Archives For Christmas

When the Christmas season comes each year, it provides an opportunity for pastors to study, ponder, pray over and preach about the greatest truth of the Christian faith: the incarnation, God becoming a man. It is an inestimable privilege.

And yet, for those who have done this annually for many years, rather than considering it in that way, it is sort of dreaded. How many different ways can the incarnation be taught, they may think. Or another aspect of this concern, after preaching this for so many years, how can one come up with anything fresh?

Part of the problem with this thinking is that this truth never grows old and we ought never to grow tired of it. In our lifetimes we will not even scratch the surface of the depth of meaning in the incarnation.

One of the issues is that we think we have to become creative to teach the biblical story. There are times when it is necessary and important to communicate the familiar, to be reminded of the incredible truth of the incarnation. This does not call for creativity as much as it does faithfulness. I am not against or opposed to creativity. Not at all. But if the focus is on the creatively of the presentation, I wonder where the emphasis is being placed.

Another issue is to remember that many have not grown up knowing the story of the promised and fulfilled birth of Jesus, the Messiah. For many, it is not being reminded of the old story, but rather hearing it for the first time. And for pastors, even though they have told this to many for many years, they must remember that for some/many, since they have not heard this story, we ought to preach and teach it bearing in mind there are those who have not yet heard it.

Steve Mathewson, senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois, addresses the privilege of preaching during this time of Advent and Christmas. He also addresses a challenge: “Jesus’ birth have been overlaid with centuries of exegetical misunderstandings and legendary elaborations.” Without careful exegetical and theological study these misunderstandings can lead to a misconstruing or misunderstanding of the Gospel and the writer’s emphases. For the pastor who has preached for many years, and who is looking for something new or fresh or creative, those I identified above, the temptation is to preach a novel interpretation that can also misconstrue or misunderstand the Gospel.

In response, as a seasoned pastor who has preached these sermons many times over many years, Mathewson provides guidance in 6 Ways Not to Preach the Birth of Jesus. He writes, “let me offer six mistakes to avoid when preaching the story of Jesus’s birth. My concern is to help you proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the birth narratives in a way that raises your listeners’ love and affection (and yours) for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here are, in heading only (I encourage you to read the whole article), the six mistakes to avoid.

  1. Skipping the genealogy in Matthew 1.
  2. Declaring Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
  3. Overemphasizing the questionable character of the shepherds.
  4. Referring to the magi as the three wise men.
  5. Avoiding the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16–18.
  6. Assuming there’s nothing “Christmas-worthy” in Mark’s prologue.

Mathewson concludes, “Avoiding these six mistakes isn’t about intellectual snobbery. Correcting them may help people hear the story of Christ’s birth in a way that heightens their wonder at the gospel story. Our goal is to preach accurate, clear, compelling expositions of the text that re-reveal the living God and the glory of his gospel as centered in his Son” (emphasis mine).

And as you preach the biblical text in this way, may your whole life also “preach” this same truth.

If you approach this season of preaching and teaching with dread or tiredness, the problem is not with the biblical truth. It may be with your heart. The sermons you are preparing to preach to others may need to be preached to yourself. Ask the Lord to give you a renewed desire to study, live and preach the reality of this truth in a renewed way.

O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Christmas Reading on the Incarnation

Greg Strand – December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

There are a number of churches that follow the Christian Year. Although many Evangelical churches do not follow this in their structure and planning, they do follow a couple of them. Most remember the birth (Christmas, some will precede this with Advent) and death-burial-resurrection of Jesus Christ (Good Friday and Easter).

One of the disciplines I began years ago was to read a book annually on the theme that we were remembering/celebrating as a church. In this way rather than remaining at the same place I was when I completed seminary, I would grow and expand my understanding of that particular doctrine. The desire has not just been to grow in my understanding of the doctrine, but to experience the ultimate goal of doctrine/theology which is worship of our great God. This is the putting together of theology and doxology. All theology is foundation to doxology; all doxology is grounded in theology. The incarnation is foundational to the Christian faith and the ground of our worship.

