So, if you were going to cast someone in a movie to play Jesus, would you go for Gimli or Aragorn? John Rys-Davies or Viggo Mortensen? You’d have to go with Gimli, if you consider Isaiah’s prophecy.
Jesus’ looks notwithstanding, it is an amazing story, the appearance of God in human form. The account in the Gospel of Luke is one of the many examples in the biblical narrative that has a ring of truth and encourages us to believe it. Face it, if you were going to write a fictional account of the birth of the Savior of the world, who would his parents be? And where would he be born? You wouldn’t pick Joseph and Mary, a betrothed couple from Nazareth, he a carpenter and she a peasant girl. You wouldn’t decide to have animals as attendants, and a manger as the bassinet. You just wouldn’t. The one born to be King of kings and Lord of lords would have royal parents, or at least powerful and important ones, and he would be born in the finest house in the land, and be laid on a pillow made of silk, and have dozens of attendants to wait on him and make sure he needed nothing and wouldn’t even have reason to cry. A carpenter and his fiancée? A manger? No way. But friends, please don’t miss the point. Luke didn’t write it this way to make it sound true. He wrote it this way because it IS true.
I like the way Steven Curtis Chapman wrote about Jesus in his song, “This Baby:”
“Well, he cried when he was hungry, and did all the things that babies do; he rocked and he napped on his mother’s lap, and he wiggled and giggled and cooed. There were cheers when he took his first step, and tears when he got his first teeth; almost everything about this little baby seemed as natural as it could be. But this baby made the angels sing, and this baby made a new star shine in the sky, and this baby had come to change the world. This baby was God’s own son, this baby was like no other one, this baby was God with us, this baby was Jesus.”
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
That is the meaning of Christmas. God sent his son to redeem us and to adopt us. Have you figured up how much you will spend on Christmas gifts this year? There’s an amount, right? You add it up and it may come to the estimated national average per household this year of $830 for Christmas gifts, still climbing out of the hole of 2008 when it dropped to $616. No matter what we spend, we all have to set spending limits, right? I remember our first Christmas when Cindy and I each took a 10-dollar bill, split up at the mall, and went off to find that “perfect” gift for $10 or less for each other. That Christmas was just as happy, just as blessed as all the rest.
God did not have a spending limit for the first Christmas. He spared no expense in creating the star that would be in place above Bethlehem at just the right time. He went all out in having Caesar Augustus plan a census for the whole Roman world to go to the city of their heritage so they could be registered. God did not skimp on birth announcements, either. He sent Gabriel, his best messenger angel to earth more than once. But all of that pales in comparison to what God actually gave the world. God sent forth his Son. His one and only son. Forget Hallmark. God sent the very best.
Read the rest of Galatians 4 for the incredible news that you can use. You and I were born slaves. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we are invited into a new relationship as a child of God and a joint heir with Jesus. But there’s a problem, for many who become sons continue to live as slaves, even though they know God and better still, are known BY God. Two weeks ago I sat with my family in the second row at a concert by Steven Curtis Chapman. There were a lot of people there who know Steven, but not personally. We know his music, know his face and know his testimony. I have met him once because I have the same friend named Larry that Steven wrote about in one of his songs. As I sat there that night I thought, how cool would it be if Steven recognized me and said, “Hey, is that you, Mark?” But he didn’t. He didn’t acknowledge me because he doesn’t know me. Shocker. But here’s the biggest shocker of all: GOD does know me. And He knows you, too.
I love the story of the wee little man named Zaccheus who climbed up a tree because he had heard of Jesus and wanted to get a glimpse of him. Imagine his surprise when Jesus called up to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus knew him by name, and more than that, Jesus asked Zaccheus to be a family member and a friend.
That is the meaning of Christmas. It is why we celebrate, and put manger scenes in our homes and churches. It is why we sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” and give gifts and get together with family and friends. It is because God sent His Son to redeem us, to adopt us, and to give us the greatest gift of all: himself.
