“You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.” -Mere Christianity, 11-12
I just got off the phone with some people trying to scam me, telling me they are with the Canada Revenue Agency criminal division, etc. and that I owed them like $4,158, and that a warrant was about to be issued for my arrest and that I would need a lawyer, and that they have been trying to reach me by sending a courier to personally deliver the mail but I wasn’t there, etc.
For a bunch of reasons, not the least of which the CRA has actually mailed me recently for a couple different things, I got a little sucked into the scam and this one took a good 45 minutes of cell time to figure out. But let me tell you, to go from a place of thinking you owe $4,158 to then realize you owe nothing is an incredible feeling.
Hold that thought.
On a related note, last week I almost had a head-on collision. I was going through the intersection and a car turned left and veered straight into my path. I slammed the brakes and started skidding. At the last minute, I dodged around the front of their car. My life flashed before my eyes. A little brush with mortality sure makes you thankful to be alive.
Isn’t it good to be alive?! Isn’t it great not to be in jail for owing tons of money you can’t pay?!
And that brings us to this whole thing of joy.
The reason we have joy is that every day is a gift from our gracious God – every day the sun rises is pure gift. And run-ins like these that I have had lately have made me remember that.
Of course, the ultimate gift is that in Christ God canceled all our debts and reconciled us to himself.
But as if that wasn’t enough, then he gives blessing after blessing on top of it.
I am a swimmer. Often swimmers now wear underwater headphones to listen to music or podcasts as they swim. Think about that last sentence. In what part of human history have they had clean, warm, indoor pools? In what part of history have they had those pools situated in a barren, frozen place like Canada’s North? And in what part of history have musicians been able to record their music digitally onto a computer for mass consumption? In what part of history have they had headphones? Underwater headphones? Underwater headphones playing digital music in a warm, indoor pool in the Canadian frozen North? It’s insane! We are among the wealthiest, most privileged, people who have ever lived.
The secret to joy, I believe, is to try to come to grips with the fact that you are entitled to nothing from God. Entitlement is the biggest trap for many of us. It completely robs us of thanksgiving and consequently the opportunity to rejoice. It is actually the heart of atheism – to receive God’s gifts daily and yet never acknowledge him as the Giver (Romans 1).
The opposite of entitlement is thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God is what fuels joy. And what do we have to be more thankful for then that Christ has come to our world? That the Lord has come? He has brought heaven down. He has removed our sins and wiped away all our debts.
All the other little joys of this season – pretty lights, family gatherings, egg nog – they are all just icing on the cake.
For those who are grieving or suffering in various ways this time of year, it’s important to remember that all that other fun Christmas stuff really is just an extra bonus. The heart of Christmas is that Christ is here and he has come to establish our joy in him forever. Every extra day is a bonus. Underwater headphones are a bonus. Turkey and gravy and cards and stockings are a bonus. Christian joy is rooted in the finished work of Christ. It is not reptilian and cold-blooded, changing with the environment – it is warm-blooded. In that sense it is self-originating – and it goes all the way down to the toes. It won’t be overcome by the darkness even when the days are hard.
May you know the immense joy of Christ this season. And to know it by receiving all of God’s many blessings with thanksgiving.
A few months ago I asked the teenagers I work with a question, and to raise their hands for the answer. I said, “are things getting better or worse in our world?” Nearly everyone put their hand up saying that things are getting worse.
That was interesting to me. I was somewhat surprised and saddened by that.
But I think it makes sense – we have North Korea and the US threatening each other. You have legal cases in our country imposing a new state-sponsored morality. You have Christians around the world facing immense persecution and death.
Yet today many of you are mindful that it is the first Sunday of Advent, which is also the first Sunday of the church year. Today is a time to reflect on the hope of Christ and his coming – that indeed, Christ, the light, has shone into the darkness and has not been overcome by the darkness.
Hope is an underrated virtue today. And the reason why is because we haven’t learned to see history the way God sees it. One thing Ravi Zacharias is quite famous for saying is that everyone has to answer a few basic questions and in particular we have to answer the question “where did we come from” and “where are we going?” The questions of origin and destiny. And what you find is that most people then have no hope by definition. If our origin is merely the blind process of evolution and chance and the story culminates in an environmentalist apocalyptic tragedy, then we have no basis for hope – no basis for a Merry Christmas.
But we have a tremendous story. The best story. The story of all stories. The story that is built on God’s decrees in creation and history and ultimately in the restoration of all things. God has sovereignly decreed that history gets worked out a certain way and that has implications for how we look at the future. And the more focused our lives are on that coming future, the more we will know the hope of the gospel.
