Tuesday, December 31, 2013

All Things for Good

In a May 2000 article featured in Christianity Today, author Philip Yancey once reflected on the verse from Romans 8:28 where Paul remarks, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Yancey illustrated that grand truth with the following story: 

“In high school, I took pride in my ability to play chess. I joined the chess club, and during lunch hour could be found sitting at a table with other nerds poring over books with titles like Classic King Pawn Openings. I studied techniques, won most of my matches, and put the game aside for 20 years. 

Then, in Chicago, I met a truly fine chess player who had been perfecting his skills long since high school. When we played a few matches, I learned what it is like to play against a master. Any classic offense I tried, he countered with a classic defense. If I turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, he incorporated my bold forays into his winning strategies. Although I had complete freedom to make any move I wished, I soon reached the conclusion that none of my strategies mattered very much. His superior skill guaranteed that my purposes inevitably ended up serving his own. 

Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way. He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration. If I accept that blueprint-- a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen. Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes. And bad things, too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God. 

A skeptic might accuse me of flagrant rationalization, arguing backwards to make evidence fit a prior conclusion. Yes, exactly. A Christian begins with the conclusion that a good God will restore creation to its original design, and sees all history as proceeding toward that end. When a Grand Master plays a chess amateur, victory is assured no matter how the board may look at any given moment. In a miracle of grace, even our personal failures can become tools in God's hands.”1 

Now there’s a great thought going into the New Year! No matter what may come about—disease, disaster, debt or death—all events are playing into the script God has written. Just look into the pages of Scripture and take notice of how God brought good out of evil. Joseph’s imprisonment was a backdoor into the palace. Job’s suffering eventually came to end and he was doubly blessed in all his possessions. Daniel was miraculously preserved through the lion’s den. The martyrdom of Steven haunted the conscience of Saul until the risen Jesus gloriously saved him and made him into the Apostle Paul. Most of all, Jesus died on the cross--the greatest act of evil and injustice ever perpetrated--only to conquer death on the third day. 

To judge God solely on the basis of the evil we see in this fallen planet would be unfair. Perhaps another illustration will help. Imagine this scenario: vandals break into a museum displaying works from Picasso’s Blue Period. Motivated by sheer destructiveness, they splash red pain all over the paintings and slash them with knives. It would be the height of unfairness to display these works—a mere sampling of Picasso’s creative genius and spoiled at that—as representative of the artist. The same applies to God’s creation. What we see today has been spoiled by humanity's sin. However. God has already hung a “Condemned” sign above the earth, and has promised judgment and restoration.2

Just because God has not dealt with evil and injustice yet, doesn't mean that He never will. Solomon was right, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecc. 3:11). Only a truly sovereign God has the ability to redeem evil for His purposes and reverse the curse of sin. And only looking from the lens of eternity can we accurately judge what God is doing in time.  

1. Philip Yancey, "Philip Yancey: Chess Master," Christianity Today, 22 May 2000 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/may22/35.112.html?start=1>    

2. Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 58-59.     

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Debunking Christmas Myths

“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth.” Such is the way J.R.R. Tolkien described how the One Ring was lost in the lore of Middle Earth, yet the same could also be said about of the traditions we celebrate each year around Christmas. Truth has a way of becoming clouded with the passing of time. Facts that were once well known become distorted and obscured so that after years of revisionism and historical amnesia we are left with a canon of mythology.

The same has happened to Christmas. As time has passed Christmas, and the traditions that go along with it, has changed shape. The bloated and commercialized holiday that extends from Black Friday to the end of December has taken on a form today that is product of imagination from the Victorian era and clever marketing from retailers.

How did a holiday which was originally celebrated to commemorate the birth of Jesus get turned into Santa Claus, ornamented evergreens and gift giving? Have you ever stopped long enough during the holiday mania to investigate some of the traditions that we unconsciously perpetuate each year?

A few years ago, I decided to do some investigating into the historical roots of Christmas. What I discovered simply blew me away, especially since I was coming from a Christian worldview. In my research I found out how much rich meaning has been lost and replaced by fairy tale. While I don’t have time to cover everything, but I thought it would be fun to debunk some of the biggest Christmas myths our culture has ignorantly imbibed.    

Myth #1: Santa Claus was just a jolly, fat guy.

Believe it or not, St. Nicholas was an actual person of history. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 A.D. in what is today modern-day Turkey to a wealthy couple. He was raised in a Christian home and his uncle Nicholas (after whom he was named) who happened to be the bishop of Patara, had a great influence on him.  

When His biological parents died during a plague he was left with an incredible sum of money, which Nicholas was quick to eschew. Instead, he donated much of it to the feed the poor and take care of the needy in his hometown.

Nicholas is most notably remembered for helping the family of a nobleman in Patara who had gone bankrupt. Ruthless creditors not only took the nobleman’s property, but also threatened to take his three beautiful daughters as well. The father’s only hope was to marry off his daughters before the creditors could take them, thereby saving them from a life of slavery and prostitution. Unfortunately, he did not have money for the girls’ dowries, which were necessary for them to marry.

