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Advent and Christmas have focused millions of hearts and minds around the world on the story of Jesus’ birth as it is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Magnificat, the birth of John, Nazareth, the census, Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, shepherds, jubilant angelic messengers, Jerusalem, the Temple, Simeon, Anna, a star, magi, Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the return to Nazareth; all of these people and places are woven into the tapestry of a timeless story that rests at the very foundation of our faith and at the heart of who we believe Jesus Christ to be.

Intentionally omitted (just to see if you would notice!) from the foregoing list of individuals who are integral to the narrative of the Savior’s birth is someone who is present at nearly every turn in the story… Joseph of Nazareth.

It is somewhat surprising to discover just how little is revealed about Joseph in the Gospels.  He is not mentioned at all in Mark, and is only mentioned in passing in the Fourth Gospel, where twice John records that people referred to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.”  Matthew and Luke, then, serve as our sole sources of information, limited though it is.  For example, what is accepted as common knowledge about Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter rests on a lone reference in Matthew 13:55.  Still, the things which are revealed about him offer powerful insights into Joseph’s faith and character and the vital role that he played in the unfolding drama of God ushering in salvation through Jesus Christ.

Carpentry would have demanded significant physical strength.  The birth narratives similarly bear witness to Joseph’s great strength of faith and character.

But, why refer to Joseph as the “silent type?”  Because nothing from his lips is recorded in the Biblical text; nothing; not a word!  We don’t have a single, solitary quotation of anything Joseph said to Mary, the angelic messengers in his dreams, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, or the magi.  What we do have, however, is a vivid portrait of love, faith, and commitment in action.

At whatever point Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he simply could not accept her explanation of how there came to be an unborn child in her womb.  What man would have believed her?  In addition to her presumed guilt of sexual sin and her unfaithfulness to her betrothed, she was now compounding her iniquity with lies of the most outrageous and imaginative sort.

If Joseph were like every other man, then he was hurt, he was devastated, and he was angry.  He felt completely betrayed by Mary.  This had to be a deal breaker; he could not and would not marry her.  Still, he loved her.  Oh, how he loved her!  He couldn’t bear the thought of other people looking at her the way he now did.  He couldn’t expose Mary’s pregnancy in such a way that would make her the object of scandal, accusation, condemnation, derision, and perhaps even punishment.  He would annul their betrothal and send Mary away underneath the radar of public scrutiny and scorn.

An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, verified Mary’s account of her pregnancy, and instructed him to name the child Jesus when this son, Immanuel, was born (Matt 1:18-25).

“And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…” That’s Joseph’s M.O.  Three more times (Matt. 2:13-14, 19-21, 22-23) God will communicate to Joseph via dreams and angels.  Three more times Joseph will do precisely as the Lord directed him.   He believes in the God of His fathers, He trusts the voice of the Lord, and submits his own wishes to the Divine will.

Joseph is just an all around stand-up guy: a hard worker, a generous provider, faithful, committed, protective, compassionate, etc.  As a subject of Rome, it is Joseph’s compliance with the requirements of the census that takes him and a very expectant Mary on what must have been an arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  In keeping with the covenant of his fathers, He has Jesus circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), and gives him the name Jesus, just as Gabriel had instructed Mary and as he himself had been celestially directed in his dream.  Also in keeping with the requirements of the Law of God, Joseph offered sacrifices at the Temple in the Jerusalem when Mary’s postpartum purification had been completed (Luke 2:22-38).

After protecting his family in Egypt and ultimately returning to Nazareth, Joseph led his family (which including four sons and at least two daughters subsequently born to him and Mary) in devotion to God.  He taught his trade of carpentry to Jesus (Mark 6:3).  Joseph ensured that the entire family made an annual pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41).  As an adult, Jesus’ custom of being in the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16) surely could be traced back to the way he and the rest of his earthly family had been led in habits of faith by Nazareth’s resident carpenter.

What did Joseph say to Mary when he learned of her pregnancy?  How did he humbly and profusely apologize to her after the truth of Mary’s story was confirmed by the angel?  What words and instruction did he routinely impart while raising Someone Else’s son in such a way that he grew in strength, stature, wisdom, the grace of God, and both divine and human favor?  Perhaps one day we will know.

Though somewhat overlooked because he is not granted a speaking part in the inspired Christmas pageant, Joseph most certainly occupies a prominent place in the cloud of witnesses who have preceded us in faith, known not for what he said, but for what he so consistently and faithfully did.

Joseph provides an example of faith that I desire to follow.  If God communicated with me through an angel in a dream and told me what He desired for me to do, I would like to believe that I, like Joseph, would immediately respond as directed.  What if God just wrote it down for me?

It takes an immense amount of humility to serve.

It takes an immense amount of humility to allow yourself to be served.

In the upper room on the night of His betrayal, an argument broke out among Jesus’ apostles as to which one of them was considered to be the greatest (Luke 22:24).  It was such an unseemly and misguided dispute, especially in light of what was about to transpire in the hours that followed.  While the cacophony of this ego-driven contest of conceit wore on, Jesus quietly arose from his reclined position at the table, took off His outer clothing, wrapped himself with a towel, filled a basin with water, washed the feet of His disciples, and dried their feet with the towel (John 13:1-5).  As if the divine Son of Man had not bowed low enough in emptying Himself to become enveloped in human flesh, he stooped further still to perform the most menial of tasks for a bunch of whining, self-obsessed men who could not be bothered to extend a simple, common courtesy to one another, much less to their Lord and Master.

Images of “the basin and the towel” like the one above tend to evoke a scene that was clean, sterile, and pristine.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus didn’t have the modern convenience and protection of latex gloves or the aid of brushes or pedicure instruments.  He used His bare hands to rub and rinse dirt and packed-on road grime from the calloused, malodorant feet of 12 adult men.  As their feet grew cleaner, the water and the towel grew more dingy and dirty.  This was no mere ritual or superficial ceremony; it was a legitimate and much-needed foot bath.

Jesus powerfully displayed unparalleled humility in this act of selfless service.  But, to be served in this way required of the apostles that they dig deeply into their reservoirs of submissiveness and poverty of spirit, neither of which was their strong suit.  It was purely out of pride that Peter protested, “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet!”  “Dig a little deeper in the well of humility, Peter,” Jesus said.  “If you want to be with Me, you’ve got to let this happen.”

Who among the apostles earned a foot washing that evening?  Who deserved it?  Who could have demanded it of Jesus?  For the apostles’ part, it just took humility, faith, trust, and confidence in Jesus that He knew what He was doing, that this was somehow needful and necessary, despite their inability to fully understand it at the time (John 13:7).

Washing feet is not too much of a cultural necessity for most of us, but allowing people to serve us in other ways can sometimes test the limits of our humility.  People will often ask us during an extended illness or other times of crisis, “What can I do to help you out?  Can I do some laundry for you?  Let me pick up your dirty clothes, take them home, wash and dry them, fold them, and then I’ll bring them back to you.”  In our pride, we balk, and we bar their extension of grace and mercy.  “No! No!  I couldn’t possibly let you do that!”  Why?  Because it’s personal; it’s private; our underwear is in there; our dirty underwear!  So, in our pride, we rob them of a blessing, and we rob ourselves of a blessing.

In unmerited grace and unmitigated mercy, Jesus wants to cleanse us.  He wants to do our spiritual laundry, removing the stains of sin that we are powerless to remove for ourselves.  He wants to wash our robes, making them clean and white through the saving power of His sacrificial blood (Rev. 7:14).  It takes humility to allow Him to do that.

In baptism, we humbly surrender our pride to Jesus’ divine will and submissively accept His promise to wash away our sins (Acts 22:16); not a physical cleansing, but an appeal to God for a clean heart and conscience (I Peter 3:21).  Far from a human work that somehow invalidates salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), baptism is a humble expression of faith and confidence in the power and working of God to save us (Colossians 2:12).  Baptism is a dramatization, a reenactment, of our faith in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and a pledge of our trust that God will, through that same resurrection power, quicken us to new spiritual life (Romans 6:1-7).

Baptism is complete surrender.  It is wholly submissive on our part, just as it was for the apostles as they allowed Jesus to wash their feet.   Baptism is a bold proclamation of the depth of our faith in Jesus Christ; enough faith to trust Him; enough faith to obey Him; enough faith to submit to His instruction; enough confidence in Him to simply comply with His request.

My 21-year-old son, Coleman, is developmentally disabled and unable to bathe himself.  He is simply incapable of doing it; it is impossible for him.  Our morning routine each day involves me getting him into the tub, lathering him up, scrubbing him down, shampooing and rinsing his hair, drying him off, drying his hair, shaving him, brushing his teeth, and getting him dressed.  All the power and the “work” that makes his cleansing a reality lie totally outside of himself.  The only thing he contributes to the process is beautiful, humble trust and acceptance.  He just receives the gift and the blessing of grace without pride or protest.

People spend far too much time debating what baptism is for, rather than just accepting where baptism is from.  It is from Jesus.  Just humbly accept it, submissively receive it, and let Jesus do your laundry!