One of my favorite memories was the Christmas Eve we heard the front door open, and the distinct sound of something heavy being rolled across the threshold. Grandpa never used a wheelchair so we knew it wasn’t him coming for a midnight visit. And we had no idea why Santa would be bringing gifts through the front door, when we had a perfectly good fireplace in the den. So we just lay there in bed, whispering about what it could possibly be, and daring each other to sneak downstairs to steal a glance. Nobody wanted to risk being seen by Santa, or worse by Dad, so we eventually drifted off to sleep.
One of my favorite memories of Christmas Day was the next morning when three sleepy-eyed little Fox boys found a brand new yellow mini-bike parked under the tree. We lived on two acres and had a creek behind and beside us, and empty lots and woods all around, so we could not wait to jump on the bike and start blazing trails. But first, Dad needed to give us a lesson on how not to wreck a mini-bike. This is one of my favorite memories, too, as Dad straddled that kid-sized bike with his 6’3” frame, and proceeded to explain to us young boys how dangerous a mini-bike could be. He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth about how sensitive throttles are, when the bike shot off like a rocket and threw Dad into the air where gravity began to work immediately and brought him quite unceremoniously back to the earth. The bike and Dad were perfectly unharmed, but after a few minutes my sides were killing me. Even mom got a chuckle out of that one.
Christmas is a season of giving, and the yellow mini-bike has to go down in the Fox history book as one of the best gifts we ever received. We also got exactly one of them, so we boys had to learn how to share. I have no idea how we worked that out without BB guns or bloodshed. I just remember many happy hours riding that mini-bike, and I suppose my older and younger brothers do as well.
There may not be a mini-bike under your tree this Christmas, or even a reindeer on your roof. But that’s OK, because the best gift cannot be bought in a catalog or brought down a chimney. The best gift, the only one that matters, was laid in a feeding trough in Bethlehem many years ago. Here’s what the angel who brought the news to Joseph said about the gift:
“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The place was Jerusalem, and the time was around 446 BC. The Babylonians had destroyed the walls of the city years before, and Nehemiah was in town to organize and lead a rebuilding effort. Don’t tell Donald Trump’s people, but the work was completed in 52 days, so fast that even the opposition was not able to mobilize a viable counter-attack. The wall was built because nearly everybody worked.
Everybody, that is, except the “nobles,” who “would not stoop to serve their Lord.” Interesting. The word for nobles means “wide or large,” so that may have something to do with them not working. No, just kidding. The reason they would not work had nothing to do with their girth but with their arrogance. Their fat pocketbooks and their overweening pride somehow had them convinced that such work was beneath them. Sad. It was a building project that has been recorded for the ages, and these fat cats missed out on the joy of seeing it completed through the sweat of their brow.
Let me ask you something, then. What is the most important building project in the world today? It is not Westminster Cathedral, although the work on that 120-year-old masterpiece is ongoing. Neither is it the Super Power Building in Clearwater, which was referred to as the “Vatican” of Scientology when construction began in 1999, but is now considered an unfinished joke. No, the most important building project in the world is the building of the church. Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Not a physical structure, although we mostly meet in buildings or homes all over the world, the church is a gathering of those who follow Jesus Christ and have been born again by grace and through faith. The church is a body, and Christ is fitting us together. Like a human body, the church is made up of individual members, who must be connected to one another and submitted to the head, Christ, in order to function. The foot can’t say to the eye, for example, “I have no need of you.” In fact, how would you like to wake up tomorrow and discover that your left foot has left you and left you a note that says, “I left.”
Look at the person across the breakfast table for a moment. Notice that her head is connected to her body. That’s essential. And her body parts, her arms, legs, fingers and toes, are all connected to each other. That is important. Not only for her body, but also for the body of Christ.
It is as important in the building of the church as it was in the building of a wall around an ancient city. The people have to labor and love together, through good times and bad, for the greater glory of God’s work on the earth.
Thanksgiving is not a national holiday, but a way of life for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Sometimes when people ask me how they can know God’s will for their life, I tell them it’s already spelled out in Scripture: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Now there’s a recipe for godly living, an antidote to bitterness, a silver bullet for the monster of selfishness.
With that in mind, here are a few things for which I am particularly thankful this year. First, I thank God for a marriage that has never ‘plateaued.’ It just keeps getting better, despite the struggles and the disappointments that are common to every couple. I like what one man said to his wife: “Honey, if you ever leave me, I’m going with you.” Same here, Cindy.
Second, I am thankful for children and grandchildren who love each other and even like their parents. That seems to be rare these days. Someone said children are often closer to their grandparents, because they both have a common enemy.
Third, I am thankful to be in a church that has welcomed me as a member for 28 years. In these days where the nones are growing in number and the dones are staying home Sundays, I am grateful for gatherings of God’s people in many local churches where He is worshiped, His Word is carefully taught, and where fellowship is truly experienced. If you are in one of those places every Sunday, give thanks to God and let the church know how you feel as well. If you are not, don’t stop looking until you find one that you can feel good about joining and serving. Because, despite popular opinion, the church is the sum and substance of God’s plan for the world, and though governments and kingdoms will fall, the church will stand. It will survive persecution, attacks on religious liberty, apathy, ignorance, nones, and dones.
Fourth, I am thankful for brothers. Every Tuesday morning, you can find me meeting with three other men at a local restaurant for encouragement and prayer. We know the dangers of lone ranger Christianity, and we value the challenge we receive from one another every week to keep our hearts where they should be. On Sunday mornings, you will find me meeting before church with the leaders, where we are in the habit of praying together and talking about how to lead, feed, and care for the flock.
Fifth, I am thankful for a routine every week that includes exercise. Running may not be your thing, but do you really have to put a 0.0 sticker on your car? Or say things to runners like, “The only reason I run is when something is chasing me.” Well, the truth is, something is chasing you, friend. Several things are chasing you, including obesity, disease, and death. I don’t know about you, but I want to outpace those bad boys as long as I am able. Hey, you don’t have to run, but what are you doing to take care of the one and only body you will receive this side of glory?
Finally, I am thankful to be a Tar Heel, especially this year. I have always loved pulling for my alma mater, but to have a great year in football and basketball is causing me to have way too much fun.
That’s my list of a few things for which I give thanks. What’s on yours?
Nehemiah had worked out a single fixed goal and a plan to make it happen. His goal was to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem. I read a story recently about Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees in the 1940s and ’50s, and Hank Aaron, who at that time was the famous power hitter for the Milwaukee Braves. The two teams were playing each other in the World Series, and as was his habit, Yogi kept up his banter with the batters when they came up, in an attempt to distract them. Hank Aaron came up to bat, and Yogi said, “Hey, you’re holding the bat wrong. You’re supposed to hold it so you can read the trademark.” Hank Aaron didn’t say anything; he just hit the first pitch into the left field bleachers. After rounding the bases for the home run and stepping on the plate, Aaron looked at Yogi Berra and said, “I didn’t come up here to read.” He knew his goal, and he didn’t let Yogi Berra distract him. Nehemiah also had a single, fixed, attainable goal, and he had worked out a plan to make it happen.
Careful planning and faithful prayer won the day. Nehemiah knew he needed official papers from the king to pass through the region beyond the Euphrates. He also knew he needed lumber with which to rebuild the wall. The king granted his request for both. Too often we Christians try to spiritualize everything to the point where we say, “I believe God told me to do so-’n-so.” Then someone says, “What do you need to do to make that happen?” And our response sounds like this: “Oh, I don’t know. I guess God will make a way where there’s no way.” It is true that God does that, sometimes, but God most often works through means of grace that He has given us. Like prayer. Planning. And good old fashioned, hard work. Let’s remember that dependence on God does not eliminate our need for all of these means of grace.
Prayer and planning are powerful partners.
I was born too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam. Though the prediction in the early 70s was that children not yet born would fight in Vietnam, thankfully, that was not to be. When I became eligible for the draft in 1975, there was no need for my services. At the time, I could not have been happier that I was headed to Chapel Hill and not Da Nang. But as I got older, I often regretted not serving my country in the military. I have always been, and will forever be grateful for those who have done so.
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Tim Lee speak at Liberty University. In 1971, Lee stepped on a 60-pound box mine in Vietnam and lost both of his legs. “One last step, and then it happened — my boot landed squarely on what felt like a miniature volcano. A deafening blast rammed through my body. As Earl Lewis, the fifth man in formation later testified, I disappeared in the sudden eruption. As a cloud of black smoke shot into the sky, hot fire surged through what remained of my legs … Corporal Lee Gore knelt down and picked me up in his arms and braced my back on his knees. He began to pray out loud. I was shaking terribly and literally covered in my own blood.”
