What If Mercy Became Flesh? The Heart of Advent

“Because of the tender mercy of God” (Luke 1:78). That’s Zechariah’s answer to the question, Why did Jesus come?

The Roots of Advent

Zechariah’s song is like a tree. Not like a Christmas tree, which we prop up because it doesn’t have roots. The roots of Zechariah’s song run deep. Its root system spreads backward into God’s story of redemption in the Old Testament.

Every line echoes or alludes to the promises of the Old Testament: The promises to Abraham (v73-75), the pattern of the Exodus redemption (v68), the promise of a coming Davidic king (v69-71). Each of these roots lead up to Advent, anchoring it in God’s story.

But there is one root that goes deeper than the rest. And this root stretches back beyond the pages of the Old Testament, behind history itself, to the heart of God.

The deepest answer for why Jesus came is this: “because of the tender mercy of God” (v78). “Tender” refers to the affections. Deep emotions. The depths of the heart.

As Zechariah sings of the historical roots of Advent, he shows that the whole story has been heading to the coming of Christ. And right in the middle of this song, he opens up the motive in God’s heart moving the story along: “tender mercy.”

History exists as a stage for God’s drama of redemption. And the drama of redemption exists to display the glory of God. And at the heart of God’s glory is his steadfast love and mercy toward his people. History was set in motion and carried along toward Advent, and Advent brings tidings of comfort and joy.

Root Under Every Root

God’s mercy, then, is the root under every other root of Advent.

  • Why did God redeem Israel at the Exodus? “It is because the Lord loves you” (Deut. 7:8).
  • Why did God stick with them in their idolatry? Because of his very nature. He is “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).
  • Why did God promise David an eternal kingdom? David knew. He responded to God, “According to your heart, you have done all this greatness, in making known all these great things” (1 Chrn. 17:19).
  • What did God promise to bring a New Covenant? Because, he says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:3). “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).

Why, then, the incarnation and birth of Christ? My friend, Dane, noted how John Bunyan makes the connection between God’s heart and advent: “God’s heart was engaged, [yes], all his heart, in the promise he spoke of sending us a Savior.” All his heart. His whole heart was engaged in sending Jesus to give mercy.

When Mercy Became Flesh

 Zechariah pairs a striking word with “mercy”: tender. That refers to our “inner parts.” Sometimes its translated “bowels.” It refers to our physically felt, visceral emotions. But that describes our human experience of emotion. God doesn’t experience emotions like we do. He doesn’t have these inner parts that stir.

When we read about God’s heart of mercy for us, we might wonder, “but is that how he really feels? When it says that God’s heart stirs with compassion for us, that’s just a metaphor, right?”

Two responses:

  1. First, true, God does not experience physical emotions like a man. His emotions are not like our emotions. However, this does still tell us something true and deep about God. His affections are perfect, and he doesn’t need a body to have them. He is a God of love, and he has a heart of infinitely deep mercy for us.
  2. But second, consider, when Zechariah said this, God’s mercy was becoming flesh. The Son of God became man. He now he has a real, physical body. When he walked the streets of Jerusalem, he experienced human emotions of compassion. His inner parts stirred with tender mercy.

What does this mean? The English Puritan Thomas Goodwin makes the astonishing claim that when Jesus took on the nature of humanity, his mercies became the mercies of a man.

The incarnation did not add to God’s mercy; God did not become more merciful in the incarnation. What, then, did happen? The incarnation “added a new way of God’s being merciful, [and we can now say], for the comfort and relief of our faith, that God is truly and really merciful, as a man.” God has now “become loving and merciful [to] men, as one man is to another.” This happened “that God might be for ever said to be compassionate as a man, and to be touched with a feeling of our [weaknesses] as a man” (Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ, 127).

In other words, God’s perfect mercy is now experienced as we feel it. Which means that Jesus knows what it is to feel mercy as we do. And he has inner stirrings of warm affection and love for us, just as we experience as men and women.

And here’s why this matters now. Now that he is in heaven, this hasn’t changed. He was resurrected with a renewed human body. And he is still in that body this moment, and will be forevermore. Which means, even now, Jesus is stirred with tender mercy for us.

The Heart of God 

God’s mercy launched this plan of salvation into existence from eternity past. And then this mercy took on flesh when Jesus came. Advent is, at its core, about God’s affectionate heart for the very ones who have withheld their affection from him. It’s about his heart of mercy for you and me.

God doesn’t just have mercy for you, he has tender mercy for you. He doesn’t just save you, his heart stirs with mercy for you.

