Redemption’s Happy Dawn

By / Dec 19

Perhaps more than any other holiday, Christmas gives us an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those we know. The mass marketing of Christmas items, the holiday meals and gatherings in our homes and workplaces, the opportunity to give gifts and cards, these and many other things present openings to invite people to consider Jesus.

Think about it, how often will someone ask you in the next several weeks, “what are you doing for the holidays this year?” What will you tell them? What is the first thing which comes to mind? If you are like me, most of the time you will simply give a polite answer about what your family plans are for the season. You know that is what the person who asked is expecting; they surely didn’t ask because they were expecting us to say anything significant. This is perhaps especially true when we are engaging with unbelievers. We know they have no interest in Christ, and we don’t want to embarrass them or ourselves, so we just let the opportunity pass.

But what if we simply replied to their casual question in this way, “I am going to church to celebrate Christmas. Would you like to come with me?” This past July, Tenth’s Session and Diaconate were presented with the results of a study done by The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. It points out a dramatic religious shift in the United States which they have labelled “dechurching.” As many as 40 million Americans who used to attend church have stopped doing so, mostly in the last 25 years. However, their study did point out an opportunity. When survey respondents were asked what it would take to get them back to church, the majority replied, “an invitation.”

I point this out because so often we forget that the most basic way we can begin the evangelization process is simply to invite someone to come to church. Sometimes we use the expression, “I was brought to faith in Christ.” How can we help “bring” someone to Christ? Where do we meet with Christ? While it is true that Christ indwells every believer by his Spirit, it is also true that God is especially present with his people when they gather for worship. How do the people of God become the people of God? By gathering in his name in corporate worship. It is in worship where we experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to be present and commune with his people. It is in worship where we receive the grace of God through the reading and preaching of his Word and the sacraments. This is not to say that God’s grace only operates within the confines of corporate worship, but it is the primary context where his church is built. The book of Acts describes the worship of the early church in this way: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47).

We all realize there are people who will attend church at Christmas time if not at other times of year. Why not invite that person to come to Tenth?

Each year Tenth highlights a theme at Christmas time. The purpose of this is so that year by year we might come to a greater understanding of our great Savior. This year’s theme is “redemption’s happy dawn,” words from the carol See, Amid the Winter’s Snow. Redemption reminds us that Christ came to pay a debt he didn’t owe, because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. This is “happy” news. The joy of the salvation Christ brought has fueled the praises of angels and the redeemed since the time of his birth, and will continue throughout eternity in the new heavens and the new earth. At Christmas time we also celebrate the dawn of redemption. Christ came to usher in the kingdom of heaven, to establish the new and better covenant, and to inaugurate the new creation. As the prophet Isaiah wrote long ago:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Though we still have darkness in this life, the life to come will be in a place where “night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). May these truths give us cause to praise our Great Savior ever more fervently this Christmas season.

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings,
Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King.”

Dawn on Our Darkness

By / Dec 6

As a Director of Music, Christmas 2021 was my worst nightmare! Last year, we had to cancel Lessons and Carols services because of a breakout of COVID among the musicians at Tenth. As preparations are now well underway for our Christmas services this year, I am reminded of another church musician who also had some Yuletide challenges. In 1818, Franz Gruber, organist and choirmaster at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria just north of Salzburg, found himself having to prepare for this high point of the Christian musical year without the use of the organ, which had fallen into disrepair. To put this into perspective, imagine having to prepare Christmas dinner without an oven! We can probably all identify which his anxiety. Would their Christmas Eve services be as dark and gloomy as a late December day? Would their celebration of Jesus’ birth somehow be “spoiled” by circumstances beyond their control?  

Darkness is a significant and powerful metaphor in Scripture often used to describe evil and its effects. Darkness is everything which is anti-God, everything which opposes God. The Apostle John writes, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).” Physical blindness in the Bible frequently symbolizes spiritual blindness. Sin has a blinding effect, making it impossible to see God or walk in His ways. Hence, sinful people are those who “love” or “walk” in darkness. “Fools” walk in the dark rather than in the light. Those who fall under the judgement of God are said to be cast into darkness, even as Egypt was wrapped in a plague of darkness, or the people of Israel themselves as they were carried off into the darkness of exile (see the book of Isaiah).  

