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Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Secular Christmas: Its Absurdities and Antidote

Many of us are struck this time of year by all the attempts of the unbelieving culture to celebrate Christmas without making any acknowledgement of Jesus.  Every time unbelievers say, “Christmas,” they say His name - Christ - but what they truly desire is all the trappings of the holiday without the Person.  

The holiday exists as a celebration of the birth of the Son of God come into the world to redeem sinners by His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection.  All the darkness of the human experience is a result of sin’s separating man from God, which culminates in man’s eternity under His omnipotent wrath.  Christ came to remedy that horror with the result that the one who has faith in Him is reconciled to God, will eventually be rid of all sin’s horrible effects, and will spend eternity with Him in paradise.  The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the only reason to truly rejoice in this broken world.

Yet, for the vast majority of people, Jesus is an uncomfortable, unspoken detail of the holiday that they are eager to leave obscured.  This leads to a host of seasonal absurdities that are a secular Christmas:  

There is the meaningless tradition of gift-giving.  According to an annual survey by MagnifyMoney, people who added Christmas debt last year did so to an average tune of $1,054.  That’s right - they added over a thousand dollars in debt celebrating a holiday they have absolutely no reason to celebrate.  And what is the reason for giving gifts on December 25?  The believer can answer this question, “we do this to commemorate the fact that God loved us and gave us His Son.”  But those who desire a Christ-less Christmas can give no answer but, “we just do.” 

There is the hollow well-wishing of joy and “cheer.”  Are people more happy this time of year?  Perhaps, but it’s temporary and illogical.  Christmas for many is like an emotional and mental vacation from their problems.  It’s a time-out from reality.  For these few days, the secular world pretends there is a reason to be happy.  But for those headed for a literal, eternal hell, what is there to be joyful about?  Read the chronicles of the Old Testament of the people steeped in sin, separated from the God who made them (Judges 2).  Read about the people drunk on their rebellion and the spiritual blindness it caused them (Jeremiah 44).  This isn’t joy; it’s delusion.  The sorrows of those who run after another god will multiply (Psa 16:4).  The irony is as thick as black darkness - they wish joy to one another, while ignoring the only true source of it.

There is the pervasive admonition to “make the world a better place.”  This is a hallmark of the season.  Based upon the typical secular Christmas lyrics, I’m guessing this means just being kinder to one another.  Let’s be better people.  But that’s just the problem, isn’t it?  We can’t be better people.  Man is the reason the world is so terrible.  For all our attempts at self-reform, we end up right back where we started - hating God and hating one another (Rom 1:30; Titus 3:3).  The only one who can make the world a better place is the One who came to rid it of sinners - the Christ of Christmas (1 Tim 1:15; Rev 20:13-15).

We may scratch our heads about all this - and even become embittered against our secular culture for denying Christ His due.  But if we follow the theology and storyline of Scripture, we will find a better understanding of the problem and a more productive response.  There is a reason people celebrate Christmas - clinging to all the trappings of joy and attempting some transcendent meaning - while rejecting the real reason for the holiday: this is what man has always done and all that man can do in his lostness on God’s earth.  And the appropriate response of believers should be to herald all the more His coming, dying, and living again.

The fallen man is trapped by his own sinful heart in an absurd position.  He owes his existence to a God whose existence he is determined to deny (Gen 1:26; Psa 14:1).  While following after his own desires and worshiping created things, he cannot but depend upon his Creator for the air he breathes, the food he eats, all the biological processes that sustain him, and the grace that allows him to remain anywhere other than hell (Rom 1:18-21; Psa 104).  In his self-professed wisdom, he is a fool (Rom 1:22).  He wants meaning and joy and life, but without God.  Yet, God - from whom he is estranged by his sin - is the only One who can give him these things (Psa 16:11).  His only hope to be saved from this pitiful state is to believe on Jesus Christ.  However, because he is dead in trespasses and sins, he is incapable of seeing the truth (Eph 2:1-3; Joshua 24:19).  

His eyes must be opened.  And how does this happen?  Blind eyes are opened by the proclamation of the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17).  

