Have you ever listened carefully to the words of this familiar Christmas hymn?

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

The first stanza introduces us to one of the themes of this hymn: People move through daily life, often unaware both of God’s providential care (upholding creation, as seen in the movement of the stars) and of the movement of his salvation plan (the coming of Christ). But the reality that Jesus defies our expectations and goes largely unrecognized does nothing to diminish the reality of his significance: here, in this little town, is born the Answer to every human need from age to age!

For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

While the humans sleep, unaware, the angels know and celebrate what God is doing. Yet even “morning stars” (Job 38:7) “wonder” at it (1 Peter 1:12).

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him
still the dear Christ enters in.

This is where I think I’d misread the hymn in the past. When it says “so God imparts,” the so doesn’t tell us the reason God imparts but the manner. That is, in this way (“just so”) God gives his grace: in ways unexpected (to us) and unrecognized (by us) and ordinary (cp. Lk 1 in Mary’s song/Magnificat). This is true both of the Incarnation and of a Christian’s salvation–not everyone will recognize what has happened, and it may not be flashy, but just as surely (in both cases), Christ has come to live with His people! Conversion is an invisible yet real work of God; in Christ God applies the blessings of heaven to flesh-and-blood, sinful people (cp. Ephesians 1). It is a gift both heavenly and earthly, equally real in every part.

And so having reflected on those theological bits, isn’t the last stanza a logical response?

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

To this day most ears still don’t hear his coming, but unbelief never damages or changes the truth (Rom. 2:3-4). When we hear the good news (the Gospel) announced by the angels (and repeated today by very ordinary Christians and pastors), we must receive it. Christ will deal with our sin so that we can be restored to him. Welcome, our Lord, Emmanuel!

In no particular order, and for no particular reason:

  1. The Christmas season serves up arguably the most profound, well-produced music you’ll hear all year in public space; it also serves up a glutton’s portion of the most mind-numbing, sentimental drivel you’ll encounter all year. For this reason, I find myself avoiding streaming services during the holidays and sticking to albums I own. So much of the stuff played in stores/malls is empty secularism, or rank sentimentalism (fishing hard for emotional euphoria), and I think its long-term effect is less like jollity and more like despair. And I’m not discounting the holiday cheer to be had from Vince Guaraldi or Nat King Cole (may it never be!), only observing that with time my love for the Gospel hope and biblical truth expressed in the traditional Christmas hymns has matured and grown.
  2. Just who in the Christmas story is the most mild? Depending on the song, it could be Jesus, Mary, or Joseph; it appears to depend on who is poetically closest when the word “child” is invariably summoned to end a line. In fact, I almost wonder if there are images or nuances that have worked their way into the vernacular theology of the Church because of those privileged English words that happen to rhyme with key words of our Faith. I don’t have any other examples in mind (thankfully), but I find it an interesting proposition.
  3. In general, Christmas hymns and carols sound great sung a capella. While caroling in some of our town’s nursing homes last week, I opted to leave the guitar in the car this year. Never mind that Christmas carols just aren’t harmonized for easy strumming, and that I kick myself every year for attempting it (I’m no guitar wonder). But I thought our singing this year sounded better without accompaniment. The tunes just sing heartily all by themselves.

    Now, I suppose one could argue that this has more to do with familiarity than some sort of objective “tunefulness” of the tunes, and indeed it would be overstating the case to suggest that every tune in a church’s repertoire must fly a capella in order to be of quality.  I’m also keenly aware that accompaniments can easily, instead of encouraging expression, actually restrict it because of poor skills on the instrument (my guitar playing?!) or a thoughtless choice of tempo. But I also wonder if tunes that depend on harmony for their interest really endure past a generation or two. What songs that are popular today will actually last past a few years, or even a few decades? Might the a capella test prove to be a valid pointer (among others) of long-term success or failure? Do we serve our church best when we build its hymn repertoire around tunes that thrive regardless of setting (auditorium vs. living room) or accompaniment (skilled pianist / worship team vs. a capella)?

Because our culture makes feeling happy the goal, when our feelings are negative, when we experience the cost of love, we think that something has gone wrong, that we’re not being true to ourselves. […]

Our “in tune with my feelings” era believes that to be true to myself, to be authentic, means I need to act on my feelings. But the opposite is true. In fact, true authenticity means I maintain a trust through thick and thin. To obey when I don’t feel like it means I will feel dislocated. That frees me because it allows me to do good no matter what my internal spirit is doing. When that happens, I am on my way to maturity, to becoming a seasoned pilgrim of love.

– Miller, A Loving Life, p.60

The “means of grace” are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshipping God in church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification.

– J.C. Ryle, Holiness 

HT: a friend on FB

In my experience, people apologize badly. If you speak an honest word to them, they rarely say, “Oh, thank you for that rebuke. I’ve felt pride welling up in my heart all morning. Your honesty has restored my soul.” More typically, I hear, “I know I am wrong, but you do the same thing,” or just a flat, passionless, “I’m sorry,” which can mean, “I’m apologizing because I got caught.” Or they retaliate or withdraw emotionally. But if I’m doing hesed love, if I’ve accepted that life is uneven, then, like God, I can accept even a grumpy apology. The humility that characterizes hesed love absorbs the other person’s pride like a giant sponge and keeps me from turning the apology into a quarrel.

– Paul Miller, A Loving Life, Crossway 2014 (p. 59).