This year’s reading on the incarnation is Graham Cole’s The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation. This book is part of the excellent series, New Studies in Biblical Theology, edited by D. A. Carson. Of this book Carson writes, (pp. 9-10),

Books on the incarnation tend to deploy, early on in the discussion, the categories of systematic theology. The biblical proof texts that are adduced are mostly from the New Testament; much less effort has been poured onto tracing incarnation theology right through the canon. Although considerable effort in biblical theology has been devoted to such messianic themes as the Davidic monarch, the priesthood and the temple, relatively little has been devoted to the incarnation. This book by Dr. Graham Cole takes steps to fill the need. Undoubtedly more can be said, but it is immensely satisfying to find an able systematician wrestling with biblical texts – as it is to find biblical scholars tracing the lines from exegesis towards biblical and systematic theology – not least on a topic as central to Christian faith as this one. As I write these words, the world approaches the Christmas season, and around the globe, in their own languages, Christians will sing,

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell –
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Cole’s intent/purpose for the reader is that this work might lead to stupendous wonder of the nature, purpose and ways of God with the ultimate goal that it might lead to deeper and more reflective and joyful worship of our great God (p. 25).

My hope is that by the time the reader closes this study he or she will have a deeper sense of the astonishing providence of God that subtly prepared the way for the mystery of the incarnation, a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the divine stooping that in the incarnation saw God weep human tears, and a profounder joy at the depth of the love of God that sent no surrogate as the final revelation but the beloved Son who became flesh.

If you do not have a discipline like this, I encourage you to begin. No matter how long you have been in ministry, it is not too late to begin.

If you have done something like this, what is the book you will be reading on some aspect of the incarnation this year?

As pastors who are responsible for studying, preaching and teaching the Word of God and as pastors of music/worship, how do we approach the Christmas season in the church?

The notion of “here we are again” can carry two different nuances. In the first it is stated with a notion of dread and tiredness since we have “been there, done that.” We feel a burden to come up with something new and fresh . . . again. In the second, it is stated with a notion of excitement since we can celebrate something familiar and we get to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love . . . again.

Keith Getty acknowledges some of these sentiments in that often we approach this with feeling “overwhelmed, exhausted, and lacking in creative freshness.” In response, he provides 5 Reasons for Musicians and Church Leaders to Love Carolling the Story I simply include the list and encourage you to read the rest of the article.

  1. Remember that Christmas is a huge opportunity to sing the gospel.
  2. Explore and immerse yourself in the abundance of historic church Christmas music.
  3. Educate and reinvigorate your congregation to sing well.
  4. Challenge and broaden the musical vocabulary of the church.
  5. Seek fresh opportunities to think outwardly and to take music outside of the church building.

So “here we are again” in the Christmas season.

  • How do you approach this time?
  • How do you make the most of this opportunity?
  • How do you “carol the story?”

How do you approach the planning of music for the people of God during the Christmas season? Do you sing hymns and choruses related to the various aspects of the incarnation of the God-man? Do you continue on as any other time of the year? Do you include some focused on Christmas and some that are not? Do you only include those pertinent to the Christmas season? And once you have responded to those questions, what is your reason for your response?

Someone asked me a form of this question. In no specific order, here are a few thoughts I gave in response.

