Today marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays). As we approach Holy Week 2021, we ponder our spiritual brokenness and earthly mortality. We give ourselves to humble mourning and repentance for our contrbution to the death of Christ on the cross. As Paul Tripp notes, “We should be a rejoicing people. But this side of our final home, our rejoicing should be mixed with mourning as we witness, experience, and, sadly, give way to the power of evil.” We don’t have to look very far to see that we live, work, and relate in a world that has been twisted and bent by sin. Some of it our own.
God’s Cosmos Is Beautiful and Broken
And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:25
“…cursed is the ground” (Gen 3:17).
“…it will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen 3:18).
“…creation was subjected to frustration” (Rom 8:20).
“…its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21).
“…groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22).
God’s Image Bearers Are Beautiful and Broken
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31
“…every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
“… I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).
“…there is not a righteous man on earth who…never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
“…all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt” (Ps 14:3a).
“…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3b).
“…all we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53:6)
“…all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
“…if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
“…if we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar” (1 John 1:10).
“…tears…death…mourning…crying…pain” (Rev 21:4).
“…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19).
God’s Son Is Beautiful and Broken—For Us
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. John 3:16
“…Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
“…Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
“…Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).
“…God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).
“…who gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4).
“…who gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
“…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
“…who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).
“…Christ suffered for you” (1 Pet 2:21).
“…Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18).
God’s Gift of Repentance Turns Us from Broken to Beautiful
In repentance and rest is your salvation. Isaiah 30:15
David’s famous prayer of repentance, which the church typically reads and practices on Ash Wednesday, demonstrates the beauty of the king’s brokenness before God. My analysis of his literary artistry is as follows:
The addendum (vv. 18-19) was possibly added later to correct the potential misimpression that sacrifices were no longer important or necessary in Israel.
Ken Miller writes, “David’s plea in Psalm 51 comes from someone one who has honestly faced himself for who he really is and what he has really done. No excuses, no explanations, no blame placed on circumstances or on other people. He knows he has committed sin and wants only to be honest and acknowledge what God already knows. He cannot have peace, he cannot please God, he cannot be of meaningful service unless God washes him and restores him completely. Far from David’s mind is any idea that God is lucky to have him on his side, that God should take what he gets and be satisfied, grateful for the assistance he has received.”
Miller is right. David came clean with God and thus got cleaned by God.
We fall down in repentance only to be lifted up in grace.
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Psalm 3:3
God does this to
“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” Isaiah 61:3
This is falling upward. And the best is yet to come.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:1-2
American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.
Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.
Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:
The Puritan author John Bunyan
The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
The hymn writer William Cowper
We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different).
In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it?
The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)
Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?
While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.
The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.
But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light.
Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.
Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.
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Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
“And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
Our neighbors across the street have a nativity scene in their front yard. It’s simple, wooden, monochrome, and two-dimensional. It’s understated, sparsely lit, and lovely in its own way. It’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can go by it every day and not be jolted by the shock of what it communicates.
A manger? Seriously? Is that where they placed the baby Jesus after his delivery was complete and his cord was cut? A place where animals nuzzled their feed just moments prior and insects foraged for their own microsopic morsels? It’s a bit crude, don’t you think? As the old carol says, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” The temptation is to scoff at such an account.
But if the Son of God came into our world two thousand years ago as a baby—as a real person joined to our humanity—and his first bassinet on the planet was a feeding trough for animals, might there be something in that detail that needs our attention? Might there be more here than meets the eye? What might God be trying to say to us through the startling semiotics of this well-known scene in my neighbor’s yard?
Whatever it is, not only did it make sense to the shepherds, it set them into motion. The Christ child as described—swaddled in strips of cloth and lying in a manger—was a meaningful “sign” to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth (Luke 2:17). What are we to make, then, of the swaddling clothes and the manger bed, which figure so prominently in the original Christmas story?
We’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with Jewish prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:5-6). The word Bethlehem means “house of bread,” or “house of food.” The Arabic cognate means “house of meat” or “house of flesh.” It may have been known to the ancients as something of a food court—a corridor of lodging and hospitality for travelers. King David was born there a thousand years before Jesus. David, of course, was Israel’s leader who established the temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built under the reign of Solomon, his son.
