What We Need for Christmas #3: Our Mighty God

What do we NEED for Christmas?

Yesterday was about the need for wisdom, but “We also have wills, and because we have wills, we want to achieve something. We want our lives to make a difference. To do that we need power.”[1]  This is a second need of us all, according to James Montgomery Boice.  In Isaiah 9:6, Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, is described as our Mighty God, who Boice says “will empower us for life’s tasks” – those tasks He points us to in His wisdom.

The word Mighty probably calls to mind miraculous events, military victory, or superhero-like powers.  But ultimately, His greatest objectives for us – to love Him and to love our neighbor – are what He uses His might to accomplish.  When our Wonderful Counselor gives wisdom to make a choice in life, He actually wants us to act on that choice because He knows how it will turn out – for our ultimate good – but what if we don’t agree with the choice, or don’t have the willpower to make it?

God, unlike Lucy in the Peanuts comics, will not tell us to kick the football, then pull it away at the last second, leaving us on our back.  To those who trust Him, He will provide the ability to make a loving difference in the world.  As Mighty God, He puts His own resources and power behind His recommended wisdom to produce the desired effect of loving, godly living.

Put another way: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,” as written in 2 Peter 1:3.  He does not empower us to do just anything, or to do whatever we decide; He will empower us to “life and godliness.”  In wisdom, He knows this is what is ultimately worthwhile, and His power creates a new desire and a new influence in us, molding our wills that want to make a difference but may not know how.  His power also works in others to provide what we need, or to put in our path someone who needs us.

The gift of Jesus as Mighty God meets one of our deepest needs:
“To achieve something worthwhile! Jesus is the Mighty God who enables us to do that. We accomplish worthwhile things through his power.” (Boice)

Do you want to achieve worthwhile things this Christmas and in 2022?  Our Mighty God wants to enable us to love Him and love others.  Seek the wisdom of Christ and become empowered by Him to love as you have never loved before.

This is the second gift of Christ in Christmas.

[1] From “May 10.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).

What We Need For Christmas #2: A Wonderful Counselor

According to James Montgomery Boice (see last post if you missed it), if you asked people to honestly describe their needs, they might describe one as: “We have minds. So we have a need to know things rightly, to understand. We need wisdom.”  In Isaiah 9:6, Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, is described as our Wonderful Counselor, who meets our need for wisdom.

But what is wisdom?  Wisdom is about taking the right action, not about being book smart, or accumulating facts.  You don’t need to be brilliant to have wisdom.  Wisdom looks forward.  It is proactive and specific to you.  Nobody else’s situation is your situation, and nobody else has the same history, relationships, abilities, and resources. Your path is your own.

Why do we need wisdom?  Because our inner conscience is not one, clear voice with the right answer.  It is a jumble of influences and desires, which I’ve described as a multi-voiced “Moral GPS.” How do you even choose from among your own wants?  Everyone is limited by time and resources.  Also, what if your wants conflict with each other?  “I love junk food, but I want to be healthy.”  Also, how do you decide what is “good” to do?  Who decides what is “harmful”?  What if someone else’s desires harm you?  Can you tell them their desires are wrong, or even disagree on what “harm” is, in a world where everyone just lives by their own messy conscience?[1]

We are never truly free.  Absolute freedom is not good, or even possible, and therefore we need a reliable filter and that is what wisdom is.  Wisdom enables us to choose the best possible path from among the many choices before us.  This is especially tricky as multiple paths may look “true” or “best” to us, and most paths have ripple effects we can’t possibly anticipate.  In our world information is more readily available than ever before, but many people just seem more overwhelmed by it all.

Only someone who knows us perfectly, who knows every possible consequence of our choices on us and on others, and who loves us with our best interests in mind is qualified to be our Wonderful Counselor and worthy of our trust.  Others can provide incomplete guidance – parents, teachers, ministers, writers, philosophers – but each of these also needs its own filter.

In the gift of Jesus as Wonderful Counselor we can satisfy one of our deepest needs: “To know the truth! Jesus Christ is the truth, and he is for us a Wonderful Counselor.” (Boice)

As God, He has no gaps in his knowledge or biases and therefore His words to us are not an inadequate abstraction or wishful thinking.  He alone is perfectly trustworthy.  He does not want to scold or punish you, but to guide you in perfect wisdom that only He can provide.  He does not magically tell you everywhere to go, holding up signs, but desires a relationship.  To walk with you and guide you to life eternal. He wants us to invite Him into our lives, and He is Wonderful.