As we prepare to celebrate communion we want to remember who Christ is and what he has done in coming and in dying and in being raised and in ascending to the Father and in ruling even now by the Spirit as his kingdom grows. So then I want to read a few passages to you to reflect on – passages for today and that are being fulfilled today by Christ and through the Spirit as the mission of God advances all around us and around our world. And if it doesn’t give you hope then I don’t know what will.
Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'”
Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.’
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
”As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son [“Pay sincere homage” NET],
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
1 Corinthians 15:22-27: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”
Revelation 22:20: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Oh, and one final one:
Matthew 26:29: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
There is a kingdom coming and indeed it is already advancing and when it is ultimately here we will feast with our Saviour – whose body was broken and whose blood was shed so that too we might know the hope of eternal life in his presence.
When we read the news, as awful as it may be, we need to remember that right now Jesus’ enemies are being made into his footstool. Jesus is, right now, in the process of putting his feet up. He has won the victory. He has dealt sin and death the decisive blow. And now he is sitting back in his armchair.
We are in difficult times. We are facing new threats and challenges that we haven’t seen for a few generations. But the promises of God are still true. The kingdom is advancing – even advancing through persecution – and Jesus is subduing the nations; if we had a better perspective on things historically and globally we would see that this is resoundingly true.
So then if you are a friend of the king and not an enemy, I invite you to participate this morning as we celebrate his meal and declare his rule, his reign, and his return.
I have an old friend who recently encouraged me to look into Burning Man. I had never heard of it until a few months ago. So I asked a couple of my co-workers if they had heard of it and nearly all of them had. Huh.
Burning Man is, on paper, a big art festival in the Nevada desert. Every year there is something close to 80,000 participants. They create all sorts of art and music and spend time dancing and “gifting” their supplies to one another – there is no plumbing or cars allowed so you have to ride a bike around and use the out-houses.
But ask any “burner” and they tell you it is oh so much more than just an art festival. It’s something beyond your wildest dreams!
Burning Man essentially exists to promote two massive thrusts: first, completely free self-expression, including nudity, body paint, etc., and second, a temporary sense of autonomy from any form of governance – it seeks to produce a “temporary autonomous zone.” They are also committed to leaving no trace of garbage behind, which is a noble goal of course, (except for the many tons of carbon they gratuitously load into the atmosphere after burning loads of their massive art structures).
My buddy told me that folks like me, who care very much about the global mission of Jesus, need to consider the spiritual draw of this sort of thing. According to him, it’s a substitute for religious participation.
Of course, he is right – not that it’s a viable substitute for the true community that develops around the life under Christ – but that people like me do in fact need to pay some attention to this sort of thing. That is my aim in writing this…
The first thing to say is that the stated aims and ideals of the event are inherently unworkable and contradictory. They are committed to developing a sharing economy by “gifting” their supplies to one another and yet you need to pay upwards of $400 to get a ticket in. They are committed to “inclusion” and yet the vast majority of people attending (perhaps who can afford to go and burn $400 for a few days’ fun) are white, wealthy people from the Silicon Valley. They are also committed to environmentalism and yet they burn loads of stuff needlessly. Moreover, they are committed to pursuing autonomy and an anti-establishment vibe, and yet every year they realize they need more and more rules to regulate fires, and land use, and medical concerns, etc. No kidding. Apparently, communities of humans need governance for the well-being of all. Right.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the whole autonomous vibe is just for sales, appealing to the deep anarchy that lies in the heart of the naive consumer. No – they are not autonomous at all, in fact, the whole festival rests on the good benevolence of the surrounding society. The land they meet on in the Nevada desert is land set aside as natural space. The roads they drive on to get there are American roads. And if there is ever a health crisis they can helicopter you to a nearby American hospital. So much for an autonomous zone. Seriously, movements like this don’t develop in places like Somalia – an actual autonomous anarchy. A parasite needs a host.
But let’s pry a little deeper. What is the real driver for this festival? Why does it get people, oh so jazzed?
Burning Man is a substitute for religion precisely because it is a religion.
Burning Man is essentially an orgiastic fertility rite, like those of the ancient Canaanites. The two notable institutions of the festival that I have left out are the “temple,” where people are encouraged to go and get spiritual about stuff, and then also the sex booth, where people are encouraged to go and get…you know.
