Sweet Baby Jesus Isn’t Enough: The (Complete) Christmas Story

At Christmas, our vision tends to narrow. We shift our focus from world events to our local community. We shift our focus from the worries of work to our family circle. And, in the church, we tend to shift our focus from the whole, immense Bible to a couple short chapters in Matthew, Luke, and John. We zoom in on a baby in a manger.

watercolor-baby-in-a-manger
Something like this (Image from Sharefaith.com)

This is all well and good. But sometimes, the narrow focus of the holiday season can make us miss the big picture. We get so used to the little bit we can see, that it becomes rote. We come to the manger once a year to ooh and ahh over Sweet Baby Jesus. And that’s good, but only if we don’t stop there. Because Sweet Baby Jesus isn’t enough. We need to zoom out and remind ourselves of why we even have Christmas, remind ourselves of how Christmas fits into the big picture of what God is doing in our world.

Many people start the Christmas story where Linus did in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, in Luke. And that is most definitely part of the Christmas story. But the roots of that passage sink deep through the rich layers and epochs of Scripture, all the way back to creation.

The Christmas story starts with “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It starts there because everything starts there. That’s where we begin to understand why we even need Christmas to begin with.

In Creation, we see God’s original intent for humanity: fellowship with him through submission to his authority. And it was good. Not because we were inherently good, not because creation was intrinsically good, but because God is good and everything in creation, including humanity, was submitted to him. Our popular conceptions of the Christmas Story don’t include the baby in the manger possessing the awe-inspiring authority required to bring the universe into existence and hold all creation under sway. We need to regain that understanding though.

But the story doesn’t stop there. God put a choice before his crowning creation, mankind, to submit to him or to follow their own desires. And we chose poorly. And in choosing to follow our own desires, we rejected the authority of God over them. We rebelled against our king, our sovereign Lord. The consequences of this rebellion were and are catastrophic.

Our rebellion against God secured our autonomy, so we think, but at a great price. Where once we were assured of the provision of our loving God, we now incur the punishment of our righteous God. And that punishment takes both consequential and ultimate forms. The consequences of our sin are a form of punishment: brokenness, laborious toil, and death. But there is an assurance as well of ultimate punishment for rebellion against God in the form of eternal destruction and separation from God. Consequential punishment is steep, ultimate punishment is devastating. And that would be the end of the story if not for the grace and mercy of God. Apart from that, we humans would have no hope beyond desperately scraping some happiness and satisfaction out of our few, meager years on earth, knowing that punishment surrounded and awaited us.

But that still isn’t where the story stops.

Because God didn’t leave us in our rebellion. Even from the beginning, he promised to bring peace and to fix what was broken. These promises centered around a coming king. And that makes sense: if all that was wrong was caused by our rejection of the rightful king, only a rightful king being reestablished over us would fix things. These promises brought hope to those who heard them, hope that the darkness would be conquered by the light. But if we stop with the promises, we have a futile hope.

But then Jesus shows up. Almost everyone misses it at the beginning, but some begin to see: this is the king, this is the one who fulfills the promises.

The King who arrives in a village, not in a royal city

Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

                        who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,

            from you shall come forth for me

                        one who is to be ruler in Israel,

            whose coming forth is from of old,

                        from ancient days.

The King who rides on a donkey, not on a charger

Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

                        Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!

            Behold, your king is coming to you;

                        righteous and having salvation is he,

            humble and mounted on a donkey,

                        on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The King of the nations, not a king of a nation

Isaiah 56:6-8And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,

                        to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,

                        and to be his servants,

            everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,

                        and holds fast my covenant—

            these I will bring to my holy mountain,

                        and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

            their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

                        will be accepted on my altar;

            for my house shall be called a house of prayer

                        for all peoples.”

            The Lord GOD,

                        who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,

            “I will gather yet others to him

                        besides those already gathered.”

The King of healing, not a king of judgment

Isaiah 35:4-6 Say to those who have an anxious heart,

                        “Be strong; fear not!

            Behold, your God

                        will come with vengeance,

            with the recompense of God.

                        He will come and save you.”

            Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

                        and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

            then shall the lame man leap like a deer,

                        and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

            For waters break forth in the wilderness,

                        and streams in the desert;

The King who dies, not the king who wins

 

Isaiah 53:3-5 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

This promised King, revealed to be Jesus the Christ, isn’t what kings are supposed to be, doesn’t do what kings are supposed to do, and isn’t who we expected. But because he isn’t those things, he can be exactly who he needed to be: one meek enough identify with us in our weakness, but strong enough to save us.

And he proves it. Because The King who dies is The King who is raised to life on the third day. He’s The King who commissions his followers to complete the task for which he was sent: to declare to the world that the old, painful, destructive way of continual rebellion against God and his authority didn’t have to continue: there was a new King establishing a new Kingdom! One of faith, of hope, of love. One in which we could come back to God and be transformed.

And this message of new life began to spread. And men and women and children accepted the good news of the King with joy! They were redeemed! They were restored! They were enjoying fellowship with God and with one another!

But we can’t even stop there because we need a King who can provide not just salvation for me but justice for all. We need a King who could create a new Kingdom, not just in my heart, but one in which all of creation was being cleansed and reborn so that it once again could display the glory of its creator.

That’s why the Christmas story starts in creation, winds through the promises, rejoices in the resurrection, works for the redemption of the world, and looks forward to the end of time and Jesus coming again.

Because…

The King from the Barn is also the King from The Palace

Revelation 5:11-13 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,

            to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

            and honor and glory and blessing!”           

                        And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

            “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

            be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

The King on the Donkey is also the King On a White Horse

Revelation 19:11-13 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.

The King of the Nations is also the King of a New Nation

Revelation 5:8-10 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

            “Worthy are you to take the scroll

                        and to open its seals,

            for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

                        from every tribe and language and people and nation,

            and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

                        and they shall reign on the earth.”

The King of Peace is also the King of Righteousness

Revelation 19:14-15 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

The King who Dies is also the King who Reigns Forever

Revelation 21:3-4 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

See, we like the Christmas Jesus, the meek and mild baby Jesus. But we need to understand that Promised Jesus, Sweet Baby Jesus, Humble Jesus, Dying Jesus, Rising Jesus, and Coming Jesus are all the same Jesus. We need Jesus in his totality, we need the complete Christmas story, from Genesis to Revelation. Because, it’s only when we put it all together: the hope of the promised king, the peace of the king who came, the salvation of the king who dies and rises, and the justice of the king who will come again that we understand the glorious truth of Christmas: There is one Lord and one Savior, Jesus Christ, and he invites us to know him, and in knowing him, to be saved, and in being saved to worship him as the one who will restore all things. Did you worship him this Christmas? The One weak enough to identify with us, but strong enough to save us, the one who was and is and is to come, the Blessed Redeemer, the Glorious King, the Creator and the Sustainer, Our Counselor and Our Friend, The Almighty, The Victorious, The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, The Alpha & Omega. He was a baby, but he’s not anymore. He was weak and inconsequential the first time his feet touched this dirt, but he won’t be the next time! No, the earth will shake and the heavens will roar. This Jesus, this Messiah, this King will come in war. But not a war of ultimate destruction, a war of ultimate deliverance! A war against sin, and sickness, and death. A war that cleanses and heals and creates a New Heaven and a New Earth, where peace, and righteousness, and justice will reign forever and ever and ever and ever.

So, whenever you look at the manger, whenever you look at Sweet Baby Jesus, don’t stop to ooh and aah a moment before you get back to Christmas traditions and presents. Stop and look closely. That baby changes everything, but that moment is not enough. See and marvel and rejoice at the miracle of God’s plan through the ages.

That’s the Christmas story.

 

3 Ways to Keep Christ in Christmas

pexels-photoAbout two weeks ago it started happening. First one, then another, then a flood. Article after article, listicle after listicle, all written to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Christian leaders, click-baitey bloggers, and Facebook aficionados all lamenting the paganization of the Christmas season.

Seven Scriptures to Read at Christmas

Five Gifts that Remind Your Kids about The Reason for the Season

10 Ways to Share the Good News of Jesus with Your Pagan, Santa-Worshipping, Heathen Neighbors

WHY DO PEOPLE SAY XMAS INSTEAD OF CHRISTMAS!!!!!!! DONT THEY KNOW THATS SATANIC? THEYRE TAKING CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS!!!!!! 

And on and on. And, with the exception of the offensive wording in the third and the linguistic ignorance of the fourth (X is the Greek letter chi, the first letter in Christ. It’s shorthand, not satanism. Oh, but all caps IS satanic: seriously, quit it), these would probably all be great, helpful articles.

But I think there’s still more to be said. Because keeping Christ in Christmas is about much more than a token reading from Luke before the wrapping paper starts to fly. It’s more than attempting to rein in your kids’ unbridled consumerism. It’s more than Jesus-juking your neighbors. And it sure isn’t flying off the handle when a clerk wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

No. Keeping Christ in Christmas is about much more than these things.

The best way to keep Christ in Christmas is to live like he did.

Seriously.

Hear me out on this. The Incarnation, celebrated at Christmas, is the primary miracle of the Christian faith. The miracle of Creation belongs to everyone. The miracle of the Exodus belongs to Israel. And while, as created beings and as those who have been grafted into Israel, Christians share in those miracles, the Incarnation is where Christianity as a new reality begins.

Creation provides the whole world with its form and its ideal state.

The Exodus provides Israel with its nationhood and its legal system.

The Incarnation gives Christianity its inauguration, its savior, and its marching orders.

By becoming human, Jesus modeled the kingdom values he would later preach. When Jesus preached that the meek will inherit the earth, it’s hard to imagine more meekness than that required for the Creator of all things to be born as a weak and helpless baby. When Jesus declares that greatness is visible only in humble service, it’s hard not to think about Paul’s words in Philippians describing the reality behind Jesus’ birth: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And when Jesus calls his disciples to radical self-sacrifice, that too has its echoes in the Incarnation: being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Do you want to keep Christ in Christmas, Christian? Let me suggest three ways:

1. Be meek

Don’t look at Christmas as your holiday. Don’t try to take it back. And, for heaven’s sake, quit correcting the “Happy Holidays” you receive with a harumph and a loud “Merry Christmas!” Instead, let your neighbors enjoy their Santa balloons. Post cheerful things on social media. Attend the holiday party your neighbors are throwing even if – *gasp* -there’s alcohol in the punch. Letting the light of the gospel shine through your life and your words at Christmas doesn’t require you being a wet blanket smothering other people’s holiday fires. Trust God to work through your meekness and you may find more openness when you start talking about the true reason for the season.

2. Be humble

Recognize that your “Christian” traditions at the holiday aren’t the “right” way to celebrate. This may come as a shock to some, but Jesus’ Christmas tree didn’t have an angel on top of it. Santa isn’t an intentional word-jumble for Satan. Don’t confuse your traditions with the gospel. The gospel is incredibly adaptive, not in its message which is constant, but in its forms of celebration. That’s as true at Christmas as at any other time. Decide ahead of time that you won’t be offended this Christmas season, because being offended is often just a mask for wounded pride. Let others have their traditions even as you enjoy yours. Don’t let pride stand in the way of a genuine, “Merry Christmas to all!” Instead, let humility flavor your declaration of Christ in Christmas.

3. Be self-sacrificing

Perhaps more than any other, this last example from the Incarnation is the most important: be willing to die to yourself. Jesus didn’t stay “sweet baby Jesus” forever. He grew up, was beaten, and died on a cross. And if that sounds like bad news, don’t forget what happened next: he rose again! And that’s the gospel – that Jesus lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, died the painful death we should have died, and rises again, inviting us to join him by faith. Anyone who truly believes that glorious truth will have no trouble setting aside their family traditions to invite an immigrant neighbor in on Christmas morning. Someone who has died with Christ is free to live without a turkey dinner to enjoy serving at the soup kitchen Christmas Day. The person who has already committed themselves to self-denial will gladly go to church and declare the supremacy of God in all things even if Christmas is on a Sunday this year. News of a self-sacrificing Savior is better received from a self-sacrificing neighbor than a self-righteous Christmas snob.

Want to keep Christ in Christmas this year? Let Christ shine through how you live.

 

Matthew 18: Humility, Forgiveness, and the Church

sheep_in_norwegian_mountainJesus spent a lot of his time on earth highlighting the differences between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the earth. In Matthew 17 & 18, Jesus gives us a foretaste, a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven will look like after he ascends and the Holy Spirit comes. In other words, Jesus tells us what life in the church will look like.

From Jesus, we know that the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the kingdoms of the earth, we know that ethics in the kingdom are simultaneously simpler and harder than any other code of ethics in the world. We know that it’s not a geographic kingdom, we know that it not just waiting for you to die, we know that it’s not about harps and clouds, but about loving God and loving others.

And, frankly, none of that even raises an eyebrow in Christian circles. Why? Because we are used to assuming that the kingdom of heaven is primarily about us, how we respond to the gospel, how we live out the good news, where we go when we die. Our understanding of the kingdom centers around ourselves.

So did the disciples’.

Jesus has to show them, and us, that’s not how it works…

In earthly kingdoms, having connections means freedom from responsibility. In the kingdom of heaven, having connections means humble submission.

17:24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” [25] He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” [26] And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. [27] However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

This statement isn’t saying the same thing as the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” passage, although there is a similar premise. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to ask exactly what the two-drachma tax was.

It wasn’t a Roman tax, but a Jewish one. This fact is important. These tax collectors were fellow Jews, like Matthew. They were tax-collectors, like Matthew. But unlike Matthew, they were collecting for the temple, not the enemy Romans. The tax here was for temple maintenance, supplies, etc. Those asking whether or not Jesus paid it are likely testing, not Jesus’ submission to Roman rule, but his support for Jewish religious observance.

Jesus’ answer is instructive. In political kingdoms, the king’s family and close friends could be exempted from taxation. In religious kingdoms, priests and temple servant could be exempted from taxation. So when Jesus says, “the sons are free”, he is implying that true Jews, true sons of Abraham, would be exempt from paying the temple tax. And he is further implying that he and Peter, by that logic, should be exempt from paying.

But this is a Jewish tax! Wouldn’t Jesus’ argument here mean that none of the Jews should be taxed? Not at all! He’s saying that those outside the family should bear the burden of temple support. On one hand, Jesus could be arguing that Gentiles are the only ones who should have to pay this tax. But Jesus knows that this tax is only leveraged against Jews. So he’s saying that even among the Jews, some are true sons of Abraham and some are not.

I believe that Jesus is pointing us towards the same truth that the Old Testament prophets hinted at, that the division of the nation into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel) foreshadowed, that Paul would later address in his letter to the Romans:

Romans 9:6-8

 [6] But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

What Jesus is saying is good news for us! You don’t have to have impressive ancestry, know the right people, or be a toady to get into the kingdom of heaven. You just have to follow Jesus. Jesus, and what you do with him, provides the identity for those who are truly sons. Faith in him marks the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven. There’s no entrance fee, no special rites, just faith. It’s not like the kingdoms of this earth where privileges are for those who can pay! Everyone is invited into the kingdom. You just have to understand that once you are in, you aren’t freed from responsibility, but freed for selfless service. You are free to submit to Christ by serving others.

And the church should be where that truth is seen and lived out. The church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom, a foretaste of the goodness of God in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Do we live life together, do we function as a church for selfish reasons or do we gather together to lay aside our ambitions and our pride to serve one another and our community? What kind of kingdom are we bearing witness to?

The disciples got some of what Jesus was saying to Peter, something clicked: ah, Jesus is saying that this community of disciples is the kingdom of heaven, this gathering is where the kingdom is seen.

But they don’t understand everything. They still don’t get that…

In earthly kingdoms, greatness is measured by self-serving power. In the kingdom of heaven, greatness is measured by self-denying obedience.

            [1] At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

The disciples, on their best days, were following Jesus because they thought he would make the world better. On their worst days, they were following Jesus because they thought that he would make their lot in life better.

One of the recurring debates amongst the disciples was who was the greatest in the kingdom. They were already looking ahead to the time when Jesus was on the throne and they were his trusted assistants, not equal with Jesus, but certainly his right-hand men. They were jockeying for position in every comment and question and action. A couple weeks ago, we looked at them being unable to cast out a demon. They weren’t concerned for the boy but wanted to know what they had missed. They wanted to impress Jesus with their abilities and instead he showed them up.

Why did they want to impress Jesus? For the same reason that employees kiss up to bosses, soldiers flatter CO’s, and students bring presents to their teachers – to gain personal freedom or advancement.

So Jesus interrupts their prideful ambitions. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” Jesus beckons a child to come over. He doesn’t explain anything, he doesn’t give the kid ten reasons why he should come over, he doesn’t have to: the child just obeys. And that’s what Jesus needed his disciples, needs us to see: the kingdom of heaven doesn’t measure greatness in your ability to command respect, or your powerful presence, or your ability to get what you want. No, the kingdom of heaven measures greatness by how willing you are to obey the king.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are innocent, perfect little angels: if you think that, I’ll let you hang out with mine for a day. They’re great, I love my kids, but let’s just say I didn’t have to teach them how to sin. They figured it out all on their own.

The disciples aren’t told to become like little children because children are weak. Children can be the exceedingly strong-willed.

No, the disciples are told to be like little children because, like the child Jesus called, obedience to the king is the passport of a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

Remember, Jesus is teaching us about ourselves, but he’s also teaching us about the church. So, how are we doing in this regard? Do we view church as a place to exercise self-serving power or do we view it as a place to practice self-denying service?

Are we willing to obey the king, without question, without demanding a reason, but simply to obey? To say, “Yes, Lord” no matter what Jesus says to do?

That is hard. It requires something of us. It requires us to ignore our natural desires for power and place and submit those desires to an ultimate desire to please our king, Jesus…

In earthly kingdoms, you are expected to satisfy your desires. In the kingdom of heaven, you are expected to submit your desires to Christ’s authority.

            [7] “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! [8] And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. [9] And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

This has to be one of the most-ignored passages in the New Testament. And for good reason – sin, temptation, self-mutilation: this isn’t the kind of stuff that fills buildings and sells books! But this is important.

It’s also important to recognize that Jesus isn’t literally advocating cutting off limbs or gouging out eyes. One of the church fathers, I believe it was Origen, took this literally. His struggle with lust led him to castrate himself in response to these verses.

That’s not what I am advocating this morning!

But let’s not run from what Jesus’ hyperbole is pointing to, though. Too often, we take sin lightly in the American church. Remember, this section of Scripture is Jesus telling us what life in community, what life in the kingdom, what life in the church looks like. If we didn’t know before, we know now that God takes sin seriously.

And we should too.

In our personal life, what desires are we allowing to rule over us and cause us to sin? Jesus says we should submit those desires so fully to him, obeying his commands to purity and wholeness, that we’d be willing to lose a limb rather than offend the Lord who has offered us salvation.

In our corporate life, we need to recognize the imagery of Scripture here. The body is a frequent metaphor for the church. Different gifts, different people, different parts, and yet, unified. Jesus is saying that if a part of the body, the church, is causing the rest of the body to suffer, we should be willing to see that part cut off rather than the whole church go down in flames. The mission of the church is too great for us to allow it to be compromised by a single, selfish, sinning, member.

Personally and corporately, we have to take sin seriously. We have to fight it, we have to hate it, and we have to work together to make sure it has no place among us. Why? So that we can be free to obey the Lord’s commands.

That requires a mindset shift…

In earthly kingdoms, you protect what you have. In the kingdom of heaven, you focus on seeking and saving what is lost.

            [10] “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. [12] What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? [13] And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. [14] So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

I’m not a shepherd, but this seems like terrible advice. If it read, “leaves the 99 in the sheepfold” it’d make sense. “Walls, protection, now I’ll go looking for the lost one.”

But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says the 99 are still on the mountain. The mountain where lions and tigers and bears (oh my) could come and destroy them. The mountain where more could wander off and get lost. The mountain where nights are cold and winds are strong.

Again, I’ve never been a shepherd, but I don’t think Jesus is giving shepherding advice.

He’s giving church advice.

There is a natural tendency for the church, for the Christian for that matter, to turn inward over time. To shift from bolding charging the gates of hell to passively sitting still for another Bible study. To shift from offense to defense. To let the pressures of this world drive us from the public square and into our whitewashed fortresses. To protect and preserve our traditions and expectations of what church should be instead of mobilizing everything that we have and everything that we are to engage a lost and dying world with the gospel.

Jesus says “Quit it.” Stop focusing on protecting what you have and start seeking and saving what is lost. The church doesn’t exist so that we can get together and sing Kumbaya around the warm glow of our smug, self-satisfied, self-serving, Sunday morning traditions. The church exists to glorify God by loving him, loving others, and making disciples.

We do those things inside these walls, undoubtedly, but we dare not stop there. It is too easy for our focus to turn inward. It is too easy for us to focus on what we already have. We need to go in our making of disciples.

Shame on us, church, shame on us, if we are more focused on keeping one another happy than on rescuing others who have wandered. Jesus says our task is to leave the 99, who aren’t wandering, to go seek the one who is wandering, who is lost. That’s our marching orders. It’s terrible advice for shepherding, but radically important advice for the church.

To focus on those who have wandered. To extend forgiveness to those who need it…

In earthly kingdoms, your brother should come to you for forgiveness. In the kingdom of heaven, you go to him offering it.

            [15] “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. [17] If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [18] Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [19] Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. [20] For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

This passage has been interpreted for years as a statement on “church discipline.” And while that’s there, we need to back up a little bit and understand that saying this is a passage on church discipline is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a boat: it’s there, but that’s certainly not the focus.

Consider what Jesus is saying. Remember, he just talked about the 99 and 1 sheep. He says seek and save what is lost. He says if your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault.

And that’s where we get it twisted. Because Jesus isn’t just saying “go tell him what a horrible person he is.” No, in context, there’s something else. “Go, tell him his fault” and offer your forgiveness. When you make him aware of his sin, do so with a desire to forgive him for it. Give him the opportunity to repent and then you can forgive.

This would be better called church reconciliation than church discipline. It’s not a witch hunt, it’s an invitation to restored fellowship.

And it mirrors what God did for us. “We all like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, each one, to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” We went astray, we turned, but God saved us by laying our sin on his Son. God sought us, not to punish us, but to offer us forgiveness.

Jesus says, be like God, be like me. Don’t wait for your brother to come to you. He probably doesn’t even know he sinned. Go to him, share with him, offer forgiveness if he will repent. That’s what God does for us.

So let’s walk this out:

Imagine two Christians: Fred and Frank

Frank comes over to Fred’s house to visit. As he’s leaving, he backs over Fred’s prize tulip bed. Fred sees it and yells at Frank that he’s a good-for-nothing so-and-so. When Frank jumps out, apologizes, and offers to do whatever it takes to clean up the mess, Fred tells him just to leave. Frank leaves. But the comments keep burrowing into his brain. So Frank goes to Fred and says, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me.”

If Fred listens to Frank, he’ll say, “Frank, I accept your apology and forgive you for running over my prize tulip bed. And I feel terrible about what I said and for losing my temper like that. Will you forgive me?”

Done. Frank and Fred are reconciled, the gospel is demonstrated in their relationship.

But, Jesus knows this isn’t a perfect world. What if Fred had responded to Frank’s offer of forgiveness by refusing to apologize and cursing him out again?

Then Jesus says you pursue forgiveness again. “take one or two others with you.” This is for accountability to the gospel. Fred can cuss out Frank if he’s still hot enough, but two or three brothers in Christ? He’ll think twice. Hopefully.

Let’s say Frank goes back to Fred, this time with Fabio along too. Frank again says to Fred, “Fred, I’m so sorry that I backed over your prize tulips and I beg you to forgive me. But, I also need to tell you that the language you used was very hurtful and not in keeping with our shared faith. I want to forgive you as well if you’ll let me and I brought Fabio along to remind both of us of how important this is that we be reconciled.”

And Fabio says, “Fred, Frank told me what happened and told me that he has asked for and offered forgiveness to you. As a Christian, you should forgive Frank and the two of you be reconciled.”

If Fred listens, he’ll say, “Frank and Fabio, I am so sorry it’s taken me this long to see my sinful words and temper, but now I repent and ask you to forgive me.”

Done. Reconciliation has been accomplished.

But what if Fred won’t listen and won’t repent?

Jesus says, “take it to the church.” Tell the whole body what happened, the process that had been followed, and ask the church to beg Fred to repent and be reconciled.

And if he does, done deal. Reconciliation has happened!

But if he doesn’t, and this is the hard part, he can’t be a part of the church anymore. Why? Because the church is meant to be a picture of the kingdom of heaven. And citizens in the kingdom of heaven, are those who have repented and asked God for forgiveness. If they won’t repent and ask one another for forgiveness, they never really asked or understood God’s forgiveness. So to let such a person continue representing the church would be to tell a lie about the kingdom, to tell a lie about God.

That’s what the whole binding and loosing conversation is about. The church has authority to say, “This person exhibits the characteristics and is bearing testimony to the truth of the gospel. We accept their profession of faith as genuine.” But they also have the authority to say, “This person claims to know Christ, but by their lack of repentance for clear sin, they are not bearing testimony to the gospel. We reject their profession of faith as counterfeit.”

As harsh as that may sound, Jesus says he’s with us on it. “Wherever two or three are gathered” isn’t about worship, it’s about these hard decisions. It is more important for the body of Christ to bear witness to the truth of the gospel than for individual members to be comfortable. Remember the discussion of cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes? Jesus takes sin in his church seriously. But even if church reconciliation fails and church discipline ensues, there’s always the hope of repentance and reconciliation.

But Jesus isn’t just concerned with your brother’s repentance; he’s concerned with your forgiveness.

In earthly kingdoms, forgiveness has an expiration date. In the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness is always available.

            [21] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” [22] Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Jesus is saying, “forgive others as many times as I forgive you – a whole bunch.” It’s not a tally card here. Jesus isn’t saying “77 times. But feel free to hold a grudge and not forgive the 78th time.”

If your brother sins and repents, even 78 times, forgive him.

People get the idea of forgiveness all wrong. Remember, God’s forgiveness is the model of forgiveness for us. God doesn’t unilaterally forgive all sin, does he? If he did, then everyone goes to heaven, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, and Stalin. No, God only forgives sin for those who repent and confess Jesus as Lord. Repentance is essential. I hear people all the time talk about needing to forgive someone who hasn’t repented and I think “how?” Forgiveness is a transactional term. Forgiveness requires repentance. This isn’t to say that you can carry a grudge against someone, you should always be ready to forgive, which means having a merciful heart. But forgiveness requires repentance.

If repentance is made, forgiveness is required.

            [23] “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [24] When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. [25] And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ [27] And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. [28] But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ [29] So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ [30] He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. [31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. [32] Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33] And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ [34] And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Whatever sins your brother has committed against you pale in comparison to what you’ve committed against God. If God can forgive you, after you repent, you must forgive your brother after he repents. If you cannot, Scripture is quite clear.

Forgiveness is not optional in the church: it is essential and the consequences of withholding it are eternal. Why? Because the church bears witness, both to the holiness and the mercy of God. To refuse to repent is to lie about God’s holiness. To refuse to forgive is to lie about God’s mercy. Neither are options for the believer or for the church.

Be quick to repent and quick to forgive.

7 Key Practices of a Sending Church

person-hand-park-adventure-17605The list of those who have left home and hearth to represent Christ away from the land of their birth is long: William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and many others.

The places that they served are etched in the evangelical memory as well: India, Burma, China, and all others.

The tradition is a great one. But we sometimes lose sight of the fact that those who go aren’t alone in the task.

For every one who is sent, there are those who send.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? Romans 10:14-15

Indeed! How can they preach unless they are sent?

But sending those who are called is much more than simply patting them on the back and shooing them out the door. We readily acknowledge that the call on the sent is a heavy one, full of joy, but still requiring sacrifice and steadfast obedience. But sometimes we forget that the call on the sent has a corresponding call on the senders, one that is also full of joy but also heavy with responsibility.

We have to regain a sense of this reciprocal, corporate calling if we are going to fully engage the mission to which God has called, not just the “super-spiritual” goers, but also the “everyday” senders (Those are sarcasm “” in case you missed it).

Fulfilling the Great Commission is a whole-church endeavor: some go, some send, but everyone is called.

When a commitment to missions was being rediscovered amongst 18th century British Baptists, a couple guys, William Carey and Andrew Fuller, were right at the center of the revival. They, along with other faithful men and women, formed the core of what would become the Baptist Missionary Society. Fuller recalled an early conversation amongst the society about the task of missions this way:

“Our undertaking to India really appeared to me, on its commencement, to be somewhat like a few men, who were deliberating about the important of penetrating into a deep mine, which had never before been explored. We had no one to guide us, and while we were thus deliberating, Carey, as it were, said, ‘Well, I will go down if you will hold the rope. But before he went down, he, as it seemed to me, took an oath from each of us, at the mouth of the pit, to this effect, that [we] while we lived, should never let go the ropeYou understand me. There was great responsibility attached to us who began this business.” 

(from The Life and Death of Andrew Fuller)

“Great responsibility” is attached to both those who “go” and to those who “hold the rope.” We need to regain a sense of the latter while not diminishing the former.

Here are seven ways that a sending church can “hold the rope” well:

1. Faithfully obey Christ in their local context

The Great Commission is not just about “over there.” We are told that Jesus’ followers would be his witnesses in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Taking those specific locales as a universal analogy, we see that the church that is serious about missions will be seriously engaged locally, regionally (amongst those like and unlike themselves), and globally. The church that sends globally without serving locally is setting themselves up for failure. And any missionary worth his or her salt will not be satisfied to be the obedience “token” for a church that has no intention of obeying the commands of Christ where they live, work, and play.

2. Intentionally fight against a natural “out of sight = out of mind” tendency

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is only true if there is a constant fight against the tendency to forget what we cannot see. A faithful sending church will keep the sent ones in mind through practical, intentional efforts. Thankfully, this task is easier than ever before in history. While certainly not true in every missionary context, there are a wealth of resources available to the missionary and the sending church to stay in contact through. Email, Facebook, blogs, Skype: you name it, and technology can pretty much do it. Have the missionary Skype in for a service once a month. Provide a Facebook Live service stream that they can watch the church’s worship service. Email updates to the church regularly. A blog with photos and journal entries for church members to keep up with the work. Whatever works in both contexts, use it! Make sure you stay in contact.

3. Pray continually for them

This isn’t optional. It isn’t Christian boilerplate. John Piper states that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” True enough. But both worship and missions are dependent on prayer. Until our “faith is made sight,” prayer is the avenue through which every act of worship and obedience flows. The church that sends must be a church that prays. Again, utilize tools to do this. Have a schedule of prayer specifically for sent missionaries where people sign up for slots. Have someone administrate that schedule, sending reminders to those who are signed up. Set aside times in worship services and Bible study meetings to pray specifically for those who have been sent by the church. And let those who are sent know that you are praying. Invite them to join in the schedule so they can know who’s praying and perhaps pray for them in return! Involve the whole body of the church in the essential task of prayer.

4. Continue to provide financially for them

Pastors generally hate talking about money. But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor, get over it. Sending missionaries takes money. And, frankly, there’s nothing better that your church can give towards than supporting the missionaries they have sent. If you’re a church member, consider what you can give up personally to free up more of your resources to go towards supporting your brothers and sisters in Christ. Corporately, reflect the commitment to financial provision in your budgeting. Many churches set their annual budget with local needs first and allocate whatever’s left to missions. Strike that. Reverse it. Sometimes holding the rope gives you rope burns. Deal with it. Don’t pass the pain on to the missionary if at all possible.

5. Send encouragement to them

Support your missionaries with more than just money. Cards and letters, if contextually appropriate, can be a wonderful blessing. Send them a copy of the book that the men’s group is studying on Friday mornings, send them a copy of the Bible study the women are going through together. Can’t ship books to them? You can still let them know you care by sending an Amazon gift code so they can purchase books on Kindle. Ask them what their favorite candy is and send them a bag. Send a care package with supplies for a family game night. Whatever works for the missionary and their context, find creative ways as a church to encourage them.

6. Send encouragers to them

One area of mission work that is neglected is the idea of sending short-term encouragement teams. We get the concept of career missions, we understand short-term evangelistic missions, construction missions, and orphanage missions, but we woefully neglect the opportunities for encouragement missions. But we see them in Scripture. Paul writes time and again of his gratefulness for some church or another sending so-and-so to visit him, he writes to Timothy to come see him and bring Mark and the cloak and his books, and he sends encouragement teams to churches. A sending church can faithfully hold the rope by coordinating encouragement mission trips: send two or three people to visit a missionary, fill luggage with gifts and necessary items to leave behind, spend time sharing, laughing, working together, and then bring a report back to the sending church. Once a year, twice a year, however often is practical and necessary. This strengthens the bonds between the sent and the senders and can be a great encouragement to those on the field.

7. Raise up and send out more missionaries after them

One of the best ways a sending church can demonstrate their faithfulness to those they’ve sent is to continue raising up and sending out others. The task of the Great Commission isn’t finished when a church sends one missionary. Rather, as the Lord leads, our goal should be a continual cycle of converting, discipling, and sending out workers for the harvest. A missionary who is sent doesn’t want their sending church to rest on their laurels, content to have sent one. Rather, the same heart that God set afire for taking the gospel out is the same heart that burns to see others with the same ignited passion. Keep in touch with the missionaries who have been sent, let them know of others  who are going so that they can join the church in prayer. Arrange conversations between those who are already on the mission field and those who will be. Let both parties see that the church is committed, beyond a single missionary, to the entire mission for which God has entrusted to his church.

When the Lord calls a missionary from a local church, he is not taking them away; he is inviting the entire church to participate in the joyous task of taking the gospel to the nations. Some go, some send, but everyone is called – let us answer well the call, whether we go or whether we hold the ropes!