Christ-follower or Blessing-follower?

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“2016 – the year without presents on Christmas.” This (accompanied by a few masterfully timed sighs) was the dramatic exclamation of my ten year old a few days before Christmas. His over-the-top theatrical outburst was due to the fact that we decided to move our traditional family Christmas activities (including presents) to Monday and intentionally focus on celebrating Jesus on Christmas Day. In the interest of full disclosure, this was primarily due to the busy nature of a Sunday Christmas rather than any super-spiritual aspirations on our part. However, this decision has taught me at least one thing: regardless of my best efforts and intentions, to small children Christmas is about one thing – getting presents!

A Fatal Flaw

In children, this is generally cute and eventually outgrown along with many other childish attitudes and behaviors. However, it does reflect one universal and fatal flaw in the human condition – we make everything about us. This includes the gospel and salvation. A common focus of gospel presentations and personal testimonies is all of the good stuff we get from God. We get joy. We get peace. We get a savior. While each of these is good and true, this is essentially a reversal of emphasis between two aspects of a single truth. The truth: God sent Jesus to earth and provided a way of salvation for all mankind. Our distorted perspective focuses on the benefit we gain from receiving this gift, while the true emphasis is on an awesome God giving a gift that we need.

 

A Self-centered Gospel

This may seem like the proverbial splitting of hairs, but as we build upon this faulty foundation our faith can take a very self-centered turn that was never intended. If the focus of the gospel is all about us getting joy and peace and salvation rather than about a great God giving us those things, than our life of faith becomes all about what we can get from God. The Christian experience becomes all about personal needs and desires. Following Jesus becomes nothing more than a means of getting what I can from God, from faith, and from the church.

This type of self-centered faith is why there are so many professing Christians who seem to live like nothing more than moral unsaved people. You know the ones I’m talking about – the “Christian” who might cuss more mildly, drink a little less, and go to church several times a month. But when it comes right down to it, these professing Christians are just living for themselves and have found a way to add God into their life on their terms. They want the blessings of being a Christian without any of the personal sacrifice or inconvenience.

The Heart of the Gospel: Sacrificial Love

I am not denying the tremendous blessings that come as a result of salvation. I am simply saying that the American church tends to overemphasize the getting to the neglect of the giving. You see, at the very center of the gospel story is God Himself giving up His place at the right hand of the Father. God gave up His high position in heaven to become human in order to redeem us. The very heart of the gospel is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” The heart of the gospel is sacrificial love!

As we build upon this foundation, we will certainly receive blessings, but we will also live a life intentionally focused on imitating the kind of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. My faith becomes about responding in worship to a God to whom I am eternally grateful. My Christian experience becomes all about opportunities to sacrifice my wants and desires for the sake of serving Jesus through service to others.

A Practical Impact

This change of perspective will have tremendous practical impact on one’s daily life. You will be less offended when your rights are violated. You will be less hesitant to help someone in need. You will be more willing to go out of your way to serve someone. You will certainly be less concerned about getting your way all the time.

There will also be an impact on your attitude and behavior toward the local church. You will view church as an opportunity to use your gifts for the blessing of others. You will be more willing to sacrifice your preferences, like music, and decorations, and preaching styles. You will be less determined to make everyone cater to your comfort and desires. In short, you will desire to serve in the church rather than simply be served by the church.

Life as God Intended

I am not proposing that we do not receive blessings from God and I am certainly not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy them. They are a real and special and important part of what God has done for us. However, just like presents at Christmas, we cannot let these benefits and blessings become our primary focus. They are not the whole story. My prayer and desire for every true Christ-follower is that while enjoying the blessings of faith, you will live a life in passionate pursuit of the God of the blessings rather than the blessings themselves. That is living the way God intended; that is living in the manner that Christ lived. I challenge you to examine your own heart. Are you a Christ-follower or a blessing-follower? Prayerfully consider the answer and remember, it isn’t too late to make the change today!

Some Reasons to Go to Church on Christmas

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Browsing the internet today, I was reminded of one of the more shocking and ironic practices in the Christian world. No, I’m not talking about some obscure ritual like snake handling or drinking poison. And I’m not talking about some strange, random practice by some small and insignificant group of nut jobs. I’m talking about the increasingly mainstream practice in some of the largest and most prominent evangelical churches in the country of canceling church on Christmas Sunday. For a variety of reasons I think this is ridiculous. I mean, seriously?! It’s Christmas. The day we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. And we think it’s a good idea to not go worship on that day? That baffles me.

Now, I feel that I must stop and acknowledge that many of these churches are wonderful, gospel preaching churches that love God and His people and want to do what is right. I am also aware that missing one Sunday of church is in all likelihood not going to send a church careening headlong into apostasy. I am not even saying that this decision is necessarily wrong and I have no desire to condemn the churches that are canceling their services this Christmas. I am simply saying that I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. In light of that fact, I want to offer some reasons why I think going to church on Christmas Sunday is a wonderful idea.

