Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When Santa Went to Jail

The back of this ornament you see pictured above says 1982, but the story begins over 30 years earlier.

It is initialed by my late paternal grandmother with her classic insignia of a crossing M and N. The M stands for Margie, but sometimes she said it stood for ‘Make-do’. But for us, the M always stood for Meemaw.

In the late 1940s my grandfather was in the United States Air Force and stationed in Japan along with my grandmother and two aunts. My dad and uncle had not yet been born. Being a young mom with two young daughters, my grandmother got creative one Christmas to keep her children occupied. She decided she would make Christmas Cookies.

These turned out to not just be any Christmas cookies, but with the help of a special cookie cutter she had found, she decided to make Santa Cookies.

Sort of like the guy who created Velcro accidently stumbling on such a great invention while hunting, my grandmother stumbled upon a wonderful Christmas tradition that has now been in our family nearly 70 years. What started out as a way to help little girls stay busy during Christmas, turned into one of my favorite family Christmas traditions.

Each year she would make these cookies and mail them to friends and family. When we came along she would patiently work with us each Christmas season to make these cookies and decorate them correctly. In 2004 when my wife and I were dating, she came over to help us decorate cookies. My siblings and I were aghast when we saw the future Mrs. Nelson pick up one of our beloved Santa Cookies and begin decorating it like a gingerbread man! Mistake! There's a certain way to decorate these cookies! That's where the ornament above comes in handy.

She had these ornaments cut out of wood and then decorated them just like the cookies and gave them out to family members. Not only does it help us get the pattern of decorating the cookie right, but it also reminds me of great memories with my grandmother. The ornament above has been around longer than I have.

It’s something I will forever cherish.

Well, a few years ago when my children were old enough to make cookies we decided we wanted to keep the tradition alive. At the same time, we also wanted to think of a way to clearly connect it to Christ and to focus on Him during all of our holiday festivities. It's not that we are 'anti-Santa', we just wanted another way to use a great tradition to talk with our kids about Jesus.

Turns out, this wasn’t hard to do, because Santa Claus has a real name: Saint Nicholas.

In 325 A.D., Saint Nicholas was a Pastor (Bishop) in Myra, which is in Modern Day Turkey. Now, St. Nick was a generous Pastor, and there are stories of his kindness and even his affinity for giving generous gifts in secret (see the connection?)… But I want to focus about the time jolly ole St. Nick lost his cool.

In 325 A.D. there was a church council in a place called Nicaea. Church councils were places where a lot of Pastors got together to talk about important subjects and seek to know what Scripture taught on them. This particular council was called because there was a man by the name of Arius who had begun teaching that Jesus was not equal with God the Father.

Similar to what the Jehovah(less) Witnesses now teach (there is nothing new under the sun!), Arius was saying that Jesus is important but He is not co-equal with God the Father. Arius famously preached "There was a time when the Son was not!", thus denying the Son's eternality, and equality with God.

Arius had begun to amass a decent following and at the council of Nicaea he went on and on about Jesus not being fully divine.

Maybe it's because his stockings weren't on quite right, or maybe he hadn't had a chance to smoke that fine Christmas pipe yet that day, but our boy Nicholas was fed up. More accurately it was because Nicholas loved the Jesus of the Bible that he got up from his seat at Nicaea, walked across the room and...

Well, he certainly didn't give Arius a cup of cheer, glass of egg nog, or plate of cookies.

Instead, he slapped that heretic right across the face. Backhand? Front hand? I'm not sure. But the place was shocked. So shocked, that like the Miracle on 34th Street, but for a much nobler reason, Santa Claus was thrown into jail. Whatsmore, he was stripped of his bishopric!

That would be a lump of coal difficult to swallow, but thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.

Nicholas was eventually freed from jail and because of the work of faithful men like Nicholas and others like Athanasius, the heretic Arius was eventually silenced. And not because one side 'won' and the other 'lost' but because it is impossible for both sides to be faithful to Scripture. Why? Because Scripture is clear on this issue.

You see, we cannot have Christmas without the Jesus of the Bible. And the Jesus of the Bible is fully God who became fully man, to rescue us from our sins. If Jesus is not God, then we are still lost in our sins, hopeless and helpless. But the good news is, as Scripture affirms, Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). He is the First and the Last (Revelation 1:17). He is the I AM (John 8:58).

