Memo: April’s Cancer Update – Christmas 2020

As we wait for the glories of the Christ child to once again pierce the darkness of Christmas Eve, April and I want to bear witness to how the Christ child has blessed us this December. This past Monday, April endured her latest set of scans replete with needle pricks, swallowable dyes, and not so comfortable beds that drift in an out of large machines. Then like children bouncing around the house the night before Christmas, we waited to unwrap the results. On Wednesday, December 23, 2020 with the help of April’s talented UVA medical team, we unwrapped the latest report and found good news! Though a few new nondescript nodules have dotted the scans like misplaced Christmas light, the overwhelming majority of her tumors have either shrunk or remained stable. One has even decreased from 4.5 centimeters to 3.2 centimeters. The favor of Jesus rests upon my sweet bride.

But that divine favor does not eliminate all sorrow and hardships. Much like the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, April and I find ourselves living in the past, present and future. We look back at the pain and uncertainty that hovered over our last Christmas and give thanks for the radical improvements that have occurred in April’s body. She just made a Yule Log Cake (Hello Christmas!). We seek to stay in the present reveling in the good news of the day as we watch our three kiddos open Christmas presents, embrace Christmas cookie decorating, and sing “Joy to the World” at the top of their lungs. Lastly, the future also hangs about us like a damp, ill-defined midst. We know April will have to endure more scans, back pain, and days away from our children. April wishes she could reshape her future like Scrooge. Sadly, it remains both fixed and elusive.

Though we do not know what the content of the next report will be, we do know something of the sender’s character. He is our savior, the Christmas child, Christ the Lord! Psalm 100:5 declares, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” We know this is true because the baby in the manger, lived, died, and rose again to save sinners like April and me. He humbled himself to the point of death on the cross so that we might be exalted to live with God. And he guides us through life with more love and power than even one of Scrooge’s spirits. The famed pastor and theologian, John Calvin, rightly noted that when God’s people descend into hardship, “[God] will not desert them, but will powerfully help them should they need his aid.” In short, the light of Christmas morning reminds us that our future will be snuggly wrapped in the love of God. Though the results of April’s scan will invariably contain variation, we know the love of God will remain fixed. Because of that first Christmas long past, we too can sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased (Lk 2:14)!”

Thank you for rejoicing with us this cold December day. We covet your prayers and support. They warm our hearts, manifesting the love of God. We hope our good news infuses a little gospel cheer into your Christmas celebration.

More importantly, we pray that you too will discover the joy of the Shepherds, and of Mary and Joseph who knew that Jesus, “the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people the sheep of his pasture.” God is good all the time!  

Merry Christmas!  

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The Story of Christmas, The Gospel of Jesus

Sharing the Christmas story with my church family has proved to be one of the highlights of the holiday season. I construct my narratives the around four-part gospel presentation (God, Man, Christ, Response) highlighted in Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Gospel. I am excited to share one of those retellings of the Christmas story with you today.

The Script below was designed to be read aloud in a congregational setting. But I believe it will hold up quite well when you read in your comfy chair or at the kitchen table with your family. I hope this recounting of the Christmas story helps you rediscover the joy of knowing that the baby in the manager is Jesus, our Messiah who saves us from our sins.

Merry Christmas!

In the Beginning

The Christmas story is a political story. But it is not the story of elections, debates, and shady deals. Yes, King Ahaz gets a less than honorable mention, the Emperor Augustine makes a brief appearance, and the wicked King Herod sets the divine family on the run. But the Christmas story is not about these men and their governments.

As Jesus would one day tell the Governor of Judea, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 

According to the Bible, God’s kingdom transcends the limits of earthly space and time. God lays claim to the universe and everything it: physical and spiritual, visible and invisible…and even you and me. Psalm 89:11-12a declares that, “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have created them;” The triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) deserves to be worshiped for he created and sustains the universe. 

God also created the first humans, the first royal couple, Adam and Eve. God designed them to lead all humanity to love and goodness, placing them in the center of his beautiful world, the Garden of Eden. For a glorious season, the first couple lovingly nurtured the flowers that swayed in the summer breezes, the creatures that danced in the meadows, and the fish that splashed about the oceans. All was good, pure, and right. All was peaceful between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

But, this glorious world would not last. Adam and Eve would fall from their thrones.

The Political Crisis that Necessitated Christmas

One day, Eve entered into a conversation with a wicked serpent, whom God had tossed out of heaven. This snake told Eve that God was a liar who would exploit the first royal couple.  

First Eve and then Adam believed the snake. They thought rebellion against God would enable humanity to reach heights of unimaginable new achievements. When the first man and women sunk their teeth into a piece of forbidden fruit, they kicked off the greatest revolution of all time.

But their rebellion did not go as planned. When Adam and Eve struck out on their own, they discovered that the snake had lied and not God.

God had kept nothing good back from them. God had only protected the human leaders from all that was evil, rotten, and deadly. And now as Adam and Eve looked about God’s once good world, they saw fear, misery, and death. The very essence of their souls and the very foundation of the world had been corrupted. Adam and Eve were naked before the Lord. Try as they might, they could not undo what they had done. The kingdom of light had been replaced with the kingdom of darkness. The peace was gone. They were rebels against God.

Sadly, the corruption did not end with the reign of Adam and Eve. The first king and queen bequeathed their legacy of deadly rebellion to all of their descendants.

Take King Ahaz for example.

Isaiah Chapter 5 reports that Ahaz’s once shook with fear because an army of sword clad Syrians stood outside his castle gates. But all was not lost. God decided to help Ahaz. God told Ahaz, “Do not fear” for you will prevail. To prove that his message was not a divine prank, God gave Ahaz one genie-like wish. The king could have asked for a star, a dinosaur, or a gold nugget that weighed a million pounds. The universe was his for the asking. But instead of taking God up on his offer, Ahaz said, “No thanks.” The king wanted nothing to do with God’s salvation. He wanted to keep the rebellion going.

Despite all our iPhones, electric cars, and 85-inch flat screen TVs, we modern men and women have not progress beyond the rebellion of Ahaz. We all have spoken angrily to a child, stolen a pen or pencil, and harbored some really bad thoughts about a neighbor, family member or an ex. We have all sinned like Adam and Eve and Ahaz, believing God to be a liar. And like our first parents and all the kings and queens of old, we too will die. Though we cannot shake our fear of death, we will not ask God for help.

But God is not deterred. Humans like you and me cannot keep God from being God. Though Ahaz did not want a sign, God still gave the king a sign, a sign that would be for all people. Isaiah 5:14 reports “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” God would once again walk peacefully among his people. The kingdom of heaven would be restored. The Prince of peace was coming! 

Baby Jesus: Defeats the Rebellion

On Christmas morning, God again dwelled with the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. When the baby in the manger became a man, he set out to restore the kingdom of God. He overthrew sickness, rebuked the waves, and vanquished demons. He reminded the heirs of Adam and Eve of the glories of God, preaching peace, joy, and salvation. The serpent too reappeared, seeking to persuade Jesus to follow the first Adam into rebellion. But Jesus refused the offer. The kingdom of God was advancing. A new Adam, a new king had come. Seemingly just as he was about to ascend to the throne of Jerusalem, the Jewish and Roman rulers of the day intervened and crucified Jesus, preserving the political systems of the ancient world. His followers were bewildered by the cross. Perhaps the snake had not lied. Perhaps men and women truly could contend with God and defeat the kingdom of righteousness.

But Jesus had not been defeated. Three days after dying on the cross, Jesus stepped out of the tomb. When the women went to anoint Jesus dead body, the found not Jesus but an angel who declared, “He is not here, he is risen.”

Jesus burst through the serpent’s wall which had built with the slimy bricks of sin and death. The Scriptures reveal that the Wonderful Counselor had intended to die all along so that through his sacrifice he might liberate the descendants of Adam and Eve from the kingdom of darkness. Through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus had defeated the rebellion!

All the descendants who follow Jesus through the breach are welcomed back into the kingdom of light. Shepherds, prostitutes, prideful men, sex-crazed teenagers, and angry kids are all invited to repent and believe! When Jesus died, he suffered not for his own sins but for our sins. He satisfied the wrath of God with his righteous life, exchanging his holiness for our rebellion. As we step through the hole in the wall by faith, Jesus clothes us in his righteousness and fills our hearts with his spirit, providing us with the credentials and the power to once again walk with God forever. The Prince of Peace had come!

Come Worship the King

Because of the Baby in the manger, we no longer have to follow in the footsteps of our father, Adam. Though Adam brought death to all men and women, Jesus has brought eternal life to all. As the hymn says, “you will no longer need to fear the grave. Christ was born to save.” Those who repent of their sins and believe on the cross for salvation become sons and daughters of the Mighty God and will reign with Jesus in heaven. Those who believe will find the peace that Adam and Eve had lost through their rebellion.

The question we now face this Christmas season is this: “Do we have peace with God? Have we repented of our sins and trusted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for our salvation? Is the baby in the manger, the Prince of Peace, my savior?”

