Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: December, 2017

THE MESSAGE OF CHRISTMAS

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi: The Anunciation

 

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”                          I Tim. 1:15; NKJV

 

In these twenty five words the apostle Paul summarizes the message of Christmas, and indeed of the Christian gospel itself.  Jesus is the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” – both words mean “the anointed one”).  He came into “the world,” this sin-cursed world of fallen human beings.  He had previously existed in heaven, and then came into the world by means of a virgin birth and assumed the form of a human being.  And why did He do this?  “To save sinners.”  And herein is the rub.

We would like to think of ourselves as basically good people and that God likes us just the way we are.  But when God looks at us He does not see basically good people.  What He sees are “sinners.”  We routinely ignore Him, and we often do that which we know to be wrong.  And why?  Because our actions are driven by various forms of selfishness: pride, greed or lust.  And as a result we are, by nature estranged and alienated from God.

But “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  So great was the love and compassion that He had for us that He came into the world and died on the cross to save us – to rescue us from our sin and depravity, and from the punishment we justly deserve.  Christ shows His love for us, not by pretending that we are not sinners, but by paying the penalty for the sins we have committed.

And is Paul being self-righteous, bigoted and judgmental by calling people “sinners”?  No, not all.  For he says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am chief.”  He sees himself as a sinner, just like everyone else.  We are all sinners; we all need salvation.  And Christ came into the world to achieve precisely that.

In calling sin “sin” we are not setting ourselves above others.  We are simply acknowledging the common fault of mankind.  And the way to find peace with God is not by pretending that we are righteous, but by frankly admitting that we are sinners and asking God for forgiveness.  That is not bigotry; that is humanitarianism at its deepest level.

And that is the true meaning of Christmas!

Advertisements

MAGNIFICAT

4.2.7

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

 

Christmas, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  But what is so special about Christ?  Have there not been other great men in history whose birthdays are worth commemorating?  What sets Christ apart from all the rest?

We will let Mary tell the story.  The gospels of both Matthew and Luke describe the birth of Christ; but Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke tells it from Mary’s.  And quite an extraordinary story it is.  In Luke chapter 1 we are told that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to explain what was about to happen to her.  Gabriel told her that she would conceive a son, and call His name Jesus.  “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lu. 1:32,33; NKJV).  Mary would, in effect, be giving birth to the long awaited Messiah.  The prophet Daniel in the Old Testament had predicted that there would come One “like the Son of Man,” who would be given a universal dominion, and that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, / Which shall not pass away, / And His kingdom the One / Which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14).

But how would this even be possible?  How could a child of Mary’s be considered “the Son of the Highest”?  Gabriel explained: this would be no ordinary birth.  Instead of the normal sexual relationship she would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  In other words the child would be no ordinary human being.  While He would have a human mother (Mary), His Father would be none other than God himself, making the child both God and man at the same time.

Mary, as one might expect, was absolutely astonished.  A virgin birth would normally be considered impossible.  But Gabriel pointed out to Mary that “With God nothing will be impossible” (v. 37), and Mary replied, “Let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Not long afterward Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who in her old age had conceived a child who would become John the Baptist.  As soon as Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped.  And filled with the Holy Spirit Elizabeth declared “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42).  Elizabeth went on to call Mary “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43), and said “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (v. 45).  Elizabeth, in other words, realized that what was happening to Mary was extraordinary.

This led Mary to break out in worship with what has come to be known as the “Magnificat,” from the opening words in the Latin Vulgate translation (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” – “My soul magnifies the Lord’).  She begins by praising God for what He has done for her personally: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant” (v. 48).  What the Lord was doing in her life, using her to bring forth the Messiah, would have been extraordinary for any woman.  But significantly God did not choose an aristocratic noblewoman for this honor, but someone of “lowly state” – a young virgin engaged to a carpenter.  And, as a result, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed”; and so they did.

But then Mary goes on to reflect on the broader significance of the event for the human race as a whole.  Using language reminiscent of Psalm 113:5-8 and especially Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:1-10, she declares that God’s mercy is on those who fear Him (v. 50).  Specifically God has scattered the proud, pulled down the mighty from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty, while exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things (vv. 51-53).