Jesus is God incarnate.

God became man so that He could give His body and blood on the cross to secure the way of salvation for all who repent of their sin and believe this good news. Nicholas was willing to go to jail for this truth. Many others have given their very lives for it.

This truth is what we celebrate this Christmas: God with us (Isaiah 7:14).

Whether or not your family does 'Santa Claus' is entirely up to you. But I wonder if you might take the opportunity this year to share with your children and others the story of the real St. Nick? While I don't condone slapping heretics, I do encourage thinking rightly about Jesus! And God has used many men in church history, including Nicholas Bishop of Myra, to remind us of the importance of the truth of God's incarnation.

St. Nicholas and others composed a Creed at Nicaea that captures the Bible’s teaching on Jesus. There was actually another Nicene Council in 381 in which the Nicene Creed was somewhat edited to help accurately reflect Scripture's teaching on the Trinity. I would like to conclude this blog with a portion of this creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

4 Ways our Christmas Tree Points to Jesus

I know that when one puts up their Christmas tree can be a source of controversy. Not like there are other sorts of more important controversies out there or anything. 

A lot of people are in the "Not till after Thanksgiving!" camp and I get that. I think it's out of a desire to protect Christmas from over commercialization. That's a noble desire indeed. 

For our family however, we don't feel like one month is long enough. In the first place, it's usually a bit of an effort to put everything up, so why go through that just to pull it down in 4 weeks!? But secondly, we like the tradition of being able to enjoy all that our Christmas tree stands for during this time of year. So, this leads to us usually putting our tree up in early November. 

And when we do there are four things we like to draw attention to when we put up our tree. I share these things not to try and say you have to do it this way but hopefully to give you some ideas on intentionality in your Christmas celebration. 

I love being intentional about making Christmas point to Christ. What an astounding truth that God most high clothes Himself in human flesh to dwell among us! So, here are 4 things we focus on when putting up our tree:

1. The Tree that we put up to celebrate Christ's birth also reminds us of Christ's death 

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24

The most wonderful news about God becoming man is that He came to do something about our sin problem. And this was accomplished though Christ's death on a cross made of wood. We use the Christmas tree to help us remember this. 

2. The Tree is an Evergreen. Jesus is eternal and so is His kingdom. 

There have been various reasons given for the origin of the 'Christmas Tree' but we use the fact that it is an evergreen to help us think rightly about Jesus' eternality and the everlastingness of His rule and reign. 

3. Jesus is the light of the world and Believers are called to be lights too. 

It's a beautiful sight to see your Christmas tree all lit up. Our children especially are captivated by it. We use it to remind them (and us) that Christmas is about hope. A light in the darkness. The days are shorter this time of year and physical darkness seems to be winning. But just as the lights on the tree shed more light in our living room, so to does Jesus shed light in this spiritually dark world. And as His followers our light should point to Him. 

4. God is faithful 

We don't do a 'themed' tree. Rather, every year we buy an ornament or a few and write the date on them. This is something I had when I was a child. So, we have a tree with ornaments that are nearly 30 years old. There's often fun conversation and memories as we put up ornaments together. We remember where we got them and the story behind them. 

What we've told our kids about this process is that this is a reminder of God's faithfulness to our family over the years. How He has blessed us and shown His kindness to us year after year.

Nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate Christmas. But I do think it's a wonderful time to focus on God's incarnation and to share in the blessings, fun, and traditions of family. The point of this post is to help us think intentionally about pointing our children to Jesus through the holidays. Don't let the world take this celebration from us! Don't let the false god of materialism be who is really worshiped this time of year! 

Christ is King. O come let us adore Him.  

8 Quick Thoughts on the Election

I went to bed with the media saying Donald Trump had a 95%+ chance of winning the electoral college. Now that I've slept on it and seen the results here a just a few quick thoughts. There's certainly more I could say but I think I'll leave it at this for now:

1. Didn't see that coming.

2. I am grateful to God to not have an anti-marriage, anti-baby, anti-religious freedom, anti-constitution political party representing the office of president of the United States

3. Donald Trump is our new president. I commit to pray for him.

4. The longer God maintains religious freedom in this country the higher amount of responsibility we will be judged with. Let that sink in with the amount of time you spend with your Bible and how committed you are in your local church. We have no excuses. The more God blesses our nation economically the higher expectation the church has to be sacrificial in our giving. How will you use these blessings to commit to the advancement of God's kingdom?

