Monday, December 28, 2015

This Baby

Luke wrote, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger...” There’s no mention of how much Jesus weighed, and how long he was, you know, the data we always ask for when a baby is born. There was no mention of whether he had his mother’s eyes. And maybe you have wondered like I have if God made Jesus to look like Joseph, even though he had none of Joseph’s genes in him at all. We won’t know until we get to heaven, but I think God did that. Maybe Jesus had Joseph’s chin. We don’t know and it doesn’t matter. There was a ridiculous article last week in the news about how scientists think they have figured out what Jesus looked like. Look, I know Jesus wasn’t lily white with blond hair and blue eyes. He was a Jew, born and raised in Israel. But scientists and others can guess all they like about what Jesus looked like, but the Bible gives us not one clue. In fact the Bible tells us nothing about his appearance, except what Isaiah wrote: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”

So, if you were going to cast someone in a movie to play Jesus, would you go for Gimli or Aragorn? John Rys-Davies or Viggo Mortensen? You’d have to go with Gimli, if you consider Isaiah’s prophecy.

Jesus’ looks notwithstanding, it is an amazing story, the appearance of God in human form. The account in the Gospel of Luke is one of the many examples in the biblical narrative that has a ring of truth and encourages us to believe it. Face it, if you were going to write a fictional account of the birth of the Savior of the world, who would his parents be? And where would he be born? You wouldn’t pick Joseph and Mary, a betrothed couple from Nazareth, he a carpenter and she a peasant girl. You wouldn’t decide to have animals as attendants, and a manger as the bassinet. You just wouldn’t. The one born to be King of kings and Lord of lords would have royal parents, or at least powerful and important ones, and he would be born in the finest house in the land, and be laid on a pillow made of silk, and have dozens of attendants to wait on him and make sure he needed nothing and wouldn’t even have reason to cry. A carpenter and his fiancĂ©e? A manger? No way. But friends, please don’t miss the point. Luke didn’t write it this way to make it sound true. He wrote it this way because it IS true.

I like the way Steven Curtis Chapman wrote about Jesus in his song, “This Baby:”

“Well, he cried when he was hungry, and did all the things that babies do; he rocked and he napped on his mother’s lap, and he wiggled and giggled and cooed. There were cheers when he took his first step, and tears when he got his first teeth; almost everything about this little baby seemed as natural as it could be. But this baby made the angels sing, and this baby made a new star shine in the sky, and this baby had come to change the world. This baby was God’s own son, this baby was like no other one, this baby was God with us, this baby was Jesus.”

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.

Monday, December 21, 2015

God sent forth his Son, the greatest gift of all

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

That is the meaning of Christmas. God sent his son to redeem us and to adopt us. Have you figured up how much you will spend on Christmas gifts this year? There’s an amount, right? You add it up and it may come to the estimated national average per household this year of $830 for Christmas gifts, still climbing out of the hole of 2008 when it dropped to $616. No matter what we spend, we all have to set spending limits, right? I remember our first Christmas when Cindy and I each took a 10-dollar bill, split up at the mall, and went off to find that “perfect” gift for $10 or less for each other. That Christmas was just as happy, just as blessed as all the rest.

God did not have a spending limit for the first Christmas. He spared no expense in creating the star that would be in place above Bethlehem at just the right time. He went all out in having Caesar Augustus plan a census for the whole Roman world to go to the city of their heritage so they could be registered. God did not skimp on birth announcements, either. He sent Gabriel, his best messenger angel to earth more than once. But all of that pales in comparison to what God actually gave the world. God sent forth his Son. His one and only son. Forget Hallmark. God sent the very best.

Read the rest of Galatians 4 for the incredible news that you can use. You and I were born slaves. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we are invited into a new relationship as a child of God and a joint heir with Jesus. But there’s a problem, for many who become sons continue to live as slaves, even though they know God and better still, are known BY God. Two weeks ago I sat with my family in the second row at a concert by Steven Curtis Chapman. There were a lot of people there who know Steven, but not personally. We know his music, know his face and know his testimony. I have met him once because I have the same friend named Larry that Steven wrote about in one of his songs. As I sat there that night I thought, how cool would it be if Steven recognized me and said, “Hey, is that you, Mark?” But he didn’t. He didn’t acknowledge me because he doesn’t know me. Shocker. But here’s the biggest shocker of all: GOD does know me. And He knows you, too.