  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday is a great way to celebrate our Savior’s birth. Not to be too obvious, but it is Christmas. And Sunday. Seems like a good day for some church.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday affirms the belief that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Not that we cannot make Christ the center of Christmas from home, but it seems appropriate to set aside a little time to go to church if it’s really all about Him.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday is a testimony to what is most important to you. Like it or not, your actions do speak louder than words. By going to church, your actions loudly declare that church, worship, God’s Word, and other believers are important to you. More important than, say, presents or sleeping in.
  • Going to church on Christmas Sunday can be an act of sacrificial love toward God. There are things that are inconvenient about a Sunday Christmas, but we can sacrifice our conveniences out of love for God and appreciation for all He gave up for us.
  • Going to church on Christmas demonstrates a genuine understanding that church is about worship and not personal gratification. It really is all about Him, not me.
  • Going to church on Christmas is a proclamation that Christmas is not just a cultural celebration. It is a religious observance that commemorates the coming of a Savior, the forgiveness of sins, and redemption for all mankind.
  • Going to church on Christmas acknowledges the importance of the faith community in our individual lives. Though many churches cancel services to provide for family time at home, going to church affirms that our church family is equally important.
  • Going to church on Christmas can be an opportunity to serve. Many people will go to church on Sunday, some for the first time. When you show up ready and willing to serve, you can have an impact in their lives.
  • Going to church on Christmas can create a great foundation upon which to build the rest of your Holiday festivities. You don’t have to give up family time, special dinners, presents, or other traditions to go to church. You can go first and then enjoy a special day of celebrating that is truly focused on Jesus.

I know that we all celebrate in different ways, but I hope that you will consider joining many of us who will be at church Christmas morning. I personally can’t think of a more appropriate way to start the day than gathering in the name of Jesus with a group of his followers to praise Him on His special day. Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Gospel

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I love nativity scenes! It thrills me every Christmas season to see the many different versions on display. From rustic outdoor sets to ornate glass displays, each puts its own unique spin on the Christmas story. They’re all different in presentation, but all the same in the fact that they are beautiful and elegant representations of the birth of our Lord.

As I’ve enjoyed the many different nativity themed decorations this year, I’ve found myself drawn to what is missing. In fact, it’s the same thing that is missing in most of our renditions of the Christmas story. It’s the mess. The ugliness. The chaos. Nativity scenes never depict the reality of a messy stable, a newborn baby, a young lady worn out from travel and giving birth.

In fact, the messiness of the story extends beyond the physical circumstances. Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down. Though they knew the divine origins of her baby, many would assume her guilty of adultery. Their choice to obey God would cost them dearly in human terms. And it would cost others, too, like the families of the babies Herod slaughtered. Then there’s the purpose of this special birth – death. Jesus was born to die; and not just any death, but the most awful and torturous death the world had concocted to that point in history.

Our Christmas decorations, plays and festivities reflect our natural tendency to sanitize everything so that it seems nicer and more attractive. But the Christmas story isn’t beautiful because it is clean and perfect. No, it is beautiful because it is the pinnacle of God’s working in the ugliness of life. When you stop to think about it, that’s the heart of the gospel.

While the gospel is certainly good news of great joy to all men, it is necessitated by our greatest problem – God is Holy and I am not! I am sinful and my sin condemns me to hell and death. Worse, I can do nothing about it. It is only contrasted to this reality that the gospel is truly good news. We must realize that the full, genuine message of the gospel is messy and ugly before it is beautiful and joyous. It is slavery to sin before it is freedom. It is God’s wrath before God’s mercy. It is war with God before it is peace on earth. The gospel is about hope in the midst of hopelessness and salvation in the midst of helplessness. Christmas reminds us that there is beauty and hope in the midst of despair and hopelessness if we only trust in Jesus.

The ugliness of life doesn’t diminish the story of Christmas or the Gospel, but serves to enhance the beauty of the free gift that God has given us. This year, let the beauty and wonder of Christmas remind you of the beauty and wonder of the gospel message – Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. God came into our mess! He entered into the ugliness and darkness and He is our rescuer.

 

 

photo by Johann Jaritz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Keeping Christ in Christian

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With another Halloween in the books, temperatures dropping and Thanksgiving just around the corner, we know that Christmas is soon to be knocking on the Holiday door. With the fast approach of Christmas comes the annual persecution complex of many in the greater Christian community who seem to think that anyone who does not celebrate Christmas just as they do must hate God and His followers and probably worships Satan between shifts at the Starbucks or Barnes and Noble.