5. Throughout the campaign I have not personally been able to trust Trump. And even now I'm more excited about who lost than who won. And I'm not sure about what the future holds for our country or how Trump will follow through on some of his campaign promises. I hope we will have Supreme Court justices committed to biblical principles. I hope our freedoms will remain in tact. I hate abortion. Trump was pro choice for a long time. I hope his views have really changed. See #3.

6. Some people are saying this is God's judgment on America. Others are saying this is a signal of hope that our Nation isn't as far gone as we thought. At this point, it's hard for me to fully agree with either spectrum. Time will tell.

7. I hope that a Trump presidency does not cause you to be complacent about the state of the Church or the state of our nation. Our great hope is heart change wrought by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. This is still much needed.

8. I am grateful for our country and all God has done in and through it. Let's pray for our governmental leaders and use the time God has given us here to strive for the advancement of the gospel throughout this nation and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Let's continue to pray for revival in our nation and Reformation in our churches.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Things that Won't Fix America

Like many Americans, I am grieved about where we are as a country. I think we have drifted pretty far from what the Founders intended for our great Nation and more concerning, I see some of the very freedoms we've enjoyed for so long being increasingly infringed upon. 

With that being said, I think it's helpful to remember that as a Believer, my first allegiance is not to a flag but to the King of kings. This is not to suggest that the two of necessity mutually exclude one another, but it is to emphasize that One must always take priority over the other. When we think about situations, and elections, and policies, and various movements in our culture, we must think as a Christian first. This doesn't always come naturally nor is it always easy to do unless we are intentional about it. 

I thank God that I am an American. I am the grandson of a USAF Colonel who fought countless missions in both Korea and Vietnam. I am grateful for his service to our country. I am grateful for the freedoms we enjoy and for the the principles on which this country was founded: All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But all of that, absolutely all of it, is subservient to my allegiance to King Jesus. This means I see all of what we have in America as a means to a greater end. Ultimately that end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This is not to say that the above Americanisms conflict with Christianity but that they fall underneath it in the sense that the ultimate purpose of our freedoms as Americans is to glorify God. 

Maybe we could put it like this: the freedoms we enjoy as Americans should be used to live for the glory of God. To make Christ known to our countrymen. To happily enjoy Christ's rule and reign in our lives as we see Him ever widening the borders of His Kingdom around us. America is not nor never has been a theocracy. But it has, in the providence of God, served as channel in which the gospel has impacted not just innumerable people here but also to the far reaches of the earth. 

One thing that is for sure is that no matter what happens to our country the Kingdom of God will continue to advance and the Church will endure. 

With that being said, it is my great hope that our country will endure for the glory of God. And I think that the way our country will endure (if it is to endure) will be through the change of hearts wrought through the heralding of the gospel. This doesn't mean we aren't concerned about culture, politics, the downcast, etc. In fact, I'd say we are even more concerned about those things because we are concerned about them rightly, through the lens of the gospel. 

So, we live, we vote, we stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves, and all the while we live for the glory of God which includes sharing the good news of the life, death, burial, resurrection, and reign of King Jesus. And our great hope for the Nation lies in that. Not that the gospel changes a 'Nation' but that it does change the individuals who comprise the Nation thus 'fixing' a Nation. 

I think this is necessary to work through because I've seen so many posts the last several months that seem to at the very least imply that our hope lies somewhere else. Like if we can just get this one thing or that one thing or these several things together then that will fix America. While I maintain these things (depending on what issue has you riled up!) may be important, I also maintain that the gospel is not dependent on any of them in order to thrive and bring about the change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit. 

In fact, sometimes God uses the very opposite of what we think is necessary in order to bring about the change we want to see. 

So, with all of that in mind let's survey some popular topics today, none of which are the 'key' to fixing our country. 

Here we go:

1. Trump being elected president

I do think it's morally permissible to vote for Donald Trump. But I've actually seen people say Believers are morally obligated to vote for Trump. What's more, I've actually seen posts and conversations that have basically said Donald Trump is the key to making our nation great again. 

Say what?