Nicholas heard of this dilemma and late one night threw a bag of gold in the family’s window to save the daughters. When Nicholas threw the gold, a few coins supposedly landed in one of the daughter’s stockings that she had set out by the fireplace to dry. The father ran outside and caught Nicholas in the act, but Nicholas made the man swear not to tell anyone of his charity. Thus, began the tradition, of secret gift-giving.

Nicholas grew to be a well-loved Christian leader and was eventually voted the Bishop of Myra, a port city that the apostle Paul had previously visited (Acts 27:5-6). However, to be a Christian during this time was dangerous business. In 303 AD, the Roman emperor, Diocletian, issued a formal edict to destroy all Christian churches, burn the Scriptures and imprison or kill those who preached Christ. The storm of persecution which led to the deaths of hundreds of Christians, eventually reached Myra. Despite threats of imprisonment Bishop Nicholas continued to preach boldly the deity of Jesus. He was soon seized by torturers and confined to prison for several years, bearing severe suffering and enduring great hardship in an overcrowded dungeon.

As providence would have it, Constantine eventually took the seat of power over the Roman Empire. Shortly after his ascension to the throne, in 313 AD Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Toleration, officially giving Christianity tolerance throughout the Empire. Constantine ordered the release of those imprisoned for Christ, and so Nicholas was granted his freedom.    

Afterward, Nicholas reportedly also traveled to the Council of Nicaea, where he helped defend the deity of Jesus Christ in A.D. 325. The council ended the “Arian heresy,” which demoted Jesus to a “less-than-God” status. During the debates Nicholas became so enraged with Arius for formulating his detestable doctrines that he slapped the monk in the face!1

Nicholas eventually died in 343 AD and was eventually was canonized into sainthood by the Catholic Church. Now I ask you, which version of the story is more exciting—the preacher who was persecuted for his faith or the guy who comes down the chimney bearing gifts? Why don’t Christians tell their kids about the real St. Nicholas—a man who preached Christ, suffered for his faith, and smacked down heretics—rather than the fairy tale version?

Myth #2: December 25 is Jesus’ birthday.

Contrary to popular opinion Jesus was not born on December 25th.  In fact, historians and Bible scholars are not certain when exactly Jesus was born. The New Testament does not state the year, month or day of Christ’s birth. Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (Why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?) Why then if neither history nor the Bible pinpoints the date of Christ’s birth do we celebrate on the 25th? 

The origin of winter celebrations goes back to before the time of Christ when many ancient cultures celebrated the changing of the seasons. The Romans had a festival called Saturnalia to observe the winter solstice on Dec. 25th.  This festival was a pagan holiday dedicated to the god of agriculture—Saturn.    

Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time, when food and drink were plentiful and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome.

When Christianity found a foothold in the Roman Empire, the Christians wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ so they took this pagan holiday on Dec. 25th, changed its meaning inserted Jesus in place of Saturn and observed Jesus’ birthday on the day that Saturn supposedly went into hiding for a season.  So in 440 AD the pope Julius I declared December 25th as the official day for celebrating Christ’s birth.  

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. “It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow,” naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it."2

Myth #3: The Virgin Birth is a pagan idea that Christians stole to elevate the status of Jesus.

Some critics of Christianity teach that the Christian religion was not based upon divine revelation but that it borrowed from pagan sources. In recent times the virgin birth has come under intense scrutiny because revisionist historians and skeptics claim that many religions around the time of Christ believed in a something like a god being born in a miraculous way.

The Greeks believed that Alexander was the son of Zeus. The legend goes that Zeus took the form of a serpent and slithered into the bed of Olympia, Alexander's mother, where he seduced and impregnated her. The ancient Egyptians had a goddess by the name of Isis who miraculously produced a son named Osiris when she was impregnated by a sun-beam.

Many Buddhists believe that their founder was born when his mother Queen Maya had a dream that a white elephant with 6 tusks entered her side and months later brought forth a son which would become Buddha. 

Hinduism has its tradition that Krishna, after going through several reincarnations, including that of a fish and tortoise, eventually descended into the womb of a virgin princess named Devaki and was miraculously born. 

In reality Christmas was God’s plan, not man’s fiction because the nativity and Calvary and Easter were all predetermined before the foundations of the world by the triune God. We can easily understand that Christians did not invent Christmas or hijack ideas from other religions because we have the announcement of the virgin birth at the outset of human history.  If you will remember the first prophecy of Scripture was given by God in Gen. 3:15, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (KJV).”     

This prophecy is called by theologians the protoevangelion, the gospel before the gospel.  God announced to Adam and Eve that the "seed of the woman" would eventually crush the head of the serpent.  That term "seed of the woman" refers to a virgin birth, because in the Hebrew mind the seed referred to the male sperm.

How could there be a seed of a woman? The only way possible is if the seed was supernaturally generated and the virgin conceived without a man.  God later confirmed this to the prophet Isaiah in Is. 7:14, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Remember that Adam and Eve were not the only ones there in the Garden on this day, but so was Satan. The Father of lies  knew at the very beginning of human history what was going to happen and hearing this prediction of an incarnation and a virgin birth he began to counterfeit God's truth claims with own distortions. 

Another reason why the Christians could not have invented Christmas from pagan myths is because of the vast qualitative difference between the Gospel accounts and pagan myths. 