It was a miracle that Lee survived, and there were times during his recovery from 13 major operations that he did not want to live. Since then, Lee has spoken around the world from his wheelchair about his service, his suffering, and his Savior. One of the first things he said to the thousands gathered in the Vine Center on Liberty’s campus was, “Some of you may be offended by what I say to you this morning as I speak honestly about Jesus Christ. But that’s OK. I didn’t travel ten thousand miles to another country and lose my legs just to come back here and be politically correct.”
As we honor veterans this week, I am thankful for men like Tim Lee. There are many more like him, men and women who have served their country in the armed forces. One of those was my uncle.
This summer I attended the funeral of William Conrad Fox, who died at the ripe old age of 90. The last time I had seen him, Conrad was living in a healthcare facility in Greensboro. He was in his wheelchair and all dressed up that morning, wearing slacks and a buttoned-up long sleeve shirt, ready to go play bingo down the hall. I asked him if he always dressed up like that and he laughed and said that’s the only way he knows how to dress. I didn’t want to keep him from his bingo game, but Uncle Conrad waved his hand and said there was always another game tomorrow. He told me about joining the Army and serving in the 75th Infantry Division during World War II. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, where the temperatures reached a bone-chilling 20-below zero on the battlefield, and the snow was two feet deep. He joked that the men in his battalion said they wouldn’t have to go to hell, since they had already been there. When he returned home, Conrad couldn’t feel his feet for six months.
The Bible says we are to give “respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” Tim, Conrad, and the millions of others who have fought for our freedom, we honor you.
When the story opened, Nehemiah was 1,000 miles from Jerusalem, and he was serving a foreign king in what is now Iran. He got word that the people who were left behind during the conquest were living in the rubble of a city whose walls were broken down. This is where we really start to get to know the man, Nehemiah, and what he was made of. When Nehemiah heard about the suffering of his people, he sat down and wept and prayed, so moved was his heart for the suffering of the people of God.
When I read this in preparation to start a new series in the book of Nehemiah, I was reminded of our men’s retreat a few weeks ago. We were gathered on Saturday morning, praying corporately through Psalm 34, when we got to verse 17: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Scott began to pray for our brothers and sisters all over the world who are being persecuted for their faith, in a manner that I think mirrored Nehemiah’s passion for his brothers and sisters many miles away. The room was silent as 40 men and young men entered into his prayers and his tears. Scott cried out to God for the men and children who are being tortured and beheaded because they will not bow the knee to Islam and will not renounce faith in Jesus Christ. He prayed and cried for the women and girls who are being subjugated and treated as sexual slaves for the same reason. There was no pretense to his prayer, no attempt to “sound good” or to teach something. Scott was simply broken over the suffering of others. It was a powerful, holy moment for all of us.
Back in Persia, then, we find Nehemiah weeping and praying. You could argue that he was the most trusted man in the kingdom, as he was willing daily to lay down his life for the king. He could have rushed to the king with the news and immediately asked for a plan of action to be put in place. But instead, the very first thing he did was to go over the king’s head to the highest authority of all.
Don’t get me wrong, dear reader. Nehemiah was a man of decisive action, as you will see if you read the book. But we betray our misunderstanding about prayer when we say things like, “Let’s pray and then we will get started.” As if prayer is an optional extra, as if it doesn’t really matter, as if we are not “doing” anything when we pray. A.J. Gordon said that you can always do more than pray after you have prayed, but you can never do more than pray until you have prayed. And EM Bounds said, “What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations, or more novel methods; but men (and women) whom the Holy Spirit can use — men of prayer, men mighty in prayer.”
Start with prayer. Do first things first.
John Piper said, “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”
I read that quote recently and it convicted me down to my toes. And, to my knees. The typical experience of Christians is that they read their Bibles weekly and pray weakly. Or rarely. Or not at all.
