Keys to Joy at Christmas

(Originally Posted 2007)

Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king!

It’s a beautiful phrase that proclaims why we must rejoice this holiday season. Yet during the Christmas season, the biggest struggle for me — and possibly for many others– is the struggle for joy. It’s funny that joy would be something hard to maintain during this the “season of joy,” yet it is.

Personally, for me, the past year was characterized by a misapplication of the Doctrine of Sin. I was focusing almost completely on my own sin and failures, instead of allowing God’s grace to flow in my life. Through the great words of C.J. Mahaney, my parents, and God’s Word, I realized that I had been doing the easy part — identifying my sin, yet that was all I was doing. I was not doing the hard part — crushing my pride by accepting God’s free grace. This act of refusing God’s grace sapped joy from my life. But I am still grateful for the lesson I have learned through this season of my life — and am now joyfully enjoying God’s grace once again.

Which brings me back to Christmas — it is a time where we all seem to get caught up in the nation-wide Christmas grumpiness. What we need to do is to take just a few “keys” to joy, and apply them to our lives. Now, these keys are not original to me (as most things are not), but come from the great blog Girl Talk.

First, we must contemplate the incarnation.

I have found this key to be of the utmost importance, particularly this Christmas season. As I have thought upon the great wonder of the incarnation — the miracle of Christmas — and upon the great news that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:6) it has sent shivers up my spine and has brought tears to my eyes.

This past Wednesday was especially sweet to me as I led worship, sharing a story of sacrifice, and just contemplating with fellow believers on the incarnation and on Christ’s death. I don’t usually cry – but the overwhelming power of the message that God had laid on my heart came with such a force. We must always keep this wonder in the forefront of our minds and hearts.

Two other ways to contemplate the incarnation, as pointed out by Nicole Whitacre, include reading chapter five, “God Inncarnate” from JI Packer’s Knowing God, a chapter that affected me deeply this past summer during a class I was taking on the book.

“The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity’s hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross,” says Packer, “It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear.”

The second way to contemplate the incarnation is through music, particularly the Sovereign Grace Christmas Album, Savior: Celebrating the Mystery of God Become Man. The songs on this CD are absolutely wonderful — full of beautiful, theologically strong lyrics and perfect music for the whole year.

The second key is to practice the spiritual disciplines. A great way to do that is to get a hold of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney – a book I desperately need to pick up and read along with my daily Bible readings. I really like what Janelle Bradshaw said in her post on this second key:

“It can be a temptation to let a few things slide. You know the thoughts: “Things will settle down after the holidays. I’ll get back to it then.” Often times, the spiritual disciplines can be the first to go.

We usually don’t feel the immediate effect of skipping a few devotional times here and there. But, what happens if we don’t get our presents wrapped in time or the cookies made before the big meal? That would be a disaster! “

And which one of us has not experienced that very thing happen to us at least one year around Christmastime? I doubt one of us could say that we have been faithful each year during this busy time. But we must remember that “the precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart…they are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” (Psalm 19:8,10)

The third key to Christmas joy is to serve and give to others.

It reminds me of my visit to the nursing home just a couple of weeks ago. I went with the junior high department of my church’s youth group to sing Christmas carols in the halls. As expected, we walked into a smelly, overly heated, dry, old building with what seemed to be smelly, cold, elderly people. And that’s how many of us saw it when we first walked in. Yet when we began to sing, I saw a building that was full of sad, lonely, joyless people who needed to hear those songs proclaiming the greatness of the incarnation.

In one hallway, we stopped to sing for one lady who began to direct us as we sang. I set my guitar down (since we sang a cappella), and turned to see a older black man sitting on his bed, reading a Christmas card that one of the kids had given him. His face was so sad — so lonely, as if he had no one in his life. The television in front of him was the only light in that room, except for a little light from the hallway. He struggled to read the card – and his face slowly melted. And then he began to sing along with us in a deep, quiet voice…

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king…”

I thought I saw a tear in his eye as he looked up at me. I smiled and wished him a “Merry Christmas!” A smile took over his face as he looked up at me. “Merry Christmas,” he said. His eyes quickly returned to that simple card we had made for him earlier that day.

It’s just another example of serving and giving to others — it truly brings you great joy as well. A quote I loved from J.I. Packer was quoted in the Girl Talk post. In the quote, he reminds us:

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor–spending and being spent–to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends–in whatever way there seems need.

If God in mercy revives us, one of the things he will do will be to work more of this spirit in our hearts and lives. If we desire spiritual quickening for ourselves individually, one step we should take is to seek to cultivate this spirit. ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty became rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9).

The fourth key to joy is continued communion with God. This is essentially staying and praying to God throughout the day. Not just part of the day. The cross need to be at the forefront of our minds all the time, not just the morning or evening, or Sunday or Wedndesday. We must constantly rely on God for our joy – especially when we serve others. In these things, we cannot do them alone. Meditate on God’s Word all day.

The final key to joy is to return every gift into an opportunity to glorify and adore God.

“Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility”.I have tried to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I meant something different. Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun. If this is Hedonism, it is also a somewhat arduous discipline. But it is worth some labour.” (C.S. Lewis as quoted in, When I Don’t Desire God, by John Piper)

I pray you will have a joyful year full of the wonder and mystery of God become man – and I pray that you will not stop simply at God becoming man, but what he did as a man on this earth. And that will bring you great joy.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her king!

Originally posted 12/22/2007

Tragedy in Newtown: We Cry With Hope

As we wake up this Monday morning, we begin a week where parents will begin burying their six and seven year olds. This should not be so. It is, I think, a grave strike in the face of all that is right and true. The serpent has struck at the innocent.

I for one wake this Monday morning and must wrestle in my soul, as I read the stories and see the pictures of these children. Thankfully, there are men who have sensed and felt the same struggle and pain and have written in response to this awful tragedy. I put this list here for your benefit (HT: The Rebelution).

How Does Jesus Come to Newtown? by John Piper

We need a suffering Savior. We need a Savior who has tasted the cup of horror we are being forced to drink.And that is how he came. He knew what this world needed. Not a comedian. Not a sports hero. Not a movie star. Not a political genius. Not a doctor. Not even a pastor. The world needed what no mere man could be.Keep Reading –>

Rachel Weeping For Her Children by Dr. Albert Mohler (also listen to The Briefing)

The calculated and premeditated nature of this crime, combined with the horror of at least twenty murdered children, makes the news almost unspeakable and unbearable. The grief of parents and loved ones in Newtown is beyond words. Yet, even in the face of such a tragedy, Christians must speak. We will have to speak in public about this evil, and we will have to speak in private about this horrible crime. How should Christians think and pray in the aftermath of such a colossal crime? Keep Reading –>

School Shootings and Spiritual Warfare by Russell Moore

Let’s grieve for the innocent. Let’s demand justice for the guilty. And let’s rage against the Reptile behind it all.As we do so, let’s remember that Bethlehem was an act of war. Let’s remember that the One born there is a prince of peace who will crush the skull of the ancient murderer of Eden. Let’s pray for the Second Coming of Mary’s son. And, as we sing our Christmas carols, let’s look into the slitted eyes of Satan as we promise him the threat of his coming crushed skull.Keep Reading –>

Sermon of Remembrance and Peace by Tim Keller

TRANSCRIPT: But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means?John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be.It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. … if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength. Keep Reading –>

The Loss of the Innocents by Ross Douthat

NEWTOWN, Conn., is about 20 miles from the town where my wife grew up. It’s the kind of place that rewards rambling New England drives: there are big old Victorian houses flanking the main street, a hill with a huge flagpole rising in the center of town, and a large pasture just below, with shaded side roads radiating outward from the greensward, and then horse farms in the hills beyond.

When you live in a hectic, self-important city, it’s easy to romanticize a town like Newtown, and maybe imagine escaping there someday, children in tow. The last time we drove through was more than a year ago: it was a summer dusk, and there were families out everywhere — kids on bikes, crowds around the ice cream stand, the images of small town innocence flickering past our car windows like slides on a carousel.

Any grown-up knows that such small-town innocence is illusory, and that what looks pristine to outsiders can be as darkened by suffering as any other place where human beings live together, and alone.

But even so, the illusion has real power, not least because the dream of small-town life makes the whole universe seem somehow kinder and homier. Keep Reading ->

Connecticut Shooting & How God Identifies with Suffering by Alyssa Joy

My heart is broken for the kids and adults who were killed this morning in the Conneticut shooting. My heart aches for those parents, teachers, children and families. They said on the news that this is the worst school shooting in American history.

As I watched the news this morning, my heart cried out to the Lord– praying for those involved, and also wondering why God allowed this to happen. How could this happen?

Then I recalled who the LORD is. He did not turn His back when the shooter went in this morning. He did not forget about His children. He did not forsake them. Keep Reading – >

Suffer Not the Little Children to Come to Me–and to Us by Owen Strachan

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away (Matthew 19:13-15 ESV).

Many of us are still recovering from the Sandy Hook shooting this past Friday. We’re still in shock; we’re still in mourning. It is right that we find ourselves here. Terrible tragedy calls first for sadness, not solutions.

In my own processing of this evil event, I have thought a good deal about what this calamity shows about how Americans continue to think about children. We grieve the little ones who are dead. We do not think of them as expendable, as inexpensive, as possessing less dignity than anyone else. We want to protect them. Our worst nightmare as a society is for someone to menace and kill our kids. Keep Reading ->

Latest Article: No Little Cross

My latest article is on The Veritas Network this morning.

My eyes were burning as the salty sweat dripped off my forehead. I took a bite of my chewy energy bar, then crumpled and stuffed the aluminum packaging deep into my backpack. I rummaged around for my water bottle, my arm brushing against the harsh canvas. Finally my fingers touched the warm plastic. I jerked it free and brought it to my mouth.

I took a deep, warm gulp. It eased my throat that was burning from the pungent smells wafting all around me.

Dusty fields randomly spattered with green plants surrounded the brown and broken dirt road I walked on. I stepped off into a ditch to allow a camel-drawn cart full of colorfully clothed men and women pass.

My feet were starting to ache. It had a been a long morning already. The hotel shower had been cold and my breakfast had been a few handfuls of cheap, dry cereal I had bought at a cluttered bazaar the evening before.

A friend and I had met and greeted our translator early in the humid morning, crammed ourselves into a smelly green and yellow auto rickshaw, then pattered off to the bus stop. Once we arrived, the three of us climbed into a dilapidated old bus full of staring people and took off. I wondered why they stared.

We quickly realized why. It was like driving in a war zone. I still have no idea how people could sleep on a bus that creaked, groaned, and roared louder with every kilometer we traveled. Every time we hit a pothole, the sound was deafening.

But we made it. Finally.

We were now walking about 10 kilometers to a remote village in Northern India, a village where I would start to fully realize something that would radically change my life forever.

Read the rest on the Veritas Network.

All Together Now: A Reformed Baptist and Pentecostal Anglican Talk Church Unity

by Tim Sweetman & David Ketter

Note from Tim: Dear readers and friends. Do not be alarmed. I hope, in the following few hundred words, to maintain my standing as completely orthodox, as thoroughly baptist, and totally biblical. My dear friend David Ketter and I began a lively conversation that sparked this collaboration effort, and I am pleased with the result. It is not something radically new. It’s not even something I would call our best work. But I think it’s something we needed to say, together. And so we offer our small voices into the larger conversation of unity – a unity we hope is not founded upon a disdain for differences or good theology, but a deep love for one another rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what’s one thing Michael Vick and some Christians have in common?

