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Two Birthdays, Two Symbols of Courage

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Today is November 10th, and a significant day if you enjoy freedom and appreciate courage. There are two birthdays worth remembering today. The United States Marine Corps, long admired as a symbol of elite military strength. And the man who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which was just recently celebrated -- Martin Luther.

The United States Marine Corps was formed by Captain Samuel Nicholas by a resolution of the Second Continental Congress, on November 10, 1775. For almost 250 years, the Marines have stood ready to fight for our country. Honor, courage, and commitment are their tenets. Amphibious assault, air-ground, expeditionary -- they do it all -- and do it as the smallest of the armed forces under the Department of Defense. As of June, 2011, there were less than 150,000 active duty Marines. As a branch of the armed forces in America, they symbolize protection from tyranny, freedom for the oppressed, and courage in the face of adversity. The Marine Corps slogan is semper fidelis, which is Latin for “always faithful.” But there is another birthday today that produced for us a man who pointed to the One who defines "always faithful."

Martin Luther was also born on this day in 1483. His mining father wanted more for his son, and enrolled Martin in school to become a lawyer. But in a moment of desperation, Martin made a vow to God that he would become a monk if his life was spared. So entering an Augustinian monastery, Martin Luther was put on a path that would ultimately revolutionize the Christian faith and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.

As time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced of the abuses of the church and the Pope. That, coupled with his own wrestling with assurance of salvation, led him back to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as he studied through the book of Romans. With his famous 95 Theses posted to the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517, Luther’s honor, courage, and commitment to stand up to the Pope and the Catholic Church unintentionally ignited the Protestant Reformation. During this period of the church’s history, the Bible was recovered as the sole authority for life and faith, as the “Five Solas” came to represent the Reformers' commitments: Solus ChristusSola GratiaSola FideSoli Deo Gloria, and Sola Scriptura. In that order these Latin phrases mean “Christ Alone,” “Grace Alone,” “Faith Alone,” “The Glory of God Alone,” and “Scripture Alone.”

While Luther was fighting a different kind of oppression and abuse than the Marines have, they both stood/stand for freedom -- one national and the other religious. Today, be proud of your country and those who’ve served. Thank the Lord that he -- in his grace -- has placed you under the protection of a strong armed force such as the United States Marines (and all other branches of the military) to protect your right to freely worship.

But most importantly, also be thankful that God has had men and women throughout the ages -- like Martin Luther -- willing to fight for truth in Scripture, willing to stand up to tyranny and abuse, and willing to seek the Lord for reform, freedom, and purity in the church.

Don't Skip To The End This Christmas

Whether it's a book, a movie, or in the case of Christmas presents for little kids in the house, an instruction manual--we all are tempted to do the same thing: skip to the end. But when we give in to that ever-present temptation to cheat, it's never as satisfying as when we'd invested the time and arrived at the end the way in which we were intended. Not only do we rob its creator of the time and effort they put into producing the work, but we rob ourselves of the journey. For books and movies, that means we know the story, and all (or most of) our questions are answered. For instruction manuals, it means we have a toy that's properly built, works, and with minimal frustration, Daddy can get in bed at a decent hour on Christmas Eve.

But every Christmas--a holiday dedicated to the incarnation of God, the Word becoming flesh, the birth of the God-man--we do it. We skip straight to the end. We cheat. We rob God of the story he cared so much to write. And we rob ourselves of having our questions answered because we know the whole story. Maybe you've said it. I've probably said it.

"Jesus came to die." Well, yes and no.

It's become an incredible pet peeve of mine during the Christmas holidays. Here is a holiday dedicated to celebrating the birth of Christ. His birth, the beginning of his earthly life. And we barely have him out of his swaddling cloths before we're talking about his death. Did Jesus come to die? Yes, but what an incomplete statement! Had he only come to die, why not show up on Good Friday, get on the cross, and get on with it? Because he also came to live!

Here is a holiday dedicated to celebrating the birth of Christ. And we barely have him out of his swaddling cloths before we’re talking about his death.

There is no separating Jesus's perfectly obedient life from his sacrificial death. Had Jesus not lived a perfect life, obeying God down to every jot and tittle of the Law, he could not have died a death that would satisfy God's demand for holiness. In other words, Jesus came to live without sin, so that his death would achieve all that it's intended to--salvation, but also righteousness. The apostle Paul says it this way, "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." (Romans 5.18-19)

So this Christmas don't cheat yourself out of the rest of the story; without the middle part the ending doesn't make sense. Don't pass over the manger to get right to the cross. Stop and appreciate the miracle of incarnation. Wonder over what it means for the Word to become flesh. Read Luke 2.1-21, and reflect on the Christ child who was born, who would grow up, be tempted, get hungry, cry, laugh, hurt, and live--but live without sin. This Christmas celebrate Jesus's life and his active obedience. Jesus came to live; he came to obtain a righteousness that could be imputed to us when we had only sin to impute to him. (2 Corinthians 5.21)

So this Christmas don't skip straight to Good Friday. Celebrate his birth, life, and obedience on our behalf. Stop and celebrate Christmas!

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

December 6th. St. Nicholas Day. The day that people all over the world are remembering the death and celebrating the life of Saint Nicholas.

Getting to the root of questions like “Who is Santa” and “Was he a real person” lead us back in time to the village of Patara, on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. Nicholas was born around 270 AD to wealthy, yet devoutly Christian parents who taught him to revere and obey the teachings of Jesus. While still young, Nicholas lost his parents to an epidemic and received his inheritance -- an inheritance that he spent living out Jesus’s command to “sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19.21).

Nicholas was appointed Bishop of Myra (also located in modern-day Turkey), and his reputation for being generous spread. He became known for his concern and generosity toward the needy, and also for his love of children. Then under Diocletian, one of the most ruthless of the Roman emperors, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned for his faith. However, after his release he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he vehemently argued for the doctrine of the Trinity -- so vehemently that he slapped (some people say punched) Arius for denying the divinity of the Son! Almost twenty years later in 343 AD, Bishop Nicholas died. Now the day of his death, December 6th, is celebrated around the world as St. Nicholas Day -- a day of remembering the generous saint by giving gifts and feasting.

There are many extraordinary stories of the bishop helping the needy, including one about a poor father of three daughters who had no dowry (payment for marriage) to offer potential husbands. With nothing to offer, the daughters would likely be sold into slavery. But three different times a bag of gold appeared at the home. Tossed through the window, legend has the bags of gold landing in shoes set before the fire to dry. And unknowingly today, we still practice a custom born out of this legend -- hanging stockings on the fireplace for Saint Nicholas to fill.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated all over the world in different ways -- in many places, its the primary gift-giving day, not Christmas. Parents, don’t waste this opportunity to start a new tradition in your family. Tell your children about the real Saint Nicholas. Let his example help you teach about Jesus’s commands to care for the poor and needy. Be creative! It doesn’t have to replace Christmas, but do something special to remember Nicholas and his generosity. (Parents, its also a great way to remind ourselves a few things about the Christmas season and the Christian message of hope, sacrifice, and generosity.)

What Should Christians Do With Santa?

With the arrival of the holidays, one thing is certain - Santa will be imposed on your family in one way or another during this season. It’s impossible to avoid him. He’s at the mall. He’s on Coke cans. He’s on TV. He’s everywhere you look!

So what do we do? How should Christians respond? Navigating the holidays, with all of Santa’s myth and folklore, popularity and mystery, can be tricky for a people who know the real meaning of Christmas - which is Immanuel, “God with us.” Ultimately, there are three ways to deal with Santa: we can wholesale reject him, we can unquestioningly accept him, or we can intentionally (and carefully) incorporate him into a bigger picture - namely, the celebration of the incarnation and gracious giving.

WHOLESALE REJECTION
This approach often demonizes Santa and turns him into a villain, a commercial fairy tale meant to encourage indulgence and greed. You’ll hear “Santa” is an anagram for “Satan,” and things like that. But the truth is, while there may be some things about Santa you want to reject in your family traditions, there may also be elements of Santa you want to keep around.

UNQUESTIONING ACCEPTANCE
On the other end of the spectrum is the approach that can’t get enough Santa. Every myth, every tradition played out to its fullest - in blind embrace, this approach focuses entirely on toys and flying reindeer and elves, the whole story. However, as you think through Christmas traditions in your family, there may actually be some things that need to be rejected.

I think the truth is, most people live somewhere in between these extremes. Obviously, there are varying degrees of each of these approaches. And there are good things to be noted in each, as well as bad. So the last option might be the most responsible.

INTENTIONAL INCORPORATION
This mixing of the first two approaches takes the good, leaves the bad, and uses Santa to serve another purpose - telling the real Christmas story. Historically, Santa’s legend evolved from Saint Nicholas, a Christian bishop known for generously helping the poor and children. Also, there are creative ways to let children flex their imaginations without being irresponsible or flippant. Mixing Santa into the Christmas tradition while still primarily celebrating the Advent story is possible - it just takes more work, more intentionality!

There are lots of great resources out there to expound the good and bad in each of these approaches, but the important thing to remember is that as Christians we are called to glorify God in everything we do, whether that’s eating or drinking (or celebrating Christmas) or whatever we do (1 Cor. 10.31).

Thanksgiving

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.” Romans 1.8

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you  in Christ Jesus,” 1 Corinthians 1.4

“I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,” Ephesians 1.16

“I thank God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,” Philippians 1.3-4

“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,” Colossians 1.3

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers,” 1 Thessalonians 1.2

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.” 2 Thessalonians 1.3

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service,” 1 Timothy 1.12

“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” 2 Timothy 1.3

“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,” Philemon 4

You don’t have to read far in the Apostle Paul’s letters before you get to thanksgiving. Of all his epistles only 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Titus lack an address of thanks in the first chapter. But what made Paul so thankful? This was a man that had been shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, robbed, hated by both Jews and Gentiles, hungry, cold - and some of his letters were even written while in prison! (2 Cor. 11.23-29) So what did the apostle have to be so thankful for? Paul remembered something that we so easily forget.

The gospel.

Not blessing, not money, not health, not success, not results, not comfort, not good works. The gospel. The gospel is an announcement - a proclamation of something thats already taken place. The gospel is not something we can be to other people. The gospel is not something to be lived out. The gospel is not simply what you believe to get into Heaven.

The gospel is more than that. The gospel is something that's already been done. It's good news, not good advice. Jesus died for us. He set us free from sin and death, and made us alive to obedience and joy! When we were unable to save ourselves, Someone else saved us and made us co-heirs with Himself to all the riches of God.

Paul remembered this, and in his letter to the church at Colossae (written while imprisoned) he encouraged them to remember it too. He says, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col. 2.6-7) Evoking imagery of trees and building - things that need strong foundations - Paul exhorts them to not forget the foundation. And the result?

Abounding in thanksgiving.

Christians should overflow with thanksgiving. When we forget about Jesus, we forget to be thankful. This holiday, remember the foundation of your faith - Christ Jesus the Lord. Just as you received him, so walk in him. You received him humbly and without any doing of your own. Walk in him the same way - humbly and thankfully.