This is the first gift of Christ in Christmas.

[1] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This paragraph draws from Chapter 5.

What We Need for Christmas…Part 1

What do we NEED for Christmas?

James Montgomery Boice, former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, says:

“Suppose…that we should conduct an opinion poll to find out what men and women feel they most need. Suppose we should ask, ‘What do you feel are your greatest needs?’
‘Well,’ people would say, ‘we have minds. So we have a need to know things rightly, to understand. We need wisdom. We also have wills, and because we have wills, we want to achieve something. We want our lives to make a difference. To do that we need power. We are also individuals, but we sense that we are not meant to be alone. We want to belong somewhere. We need satisfying relationships. We are also conscious of having done wrong things. We need to be forgiven. We need somebody to deal with our guilt. Isn’t that what we would find if we should poll people and analyze their basic experiences? Aren’t those the things we really need?”[1]

Whatever mess we find ourselves and the world in, Christmas is a reminder that God has not given up on us and on the world.  Boice quotes from Isaiah 9:6, a prophecy from around 700 BC concerning the Christ we celebrate each Christmas:
“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

To meet our deepest, most significant needs, this Christ is provided for us.  Over the coming 4 days, I’ll be posting a brief, daily Christmas message (inspired by Boice’s framework) about each of these 4 names, and how they are “the greatest gifts that anybody can give or we can have, and they are all in Jesus.”[2]  They are better than anything under your tree (or lost in the supply chain until after Christmas) and were delivered over 2,000 years ago.  Therefore, you can receive and open them at any time!

[1] From “May 10.” James Montgomery Boice and Marion Clark. Come to the Waters: Daily Bible Devotions for Spiritual Refreshment.  (2017).
[2] Ibid.

Poor in Spirit #4: The Scope of Our Need

Today is part 4 of what was supposed to be a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Having taken yesterday off, we pick back up today and hopefully finish tomorrow.  If you want to catch up, the three previous posts are linked: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

Today begins later in the same chapter as the Beatitudes, where Jesus includes in sin matters of the soul’s inclination, which are “entirely” internal:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27-28

We have all heard people saying what is done in private, either alone or with other “consenting” people, is none of our business.  “Who does it hurt?” they say.  In this later section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells everyone that He cares about what they do, in public and in private.  Even within themselves.  He is not saying this to embarrass anyone, but to break down their spiritual pride and lead them to depend on Him.  To Jesus, intent makes us spiritually poor as much as action does.  Sin is not a matter of consequence; it is a matter of conscience.  It includes not only the action, but the inclination to the action.

But who does it hurt?  When excluding from our definition of sin things that other people don’t see, we may be tempted to turn faith into performance art, like the scribes and Pharisees, who “do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”[1]  Those “ashamed” from Monday’s post who come to church looking for compassion will only feel alienated unless they join in the performance.

If only public “righteousness” matters, the pressure of keeping up appearances can mean that internal sins – though just as important as external sins with “obvious” consequences – remain private and un-dealt with, keeping us from relying on Jesus to restore the joy of our salvation!  Compensating for guilt, and the pressure of managing expectations, become primary drivers of action rather than the guidance of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit is nowhere to be found.    When we know we are not really changed and are failing, we may try to hide it to keep up appearances.  We harbor guilt and bitterness and become unable to accept ourselves and love others.

Instead, testimony of our brokenness is an essential part of Christian witness.  In his letters to churches, the Apostle Paul repeatedly mentions his own past because it highlights the grace of God and power of Christ in redeeming him.  Likewise, those connected to Christ must confess their brokenness openly and ask His help.  Hiding our brokenness – keeping it private (sometimes even trying to keep it from Him) – obscures the power and necessity of the gospel from those who need to hear and understand it, and also keeps us from experiencing its power in our souls.  If we do not count as brokenness things where we do not see the consequence, we keep Jesus at a distance and the kingdom of heaven will not rule us.  Who does it hurt?  Well, us to begin, then also those around us who we love less as a result.