The four weeks leading up to Christmas are traditionally referred to as “Advent” in the church calendar. Advent refers to the “coming” or “appearing” of Jesus Christ. The “Christian year” was developed by the Catholic Church centuries before the Reformation to highlight the major points of Christ’s redemption as given in Scripture and subsequently taught in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The Apostles’ Creed says that our Lord Jesus Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” (Christmas), “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified dead and buried” (Good Friday), “the third day He rose again from the dead” (Easter), “He ascended into heaven…” (Ascension), “…I believe in the Holy Ghost…” (Pentecost). Advent and Lent were both “penitential” seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter respectively. The Protestant Reformers rightly corrected the concept of Penance as a sacrament of the Church, so Advent is not observed in that way in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, hence Tenth’s fondness for singing Christmas carols during all of December!  

Nevertheless, the truth is Christ came into the world to save us from our darkness. Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness (John 12:46).” We cannot experience the wonder of who Christ is as the light of the world unless we have some concept of the depths of darkness into which sin has taken us. This is the reason why we confess our sins every time we come together as God’s people for worship. We not only need Jesus at Christmas, we need Him every week, every hour. Again, Christ said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” 

What could “spoil” Christmas for you this year? Does the prospect of missing out on your favorite holiday celebration or traditional family gathering worry you? Perhaps having to attend the family gathering bothers you! Are you alone for the first time this December? Will you miss a loved one this year? Are you in a life transition? Are you struggling with a particular sin in your own life or suffering deeply on account of another’s sin? Praise God, the good news of the gospel is, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).”  

How did Franz Gruber’s Christmas without the organ go? He wrote a melody for a new carol his minister Joseph Mohr had recently written, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. They sang it for the first time together at their Christmas Eve service, accompanied by a guitar. A literal translation of the original German verse 3 would read: 

Silent night, holy night, 
Son of God, oh how laughs 
Love out of your divine mouth, 
For now the hour of salvation strikes for us. 
Christ, in Thy birth! Christ, in Thy birth! 

We now sing verse 3 this way: 

Silent Night! Holy Night! 
Son of God, love’s pure light 
Radiant beams from Thy holy face, 
With the dawn of redeeming grace,  
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy birth. 

Son of God, Love’s Pure Light

By / Dec 8

“When will things go back to normal?” We have heard or perhaps thought this question many times over the course of this year. What is it about normalcy that is so appealing? Normality occurs when something changeable conforms to a type of standard or pattern. That standard might be a natural law, or another kind of regulation. The “normal” boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Public transportation systems have “normal” schedules. These regular patterns form the building blocks for individual life and entire societies. Circumstances can change what is normal. High altitude changes the boiling point of water, and a SEPTA strike may affect the bus system. Given enough pressure, normal things can become unpredictable, making life difficult. It is no wonder that, when things get tough, people generally look for something to anchor them, something solid, dependable, enduring.

The Bible teaches that God is immutable, that is, unchanging. In fact, he is the only being who is unaffected by anything outside of himself. That is why the Psalmist can confidently say, “God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). We can turn to him as our Rock in a weary land. We can go to him in private prayer and scripture reading, and we are bidden to come to him in corporate worship. God is also the one who orders all of Creation, and he holds back the forces that often impact our sense of normal: “By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs” (Psalm 65:5-8).

Is it not a wonderful gift each year to remember God’s great acts of redemption, especially the Incarnation of his Son at Christmas time and Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter? As we consider why Jesus had to come in the flesh, that he lived and died and was raised from the dead, we remember that he came to undo the effects of the Fall. He came to usher in a new Creation which would be safe from the cataclysmic effects of sin.

This year’s Lessons & Carols  theme is “Son of God, Love’s Pure Light,” familiar words from the carol “Silent Night.” The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Son became flesh. He who was unchanging took upon himself a human body and nature, subject to all the “normal” problems we all have: temptation, pain, weariness, sadness, hunger, and betrayal by friends. But what he came to accomplish is anything but “normal.” No, what Jesus came to do has eternal, unchanging implications. He came to bring us out of darkness into his wonderful light: “Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In him we see the love of God revealed: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). He came to give those who believe in him eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). So powerful and unchanging is the love of God in Jesus Christ that the Apostle Paul can say, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

What an awesome Savior we have! O come, let us adore him.

Beyond the Wardrobe

By / Dec 25

Lessons & Carols Service 2015

By / Dec 24