In this season we may get frustrated. We may become impatient. Or distracted. Or covetous. Or annoyed. Or judgmental. Or, underneath all of this, halfhearted about God.

And there is one thing that can bring calm. There is one thing that can bring forgiveness for all of it. And there is one thing that can bring a new soul-stabilizing comfort and rest. And it is this: Tracing the roots of Advent back to the heart of God. And then looking up to heaven and seeing Jesus’ tender mercy for us.

 

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The 5-day Bible Reading Plan for 2017

According to everyone, eating food is a necessary rhythm of life. According to Jesus, eating words is another one. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he said (Matt. 4:4). We prioritize eating meals every day. That’s good. We don’t always prioritize engaging with God’s word ever day. That’s not good. And it’s also a reason why so many Christians feel spiritually famished. Our own spiritual life depends on hearing and trusting God’s words.

A Weekday Bible-Reading Plan 

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-1-19-24-pmIn light of that, here’s a reading plan to use for 2017. It’s one we’re using as a Church-wide Bible reading plan at Zionsville Fellowship next year. It is designed to be followed for five-days each week. Each day has one Old Testament reading (3-4 chapters) and one New Testament reading (1 chapter), moving through both Testaments in order, with the exception of the four gospels, which are spread out through the year.

Why five-days per week? Two reasons: First, it leaves space to read something else a couple other days, such as the Scripture used for the sermon or weekly small group study.  Second, this is a built-in guilt-avoidance rhythm, since you can miss a few days here and there and still remain on-track.

Reading In Community 

One way to use this plan: In addition to personal reading, consider reading with others.

  • Read with Friends: Consider grabbing another friend or two to join you on this journey, and then meet for coffee to talk about what you’ve been reading. For an additional resource providing guidance for Bible-discussion meetings, grab David Helm’s book, One to One Bible Reading.
  • Read as Family: If spouses or families read this together, they can bring it up at dinner and share what they’re learning and how they’re growing. For families with younger children, consider also including one of Marty Machowski’s family Bible-devotionals: Long-Story Short or Old Story New.
  • Read with a Small Group: Small group members can read individually and then discuss the reading from time to time during the meeting.

 

Friendship with God

Reading and hearing God’s word is is a primary way to commune with God. The Scriptures are God’s voice to us today. He gave us his word to invite us into conversation with himself: We hear his voice in Scripture; he hears ours in prayer.

In other words, God has brought into friendship with himself through Christ, and this is now how we converse with him. In light of this, we read devotionally, aware that these are the words of our King and our Friend.

 

 

Download the reading plan here.

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How the Kingdom of Christ Restores Sanity During this Election Season

As the election season nears its end, we are left wondering how to process it all, and what the Bible has to say in times like these.

One of the great themes in Matthew’s gospel is the mystery of God’s kingdom—it dawned with Jesus’s first advent, but will not be consummated until his return. The “gospel of the kingdom” is the good news of God’s reign (Matt. 4:23; 9:35). Jesus came to restore God’s authority in the world—the authority that was first rejected in Eden and then ever since. Matthew’s message—the good news of God’s reign in Christ—reframes our outlook on the upcoming United States election.

Here are four implications of the kingdom of Christ for this election season.

1. Because Jesus Is Our King, We Rest in His Sovereign Rule

A thread through the Old Testament is the ancient longing for a righteous king—a Spirit-filled king who will rule with wisdom, integrity and justice (Isa. 11:1–¬4). The genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel is more than a list of names; it’s an announcement: “He’s here.” God’s kingdom broke into history through Jesus’s life and ministry (Matt 4:17, 23; 9:35; 12:28). The risen Christ declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). Jesus is our Savior, but he is also our King–and not just the King of our hearts; he’s the King of the cosmos. Which means he has authority above all earthly powers.

Election seasons trigger various hopes and fears. Some look to anoint a new messiah—one who will finally bring in a reign of peace and stability. They may nurse apocalyptic fears of what may drop from the sky if the other candidate is elected. Such promises and threats might be expected from fallen candidates in a fallen world. But this is misguided. Candidates and their followers should make their case. But there is only one who can bring universal flourishing, and he is not on the ballot. But that’s okay; he is already anointed (3:16–17). Regardless of who becomes our next president, nothing in this election will be so earthshaking as to rock Jesus off of his throne. We didn’t vote him into office, and no one can vote him out.

