in his own image.

That’s why Samuel takes my breath away, too.

He’s being, and breathing, and praising the God of life.

So, I breathe in.

And I breathe out.

And with every breath, I praise the Lord.

I just can’t help it.

O Holy Night, Part 1: From Muddled Mess to Beauty (Isaiah 40:1-5, 61:1-3)

The hauntingly tender Christmas carol “O Holy Night” has a strange and fascinating history. Indeed, the version we have in our hymnbooks today was the result of a joint effort among individuals who would by no stretch be considered orthodox Christians. 

  • The lyrics were written by a lapsed Catholic.
  • The score was written by a non-practicing Jew.
  • The piece was first sung in public by a popular opera singer.
  • The English translation came from a transcendentalist who denied basic biblical doctrine.
  • The official church hierarchy originally opposed the song even though congregations loved it and demanded that it be sung.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how this alluring carol came to our ears today. Yet for all the twists and turns in its strange and bumpy journey—not to mention its wildly loose translation into English—the result is truly beautiful. In fact, it’s just not a Christmas Eve service if we don’t sing “O Holy Night.”

The carol itself, then, can be seen as a helpful illustration of life itself. We, too, experience many zigs and zags on the way to our divinely intended destination. But God can take the broken pieces of our lives and shape them into a beautiful mosaic.

We do much the same with stained glass windows. We gather sharp and broken pieces of colored glass and fit them together with design and intentionality to tell the Jesus story. The God of the universe does the same with his people. He tells the story of Jesus and his love through the order and design he brings to our chaotic lives. God’s gracious work in us is “a thrill of hope” for which “the weary world rejoices.”

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Frost Killed My Zinnias (and Other Updates)

  1. 1. I started watching Chernobyl with my son. It’s a heartbreaking mini-series about the accident that took place in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. It was the worst disaster of its kind in terms of cost and casualties. The slow release of information (and misinformation) made it hard to know what was really going on. I was too young (or maybe too aloof) at the time to care, so this series has been a real eye opener. In three and a half decades, the mainstream media in this country have managed to surpass the wretchedness of the old Soviet propaganda machine. Three cheers, then,  for the internet—although this medium can feature its own heartbreaks from time to time. At least we can filter it out as needed.

2. I recently read that Tony nominee Andrea McArdle, who starred as Broadway’s original orphan Annie, has joined the cast of NBC’s Annie Live! I wasn’t enamored with that particular musical, but I was a major McArdle fan back in the day. She was amazing in Rainbow, where she played the incomparable Judy Garland in the star’s early years breaking into the entertainment industry. After hearing McArdle sing, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” I became a fan for life. Maybe it was the mood I was in at the time, but it struck a chord. There’s a low-quality clip of it below, but it still illustrates “the little girl with a big voice.” I’m struck by the nuance and restraint she demonstrates in the piece, knowing she can belt with the best of them. McArdle will play the role of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the live musical, set to air on December 2 (SamJam’s anticipated birthday).

3. I dropped major hints to my MIL (via my daughter) about a gift book I’d love to read over Christmas break. It’s The Mystical Nature of Light: Divine Paradox of Creation by Avraham Arieh Trugman. I’ve always been tantalized by the ontology of light. What exactly is it—a wave or a particle? Physicists tell us it displays the properties of both; hence, the wave-particle duality of light theory. Science can take us little further than that. Relatedly, one can ask, “Is Jesus human (a particle) or divine (a wave)?” Scripture says he displays the properties of both. No wonder, then, he called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). If scientists can propagate their duality theory of light with impunity, theologians can have our hypostatic union without fear of any justified riposte. Moreover, Einstein showed us that waves and particles are related. I suspect that’s why ontology always breaks down at some point; this world is a relational word, created by a relational God. Things only exist in relation to other things. Interestingly enough, George Whitefield once said, “Jesus was God and man in one person, that God and man might be happy together again.” Spot on. (Oh, that all the waves and particles in this world could relate to each other as they were meant to!)

4. They say that doctoral students start resenting their dissertation topics after a while. I’m not there yet, but I can understand the sentiment. I spent the day translating passages from the Mishnah, and tomorrow I need to make an attempt at translating a certain Syriac text. (I’m using the word “translate” very loosely here, as my Syriac is pretty dreadful.) It’s just the price of doing a deep dive on a single issue. The research is fun, but pulling it all together in an academic way is tedious and tiring. After it’s all finished, I’ll share some of my findings. I am blown away by the new things I’ve been learning.

5. My Thursday students loved our MBTI unit. Their favorite part—of all things—was the Jane Austen chart. They also appreciated how the instrument explains, to some extent, the different Christian spiritualities we find throughout the Body of Christ. (See below.) In the end, MBTI can be a helpful tool, but there’s more to who we are than these 16 categories. Tastebuds come to mind—but that’s another post. 🙂

  • The SP Temperament = “Artisan”
  • The SP Spirituality = “Franciscan”
  • The NT Temperament = “Rational”
  • The NT Spirituality = “Thomistic”
  • The SJ Temperament = “Guardian”
  • The SJ Spirituality = “Ignatian”
  • The NF Temperament = “Idealist”
  • The NJ Spirituality = “Augustinian”

6. The frost killed my zinnias. R.I.P., beautiful ones. See you next year—in another form. Hope springs eternal.

7. We’ll be singing a new (to us) worship song this Sunday, “King of Kings” by Brooke Ligertwood and Hillsong Worship. It’s rich and beautiful.