Generally, these accusations result from a business failing to use the term Christmas in their advertising campaigns or personal greetings in the place of business. This year, however, all it took in the case of Starbucks was the decision to use a solid red cup rather than one with snowflakes or some other more festive design. Since we all know that red is the color of both Santa and Satan, it is obvious that all good Christians should avoid drinking their coffee. To be safe, you should probably post something on social media boldly proclaiming your indignation. How dare they attack Jesus with their pagan red cups?!

In case you are unsure of my position, I think this whiny persecution complex is ridiculous. First of all, we should not be so easily offended. Second of all, there are people in our world facing genuine persecution – actually dying for Christ – while we complain about coffee cups and Christmas card slogans. Lastly, I don’t think my Savior cares one bit about the color of a coffee cup or how many times a retailer might use His name in an advertising campaign.

Jesus didn’t live and die to establish a holiday in His name! He lived and died to redeem a people for His glory. Unsaved people abandoning Christian tradition is of far less concern to God than His own people abandoning Christian conduct. Whether or not you personally get caught up in these anti-political correctness shenanigans at Christmas, I hope you will pause for a moment to think about what a wonderful opportunity this time of year can be to fulfill your purpose of manifesting the love of Christ for His glory.

Instead of berating the man that wishes you a “Happy Holiday”, perhaps you could wish him one back and talk about your source of happiness. Instead of angrily ranting about those who want to keep Christ out of Christmas, you could lovingly discuss what you’re doing to keep Him in it. Instead of refusing to give your money to anyone that doesn’t promote Christmas, why not donate to a charity that helps those that don’t know Christ at all? Instead of being the stereotypical angry Christians, let’s shock the world by being the kindest, most generous, most loving people they come across this Christmas season.

I’m certainly not against keeping Christ in Christmas, but I think it’s high time that true Christians put more effort into keeping Christ in Christian than trying to make the world keep Christ in Christmas.

Christmas Sorrow

I love Christmas! Perhaps more accurately, I love the anticipation of Christmas. I love the lights and decorations. I love the music. I love how everyone gets just a little nicer. I just love Christmas and it is generally a time of joy and happiness at my house and in my own heart. However, something I’ve noticed is that alongside the increased joy of the Christmas season is increased suffering and sorrow. In all likelihood, the amount of suffering and sorrow has not increased, but in contrast to the joy of the season I simply have a heightened awareness of it.

Though it might be sad to think of a beautiful and joyous season like Christmas shining a brighter light on suffering and sorrow, in a way it is quite appropriate. The very Savior we celebrate was Himself a living contrast to all things sad, miserable and evil. He was Light in the darkness, Water for the thirsty, Bread for the hungry, The Way for the wanderer, Truth in the face of lies, and Life for the dying. His very presence heightened the awareness of others to their own sin and darkness. In the same way, the celebration of this season often heightens our awareness to the effects of sin – like suffering. That man on the corner was likely just as cold and hungry before we put up our tree. The widow lady down the street was probably suffering with her loss just as much before the Christmas season. The parents of the child in the hospital were just as sorrowful before all the lights went up. I am just more aware because it is a greater contrast to the joyous nature of the season.

This contrast between the sorrow and joy of Christmas has had me thinking the last few days, and I’ve collected a few random thoughts about sorrow that I want to share with you in the midst of the joy of Christmas. In no particular order, here they are:

 

  • Allow yourself to be moved with compassion at the sorrow of others. Rather than shrink from the spotlight that Christmas could throw on sorrow, go toward it and let God use you to comfort someone who is sorrowful. In doing so, we honor and imitate Christ who was often said to see someone in need and be moved with compassion. In allowing ourselves to enter into the suffering of others, we truly celebrate Christmas. After all, Christmas is all about the greatest act of compassion ever: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.
  • Have hope! Sorrow is a legitimate emotion and a normal part of life. However, God does not want us to be without hope in sorrow. This is only possible in Christ, but sometimes even believers sorrow as if they had no hope. Paul spoke to the Thessalonian church in regard to their sorrow over the loss of loved ones and he urged them not to grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). If you see someone suffering this Christmas, offer them the hope of Christ. If you experience sorrow, remember your hope in Christ. No matter what this life has to throw at us, He is coming back and we will live throughout eternity with Him.
  • Be mindful of sin. Too often I find someone sorrowing over pain and emptiness that is a direct result of their own sin. This is not always true, but many times it is. God even has a plan for this sorrow! Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that “godly sorrow brings repentance.” Be careful as you experience sorrow this Christmas that it is godly sorrow. You may find yourself in a situation entirely of your own doing because of sin and God wants your sorrow to lead you back to Him. This repentance may not immediately alleviate the suffering, but it will give it purpose and start you on the journey toward reconciliation with God and perhaps others.

As you celebrate Christmas this year, I trust it will be merry and joyful and peaceful, but I suspect it will also come with its share of bumps and bruises. If I’m right, these thoughts are for you so that you can join me in determining not to waste our Christmas sorrow.