The temple was the center of worship and sacrifice in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on the high holy days. Where did all those lambs come from? They came from the fields in Bethlehem, located about 4.5 miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless—without blemish or imperfection—or they could not be offered at the temple.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet when they’re born, and they can slip and slide quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of soft hay so it wouldn’t fall and bruise itself. If they did, they couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths used to wrap the newborn lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white garments worn by Jewish priests during their daily rituals. After regular use, those garments got so covered in blood, filth, and dirt, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t just get rid of their old robes. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them. The U.S. military has a similar view of old flags. They don’t just throw them away; they remove them from regular use with certain ceremonies and procedures for honorable disposal. The same was true with 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. They would go on to see a human baby wrapped in blood-stained priest garments. To a Bethlehem shepherd, such a sight would be 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’ll be a bloodied priest himself someday in order to accomplish your salvation. He’s the child born to die a sacrificial death.”
God was speaking their 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.
First-century mangers may have been made out of wood, but numerous stone mangers have been found in the region. As is the case today today, mangers served as food bins for animals. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the infancy narratives do we read that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave. The stable-cave setting is inferred because of the biblical references to a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). A better understanding of first-century culture makes the stable-cave setting unnecessary, though it certainly remains a possibility.
We need to go on a myth-busting journey here to sharpen our focus. The Bible neither states nor implies that Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, or that they had just barely made it before the final contractions. Such ideas find their origin not in the Gospels but in a third-century novella. The myth has been perpetuated in stories, art, and film ever since (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth, The Nativity Story, etc.).
In many films today, Mary is “ten centimeters dilated and ready to push” while still riding on the donkey (also not in the text) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But Scripture and logic both tell us that Mary and Joseph had sufficient time to find suitable lodging and make preparations for the delivery. “While they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6, KJV). That is, at some point during the unspecified period of time that Mary and Joseph had already been in Bethlehem, Mary came to term and delivered her baby.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives (even distant ones) to lodge with inside “the town of David.” If my wife had ever gone back to a certain region in Hickory, North Carolina while eight or nine months pregnant and said, “I’m Lester Taylor’s granddaughter, and I need a place to stay to deliver my baby,” she would have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding a sympathetic relative to take her in. (Lester Taylor was a well-known farmer in the area, and he had fourteen children back in the day, many of whom still live in that town.)
New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that pregnant women receive special attention in nearly every culture, especially if they’re about ready to deliver their first child. Furthermore, the honor of all Bethlehem was at stake in caring for a pregnant woman from out of town. Given the unwritten hospitality rules and customs of the Middle East in ancient times, rejection of a pregnant woman is unthinkable.
But wasn’t there “no room” for the holy family in any of the local hotels (cf. Luke 2:7)? That’s a vast over-reading (and therefore a misreading) of the story. The text does not mention an inn keeper who turned away Joseph and Mary. Moreover, note the layout of a typical Middle Eastern home in the first century:
What’s labeled as a “stable” on the left end of this diagram is similar to our attached garages today—an extra room built off the side of a house where farm equipment and other household items could be stored. The house itself features a main “family room” and a “guest room.”
Animals were typically kept in the house at night to provide extra heat, prevent theft, and keep the elements off of them. For example, we read in 1 Samuel 28:24, “Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house….” Additionally, consider Jephthah’s famous vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). Jephthah fully expected an animal to come out of his house, not a person.
Luke 2:7 reads, “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma].” A kataluma is a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11), not an “inn.” A pandocheion is an “inn” (cf. Luke 10:34). That’s not the word used in the infancy narrative.
It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were granted the use of someone’s family room or “garage” in a house, since the guest room was already in use, possibly due to the influx of people because of the census. A manger was available, then, as a cradle in the house. So, Jesus may have been born in a garage-like room attached to a house, with mangers setting around for the animals sheltering in place overnight.
Nothing in this reconstruction minimizes the shock of the Christ child being laid in a manger. It’s still a feeding trough for animals. It’s still a crude bassinet in a crowded, makeshift room, not a satin-sheet crib in a royal palace. The point is that God ensured the safe delivery of his own Son on earth and sent a powerful message to those who first saw it. What was that message?
Christmas means the end of haughtiness. It’s the end of snobbery. It’s the end of pretense. It’s the end of airbrushing ourselves and preening for the camera or the academy. Oswald Chambers once said: “Beware of posing as a profound person—God became a baby.” There’s a powerful message in the manger, and it’s this: God is humble. God is gentle. God is winsome. God is relational. What’s more accessible and unassuming than an infant? What’s more inviting and endearing than a newborn baby?
Here, too, God’s wisdom is on full display. People want to be attracted to faith, not coerced into it. They want something that’s beautiful, true, and good, not pompous, overbearing, and intimidating. Bethlehem’s manger gives them all that and more. It’s the most disarming invitation there is to genuine faith. Besides, religion says, “Work your way up to God.” Christmas says: “God has worked his way down to you.” All the way down. The Prince of Peace comes in peace. He comes as a baby. And that must mean the end of all pomposity on our part. God doesn’t need to show off, so neither do his people.
