Monthly Archives: December 2014

Christmas Comfort

Editor’s note:  For many of us, Christmas is a melancholy time.  I think this is true for me for the simple reason that both of my parents died in December, with my Dad (the author of this blog) having a heart attack on Christmas day from which he passed 4 days later.  Many others have losses or illnesses in their families which are felt more acutely during the holiday season.  So my hope is that the reader will find comfort in this meditation, the last one of the year.

Christmas has many “synonyms”: joy, peace, love, gift.  But, surprisingly, “comfort” may well be the word that “says it all”.  It is the first word in the MESSIAH, the “gospel according to Isaiah” (40:1), the “New Testament” (“fear not”), and is the theme of the Heidelberg Catechism.  The meaning of comfort is not a feeling, but a fact/condition.  Synonyms are “strength” (fortify), protection (fort), confidence, ability, power, assurance, support, stability.  These last two terms are psychological/medical; part of the Hippocratic oath is “always to comfort”.  Comfort is almost another word for “salvation,” which means wholeness, well-being, peace.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are called “comforters.”

To feel or be comfortable requires correct self-knowledge.  Socrates, wisest pagan, said this; being a non-Christian, he lacked it.  All unbelievers lack it, hence they lack peace, joy, etc.  Many Christians, by their own admission, lack security, assurance, etc. because they do not know who they are, what salvation is.  Isaiah’s first hearers did not know who they were and had the wrong idea as punishment for their sins (40:2), but they couldn’t fill up the depressions in their lives (“valleys”) or level the mountains that all of us should be able to “cast into the sea”, all because they did not realize what it means to be God’s people (vs. 1).

We need Christmas comfort.  In ourselves, first of all.  “All flesh is grass” says the Bible:  A person in and of himself is nobody; cheap, weak and lacking “comfort” in any sense of the word.  Witness the apprehension regarding the year 1984 because of Orwell’s book by the same name, or the panic that accompanied the movie “The Day After”.  Hebrews says that as a result, our entire lifetime is one of fear.  Note the other results of being merely “flesh”:  Fatalism, defeatism, nihilism, drug culture, escapism, depression, suicide.  The moral results are much the same:  Abortions (“It’s only tissue”), wrong sex practices (“After all, it’s only physical, like blowing one’s nose”) including homo-sexuality (again, through failure to know who one is, male versus women; “all flesh is grass” – unisex.)  The ultimate is that man becomes a mere number; is the mark of the beast – depersonalization.

Christianity does not have the answer to that need (for the world or for itself) in laws against all these things;  the “law” is designed to put fear into people (rather than comfort), and instead of driving one away from sin and its consequences, only stirs it up the more.  Neither does “mere” forgiveness bring comfort, if one is only going to sin some more; forgiveness does not enable to fill the low spots or level the mountains of temptation.  Hence, “Jesus died for your sins, so that you can get to heaven” is a cheap gospel, a half-salvation.  While the Bible is clear as to our so-great salvation, our full joy, more abundant life, and as to who Christians really are (saints, not even forgiven sinners).  Our liturgies are confusing (calling us both, when you are only one or the other), our confessions and songs are unclear and contradictory (as well as many sermons), being addressed to saints and the unconverted simultaneously.  (For example, the popular hymn, “Whiter than Snow”, or “Just As I Am”.  We should not come to communion singing the same songs that are used as altar calls at a rescue mission.)  In short, most Christians lack comfort because they are confused; they don’t know who they are.

The Provision, source or basis of Christian (and Christmas) comfort is this:  “The Word of our God abideth forever.”  This “word” is not the Bible, nor even the promises of God.  If my name is not written in the Bible as being forgiven, etc., how can I have assurance, peace, confidence, power, comfort?  That Word is Christ.  God’s Word, that spoke and brought man into being, Himself became “flesh” (the problem); that’s what Christmas is all about – God entered into our human predicament and became a nobody.  It was a census that caused Christ to be born where he was, and he was given a number (shades of Orwell) before he was given a name.  And he was born specially (without a human father) in order to be a Second Adam (start a new humanity), and as a picture of who we really are, new people who are born not of flesh, but by the same Holy Spirit that gave Christ birth. All history is dated in terms of Jesus birth.  All genealogies end in him.  And begin!

So, who are we?  New, perfect, immortal people; children of Christ (Hebrews 2:13,14), parts of him (like parts of a body, branches of a tree).  Each of us has a new name (one of Jesus’ countless ones – Isa 9:6).  We will never die.  We will never be judged.  We have power over any and every opposition – all in the name of Jesus.  Can you imagine anything more comforting, reassuring, strengthening, encouraging, than that?