Look, I don't think voting for Clinton is a viable option.  But for Believers to tell other Believers it is their obligation to vote Trump rather than not voting or voting third party is not biblically defensible. Furthermore, to bolster this pressure by insinuating that the hope of our nation rests in Trump being elected president is actually not Christian thinking.

If Hillary is prevented from becoming president or if Trump does become president, neither of those scenarios fix the country. Nor do they put us on a better trajectory without heart change. 

2. People standing for the National Anthem

I think it's disrespectful not to stand for the National Anthem. I don't think it's a time for protest. I am grateful for those who've defended our country. 

But I've seen lots of conversations of people acting as if we could just create laws or boycotts or make enough noise about people standing during the National Anthem that will fix our country. 

Laws won't change hearts.

Should people stand for the anthem? Yes. If they all stood tomorrow are we a better country? I don't think so. The root of the problem is not fixed. 

3. Black, blue, red, yellow, white lives Matters campaigns

Not sure what to add here. I appreciate some of the awareness that has been brought about. But even if everyone tomorrow agreed with whichever campaign you're involved in, that actually doesn't fix our issues does it? 
4. Having conservative justices on the Supreme Court 

Do I think this is important? You bet. Do I bemoan what would happen with more liberal judges on the Supreme Court? Certainly. 

But there is a difference in supporting and hoping for these things and in idolizing them. If tomorrow all 9 justices on the Supreme Court were conservative, our country would still be in trouble. 

If we could strike down the Obergefell and Roe v. Wade decisions, two decisions that are an abomination to God and an unconstitutional overreach of the Court, it still wouldn't change the hearts of the people. 

5. Maintaining our Freedoms 

The right to preach. The right to bear arms. The right to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. 

These are all important. They are dear to our hearts. But even if those are not maintained in our country the end is not inevitable, for the church has endured, and even thrived in more hostile situations. 

My point in writing all of this is not to say that we shouldn't be involved in politics and policies. We definitely should be. We should vote Christian principles and seek to establish policies that are consistent with biblical teaching because it is when we align with Scripture that we will see an environment most conducive to true human flourishing. 

But in all of this Christ must have the preeminence. Take for example those who rightly hate abortion but wrongly take the route of physically attacking abortion doctors and workers. Is Christ honored through these sort of actions? No. And nor is He honored when Believers pin all of our hope on the outcome of an election, cultural movement, or policy change. It is good and right to use all of the influence we have to instill godly principles into our society. It is not right to do this through means of physical coercion. Nor is it right to act as though if an election, movement, or policy doesn't go the way we think it should that all hope is lost. Certainly not! King Jesus is on His throne. And He bows to no one. Not even human free will. He is ordering His universe by the word of His power. And all things will happen as He decrees. So, mankind is responsible for the choices we make, but ultimately Jesus wins. Therefore, as we strive for the advancement of the gospel together, our greatest hope lies in this truth. Even what feels like defeats here can and will be used by God for the glory of His great name and the good of His people. 

Again, don't sit back in your lawn chair and watch America burn. Be involved as you are able locally and regionally and even nationally to effect change. But let the driving motivation in what you do not merely be a 'better future' for your kids in terms of the American dream. No, let the driving force in all that you do be the glory of God and the hopes of seeing His glory furthered through the conversion sinners both here and abroad. 

Preach. Pray. Participate in the local church. Prioritize Scripture reading. And remember that the great problem of all Americans is not something outside them. It's not that they aren't educated enough or don't have the right opportunities in life. The greatest problem Americans have is a heart that rejects and rebels against the God who made them. And this won't be fixed by an external issue. It won't be fixed by a President. It won't be fixed by the Supreme Court. It will only be fixed by the gospel. And when professing Believers make these other things a priority over the gospel, even going so far as to be more passionate about voting than attending church, we actually become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Ultimately, the gospel will not spread through policy but through people. We've got to share it. We've got to live out what Christ has worked in us. We've got to herald the news of the coming judgement but the free offer of pardon that exists now for all who repent and believe the gospel. 

No doubt part of living for Jesus is living for Him in all realms, including how we vote. But brothers and sisters, our great hope is not in the outcome our vote. It is in the One who casts the deciding Ballot. The King eternal. 

No doubt it's late at the time of this publication. So I do hope I've made sense! To God be the glory...