This year I’ve been reminded constantly of how appropriate it is that we celebrate Christmas in the depths of winter.
First there was Glen Scrivener’s video:
Then there was his beautiful entry “He shines in the dark“.
Then there were the storms. Bad weather reminding us that this world is broken, is groaning (Rom 8:22), is not as it should be.
Then there was the fourth century theologian Athanasius, and his work “On the incarnation“. He tells us why Jesus came as a man:
[N]ow [the Word] entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own… He, the Mighty One, the Maker of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own…
Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
Winter is a time of long nights, of dim days, of barren trees and fallen leaves. It’s a time of darkness. And it’s into this world that Jesus enters—not the sunny summers where everything seems right, but into a world marked by sin and darkness. Whether we’re mired in sin, facing the unknown, or feeling distant from God, in the midst of our darkness, Jesus comes as Light.
It’s typical at this time of year to reflect back on the past twelve months and look forward to the next. For me, a lot of things are up in the air. I don’t know what the future holds.
But I do know who holds the future. He’s the one who entered into the darkness in order to bring us through to the light. Where he goes, we will follow. Glory!
We live in a world obsessed with image and appearance. We spend hours cultivating how we’re seen by others: by choosing the right outfit, editing our profiles, dieting to lose weight or hitting the gym to gain muscle.
We work hard to fit into a certain subculture, or we’re proud of always rocking the trend. Whether we’re hipsters or hicks, mavericks or “Mature & Sensible”, we almost certainly think about how we’re perceived. (My personal predilections include comedy t-shirts and mock-Converse plimsolls.)
Within the church, we can do a similar thing, only it’s more insidious. We think Christians are supposed to be growing in godliness, so when we keep struggling in the same areas, we stop mentioning them for fear of embarrassment. We push our sins under the carpet in order to fit in. We want the approval of our brothers and sisters, and so we stay silent.
However, whilst fooling those around us might be possible, God cannot be deceived. He tells Samuel:
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
Those around us might think us the height of godliness, but God’s assessment looks far deeper, into the ugly depths of our hearts. Jesus tells us that it’s from our hearts that evil comes (Mark 7:21-22), and Jeremiah tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Imagine your darkest secrets being shown to the world. Lustful thoughts akin to visual rape. Bitterness and unforgiveness festering, intensifying. Hatred masked by hugs and kisses. Betrayal. Greed. Pride. All exposed, impossible to hide. It’s a horrifying thought – and yet the reality is that God sees all these things. Those around us look at our polished personas, but God sees the real deal.
We can clean up our act, try harder, present a positive face to the world, but our sinful hearts will always betray us. Isaiah 64:6 says that our “righteous acts are like filthy rags” – not just insubstantial, but dirty themselves. In the eyes of God, we’ve nothing to hide behind.
Except… the Lord himself provides a hiding place, a covering for our sin and shame. Earlier, Isaiah wrote the following:
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
The Lord himself clothes us with a robe of his righteousness. Our own righteousness is but rags, but he gives us his own to wear. Our sin is covered, our shame removed. Our Father looks at us, clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and accepts us without question. Those lustful thoughts? Covered. That long-held bitterness? Dealt with. Our greed? Gone. Our pride? Paid for.
Knowing this frees us from the pressure to keep up appearances. We’re all accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not our own – so we can be real about our struggles. We can start to build relationships of real openness and intimacy, striving for holiness together without fear of condemnation. Knowing our identity in Christ means we don’t have to worry about how others perceive us. Our loving Father, the one whose opinion really counts, has already given his verdict:
“You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Christians are those who are united to Christ. This is true in the past, present and future.
Past: “For you died”. Christians have died with Christ. In him, we have passed through the death we rightly deserve. Our sin has been dealt with once for all. “You have been raised”. Dead to ourselves, alive in Christ. New birth, new life.
Present: “Hidden with Christ”. When God looks at you, what does he see? His beloved child. “Seated at the right hand of God”. Christ is seated on the throne of the universe, and we’re there with him!
Future: “Will appear with him”. When Christ returns, we will be with him, and it will be glorious.
It’s no surprise that Paul calls us to “set [our] hearts and minds on things above”. These are amazing realities to be celebrated, rejoiced in, dwelt on, sung about. What joy to spend time warming our hearts with such wonderful truths!