Turning the Tables, Part 8: Adjusting the Guest List (Luke 14:1-24)

After the near “food fight” we saw during the last meal Jesus attended at the home of a prominent religious leader, another Pharisee is brave enough to have Jesus over to his place on a separate occasion. Once again, Jesus serves up a spiritual meal in his teaching, and it’s piping hot for those who are listening.

In this encounter, we see that Jesus stands against religion-based unkindness, hostility, and neglect of the needy. Moreover, he frowns upon self-promotion, self-exaltation, and jockeying for position. Most prominently, Jesus detests using disadvantaged people for personal gain rather than loving them as they are.

By chance (or perhaps as a trap) a man with an illness enters the house. Typically an unwelcomed guest, this man is now welcomed by Jesus who heals him. Jesus then takes the opportunity—by way of a parable—to teach the inhospitable Pharisees about the generous hospitality of God’s Son for anyone who will accept his invitation. Through his actions and teachings, Jesus demonstrates gospel opportunities increase in proportion to our gracious hospitality. 

Quite significantly, on the timeline of Jesus’ life, we’re not too far from the cross. The crucifixion is starting to come into view, so this argument between Jesus and the religious leaders has been going on for several years now. And yet, Jesus is not finished dialoguing with them. We might have been, but not Jesus. Whatever frustration he has with these cold-hearted religionists, he seizes yet another opportunity to make the gospel known to them. He’s making it known to us, too.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 6: When Jesus Burns the Meal (Luke 11:37-54)

The problem with legalism is that it doesn’t feel like sin. It feels like holiness. It feels like true commitment and genuine devotion. It feels like something God should be pleased with. That’s why religious people are especially prone to it. Their perceived sense of spiritual goodness and moral superiority become an obstacle to receiving God’s grace (as well as giving it to others). Besides, they don’t really think they need it—at least not as much as other people do. In Jesus’s mind, however, legalism is just an ugly sin to be avoided.

Surprisingly, Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than any other group. They were constantly at odds throughout the Gospels. In the end, it wasn’t the “general issue sinners” who put Jesus on the cross; it was the legalists—those overly zealous, hyper-critical religious folks who looked down on everybody else. Later, the Apostle Paul had a similar experience. The legalists dogged his every step, distorted his message of grace, and then eventually beheaded him.

Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has shared lavish grace and gentle correction with those at his table. This meal, however, shows us something different. Jesus unleashes his anger on the religious leaders of the first century, and it’s not pleasant. In fact, the encounter is downright confrontational. We might say Jesus “burned the meal” this time. But why? What made Christ so angry that he would issue six “woes” to the religious leaders he was breaking bread with? The passage tells us that Jesus gets “steamed” when:

  • we value external ceremonies over internal cleansing. (37-41)
  • our religious traditions become more important than God’s priorities. (42)
  • we’re driven more by the praise of others than by the praise of God. (43)
  • we lead others away from God and nobody seems to realize it. (44)
  • we raise people’s moral standards but offer no help to meet them. (45-46)
  • we claim to honor the very people whose message we violate. (47-51)
  • we obscure the beauty of God’s revelation with our own distortions of it. (52)

Sadly, the Pharisees didn’t see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. They saw themselves as jolly good fellows who kept the law; therefore, God should accept them. To make matters worse, they imposed their “fence laws” (i.e., their own tedious additions and traditions to God’s simple laws) on everybody else—which just made life drudgery for everyone. They then looked down on people who didn’t keep the fence laws like they did, thus making them feel inferior to the religious elite. 

That’s why Jesus saves his most stinging rebukes for the hyper-religious. They, more than anybody else, misrepresent the gracious heart of God. Even today, Pharisees offer a religion of “DO!” while Jesus offers a relationship of “DONE!” That’s why he announced from his cross, “It is finished.” Jesus paid it all, and now he gives salvation full and free to all who know they need his grace. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

Turning the Tables, Part 5: Hospitality at Mary and Martha’s House

We might have expected that with Jesus in their midst, Mary and Martha would have been able to contain their spat with each other, but they don’t. In fact, it’s the very presence of this special guest that gives rise to one sister’s annoyance with the other. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” How will Jesus respond? Will he take up Martha’s cause against Mary? The answer may surprise us.

In preparation for Jesus’s visit, Martha has pushed herself beyond all reasonable limits, and now her mood is affecting the whole house. Her irritation has a good chance of spoiling the party. It’s not just the stove that’s hot; her attitude is boiling, too. Consequently, everything is not served with the hot sauce of exasperation. When v. 40 says that Martha “came to him,” the English translation hides the force of the original, which means something like, “Martha exploded out of the kitchen.” Not only did she salt the casserole, she salted the atmosphere, too, and now everything stings.

Why not tiptoe into the living room and whisper, “Mary, could you come and help me, please?” No, Martha has to make a scene. She has to grandstand. She has to inflict her mood on everyone else around her. She has to let everyone know how hurt she is. She has to try to get Jesus to use his authority to help her get what she wants. And in the process, she insults him with her question, “Don’t you care?” Worse yet, Martha dares to give Jesus—the Lord—a command!

As a result, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” It’s interesting that in Luke 10, we have one woman telling another woman to get back in the kitchen, and Jesus says no! Martha’s attitude is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Jesus’s attitude is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Good service with a bad spirit is bad service. Nobody wants it.

Jesus doesn’t fault Martha for her service but for overdoing it. Sometimes the burdens we place on ourselves don’t come from Jesus; they come from our own twisted motives. These motives may cause us to lash out at other people. Jesus’s response to Martha is a good reminder that busyness in the King’s business is no reason to neglect the King. Mary has chosen the better course—to take the posture of a disciple and listen to Jesus’s teachings. It’s a course we need to take, too.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.