Why, when it is so available, do people still reject it?  Our basic problem is independence, pride, self.  Nobody can be two people, your-self and Christ’s self.  The old, natural, “flesh”-you has to go, die, be crucified.  Actually, it has already happened (Gal 2:20); all you have to do is recognize the FACT (Romans 6:1-11). It is this new-self awareness that means being filled with the Spirit, the “second blessing”, the something “more and better” of Hebrews.  “Brethren, let us press on.” (Hebrews 12:1,2)

 

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Angels and Christmas

Billy Graham has a book about Angels, you may have read or heard about it. As it is the Christmas season, I will look at their relationship to Christmas.  First of all, their ministry is spiritual.  They are spiritual, pure spirit, in that they have no bodies. They assumed some sort of physical appearance in the Old Testament and to Zachariah and Mary,  but primarily and basically they are spirits and their service is of that sort. They are able to have physical effects like when one of them let Peter out of prison.  But for the most part God has given the physical world to us for our bodies and he has given us the angels to take care of our souls.  We have important spiritual needs which are often forgotten and overlooked.  Think of the oceans of time we spend on our bodies to the neglect of our spirits.  Partially in ignorance of the work of the angels who are created to minister to our souls.  Just how they affect us physically is hard to explain, but then we don’t understand the effects of our souls or spirits on our bodies.  How is it that a corpse can’t do anything despite having everything needed for life but is missing that essence or essential element of life or spirit.  How angels affect our spirit without means or media is difficult to understand, but they do.

In the case of Christ we read that after his temptation that angels came to minister to him, and I like to think that they did too during his temptation.  And if they refreshed him physically like they did to Elijah, then they may have done this for a starving Christ.  But there was spiritual and mental encouragement too.  In the Garden of Gethsemane we read that an angel came to strengthen him as he was sweating blood so that he could go to the cross.  We have examples of that in our own lives, such as when one goes to surgery and knows that there are people praying for him/her.  It gives a psychological support, even though you have to go through it alone, knowing that others are supporting you.  But not only in suffering, but in education where there is the influence of one person upon another, one spirit on another.  Now how angels do it is more mysterious (as an aside, no where in the Bible does it say they sing), but their spirit directly on our spirit affects us. I think that is worth remembering and emphasizing because our first thought in connection with Psalm 91, “He shall give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways,” is a physical one, isn’t it? And we conjure pictures of children being kept safe in accidents or accidental ingestion of poisons but that is just the beginning. “He shall give his angels charge over you” to keep you spiritually. Satan told Jesus, “Why don’t you jump off of here?  The angels will catch you.”  And they might have, could have, but the angels whispered to Jesus, “Don’t do it.”  Jesus replied to Satan, quoting scripture, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”  Satan was quoting scriptures and the angels came back with other scriptures, calling to mind passages that he had learned.  This is not unique in Jesus’ case.  Think of the prayers offered up today when a student takes a test, praying that God brings to mind the things he/she has studied.

The angels work prior to Christmas was more literal, more physical in those days.  And today that isn’t necessary.  They don’t appear to us physically because we know that they do exist, and that is where faith comes in.  In the Old Testament, the Bible wasn’t written yet so they came in physical appearance to Zachariah and Mary and others.  In Psalm 8 it says in some translations “that we are made a little lower than the angels” and in others “that we are made a little lower than God.”  And this ambiguity is purposeful because it means both.  In the Old Testament even the saints were inferior to both God and the angels, first of all by the fact of being physical.  The word that is translated both God and angels is “Spirits” (elohim).  That can include the Triune God or the angels. Now in a certain way having a body is superior to not having a body.  It gives you certain advantages like reproduction.  If there was any envy on the part of the angels, it may be that Gabriel would envy being a mother or a father, never having that responsibility or honor. Being without a body has its compensations in that it doesn’t need food, is not limited by time and space the way we are.  But man is inferior to angels not only by physical limitations but also in knowledge, and in age and experience.

And since the fall there is this matter of sinfulness.  In the Old Testament the primary function of angels seems to have been to bridge the gap not between God the Creator and man the creature, because angels are creatures, but between God, the Holy, and man, that awful sin-cursed, hell-deserving wretch.  Now God can put good ideas into the mind of a sinner as well a saint, but it is “spiritually” impossible for God to talk directly to a sinner. And that is where the angels come in.  That’s why the angel Gabriel came down to talk to Mary, the “Holy virgin Mary,” because despite her “holiness” she was a sinner, and an Old Testament sinner.  The new was going to begin with that baby she carried, when he died and went to heaven.  That wonderful woman, and all praise and honor and glory be due her, carried that baby in her tummy for 9 months, but it wasn’t until pentecost where she carried him in her heart.  And that is why Jesus responded the way he did when asked about how fortunate his mother must be to have borne him and responded that the ones more fortunate were those that carried him in their hearts.

In the New Testament the angels’ form is non-visible.  That is where faith comes in.  If the angels continued in a visible form, everyone would believe in them, like the shepherds.  So we believe that they are keeping our children and us, while the world may believe that it was just luck that someone didn’t parish in a car accident. And they have a different ministry.  No longer to they  mediate anymore because the mediator came.  And we don’t need priests anymore or angels anymore on that score.  We can just walk into the Holy of Holies says Hebrews.  And that is why Hebrews in quoting Psalm 8 says that “we are made a little lower than God.”  We passed up the angels.  In the Old Testament, people were inferior to the angels but no longer.  Because we have the Holy Righteousness of God in us.  We are not lower than the angels because we see Christ, by faith.  We are the sons of Christ.  So in the Old Testament they had the angel of the covenant that led the Israelites, that was a guardian between them and other nations.  But now we don’t have a guardian angel anymore, we don’t need any mediators; but now they have been placed between us and Satan, not between us and God.  Now they are fighting our battles for us.  And it is in that conflict, all to the glory of God, that we are the commanders of angels.