  • Some do not believe the music ought to be any different in December (Advent and Christmas) or April (Easter) than at any other time of the year. Those are a couple of times in the Church Year when key redemptive historical events are remembered and celebrated. There are those who do not believe the Church year ought to be followed. For example, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas.
  • Some will sing a few Christmas songs/hymns, but include other non-Christmas songs as well. There is nothing morally wrong with that. But there is something to singing the songs written for such doctrinal foci celebrated by the church. It brings focus for this period of time. Another thing that could be done is that these songs focusing on key redemptive historical times in the life of Jesus be sung at times other than Christmas or Easter. We don’t just focus on the doctrinal truths of the incarnation or the death and resurrection of Jesus annually. These truths are foundational for all of Christian theology and life.
  • There is something to join in singing this music with the global church, both in time (the church around the world) and through time (the church throughout history).
  • Christians and the gathered church are to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. This is a time to engage fully in all three, just like any other time. Though there might be an appropriate focus and emphasis at certain times so that there will not be an equal balance of all three kinds/types of song on any given Sunday or any given month. But over the course of a quarter or semester or half-year, our corporate gathering is marked by all three expressions.
  • It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, so singing the familiar Christmas songs are done without meaning, more ritually than worshipfully. That may be true. But unfamiliarity leaves one ignorant. So which is better? Neither! For the former, we acknowledge that temptation, do want we ought personally so it does not blind, numb, or create callouses and we do the same corporately. For the latter, we must educate, equip and inform.
  • On the one hand, focusing on all aspects of the incarnation in song over against not singing these songs at all is one thing. On the other hand, singing songs about the incarnation either through traditional music and melody or contemporary is another thing. The former I would address. The latter I would not.
  • Once this is acknowledged you enter into the preference realm. As long as the lyrics are biblically and doctrinally solid, the music/melody is almost completely preferential, a personal taste.
  • There is something about teaching/training as we gather corporately. But remember, that setting is to support what is occurring at home. For some who want these traditional hymns to be sung in our corporate gathering because “where and when will my children learn them?,” the primary place this teaching and instruction takes place is in the home. Are they teaching, equipping and singing them at home?
  • The older hymns have many years behind them so the bad ones have been weeded out. This does not mean they are all good, but the number the church has retained is smaller than those written. The issue with choruses is that because they are contemporary time has not had its effect on them yet. However, having said that, there are many contemporary choruses that are rich in theology.
  • If one desire to instruct, teach, equip, and to address/avoid the familiarity, or inform the ignorant, I suggest one compile an Advent/Christmas Hymn/Chorus book of the songs the church will be singing in the next month. You can then provide this to families that they can take home and make the singing a part of their family lives during this time, which will then be supported by the gathered church on Sundays. If it were I, I would also include a brief historical explanation about the song and its significance.

Now back to the questions asked in the opening paragraph: how do you answer the questions and why?

Christmas Hymns, A Battle and Victory

Greg Strand – December 23, 2013 1 Comment

We often view Christmas with a soft and serene sense, with visions of a baby, a cradle, blankets and bottles, peace, and many other things associated with this sort of context. Granted, our emotions and the reality of the season may be anything but that with the hustle and bustle, the last minute shopping, the spending of money, etc. But that is the sentimental vision many have or hope for during the Christmas season.

The proper context to understand Christmas, however, is as a battle and victory. After the fall, as God pronounces judgment He informs Adam, Eve and the serpent there would be one who would bruise her Seed’s (offspring) heel, but this Seed (offspring) would crush the Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20). This is known as the Protoevangelium, the first gospel. This peace the angels’ spoke about (Lk. 2:14) was real and true. At eight days of age, when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord, Simeon prophesied that this One is appointed for the rising and falling of many, and Mary’s own soul would be pierced (Lk. 2:34-36). The partial realization of this prophecy occurred almost immediately as shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod wanted Him dead (Matt. 2:1-11). This is reflective of Jesus’ life. But He was clear in His purpose and mission, and He knew, being God, this was the only way He could be the appointed mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

This Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6) would bring peace between God and human beings and between human beings (Eph. 2:11-22). But this peace would be brought through the cross. This is what we often forget: peace comes through the cross, which was anything but peaceful to Christ. But for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:1-3), He endured the cross for us and for our salvation (as stated in the Nicene Creed).

At Jesus’ birth the angels’ spoke of peace: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (Lk. 2:14). After Jesus’ resurrection when He appeared to the disciples, some of His first words to them were, “Peace be with you” (Jn. 20:19). Peace was achieved through the cross. It was at the cross that sins were forgiven and Satan and the principalities were defeated (Col. 2:15).

We now live between the times of Christ’s first and second comings. Though Satan is a defeated foe (Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:8), and though his time is short, which he knows, he will raise as much havoc and do as much damage as possible. He lives to accuse Christians day and night (Rev. 12:10), doing all he can to kill, steal and destroy (Jn. 10:10).

Russell Moore wrote about this tension: “Let’s Rethink Our Holly-Jolly Christmas Songs.

Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.

The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.

Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).

During this season, we worship the Prince of Peace. We remember and celebrate His first coming in the incarnation when “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). We honor Christ when we eagerly long for His second coming. Though we live between the times, we know Christ is the conquering King and Satan is a defeated foe, and we are not ignorant of his schemes against God, His work and His people. Through Christ we overcame and in Christ we overcome (1 Jn. 4:4; Rev. 12:11). The peace we now have with God in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ we now live with another in such a way that the gospel is manifested. As the gospel triumphs in our lives which enables us to impact families and churches, we long for the day when Jesus returns when He will right all things and to make all things right.

As we sing Christmas carols this season, let’s also join with the early church in saying and living maranatha, Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).