During World War II, a man named John Blanchard was a lieutenant in the Navy. At one point he checked out a book from the library that had previously belonged to somebody else. Even though he liked the book, the thing he appreciated most were the handwritten notes in the margins. A woman who lived in New York City had written all of her own notes in the white space, and Blanchard loved those notes.
He was intrigued by their wisdom and insight, and he started getting attracted to the mind of the person who wrote them. Her name was on the inside of the book, so, with a little bit of effort, he discovered where she lived, and he wrote to her. Her name was Hollis.
During the war, they wrote back and forth. They had wonderful correspondence, and it turned into a deep friendship. Blanchard had the utmost admiration for her, but he also had an imagination of what she looked like. He asked her for a picture, but she never sent one.
Finally, the war was over, and Blanchard was coming home. He had arranged to meet Hollis at Grand Central Station at a particular spot at 7:00 p.m. Her last letter said, “Hey, we don’t know what each other looks like, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand at a particular place, and you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a great big red rose on my lapel.”
Blanchard got out of the train, walked over to this spot, and he saw two women there. One was young and beautiful, and the other was much older, much heavier, and much dowdier than he had imagined. That was the woman wearing the big red rose. Blanchard stopped in his tracks. As he waited there, the pretty woman walked away, and the woman with the red rose on her lapel stood there looking for somebody.
Blanchard said, “I was split. I felt choked up by the bitterness of my disappointment, but so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had connected with mine and upheld me during the war, I thought, ‘Well, this won’t be love and romance, but it could be something precious, maybe a friendship for which I would always be grateful.’” So, he swallowed hard and summoned up his courage. He walked over to the woman and said, “Hello, I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard. You must be Hollis. I’m so glad to meet you. May I take you to dinner?”
She smiled and said, “Son, I have no idea who you are or what this is all about, but the young lady who was just standing here beside me—who walked away—she said I should wear this big red rose on my lapel. And only if you asked me to dinner should I tell you she’s waiting for you in that restaurant across the street.”
Blanchard knew what was most important in a person—not external beauty, however lovely it may be—but a beauty deeper down. A beauty of soul. A beauty of personhood in its totality.
The beauty of Jesus is not the beauty of this world. It’s actually better. Deeper. Richer. More authentic. Underneath the crudeness of the manger is the beautiful, disarming humility of God.
“Why lies he in such mean estate?” Because God doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants to have a relationship with us—freely chosen and warmly embraced. And nothing communicates that truth better than a feeding trough. So, come to the manger that holds the Messiah. He’s in a food bin so we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
May every nativity set we see this year jolt us a bit rather than just blending into the background. God has something to say to us through it. Something that can make our own lives beautiful, too.
Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn king.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; christianitytoday.com; israelmyglory.org; sketch derived from Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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.
 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.
 Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 90.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 91.
You have kept track of my every toss and turn; You have collected my tears in your wineskin. You have recorded each one in your ledger. Psalm 56:8
Many more tears will wash my face,
But each one a promise that God is mine;
For only the breakable heart can break,
And show forth the gold of image divine.
Love is exalted in grief-stained loss,
And hope brought near to vanquish the pain;
In weakness a Lamb has led the assault
On darkness of soul to Paradise gained.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must kneel at the Savior’s throne.
Heroes indeed are my wisest friends
Who embrace their wounds as sovereignty’s call;
Fighting for courage when the mind is bent
By bitter trials where God seems small.
Yet true faith is strong, a resilient force,
Which anguish of soul lacks power to kill;
On earth, even now, every scar and thorn
Is scoffed by a Tomb lying empty still.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must grieve at the Savior’s throne.
Soon we’ll see Him face to face.
Soon we’ll we understand the grace
That led us on a path of loss—
A path that vindicates our cross.
Dreaming of Eden, longing for home, Screaming for comfort and striving alone. Then in breaks the angel of Easter surprise, And suffering must die at the Savior’s throne.
Many more tears will wash my face,
But numbered tears only can have their place.
Numbered tears only can have their place.
An Exegetical Note
Psalm 56:8 presents a translational challenge in the original Hebrew. My own resolution to the difficulty is as follows:
“You have kept count of my tossings (nôḏ)” = (1) moving back and forth, wandering, as of an aimless fugitive; or (2) lamenting, mourning. The first sense yields the translation “my tossings” (ESV, NRSV) and “my wanderings” (NASB); the second sense yields the translation “my sorrows” (JB, NLT) or “my lament” (NIV). Both senses can fit the larger context of Psalm 56, though the first seems more likely
“List (śîm) my tears on your scroll (nōʾḏ)” = set, put, place, install; set down, arrange. But where are the tears “placed” or “set down”? The word nōʾḏ usually refers to a leather bottle (i.e., a wineskin or waterskin), hence the NIV footnote and other translations: “Put (śîm) my tears in your wineskin (nōʾḏ).” But some have suggested that in this occurrence, nōʾḏ should be translated “scroll” or “leather scroll” because: (1) there is a documentation/record keeping motif in the three lines of this verse, with the word “scroll” being a corresponding element to the word “book” in the next line of the parallelism; and (2) there is no record from the ancient biblical world of a practice of keeping tears in a bottle.
To these objections one could reply: (1) the word nōʾḏ is translated as “scroll” nowhere else in the Old Testament; (2) there is a poetic quality to the image of “tears in a bottle” that would need no literal attestation for it to be valid; (3) recording tears on a scroll would be just as poetic as putting tears in a bottle—“tears” being a metonymy for all kinds of negative personal thoughts and feelings that God records; indeed, tears are poetically “in the book/record” in the next line of the parallelism; and (4) HALOT cites a later use of “the little vase for tears mentioned in fairy-stories, Meuli Romanica Helvetica 20 (1943):763ff.”
The psalmist is asking God to transform his situation in the first verse of the center section of the chiasm (i.e., v. 7). Might he not also be asking God to transform his thoughts and/or emotions in the second verse of the center section (i.e., v. 8)—just as liquid is transformed into wine inside a wineskin? Various translations go in this direction:
“Put my tears in your bottle.” (ESV)
“Put my tears in Your bottle.” (NASB)
“You have collected all my tears in your bottle.” (NLT)
“Collect my tears in your wineskin.” (JB)
The JB captures it well, I think, and the implications are devotionally rich. Not only does God notice his people tears, he collects them and transforms them (over time) into new wine. By trusting in God, then, life can go from salty to sweet, from fear to freedom, from anxiety to joy. David experienced these transformations firsthand. So can we.
“I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.” (Peter Nivio Zarlenga)
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)
“If we have learned anything else it is that the ideas of the poets and artists penetrate where everything else has failed.” (Norman Cousins)
“The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual.” (A. W. Tozer)
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” (Michelangelo)
One of the first things we learn about God in Scripture is that he is creative (Gen 1:1). He is both original and originating. Setting aside the important question of why there is something rather than nothing, the universe as an object to be observed bears the marks of order, design, artistry, and imaginativeness. Have you ever seen a giraffe up close? Or an otter? Or a platypus? Can all such oddities be chalked up to biological happenstance, or is God is the original “imagineer”? It is reasonable to conclude the latter.
Moreover, as human beings made in the image of God, we are people who can create. Don’t pass over that truth too quickly. God creates people who can create! Indeed, we often find some of our greatest fulfillment in life by creating things—songs, poems, paintings, novels, sculptures, clothing, cabinetry, etc. By cultivating our inner lives—by nurturing and living out the image of God in us—we can use our imaginations for the glory of God, leading to much personal satisfaction as a byproduct. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are a perfect case in point. Lewis was a gifted and effective “imagineer” for the gospel, and writing children’s stories was a great personal delight to him.
The Bible itself bears witness to the power of the imagination:
The delightful description of growing older in Ecclesiastes 12
The curious visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John
The earthy parables of the kingdom by Jesus in the Gospels
The heartening portrayal of the New Jerusalem as a radiant bride in Revelation
The list is long. Consider the story of David and Absalom in 2 Samuel 17. David has been forced out of Jerusalem by Absalom, who now possesses his father’s throne, wives, and leadership of the army. But in the midst of his achievement, he has a problem. What should he do with his father-king who has escaped into the wilderness? Absalom solicits advice from two sources:
His advice is “left brain” (i.e., objective, precise, logical).
His emphasis is on information, analysis, the factual.
His approach is to be a conduit of information.
His message is “heard.”
His advice is right brain (i.e., subjective, affective, emotive).
His emphasis is on the hearer (“you” . . . “your”).
His approach is to be a painter of word pictures
“as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs”
“whose heart is like the heart of a lion”
“will melt with fear”
“sand on the seashore”
“dew settles on the ground”
His message is “seen and felt.”
Absalom and his advisors like Ahithophel’s plan, but Absalom still wants to hear Hushai’s counsel. When Hushai is finished offering his (more imaginative) presentation, everyone regards his plan as superior to Ahithophel’s, and that is the plan they follow.
Had they followed Ahithophel’s advice, they would have routed David. Instead, David’s life is spared (17:14). This turn of events is a fulfillment of David’s prayer that God would turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness (cf. 2 Sam 15:31).
Clearly, the impact of a presentation laced with imagination can be profound. Like any other capacity we have, imagination can be corrupted, but as A. W. Tozer noted (above), a cleansed imagination has much power.
Jesus himself made use of the imaginative to communicate his message. His parables, for example, were not “Bible stories” when they were first told; they were short, simple, earthy stories invented to communicate important spiritual truths. Regarding these parables, Haddon Robinson writes, “[Jesus] didn’t read them out of a book. He made them up on the spot. He created them out of life. He used his imagination.” In other words, Jesus was not merely propositional in his teaching ministry. He was not static, flat, dull, or uninteresting. He was dynamic and pulsated with divine life. Michael Card, in his book Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity, describes the famous scene in John 8 where the woman is caught in the act of adultery, and Jesus curiously stoops down to write on the ground:
“It was art and it was theater at the same time, but it was more. It was what he did not say that spoke most powerfully to the mob that morning. It was a cup of cold water for a thirsty adulteress and an ice-cold drenching in the face to a group of angry Pharisees. To this day we have not the slightest idea what it was Jesus twice scribbled in the sand. By and large the commentaries have asked the wrong question through the ages. They labor over the content, over what he might have written. They ask what without ever realizing that the real question is why. It was not the content that mattered but why he did it. Unexpected. Irritating. Creative.”
Card goes on to suggest that Jesus’ stooping to write on the ground was his way of drawing the angry stares of the Pharisees and the nosey gawks of the crowd away from the woman and onto himself. The leers and hostility were now falling on him instead of the accused. That’s the gospel. Jesus became her substitute. It was an enacted parable of grace, verified by those climactic and memorable words, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone. . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
This re-presentation of the text is imagination at its finest, producing a true sense of wonder in the listeners. C. S. Lewis suggested that wonder is “the echo of a song the soul has not yet heard.” That is, it is a song coming to us from the Original Singer who sang all of creation into existence.
In his book Recapture the Wonder, Ravi Zacharias writes, “Wonder is that possession of the mind that enchants the emotions while never surrendering reason. . . . It interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the momentary vision exhaust the eternal.”
Let us, then, be “wonder-full” people. Let us keep creating good and beautiful things that speak well of our Creator, in whose image we are made. Let us imagineer our way through life.
Do they not have bones? Does gravity not apply? Are they not even human? The Chinese State Circus performance of Swan Lake is beyond amazing. I have never seen such daunting ballet lifts on stage before. Check out this 4-minute video clip and stand in awe. Then ask why it is you might be standing in awe.
I am awash in wonder every time I see this routine. But why? The German poet Rilke once went to a museum and effused over an ancient statue of Apollo. He was so captivated by the sculpture that when he got home, he wrote in his diary, “I must change my life.”
I find it significant that he didn’t write, “Wow, that was a great aesthetic experience I just had,” though it was. He didn’t write, “I was awestruck by the artistry of that piece,” though he was. No, he wrote, “I must change my life.”
Christian author Tim Keller argues that what Rilke was really saying—and what he went on to write in a poem containing the same expression—was this:
“Anything that really moves you, any great insight you ever get, any experience of beauty that really gets you at your core—it always makes you aware of the fact that you’re just a shadow of what you should be. You’re just a fraction of what you know you ought to be.”
While Rilke may have overstated his point a bit, most of us realize—when we’re completely honest with ourselves—that our lives would benefit by a series of significant changes. In the presence of great art, that realization is highlighted anew. We get a sense that we’re a long way away from what we could be as human beings.
At the same time, we’re not so far away that we can’t recognize flashes of beauty when we see them, or even consider what those flashes of beauty might be trying to teach us. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, put it like this:
“If you confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.”
Art’s task, says Kuyper, is to remind people where we came from and where we’re going. Our origin was the creative hand of God, and our destination is a complete and perfect restoration in him through Christ. In the meantime, all of us can enjoy the sheer beauty of a good performance, whatever our theological commitments may be.
With visions of those incredible Swan Lake dance moves in our minds, we can luxuriate in the grace of God that motivated King David to write:
“I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me” (Psalm 30:1).
Surely God’s “lifts” are at least as good as those of the Chinese State Circus.