Not Your Typical Manger Scene

When December arrives trees go up, decorations are strung, and gifts are purchased to celebrate the Christmas season. We go to party after party, eating cookie after cookie, to celebrate with our co-workers and friends. The busyness of Christmas hums along and it often isn’t until this week, the week of Christmas that things begin to slow down a bit. As kids get out of school, the Christmas parties complete, and the shopping list checked-off, now we can truly reflect on what makes Christmas so absolutely astonishing—the incarnation of God. christmas-jesus-pictures-hhmj99kf

The Mystery of the Incarnation

When we look to the Gospel we are astonished by its beauty and mystery. Yet, perhaps the most mysterious things is what actually happens on that first Christmas. God became a man. The Great I Am permanently wedded himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. The son entered into his creation and was born in the most humblest yet extraordinary of circumstances.

Consider how demeaning it was for the eternal God to become a man. God has existed as trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit for all of eternity. But yet, in order to save us, God became one of us. Immanuel is his name. God decided to step into his creation. He stooped down from the glory heaven and entered into the earth as a man. At Jesus’ incarnation, the transcendent God becomes the immanent God. He becomes one of us.

Yet, the transcendent, majestic God of the universe stepped from the splendor of heaven and put on flesh and dwelt among us. Perhaps the greatest mystery in the whole Bible is the incarnation of Christ! Who could of imagined that God would do such a thing? To put on humanity would seem to be beneath him, but yet the God of love came to serve us by becoming one of us.

It Was Not a Silent Night

We tend to romanticize that first Christmas. Our manager scenes in our homes are quaint and clean. The reality of that night was different than the picture in our heads. Jesus came in a filthy stable, littered with the stench of animal excrement, and the rumbling noise of a barn. The arrival of Jesus wasn’t spectacular, but of lowliest proportions. That’s exactly what made it so extraordinary, God arrived into his creation not on a throne made of gold but a manager made of wood. The Christ-child came in the most unsanitary of conditions. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”[1. Isaiah 53:2, ESV]

On Andrew Peterson’s incredible Christmas Album Behold the Lamb of God there is a beautiful track called Labor of Love the opening verse goes like this:

It was not a silent night

There was blood on the ground

You could hear a woman cry

In the alleyways that night

On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean

And the cobblestones were cold

And little Mary full of grace

With the tears upon her face

Had no mother’s hand to hold

But yet, this was the way Jesus came to save. He came not as an entitled king, but the humblest of servants. Jesus did not come for the elite, he came for the nobodies, the rejects, and the failures. God, filled with empathy for his creation, identifies with us and becomes one of us. Immanuel is his name.

Remember, that Christ humbled himself in this way and took a form of a servant, for you and for me. By far the greatest gift we’ve ever received was the gift of God that first Christmas morning. It was the gift of himself. Do you know him? Have you experienced his love? Have you accepted him or have you rejected him? He suffered for you. He was lowly for you. He serves you. Glory in such truths as we worship the Christ child this Christmas.

4 Ways to Shatter the Super Pastor Illusion

People put pastors on a pedestal, and rightly so.  Pastors are called to be examples to their flock.  They are to lead by modeling spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness. Pastors are men who are to be above reproach. Many people look to pastors as super Christians.  Although they might struggle with sin or find it difficult to spend time in prayer, the pastor doesn’t, at least thats what people think. Many people envision that pastors have a special connection with God or even a direct line to him that normal Christians just do not have.  All of this is just hogwash. Pastors are just like every other Christians, sinners saved by grace.  Although a pastor is called to lead by example, the idea of a “super pastor” is a lie.  We struggle with personal sin. We find it difficult to love our wives and families well.  We sometimes struggle to find our joy in God. There are even times in which preaching on Sunday morning is the last thing we want to do.  If you are a pastor reading this, you know this to be true.  Yet, pastors self-inflict themselves with a demand to maintain the image of “Super Pastor”.  We think we must always have the right answers even though we do not know, and we must always seem joyful even though we are in a season of melancholy, and we must always seem righteous even though we struggle with hidden sin. Not only is this the hight of hypocrisy, the pressure to carry the weight of this projected image will one day cause our collapse.