And that of course is nothing new. Throughout civilization, pre-Abraham and post-Abraham, people have been worshiping around the throne of Hedonistic Sexuality. Anyone who has taken even a basic introductory course in Old Testament knows this. The constant temptation for all Israel was to turn to Asherah, and Baal. Without getting too vulgar, these were massive sex cults – the Asherah pole was a priapistic symbol. And I’m supposed to believe burning man is the real Avant Garde thing. There is nothing new under the sun. At its root this is all just the same demonic garbage masquerading as “the in thing.”
What is more demonic that the climax of the event where everyone gathers around to watch a massive statue of a man burn. Symbols have meaning. What’s the meaning here? Is it not that the imago die is a curse that needs to be burned off of us? Demons always rejoice in the marring of that original image. And the sad news just this week is that one man literally threw himself into the flames. But isn’t that what we would expect? He is symbolizing what a generation is doing presently in their devotion to these sorts of destructive rites. Further testimony to the age-old truth that you become like what you worship. And the second that goes with it, that you are always destroyed by your idols.
This sort of fertility religion is exactly what Jesus came to do away with. And like King Josiah who ground the Asherahs to dust in pursuit of God’s blessing and revival (2 Kings 23:6), so Jesus also grinds to dust the idols that would turn us back to dust. Jesus builds lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dusty wilderness.
Jesus builds a lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dry places – water flowing into the paradise of God.
(Read Revelation 4 and 5)
In order to help us reflect and ponder the wonder of Jesus and his cross as we prepare to receive the Lord’s Supper, I thought it would be fitting to have you turn your attention to Revelation chapter 5.
Bringing This Book Back Into Our Bibles
I am convinced that we need, basically, to bring this book back into our Bibles. At the start of this book, it gives a blessing to those who have read the whole thing out loud, but many of us have never done that. Of course, it is a challenging book full of symbolism, but it is the textbook to teach us what it means to worship God. The entire book is all about worshipping God and standing for him in evil days when our society wants to pull us away from the worship of the Triune God – that is a message that the church desperately needs to hear today. We need to rediscover this book – and we need to ask the question, the whole time through – what would all of this symbolism mean to the original recipients of this letter – these seven churches in Asia Minor?
Jesus in The Throne Room
Revelation chapter 4 gives us a magnificent picture of God’s throne room, and then Revelation chapter 5 focuses all of our attention on Jesus, at the centre of God’s throne room in the heavenly realm. On that throne is one seated with a scroll in his hand – a scroll with seven seals on it. And these seven seals represent God’s appointed periods of history as they unfold on the earth. These are times of both God’s judgment and his salvation – and it is only Jesus, the lionlike-lamb, who is worthy to open up these times and seasons.
This is the amazing and multifaceted imagery of Revelation: Jesus is seen here as a lion and a lamb. The Lion is one who conquers. Jesus has conquered sin, death, Satan, demons, and hell and he conquered them in the cross – and that victory was the victory of a king – all the hope that was wrapped up in king David and his kingly line was realized in the cross of Jesus, the ultimate king – the King of kings and the Lord of lords – the one coming on the clouds with power and glory.
For the original audience reading this in Asia Minor, this would have been a massive encouragement. The pains and headaches of a rag-tag, persecuted band of Christians are answered in the victorious death of Jesus, the Lion of Judah.
But right as we expect to see a lion coming into the centre of the throne room, what we actually see is a lamb who has been slain – a bloodied, slaughtered lamb. And the whole throng and host of elders and angels start praising this lamb, in the very same way that they were praising God himself in the same throne room earlier.
What is the main thrust of their praise? “You are worthy because you have purchased a people from all the people’s and tribes and tongues!”
A Purchased People
I love this word “purchased.” Your Bible may have the word ransomed, but the most basic sense here of this word is purchased. The lamb has paid the price for you in his very own blood. You have been bought. You are Jesus’ possession. His death has purchased your freedom and your hope and your joy. The transaction is already done. Your debt of sin is completely paid off – it’s not like a student loan or a mortgage that takes a few years to pay off. It’s a done deal – once and for all – and you can’t add to it or take away from it.
The Lamb’s Supper
This is a wonderful reminder as we turn to the Lord’s Supper – the Lamb’s Supper. We celebrate the victorious lion-lamb who is Jesus our Lord. And as we participate in this meal, we, in a very true and real way, are worshipping him in his throne room because he is worthy of all our praise.
So in a few moments, we will pass out bread, to symbolize the broken body of Jesus. Then we will pass out the juice – the fruit of the vine – to symbolize the blood of Jesus.
And this meal is for the people of the lamb. It for genuine believers who have placed their trust in Jesus and who have decided to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
Nietzsche said God is dead, but notice how quickly that has become “death is god.”