The pagan stories are filled with debauchery and crass human sexuality, whereas the Gospels are saturated with the holiness of God.  Mary is overshadowed by the invisible Spirit of God, whereas in all these other myths there are stories of seduction or fantastic stories involving animals impregnating women.

Lee Strobel quotes historian Edwin Yamauchi in his book, The Case for the Real Jesus:
            Some of the supposed parallels between paganism and Christianity break down upon close examination. Some of those that are cited—like Zeus, for example—are gods who lust after women, which is decidedly different from Jesus’ story. The mythological offspring are half gods and half men, and their lives begin at conception, as opposed to Jesus, who is fully god and fully man and who is also eternal but came into this world through the incarnation. Also, the Gospels put Jesus in a historical context, unlike the mythological gods. On top of that, even if a story of an extraordinary birth in mythology predates Christianity, that doesn’t mean Christians appropriated it . . . This is a perfect example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). Plato wrote about the existence of God long before Paul authored his epistles, but the latter is no way depended upon the Greek philosopher. The argument of pagan derivation assumes too much in the way of parallelism and overlooks the radical differences.”3


Unlike mythical accounts the New Testament accounts are based on eyewitness testimony. In 2 Peter 1:16 we read, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Sources

1. William J. Federer, There Really Is A Santa Claus (New York: Amerisearch, 2003)

2. Elesha Coffman, "Why December 25th ?" Christianity Today, 8 August 2008 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html>

3. Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 179.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Recognizing Jesus

One of my favorite Christmas stories is about the old shoe cobbler who dreamed that Jesus would come visit him on Christmas Eve. The dream was so real that he was convinced it would come true. So the next morning he got up and cut green boughs to decorate his little cobbler shop. Before the work day began he was all ready for Jesus to come and visit. He was so sure that Jesus was going to come that he just sat down and waited for Him. 

The hours passed and Jesus didn't come. However, an old man came. He shuffled inside for a moment to get warm out of the winter cold. As the cobbler talked with him he noticed the holes in the old man's shoes, so he reached up on the shelf and picked out a new pair. The cobbler made sure they fit, that his socks were dry and sent him on his way. Still he waited, but Jesus didn't come. 

Then an elderly woman showed up. It was obvious the woman hadn't eaten a decent meal in days. So the cobbler prepared a lunch for her from his own pail. After she finished her tea and bread she thanked the cobbler, “Merry Christmas and God bless you laddy!” and headed out into the chill. By now it was late in the afternoon and the cobbler sat down again to wait for Jesus. But Jesus still didn't come. 

The silence of the afternoon was broken when he heard a little boy crying out on his front stoup. He went out to talk with the boy, only to discover that the boy had been separated from his parents and didn't know how to get home. So the cobbler put on his coat, locked up his shop, took the boy by the hand and led him home. 

When he came back to his little shoe shop it was almost dark and the streets were emptied of people. The cobbler realized his dream was just that—a dream—there would be no Jesus. In a moment of despair he lifted his voice to heaven and said, "Oh Lord, why didn't you come?" A tear rolled down his cheek and he seemed to hear a voice speaking to his heart "Oh cobbler, lift up your heart. I kept my word. Three times I knocked at your friendly door. Three times my shadow fell across your floor. I was the man with the bruised feet. I was the woman you gave to eat. I was the boy on the homeless street.” You see Jesus had come, but the cobbler just didn't realize it. 

So it was for the first Christmas as well. The Son of God entered the world and there was a “No Vacancy” sign on the door of Bethlehem’s Motel 6 (Luke 2:7). The apostle John remarked, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (1:11). It’s almost too ironic, the Creator of the world entered our time-space continuum and it was witnessed by more animals than humans. Had the innkeeper of known Mary was about to give birth to his Redeemer you’d think he would have given them the corner penthouse. 

Just as the Christ-child was overlooked we often are guilty of the same ignorance this time of year. Do we see opportunities to minister to others that the world pushes aside? Christ reminds us, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:11). Let’s keep our hearts, doors and wallets open to others this Christmas and you just might be surprised who the Lord might send your way.           

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Secret Santa

In 2011 the CBS Evening News profiled the story of an anonymous Pennsylvania business man who every year plays the role of Secret Santa. Dressed in red and wearing a Kangol cap with "Elf" embroidered on the back, Secret Santa visits thrift stores, laundromats and bus stations handing out $100 bills to people he meets along the way. According to the report, this man gives away around $20,000 of his own money each Christmas.

When asked why he felt compelled to do this, Secret Santa said, “Because behind every one, there's a story. And to hear their story, and what a difference that little bit of money at that little point in time makes in their life, gives me an awful lot of joy. So there's a lot of happiness that comes with this. I get more joy out of it than they do."1

One man who received two crisp one-hundred dollar bills was 30-year-old Thomas Coates. "I didn't earn that," Coates said to Secret Santa as he slipped the money into his hand. "You did earn it," Secret Santa replied. "Because I can tell you're a good man." Coates began to tear up because he couldn’t remember the last time anyone called him a “good man”.

Coates is a deadbeat by most accounts, including his own. Addicted to heroin, he hocked his own son's toys for drug money. Interestingly, the night before Coates met Secret Santa—during yet another fight with his girlfriend—she suggested he try something radical—a prayer. Coates said his girlfriend told him, “Maybe you can shoot a prayer up to God real quick. I know you don't really believe in him, but maybe you can start.”

And so he did pray for the first time since childhood. Then, out of the blue, Secret Santa shows up slipping $100 bills into his hand. A display of that kind of kindness from a total stranger the day after he prayed was too much of a coincidence for this atheist to bear. “It's amazing,” Coates said. “That to me was a miracle. That was God saying, 'Alright, you had enough now. I'm going to show you something.' So from here on out it's up to me.” After meeting Secret Santa, Coates checked himself into a treatment facility.  Although he's done it before, he says this will be the first time with God at the helm.

“Maybe that gave him the hope that he needs to break his addiction,” Secret Santa said. “And maybe that will be the turning point that will change his life and maybe he won't go back. Wouldn't that be worth it?”2 (Watch the video here)

As we celebrate this Christmas remember that one of the messages of Advent is hope. The nation of Israel was under a veil of silence for 400 years. The prophets had spoken about a coming Messiah, but it seemed he was nowhere to be found. Israel had become a doormat mat that invading armies would wipe their boots on as they moved across the Mediterranean to plunder other nations. The iron legions of Rome had tight grip on the Jewish people.

Then in a tiny corner of the Roman Empire, in Bethlehem, where the sheep population probably outnumbered the people, the long awaited Messiah was born. The heavenly silence was broken as God came into the world kicking and screaming as tiny infant. His robes were swaddling clothes. His bed a manger. And the welcoming committee for the Son of God was a rabble of ruddy shepherds.

Frederick Buechner, in The Hungering Dark, writes:
"Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If the holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and re-create the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully."3  

The Christ child was better than any gift the Secret Santa could muster from his wallet. The money would be spent and then what? At the first Christmas, God illuminated a stable with the Light of the World. Christ came into a dark and violent world, bringing with him hope and light. John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The song “O Holy Night” says it best, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

The hope of Christmas is that God is never too far away. While we grope in the darkness, Christ wants to invade our hearts and fill it with love, joy and peace that will endure forever.  

1. Timothy Stenovec, "Anonymous Secret Santa Hands out $100 Bills in America's Poorest City," Huffington Post, 1 December 2011, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/01/anonymous-good-samaritan-secret-santa-video_n_1123869.html

2. Steve Hartman, "Secret Santa Inspires Heroine Addict to Clean up," CBS Evening News, 16 December 2011, <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/secret-santa-inspires-heroin-addict-to-clean-up/

3. Fredrick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 13-14.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

God in Our Neighborhood

Not long ago I saw a billboard with the simple message, "Don't make me come down there" --God. It puts a smile on the face of the Christian who believes that Jesus is coming back. While it is exciting to delve into biblical prophecies about the return of Christ, it is equally inspiring and encouraging to our faith to understand the prophecies foretelling His first arrival on this planet. Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus many godly people from Moses to Malachi prophesied about the coming Messiah, the King who would deliver Israel. In fact the prophets revealed so many details about the coming Christ that it is difficult to believe that the people around Him didn’t recognize who Jesus was. But it’s still like that today, isn’t it? Despite much evidence, many refuse to acknowledge Him.

The prophet Isaiah predicted of the Messiah that “there was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look” (Is. 53:3). In other words, if you were to put Jesus in a lineup of average Joes you wouldn’t notice anything different about Him. Imagine, a Savior with skin on. Deity in diapers. A God-man who felt hunger pangs, had dirt under his fingernails and grew weary after a hard day’s work. 

The Message Bible paraphrases John 1:14 like this, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Just read the Christmas story over again and notice the fallen world Christ came to save. The boot of Rome oppressed and taxed the Jews. Life was cheap. Herod the Great, “the butcher of Bethlehem,” committed infanticide to assuage his delusional paranoia. The overcrowded inn had no room for Joseph and his burgeoning bride, so Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough. 

Christian author Philip Yancey elaborates:
A succession of great empires tramped through the territory of Israel as if wiping their feet on the vaunted promised land. After the Assyrians and Babylonians came the Persians, who were in turn defeated by Alexander the Great. He was eventually followed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Jews' worst villain until Hitler. Antiochus began waging war against the Jewish religion. He transformed the temple of God into a worship center for Zeus and proclaimed himself God incarnate. He forced young boys to undergo reverse circumcision operations and flogged an aged priest to death for refusing to eat pork. In one of his most notorious acts he sacrificed an unclean pig on the altar in the Most Holy Place, smearing its blood around the temple sanctuary.
Antiochus's actions so incensed the Jews that they rose up in an armed revolt that's celebrated every year as the holiday Hanukkah. But their victory was short-lived. Before long, Roman legions marched into Palestine to quash the rebellion and appointed Herod, their "King of the Jews." After the Roman conquest, nearly the entire land lay in ruins. Herod was sickly and approaching seventy when he heard rumors of a new king born in Bethlehem, and soon howls of grief from the families of slain infants drowned out the angels' chorus of "Glory to God and on earth peace." First-century Israel was a conquered, cowed nation. This, then, was the neighborhood Jesus moved into: a sinister place with a somber past and a fearful future.1
When Jesus came down to humanity, he came all the way down. Philippians 2:5-7 is paraphrased this way, “He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process” (MSG). 