Pastor, the best thing we can do for ourselves and for our people is to shatter the illusion of “super pastor”.  We must invite people into our brokenness and remind them that we too desperately need Jesus each and every day. They need to see that you too are a real person, who sometimes struggle to follow Jesus.  They need to know that Jesus is the only savior, not you.  Here are a few ways you can help shatter the illusion of super pastor not only for yourself, but for your church.

1. Don’t Make Yourself the Hero

Its easy to be the hero in all your own sermons and to spin illustration after illustration of your own illustrious spiritual life.  Don’t do that. You are not the hero, Jesus is.  In your sermons constantly be pointing to Jesus and pastors need him too.  Share stories (where appropriate) of your own failures and struggle to obey the text your preaching from that Sunday.  Talk about your failures as a Christ follower, a husband, or a dad.  Although we want to make sure we are being appropriate and we do not want to be self-effacing to create some guise of profound humlity, we do want to be reall with our people. We want to invite them into our lives and even be vulnerable both publicly and privately.  Again, caution and discernment are important here, but we must not seek to create an image of infallibility.  We are not the hero, Jesus is.

2. Ask Others for Forgiveness

Pastor’s mess up a lot.  We make mistakes. We speak in the flesh.  We hurt other staff members in our actions. When we do sin, we must be quick to confess it and ask for forgiveness.  Own up to your error and ask your brother or sister to forgive you. Every time your confess sin and ask forgiveness you begin to shatter that illusion of super pastor, and people begin to see you too as a sinner in need of grace.  However humility in this way will not hinder your leadership, but help it.  No one wants to follow a man who thinks he’s always right and refuses to admit he’s wrong.  By displaying humility and confession not only do we shatter the illusion of our own perfection, we actually lead our people more faithfully.

3. Ask for Help

You cannot do it all.  I’ve tried, trust me. Pastors must be quick to ask for help for the demands of ministry whether from another pastor, deacon, or another church member.  When you ask others for help it encourages others to join together in the cause of ministry and helps raise future leaders.  When we ask other people in our church for help, it shows that we are not super pastors and we need the body of Christ just like every other Christian.

4. Ask for Prayer

Ask others for prayer when needed.  Again, this must be done when appropriate, but do not think so highly of yourself that you cannot ask others for prayer.  We need other people to be interceding to the father on our behalf, because we need the body of Christ!

These are just four simple ways that pastors can begin to shatter the illusion that we have it all together.  We don’t.  Pastors need the gospel just like every human being needs the gospel.  We are broken sinners whose only hope is Jesus. Pastor, make sure your people know that you are not the epitome of a Christ follower.  Any maturity in your life is by the grace of God, and continually point to Jesus as the hero, and not yourself.  The only super pastor who ever existed was Jesus Christ.  He is the one your people need.  Point them to the true super pastor.

Have you ever felt the pressure of maintaining a perfect pastor image? How are some ways we can shatter this facade?

Why It's a Good Thing For God to Shatter Our Self-Delusion

It is through the true knowledge of God that we see ourselves. We as human beings are prone to self-deception.  We see what we want to see and how we want to see it.  We may perceive that we are righteous, good people and project that idea every where we go.  Yet, perception is not reality.  Humanity is spiritually blind, unable to see who and what we truly are.  Not only are we sinful creatures, we are completely oblivious to it.
When it comes to theology, it is not merely a task in which we seek to understand God, but also to see ourselves.  For it is only in the light of his glory that we grasp a true vision of ourselves. Think to the prophet Isaiah. When he received a vision of the holy God on his throne, what was his response? An overwhelming sense of the weight of his own inadequacy before the God of the universe. His sin became like a millstone around his neck that forced him to his knees.  Was Isaiah more sinful when he arrived in God’s presence than any other point in his life? No, he was just simply made more aware of it.

The Problem of Comparison: Basket Ball and 1st Graders

When we compare ourselves to other people we can seem righteous or even blameless.  We can point to others and say, “I’m better than that guy, at least I didn’t ________”. We compare ourselves to other men to attempt to rationalize the delusion of our own righteousness.  Yet, when we compare ourselves rightly to an infinitely holy, tracendent, and pure God, we don’t quite measure up.  Let me give you an example.  I love getting to play basketball against children.  Why? Because I rock at basketball when I play against kids.  I’m taller than them. I’m stronger than them. I’m faster than them.  I dominate them. Now if I walk away from playing basketball with a bunch of children and say to myself “You know what, I’m pretty great at basket ball, I think I’ve got a chance to make it in the NBA I’d be a legend”.  You and I both know that this is foolishness.  How should I really test my basketball skills? Well I need to play one of the greats – a Michael Jordan, a Kobe Bryant, or a Lebron James.  The true measure of my greatness in basketball can only be seen in light of the greatest players of all time.  Although I may be able to dominate some 1st graders in a game of basketball, Lebron James would dominate me like I was a 1st grader.
So too it is when it comes to our spiritual lives.  When we compare ourselves to other men, we may seem impressive in our righteousness, but when we stand before a holy God we are overwhelmed in by our inadequacy.  We must see ourselves in light of who God is. This is the only way we can grasp a true knowledge of ourselves.  So theology not only helps us know who God is, but helps us to know ourselves.  The only way we can accurately see ourselves is by knowing God.
In the words of John Calvin,  “The inference to be drawn is that men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.” (Institutes I.i.3)  We will never see ourselves as we ought until we see ourselves in light of God’s glory.  It is then and only then that we recognize our poor and lowly state.  It is only in the radiant splendor of God’s glory that we realize how destitute and impoverished and desperate we really are.  Why would we want to think this way about ourselves? Isn’t it better to go on with the delusion of self-righteousness rather than to be exposed for who we really are? No not at all, we do not want to be so foolish as to ignore reality itself.  Do we not have pity on those who are blinded by their own delusion? 

Singers Who Cannot Sing

Think about the show American Idol.  Do we not all fill sorrow for these poor people who think they can sing like Aretha Franklin only to sound like a dying cat? Isn’t the most loving, and helpful thing for that person is to shatter the delusion they have been believing, that they can sing? We need to see ourselves as we truly are.  We cannot live in a fantasy world of our own making, because if we are not shattered from our self-delusion than far worst consequences will result than just simply being mocked on national television, we will experience the fire of hell for all eternity.  
Yet, for those who grasp truly their spiritual poverty there is hope. It is only by getting an accurate picture of ourselves that we see we have any need for the Gospel. As we grasp a vision of God, we see our own sinfulness and we see our great need.  This is why Jesus announced in those beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). For it is only by seeing our spiritual poverty that we are ready to be filled with a gifted righteousness purchased by Jesus Christ. To see ourselves as we truly are is the only way to be saved from ourselves. When the delusion is shattered and we realize the emperor has no clothes, then alone will we reach out to the hand of the savior and take the freely offered garment he offers us.  

Do You Want to Be Great?

Everyone longs for greatness. We want to be the best. We want to out perform the competition. We want to make a difference and leave an impact. This universal desire that we all have for greatness seems to be hard wired within us. I think this ambition for greatness is a good thing given to us by God. Yet our sin corrupts and twists this God given desire and turns it into a zealous lust for power. As a result many seek power, position, and prestige in order to dominate other people. In some ways we play this twisted game of survival of the fittest in order to devalue one another. The rat race for power is filled with the cut-your-throat-to-get-ahead mentality. We acquire riches and accolades in order to exalt ourselves above all others. We do this all in the name of deciding that age old question, "Who is the greatest?"

Who is the Greatest?

The disciples of Jesus tended to fight over that exact same question. In fact it seems to be a recurring issue Jesus had to address in his ministry. So many of them in their journey of following Jesus were seeking prestige and power in the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Luke, this dispute arises again during the last supper. In the disciples last meal with Jesus before his death, they continued to bicker over who is the greatest. We read in Luke 22:24-27:

“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24–27, ESV)

As this dispute came up in one of Jesus' most intimate and important lessons, the Lord's Supper, he tries to help his disciples understand what greatness looks like in the kingdom of God. Greatness in the kingdom is fundamentally different from the greatness in the world. Greatness in the world is determined by authority, age, power, money, or accomplishments. Jesus flips the worlds understanding of greatness up side down. Greatness is not determined by power but service.

The answer to the question of "Who is the greatest" is he who serves. Service is the mark of true greatness.

Servant Leaders

If you seek to be great in God's Kingdom then begin to serve. If you have ambition to make an impact for King Jesus then you must sacrifice for the sake of others. Greatness is not determined by position but through serving the least of these. Jesus is instructing his leadership team, the disciples, that as they will lead the church they must not lead as dominate, elite rulers. Rather, the disciples are to identify with the low as they serve all people. Jesus is training them to be servant leaders.

Lead Like Jesus

Jesus tells his disciples that they are to follow his example. Jesus is by default the greatest in the Kingdom of God. He is God. Yet although Jesus is the greatest he leads his people through service. Jesus' words to follow his example could not ring more powerfully when we understand them in the context. Jesus speaks these words to his disciples at the last supper. He had just finished describing how his body would break and his blood would pour out. Jesus is going to establish and lead his church by giving up his life on the cross, so that by his death we might receive forgiveness from our sins and be cleansed from all unrighteousness. The greatest man became the greatest servant. If God himself would stoop to such low levels to serve you and me, we too should live lives of service for one another.

Do You Want to Be Great?

Do you want to be great? Do you want to make an impact in our world? Than follow Jesus' example and serve. Your greatness in the kingdom of God is not determined by the prestige of your profession, the size of your church, or a position you may hold, but it is determined by your dedication and service to one another.

Do You Want to be Great? Be a servant.

The Antidote to the Me-Centered Church

This Blog Post is an excerpt from my sermon on Philippians 2:1-11, "The Gospel, Humility, and Unity". You can listen to the sermon audio here. Humility is a bizarre concept for modern people. It is a difficult idea to wrap our minds around. Modern people have been indoctrinated with enlightenment idea of progress striving to be better than one another, but most significantly is the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. Many people see rising to power and promoting self as the chief purpose of life. To be great is to be powerful, respected, feared, and wealthy. So for many of us greatness and humility are two traits that do not go together. Indeed humility is against our very nature. We are prideful beings constantly seeking our own fame. We often beg for compliments and perk up when someone gives us a word of praise. We like to be in the spotlight and we like to be the center of attention. We like for people to serve us, so we created a whole service industry of waiters, customer service representatives, and hospitality to pamper us and to meet our every want. Our sinful instincts are not naturally drawn to humble service but prideful entitlement!

Yet for the Christian, one born of God is to be characterized by radical humility. Christians are to be made servants, not consumers. The Christian lays down his own wants and desires for the sake of others. Since he has been given everything in Christ it is his joy to give himself to others. The Christian is to do nothing from selfish ambition. He is to do nothing to advance his own reputation. He is not to seek his own glory or fame. The Christian is to abstain from conceit. He should not think of himself more highly than he ought. He is to realize that he is not the center of the universe. Rather than thinking much about himself he is to think much about others. What about you? Do you think of yourself more highly than you ought? Do you desire your own fame and glory? This is not the way of the Christian.

Rather than self-exaltation Paul encourages the church toward other-exaltation. We must see the significance of our brothers and sisters and must value them above ourselves. We are to look out for them, care for them, and serve them. We are to look not only to our own interests but also the interest of others. The humble servant is to look for ways to serve and to meet the needs of those around him. Rather than being absorbed in narcissistic individualism we are to be marked by generous radicalism.

The Struggle of Humility

But lets be honest. Isn't it so difficult to be a humble servant? I struggle with laying down my wants for the sake of my brothers and sisters. So often I want to look out for myself and my own needs! I want to look after my own interests, and if I have time maybe I'll look after yours. My heart fights to find others as more significant than myself. The spirit rages in my heart convicting me of my pride. Humility is difficult and as pastor and writer CJ Mahaney said in his little book on humility, "I am a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God". I want to be humble, but I need God's grace to help me in my sin and to help me realize who I am before Him. He is the creator I am the creature. I am the sinner and He is the savior. I am the rebel, He is the peace maker. He is the judge and I am the felon. Humility is not some sort of melodramatic self-loathing. Humility means understanding who you are in relation to God and others.

The Disdain of the Me-Centered Church

If a church is to be unified, on mission to advance the cause of Christ, there must be humble service among its members. This humility must define the culture of the church. The body of Christ is not to be made of entitled egoist, but self-denying servants.

Yet how far many churches are from this picture! We've turned our churches into consumer businesses where you come to church to be served rather than to serve. We've traded in the great commission for attractive products the church can offer you. The Great Commission has become the Great Suggestion. So churches come up with the latest and greatest way of catering to your needs with multi-million dollar buildings, a large menu of programs for your choosing, and worship services with watered down lyrics, flashing lights, a funny speaker, but very little Jesus. Perhaps the reason the mission of God is not being accomplished today is because our churches have been training a generation of believers that the church is here to serve them, not them to serve the church!

So a me-centered Christianity has cropped up where we demand from the church to do it my way or I'll hit the highway. I want my style of music, I want this sort of ministry, I want this length of a worship service, I want this sort of pastor, I want this sort of children's ministry. So in a never ending aim to appeal consumers churches run the rat race of conforming the church to what me-centered Christians want it to be, rather than letting God define what the church should, how we conduct our worship services, or what sort of ministry philosophy we will have. We take God's word and throw it into the metaphorical drawer and do church the way we want to do it.

So what is the solution to the plight the church of america has gotten itself in? How do we guard against our own hearts form this me-centered Christianity? How do we get our churches to look more like Philippians 2? Well it starts with a profound knowledge and deep conviction of the truthfulness of the Gospel. Humble service is a result of Gospel transformation. The antidote to the me-centered church is the self-sacrificing Christ! How do we learn to serve? How do we learn humility? How do we stay unified on the mission God has given us? Well it comes by looking to Christ!

The Example of Jesus

Paul turns our attention to Jesus, highlighting him as the example, the epitome of humility. Jesus though God did not cling to his divine prestige. If anyone had the right to be served by others it was Jesus! He is God! All of creation was created by his word! He sustains the universe by the word of his power. Yet, he was willing to take on the form of a servant. He was willing to step down from the glory of heaven, to become a human being and be born to a teenage girl in a stable. Rather than coming as a King, Jesus came as a servant. He came as one who would give up his life. Jesus was obedient even to the point of death. He humbled himself to the point of death, but not just any death, a death on a cross! The most horrific, violent, bloody, and painful inventions of torture humanity has ever come up with. He goes to the cross of his own volition and dies in the place of sinful man. As Jesus says, "The son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many". Jesus served us in our greatest need and in our greatest weakness. We are sinners who stand condemn before God. There is no one righteous, no not one! We stand before God and we are unrighteous, unworthy. We deserve hell and punishment. Yet the servant Jesus sees our need, humbles himself by taking on humanity and the Father sends Jesus on a rescue mission. God crucifies himself at the hand of his created image bearers so our sins could be paid for. God endured the wrath you deserved by taking it on himself. At the cross Jesus in humility laid down his life for us. The great God of the universe humbled himself and became a servant of man.

Here is the power of the Gospel in our lives! When we understand the astonishment of God's grace to us, when we stand amazed at God's service to us, our response is genuine humility. As we look to Calvary we see a gift we do not deserve. When we see the wonder of God's grace to us we become aware of our smallness. The reality of our tiny existence is made real, and we are amazed that God would take me and save me and restore me. When that truth sinks in and you feel the weight of God's love towards you in Christ, you are left standing with eyes gazing, falling on your knees in humility!

Do you desire humility? Do you desire to be a servant to others? Look to Christ our example! He is the suffering servant who demonstrates humility for us. Soak in this truth and as you do humility will be your response. For those who have genuinely put their faith in Jesus and have trusted in this good news humility is the only response. As we are humbled by the Gospel we will in turn be a servant to others. Why? Because Christ was first a servant to us. So look to your savior you who are proud at heart! Look to his nail pierced hands and feet you who seek to be served! For if the God of all the earth has stooped down to serve you, shouldn't you the dust of the earth serve your neighbor?

How to Step into the Background of a Man who Casts a Greater Shadow

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It takes great humility to joyfully step into the background of a man who casts a greater shadow. We like to be the center of attention. We want everyone to look at us and see how great we are! We want the praise of men. We thirst for it with unrelenting lust.

This is why I am so amazed at the humility of John the Baptist. If you think about it, John's ministry would have been perceived as a complete failure if he was a live today. John starts a movement as the baptizer. Jesus comes along, steals his disciples and his baptizing ministry. John with his ministry passed on to Jesus is decapitated at the request of a teenage girl.

John Loses His Disciples to Jesus

In John 1, starting in v. 35, we read about Jesus selecting his first disciples. John was standing with two of his disciples and sees Jesus walking by and cries out, "Behold the Lamb of God!" John had just baptized Jesus and the Lord had made it clear to John that this Jesus was the Son of God (1:34). John's two disciples that were standing with him abandon John and start following Jesus. Imagine the heartbreak John must have felt. These two men he had been discipling abandon him to go follow Jesus. John knows that Jesus is the messiah, but if we put ourselves in John's place we can feel his pain with being cast to the side. However John's purpose from the beginning was to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, 'make straight the way of the Lord' (1:24). John knew ultimately that his ministry was never going to be about him. John is simply the one who prepares the way for the Messiah. Now that the Messiah has arrived, John graciously and joyfully steps in the background.

John Loses His Ministry to Jesus

In John 3, starting in verse 22, both Jesus and John are baptizing people. A discussion begins to develop with John's disciples and a Jew over the issue of baptism. John is told that Jesus is on the other side of the Jordan baptizing people and everyone is going to Jesus instead of John. The disciples of John are beginning to see a rivalry between John's ministry and Jesus' ministry. I'm sure the disciples of John were thinking, "We were here first!" However, John's response to his disciples is the most astonishing. John would say, "Therefore this joy mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30). John knows it is time for him to fade into the background and to get out of the way. His job of preparing the way for the Messiah is now over, his task is complete. John's job know is to simply decrease and fade away so that Jesus' ministry can get all the attention.

Fade Into the Background

What amazing humility John the Baptist has! Would you and I do the same? I suggest our egos and pride would far to much get in the way. We are far to narcissistic to bow out gracefully like John did. Yet, we must imitate John in his humility. As we serve the Lord it is so easy for us to seek to become the center of attention. We want everyone to praise us for our gifts, for our obedience, and for our service. A true Christian however has the attitude of John the Baptist, we must decrease so that Christ can increase. Our task as Christians is not to make much of ourselves, but to make much of Christ. Just as John the Baptist we must get our own egos out of the way so the people around us can see Jesus clearly as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

It takes great humility to joyfully step into the background of a man who casts a greater shadow.