In Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” we are introduced to a person whose very presence is the anthesis of joy…Ebeneezer Scrooge. Described as a bitter, cold-hearted, mean-spirited and miserly old man — His nephew Fred comes to invite him over for Christmas dinner, and the conversation allows us to see the different perspectives of the two men regarding Christmas time…
Fred’s description of Christmas is the ideal is it not. That Christmas is supposed to effect us and open us up to the working of God and to charity towards our fellow neighbors…we are to live with hope, peace, joy, and love. Scrooge is pessimistic about this view of Christmas, and finds little need for it. He’s too busy to be bothered by it. Too important to waste time considering it even. And when asked to give it a chance, he would rather go about his life.
Christmas wishes to reorient our life circumstances and this is not easily accomplished. It didn’t come easy for God, and it doesn’t come easy for us. Take, for example, Scrooge in the Christmas Carol for a moment…what is about to happen to him that will interfere with his well structured life, and will attempt to upset his notions about everything? (three spirits of Christmas are coming to visit) Ok - so, let’s hear the words of Luke this morning and apply the principles of these words to Scrooge’s life as he is confronted by the power of Christmas.
Luke 3:7-8 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.
You ever wonder how people get to the point where they can be called a “brood of vipers” from a notorious Bible character. Perhaps, the spirit of Christmas Past can provide some insight as to how this develops:
Luke 3:9-14 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
When God interferes in our world at Christmas time, he offers a new way of life that breaks the traps of the past. Let’s take another quick look at Scrooge as he is visited by the spirit of Christmas Present. The Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to view Christmas morning, a day in which he refuses to participate. Ebenezer is asked to SEE the world around him differently.
Luke 3:15-17 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The spirit of Christmases yet to come shows Scrooge a look into a potential future.
Luke 3:18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
To appreciate the good news, we must confront the bad news. James Pope comments in his blog Knowing the Bad News Unlocks the Good News: “Understanding sin is essential to fully comprehending what the Lord has done for us. Remembering what the Lord has done for us brings gratitude and love. Again, to those who want the Church to de-emphasize sin, Jesus provides this warning: But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little (Luke 7:47).”
By showing Scrooge the story that he was trapped in, Christmas releases him to live a different life. He resolves, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will remember the lessons of the Past; I will live in the Present; I will live toward the Future. The spirits of all three will strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me that I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
When we live in the good news of Jesus’ coming, we are free to experience deep enjoyment. At Christmas, the Lord is at Hand! Let us acknowledge Jesus’s coming to save us from our real and deep sins, and let us resolve to live in the joy of Jesus this Christmas time and all the year long — as long as God provides breath for our lungs!
The rest of Scrooge's story is one of great enjoyment and the love of life…The reason? Scrooge SEES the world differently than he did before…Experiences the world differently than he did before. He Admits his shortcomings and asks others to forgive him and behaves differently than he did before. Lord, grant us this same ability!
The Christmas Carol ends this way: “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. And to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew. And ever afterward it was always said of Ebeneezer Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas, and keep it well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed...
GOD BLESS US, EVERYONE!”
By: Christine Parker
A testimony to God’s steadfast lovingkindness towards Israel and Judah.
From the start, Hosea tells the story of our God whose unfailing love paves the way for the redemption of God’s people even as they commit adultery with every lover they can find.
Read Hosea 1-2. Note the intentionality of the writing. Pay attention to the meaning of the names. Let the movement of the plot become apparent. Watch carefully what God is doing behind the scenes.
It is astounding. It is delightful. It is transforming.
The book is likely written in the final days before Israel's exile during the rapid succession of kings (six in twenty-five years). God pled with God's people through many prophets to turn back from their idolatrous ways to avoid the cleansing God would bring through the exile.
In verse 1:2, Hosea is instructed by God to go take a wife, Gomer, from among to harlots and to have children with her, an analogy for Israel and Judah’s adultery.
Three children are born.
The first is named Jezreel in reference to a massacre in 1 Kings 9-10.
The second child is a daughter named Lo-ruhamah, meaning "she has not obtained compassion." God tells Hosea to name the innocent this for, "...I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, that I should ever forgive them" (1:6b).
A third child is born. Another son. His name means "not my people." Verse 1:9 reads:
And the Lord said, "Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not My people and I am not your God."
Chapter two opens with the two younger siblings instructed to contend with their mother for her harlotry. Hosea writes of how Gomer cheated on the children's father and warns the father will strip the mother naked and leave her exposed unless she repents of her adultery and no compassion will be had for the woman's children.
Such brutality is shocking to modern Western readers.
But then something beautiful happens in 2:6… The harlot's husband says something even more shocking!