This may seem like a bit of rhetorical overstatement, given the fact that Mary had not yet actually given birth at the time that she said this.  But she is using verbs in the past tense to describe prophetically events yet to take place in the future.  Undoubtedly she is reflecting on Old Testament prophecies regarding the kingdom of the Messiah.  Throughout human history the rich, the strong and the powerful have taken advantage of the weak and vulnerable, and Israel itself had felt threatened by more powerful neighbors.  But when the Messiah comes all of this will be overturned, and perfect peace and justice will reign.  Isaiah could prophesy that “unto us a child is born” and “the government will be upon His shoulder,” and He will sit upon the throne of David “to order it and establish it with judgment and justice” (Isa. 9:1-7).  Mary concluded by reflecting on God’s mercy to Israel as promised to the patriarchs of old.

What Mary could not see was how all of this would be fulfilled.  What she could not have known is that Christ would come twice; that He would first have to make an atonement for human sin, and that then the gospel would go forth into the entire world calling men and women to repentance and faith.  Only after then would He return in the clouds in power and glory to take the throne and usher in an era of perfect peace.  In the meantime the kingdom exists in the hearts of true believers scattered throughout the world, largely invisible but real nonetheless.

The birth of Christ was the decisive turning point in history.  Up until then sin and darkness had ruled nearly everywhere.   The human race was sunk in superstition and vice.  But with the birth of Christ the light shone into the world, bringing spiritual life to untold multitudes with a hope for a better tomorrow.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas!

THE GAY WEDDING CAKE CASE

robert_walter_weir_-_embarkation_of_the_pilgrims_-_google_art_project

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims

 

This past Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.  The baker, Jack Phillips, was accused of violating Colorado’s public accommodations law and was sanctioned by the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

Phillips’ lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the State of Colorado had violated her client’s First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion.  Much of the discussion in court, then, centered on whether baking a cake is a form of speech, and whether other forms of artistic expression, such as photography and floral arranging would also qualify as speech.  The state contends that Phillips was engaged in discrimination, pure and simple.

We think that several important distinctions must be made.  First of all, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is not the same thing as discriminating on the basis of race.  Race is an inherited and immutable biological trait; homosexuality is a behavior pattern which involves conscious decisions and moral choice.  There is no solid evidence that it is hereditary or biologically determined.  By adding sexual orientation to its list of protected classes, the State of Colorado is treating a behavior pattern as though it were the same as  a biological characteristic, and is then penalizing anyone who objects to that behavior on moral grounds.

Secondly, Mr. Phillips can claim that he is not discriminating against homosexuals simply because they are homosexuals.  If they want to come into his shop to buy coffee and donuts he would be more than happy to serve them.  What he is refusing to do is to provide material support for a specific activity that he deems morally objectionable.

Moreover it is one thing to grant homosexuals the freedom to marry each other; it is another thing to force someone else to act against his own conscience to support the wedding.  The first is consistent with the principle of individual freedom; the second is not.

The state, of course, can and should regulate the behavior of individuals with each other. But it should be very careful about infringing on the deeply held religious beliefs of its citizens.  Religion deals with transcendent truths and provides the foundation for public morality.  To force its citizens to choose between God and the state is to invite civil disobedience on the one hand and to erode public morality on the other.

In the case at hand the legalization of same sex marriage represents a radical departure from 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian teaching on the subject of human sexuality.  And freedom of religion is one of the bedrock principles of American democracy.  Many of the immigrants to these shores came precisely to escape from religious persecution at home.  The colonies of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were early experiments in religious freedom.  And freedom of religion was enshrined in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

The Virginia Bill of Rights (1776) declared that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience . . .”  To which James Madison added, “The religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate” (“A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 1785).

The implications of a ruling against the baker in this case are staggering.  By allowing the state to dictate morality to the church it would open the door to religious persecution.  But the implications are even more far reaching than even that.  The state, by placing itself above God, comes amoral and tyrannical, not bound by any higher moral authority.  The Twentieth Century witnessed the horrors of the godless state at work.  And ultimately society itself becomes lawless and unruly as it loses all moral restraint.

George Washington summed it up well in the Farewell Address of 1796:

“Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity,

religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would

that man claim the tribute of patriotism who would labor to subvert

these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of

the duty of man and citizens.  The mere politician, equally with

the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume

could not  trace all their connections with private and public felicity.”

A ruling in the Phillips case (Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltc. V. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) is not expected until June, 2018.  It remains to be seen what the court will do in this.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, who could very well cast the deciding vote, seemed skeptical of the state’s position, stating at one point that “Tolerance is essential in a free society.  And tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.  It seems to me that the state in its position here has been neither tolerant nor respectful of Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.”  It remains to be seen how the court will rule on this.  But if the state can force a Christian to support the LGBT agenda it can force anyone to support any philosophy or ideology, and then we will have ceased to be a free nation.

 

 

WHAT GOD EXPECTS FROM US

 

As we have seen, then, God is our Creator and sovereign Lord, and thus we are obligated to give Him our obedience.  But what exactly does He expect from us?  What exactly does He want from us?

About this too the Bible has a great deal to say, but there is one verse of Scripture that neatly sums up man’s duty toward God – Micah 6:8:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(NKJV)

There are, then, three basic things that God requires: 1) “to do justly,” 2) “to love mercy,” and 3) “to walk humbly with your God.”

First of all it says that we are “to do justly,” or, as it might more literally be translated, “to do justice.”  Strictly speaking justice is something that is administered by a judge, and the prophet Micah had strong words for the judges of his day who were often corrupt and took bribes (cf. Micah 7:3).  But there is also a broad, general sense in which all of us are responsible for maintaining justice in our relationships with our fellow human beings.  In this context justice means to treat others fairly and honestly, giving each person his due, and not doing anything to harm him or take from him something that is not rightfully ours.

“Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? . . .

He who does not backbite with his tongue,

Nor does evil to his neighbor,

Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend . . .

He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

He who does not put out his money at usury,

Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.”

(Psalm 15)

We must be careful to respect each other’s family, property and reputation; and that means that we do not attempt to manipulate or defraud him with lying, cheating or stealing, by stretching the truth or concealing information, by telling “little white lies.”  We are careful to give each person his or her due.

In business relationships in particular we should be completely honest with our customers, employees and vendors.  We should be careful not to misrepresent our products and services, but honestly represent what we have to offer so that the customer knows exactly what he is getting for what he is paying.  Employers should treat their employees fairly, give them honest evaluations, and reward them for their work.  Employees should give their employers a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.

But then the text goes on to say that we should “love mercy.”   The word translated “mercy” basically means kindness shown to others, especially to those in need.  Job could say,

“. . . I delivered the poor who cried out,

The fatherless and the one who had no helper . . .

I was eyes to the blind,

And I was feet to the lame.

I was a father to the poor . . .”

(Job 29:12-16)

What God requires of us is that we genuinely care about our fellow human beings and help them out in times of need to the extent of our ability.

What this may mean in actual practice is the expenditure of our time and money.  We must take the time to listen and make the effort to find solutions to the other person’s problem.  What we may not do is to go through life pursuing our own narrow self-interest and ignore the needs of others.  God is a God of compassion, and He expects us to show compassion as well.

But God also expects us to have a relationship with Him as well.  We are “to walk humbly with your God.”   To “walk with” Him means to commune with Him on a regular basis and to live our lives in accordance with His will.  And we are to do this “humbly” – in full recognition of the fact that He is infinitely greater than ourselves, that He is our Creator and that we are entirely dependent upon Him.

It is significant that in the immediate context the prophet poses the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord, / And bow myself before the High God?/ Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, / With calves a year old?” (6:6). Israel at that time still had a functioning priesthood, and all of these sacrifices were prescribed in the Old Testament law.  Yet while Israel maintained the external, formal religious observances, the land was filled with corruption, injustice and oppression.  Was God, then, impressed with the “thousands of rams” and the “ten thousand rivers of oil” that they offered?  No!  What matters most to God is not empty ritual, but a life marked by honesty, compassion and a genuine devotion to God.  Morality is a matter of relationships, our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellow human beings.  And therefore the prophet says “He has shown you, O man, what is good; / And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly . . .”