Here is something really special: the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, with a live performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. A good way to spend four minutes.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise. …
Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
—Psalm 66:1-2, 5
Christmas is all about joy. The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid, because he brought “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Even for non-believers, Christmas is a happy time. People give each other gifts. They spend time just thinking about their loved ones, and what sort of gift would be appropriate. They sing songs they love and eat food that’s probably not what the doctor would recommend.
For believers, Christmas is even more joyous. It’s a celebration of the fact that God loves us. God, who knows better than anyone just how unloveable we can be, loves us anyway–and Christmas is the proof. We know that God loves us, because instead of cutting us loose and walking away, he sent Jesus to save us.
That is the fact that makes all the difference. We still have problems, and sometimes our problems can seem almost overwhelming. But God loves us, and that knowledge enables us to face every other challenge with confidence. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)
The fact of Christmas is definitive proof that, no matter who (or what) is against us, God is and always will be “for us.”
It’s easy to forget that. That’s why people began celebrating Christmas. (There’s nothing in the Bible that tells us to do so.) But people wanted to remind themselves every year about this “good news for all the people.”
Do you know someone who might have forgotten that? Someone whose circumstances are so tough that they might think God isn’t for them? Perhaps someone who hasn’t attended church in so long that they’ve forgotten it? Or maybe you know someone who could just use an opportunity to enjoy themselves, hearing the familiar story and singing Christmas carols.
This Christmas, we’re going to have worship services where we can celebrate this “good news of great joy for all the people.” All the people–that means those of us who attend church all the time, and people who don’t.
I’ll be preaching a series called “Ornaments.” It will take a fresh look at all the familiar parts of the Christmas story. My prayer is that it will be like that moment when you take down the box of Christmas decorations, and smile as you see the one that brings back a special memory.
We’re going to sing all the favorite Christmas carols. If you’ve ever shopped at a department store or a grocery store in November, you’ll know the songs we’ll be singing this December.
This year, even the calendar is cooperating with us. Christmas falls on a Sunday, so if you aren’t able to join us for our Christmas Eve service, join us on Christmas morning instead!
And do bring a friend. The Psalmist invites us to “come and see what God has done.” This is the right time to do it: studies tell us that people are never more willing to accept an invitation to church than at Christmastime. So let’s invite them to join our celebration!
I read something today that made me stop and puzzle over it:
Evildoers do not understand what is right,
but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.
I’d seen that verse many times before, but I never really saw it.
Getting several bites at the apple is one of the advantages of my reading plan, which includes a chapter of Proverbs as a morning devotional. This advantage comes from its other advantage, which is that you can easily keep track of where you’re at. Since the book of Proverbs has 31 chapters, you can read a chapter a day, and when the next month begins, you just start over again, instead of trying to keep track what chapter you’re reading.
Anyway, I started to think about this line: “Evildoers do not understand what is right.”
What does that even mean?
Is the problem that they can’t understand what’s right, or just that they don’t?
Is that why some people do evil: because they can’t understand what is right? That evildoers are morally warped so they can’t distinguish right and wrong? (I think of the assassin played by Tom Cruise in the movie Collateral, and Jamie Foxx’s question, “Are you one of those institutionalized-raised guys? Anybody home? The standard parts that are supposed to be there in people, aren’t.”)
Or does it mean that if they did understand what is right, they wouldn’t do evil? In other words, the evil they do is proof that they lack understanding about what is right.
What is it they fail to understand? Is it the bare facts of right and wrong (“don’t be mean”), or is it the way they work over time? (“Don’t be mean because people won’t like you, they’ll be mean back, and what goes around comes around.”) The long-term consequences are certain, but people who cannot perceive them do evil for lack of understanding.
How does it relate to the rest of the verse: is seeking the Lord the means of attaining understanding? Or are people who understand the right attracted to God, as the perfect example and source?
Whenever I start to puzzle over a verse like this, one of the first things I do is compare translations. (Which is easier than ever before, because of the Internet. I talk more about how to do that here.)
A quick comparison showed that where my translation (the TNIV) says “what is right,” others say “justice.” I sort of like “what is right” better, because it seems to me that English-speakers tend to reduce justice to criminal justice. It’s interesting that while the 1984 NIV used “justice,” the 2011 NIV, like my TNIV, says “what is right.”
It turns out that this word is flexible enough to cover both criminal justice (“what is legal”) and ethics (“what is right”). Or, more accurately, I should say that the ancients didn’t distinguish “wrong” and “illegal” the way we do today.
Ultimately, though, my exploration of the word (“justice” or “what is right”) never did answer my questions. Is evil a cause or an effect? Is the problem a failure to understand, or a failure to try? Is the second half of the verse a promise or an observed fact? It beats me.
But just because I didn’t find an easy answer doesn’t mean my effort was wasted. See, it got me engaged enough to start really thinking what the writer meant. And eventually, I realized I was looking at the wrong end of the verse.
Look at the contrast in the first and second half of the verse. The parallel doesn’t make sense; it’s not symmetric. If I was writing that proverb, I’d contrast evildoers with people who do good. “Wicked people don’t, but virtuous people do.” But instead, the proverb contrasts evildoers with people who seek the Lord.
And that’s the key to understanding the verse. It’s not a contrast between good people people who do good versus bad people who do evil. Which is a good thing, because it’s really hard not to do evil. (If you doubt me, read what Jesus says about it in Matthew 5.)
Let me illustrate it this way. Not doing evil is like not speeding in your car. If the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., how fast should you drive? If you drive 65, everybody will pass you, and besides, I heard they overengineer the roads so they’re safe at higher speeds. Also they won’t write a ticket unless you’re 8 miles/hour over the limit. We can all agree that you shouldn’t speed, fine, but how fast should I drive? Not dong evil is the same way. But what if the cop needs to meet their quota? Maybe you better drive 55 m.p.h. so you have some leeway. Or at least 60.
This verse isn’t about not-doing evil. It’s about seeking the Lord.
It changes the question from “how bad can I be without adverse consequence” to “how near can I get to God?” It invites finding out how much is me moving toward God, and how much is God moving toward me?
If a curious stranger asked one of us what it was that Christians believed, some of us would stumble our way through the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”). Others might think of John 3:16 (“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”). Those are great answers: the Creed lists the major points of belief Christians have affirmed down through the centuries. John 3:16 isn’t as detailed, but it captures the essence of our faith better than perhaps any other Scripture.
But suppose that instead of asking about Christianity, the stranger asked you about church. How would you answer that? John 3:16’s no help: it doesn’t even mention the church. The Apostles’ Creed affirms a belief in the “holy catholic church” it doesn’t explain what that is, or the role it plays in a believer’s life.
In the gospels, Jesus himself barely mentions the church, although the two places he does are pretty important. In Matthew 16:18 he says that not even the gates of Hell will prevail against the church. In Matthew 18:17 he explains how to handle conflict in the church. (According to his command, it’s the only way to deal with conflict, so you might want to check if you’ve been doing it right.)
Jesus says a lot more to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, but the best place to get an understanding of the church is from the early church itself: from its history in Acts, and from the Epistles that Paul and other leaders wrote to the those early churches.
That’s still a lot of reading, though. Suppose your stranger was impatient, and you didn’t have a copy of the New Testament handy. What could you tell them?
When I think what Scripture might serve the same “quick explanation” function for the Church that John 3:16 does for Christianity, what comes to mind for me is this:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.—Acts 2:44-47
That’s a wonderful picture of the church. Theologians sometimes call it “the provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, it’s not exactly what things will be like in the Resurrection, but it’s as close as anybody will get until then.
Now, we may raise our eyebrows at “having things in common” and “selling possessions” and “distributing to all.” I think most of us tend to read it as “you have to give up your stuff.” But that’s not what it says. It says when there was a need, people were quick to help each other. Don’t confuse the church with redistributionist political schemes.
Have you ever had a “refrigerator friend?” That’s the name Craig Groeschel gives to the kind of friend who can get things out of your refrigerator without asking. You don’t want friends asking, “Is it okay with you if I get some cream to put in my coffee?” If they’re still asking permission, they aren’t refrigerator friends, just acquaintances.
The picture in Acts is a community of refrigerator friends. They worship together (“they spent much time together in the temple”) but they did other things together too (“they broke bread at home”).
Of course, not every church does things as well as they did in Acts 2. In fact, even the early church wasn’t always that kind of church: just a couple of chapters later, we find out the church had to deal with greedy people and squabbling. But the picture in Acts 2 is the ideal. It’s what God wants the church to be like.
How do we compare to that ideal? Has the church helped you find some “refrigerator friends?” What could we do to help people build those kind of relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I was recently at a conference where I was startled to notice this sign on the doors to the worship center: