Gospel-centred?

I am just back from Belgrade, where I had invited Steve Timmis to reflect on the theme of what Gospel Centred means for life, church, community, preaching and church-planting in 21st century Europe. The 330 people from 30 European countries asked stimulating and pertinent questions. I was inspired and hopeful as I watched the interaction with these mostly young church-planters – there is real hope for our continent if we all carry the gospel into our contexts and apply it in life-giving ways! The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and also for transformation, of the individual, the church and through the church the world!

Barely 10 days later, the wedding of the Harry and Meghan came along, and with it that sermon from Michael Curry. I must confess that I didn’t listen to it live, but I was so intrigued by the positive reaction that it got from across the board – atheists, liberal Christians, evangelicals, some of them friends and colleagues – that I acquainted myself with it online. Based on a careful reading of the full transcript (here) this is a synopsis of the 15 minute, 1545 word sermon:

After a Trinitarian prayer Michael Curry quotes SoS 8:6-7 on love being as strong as death and segues straight into a telling quote from MLK on the redemptive power of love and its eschatological promise.This premise is the theme of the rest of the sermon.

He first illustrates his point by recalling the newly weds romantic feelings for each other, extrapolating from that sense of rightness (albeit a self-centred rightness at this point) to the rightness of love in its more prosaic forms. He argues that the feeling of the rightness of love is actually a signpost to the fact that God made us and since God is love, when we act in love, we act out of our createdness. Since our Creator is love, his creatures should act in love, and will feel right when they do.  Medieval poems and 1 John 4 7-8 are quoted in support of this thesis which assumes universal and omnipotent proportions in a sequence of rhetorical flourishes.

Bringing our attention again to the living, breathing example of the young couple in love and getting married, Curry invites us to see that not only is love powerful and right because of its source, but also because it is the centre of Jesus’ teaching (referencing Matthew 22). To quote : A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world – and a movement mandating people to live that love, and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.

Bishop Curry then demonstrated that this power could effectively change the world by showing how this idea sustained and liberated African American slaves; even if the power of this passage seems to owe more to rhetoric and poetry than to logic and rigour. Quoting an old Spiritual, the words roll over us – ‘healing a sin-sick soul, Jesus dies to save us all, He gave up his life for the wellbeing of the world…’

Commenting on this, Curry shows that the mystery and power of the death of Jesus is in its exemplary nature : “Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.”

A dazzling anaphora follows, inviting the listeners to “imagine a world” where human beings live out that kind of love, and what kind of world we would have if “love was the way.”

The soaring conclusion borrows from the language of the New Testament to describe that actuality – it would be a new heaven, a new earth – for those within the Christian tradition, strong words indeed!

Coming back to his introduction, Curry conflates the erotic love of the lovers in SoS 8:6-7 with the agape love of the NT passages he has quoted (Matthew 22, 1 John 4) and riffs amusingly and compellingly on the idea of fire. His conclusion is an exhortation and a promise : “Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world-wide Anglican communion, exclaimed after the sermon in an interview and later on Twitter : “Well it really was, to be honest, the good news of Jesus Christ’ In other words the gospel. And that was the general impression in the wake of the sermon. That the gospel had been preached and that it was amazing.

So I am asking the question – not nastily, not grumpily, not religiously, or pharasaically, or pedantically or whatever other adverb you might be tempted to insert here – but genuinely, and for the sake of the gospel – was the gospel preached in this sermon?

And before we get into the answer, let me just say from the off that I never expected it to be. The Royal Wedding is much more about tradition and pageantry than Christianity. And Bishop Michael Curry is from the Episcopal Church in America, widely known to be liberal in its approach to ethics. So in what follows, I am emphatically not excoriating Michael Curry for preaching as he did, because he did what I would have expected him to do, and he did it very well. But I am questioning gospel-people who heard the gospel in this sermon, because that seems to me to be a much more serious concern. If we cannot discern the gospel, then we are likely unable to communicate the gospel. And if we are so desperate to have the gospel be popular and for preaching to get some kudos that we join the throng in congratulating what will transpire to be something that is not the gospel and even against the gospel, then we are set for another Babylonian captivity of the church that will be even more tragic because it is so easily avoidable.

I would like to highlight 7 concerns in which this sermon should have raised red flags for gospel listeners.

Expositional

As gospel-people, we believe that the bible is God’s word given in God’s way for the good of God’s people and for the conversion of rebellious humanity. The bible is revelation and the gospel is at the centre of this revelation. That means that when we preach we preach from the bible, and we expose what the bible says according to the intention that the authors had. In the absence of this discipline, the bible becomes simply another text I can press into service of whatever cause or circumstance I like. This is conspicuously what Bishop Curry did. What Solomon wrote about passionate erotic love (SoS 8:6-7) being uncontrollably strong is in the context of not awakening love prematurely and in making sure that this love is lived out in the context of whole life commitment between man and wife (aa a seal on your arm, the seat of action, and on your heart, the seat of affections and will). This is a great text for a marriage. But it is not a launching pad for a revolution of love sermon.

In the same way, 1 John 4:7-8 is taken out of its context. The kind of love in question, according to 1 John 4:10, is the propitiating sacrificial love of Jesus at the cross. The important omission in the sermon was not the sacrificial element – that preaches well, and is noble and heroic – but the propitiating element, which speaks inescapably of the setting aside of God’s righteous wrath in the face of sin.

Gospel people have too high a view of the apostolic witness for them to be ok with a sermon using the bible in this way. We are at the service of the Word of God, not vice versa. How can we rejoice when a sermon so manifestly misuses Scripture?

Theological

Bishop Curry was operating in the realm of systematic theology in this sermon. That is what we do when we string together reflections and conclusions on bible passages. From his trinitarian prayer all the way through to the conclusion we were benefitting from the theological convictions and entering into the theological world-view that he was proposing.

So what was the theology that was the back-drop for the sermon – or more accurately the motor for the sermon? The way in which the Trinity was short-handed as ‘loving, liberating and life-giving’ was indicative. We don’t need to know the ethical positions of the Episcopal Church to know that these are loaded terms in today’s world. To be loving, liberating and life-giving is to be inclusive in the liberal sense of that word, and to deny the loving, liberating and life-giving creational wisdom of God.

The other clear theological strand that emerges is that of a this-worldly hope. If we could all love each other in the way that Bishop Curry imagines then that would be nothing less than a fully realised eschatology: a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). This is a far cry from the new heaven and new earth being ushered in by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead.

Philosophical

This theological version of a worldly utopia is closely related to the wishful thinking of the enlightenment. Man is born good – society corrupts him. Reason is elevated to the supreme place in the pantheon and the reasonable man is lord of all he surveys, even – perhaps especially – of obscurantist religion.

To the extent that religion agrees with enlightened man, then it may have a place and a role to play. This has been the route of modernism in theology since the 19th century. Rationalism and secularism mean that religion is never allowed to step out of line with the Zeitgeist for fear of merciless marginalisation.

Philosophically, gospel-people do not accept the premises, never mind the conclusions of the enlightenment and they are alert enough to know when these ideas have recuperated bible language for their own purposes. This alertness seems to have deserted us, as we sway to the charms of Bishop Curry’s rhetoric.

Rhetorical

People have praised Bishop Curry’s rhetoric. It was a fiery sermon by all accounts. It blew the place apart according to Justin Welby. Now people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and I am afraid that the celebrity culture has so seeped into our circles that we are too impressed by rhetoric and oratorical style. So what I am saying here is as much a criticism of much of what we praise and look for in our own circles as it is a comment on Bishop Curry’s sermon. And it is mainly a criticism of how easily we are impressed with style rather than substance.

Paul was clear on this. His message did not come with plausible words of wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:4). The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk (1 Corinthians 4:20). Paul was not a great orator according to many, even according to himself (2 Corinthians 11:6) Our words have power, and the Holy Spirit takes them and uses them with power if and only if they focus on the Son, whom the Spirit loves to magnify, particularly in his cross-work. Rhetoric in the service of bad theology is dangerous and wolfish.

Evangelical

Evangelicalism has always eschewed universalism. It has understood that platitudinous appeals to the universal, unconditional love of God are not loving and not faithful. Sometimes clumsily, sometimes anxiously but absolutely correctly evangelicalism has stressed that there is a separation, that there are sheep and goats and that there is an urgency to the dual commands to repent and believe.