If your answer is no, I encourage you to come and repent and believe before another Christmas comes and goes.  

If the baby in the manger is your savior, rejoice with great joy! No more let sin and darkness reign! You have been delivered from the rebellion. You no longer have to live in fear for Christ dwells with you, leading you to love, gentleness, kindness, mercy, and glory! Joy to the world, the savior Comes. Let earth receive her king.

Merry Christmas!

Baby Jesus: An Exile Who Redeems Misfit Toys

Every year, the lights, sounds, and smells of Christmas convince millions of nice people sitting on the crumbling fence that marks the divide between the secular and the spiritual hop back into church for an hour or two. The sentimental Christmas carols sung in a lowly lit sanctuary on December 24 and 25 fill a special place in many a heart.

This is no new phenomenon. The famed pastor, John Calvin, noted that December 25, 1515 had brought out, “more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon (Micah 302).” Over the centuries, these holiday services provide the mostly moral and nominally religious souls with a sense of the grandeur of God and the potential of humanity that makes gift giving, family meals, and trips to grandma’s house all that more pleasant.

For the record, allow me to assert that I am glad to have anyone at any service for any reason. If you want to attend church, I want you to visit my church family regardless of where you come from or where you were or what you want. The salvation comes through hearing. Come hear the gospel!

Who is Christmas For?

But Christmas is ultimately not about these good little girls and boys who are willing to check off the church box every so often. It is about the souls that have been kicked out of moralistic circles because they drank too much, were sexually deviant, or asked too many questions. For a time, they attempted to heed the morality of their parents and tow the Sunday school line. But at the end of the day, they could not cut it. Existential crises came. Tragedy struck. Sin prevailed. The love of their family, friends, and church evaporated, pointing them to exile. Today, these souls would be more likely to spend Christmas Eve at the bar than at the church.

Baby Jesus came for these people. In the gospel that bears his name, Matthew highlights Jesus’s connection to Abraham, David, and the deportation or exile (Matt 1:1-17). Matthew constructed his genealogy to reveal both Jesus’s historical ancestors as well as his purpose which is this: Jesus came to shower the blessings of Abraham through the Messiah’s kingly power so that exiles can know redemption. Notice Jesus did not come for the moral and those who feel comfortable attending church twice a year. He did not associate with Pharisees. He came from exiles.

The Exile Who Saves Exiles

The baby in the manger who is the God of the universe is also the heir of losers who turned all of God’s blessings into crumpled messes. His lineage contained liars, adulterers, prostitutes, and those who had committed incest. He came from a people that deserved exile so that he could redeem them from that very exile. In chapter 9 of his book, Matthew 9:12-13 declares, “But when he [Jesus] heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This is why dirty shepherds and gentile astrologers who would have been deemed unworthy of polite Jewish society because they lacked manners or came from the wrong side of the tracks were the first to worship baby Jesus. The descendent of outcasts, came to redeem the outcasts. To borrow from the T.V. Christmas specials Jesus is a type of Rudolph, a misfit, who can save the other misfits stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Friend if you have been truly bad this year committing sins that you wish to keep hidden forever, I encourage you to come to Christ. For in addition to being the son of exiles, Jesus is also the son of David. He is the great king of the universe who controlled the waves, healed the sick, and cast out demons. But he did more than that. He went and died and rose again so that all those souls who have been rejected by society because of their sin could be restored to the love of God. He offers to take the inhabitants of the island of misfit toys to eternal glory if they will repent and believe upon him.

What About?

Some who muddle about the island discount the offer of salvation because they believe they are broken beyond repair. They think that years of family history, mental illness, and vile sins cannot be easily reversed. While Jesus empathize with their pain, he knows nothing of these souls’ despair. The God who defeated demons can more than conquer the skeletons in our closets. The physician came to save the sick. And he promises to walk with the sick on their road to spiritual health, however long it takes.

And the Church?

As we prepare for our Christmas celebrations, may those of us in the church faithfully seek out those who feel exiled from society, the church, and “good” people. Though they may not know it yet, Christmas is their holiday.

Next, let’s lovingly remind those good girls and boys who have popping into church once or twice a year since the days of Calvin that they too are misfit, sinners in need of redemption. As the Psalmist said, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Not even the moral person who casually attends church can achieve the righteousness of God. Even the best of us needs the saving grace of God. Church, when we gather to sing those quintessential Christmas carols, let’s make a point to share gospel once again.

As the angels noted so long ago, the good news of great joy is for all people! Jesus Christ was born to save sinners! The exile redeems the misfit souls! Come and Worship Christ the new born king!