Hudson Taylor said, “We must never forget three important statements: There is a God. He has spoken to us in the Bible. He means what He says.” And even a cursory glance at the Bible will make it clear that he invites us to talk with him. We pray because we were made by God and called to God and are here for God until we can go to be with God. We pray for the same reason we breathe: because He is our life. The Bible is filled with people who prayed and also with people who chose to consult mediums or their friends or the darkness of their own counsel. It could be argued that Jesus’ life, was one prayer meeting after another, and in between He healed diseases, cast out demons, raised the dead, and taught. That’s why His disciples never asked Him how to heal diseases or cast out demons or raise the dead or even to teach: they asked Him how to pray. They knew the source of his ministry was his intimacy with his Father.
We pray because we are in a battle. Every moment of every day. John Piper said, “Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. It is not surprising that prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den. … Until you know that life is war, you cannot know what prayer is for: Prayer is for the accomplishment of a wartime mission.”
I would recommend an excellent book that will take you an hour or less to read, and quite possibly may revolutionize how you pray. “Praying the Bible” by Donald Whitney makes a strong argument that the reason most believers don’t pray is because they are bored with it. They pray “the same old things about the same old things.” He tells the story of a little girl who was taught to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep” every night before going to bed. One night she thought, “Why does God need to hear me say this again?” So she recorded herself reciting the prayer and then just played it back each night before going to sleep. We can smile at that, but let’s admit it: we have prerecorded prayers in our heads that we pray every day. Jesus warned against this, saying, “do not heap up empty phrases” in prayer, thinking we will be heard for our many words.
Whitney teaches a simple and profound solution: praying the Bible. I cannot adequately explain it in a column, but the gist of it is this. Pray Scriptures, particularly the Psalms. Pick one of the five Psalms that corresponds to the date (as I write this, on Oct. 26, the five Psalms are 26, 56, 86, 116, 146). Then read a verse or two, and pray whatever comes to mind in response. If nothing comes to mind, skip it and go to the next verse.
You will find that your prayer life, and your relationship with the Lord, will be refreshed.
I met Jerry and Frances in 2006 when I got a hand written letter in the mail. Frances read my column every week and asked me to come by and talk to her husband about the Lord. Jerry had questions about salvation. That day I had the privilege that every Christ-follower dreams of, to lead a man to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Have you ever reached out to take a fully ripened apple from a tree and have it fall into your hands at the slightest touch? That’s what it was like that day with Jerry. He was ready. All I had to do was explain to him what the Bible means when it says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Jerry’s life changed for eternity in a moment. It was a moment in my ministry that I will always cherish, right along with baptizing Jerry a few months later in a cattle trough at Antioch Community Church. He shot out of the water with arms raised and a huge grin.
Frances was always the quieter of the two when I visited. Jerry and I would be engrossed in a wild story about some deal he was involved in, and Frances would just sit in her easy chair and laugh. For the last several years since Jerry died, it has been the same. Except it has been her son Jay telling me some crazy story about the history of Elon or the South or the Jesse James clan, and Frances just enjoying it all and laughing. But what I remember most about Frances are her questions. She thought about things deeply.
Often when I walked into the living room the first thing I saw was Frances reading the newspaper, or sleeping with it in her hands. She knew what was going on in the community and in the world, and she asked me great questions about current events, about the Bible, and about faith.
Just a few days before Frances died, I visited her at Hospice and it was like old times. She was happy and at peace. I kidded her about how much she had enjoyed a piece of cake she had just eaten, and the hamburger she sent Jay to find for her at 2am the night before. We visited for a while, and as I left I told Frances I loved her and that I would see her later. But when I came back on Friday, her last day in her temporary home, she was fast asleep. Her son Jeff was there, and as we talked, he mentioned Psalm 23 as his favorite Psalm, and Jay did the same just a few days later. It fit their mom’s life so well, as it begins with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Frances knew her shepherd and knew that she could trust Him, even in her last days. The Lord had always led her beside still waters and in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. As she walked into the valley of the shadow of death those last few weeks, she did so with a childlike innocence that God gave her through her faith.
I still miss Jerry. And now I miss Frances, too. But I am so thankful that one day we will be together and our fellowship will never come to an end. Because of Jesus, the Shepherd.