As we march the Christmas tree back into their unlit closets, we cannot help but slip back into the mundane cycle of life that had guided us through the weeks leading up to holiday. More often than not, we regret this return to normalcy, offering a little sighs under our breathe as life’s engine begins to hum at full speed. Though human nature often discounts the ordinary running of life in favor of extraordinary events, Christians should value the monotony. God uses ordinary life to form extraordinary character.
In Matthew chapters 1-2, God supernaturally reveals his will for the wisemen and Joseph through a series of four dreams. They are not alone. In Luke 1 and 2, we read that angels appeared to Zechariah and Mary. The supernatural story of Jesus’s birth could provoke a hunger in our hearts for dreams, visits from angels, and miracles. But upon closer inspection, the supernatural pushes men and women to ordinary action. Zechariah fulfills his husbandry duties and names a son. Joseph marries Mary and then takes his family to Egypt, and then to Nazareth. The wisemen take the alternate route home. The shepherds go hang out in a stable with a baby. No one storms Herod’s castle, reforms the Sanhedrin, or starts a nationwide revivalist ministry. The characters of the Christmas story simple do the next ordinary thing in faith. And as they do, the extraordinary happens, Jesus comes to save us from our sins.
Instead of regretting the return to normalcy that yips at the heels of every holiday season, Christians should welcome the ordinary. When we follow the commands of Scripture in our marriages, places of work, churches, schools, and friendships, the kingdom of God goes forward. Ordinary obedience transforms our souls, helps in the salvation of others, and facilitates the growth of our local church. The kingdom of God does not need the help of senators, conference speakers, or celebrities. Nor does the kingdom advance primarily when we step out of our comfort zone, jetting off to Africa or Asia for some type of monastic mission work. The kingdom normally expands when shepherds, teenage newlyweds, old priests, and Magi follow Christ in the ordinary things of life whether that is here in America, or in South Africa, or in Indonesia. Jesus said in Luke 16:10:
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.
Don’t fear the boringness of your life. Embrace it. Obey God as you eat your cereal, wash your car, buy groceries, watch football, and help your kids with their homework. Even in the ordinary, you and me can accomplishing the extraordinary through faith by God’s grace. God is faithful!
I read books much like Sam from the iconic Green Eggs and Ham who could eat the green stuff here and there. I can read pretty much everywhere. In 2020, I have read books in a plane and on a train. I’ve read them within a car and in hotels from afar. And I would read them with my wife and with PhD students who play the fife. In short, I do so like good books. I hope you too will try a good book or two soon. Below are the four tastiest volumes that I read in 2020.
If you feel the urge to stop reading this post, finding books scary, I encourage you to stay with me for another minute or two. Investigate the books below. Though you may not like books much today, I encourage you to heed the advice of Sam-I-Am who profoundly said, “Try them! Try them! And you may.
I began the year unaware of this book. But a pandemic and a well-timed tweet by my fellow PhD. student John Blackman later, the book became my favorite volume of 2020.
When the Coronavirus swept across our shores, I found myself completely unprepared for the virus. I did not know how to think about a virus. My grandparent’s stories which dipped into the 1920s knew nothing of pandemics or plagues. Barry’s book provides the historical context that I needed to make sense of these times. In the 546-page book that reads like a novel, the author traces the conflict that erupts as scientists seek to conquer the mysterious and every changing world of microbes that are killing thousands. As the story flows from rural Kansas, to France, and then back to urban New York and to a host of other locations, Barry clarifies many misconceptions that have distorted our understanding of the Spanish Flu, the benefits of epidemiology, and the power of modern medicine. He also draws connections between the 1918 pandemic and other medical crises such as Polio and the Swine Flu, noting both the advances of modern medicine and its frustrating limits. Modern medicine still fails to definitively answer our questions. Barry notes, “They knew so little. So little. They knew only isolation worked.”
At times, Barry’s own biases bleed into the story. But his biases against Christianity do not impede his overarching commitment to leave no stone unturned. He examines Presidential files, small town newspapers, and private correspondence. The research that produced this book has captured the attention of Presidents on both sides of the political spectrum. I would encourage you to listen to Barry as well.