He tells the children of prostitution that even as their mother pursues her lovers, she will never overtake them. He has put a hedge up along her way. He has walled the paths so that she can run, but she cannot hide from him. She can seek her false lovers, but she will never find fulfillment with them.
Then she will say, "I will go back to my first husband,
For it was better for me then than now!"
What the Israel does not know is that God provided for all her needs while she chased her false lovers. The grain, the new wine, the oil. Even the silver and gold which she and her lovers sacrificed to Baal were lavished upon the her by the harlot’s husband, God.
Still, God says, she will be punished for her unfaithfulness in the sight of her lovers.
But then. Oh, then, declares the Lord, "I will allure her” (2:14b).
Did you hear that? God will allure the bride who ran off after all her lovers, chasing them with God's own gold and silver, new wine and oil.
God loves God's bride so richly, so heavenly, that even the ones called Not My People and She Has Not Obtained Compassion are worthy of God's alluring efforts.
"Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Bring her into the wilderness,
And speak kindly to her" (2:14).
And God does. After the adultery/idolatry is removed from the people by means of the exile, the people are brought back to their land. The bride returns to her first love.
"And it will come about in that day," declares the Lord, "That you will call Me Ishi [husband]" (2:16).
Hosea 2 ends like a letter between two lovers. No more false lovers, no more war. Israel will lie down in safety, betrothed to God forever in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion.
God will betroth God's bride to himself in faithfulness and she will know the Lord.
And God will respond.
God will respond in the heavens and Israel will respond on the earth.
And the earth will respond with grain and wine and oil 2:18-23.
In grand triumph, the children return:
I will also have compassion on
her who had not obtained
And I will say to those who
were not My people,
'You are My people!'
And they will say, Thou art my God!' (2:23 b,c)
(Be still in that for a moment. Let the beauty of what just happened wash over you.)
This is the story of God and Israel.
It is my story.
My precious love story with God who allures me.
Yes. God strips me bare and uncovers my nakedness in front of my false gods.
Then God removes those unkind lovers from my lips and betroths me to God forever.
This is also your story.
(Be still in that for a moment. Let the beauty of what just happened wash over you.)
God is always seeking God’s people. Providing for them.
Loving you steadfastly and making a way for you to be found.
Let God's lovingkindness and compassion wash over you.
God calls you God’s people.
Christine Fox Parker serves as President/Executive Director of PorchSwing Ministries, Inc., a non-profit ministry she founded to offer healing and safe space to survivors of all forms of church abuse and to educate churches and Christian institutions in creating safer spaces and improving care for abuse survivors. She earned a Masters in Christian Ministry and a Master’s in Counseling from Harding School of Theology.
Christine co-edited and contributed to Surrendering to Hope: Guidance for God’s Broken, published by Leafwood Press in May 2018. Connect with Christine on her websites at www.porchswingministries.org and www.christinefoxparker.com.
A long time ago, our friend Augustine talked about disordered loves. His contention was things tend to be good in and of themselves but the way we often use those good things is problematic. God created these things, after all – and he called them very good – but these good things were created within an order and with purpose. God's good creation was meant to work a certain way. So our problem, Augustine says, is that we get our loves out of order. We neglect some things while trying to use other things to do more than they were ever meant to do.
I think there's a lot of truth to what Augustine is laying on us here. I think about Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:1-21. He bookends this teaching with dual warnings about being careful where we look for our treasures and rewards. Don't give or pray or fast to impress people. (This was a culture, after all, where giving, praying, and fasting carried major social capital.) If that's where we're placing our worth and identity we'll get our reward, but be careful: those neighbors we've worked so hard to impress with our shows of generosity, pious prayers, and righteous displays of fasting simply cannot bear the weight our bid for approval, worth, and meaning places on them. Investing ourselves in such storehouses inevitably leads to loss because, “moth and rust consume” and “thieves break in and steal.”
Augustine reminds us it's not that our neighbors are bad – or even that we should avoid their approval. Rather, when we make the approval and validation of our neighbors the locus of our worth and identity, the place where we store our treasures, we’ve gotten things out of order. We look for something from our neighbors they cannot possibly deliver in any meaningful way. Only God can. It is only in rooting who we are in God's estimation of us that we can hope to find lasting worth and meaning and identity. This is “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
In Matthew 6:21, Jesus ends by reminding us our hearts will follow our treasures. Another way of saying that is this: You will spend your life chasing the treasure you seek. More, other friends as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, and James KA Smith remind us that it is in this chase that we become who we are. The chase forms us, for good or ill.