The legislation and ethos of our day are nothing short of a death cult. We are obsessed with the politics of fruitlessness. In the wake of Neitzsche, we have seen the acceptance of no-fault divorce; the proliferation of any and all forms of birth control and a declining birth rate; the acceptance and celebration of so-called same-sex marriage (which is, by definition, a fruitless union); the acceptance and romanticization of assisted suicide; and now we distribute abortion around the globe as the glad tidings of the false gospel around which we worship.
But the gospel of Jesus is that he has overcome the grave. Jesus beat death. In his death, death has died. The more this truth is worked out in our lives, marriages, homes, and legal systems, the more we will know the joy of worshipping the God who is alive, the God who grants birth and new, spiritual birth; and then we will ultimately taste eternal life in him whose presence is the path of life…fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11).
Life Together is a book that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote when he taught at an underground seminary when the Nazi’s were in power in Germany – not long before he was killed by the Third Reich. The book is the classic on what Christian community really is and so I want to do my best to present what I think are the three key points in the book.
- It’s all about Jesus – The Church as a Divine Reality
The key idea in Bonhoeffer’s book is that the church is created by the Word of God and it owes its ongoing existence to the Word of God. Another way of saying this is that Christian community only exists because of Jesus, and through Jesus. He creates our existence as a people and he binds us together. The Word of God is the fuel that runs the engine of the church. Indeed, it is the Word of God that really holds us all together and this, for Bonhoeffer is a very practical sort of thing – we need other people, from diverse backgrounds, and with diverse personalities, to speak the Word of God to us; and we, in turn, need to speak the Word of God to our brothers and sisters. So not only is Christian community created by the Word, it actually functions through the Word as we give and receive it. Bonhoeffer reminds us that participation in this sort of fellowship of the word is truly a wonderful privilege, that we are not entitled to. We need to be thankful for Christian fellowship. Of course, Bonhoeffer does not deny that Christian relationships are often challenging since they involve sin and friction, but he reminds us that Christian brotherhood truly is a great gift from God – it is “extraordinary, roses and lilies.”
- Don’t Overthink Things – The Church is Nothing More and Nothing Less than Christian Brotherhood
Another key idea in Bonhoeffer’s book is that we need to stop trying to make the church into something it isn’t. It isn’t a social club. It isn’t a government charity. It isn’t a business networking tool. It isn’t some cultural project we get to play with – no – the church is nothing more and nothing less than simple, Christian brotherhood. We need to embrace the simplicity of the church. It is a family. It is a group of inter-connected relationships. And we need to preserve this simplicity, for, as Bonhoeffer says, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community becomes a destroyer of the latter…” I love this point. We live in times where many church leaders want to jazz up and hype up the nature of the church. I like the realism of Bonhoeffer – the church is all about Jesus and Jesus’ people. There is a beauty and a simplicity in all of that which we don’t need to try to spin to serve some other agenda.
- It’s all about Love – We Fellowship Under the Cross
I can’t stress this enough. Bonhoeffer’s central point in all of this is that we relate to one another in and through Jesus. That means that we forgive each other the same way Jesus forgave us. It also means that we confess our sins to each other just like we need to confess them to Jesus. We have the privilege of hearing confession and giving confession to one another. But Bonhoeffer is very careful on this point. He warns of the dangers of only confessing to the same person over and over. The key in all of this is that we need to confess sin naturally, and that receiving and giving confession needs to be a two-way street – the people we confess to should also confess to us. But behind all of this is the reality of the cross. One of the great quotations from this work is as follows: “Anybody who lives beneath the Cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will not longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother.” In all of this you see the utter importance of humility. On that same line of thought, a key little psychological insight here is that only the humble can actually give good, gracious rebuke and correction to others. The proud are too afraid to say anything because they project their own hypothetical, offended feelings they experience when corrected and then chose never to say anything that would help a brother in sin – in essence your own pride consigns your brother to his sinful ways, but your humility will set him free. This is Bonhoeffer at his best. We need the humility to give correction, to receive correction, to give confession, and to hear confession – and to offer forgiveness and assurance of divine pardon. We are to be a gospel-fueled community and not a bunch of judgmental curmudgeons. When we get these gospel truths firmly in our grip then they free us to love without judgment and to serve sacrificially without feeling that we must do it to prove ourselves or earn some sort of divine favor.
Life Together is great. I heartily recommend it. There is no fluff in this book. It’s straightforward, tough, realistic and yet full of cross-enabling grace.