I love the story of the wee little man named Zaccheus who climbed up a tree because he had heard of Jesus and wanted to get a glimpse of him. Imagine his surprise when Jesus called up to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus knew him by name, and more than that, Jesus asked Zaccheus to be a family member and a friend.

That is the meaning of Christmas. It is why we celebrate, and put manger scenes in our homes and churches. It is why we sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” and give gifts and get together with family and friends. It is because God sent His Son to redeem us, to adopt us, and to give us the greatest gift of all: himself.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Clearing the Roadblocks: Can We Trust the Bible? (Part 2)

Challenge: Everybody knows the Bible has been translated and re-translated so many times that we have no idea what the original authors actually wrote. And obviously there were urban legends and personal agendas that crept into these translations over the years too. The historical records have been so contaminated, how can you believe anything the Bible says?

In part 1 of this discussion, I laid the foundation for my argument and summarized it this way: 

"If Jesus was who he said he was and if he did what he said he came to do, then we can trust the Bible as God's very words. Jesus becomes the lynch-pin for the reliability, trustworthiness, and inspiration of the whole Bible. "

However, I concluded with three questions that I said we still need to answer in order to have confidence in the Bible, the first of which we will address today:

Did the gospel writers give us historically faithful reportage (Did they get Jesus right)?

In order to make the argument that they did not get Jesus right, one would have to say that the gospel writers either altered the accounts of Jesus unintentionally (they recorded misinformation) or intentionally (they lied). But the problem with either of these two options becomes apparent when you compare the four gospels.

The problem is that there is too much consistency for any of them to have gotten the information mistakenly wrong, yet too much variation in the reports for them to have lied in collusion.

Wait. What?

Yes, you heard me right. I am arguing that the similarities and the differences in the gospel accounts are both arguments for their authenticity. 

Actually, this was an argument made very compellingly by J. Warner Wallace in his book Cold-Case Christianity. As a cold-case detective (and a devout atheist), Wallace began evaluating the four eye-witness testimonies of the gospels from his particular expertise in detective work. What he discovered shocked him and sent him on a journey that eventually led him to reject his atheism and accept Christianity as historically true. Here were his findings:
"If it was God's desire to provide us with an accurate and reliable account of the life of Jesus, an account we could trust and recognize as consistent with other forms of eyewitness testimony, God surely accomplished it with the four gospel accounts. Yes, the accounts are messy. They are filled with idiosyncrasies and personal perspectives along with common retellings of familiar stories.  There are places where critics can argue that there appear to be contradictions, and there are places where each account focuses on something important to the author, while ignoring details of importance to other writers. But would we expect anything less from true, reliable eyewitness accounts? I certainly would not, based on what I've seen over the years.
"Surely these apparent 'contradictions' and curious peculiarities were present in the early texts and obvious to the earliest of Christians. The oldest gospel manuscripts we have display this sort of eyewitness variability, and there is no reason to think the originals were any less unique or idiosyncratic. The early believers could have destroyed all but one of the accounts, changed the conflicting details, or simply harmonized the Gospels. But these diverse accounts were preserved (as they are) because they are true; they display all the earmarks we would expect in true eyewitness testimony."

J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity pp. 82, 83
The Gospel accounts are not so varied as to be contradictory, nor are they so similar as to be a product of collusion (i.e. that the authors got together and "got their stories straight" before they wrote anything down).

Additionallyand not insignificantlythe Gospels are full of embarrassing details that the writers would have loved to omit if they were taking editorial liberties or making the accounts up wholesale. The disciples repeatedly come off as morons or worse (Jesus on one occasion even called Peter "Satan"). Most of Jesus' own family didn't believe his messianic claim (at least not until after the resurrection). And women were the first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb. These and many other inconvenient truths would be better left on the cutting room floor if the Gospel writers weren't aiming for historically faithful reportage.

On top of it all, we have record of only one of Jesus' disciples that did not die a martyr's death for the claims made about Jesus in the Gospels. So while someone might die believing a lie, no one dies for something they know to be a lie. All the available evidence supports the fact that all of the apostles died affirming the testimonies of the Gospels.

But the question still remains, even if the writers of the Gospels got Jesus right, did the copyists and our modern translations get the Gospels right? We'll address that next time...

Other posts in the Clearing the Roadblocks series:
Can We Trust The Bible (Part 1)
The Resurrection
Does God Care About Our Government?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Refugees, Terrorists, and Hypocrites.


They’d heard the whispers of genocide from the lips of the angel as he woke them from a deep sleep. How frantically would you pack if your baby had a price on His head? How many minutes would it take you to grab your child and run?

I wonder how much money they had on hand. I wonder how many of their belongings fit on the back of the donkey. I wonder if they got to kiss their parents goodbye? I wonder if they stepped out the door, clinging to this God-child, and paused under the doorframe, unsure of where to go.

I wonder if Mary cried as she looked back at the room where her Son had crawled, slept, laughed, and played; if she grieved the home where Jesus had taken His first steps or she had first shared a bed with her husband.

As they stepped out into the lonely stillness of that night, the God of the Universe became a refugee.

And I wonder.

If I had been an Egyptian woman, watching these desert-dirty refugees stumble into my town, what would I have done? Would I have drawn the curtains in naivety and fear, or would I have fed the mother of God? Would I have muttered something about how it’s “such a shame,” or would I have offered my bed to the parents of the Messiah? Would I have tossed a self-ameliorating $20 at the small family, or would I have emptied myself at the feet of God?

What would I give Him now? What do I believe He is worth?
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

-Matthew 25:40


He imprisoned them. He killed them. He hunted them. They knew his name, tracked his movements, and went into hiding when they knew he was coming to town. There’s no downplaying his violence; Saul was proud of his “zealousness” about slaughtering the Christians.

Until he encountered the face of the gentle, terrifying Jesus and was undone. Until the Spirit touched his hands, and he penned the very Words of God.

How quickly we forget that one the world’s greatest exegetes was once a violent extremist.

And I wonder.

If I had been Ananias, when God instructed me to welcome this murdering terrorist, would I have listened? And if I had gone to see this infamous man, would I have carried a gun? Would I have wanted to kill him? Would I have been able to look past my fear and hatred of the evil this man perpetrated? And when God told me that He was obsessed, in love, passionate about this murderer’s soul, would I have been too? Or would I return evil with evil, violence with violence, and aggression with fear?

Would I have wished him dead, or redeemed?
“Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”

-Romans 12:21


Sadly, this one doesn’t come from the pages of the Book. It’s not about someone who lived centuries ago, halfway around the world. It’s so much closer to home. My home.

I see the grieving relatives on the news, holding candles and standing on the Parisian streets. I see exploding buildings and men in masks and the faces of wailing mothers who might be me. I imagine myself getting the call, weeping in the streets, pleading with God. And so I close my doors tight, throw a little money out to soothe my conscience, and whisper prayers from the safety of my locked bedroom.

Fear and self-preservation may be powerful friends, but they shame me. They shame me as I sit at the feet of the very One who bled out His life for me, in total defiance of safety and self-preservation. How can I ignore His plea to “feed my sheep” when He had just offered His own body as bread? How do I cling to my horror when He whispers that His perfect love casts out fear?

There are no easy answers. There are no perfect politics. But there is a God who looks us in the eye, pries our fingers from our false security, and invites us to dangerous love.
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

-1 John 4:20

Christmas is a time for memories

We used to sleep in the same bed together, my two brothers and me, on Christmas Eve. That alone was a Christmas miracle, given the fact that the other 364 days of the year would find us plotting ways to hurt one another. I remember BB gun fights, where we were running around the woods, shooting at each other. Or we would fight from room to room in the house with spit wads, using thick rubber bands to wing them on their way. To up the ante, we decided one day to shove straight pins through the spit wads. Yep, three little angels, that’s what we were. But on Christmas Eve, we crawled into bed together and tried to go to sleep, keeping one ear tuned for reindeer hooves on the roof, and one foot ready to launch any brother who got too close.

One of my favorite memories was the Christmas Eve we heard the front door open, and the distinct sound of something heavy being rolled across the threshold. Grandpa never used a wheelchair so we knew it wasn’t him coming for a midnight visit. And we had no idea why Santa would be bringing gifts through the front door, when we had a perfectly good fireplace in the den. So we just lay there in bed, whispering about what it could possibly be, and daring each other to sneak downstairs to steal a glance. Nobody wanted to risk being seen by Santa, or worse by Dad, so we eventually drifted off to sleep.