What am I seeking? That’s the question we’ve been assigned to ponder and I spend a lot of time doing that. I too often recognize the ways I chase the wrong sorts of treasure – when I place too much stock in whether or not my friends and neighbors think I'm funny or smart or successful or good. I've had to deal with all the ways I've hitched my identity to being a vocational minister, and I've had to figure out what I'm worth now that I'm not that anymore. More, I've had to come to terms with the fact that pursuing those treasures has often made me a more selfish person because it's hard to both love and use my neighbors to satisfy my own neurotic needs. The only path forward I've discovered is to begin putting those loves back in order. This is, after all, the way Jesus showed us.
What do I seek? It has to be God. I stink at the pursuit. I struggle with it. I often get sidetracked and turned around. But, nothing else will do. Nothing else can.
Rob Sparks is a Jesus follower, a father and husband, a nerd, and a paper pusher. He worships and serves with the Fernvale Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee and occasionally blogs at robrsparks.wordpress.com
by Lance Hawley
The short answer to this opening question is “God.”
I was first moved to study the Old Testament by a scholar who exhibited a communion with God through the text. He was a poet and convicted me of the inexhaustible wealth of the Hebrew Scriptures. He showed me that it was more than just a series of books that talked about God, but it was a meeting place to come face to face with the Creator of the universe.
The purpose of Bible study is experiencing God and growing into his mission. This goes for scholarly and devotional reading alike. No matter our exegetical abilities, when we read the Bible we ought to concern ourselves with knowing God. Ideally, close readings, attention to detail, and scholarly inquiry only deepens our understanding. Certainly, God is beyond our comprehension, but we are not left without a clue. The more we study Scripture, the more opportunity we have for knowing the fullness of God.
I seek to know Scripture like I know an old hymn. I want to know the lyrics, the historical references, the metaphors, the poetic rhythms. But it is not just for study sake; I want to sing the song. As the great Zion song says, “I heard their song and strove to join.”
Admittedly, I sometimes find myself devoting vast amounts of time to the study of the minutia of Scripture that does not seem to have much to do with knowing God. I sometimes miss the forest (God) for the trees (particular texts), but the right corrective to this is not to ignore the trees. Even the minutia, properly framed, filters up to knowing God more fully. I will attempt to illustrate with a few examples.
Wrestling with God through text criticism
Text criticism gives us a window into ancient interpretation. Sometimes variants in the manuscripts are just scribal errors, but often variants reveal disagreements or shifts among interpreters. For example, Job 13:15a, is translated by the NRSV as “See, he will kill me; I have no hope,” but the ESV has “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The reason for the difference is a textual variant: the Hebrew word here is lō’ meaning “not,” but another ancient tradition reads lô meaning “to him.” The two Hebrew words sound identical. So does Job say that he does not have hope or does Job say that he will still hope in him? I think that it is fairly clear that the NRSV is more in tune with the book of Job and the variant “in him” is a later effort to make Job seem less despairing. But back to our question, what does this variant have to do with knowing God? Simply put, we cannot make the big points without observing the details. In this case, we get an insight into how our ancestors in faith heard and wrestled with the character of Job. Job is a book about the human experience of suffering and how one relates to God in the midst of suffering. This small little word matters to the portrayal of despair. In my experience, it contributes to my own wrestling with God as I observe injustices and resolve to speak to God without restraint. So the text critical question filters up to wrestling with God when the realities of injustice hit home. One can certainly wrestle with God without knowing Hebrew or this text critical issue, but the closer we look the more we bring to the table.
The awe and wonder of wordplay
I love wordplay and a good poetic turn of phrase. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, a parabolic song about a failed vineyard concludes with God expecting mishpat (justice), but getting mishpaḥ (violence), expecting ṣedaqah (righteousness) but getting ṣe‘aqah (an outcry). This pair of wordplay is obvious in the Hebrew and contributes to the richness of the poem. What I love about close study of the Old Testament is that it slows me down and draws my attention the creative detail of Scripture. God is a poet. The better we understand His poems, the fuller our communion with Him.
I do not study the Old Testament to prove or disprove its history or to contradict science. In my experience, these are unfruitful and misguided pursuits for the most part. Additionally, my primary reason for studying the OT is not to establish doctrine. Doctrine is important, no doubt, and the Old Testament certainly espouses doctrines, but these are typically secondary gleanings from the primary story of God among His people.
I study the Old Testament to learn from Israel’s witness to the character and actions of God, so that I might more fully understand the wonders of God’s work in the present. I want to sing the song of the Old Testament, which not only requires me to learn the lyrics and the tune, but also to join the chorus. The text hymns its King in strains divine. I hear the song and strive to join.
Lance Hawley is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament and biblical Hebrew at Harding School of Theology in Memphis. His research focuses on the book of Job and Hebrew poetry. He also has a major interest in biblical law and biblical canon as essential topics of study for followers of Jesus. Before joining the HST faculty, Lance served as a church planter in Madison, WI for ten years. He has a passion for the spiritual formation of missional communities. Lance and his wife, Laura, have three children.
by: Mark Adams
"It was in the last place I looked."