Rather than lobbying for His right to remain in heaven and continuing to enjoy all the benefits of that exalted role as the second member of the Godhead and Lord of the created world, He willingly said “Yes.”  He agreed to cooperate with a plan that would require His releasing ecstasy and accepting agony.  In a state of absolute perfection and undiminished deity, He willingly came to earth. Leaving the angelic hosts who flooded His presence with adoring praise, He unselfishly accepted a role that would require His being misunderstood, abused, cursed, and crucified. He unhesitatingly surrendered the fellowship and protection of the Father’s glory for the lonely path of obedience and torturous death.

God willingly dressed in street clothes and entered our world, joining those held hostage to sin. On the cross, Jesus defeated Satan and set us free from the power of sin. Augustine summed up the Incarnation like this, “God became a man for this purpose: since you, a human being, could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, you might now reach God through a man.”


1. Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away (Creative Trust Digital Kindle Edition, 2013).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Squanto: God's Provision to the Pilgrims

We’ve all heard the story of how the Pilgrims, landing in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, were ill equipped to survive the harsh winters of the New World. Most of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving; at least, we know the Pilgrim version. But how many of us know the Indian viewpoint? No, I’m not talking about some revisionist, politically correct version of history. I’m talking about the amazing story of the way God used an Indian named Squanto as a special instrument of His providence.

Historical accounts of Squanto’s life vary, but historians believe that around 1608; more than a decade before the Pilgrims landed in the New World; a group of English traders, led by a Captain Hunt, sailed to what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts. When the trusting Wampanoag Indians came out to trade, Hunt took them prisoner, transported them to Malaga, Spain, and sold them into slavery. But God had an amazing plan for one of the captured Indians; a twelve year old boy named Squanto.

Squanto was bought by a well-meaning Spanish monk, who treated him with kindness and taught him the Christian faith.  We assume his friar  friend granted him freedom because Squanto eventually made his way to England and worked in the stable of a man named John Slaney, who sympathized with Squanto’s desire to return home, and promised to put the Indian on the first vessel bound for America.

After another long five years, in approximately 1619--ten years after Squanto was first kidnapped--a merchant ship was located that was going back to the New World. Eventually, the ship sailed down the Maine coast and took Squanto to where his Patuxet village had been. But Squanto discovered that everyone in the village had died, probably from a smallpox epidemic  brought by the earlier English colonists. For a time Squanto lived with a neighboring tribe, but he eventually went to live in the woods by himself. 

We can only imagine what must have gone through Squanto’s mind. Why had God allowed him to return home, against all odds, only to find his loved ones dead? A year later, the answer came. A shipload of English families arrived and settled on the very land once occupied by Squanto’s people. Squanto went to meet them, greeting the startled Pilgrims in English!

From the perspective of the Pilgrims who arrived at what they called Plymouth in 1620, we need to remember that their first year had been a devastating nightmare. Half of their members had died from sickness and starvation, they were thousands of miles away from home, and they were surely questioning God. Suddenly, out of the woods walks an Indian speaking the King's English. Because Squanto had grown up there, he could teach them the best places to find lobsters, how to plant corn by burying kernels along with a fish for fertilizer, and how to find and catch eels in the muddy streams. Truly, Squanto was a godsend to the Pilgrims.

According to the diary of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God for our good . . . He showed us how to plant corn, where to take fish and to procure other commodities . . . and was also our pilot to bring us to unknown places for our profit, and never left us till he died.”

Governor Bradford compared Squanto to Joseph in the Bible. Joseph had been taken from his home and sold as a slave, but God had a plan. Through Joseph, God was able to save many people from starvation. What man had intended for evil God intended for good.
In the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims decided to set aside a time to thank God for His merciful blessings. They invited Squanto and other braves from Samoset's tribe who showed up carrying deer, wild turkeys, and many vegetables. Truly God had miraculously woven together the wandering lives of a lonely Patuxet brave and struggling band of English Pilgrims in such a way that would bless the whole world for centuries to come.
The moment that stood out the most in the Pilgrims' memories of that first Thanksgiving was William Brewster's prayer as they began the festival. They had so much for which to thank God: for providing all their needs-and His provision of Squanto, their teacher, guide, and friend that was to see them through those critical early winters.

By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day had become an institution throughout New England. It was officially proclaimed as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Traditionally celebrated on the last Thursday in November, it was changed by an act of Congress in 1941 to the fourth Thursday of that month.

In 1622, as Squanto lay mortally ill with fever, the Pilgrim leader William Bradford knelt at his bedside. According to Bradford’s diary, Squanto asked him to “pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” Squanto died November 1622, having bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims “as remembrances of his love.”

Who but God could so miraculously weave together the lives of a lonely Indian and a struggling band of Englishmen? Squanto’s life story is remarkable, and we ought to make sure our children and grandchildren learn about it. While you’re enjoying turkey and pumpkin pie this season, share with your kids the Indian side of the Thanksgiving story.Tell them about Squanto, the “special instrument sent of God”, who changed the course of American history.