So…may our response to the absurdity of a secular Christmas NOT be mere lamentation, but proclamation of the very Christ the world would just as soon ignore.  Compassion should move us to be more overt in the Christ-centeredness of our Christmas celebrations and conversations.  Many of us deplore the Christ-less shape of Christmas around us.  But are we willing to boldly proclaim Him into that darkness?  He is the only One who can dispel it!  


Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Prosperity of the Wicked and the Righteous in Psalm 73

In Sunday’s message, “The Exile’s Privilege,” we considered the temptation to envy the relative ease with which many in the world skate through life, a temptation depicted in numerous psalms. These psalms address a question that you may have pondered: what benefit is there in being faithful to the Lord if the ungodly are so clearly rewarded in this life? I would like to walk through one such psalm with you, drawing out some of the truths we heard from 1 Peter 1:10-12

Psalm 73 begins with the writer exhibiting a right attitude toward the issue at hand:

1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.  This is the conclusion to which he was led by God’s help. It is the right answer to the question above. What benefit is there to remaining faithful to God? God’s goodness. God is good to the pure in heart. 

Then the psalmist starts at the beginning, showing how close he came to falling into the trap of thinking wrongly about God:

2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.  What clarity regarding the real issue! At the heart of this question is the sin of envy. “My feet almost stumbled”— stumbling in the OT is a perilous falling into sin, usually indicating a pattern or lifestyle. Falling into wrong thinking on this issue is perilous because it can lead one to give up and embrace the lifestyle of the wicked for its apparent rewards. 

Next, he describes the prosperity of the wicked:

4 For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. 5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. 7 Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. 8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. 9 They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. 10 Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. 11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" 12 Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.  It seems inexplicable to the psalmist that the wicked would not only be able to engage in ungodly behavior, but even blaspheme (vv9-11) and suffer no obvious consequences (vv5, 12). 

So the psalmist voices his temptation in words that many of us may recognize from our own hearts:

13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. 14 For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.  “They do whatever they want and even provoke God, but life only gets easier for them; I’ve walked uprightly and pursued holiness only to suffer for it.”  So dangerous is that phrase, “all in vain.”  That phrase and the next verse show just how close the psalmist came to stumbling:

15 If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed the generation of your children.  He recognizes that if he had made these thoughts his confession—that is, the truth by which he lived his life—he would have not only walked away from the faith, but he would have damaged the faith of others, i.e., “betrayed the generation of your children.”  So, how was he rescued from edge of this cliff?

16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.  This shows the psalmist taking one crucial step in the right direction— the same step that many of us need to take today in response to a host of unique circumstances perplexing us: He despaired of his own ability to make sense of what seemed like injustice, and he turned to the only One able to help him think rightly about these things.  The result? Then he understood the truth about the wicked, which he explains in the coming verses:

18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.  The world has one thing that the believer does not and would never want: the wrath of God!  They are without God in the world in this life and face His eternal wrath in the next. What a fearful thing to be “despised” by God!  

By contrast, the psalmist then describes his own standing before God:

21 When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, 22 I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. 23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.  The psalmist was ungodly in his attitude toward the Lord.  “I was like a beast toward you” shows that his disposition toward God was just as arrogant as the wicked he formerly envied.  Yet he is a recipient of the most precious thing in existence—the grace of God.  Unlike the wicked of the world, the believer does not receive what he deserves, but what he does not deserve—God’s love and presence.

This realization leads him to exult:

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.  Remember the first verse of the psalm? Truly God is good to Israel…  The psalmist is led to see that God’s goodness toward His own takes the form of something far more valuable than worldly ease and wealth.  About what does he rejoice in these final verses—material things and relief from trials?  No.  He exults that he has God.  God is good to His own in that He gives them Himself.  

Vv16-17 are the pivot: But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.  God was gracious to the psalmist not only by helping him to see the situation more clearly, but by changing what he valued.  God helped the psalmist to see that what he had was far more valuable than anything afforded by the world.  

It is the greatest of riches to know and have God in Christ.  It is the greatest eternal poverty to be without Him now and to know only His wrath after death.  Let us not stumble by envying the wicked.  With the psalmist let our song be, My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Idolatry and Spiritual Warfare

Earlier in this series, I made a comment, which I’d like to develop a bit in this article: “Idolatry, at its foundation is demonic.”  That is a strong assertion.  Let’s consider that and it’s implications for how we should deal with idolatry. 