This goes to the heart of why I am confused as to why gospel-people rejoiced at the sermon. Nobody had to respond to the message other than to agree that it would be nice if everyone loved everyone else more and better. It might have made some people try to do that, either in their marriage or in a search for social justice. But that is neither here nor there in terms of eternity.

Experiential

This was a feel-good sermon. It rocked. But here’s the best-kept secret in preaching. The gospel, simply explained and well applied, with the weight of the inspired text behind it giving it depth, and texture, and saltiness is far more satisfying, and long-lasting in its nourishment than verve. The gospel feels better. Maybe not to all, maybe not at first, but we had better believe that when Christ comes to us clothed in the promises of the gospel, there is no better thing on earth. There is no greater experience that earth has to offer. It fills us with joy unspeakable and makes us full of thankfulness.

And so bewilderment is the only way I can describe my reaction to the many who, admitting that maybe the sermon was not crystal clear on the gospel, still lamented the drab offerings people in gospel churches were served up Sunday by Sunday. Bewilderment and anger, too, that so many faithful gospel pastors had been so blithely dismissed and belittled.

Practical

Here’s the rub. Bishop Curry’s sermon founders on the rock of reality. People are inherently selfish and curved in on themselves. It is no service to them to appeal to them to be better. To try harder. That has been the explicit narrative of the 20th and 21st century and it has clearly failed. The way people behave on social media and on Wall Street is not a blip or an insignificant minority; It is human nature. We have in fact loved ourselves more than God and others. The flippancy with which Bishop Curry paraphrased Jesus in Matthew 22 was telling. ‘While you’re at it love yourself’ is a self-help mantra, not a gospel truth. It is inimical to what Jesus was driving at in this text. It is the easiest thing in the world for us all to do, even, as Pascal asserts, those of us who are driven to despair and suicide.

Loving ourselves first makes it impossible for us consistently to love others and to love God. It makes Bishop Curry’s sermon an exercise in futile naivety at best. Not only that, but loving ourselves first makes us guilty of failing to love others and failing to love God and thus puts us under condemnation and judgment. If this sermon was the gospel, then it is not good news. It s not good news, because i can’t live up to it. And it is not good news because it does nothing about my predicament.

At this point someone will want to talk about the balm in Gilead section. Far from being the best bit in the sermon, this might have been the most misleading. For some of the key words that might have made a difference were there, but they were camouflaged and explained away. Remember, after all, that you can sing the creed, but you can’t say it. And remember also that the explicit meaning given to those words was the exemplary nature of sacrificial love. It sounded just enough like the gospel to mislead nearly everyone.

So to come back to the text that Steve Timmis expounded in Belgrade, the ground on which he appealed for gospel centrality in all of life and ministry – Colossians 2:6-15. As you read this text, you will see how Paul contrasts his message with the empty philosophies of human tradition. As I have mused on this debate, I have come back to these words and asked myself would Paul have approved of Bishop Curry’s sermon? Would he have heard the gospel?

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.  Colossians 2:6-15 

I think Paul would have asked: ‘O foolish people, who has bewitched you?’


Philip Moore
European Director, Acts 29

RC Sproul and the Classical Doctrine of God

Ligonier Ministries are putting out a series of podcasts called Open Book, beginning with never-before-aired recordings of RC Sproul and Steve Nichols discussing important books in Dr Sproul’s life. As T4G18 remember the life of Sproul (here), highlighting Sproul’s singular commitment to the Holiness of God as the organising principle of his life and ministry, this recent podcast is poignant for a couple of reasons: we hear his consistent passion for the doctrine of God; and we hear his assessment of our current situation – the situation he was soon to leave behind.

Months before he died, a new book made it onto Sproul’s list of most important books. James Dolezal’s All That Is in God calls for a recovery of the classical, catholic, creedal and confessional doctrine of God. Along the way Dolezal makes necessary and gracious criticism of some of our favourite high-profile teachers and theologians in terms of their departure (sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious) from the simplicity, aseity, immutability, and impassability of God. If we get our doctrine of God wrong, everything else goes wrong.

For many the doctrine of the aseity of God exists only as a category in older dusty theology text books. It’s passing from everyday discourse and the operational foundations of modern theology into abstraction and obscurity has happened without the majority of folks batting an eyelid. Except of course RC Sproul along with a number of other notable exceptions like the late John Webster, James Dolezal, Scott Swain, Fred Sanders, Michael Allen, Sinclair Ferguson, the Ligonier teaching fellows, to name but a few. What is lost, when we lose the doctrine of God that Sproul showed us, is God himself in all His fullness.