Sources:

1. Chuck Missler, "The First Thanksgiving," Koinonia House, November 1997 
<http://www.khouse.org/articles/1997/111/>.

2. Charles Colson, "The Story of Squanto," Christian Worldview Journal, 29 October 2009 
<http://www.breakpoint.org/the-center/columns/colson-files/13214-the-story-of-squanto>. 

3. Eric Metaxas, Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Victims of Prosperity

Franklin and Phileda Nelson went to Burma as missionaries in the 1940s. They served there eight and a half years before the government closed the country to further missionary work. They returned to the United States where Franklin served several churches in various pastoral roles. While in Burma they worked among remote tribes, and Franklin found his sense of gratitude for God's providence rekindled. When reflecting on his missions work he wrote:

“In the Burmese hill country, the only way to get to remote villages was by walking. It was not at all uncommon for me to walk twenty miles a day in the dry season. When I got back to the States and worked as a pastor and church leader, I rarely walked a mile a day; the telephone and car made walking unnecessary. In Burma, if one of us got sick, the nearest hospital was ten days away. In the States, medical care is minutes away. Indoor plumbing and electricity were considered luxuries to the Burmese, but basic necessities in the States. In Burma, we'd go months without bread. Once we asked our daughter Karen to say grace before a meal, and she said, "Why do I have to pray for my daily bread when I don't ever get any?" It's hard to have that sense of helplessness and humility so vital to prayer when you sit down to your daily bread and don't even think about how you got it. I don't in any way blame people here for not knowing what God can do. We're victims of our prosperity. But I sometimes wish we had a few more hard times so people could experience firsthand how wonderful it is to be totally dependent on God.”1 

Being truly thankful for the blessings of God is difficult here in America. The reason is because we have no reference point for real poverty or dependence upon God. We live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation in the history of humanity and our riches have become our God and source of security. A 2006 study done by the United Nations reported that 2% of the human population (mostly Americans and Europeans) holds over 51% percent of the world’s entire wealth.2

Recently, I logged on to a website, globalrichlist.com, that calculates how you fit into the worldwide distribution of wealth. The results were staggering. According to the calculations of this website my middle-class salary puts me among the top 0.31% of the world’s wealthiest. It would take the average day laborer in the third-world 67 years to earn what I make in one year.


What is even more socking is that Christians in North America will only give 2.5% of their income to their church. Out of that 2.5% the churches in North America will only give 2% of their budgets to missions overseas. In other words, for every $100 dollars a North American Christian earns, he will give 5 cents through the church to a world with urgent physical and spiritual needs.3 

God has blessed the people of this nation like none other, however it has come with a cost. As Franklin Nelson pointed out we have become “victims of our prosperity.” This is why faith in the American church is a mile wide an inch deep. Why depend on God when we have Wal-Mart, wi-fi and 900 channels of entertainment?  

I am reminded of what Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).” If our wealth is not used for honoring God and building His Kingdom then it has become a curse to our souls and a bulwark to our spiritual growth. As you bow your head this week to give thanks for your blessings, consider how God might turn your gratitude into generosity. How can you use what you have to help someone in need?

1. Terry Muck, "Thankful in a Thankless World," Deepening Your Ministry Through Prayer and Personal Growth, 19 May 2004. 

2. David Jeremiah, The Coming Economic Armageddon (New York: Faith Words, 2010), 168. 

3. David Platt, Radical Together (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2011), 16.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sacrifice: Giving Up to Go Up

During the winter of 1777-1778 George Washington and his beleaguered troops encamped at Valley Forge were in dire straits. The soldiers were short of food, clothing, shelter and ammunition. General Washington sent a plea to the leadership of Pennsylvania asking for money saying, “Unless aid comes, our affairs must soon become desperate beyond the possibility of recovery. The Army must disband or starve.” 

One man responded to that plea. He was a wealthy merchant, Jacob DeHaven, who supported and believed in the revolutionary cause. Mr. DeHaven loaned the struggling government $50,000 in gold and what historians estimate to be another $400,000 in supplies. The Continental Army survived the harsh winter at Valley Forge and the rest is history. 

Ironically, DeHaven—the man who saved America—died penniless, giving everything he had for the freedom of the country. To this day, the DeHaven family has never been repaid by the U.S. government. The descendants of Jacob DeHaven claim that with interest added off the 1778 loan the government owes $141.6 billion.1 

Ultimately, there is no price tag that could ever be placed on Jacob DeHaven’s sacrifice, for without his investment the dreams of the Founding Fathers would have frozen to death that terrible winter so long ago. 

That story reminds me a principle that John Maxwell calls “the law of sacrifice,” which says “You have to give up in order to go up.”2 In other words, things that are worth something of great value will always come at great cost. Moreover, the higher you want to go, the more it’s going to cost. 

This is a principle that the Church needs to hear today. We want the best of everything—new buildings, state-of-the-art media, dynamic teaching, pastoral care, children and youth ministry and exciting worship. Many Christians desire these things, yet they are unwilling to tithe, volunteer, or serve in a way that might challenge their plans. This is the epitome of cheap worship. You cannot build a great church unless people are willing to sacrifice their best for the kingdom of God. 