On Acts 4:23-31 (which I’m preaching in a few weeks), Eckhard Schnabel says this regarding the NT pattern of prayer as a habit of God’s people:

“If sustained prayer is eliminated from ‘worship services’ on Sunday mornings because they are deemed unattractive for ‘seekers’ who expect to be entertained, or awkward for churchgoers who expect to be guided through a fast-paced program, the risen Lord may well be knocking at the door–from the outside (Rev 3:20).”

From Acts, ZECNT (Zondervan 2012), p. 261.

Also this: “Christians who do not pray regularly and consistently are a contradiction in terms — they deny what they profess, that they have been reconciled with God (with whom they do not want to spend time), that they follow in the steps of Jesus (who prayed), and that they have received the Holy Spirit (who is God’s presence, which is experienced in prayer).” (p.262).

All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.
– Calvin
 
This is sobering. When we disobey God, our moral and even intellectual vision is skewed and blurred. Knowledge of God (shall we say “right theology”) is not just the product of sufficient information or biblical study. Sometimes hard hearts (refusals to obey) may harden the mind, too, and make us blind. This means that God is only accessible on His terms, after we have humbled our hearts to His authority–something that feels offensive to us. Thankfully, though, our King has come, offering not just grace but also truth to those who welcome Him (John 1).
 
(Here’s the full quote)
“No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself. But not only faith, perfect and in every way complete, but all right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”
 
– Institutes, Bk 1 / 6:1

Let’s be frank: If humans are not made in the image of God, Planned Parenthood should not be censored for destroying or selling tiny humans. As soon as society admits the notion that humans are mere mammals, we have already dehumanized ourselves. That is to say that the farm was sold a long time ago in Western society, and those who hem and haw about the appropriateness of one abortion means over another are either being dishonest or are plagiarizing from a worldview not their own (i.e., Christianity). The only grounds on which to condemn the sale of fetal parts as “barbaric” are explicitly religious (not legal, per se), and specifically Christian at that.

Briefly, a few pertinent sections from the Bible come to mind:

  1. Genesis 1:27 – Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
  2. Genesis 9:6 – After God wiped the world clean (with a flood) because of humanity’s rampant violence, he said, Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
  3. James 3:9 – James condemns the hypocrisy in claiming to praise God with our mouths while, at the same time, cursing “people who are made in the likeness of God.”

How should the Christian doctrine of the image of God in man change the way I live?

  • If every human is made in the image of God, then each individual is distinct from other forms of life in a special way, and is to be honored and treated with dignity.
  • If every human is made in the image of God, then obviously, behaviors that harm them–whether murder or gossip–are not just crimes against them but against God.
  • If every human is made in the image of God, then I am required(!) to honor and love them like God loves me. We tend to withhold our time and attention from people who can’t benefit us: people from other cultures, other people’s elderly parents, other people’s annoying kids, or the developmentally disabled (whom we assume don’t know whether we care or not… except that sometimes they do, in fact). If we believe that people are made in God’s image, it must change how I spend my time and what goes through my head and mouth in everyday conversations.

I was recently convicted as I read from Luke 9

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

It’s easy for us to view people in terms of how they might help further our agendas and reputations, even when we think we’re being “nice.” But Jesus saw people made in the image of God, objects of God’s affection and therefore necessary objects of ours as well. So Jesus taught children, touched people with skin diseases, resisted temptation for people who love caving to it, and died for people who’d rather die than obey. Brothers, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (1 John 4:11).

If matter is eternal, personhood is an illusion. But if God made us in his image, then we are people, regardless of race, ability, or week of gestation.

Lord, help me as a Christian to mimic you by fearlessly and sacrificially defending the dignity of every person I meet.

 

Q. How does the Lord’s Supper signify and seal to you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all His gifts?

A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and drink of this cup in remembrance of Him. With this command He gave these promises:

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely was His body offered for me and His blood poured out for me on the cross.

Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and the cup of the Lord as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely does He Himself nourish and refresh my soul to everlasting life with His crucified body and shed blood.

Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19, 20; I Cor. 11:23-25.

—-

from the Heidelberg Catechism, Question #75. Kevin DeYoung quoted it at this conference session in 2012.

The Book of Proverbs tells us about the man who lies on his bed, turning like a door on its hinges, while the weeds grow up in his garden, choking and killing his crop. Then, when harvest has come, he has nothing and is reduced to begging for help.

Now, staying in bed when he should be cultivating his garden may not be overly sinful—but I think there is no argument but what a willfully lazy man is a sinful man!

It follows, then, in my estimation, that a person who is intellectually lazy is a sinful person. God had a reason for giving us our heads with intellectual capacity for thinking and reasoning and considering. But what a great company of humans there are who refuse to use their heads and many of these are Christians, we must confess.

Many a preacher would like to challenge the intellectual and thinking capacity of his congregation, but he has been warned about preaching over the people’s heads.

As a preacher, I deny that any of the truths of God which I teach and expound are over the heads of the people. I deny it!

I say to my Christian brother: “You ought to take that head of yours, oil it and rub the dust off and begin to use it as God has always expected you would. God expects you to understand and have a grasp of His truth because you need it from day to day!”

——

(Emphasis mine); from A Word for Reason: Emotions in Control!; cited in Tozer Speaks, vol. 2

One more thought: Obviously, the truth in both this quote and the Luther quote (see previous post) could be twisted. But it’s important that we who teach care enough for our people to both (1) labor to speak clearly to them regardless of education level, and (2) refuse to assume they are incapable of learning or appreciating complex passages.

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