What happens in this election matters deeply. It will have ripple effects in ways we don’t yet know. But one thing that will not change is the stability of Jesus’s rule.

2. Because the Kingdom Has Dawned, We Can Display Its Beauty

Jesus makes his rule visible in and through the church. The church is a sign of the kingdom, a reflection of Christ’s rule, and a pointer to the coming consummation.

Jesus tells us what this looks like: poverty of spirit, gentleness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking (5:3–10). The church is also “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”—a light that we’re not to hide (5:13–16). The church, not a geopolitical nation, is the place where new creational beauty is already displayed. Therefore, we seek to cultivate a bright and beautiful counter-culture of life and peace in our churches.

Churches are communities united around matters of first importance, most centrally, the gospel of the kingdom. We are also communities that are open-hearted toward one another on disputable matters. We will have different views within our church bodies on the election. This isn’t surprising since there are vastly different views within those who identify as conservative evangelicals. In addition to the two major parties, many more will now consider a third party candidate or will write-in a name as a strategic option. Each one of these options may be held for different, principled reasons. With this election, we’re seeking to apply biblical truth to practical questions. This means we’re in the realm of wisdom and prudence. It also means that thoughtful Christians may disagree with one another. Some of us may be internally conflicted and uncertain about what to do. Therefore, this is a time when it is important to give one another space to disagree. It is healthy to seek to persuade one another with gentleness, but we should not compel anyone to vote against his or her conscience. Part of shining as lights in the world is demonstrating that we can disagree and still be happy friends.

And yet disciples also shine this light into darkness. We care about this election because we are called to love our neighbors (22:39). We examine party platforms and policies because of how they affect real people in real-life ways. We love our neighbors enough to serve them in public office, speak in the public square, and participate all throughout the political process, not just the voting booth. And sometimes shining light involves exposing darkness for what it is. Jesus publicly confronted the rank hypocrisy of many leaders of his day (23:1-31). Christians are called to be peaceful and prophetic witnesses for Christ’s glory and our culture’s good.

3. Because the Kingdom Is Not Yet Consummated, Our Hope Is in the World to Come

Jesus’s kingdom is marked by moral beauty, but not all see it that way. Jesus said his people would be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10). In other words, we may not look like we’re on the right side of history. Our values look upside-down. This is why many Christians feel a bit less at home in America these days. Perhaps one good that will come of this difficult season is that Christians might set their hope more steadfastly on Jesus’s return.

Our horizon of hope rises above and beyond this or any other presidential election. Our greatest hope is not in Election Day, but Resurrection Day. We’re not ultimately waiting for a certain party to win or a certain term to end, as important as these moments are. We are waiting to “see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30). The leaders of our government will become footnotes in history. Jesus’s kingdom is forever. And so we pray in this election season, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (6:10).

4. Because Our King Gave a Commission, We Have Work to Do

The risen King’s final words reverberate through history: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The task of making disciples transcends cultures, nations, and ages. It has always been our mission in this nation, and it will remain so when we wake up on November 9. We may not have confidence in America’s future, but the church’s future is secure. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (16:18). In other words, nations rise and fall, but the church will endure forever.

No matter what happens on November 8, we already know the most important things about November 9. Jesus will remain on his throne. He will build his church. He will lead us to shine like light in our culture. He will empower us to make disciples of all nations. And he will return again in glory.

Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). Nations and governments are instruments of God’s justice and grace. However, we pledge allegiance, most ultimately, to the King.

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Why Read 1-2 Thessalonians?

How is this new church doing? How are these Christians coming along?

Those were Paul’s concerns about this little church he planted in Thessalonica. After being run out of town, he heard news of their growing faith, hope, and love. He heard about their steadfastness in the midst of suffering. He heard about their firm convictions in a pluralistic society. He also heard about their weaknesses, some moral problems, and a few theological gaps, especially regarding the return of Christ.

Sounds like us.

There are differences, sure. Two thousand years changes much. But we also have much in common with this church plant. Paul’s words to them then are also God’s words to us now.

Here are three themes in these letters, corresponding to three expectations for reading.

Endurance Through Suffering

Paul took up his pen to encourage Christians living in discouraging times. These Christians suffered as a result of their faith from the beginning. The Apostle Paul was even run out of town shortly after bringing the gospel to them. Paul heard of their continued social and cultural difficulties. He also heard about their hopeful endurance, and he writes to give them more strength. We are also living in a pluralistic culture, with increasing trends of marginalization for Christians. The Thessalonians’ faith, hope, and love are encouraging examples for us today.