The principle of sacrifice is laid out clearly throughout the Bible. When Abel offered his sacrifice to God, he brought out “the firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:4). When Abraham was tested by God on Mt. Moriah God demanded that he lay his beloved son Isaac on the altar (Gen. 22:2). Years later, when David desired to build a house for God he was offered a plot of ground for free, but David refused to accept the gift. He replied, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). 

The only way the church will be great is if the people are willing to sacrifice their best for God. As one old preacher said, “You can’t run the church on pocket change and spare time.”  

1. Lisa Belkin, "213 Years After Loan, Uncle Sam Is Dunned," The New York Times, 27 May 1990 <http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/27/us/213-years-after-loan-uncle-sam-is-dunned.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.

2. John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 183-192. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The War to End All Wars

Plato once said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Perhaps the philosopher was uttering a prophecy because historians have tabulated that since 3,600 BC the world has known only 292 years of peace. In fact, since 1495, no 25-year period has been without war. 

The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. In Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century, Jonathan Glover estimates that 86 million people died in wars fought from 1900 to 1989. That means 2,500 people every day, or 100 people every hour, for 90 years. What’s even more staggering is that more people were killed during conflicts in the 20th century than the previous 19 centuries combined.1 

According to the U.S. Army Military Institute, in its brief existence as a nation the United States has been involved in twenty-nine wars or military conflicts which led to the demise of 1.4 million troops who have died for their country. 

Dr. David Jeremiah has written, “The fact is 50% of all research scientists today are involved in arms development. Despite all the arms limitations and treaties, there is at least one military weapon and four thousand pounds of explosives for every man woman and child on earth. Most of us are simply hoping somebody doesn’t get careless. But the Bible says that as we move towards the end times war will become an industry unto itself.”2 

Jesus pointed out in the Olivet Discourse that in the last days no one will be exempt from the fallout of war. There will be hot wars and cold wars, “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt. 24:6-7). In other words, as we draw closer to His return we should expect to see more bloodshed. 

A buzzword in our culture for war is "Armageddon," yet few people realize its biblical connection. All they know is that Armageddon will be the war to end all wars and draw the final curtain on modern civilization. Actually, Armageddon is not really a battle, but more so a place. The name translates from the Hebrew to mean “Mount of Slaughter,” and it corresponds to an actual geographical feature located about ten miles southwest of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus. 

Megiddo, as it is properly called, includes an extended plain that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea across northern Israel. According to scholar Alan Johnson, “More than 200 battles have been fought at or near Megiddo.”3 In 1799 General Napoleon Bonaparte stood at Megiddo and declared, “All the armies of the could maneuver their forces on this vast plain…There is no place in the whole world more suited for war than this…It is the most natural battleground on the whole earth.”4 No wonder that God chose this place to defeat His enemies. 

Earth's final battle will end abruptly. The Antichrist will deploy the armies of the world from his headquarters at Armageddon, planning to destroy the nation of Israel once and for all. In the nick of time, Jesus Christ will burst from heaven with a shout, with a word of power, and He will win the victory--instantly, decisively, gloriously. Paul commented on this event saying, "And then the lawless one [the antichrist] will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming" (2 Thess. 2:8).  

As Christians, we'll have a front-row seat to the action. Until then, we can visualize and anticipate victory every time we read Revelation 19 and its description of Him whose name is called Faithful and True. Such an epic scene calls to mind scenes from great fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, where humans fight alongside otherworldly creatures to defeat the forces of evil. It's a thrilling picture to think of the Church side-by-side with Jesus Christ, the God-man, defeating evil once and for all. The only question is whose side are you on?  

1. Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century (Yale University Press, 2012).

2. David Jeremiah, Sings of the Second Coming (San Diego: Turning Point, 2005), 22.

3. Alan Johnson, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:551.

4. J. Vernon McGee, Through the Bible, vol. 3 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 513. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In God We Trust?

Have you noticed the inscription that is found on every piece of American currency? “In God we trust,” first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864 and has appeared on paper currency since 1957. I point this out because it seems to me that a single letter was left out of the motto—that is the letter “L.” Wouldn’t it be more accurate if American currency said, “In gold we trust?” We live in a society that is obsessed with managing hedge funds, building robust stock portfolios and investing in a secure 401-K. However, all those accumulated riches can be gone in a day.

An illustration of this happened to a Chinese man earlier this year. According to the British news source, The Telegraph, Mr. Zhao, a resident of Shanghai, asked his wife to store their life’s savings inside a coat pocket tucked away in the back of their closet. Mr. Zhao, was shocked one evening when he went to make a deposit one evening and found that rodents had broken into his closet and munched their way through a stash of money he had been hoarding. Their life’s savings, which was around $1,250 U.S. dollars, was turned into confetti by the mice. One bank said they would honor Mr. Zhao’s money if he was somehow able to reassemble the shredded bank notes.1 

Another article reported that a woman lost $65,000 of her life’s savings because termites invaded a wooden chest and chewed their way through her cash.2 

If that wasn’t painful enough, a contestant on Wheel of Fortune named Paul was about to win a shot at the million dollar grand prize when he bumbled his answer and lost out big time. The contestant simply had to solve a puzzle that was missing just one letter when his brain and tongue failed on him. As you might imagine the YouTube video of this costly stutter went viral on the internet as the epic fail of the year.3

Need I remind you that the stock market isn't a safe place either? Remember what happened on September 29, 2008? The stock market plummeted 777 points in a single day and the market lost approximately $1.2 trillion of its value. Economists referred to that year as the "Financial Armageddon" when skidding stocks coupled with the bursting of the housing bubble.  

