Monthly Archives: December 2008

Did You Know It’s Still Christmas?

I can hear the groans already. “Still Christmas?? No! Please! I’m sick of Christmas!! Pleeeease let it be over with already!”

But actually it is still Christmas. You’ve heard of the “12 days of Christmas”? It’s more than just a song. On the church calendar Christmas actually does last through January 5. That’s twelve days. Count ’em.

In the old days this season of the church year used to be called “Christmastide.” Now I think they just call it the Season of Christmas.

The way we do Christmas in America contains a lot of irony. Technically, on the church calendar the Christmas season doesn’t start until Dec. 25. In America, though, Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier every year. When I was a kid, people started thinking about and decorating for Christmas after Thanksgiving. This coincided pretty nicely with the church calendar, because the season of Advent, which is sort of the build up to Christmas, a season of preparation and anticipation, begins soon after the Thanksgiving holiday.

But nowadays it’s not uncommon to begin seeing Christmas decorations in stores right after Halloween, if not before. (In a twist which almost seems indicative of two competing spiritual kingdoms, this past fall I heard that Halloween is the second most lucrative holiday of the year, behind Christmas.)

So by mid-November we’re already being treated to Christmas decorations, advertisements for Christmas toys, and even maybe an occasional Christmas carol interspersed in the ever-ubiquitous muzak. After Thanksgiving all the stops are pulled out, bringing the modern American Christmas frenzy into full swing.

It’s no wonder that this past Friday one of my colleagues at work was heard to say “I’m glad Christmas is over with. I’m sick of it.”

I didn’t listen to much Christmas music this year prior to the week of Christmas day. With two elderly relatives dying a couple weeks before and having spent the previous weeks waiting to hear of their fate, there just didn’t seem to be much room or inclination in my heart to think about Christmas this year.

That changed, though, when I attended a wonderful musical rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Clarence Brown Theatre here in Knoxville last Sunday. It made me realize I was becoming Scroooge-ish this year, and the delightful production helped revive the Christmas spirit for me.

So by Monday I was ready to hear some Christmas music. One of the local Christian radio stations devoted the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas to playing Christmas music, so carols weren’t hard to find on the radio.

Due to my work schedule I wasn’t able to be with family on Christmas day this year, but instead knew I wouldn’t see them until this weekend (Dec. 26-28). So this year I was thankful to remember that Christmas lasts beyond the 25th. Therefore as I was driving to work on the morning of Dec. 26, I was ready to hear some more Christmas music.

To my dismay I clicked on the radio to discover that the channel which had been blaring non-stop Christmas music the day before, and for an entire month previously, was now suddenly back to their regular playlist again. Not a Christmas carol to be heard anywhere! All that build-up, and now they were moving on as if nothing important or special had happened at all! Almost as if they, like everyone else, were sick of Christmas, too, and just ready to get back to “normal life.”

Bah humbug.

That’s when it struck me how backwards we have this whole Christmas thing. The four weeks before Christmas Day are supposed to be Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation and preparation (namely to ready our hearts to celebrate Jesus, not to wear ourselves out getting all set for the grand Gift Exchange). That’s supposed to be the build-up to Christmas. Then Christmas Day is supposed to be a day of joy and wonder at “what God hath wrought” in Jesus.

Instead, though, we’ve allowed it to become a time in which everyone works themselves silly buying presents, and wrapping gifts, and decorating trees and houses and yards, and staging parties (with one or more to attend every week, it seems), and…and…I’m out of breath. No wonder everyone’s sick of Christmas by the time Dec. 26 rolls around.

Bah humbug.

But I think that’s where the beauty and the pleasant surprise of Christmastide comes in, the fact that Christmas is a season and not just a day. Now that all the hustle and bustle is over, we can take a breather. Now we can take some time to actually reflect on the meaning of the holiday, because we rarely have time for that before the 25th.

I assume the Christian radio station quit playing Christmas carols on Dec. 26 out of ignorance. Sadly, even many of us in the church have lost touch with the rhythms and cadences of the church calendar. Being somewhat of a liturgical rebel myself I’ll be the first one to say I don’t think we should be legalistically bound to the church calendar. I think it adds freshness to our celebrations when we change things up from time to time and from year to year. This year it really helped me enjoy Christmas by not listening to or singing Christmas carols until a few days before the 25th.

But at the same time, when we’ve so completely lost sight of the fact that it’s still Christmas, then maybe it’s time to be reminded. To that Christian radio station, and to my friend at work, I want to say: “Not so fast. Let’s allow it to be Christmas a little while longer. I’m really just starting to enjoy it now. Let’s allow ourselves time to reflect on what Christmas really means.”

After all, if we can get past all the busyness of Christmas and remember what it’s really about, on some level wouldn’t we like it to be Christmas all year ’round? We only get sick of Christmas if we lose sight of the real point. It’s not about the tree or the presents or the parties or the snow we wish we had or the mistletoe or all the rushing here and there. It’s about love and peace and goodwill and joy. Those are things I’d like to carry with me through the year.

I have a friend who grew up in a denomination that didn’t observe the liturgical calendar. He discovered the church calendar late in life and has found it to be a great source of comfort and structure for his faith. This same friend makes a practice every year of wishing his friends “Merry Christmas” between December 25 and January 5. I think he’s onto something there.

So to all my friends out there I want to wish you a very merry Christmas, as well as a blessed and prosperous new year. And I hope you’ll take a little time between now and the 5th to continue to reflect on the meaning of this blessed season, when we remember that God became one of us in order to reconcile us to himself.

“…In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” – 2 Cor 5:19 (RSV). In recent years that’s become one of my favorite verses. It reminds me that God’s disposition toward us is not to keep track of our sins, but to do away with them, so that we may be reconciled to him.

Merry Christmas.

Overcoming the Accuser

Rev 12:10-11

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death….”

(NIV)

Lately I’ve been thinking about that phrase “the accuser of our brothers”–actually “the accuser of our brethren” as it’s more commonly quoted from the King James version.

Many evangelicals seem to love the King James. I didn’t grow up in the evangelical church, so the whole King James thing passed me by. But this phrase is one of many that have stuck with me as I’ve often heard them quoted in evangelical circles. Of course “accuser of the brethren” refers to the adversary of God and of his people, most commonly known as Satan or the devil.

This idea has been on my mind lately because I’ve been seeing evidence of Satan’s accusing activity in my own life. Of course, I’m most keenly aware of it when I feel wrongly accused. But then I have to stop and ask myself, when have I accused others unfairly?

In this blog I want to consider what it means to say that Satan–or as a friend likes to call him, “ol’ what’s-his-name”–is the accuser of the brethren.

Notice first he is the accuser “of the brothers.” In Bible-speak that means the Christian community. It’s significant to realize that the enemy is the accuser primarily of Christians, of believers in Christ. I’m fairly certain the devil accuses everyone when he gets the chance, but this verse indicates his primary target is believers.

In this world of ours you don’t have to look far to see evidence of the devil’s accusing activity. Daily Christians are being accused in the media, in books, in movies, on the news, at work, in songs on the radio. Pretty much anywhere you go you can hear Christians being accused of being hypocritical or judgmental or stupid. Certain atheists and other unbelievers accuse Christians of being a threat to society and to the well-being of the world. Some evolutionists have accused Christian proponents of creationism or intelligent design as threats to “truth” and our educational system. In countries such as North Korea, China, and various Muslim nations, Christians are accused of all kinds of illegal activities (including proselyting, which many of these countries have outlawed) and are persecuted, even arrested or killed, as a result.

Have you ever wondered why so many see Christians in this way? Could it be because our enemy is accusing us to the world?

Let me point out that in the context of the passage from Revelation, I’m not sure it matters whether Christians are guilty or innocent of the things they’re being accused of. In fact, at times some of the accusations leveled against believers might be justified. Let me give a simple personal example: If someone were to accuse me of lust, envy, pride, anger, or selfishness (just to name a few), the accusations would likely be true. I’ve been guilty of all those things at one time or another. Likewise, some of the accusations that certain Christians are hypocritical or judgmental are true (to name another example).

But in the Revelation passage, the issue is not whether believers are guilty or not, the issue is that the enemy is accusing them. Constantly, it says–day and night. And, in fact, the implication is that Satan is accusing us of things of which we are guilty, for the passage describes him as accusing us “before God” day and night.

But notice also that it says how the believers overcame him:

by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.

These Christians overcame the accuser and his accusations “by the blood of the Lamb.” Of course, this is a reference to Christ and his atoning death on the cross. As believers we don’t depend on good works to save us or to make us right with God. We depend solely on Jesus’ blood, which, as 1 John 1:7 says, “purifies us from all sin.”

So in Revelation 12, the issue is not necessarily that the accusations of the devil against believers are not true, it’s that Christians rely on the blood of Christ to cleanse us of any and all accusations which might or might not be true, so that the accusations have no power.

The image evoked by this passage is one of a courtroom. In a court of law, the prosecuting attorney is constantly accusing the defendant of whatever crimes it is he or she is being tried for. In this passage, Satan is the prosecuting attorney accusing us of our sins. However, Jesus’ blood renders the accusations of the devil against us null and void. It’s not necessarily that we didn’t do what we were accused of, it’s that Jesus’ blood washes us clean of our guilt and causes the enemy’s accusations to become meaningless. There is no longer any basis on which to accuse us, because Christ’s blood has made us clean and whole.

In light of the courtroom image, the language in the passage about the “the word of their testimony” is seen in a new light as well. Of course, this refers first and foremost to our testimony about the mighty works of our victorious God on our behalf. It also refers to our personal testimony of what God has done in our lives.

But I wonder if there’s not another dimension to it, too. Thinking about the ideas of accusation and testimony from the perspective of a courtroom, could “the word of their testimony” also refer to testimony like that of a witness who is sharing evidence in defense of another person? Could “the word of…testimony” by which believers overcome the accusations of the devil also be our testimonies on behalf of one another–testimonies that serve as reminders of what Christ has done on our behalf? I’m still pondering this, but in light of the courtroom image the terminology in this passage has caused me to consider it in a new light.

Now as I ponder this, I’m struck by the fact that many of us have this matter of accusation all backwards. We see God as the accuser. Many people imagine God sitting up in heaven waiting for us to screw up so he can have something new of which to accuse us. Some think God is just aching for a reason to send someone, anyone to hell. We see God as looking for an opportunity to punish us.

But that’s not the picture of God presented in the Bible. Scripture says “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19, NIV). In another place it tells us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world” (John 3:17, NIV). Salvation was God’s idea. His purpose was not to accuse us or to condemn us, but to rescue us. His intention was to reconcile us to himself, to not count our sins against us. That’s why he sent Jesus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16-17, NIV).

Not only that, but God’s purpose of rescuing us goes all the way back to the beginning of time. Consider the following verses:

Matt 25:34-35
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
NIV

Eph 1:3-4
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
NIV

1 Peter 1:18-21
18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
NIV

God’s purpose from the beginning was to save us, not to condemn us.

So why has God gotten such a bad rap? Why is God so often seen as the one who accuses us?

I think this also is the result of Satan’s accusing work. Not only does the enemy accuse the children of God, but he also accuses God himself. This is one of the devil’s most clever ploys: to turn the tables and accuse God of being the accuser of humanity, while in fact Satan himself is the one who actually fits that description. The enemy’s scheme has been to try and make God look as bad as possible, accusing him of all sorts of horrible things. The enemy’s reason for doing this is in order to prevent people from believing in God and turning to him to be saved.

And Satan’s work of accusing God has been very successful. Listen to all the terrible things people accuse God of daily. I’ve heard and read more than one interview in which atheists have accused the God of the Bible of being petty and hateful and vengeful and violent and cruel. (By the way, I’m convinced that atheists don’t really believe there is no God; in reality they are very angry with God and so the way they get back at him is by pretending he doesn’t exist. But deep in their hearts, even the most committed atheists know there is a God. They just don’t like him. But that’s a topic for another blog.)

So anyway, my point is that we need to realize it’s Satan who’s the real accuser, and not God. God’s purpose is to save. It is God’s enemy whose goal is to hurt people.

As I pointed out earlier, evidence of the devil’s accusing work is all around us in the world. The enemy accuses us to the unbelieving world and they do not recognize where these thoughts are coming from. Unbelievers daily accuse Christians of all manner of evil. And unfortunately, some of it is true, which just adds fuel to Satan’s fire.

But it’s not just to the unbelieving world that the devil accuses Christians. He also accuses us to one another. Indeed, some of the most sharp accusations against believers come from other Christians.

I believe Satan is having a field day using accusation in the church today. I can’t remember a period in my own lifetime when Christians were so accusing in their statements about other believers as we often hear today. Could it be that the enemy is whispering accusations in our ears against other Christians, and we are not discerning it?

Now let me quickly admit that I’ve been guilty myself. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve allowed accusing thoughts against other believers to dominate my thinking for years at a time. I’ve spoken many a critical word of individuals and groups in the church. I’ve accused some groups of being too liberal, and others of being pharisaical. I’ve accused some believers of not treating me the way I think I should be treated, and others of excluding me because I felt like I didn’t belong. And I could go on. So I’m not meaning to just point the finger at others.

But I’m coming to believe that the effects of accusation within the body of Christ are devastating, and we’re seeing the results today. Accusation manifests itself when denominations criticize and exclude each other because of differing beliefs. We see accusation at work when people who prefer contemporary worship can’t abide with those who worship best in a more traditional setting, and vice versa. When Christians divide along racial lines or doctrinal lines, often accusation comes into play.

A lot of times, though, I think the accusations Christians level against each other are actually just petty. It’s not uncommon to hear Christians accuse other Christians of being boring, or of fitting some negative stereotype. Believers accuse other believers of not dressing up enough for church, or of dressing up too much for church; of looking too evangelical or of not looking evangelical enough; of being too predictable or of not being predictable enough; of being too contemporary or too traditional; of going to a church that’s too big or one that’s too small; of being too conservative or too liberal, and on and on and on. Could it be that the source of all these accusations is Satan himself?

The church in our day is incredibly fragmented, and I believe it’s because the accuser of the brethren has largely had his way with the us, and for the most part we’ve played right along without ever questioning it. The accuser has been accusing Christians to one another, and we have not discerned it. The devil has whispered “That church is too boring, you don’t want to go there anymore” and Christians have been happy to comply. Or the whisper was “Those people don’t really love you. They don’t really care anything about you. Why hang around there anymore?” Or “That new hip church across town is where it’s at. No need to stay at this one any longer.” Or “The people in that church over there don’t know Jesus like you do.”

Sometimes the whispers are about individuals. “Don’t you wish she didn’t wear her hair in such an unattractive way…?” the enemy whispers into our unsuspecting ears. “He talks too much.” “She’s a colossal bore.” “He’s conceited.” “She’s too fat. If she really knew God she would take better care of herself.” “He uses too much Christian lingo. That seems fake. You’re more sincere than that.” “Don’t you wish she would get her act together?” “He’s judgmental.” “She’s unspiritual.” And the examples go on an on an on.

My observation is that some of Christians’ harshest critics are other Christians. A common example is that some believers almost seem to scrutinize Christian art as if they expect it to be of very poor quality. Christians are accused most vehemently by other Christians of being the least talented group of people on the planet.

I have come to wonder how much shame plays a role in all this. I wonder if one reason Christians are so quick to criticize each other is that we’ve internalized a lot of the secular world’s accusations against us, and this has tapped into our shame, which everyone on the planet has a healthy dose of due to the fall. Deep down we believe many of the accusations of the world against us, and so we join with the world in criticizing one another. But I think if we could strip away the veil we very well might see the accuser of the brethren at work behind all that shame and accusation.

I believe the church is so divided today in part because we haven’t discerned the accuser when he’s been whispering in our ears. As a result we’ve been unwitting victims of his plan, which is to divide us in whatever way he can, and pit us against each other. The devil’s goal is to cause us to forget that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12, NIV). If he can get us fighting each other instead of him then he’s won a major victory.

Now obviously, this doesn’t mean we don’t use discernment. This doesn’t mean we ignore genuine problems in our relationships or in the body of Christ that need to be addressed. This doesn’t mean we never call someone out when they need to be confronted. This doesn’t mean we never distinguish between right and wrong or between good and evil.

But (obviously) there’s a difference when the Spirit of God is at work versus when the devil is doing his accusing work. The conviction of the Holy Spirit brings peace, genuine repentance, and restoration. The accusations of the enemy bring strife, division, depression, and confusion. When the Holy Spirit leads us to confront someone, he always leads us to “speak the truth in love.” The devil just accuses. When the Spirit of God is at work the body’s built up and fortified. When we listen to the accuser, the body’s injured and torn asunder.

I want to call on believers, including me, to be more aware of the accuser’s work. When we start having negative thoughts towards each other, maybe that’s the time to step back and consider where they’re coming from. And I think one possible clue is, if the things about other believers that are bothering us are petty in nature, then that’s probably not God at work. More likely it’s someone else.

But perhaps the enemy’s most devastating accusations against us occur when he accuses us to ourselves. “You’re worthless,” he says. “No one could or would want to love you. Not even God.” The enemy’s attacks in this way are so subtle that often we don’t recognize them as coming from him. But he is accusing us to ourselves. It’s imperative that we discern the enemy’s assault on us in this way and declare to the enemy and to ourselves the truths of what God says about us in his Word.

A house divided against itself can’t stand. The enemy has done a pretty able job of dividing us, against one another and against ourselves. Maybe it’s time to stop listening to his accusations and to start telling “ol’ what’s-his-name” where he can go. It’s time to recall what Christ has done for us on the cross and to claim the merits of his blood to overcome the accusations of the enemy. It’s time for us to start bearing witness to the wonders of God in our lives, and to give testimony on one another’s behalf, protesting each one’s innocence before God and before a watching world. And if we love not our lives unto death, then the enemy can’t use his weapons of fear, doubt, and shame against us.