But where do we get the hope we need?

The Return of the King

These are future-oriented letters. Over and over, we hear of Jesus’ “coming (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:1, 8). Paul wrote to clear up several misunderstandings about what to expect in the future in order to encourage more faithful living in the meantime. In the end, our hope is not merely in a series of events, an unfolding timeline, or an abstract idea of salvation. It’s in a person. We are those who are “waiting for his Son” (1 Thess. 1:10).

But what do we do until he comes?

Pleasing God 

We seek to please God in all of life. “As you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as your are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thess. 4:1). These letters call us to a certain kind of faithful, earnest, diligent, active, loving lifestyle. We are waiting for Jesus to come, but this is not a passive waiting. It is active. A final expectation for reading these letters, then, is that we might more fully lean into this diligent pursuit of Christ-likeness. That we would take our personal growth in Christ seriously and that we would intentionally seek to help other Christians grow as disciples of Jesus.

This is an opportunity to be transformed by the grace of God in Christ. As John Stott put it: “He shows how the gospel creates the church and the church spreads the gospel, and how the gospel shapes the church, as the church seeks to live a life that is worthy of the gospel” (Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 20).

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Dawning Light of Our Salvation

What do Isaiah’s beautiful gospel-expectations sound like when sung?

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Long in darkness Israel wandered;
Long in mortal shadows, we
Walked in bondage and self-pity,
Trod in paths of sin and grief.
In the prophets’ words He told us,
Long the God of Israel spoke;
He alone in strength would save us
From the hands of all our foes.

He shall raise a mighty Savior;
Born of David’s lineage, He
Comes in cov’nant love to claim us
From our sins to set us free.
Light to those who dwell in darkness
Life to those from death who flee
Joy unto the earth, and gladness,
To your pathways dawning peace!
Every valley be exalted!
Every mountain be made plane!
Crooked ways repent and straighten;
All creation bend in praise!

Jesus, Lord, and mighty Savior,
David’s Son and yet his King,
Dawning light of our salvation,
Of your saving pow’r we sing!
Stand, Oh lame, and dance ye broken,
Know the Savior’s healing grace;
Come, Oh deaf and hear him singing;
Turn, Oh blind, behold his face!

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A Better Way of Coming at Christ’s Heart

Benjamin Grosvenor, a little-known English pastor in the 1700s, preached a sermon titled, “The Temper of Jesus.” It is a reflection on the words of Jesus when he said “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). William Symington later considered it to be “one of the most touching discourses ever composed.” This section, and especially the final paragraph, move me to agree with this sentiment.

“It is very affecting, that the first offers of grace should be made to those… who least deserved it. They of all people had most deserved the contrary! That they who had abused Christ to a degree beyond the most pitiful description, should lie uppermost in his care, and stand foremost in his pity, and find so much mercy from one to whom they showed none at all!

“One would rather have expected the apostles should have received another kind of charge; and that Christ should have said, ‘Let repentance and remission of sins be preached, but carry it not to Jerusalem, that wicked city… let not the Gospel enter those gates, through which they led me, it’s author, to crucifixion…”

“But Gods thoughts are not as ours… our way is, to make the chief of offenders examples of justice; to avenge ourselves upon those who have done us personal injury or wrong; but Christ chooses out these, to make examples of mercy, and commands the first offer of eternal life to be made to them, and all the world are to wait.”

“Tell them, you have seen the prints of the nails upon my hands and feet, and the wounds of the spear in my side; and that those marks are so far from giving me vindictive thoughts, if they will but repent, that every wound they have given me speaks in their behalf, pleads with the Father for forgiveness of their sins…”

“If you meet that poor wretch that thrust the spear into my side, tell him there is another way, a better way, of coming at my heart, if he will repent, and look upon whom he has pierced and will mourn. I will cherish him in that very bosom he has wounded; he shall find the blood he shed an ample atonement for the sin of shedding it. And tell him from me, he will put me to more pain and displeasure by refusing this offer of my blood, then when he drew it forth.”

Even if you’re not sure Jesus is the savior and king of the world, wouldn’t this be exactly the kind of savior-king you would want? I hope that ‘poor wretch’ found the better way to Christ’s heart. I know the wretch typing this right now was directed to the way. And the way is still open to all.

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At the beginning of 2016, a reminder of what it is all about

Excellent reminder of the supremacy of Christ above all things. Not one of these 18 minutes gets old.

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Colossians 1:15-20: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV)

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