The Bible certainly treats idols themselves as inanimate, powerless objects.  They “are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good” (Jer. 10:5).

However, behind idol worship is the influence of evil spirits, or demons.  Indeed, numerous texts indicate that idol worship is actually the worship of demons themselves.  

So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore. (Lev. 17:7)

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known… (Deut. 32:17)

They served their idols, which became a snare to them.  They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Ps. 106:36-37)

…what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Cor. 10:20)

The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk… (Rev. 9:20)

These passages should cause us to recognize what is really going on in our fight against idolatry.  This is not merely dehabituation and rehabituation.  It is spiritual warfare.  As Paul teaches in Eph 2:1-3, there is a triumvirate of influences leading us away from fidelity to the one true God: our own depravity, the world, and “the prince of the power of the air.”  

In some Christian circles, particularly those most turned off by charismatic excesses, believers focus mostly on fighting the flesh and the world.  This avenue of dealing with idolatry typically entails “putting off” and “putting on” and avoiding the tempting situations that the world so eagerly supplies (Eph 4:20-24).  Certainly, this is necessary, but it doesn’t go far enough.  It fails to recognize the intelligent enemy involved.

Idols do not merely represent habits that divert our attention from the Lord.  The passages above would indicate that regardless of what they look like, idols are tools used by a cunning foe to lead us away from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.  Therefore, we are not just dealing with bad habits, but an intentional enemy.  Dealing with them, therefore, will require more than breaking a bad habit and creating a new one.  It will require a warfare mentality and resisting not just the flesh, but the devil.

Aren’t we commanded to do this?  James 4 is a classic text used in biblical counseling circles to get to the heart of quarreling.  It addresses the selfish motives of our flesh - you desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel…  It also addresses the influence of the world in this struggle.  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.  There we have the fight against the flesh and the world.  However, James doesn’t stop there.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

Yet, some disregard the call to any kind of spiritual warfare, casting it into a trash can labeled “the devil made me do it.”  We should be thankful the NT authors don’t do that.  The NT is much more balanced.  We can fight against the devil in our struggle with sin without blaming him for our sin.  

James and Paul and Peter and the others have much to say about spiritual warfare, which is essential in our fight against idolatry.  James would have us see in the passage above that we must draw near to God.  That is, we must enjoy fellowship with Him in all the ways we talk about so frequently (Word, prayer, Body).  Part of this fellowship, according to James, includes mourning and weeping over sin (James 4:9) - agreeing with God about our sin, rather than agreeing with the devil about our sin.  

Paul would have us to know that prayer is a powerful offensive weapon of our warfare.  Most of the armor in Eph 6:10ff, is defensive in nature and it all relates to gospel truth - essential to our fight.  We must preach the gospel to ourselves in this fight and use that truth to stand firm in the faith.  But there is an offensive weapon - the Word of Spirit - likened to a sword, attached to a participial phrase, “praying at all times in the Spirit…”  We are to receive the Word of the Spirit (an offensive weapon), praying at all times in the Spirit.  It’s possible that one way we wield this weapon is by praying the Word.  We pray in the Spirit the Word of the Spirit.  

How might we use this weapon against our foe in the fight against idolatry?  We could pray imprecatory psalms against the enemy.  “For behold, your enemies make an uproar; those who hate you have raised their heads.  …As fire consumes the forest, as the flame sets the mountains ablaze, so may you pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane!” (Ps. 83:2, 14-15)  Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! (Ps. 35:1)  

We could also pray the truths of the gospel.  That though there was a record of debt against us, Christ canceled it on the cross and disarmed all demonic powers.  “Lord, let this reality be born out in my fight against idolatry.  Let not my enemies triumph over me.” (Col 2:14-15; Psa 41:11). 

Much more could be written here, but at the very least, let’s not consider idolatry a matter of defeating bad habits.  It will entail putting off ungodly behavior, putting on godly alternatives, and avoiding the worlds enticements.  But there is more.  It entails spiritual warfare.