Dr Sproul read Dolezal’s book twice. The holiness of God for Sproul was all about the holiness of God. Not just any God. Not a blank abstract creator who we must remember is sovereign, but the Triune simple, immutable, impassable, sovereign God of unbounded life and love, who is self-existent. This God, the Triune Holy one, reached out to those who were not holy so that we could know Him. To know the self-sufficient God gave Sproul goosebumps, he tells us. His life was dedicated to introducing us to this God. His legacy is all those people who saw the God he saw and feel those goosebumps at the mention of his Holy Name.

In this podcast, you can hear the passion of Dr Sproul for the God he loved and now sees face to face and we hear his deep concern for the situation he has now left behind. But when listening to the discussion in light of his passing, you can also hear a baton being passed along: all will be well with writers like Dolezal around. As Dr Sproul quips in this podcast “there are still seven-thousand that haven’t bowed the knee to Baal”. Surely Ligonier and RC Sproul have been – and through his writings and the Ligonier teaching fellows will continue to be – an instrument in God’s hands keeping us from idolatry.

 

Jonny Woodrow
Faculty member of Crosslands
Elder of The Crowded House Loughborough UK.

Courses.BibleMesh.com/Crosslands

 

Crosslands offers a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry through a partnership with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the BibleMesh Institute

Crosslands is excited to announce a partnership with Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and the BibleMesh Institute (BMI). This cooperative effort provides Crosslands’ students the opportunity to earn an accredited Master of Arts degree.

Created by a combination of Acts 29’s extensive church-planting experience and Oak Hill Theological College’s training expertise, Crosslands is a Flexicademy™, a new type of organisation that delivers flexible learning and rigorous training.

It offers excellent in-context theological training and resources for churches and church leaders in the UK, Europe and 10:40 window: Entry courses for new Christians, Foundation courses for motivated congregation members, and Seminary courses for potential and current leaders or planters

Now, supported by trusted theological educational experts BMI and Great Commission Seminary SEBTS, students successfully completing the Crosslands Seminary course will gain an MA in Christian Ministry (mentored) from SEBTS.

“We’ve delighted in the collaboration between Acts 29 and Oak Hill to create Crosslands” said Steve Timmis (Acts 29 CEO and Chair of the Crosslands Board).  “To now have the opportunity and privilege to work with such well-regarded partners as SEBTS and BMI in order to serve our students is a truly exciting development”.

Dan Strange (Acting Principal of Oak Hill and Crosslands Board member) agrees “Crosslands has proved a real success in delivering high-quality theological training in the contexts where our students live, work and minister.  Being able to recognise their studies with the MA qualification from SEBTS is a great step-forwards.”

Professor Danny Akin (President of SEBTS) adds “We’re excited about Crosslands’ vision to provide theological education across Europe and the 10/40 window to those that, for various reasons, are unable to train through more traditional ways.”

“We are also delighted by this new opportunity to help equip church leaders and planters in gospel-hungry locations. Crosslands offers those serving in the neediest places the opportunity to get the sort of training most suitable for their work.” added Dr. Michael McClenahan (Executive Director, BibleMesh).

Applications are now open for the four-year accredited Ministry course, which will start in September 2018 alongside an unaccredited three-year equivalent.

Visit www.crosslands.training/www.crosslands.fr and www.crosslands.es for more details

Follow Crosslands on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with the latest news.

__________________________________________________________________

Editor’s Notes:

Crosslands™ is registered as a UK charity, number 1167211 with hubs in the English Midlands, Dublin, Paris and Venice.

Media enquiries should be directed to the Project Director, Chris Rimmer, at info@crosslands.training or on +44 (0)1144 372237.

Crosslands offers an accredited part-time Ministry course over three or four years for aspiring church planters, assistant leaders, apprentices and even those already in ministry. Currently there are 56 students on the course, with bilingual options for non-English speakers.

Its Foundation courses for motivated congregation members, small group leaders, interns and elders are available through its partner BibleMesh in English and have been translated and contextualised into French, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Romanian, Turkish and Russian to serve the 500+ students currently being trained across Europe.

Entry courses for new Christians are being produced this year.

Acts 29 is a diverse, global family of church-planting churches, characterised by theological clarity, cultural engagement and missional innovation.

Oak Hill Theological College is a long-established UK provider of full-time and part-time residential accredited evangelical theological training for Anglican and Independent churches, mission, and youth and children’s work.

Southeastern Baptist Theological College is a theological seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, and has equipped men and women to serve the church to fulfil the Great Commission for more than 65 years.

BibleMesh works with churches, ministries, and institutions to provide affordable global trusted theological education. Accredited degree pathways and certificate tracks are available through the BibleMesh Institute. BibleMesh incorporates advanced technology to enhance student assessment, memory and learning.

Media enquiries should be directed to Douglas Baker at douglas.baker@biblemesh.com or +1 405.443.1157.

Pioneers and BibleMesh Introduce Online Theological Training for Missionary Candidates, Marking New Ways to Prepare for Service

HAMILTON, BERMUDA Jan. 31, 2018  — Today, BibleMesh and Pioneers-USA launched a new online theological resource providing theological training for incoming missionary candidates. The BibleMesh Institute (BMI) will serve as the preferred online option for theological training with whom new team members can complete a six-course certificate designed by Pioneers.

“Pioneers is keenly aware of the need to equip workers well for the challenging task of church planting among unreached people groups,” stated Ken M., Vice-President of Pre-Field Ministries for Pioneers-USA. “Accordingly all of our missionaries must have trusted theological training that will serve as an unshakeable foundation for ministry in the often-difficult contexts to which they are called.”

“We are honored by this new opportunity to come alongside these emerging missionary candidates – who come from all walks of life – and provide for them access to trusted theological education that will equip them for service around the world,” said Dr. Benjamin Quinn, Director of the BibleMesh Institute.

###

About Pioneers
For more than 35 years, Pioneers’ passion has been to see God glorified among those who are physically and spiritually isolated from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, 2.9 billion people live among languages and cultures with no church. In response, Pioneers sends church-planting teams to serve among these 7,000-plus people groups. Today we have 3,248 international members serving on 324 teams in 104 countries among 202 unreached people groups. Additionally, Pioneers partners with more than 2,000 churches to send these missionaries to least-reached peoples.

About BibleMesh
BibleMesh works with churches, ministries, and institutions to provide affordable global trusted theological education. Accredited degree pathways and certificate tracks are available through the BibleMesh Institute. BibleMesh incorporates advanced technology to enhance student assessment, memory and learning.

Media Contacts:

Douglas Baker
405.443.1157
douglas.baker@biblemesh.com

SOURCE – BibleMesh

Related Links:
https://www.pioneers.org/
https://institute.biblemesh.com/pioneers-bible-certificate/

 

What Do We Know about Jesus’ Childhood?

With Christmas just behind us, it’s the time of year some believers may move forward from the accounts of Jesus’ birth and wonder about His childhood. Perhaps to the disappointment of the curious, Luke is the only Gospel writer who addresses Jesus’ childhood, and his material on the topic is minimal (i.e., Luke 2:40-52). Yet what Luke conveys is both theologically significant and encouraging for children seeking to follow the Lord.

After an account of 12-year-old Jesus’ remaining in Jerusalem alone for three days to Mary and Joseph’s chagrin, we are told: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). A key word in this verse is the Greek verb prokopto (“increased”), which references moving “forward into an improved state” or progressing,[i] as when Paul said he had been “advancing (a form of prokopto) in Judaism” before he experienced salvation (Galatians 1:14), and when he said certain false teachers would “not get very far (prokopto)” in their attempts to lead believers astray (2 Timothy 3:9). So how did the boy Jesus progress?

In wisdom. At times, Scripture references wisdom as a divine attribute indicating one of God’s awesome, unchanging perfections. In other passages, wisdom references the ability to understand something and apply that understanding to daily functioning. The latter seems to be Luke’s meaning here. The boy Jesus, for instance, dialoged in the Temple with teachers of the Old Testament and amazed them with his wisdom in discussing the Old Testament (Luke 2:46-47). Presumably, he did not exhibit such skill in theological dialog as an infant, but progressed in it over time. In that and other areas, Jesus’ childhood involved moving forward in life skills.

In stature. The Greek word translated “stature” in Luke 2:52 ESV (elikia) also can mean “age.” In fact, the New Revised Standard Version renders it as “age,” as do the translations of William Tyndale and John Wycliffe among others. Either way, this is another area in which Jesus progressed during childhood: the years of His earthly existence increased as did His physical size. Perhaps Luke used an ambiguous word to indicate both realities.

In favor with God and man. “Favor” is the well-known Greek word karis, which means grace, care, or help. Here, it seems to indicate that as Jesus’ age increased, so did the number of instances in which God and fellow humans helped, blessed, and cared for Him.

Obviously, these three areas of growth or progress refer to Jesus’ human nature and not His divine nature. After all, God does not increase in wisdom; He does not get bigger or older; and He does not receive increasing favor from Himself. At the same time, Jesus is not two persons—one human and one divine—trapped in a single individual such that only a fraction of Him grew and developed. He is one unified person with two natures. Therefore, the one Lord Jesus got older and bigger, progressed in His skill at functioning in the world, and experienced more and more instances of favor from God and men.

Among other applications, this mind-boggling reality can encourage children and those who care for them. The high priest who “sympathize[s] with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15) exercises that ministry for children who follow Him as much as adults. The One who sits enthroned on high is the same person who navigated the challenges of being a toddler, child, and teen—and he remembers those challenges.

[i] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), s.v. “prokopto.” All other definitions of Greek terms in this article also are taken from this work.

How Should We Cope with Burdens at Christmastime?

If the nativity scenes in your house are like the ones in mine, there’s no hint that the characters experienced difficulty or pain surrounding the birth of Jesus. Shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph all admire the Christ child in the warm glow of a cozy stable, smiles on their faces. Of course, Christmas did bring warmth and joy to these characters. But have you also considered the difficulty and strain they experienced surrounding Christ’s birth? Thinking about their circumstances reminds us that for God’s people, great burden and great blessing often coincide.

Take Mary. The angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth announcing that she was “favored” by God (Luke 1:28). But her circumstances probably didn’t make her feel favored. When she became pregnant by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, friends and family surely cast dispersion on her, believing her baby was the result of sexual immorality and not a miracle. That’s what Joseph, her godly husband-to-be, thought until an angel told him differently (Matthew 1:19). For Mary, God’s favor led to stigma and having her plans for family life turned upside down.1

The situation was similar for Joseph. He planned to take Mary as his wife then build a family. God’s miraculous intervention was so jarring that his first thought was to divorce Mary before the angel explained. After Jesus was born, Joseph continued to experience hardship and interruption. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus, Joseph had to uproot his family and relocate to Egypt until Herod’s death.

The wise men weren’t exempt from burden either. In addition to the long journey required to find Jesus (they likely came from Babylonia, Persia, or even the Far East), protecting Him meant defying a king who wasn’t afraid to murder his enemies (Matthew 2:1-18).

What about the shepherds? When angels appeared to them in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, they were “filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). Then they had to leave their source of livelihood in the middle of the night to go worship Jesus (Luke 2:8-20), presumably an unsettling prospect for conscientious keepers of sheep.

Of course, the characters in the Christmas story experienced joy and blessing upon seeing Jesus. In that sense, warm nativity scenes are completely accurate. Scripture gives us no hint that they grumbled about the difficulties surrounding their trip to Bethlehem. Still, each of them had to endure burdens in order to trust God and honor His Son.

BusyChristmasThis should comfort believers who find themselves burdened at Christmastime. After all, the holiday season, despite its joys, is a time when people feel lonely, depressed, overwhelmed by consumerism, and weighted down in myriad other ways. When facing such struggles, we should consider the example of Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds. They too were burdened. But amid their burdens, they experienced the greatest blessing they would ever know by taking time to focus on Jesus.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the same when he found himself spending Christmas in prison for defying the Nazi regime during World War II. In a letter to his fiancée, he explained why he expected “an exceptionally good Christmas.”

“I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents,” he wrote, “but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious . . . The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.” This Christmas know that you’re not alone in your trials. But amid them, take time to appreciate the greatest blessing imaginable: friendship with Jesus and assurance of His eternal love.

————

1 Content of this paragraph and the inspiration for this entire post are drawn from a sermon preached by Hershael York at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, December 15, 2013.
2 This article was originally posted on the BibleMesh Blog on December 23, 2013.