Humanity’s need is spiritual.  Our brokenness comes from the inside, not the outside.  From conscience, not consequence.  When humanity denies that brokenness is an internal, sometimes hidden, problem, it faces only the symptoms of the problem, and with the wrong prescriptions.  External forces cannot fix our internal inclinations and will tend toward the original sin of Adam and Eve, seeking the tree of wisdom in the garden that seems to offer an alternate way of governing ourselves.  Any laws, including some forms of religion, or systems of coercion will not fundamentally change us, but may provide an appearance of doing so, or worse, an incentive for a harsher system of coercion.  When coercion isn’t working, and spiritual solutions are denied, greater coercion often follows.  Unless we know we are broken, and how we are broken, we refuse the solution offered by the kingdom of heaven and remain lost looking for an alternative that does not exist[2].

We must not accept anything less than Christ’s righteousness.  But we must accept Christ’s righteousness at our very core.  Only the power of the gospel – the good news of the kingdom of God – can make straight what is crooked at its very root[3].

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” – Acts 4:12
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] Matthew 23:5-7
[2] I’m not advocating for anarchy or libertarianism or any particular form of government but pointing out that what a society thinks its government can, and should, do reflects that society’s view on what it expects government to solve.
[3] Ecclesiastes 1:15 and 7:13

Poor in Spirit #3: Give Up Your Lists

Today is part 3 of a Monday-Friday series on the first Beatitude from Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Monday covered how the statement could make both the “proud” and the “ashamed” humble and be blessed by God.  Tuesday was about the rich young man who was fully set on earning his own salvation to see that it was impossible, all while Christ was right before him, loving him.

Today begins with Luke 18:10-14 –
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Similar to Monday’s post, this passage is a rebuke to the proud, while comforting the ashamed, which is made clear at the end of the verses.  This passage also plays on stereotypes of the Pharisee as one who would have been perceived as religiously superior, versus the tax collector, who was under the ban, or that time period’s rabbinic version of excommunication[1].  At the end of the first sentence, the audience would have been expecting the Pharisee to pray well – after all, they were the “experts.”  But as an “expert” in the law, the Pharisee prays (and thinks) in terms of lists of good things and lists of bad things.  As a result, he is able to credit himself with all good things and the tax collector with all bad things.

The only way to manage this level of pride in spiritual accomplishment is to narrow down your list of “sins” to “things that other people do.”  He also excluded more subtle or internal manifestations of sin from his lists.  For example, at other times, Jesus said Pharisees “devour widow’s houses,”[2] which may have been a form of extortion.  Also, in his heart he may have been unjust and an adulterer just by making this prayer.  God’s justice on the tax collector was poured out on Jesus – who was this Pharisee to say who that justice applied to?  Also, in over-emphasizing the law, the Pharisee was “cheating” on God by idolizing the law as a way to salvation.

By narrowing the list of sins to “what others do,” and reducing those sins to the external evidence of them, rather than the heart level, this Pharisee blinded himself to his own need, and therefore missed the blessing.  The only way to feel rich in spirit before God is to lower the standard, or to humbly accept Christ’s righteousness in place of your own.

King David in Psalm 51, writing of his repentance after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed, declares in verses 16-17:

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
            you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
            a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

This broken spirit and contrite heart recall the first Beatitude’s promise of blessing and the ability to follow God’s will, which David prayed for back in verse 12 of Psalm 51:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
            and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

We can’t have a record of our sins and the sins of others if we want to receive God’s blessing.  Doing so is only likely to destroy our ability to love those who God loves and to whom He offers His grace, including ourselves.  We are poor in spirit, but we only realize it when focusing on Him, and we only are blessed when we decide His standard and opinion are the ones that matter.  If we are Christians, the standard is Christ and through our adoption as children of God, He sees Christ’s righteousness when He gives His opinion of us.

Humbly knowing this, we can go to our house justified, and in eternity be exalted by Him, the only one we should compare ourselves to and the only one whose judgement matters.  For now, it will enable us to love God and love others as we love ourselves.

To find love and joy, give up your lists and replace them with Christ.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] See an earlier post, Found! A Man in Need of an Ally, for an explanation of the ban as applied to tax collectors, and for Jesus’ striking decision to forgive Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.
[2] Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47