Gratitude

I am thankful for an awesome, powerful, loving, and just Creator who made me in His own image with the intention of sharing a relationship with me as His child for all eternity.

I am thankful that when I squandered and severed that relationship by my own foolishness, willfulness, selfishness, and sinfulness, He acted yet again to seek me and save me through His gift of grace and mercy in His Son, Jesus Christ.

I am thankful for the eternal Son of God, the Logos, the Word who became flesh, who laid down His life as an unblemished and spotless sacrifice for my own mountain of sins and for those of the world.  I am thankful that through His precious blood I have been forgiven, redeemed, restored, renewed, and revived.

I am thankful for the divine, indwelling Holy Spirit whose unfailing presence within me serves as a mark of identification that I belong to God, as a down payment and pledge of my eternal inheritance, and as an empowering incentive to live in holiness.

I am thankful for a wife of 25 years who has loved, supported, and encouraged me through times of both smooth sailing and troubled seas, not because of my goodness, but in spite of my weaknesses, and who has been an incomparable nurturer, guide, and mother to our children.

I am thankful for the joy and blessing of two precious children, each of whom, in their uniqueness, giftedness, and expressiveness, have enriched my life beyond measure.

I am thankful for friends who have embraced me and accepted me, warts and all, and who have extended their faithful friendship to me, not on the basis of my role of ministry in the body of Christ, but based on who I am as a person and as a Christian brother.

I am thankful for the local body of believers of which I am a part and among whom I serve, for our shepherds, for my co-workers in ministry, and for every servant-hearted member of this family.  I am thankful for every precious, beloved brother and sister with whom I have been blessed to serve in years past in other states and other countries.  I am thankful for the innumerable lights in this world and salt upon this earth that I will not be blessed to meet until this passing world is done.

I am thankful for daily bread, the warmth and protection of my home, clothing, transportation, the tranquility of life and the freedoms afforded by living in this country and for the untold sacrifices of those who have served and are serving to ensure them.

Thank you, Father! And please forgive me in those moments when I forget just how immeasurably blessed I am.

A few days ago, I arrived for an appointment about 30 minutes early (I seriously overestimated the drive time on my inaugural visit), and I decided to use the lag time to browse around a nearby Books-a-Million.

As I typically do in large book retailers, I headed to the Religion Section so that I could be subjected to yet another self-inflicted dose of guilt and despair over how many books I haven’t read.  I live with a constant sense of “being behind” in my reading, and periodic visits to bookstores serve to insert a new exponent into the mathematical equation that expresses my utter hopelessness of ever catching up.  Christian publishers continue to churn out new volumes at a relentless pace, ensuring that I fade farther into the distance in their rear-view mirror.

This particular “walk of shame” through the imposing and intimidating aisles, however, struck me with an even more overwhelming sense of “what’s out there” in Christian publishing.  One entire side of an aisle was dedicated to the subject of Christian Living.  Mind you, this wasn’t Mardel or a Family Christian retail outlet, where I assume the titles are even more numerous.  This was a “secular” bookstore.  Across the aisle was the expansive General Religion section, which included such intriguing titles as The Dictionary of Demons: Names of the Damned, Hinduism for Dummies, and Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

But, the Christian Living collection?  Wow!  There were 5 shelves on each of the 7 mini-sections, for a total of 35 shelves.  A quick count on a couple of them led me to estimate that each shelf contained an average of 40 different titles.  Grand total (yes, I had to use the calculator on my phone): 1,400 books, each of which was authored with the intent of explaining some vital aspect of this thing called “the Christian life.”  Taking into account the embarrassingly low words-per-minute that I read, I would have to devote most of the rest of my life to “Christian reading” just to make it through those books.  There would be precious little time remaining for actual “Christian living.”  And this just represents current best-sellers, other recent publications, and those that have achieved the status of classic Christian literature.  Inventory and shelf space will have to be cleared for next year’s inevitably abundant crop of new books.

I’m extremely grateful for Christian authors, both ancient and contemporary, who write from a position of sincere faith in Jesus Christ and respect for the authority of the Word of God.  It’s a blessing that they share their study, research, knowledge, experience, humor, and gift of communication in order to broaden and deepen our understanding of Scripture and provide insights into how we can be transformed into more devoted disciples, ministers, leaders, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, servants, citizens, and spiritual brothers and sisters.  We are much the better for it!

However, it’s good to be periodically reminded that Christian literature, while certainly able to enrich and enhance our life in Christ, is not essential to having a real, relevant, challenging, and meaningful relationship with Jesus.

So, you haven’t digested the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers?  You’ve never read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiæ or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion?  Have you somehow managed to avoid Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton?  You’ve never read a single book authored by C.S. Lewis?  You’ve only read a handful of the hundreds of books authored by contemporary masters of devotion?  Do the latest issues of Christianity Today and Leadership Journal lie unopened on a side table in your study?  Do you rarely, if ever, read periodicals and teaching magazines from within your own brotherhood and fellowship of believers?

It’s okay!  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  The fact that you haven’t (or you don’t) shouldn’t cause you to feel like a second-class Christian.  And if you have or you do, please drop your air of spiritual superiority right here and right now.

Scripture is fully capable of leading us to faith in Jesus Christ and into a maturing, saving relationship with Him.  A more-than-sufficient challenge for Christian living is provided by the simple, yet daunting, commands to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  The call to love my wife as Christ loves His church and to guide my children in the Lord’s discipline and instruction is enough to keep me from ever becoming complacent or haughty.  Ditto, the instruction to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.  I recently shared a message on Colossians 3:12-17, and I stated that if the New Testament canon only consisted of the Gospels and these six verses of admonition, I would have plenty to keep me convicted and diligently occupied for the rest of my time on earth.

I was momentarily overwhelmed by the 1,400 reasons why I wasn’t sufficiently “making the grade” in my efforts to follow in the steps of Jesus.  However, I took comfort once again that, though tempted to be distracted, worried, and bothered about so many things, “only one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:38-42) and the essentials are so relatively few.

Linsanity.  Super Lintendo.  The Mighty Lin.  Linvincible.  Linspiration.  Linning.

In the unlikely event that you haven’t read a newspaper, surfed the Internet, or watched SportsCenter on ESPN recently, let me introduce you to Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who has lit up the Big Apple and mesmerized sports fans across the nation over the last few weeks.  Lin’s story is so fascinating and inspiring because it beautifully demonstrates the power of perseverance by an athlete with a heart that has refused to be beaten down or defeated by setbacks, reversals, dismissals, and oversights in others’ evaluations of him. 

Even though Lin led his high school basketball team to a state championship in California in ’05-’06, he received no scholarship offers from big-time college programs.  Lin was a two-time All Ivy-League First Team member during the four years he played at Harvard, but still went undrafted by the NBA after graduating in 2010.  He signed with his hometown Golden State Warriors, played in the NBA’s D-League, was claimed and promptly waived by the Rockets last December, then was picked up by the Knicks on December 27. 

When the Knicks sent Lin down to the D-League’s Erie BayHawks, he responded with a triple-double (28 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists) in a game on January 20.  Three days later, he was back in New York and got his chance, which he has maximized, to say the least.  Among the most amazing feats on Lin’s increasingly impressive highlight reel was the 38 points he dropped on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on February 10.

Like Tim Tebow, Lin is very open about his Christian faith, although he hasn’t yet inaugurated a signature prayer posture (and hopefully he won’t!).  He is a humble, hard-working, team-player who can dish the ball just as well as he can score (he had 14 assists in the Knicks’ victory over my Dallas Mavericks on Sunday). 

While I’m grateful for this “feel good story of the year” in the sports world, the most Linspirational part of it to me is the fact that Lin’s beliefs, character, and talent are exactly the same as they were when hardly anyone knew who he was. 

As God’s children, we are called to walk in faith, integrity, and holiness, regardless of whether everyone is watching us or no one is.

Tim Tebow won his first NFL playoff game last Sunday night, leading his underdog Denver Broncos to a victory over the Pittsburg Steelers with an electrifying 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime.  The home crowd erupted in jubilant celebration and a record-setting Twitter tsunami was unleashed: 9,420 tweets per second, the most ever for a sporting event.  The Tebow faithful were more convicted and convinced than ever.  Doubters were once again scratching their heads in amazement and begrudgingly expressing admiration for Tebow’s ability to lead his team to thrilling wins.  Haters were left stewing in their own cynical juices.

In an article on Monday, Mark Kriegel praised Tim Tebow for what he believes is his most amazing trait of all, humility.  In spite of all of the criticism and ridicule that he has received for his open expressions of faith and his sometimes erratic play on the field, Tebow has refrained from uttering a single “I told you so” after a victory.  He simply (and consistently) thanks God and his teammates for making him look better than he is.  

Kriegel couldn’t resist a reference to Tebow 3:16, calling attention to the Denver quarterback’s intriguing stat of 316 passing yards against the Steelers.  Soon after the game, I saw a few friends’ Facebook statuses that read, “316: Coincidence?”  I didn’t want to rain on anyone’s faith parade or start any unnecessary debates, but, if I had chosen to comment, my answer would have been “Yes, just a coincidence.”  Tebow’s passing yardage on 10 completions was owing to his scrambling and throwing skills, his receivers’ abilities, the protection of his offensive line, and the coverage (or lack thereof) of the defensive secondary.  Does anyone really believe that God caused the other 11 of Tebow’s passes to be incomplete so that the divine math would work out to be exactly 316? 

I thought Kriegel made an astute observation when he noted that many people seem “intent on demeaning religion by cross-pollinating it with sports.”  If we profess to believe in a God who is so small and trivial that He fixes football games, no wonder so many people in our world are reluctant to believe in Him.          

Colin Cowherd shared an excellent commentary about Tim Tebow and the Broncos’ victory on his ESPN Radio show on Monday morning.  Though Cowherd is, by his own admission, not a religious person, he stated that he had absolutely no problem with Tebow’s faith because he sees him as being genuine and non-hypocritical.  According to Cowherd, Tebow is not one of those athletes who says, “I love God,” and then hits on the flight attendant on the flight home. 

What impressed Cowherd the most about Tim Tebow last Sunday was his apparent ability to forget his dismal performance in the previous three games and play as if it had never happened.  In December, Tebow had been “the worst quarterback since they invented the facemask,” Cowherd said.  Cowherd attributed Sunday’s extraordinary performance to Tebow’s faith, his “inner scoreboard” which allowed him to have “faith-based amnesia.”  He could follow going “0 for December” with the best game of his career on Sunday.  Cowherd stated, “I’m not into religion, but to deny what his faith does for him is silly.”  Well said! 

It’s not that Tim Tebow can’t mentally recall past disappointments and failures on the field, he just isn’t owned by them, debilitated by them, or defined by them.   

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

Faith-based amnesia! 

 

Noted journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 15 at the age of 62 from complications of esophageal cancer.  Through his writing, lectures, and debates, Hitchens was neither timid nor tempered in expressing his views about God.  Believing that the term “atheist” might erroneously suggest some room for ambivalence about the notion of Deity, he preferred a stronger and more definitive description of himself as an “antitheist.”  Hitchens, who identified the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as being “the real axis of evil,” offered a thorough presentation of his thoughts about religion in his 2007 book, God is Not Great.

As odd and counter-intuitive as it might seem, the fervor of Christopher Hitchens’ belief system and the tenacity with which he held to it offer a commendable model that Christians would do well to imitate in regard to their faith in Jesus Christ.

There was no mushy middle ground for Hitchens when it came to the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ.  “Hoping so” or “wishing so” was completely irrelevant to the discussion, and there was no room for sappy sentimentalism.  Either God is, or He isn’t.  Either Jesus is the divine Son of God and the world’s only hope for salvation, or He was a complete fraud.  Of course, for Hitchens, it was a certainty that God isn’t; he staked his life, his reputation, and his intellect on it.  He was sold-out, all-in, and unyielding in his convictions.  He would challenge anyone on the subject, no matter who it made uncomfortable, angry, or indignant. 

Am I as committed in my Christian faith as Hitchens was in his antagonism against it?         

As his cancer worsened and death grew more imminent, Hitchens preemptively ruled out any possibility of a death-bed conversion.  He warned friends not to believe him if, under the influence of palliative pain medication,  he seemed to waffle about his disbelief in God.  It would just be the drugs talking, he insisted.  A terminal disease would not be allowed to undermine the foundation of his belief system.  

Would I allow it to alter mine?

One of the qualities that made Christopher Hitchens so fascinating and frustrating to people was his deftness at being an equal-opportunity offender.  His opinions about issues and personalities were truly his own, defying established conventions and simplistic labels.  He was both vilified as a socialist liberal and ostracized for neo-conservatism and support for the Iraq war.  He not only offered scathing critiques of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore.  Even Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama could not escape his pointed pen and tongue.

It would have been far easier (and would have cost him fewer friends) if he had completely cast his lot with one “camp” or the other by clearly pledging his singular allegiance in partisan, “them” and “us” ideological conflicts.  He would have known where the safe ground was and which targets were strictly off-limits.  However, Hitchens would not allow himself to be confined within parameters and expectations that were determined by others.

Christians, also, should resist allowing their faith to be determined and their spiritual thinking limited by the imposition of the artificial boundaries of sectarian partyism, regardless of whether it is traditional or progressive, right or left, conservative or liberal.  One should seek to be Biblical, no matter how untidily it may fit into the prefabricated theological boxes of others.

Though the basis and object of our belief could not be more different, Christians should seek a “Hitchens kind of faith”: bold, courageous, unwavering, unapologetic, and uncompromising.          

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