One of my favorite memories of Christmas Day was the next morning when three sleepy-eyed little Fox boys found a brand new yellow mini-bike parked under the tree. We lived on two acres and had a creek behind and beside us, and empty lots and woods all around, so we could not wait to jump on the bike and start blazing trails. But first, Dad needed to give us a lesson on how not to wreck a mini-bike. This is one of my favorite memories, too, as Dad straddled that kid-sized bike with his 6’3” frame, and proceeded to explain to us young boys how dangerous a mini-bike could be. He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth about how sensitive throttles are, when the bike shot off like a rocket and threw Dad into the air where gravity began to work immediately and brought him quite unceremoniously back to the earth. The bike and Dad were perfectly unharmed, but after a few minutes my sides were killing me. Even mom got a chuckle out of that one.

Christmas is a season of giving, and the yellow mini-bike has to go down in the Fox history book as one of the best gifts we ever received. We also got exactly one of them, so we boys had to learn how to share. I have no idea how we worked that out without BB guns or bloodshed. I just remember many happy hours riding that mini-bike, and I suppose my older and younger brothers do as well.

There may not be a mini-bike under your tree this Christmas, or even a reindeer on your roof. But that’s OK, because the best gift cannot be bought in a catalog or brought down a chimney. The best gift, the only one that matters, was laid in a feeding trough in Bethlehem many years ago. Here’s what the angel who brought the news to Joseph said about the gift:

“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Murderers, Adulterers, and Nobodies (oh my!)

If you were going to tell the Christmas story to someone, where would you start? Maybe shining messengers of light and angelic choirs appearing out of thin air? Or a tense family drama with an unexpected pregnancy and a relationship on the rocks? Or perhaps the neglected outcasts of society getting invited to be the first on hand to witness the birth of a long-awaited hero?

Well the gospel writer Matthew says "phooey" to all our dramatic modern storytelling sensibilities and starts with a long list of names...which seems to most of us virtually on par with reading the phone book or doing roll-call at the beginning of class.

But as we do a little digging into these names, all the drama that we thought was missing from Matthew's opening salvo emerges, and he actually sets the stage perfectly for life and ministry of Jesus that was to follow. So what do we learn from Jesus' genealogy in the beginning of Matthew, and are there any implications for us?
  1. Jesus came for the overlooked. The culture of Jesus and his ancestors placed a higher value the males—especially the firstborn males—often to the neglect of the younger siblings and women. Yet Jesus' line is surprisingly full of second-born (Isaac and Jacob) and even last-born sons (David) that God had chosen over the eldest. Even more surprising is the presence of women since genealogies of that time typically only traced lineage through the fathers. It's almost like Matthew wanted us to notice something...
  2. Jesus came for the outsider. Two of the women that Matthew goes out of his way to mention were Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth). In other words, they were pagan worshipers of other gods before they married into the people of Israel. Yet rather than avoiding and whitewashing Jesus' line by simply focusing on the male lineage, Matthew deliberately includes these names...and then does one better (or one worse, depending on the perspective)...
  3. Jesus came for the stained. The other two females mentioned on the list both had very public counts of sexual sin. Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, slept with her father-in-law to get the upper hand on him in a legal dispute. Bathsheba committed adultery with King David (and it's not at all clear that she was coerced). But while we're on that topic...
  4. Jesus came for bipolar. Okay, so maybe that's not exactly the right word for David. But if you look at the trajectory of his life—if you simply read some of the Psalms he wrote—there is no other biblical character that has more peaks and valleys, both of the emotional and the moral kind. I mean, mountain top "man after God's own heart" type of highs followed by depths of Sheol "stealing my general's wife and having him murdered to cover it up" type lows. David remains one of the Bible's greatest characters...and greatest sinners. And the Psalms that he wrote are every bit the embodiment of the life he lived.
  5. Jesus came for the nobody. There's a few names on the list that we know little to nothing about. They were just...dudes.
What a pedigree, right? Instead of paragons of moral fortitude, we have murderers and adulterers, idol worshipers and the incestuous. And instead of a steady line of firstborn kings, we see the last born and women and nobodies.