And they lied for the war effort, for the propaganda machine Wilson had created. It is impossible to quantify how many deaths the lies caused. It is impossible to quantify how many young men died because the army refused to follow the advice of its own surgeon general. But while those in authority were reassuring people that this was influenza, only influenza, nothing different from ordinary “la grippe” at least some people must have believed them, at least some people must have exposed themselves to the virus in ways they would not have otherwise, and at least some of those people must have died who would otherwise have lived.
As the world around him descended into darkness, J.C. Ryle remained fixed to the light of Christ. In the space of 273 pages, historian Iain Murray chronicles the life and discusses the theology of one of the greatest British theologians of the nineteenth century. Ryle overcame his nominal Christian roots and was transformed into the famous grace inspired pastor we know today because of his single-minded devotion to Christ. Murry writes, “The gospel itself was ever the most important part of whatever he spoke or wrote, and the gospel meant the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (133).” He clung to it when his wives died, when the Church of England drifted from the truth, and when his son wrote off the historic Christian faith as being archaic. Through all the disappointments, criticisms, and sorrows, Ryle rested happily upon the rock of Jesus Christ, extending love to friend and foe alike. One contemporary described Ryle as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” Though the church of England sank into liberalism, Ryle’s ministry bore great evangelical fruit. He opened 44 new churches and installed more than 100 new clergy in his diocese. The relevance Ryle’s son, Herbert, sought through theological innovation, J.C. Ryle achieved through the proclamation of the historic faith. Murray’s work is a valuable and encouraging read.
Faced with difficulties of many kinds, Ryle had no doubt where his priorities lay: ‘my first and foremost business, as Bishop of a new Diocese, is to provide for preaching of the Gospel to souls now entirely neglected’…From the time of his conversion he had believed that nominal Christianity – ‘churchianity’ without personal experience of Christ – was ‘the greatest defect of the Christianity of our times.’
Using only 192 small pages, Holcom accomplishes the herculean task of providing his readers with helpful introductions to more than thirteen creeds and doctrinal statements. Each of his chapters chronicles the historical background, the content, and the relevance of documents such as the Apostle’s creed, the Council of Trent, and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. At the end of each chapter, the author provides his readers with discussion questions and a list of books for further study, making this the perfect book for both the pastor and the lay person. Though no book of this size could comprehensively deal with every issue tied to these documents, Holcom provides his readers with a meaningful introduction to those movements that both indirectly and directly shape their theological practice. For example, he details Nicaea which solidified the church’s understanding of Jesus and the Council of Trent which explains why protestants cannot rejoin the Catholic Church. Though Jesus’s church does not need councils and theological documents to be the church, these statements prove to be more helpful than most Christians realize. Holcom writes, “Creeds aren’t dogmas that are imposed on Scripture but are themselves drawn from the Bible and provide a touchstone to the faith for Christians of all times and places.”
The fact that Christianity developed – that the sixteenth century, for instance, looked very different from the third, and that both looked very different from the twenty-first – can sometimes lead us to wonder what the essential core of Christianity is. As a result, some people decide to ignore history altogether and try to reconstruct “real Christianity” with nothing more than a Bible. But this approach misses a great deal. Christians of the past were no less concerned with being faithful to God than we are, and they sought to fit together all that the Scripture has to say about the mysteries of Christianity – the incarnation, the Trinity, predestination, and more – with all the intellectual power of their times. To ignore these insights is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to risk reinventing it badly.
The sweetness of Thomas Goodwin’s 1651 book has become all the fuller with age. Instead of being driven to the edge of irrelevance by the busyness of the modern world, Goodwin’s exposition of God’s love for his people proves to be acutely applicable to our day. The first part of the book reveals how heaven amplifies Jesus’s love for his disciples, reminding readers that the God who extended grace to the bumbling Peter readily extends grace to you and me. Goodwin notes, “now that he is in heaven, his heart remains as graciously inclined to sinners that come to him, as ever on earth (4).” In the second and third part of the book, Goodwin unpacks the heart of Hebrews 4:15 which declares the Jesus is a high priest who “was in all points tempted like us, yet without sin.” He also traces Christ’s love for his people throw the Trinity, amplifying the love of God exemplified through the mercy and grace of God.
Goodwin’s recounting of God’s love for his people proves a refreshing correction to the works righteousness that dominates much of the evangelical world. Though the author’s old English could prove a little cumbersome for some readers, Goodwin’s small book will prove to be a powerful dose of encouragement for souls worn down by sickness, relationship difficulties, and the pressures put upon them by well-meaning religious folks who think God’s love flows through choir practices, painting projects, and Wednesday morning Bible studies. We don’t need those things to earn Jesus’s love. Christ’s heart is always towards his people.
But then, some greatly distressed souls might question thus: Though he pities me, and is affected, yet my misery and sins being great will he take them in to the full, lay them to heart, to pity me according to the greatness of them? To me with this thought therefore, and to prevent even this objection about Christ’s pity the apostle sets him out by what was the duty of the high priest, who was his shadow; that he is one that ‘can have compassion according to the measure of every one’s distress’s…Thy misery can never exceed his mercy.
The world wants to skip from Halloween to Christmas bouncing from horror themed self-indulgence to tinsel tossed materialism. The church can empathize with the sentiment. The social unrest, contentious elections, and COVID19 pandemic have cast a long, misty shadow of anxiety over most every part of the globe. The idea of stopping at grandma’s for Thanksgiving turkey seems to be an ironic exercise in American cultural futility. Why give thanks for such a world?
Though the world despairs, the people of God have every reason to give thanks in such a world. They understand the sovereign love of God. The church knows that all of today’s troubles are bound together by a golden thread of grace that culminates in the book of life. For the Christian, spiritual reality remains far more real than presidential elections, infection numbers, and GDP growth. What do those who see beyond the empirical world know?
Why Christians Give Thanks
They know that God will rescue his people and that Jesus will come again. To borrow the words of Micah 7:8b and 9b Christians are confident that, “when I fall, I shall rise…[and] in that day the boundary shall be far extended.” Though the believer may watch his political candidate go down in flames, get a pink slip, or receive a terminal diagnosis, he knows God will not let him be crushed. God will vindicate his people. Admittedly, God may not vindicate his people’s political candidates, business plans, or medical strategies. Our causes may flounder, but our faith will remain unmoved. We will prove to be more than conquers because God has pleaded our cause and has executed “justice (Micah 7:10).” Jesus died that we might be freed from the curse. Death, sin, and sorrow have no right to dominate our soul for Jesus has swaddled us in his righteous love. Even if our day is filled with adversity, mistakes, and sinful failures, we know the darkness will not last because “the Lord will be a light to me (Micah 7:9.).” Even on the worst day, the believer can confidently boast, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).” Those whose names have been written in the book of life have every reason to be thankful. God will rescue from today’s trial.
God also promises to come again. The Christian’s future hope is not tied to suburban homes and white fences, large family gatherings, or exotic vacations. All these things can come and go and utterly disappoint our souls. Homes can flood, gatherings can descend into feuds, and vacations can prove to be a waste of time. The Christian hopes in something yet unseen but something far more secure, the new heavens and the new earth. When Christ returns the boundary of his kingdom shall be extended to cover all of humanity. All sin, disease, sorrow, anxiety, hurt, and injustices will be forced outside the walls of God’s kingdom and crushed. Inside the walls, Jesus will shepherd his people placing them under the shade of his blessed comfort and filling their hearts with the abundance of his riches. Because the believer knows her destination is secure, she has every reason to be thankful today. The new heavens and the new earth are coming.
Though the world maybe ready to skip from Halloween to Christmas, the church should embrace the cultural moment and give thanks. God promises to see us through today and to come again. The two things that fuel our anxiety, today’s problems and tomorrow’s possibilities, have been solved by Jesus on the cross. The baby born in Bethlehem on Christmas morn has conquered this world of goblins and vampires. Nothing can separate us from him. Give Thanks!