Hopefully, it isn’t illegal activities and abusive forms of entertainment. But in some ways, dogfighting is what many churches are training and egging their members into. Because as much as we all claim to believe in one united, invisible Church, we lay claim much more vigorously to the title “Holder of the Most Pure Truth™” for our own church tradition. We try to convert Wesleyans into Calvinists. We’ll fight to convince those who baptize infants into doing believers baptism exclusively. We never fight so hard, or get attacked so viciously, as when we Christians start talking about our distinctives in the Church. It’s our “small differences” that inspire the raging cage-matches between Christians all over the internet, around Christian colleges and seminaries, and within Christian families. And what we have learned is…we really shouldn’t have our dogs in these fights.

There’s a lot of burned of people out there. I (Tim) don’t mean they’re physically distorted. It’s their hearts. They’re bruised and ripped apart. I was graciously spared this burning, but recently I’ve stepped outside and have seen these people cowering in the dark corners, weeping as they attempt to nurse their wounds. There is not much to say to them as they glare with beady black eyes at my clean clothes and untouched heart. These are those who have been attacked by the dogs. Those who spit out the tainted and poisonous forms of Christianity rearing their ugly heads in our society. and sadly, some of our churches. You know the type: the vitriolic and angry. The hateful and hurtful. The ones who take the injured and instead of offering grace, condemn them to die.

Even so, we believe Christianity is entering an exciting time. A quick glance around us and we can find many major Christian denominations and organizations rallying around the central and ancient tenets of our faith. We can sit across the table from our Presbyterian brother and rejoice with him about the success of his ministry. We’re moving away from nastiness and arrogance that we’ve noticed.

It also means we hate a few things. We hate the narcissism of small differences. It is a bitter irony: those we are closest with we beat up the most. Brothers tend to battle most intensely (just ask our brothers). Thankfully, we continue to be friends. But those around us, if we had said some things we regretted in front of them, might miss that fact. It may be that we have had some dogfights when we just needed to have dinner.
Neither we nor our churches have a monopoly on biblical Truth. But fortunately for us, we have an amazing promise from Jesus.

In one of his last words of encouragement at the Last Supper, Jesus says to the disciples (and to us): “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). That promise was made to Jesus’ people gathered together. It’s a grand promise. It means we can have a certainty that God reveals Truth to the whole Church. The Truth in its fullness isn’t simply a system of theology, but the Person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6). The fullness of Christ is revealed in the world in the totality of the Church in all places and at all times. By extension, the fullness of Christ can’t be contained in our

Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal niches, among others. If we want the fullness of Christ, we need the whole Church.

So what do we do? Find a Least-Common-Denominator statement of faith? Have a Christianity that’s skin and bones, with no substance,, because we’ve kept it to what we all agree on? By no means. There’s a reason the early Church passed on the creeds. Professing the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds is not about having a least-common-denominator Christianity. It’s “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

It’s the proclamation of the whole counsel of God in summary. When we profess the Creed together, we aren’t saying “Well, at least we agree on a few important things.” Instead, we show that we have a rule of faith by which we believe and stand and that rule of faith is built on the Scriptures and confirmed by the Spirit. What we affirm in the creed is the Faith. Everything else is our traditions’ interpretation of it. Our denominations together with all our differences keep us balanced and in check.

It means that we are ready to unite with my brothers and sisters in Christ because of the ancient gospel of Christ as we fight against moral relativism, idolatry, politicization of Christianity, and other attacks on the Church. More than ever, we need the Church to unite together to stand strong in an increasingly secularized culture that is pressuring us to cave to cultural norms.

Sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers in the faith: we’re inseparable. All who have been confronted by the crucified and risen Lord Jesus,, repenting of their sins have been marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit gives us the common cry “Abba, Father!” We share in one baptism. We share in one faith, delivered to us by the Lord Jesus. We share in one communion feast, gratefully remembering and participating in the death of our Lord until He comes back. We lift up the Name of Jesus as one body for a broken world that desperately needs His visible presence. So, let’s put a leash on the dog and instead release the freedom revealed in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return soon. It’s time for some dinner.