According to Jesus materialism isn’t just sinful, it’s plain stupid. The reason is because everything in this world is passing away. Investing in the things of this earth is like buying a first class ticket for a place on the Titanic, or giving your life savings to Bernie Madeoff, or converting your cash over to Monopoly money. Proverbs 18:11 says, “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.” In other words, trusting in riches to bring security or satisfaction is like thinking you can get a cool drink water from a desert mirage.

Moreover, Jesus added that storing up stuff on earth will only lead to loss, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19). Jesus pointed out that all earthly treasure is susceptible to one of three things—ruin, rust and robbery. 

Instead, you and I should be investing in eternity. Even though we cannot take anything with us beyond the grave, we can send it ahead when use the money God has entrusted to us for Kingdom purposes. According to the Bible, there are only two things that will outlast death--the souls of men and women (Mark 8:36) and the Word of God (Mark 13:31). Therefore, we would be wise to put as much of our income as we can into those endeavors. 

Perhaps, Randy Alcorn offers the most sensible analogy: "Imagine you are at the end of the Civil War. You're living in the South but you are a Northerner. You plan to move home as soon as the war is over. While in the South you've accumulated lots of Confederate currency. Now suppose you know for a fact that the North is going to win the war and the end is imminent. What will you do with your confederate money? If you're smart there's only one answer. You should immediately cash in your Confederate currency for U.S. currency--the only money that will have value once the war is over. Keep only enough Confederate currency to meet your short term needs. As a Christian, you have inside knowledge of an eventual worldwide upheaval caused by Christ's return. This is the ultimate insider trading tip: Earth's currency will become worthless when Christ returns--or when you die, which ever comes first."4

1. Tom Phillips, "Chinese Mice Devour Man's Life Savings," The Telegraph, 12 March 2013, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9926426/Chinese-mice-devour-mans-life-savings.html> accessed 22 October 2013. 

2. Lee Morgan, "Termites Eat through $65,000 Worth of Chinese Woman's Savings," New York Daily News, 14 June 2013, <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/termites-eat-chinese-woman-savings-65-000-article-1.1372721#ixzz2iU5si6EW> accessed 22 October 2013. 


4. Randy Alcorn, The Treasure Principle (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2001), 14-15.     

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Loving a Terrorist

During the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded, killing 3 people and injuring an estimated 264 others. Analysts from the FBI combed over surveillance video and released the images of two suspects—brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A massive manhunt ensued to find these terrorists. A gunfight in the streets of a Boston suburb resulted in the death of Tamerlan, while the police apprehended the other brother later. Since the brothers were Muslims, their religion dictated that the body of Tamerlan should be buried in a white shroud within 24 hours of death. However, because of the public outrage created over the bombing, no cemetery was willing to bury the body of Tamerlan. 

That’s when Martha Mullen stepped in to help. Mullen said she was at a Starbucks when she heard a radio news report about the difficulty finding a burial spot for Tamerlan. Mullen, a committed Christian, said, “My first thought was Jesus said ‘love your enemies.’” Then she had an epiphany, "I thought someone ought to do something about this–and I am someone." Mullen placed several phone calls and found a Muslim cemetery in Virginia that would accept the remains of Tamerlan. 

As you might imagine, Mullen was scorned and vilified by angry protestors. Despite the persecution, Mullen told a reporter from NPR, “Jesus tells us in the parable of the Good Samaritan to love your neighbor as yourself. And your neighbor is not just someone you belong with but someone who is alien to you. If I'm going to live my faith, then I'm going to do that which is uncomfortable.”1 

The example of Martha Mullen living out her faith just goes to show the radical nature of the Gospel. Extending grace to those that have wronged us goes totally against human nature and the desire for retaliation. But grace is the only thing that can stop the cycle of hate and show a supernatural alternative. 

In Romans 12:25 Paul wrote, “To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” What did Paul mean with that strange imagery? The phrase “heap burning coals upon his head” referred to an ancient Egyptian custom. When a person wanted to demonstrate public contrition, he would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt.2 The point being that when show grace to an enemy we are more apt to lead him to repentance over his evil deeds than if we return with uppercut of revenge. 

We live in a world of un-grace so when we show Christ-like love to an enemy it seems so scandalous. That’s because grace is God’s way of disarming hostile hearts. Grace eradicates the virus of hate, baffles our enemies, defies logic, breaks down barriers and produces tears of repentance. Unmerited, undeserved, unexpected, grace is God’s most intoxicating fragrance to woo sinners to Himself. As Gordon MacDonald said, “The world can do almost anything as well or better than the Church. You need not be a Christian to build houses, feed the hungry, or heal the sick. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”3


1. Audie Cornish, "The Search Is Over: Boston Bombing Suspect Has Been Buried," NPR News, All Things Considered, 10 May 2013, <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=182938654> accessed 15 October 2013. 

2. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 203. 

3. Gordon MacDonald, quoted by Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 15.