However… we forget. We’re leaky. These things seep out of our minds as this world preaches an alternative message. “This life is all there is – so live for the moment. Do what feels good. Make the most of it.” This world seems so solid, its pleasures so tangible, and God begins to feel distant. “Heavenly realities? More like away with the fairies.”
With all these lies ringing in our ears, we need others to help us lift our sights to see what is real. Those of deep, strong faith to give courage to the struggling. Preachers who present Christ again, that our hearts might be captured afresh. Soaking ourselves in Scripture, individually and corporately. The world is constantly fighting for our attention; let’s help each other fight back.
So Paul writes later in Colossians:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
The word of Christ: the good news of Jesus. His death and resurrection, and our union with him.
Dwelling richly: always going deeper. Taking truths to heart, not filing them away. Longing to know more of Jesus.
Teach and admonish: lovingly speaking good news to each other, letting God’s word convict, correct and encourage.
Singing: both expressing and exciting our emotions of gratitude through singing Scriptural certainties to each other and to the Lord.
Tomorrow, as millions gather across the globe with brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s point each other to these heavenly realities. We died with him. We were raised with him. We will appear with him. Glory!
Everything in our natural experience works against resurrection hope. Our ordinary lives teach us to believe Monty Python’s line: “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.” Life leads to death. That’s the trajectory of this world and of Adam its original head. Life and then death.
But Jesus came to reverse the way of Adam. He came to turn the world right-side-up. And therefore it strikes the children of Adam as utterly new and strange. On that first Easter Sunday, the women came to the tomb expecting to pay their last respects to a departed friend. They came to mark an ending. Instead they were witnesses to the one great beginning.
He is risen – and one day, we too will be raised. What grace.
Glen Scrivener on the grace of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:36-46):
“Glen, who do you think you are in this story?”
I didn’t like to say but, well, surely I’m Jesus in the story. Or I’m meant to be anyway.
The leader corrected me. “Do you know who you are? You’re Peter.”
And the penny dropped. I’m not Jesus! I’m Peter. I’m weak, useless, faithless Peter. I ought to pray with Jesus, but I don’t. I fail. And as I fail, Jesus prays for me.
By the Spirit, I belong to Jesus. By the Spirit I want to follow Christ. But my flesh is from Adam. My flesh is weak. And I’m constantly falling asleep on the watch.
But Jesus prays for me.
About to be betrayed, abandoned and denied by those closest to him, Jesus prays, and resolves to go to the cross for them and for us. Amazing grace.
Come, ev’ry soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord,
and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His Word.
For Jesus shed His precious blood, rich blessings to bestow;
plunge now into the crimson flood that washes white as snow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Yes, Jesus is the truth, the way, that leads you into rest;
believe in Him without delay and you are fully blessed.
Come, then, and join the holy band, and on to glory go,
to dwell in that celestial land where joys immortal flow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. (Philippians 3:12-15a)
Paul is writing as one of the spiritual heavyweights of his day – one of Christ’s apostles, an authoritative teacher. If anyone were considered mature in the faith, it would be Paul. But what does he say characterises such Christian maturity?
I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on…
We don’t mature as Christians and then plateau. This side of the new creation, there’s no stage in the Christian life where we can say we’ve made it. Christian maturity is shown by an attitude that says “we’re not there yet”. We always keep growing; we are continually striving towards our goal. Christian maturity isn’t a passive state we reach, but is shown by striving for… what? What is the goal Paul is striving towards?
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)
What he’s striving for is to know Christ. This is what Christian maturity looks like: a desire to know more of Christ. We shouldn’t be stagnant in our desire to know him better; in fact, if we think we’ve arrived in the Christian life, that only goes to show we’ve missed the heart of it. We are saved for a relationship with the God who made us, and if our relationship with him stops growing, we’ve missed the point of our salvation.
Paul wants to know Christ. It’s the one thing he does – pressing on to know him (3:8), gain him (3:8), and be found in him (3:9). How much does this describe me? Worryingly little. I can end up thinking that maturity means being a leader, being respected, or knowing my Bible better than those around me. But if I’m not wanting to know Christ more and more, and not just about him, then I’m showing my immaturity. Jesus died so that we could know him; knowing him is what we were made for.
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Let us strive to know the Lord. His appearance is as sure as the dawn. He will come to us like the rain, like the spring showers that water the land. (Hosea 6:3, HCSB)
(Article revised and reposted; original from 27th March 2008)
Britain is sometimes referred to as a nation of grumblers. Complaining about things is somewhat of a national sport. It’s raining? We wish it were sunny. It’s sunny? We complain about the heat. If I’m driving you somewhere you’ll hear exasperated comments like “indicate, why don’t you?” or “do you want to cause an accident?”. I’m not yet thirty and already I’m complaining about “kids these days”.