So what does this tell us? This destroys any pretense of pride. How can we, followers of a savior that was born in a cattle trough to an audience of dirty shepherds, presume to look down on anyone else? Our King left his throne and put on a peasant's rags, how can we bend the knee and call him boss and yet not bow our heads to serve?

But this is not just a list of the kind of people Jesus came through, otherwise Matthew could have easily swept some of the more embarrassing names under the rug. No, this is also a list of the kind of people Jesus came for. No matter where you find yourself today, I'm sure you see yourself somewhere in the list above.  Jesus came for you. Jesus opens the kingdom of God to everyone, everywhere, regardless of who they are or what they have done. And this list tells us that when you're in Jesus' family, he will not hide you. You are his.

Monday, December 7, 2015

How to build a wall in 52 days

It was amazing. Nearly everybody in the city worked on the wall. This wasn’t one of those 80/20 rules we have in churches today, where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. And give 90 percent of the money. Neither was this like a football game where there are 50,000 people in the stands who are in desperate need of exercise, and 22 guys on the field, in desperate need of rest. No, everybody worked. The politicians worked, which might have been a minor miracle. The priests and Levites worked. The businessmen worked. Hey, even the perfumers and the goldsmiths were hauling rock and pouring mud to build the wall.

The place was Jerusalem, and the time was around 446 BC. The Babylonians had destroyed the walls of the city years before, and Nehemiah was in town to organize and lead a rebuilding effort. Don’t tell Donald Trump’s people, but the work was completed in 52 days, so fast that even the opposition was not able to mobilize a viable counter-attack. The wall was built because nearly everybody worked.

Everybody, that is, except the “nobles,” who “would not stoop to serve their Lord.” Interesting. The word for nobles means “wide or large,” so that may have something to do with them not working. No, just kidding. The reason they would not work had nothing to do with their girth but with their arrogance. Their fat pocketbooks and their overweening pride somehow had them convinced that such work was beneath them. Sad. It was a building project that has been recorded for the ages, and these fat cats missed out on the joy of seeing it completed through the sweat of their brow.

Let me ask you something, then. What is the most important building project in the world today? It is not Westminster Cathedral, although the work on that 120-year-old masterpiece is ongoing. Neither is it the Super Power Building in Clearwater, which was referred to as the “Vatican” of Scientology when construction began in 1999, but is now considered an unfinished joke. No, the most important building project in the world is the building of the church. Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Not a physical structure, although we mostly meet in buildings or homes all over the world, the church is a gathering of those who follow Jesus Christ and have been born again by grace and through faith. The church is a body, and Christ is fitting us together. Like a human body, the church is made up of individual members, who must be connected to one another and submitted to the head, Christ, in order to function. The foot can’t say to the eye, for example, “I have no need of you.” In fact, how would you like to wake up tomorrow and discover that your left foot has left you and left you a note that says, “I left.”

Look at the person across the breakfast table for a moment. Notice that her head is connected to her body. That’s essential. And her body parts, her arms, legs, fingers and toes, are all connected to each other. That is important. Not only for her body, but also for the body of Christ.

It is as important in the building of the church as it was in the building of a wall around an ancient city. The people have to labor and love together, through good times and bad, for the greater glory of God’s work on the earth.

Friday, December 4, 2015

3 Free Albums to Fix Your Christmas Playlists

Are all your Christmas playlists getting a little too old and familiar? Well here's three free albums from NoiseTrade (tipping the artists is encouraged) that will put a little kick in your eggnog! These are all full albums, not just samplers, so what are you waiting for?!! Go get 'em and thank me later!


(These songs have been tested and approved by the above signee and have hardly left his speakers since.)

1. Branches - Songs For Christmas (more alternative than folk)
For Fans Of: Mumford and Sons, Freelance Whales, Arcade Fire, Noah and the Whale, Of Monsters And Men

2. The Oh Hellos - The Oh Hellos' Family Christmas Album (more folk than alternative)
For Fans Of: Sufjan Stevens, Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers

3. Albert Kiteck - Classical Guitar Christmas (exactly what it sounds like, instrumental classical guitar)

For Fans Of: Instrumental classical guitar

Bonus Album

I supposed I'd be remiss if I didn't also share the Christmas album from NoiseTrade that I am on here as well: Free Christmas Music Download