One of my least favorite expressions follows an anxious search for keys, wallets, and phones. Having scoured the house, the office, or the last place someone visited, when they find what they've been seeking, they might exclaim, "Wouldn't you know it? I found it in the last place I looked for it!"
My inner response is always, "If you've already found it, why would you continue looking?" Nobody ever says, "Hey, now that I have my car keys in hand, I'm going to check a few more places to see if they're there, also." While there are aspects of our Christian journey that involve a continual seeking and searching, such as a deeper understanding of God's inexhaustible love and mercy, there are some things that we should stop seeking the way that we had before we were Christians. Here are three things that Christians can stop seeking.
1. You can stop seeking people's applause and approval.
The great goal for which all Christians are striving is to stand in the presence of God, and to hear God say, "Well done!" We earnestly seek God's applause. In Christ, we are confident that there is "now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." This frees us to live out of our joy and appreciation for the love God has poured on us with lavishness.
Likewise, it matters to us that people can see the good things that we do because of our faith, and even if they don't join us, they can still glorify Godbecause of what God has done through us. We care that people will assume things about God because of what they see in us.
Even so, as Christians, we need not seek people's applause and approval the way that the world does. If your sense of self-worth and happiness derives only from what people think and say about you,you're going to be drinking from a water source that will generally leave you thirsty. People are fickle. They can love someone one minute and turn on them the next minute for a variety of reasons these days, and the function of the always-present smartphone combined with social media only exacerbates and hastens the problem. If you subject your wellbeing to the hands of people who are chasing after popularity of their own, no matter how much you've been liked or admired, you're still going to have to keep seeking their approval.
Do you understand that God loves you as his own, irrespective of any other factor you could think up or present? Even if your walk involves the occasional stumble or tumble, you rest safe in the Grace of God whose love for you existed even before you did. You can stop seeking people's applause and approval because God has the final word, and God loves you dearly. As he demonstrated in Christ, he would rather die than try to imagine Eternity without you there.
2. You can stop seeking to establish your value through your own competence.
I struggle with anxiety if I feel underprepared for a situation. I work on my sermons and classes far in advance. I try to study every angle of something about which I believe people might ask me. I've always worked hard to be a resourceful person, to whom people feel they can turn if they need knowledge and insight. Sometimes, this can become an idol.
Your idol may not be an idol of knowledge, but there are probably other ways you try to establish your worth through what you can do. Are you the person who can get things done? Are you the person who always directs or volunteers in a certain way? Are you the person on whom everyone hasto depend when they need a certain thing?
It is one thing to be a valuable asset because of your love for the greater community. It is another thing to share your gifts and talents, but to have strings attached for what you expect in return. It is a blessing to be able to share, to give, and to inspire. But when we mustbe seen a certain way because of what we can do, we have stopped relying on God for our sense of worth and have settled for an idol, who will leave us unsatisfied. Your gifts are yours for the building up of the body of Christ. Use them for the good of others, and stop seeking to establish your worth through what you can do, rather than through the way God has valued you.
3. You can stop seeking to prove your worth through your possessions.
Christians in the West have a hard time letting go of our cultural tendency to buy things for their status rather than for their usefulness. Name brands, vehicle sizes and features, and a variety of clothing and personal ornamentation doand will continue tograb the world's attention. It is this tendency, I believe, that Paul is addressing when he warns about the importance of dressing with modesty. Even though he would probably be in agreement with our general aversion to dressing overly "sexy," Paul is concerned that when a person shows off their value through what they use to clothe themselves, they necessarily exclude and demean the poor among us who have no ability to succeed in a contest of possession acquisition.
Let us not forget that those of us who have been baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ. Jesus is our brand. Jesus is our identity. Jesus is our greatest treasure and our highest hope.
Before you make your next purchase, you might ask yourself:
Until we stand before God, may we always seek God with a holy hunger. May we never exhaust our desire to learn and embody God's love. But for now, let's remember that we've already found what matters most. We can stop worrying so much about what other people think about us. We can quit trying to prove how strong we are on our own. If we were really so strong, we wouldn't have needed a Savior. We can stop distracting people from a treasure of ultimate worth by obsessing over things we know we'll be donating to Goodwill next year. One of the many ways Jesus lightens our burdens is by helping us to release what we no longer need to seek.
Dr. Mark Adams is the preaching minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married to his wife Carolina, whom he met when the two of them were students together at Harding University. He is also a graduate of Lipscomb University. You can learn more about Mark at his website: https://kingdomupgrowth.com
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.