The British pale into insignificance, however, when compared with the people of Israel on their way to the promised land. In Numbers we hear:
The Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4b-6)
The Lord has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and is taking them to a land full of blessing. Each day he gives them all the nourishment they need by providing manna – bread from heaven. Yet the people long for the days of slavery in Egypt. “We were better off there”, they say. “In Egypt we had cucumbers!”
It’s not just a few grumbles about physical comforts. The Lord tells us the spiritual reality behind what they’re doing:
“You have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”” (Numbers 11:20)
The Israelites are still in the wilderness. They’ve not yet made it to the promised land. But in the wilderness the Lord is with them. 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us that they “drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ”. By saying they’d rather be back in Egypt, they are “rejecting the Lord, who is among [them]”. They’d rather have cucumbers in chains, than know freedom with Christ.
As we travel through the wilderness of this world, we too are prone to grumble. The Christian life is hard; we face trials and temptations; we can very easily take our eyes off the Lord. Rather than turn to him in our anguish, we turn away from him and grumble.
What is it that you grumble about? I complain about my job, ill health, wet weather and missed buses. I grumble about how much better other people’s lives seem than mine. In doing so, I forget all the ways the Lord has blessed me and continues to bless me.
How do we address grumbling? Not by excusing it (“everyone does it”), nor by blithely ignoring it (“cheer up, it’s not that bad!”). No – we take our grumbles to our loving Father, who never ceases to do good to his children. He knows that we live in the wilderness, but gives us the true Bread of Heaven to eat (John 6:26-35). We look to Jesus – and as we see him, we find that his goodness outshines all the darkness around us. Who needs cucumbers when you can have Christ?
(Reflections on “Cucumbers rather than Christ”, the talk given at Emmanuel Bristol yesterday. Further reading: Glen Scrivener on the Bread of Heaven and Dan Hames on what the wilderness years point to.)
Now Lord, I would be yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow your commands
Could never come from me.
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ.
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)
The apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to a church under the sway of a group of influential leaders, the so-called “super-apostles”. These men were highly impressive: skilled orators who preached a message of success, not suffering. In contrast, Paul looked weak and pathetic, and the Corinthian Christians were drifting away from the gospel as a result.
What to do? Paul could have pointed to his religious pedigree, his theological training, all the churches that he’d planted. Instead, Paul tells the Corinthians that they’ve got him exactly right. Paul writes later that he will “boast of the things that show [his] weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Here he says that he is being “given over to death”, carrying around “the death of Jesus” in his body. He is weak – no, in fact he is dead; completely powerless.
How is that meant to convince the Corinthians to trust him? What is Paul doing here?
Let’s go back to the beginning. When the human race rebelled, death entered the world. In this world, everything dies – and when Jesus took on our nature, he wasn’t an exception to this rule. As Jesus died, he bore the full wrath of the Father against our sin. He died, as everything in this creation must.
Then he rose again into resurrection life, bringing us through with him. In Jesus’ death, the old creation died. As he rose, he ushered in a new creation which we belong to by faith.
Christians are those who are united to Christ. As such, we follow in his footsteps. In this world, there is a pattern that everyone follows – even Jesus. The pattern is death – and through death, to resurrection life.
Paul “[carries] around in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed”. Paul enters into death, following in his Saviour’s footsteps, because it is through death that new life comes. By giving ourselves over even to death, we model the pattern of our suffering saviour – and in doing so, our perseverance points to the resurrection life of the one sustaining us. Our suffering, and our endurance through it, points others to Jesus, so that they might be born again into resurrection life.
How do we endure, though? I’m a weak jar of clay (2 Cor 4:7). By myself I’ve no hope.
So isn’t it great news that the one who calls us to endure suffering, even death, has himself endured through suffering and death? Our Lord and Brother Jesus goes before us, and now by his Spirit he goes with us. He knows our struggles and sufferings intimately, sympathising with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), and has promised to never let anyone snatch us out of his hand (John 10:27-28). Those the Father calls will be brought through to glory (Romans 8:30). We endure by his power, not our own (2 Cor 4:7).
When our endurance is down to him, it’s no longer impossible: it’s inevitable.