The Ante-Magnificat

four_col_Magnificat_MSI don’t celebrate Christmas. Not really. And I don’t say, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” because I don’t believe He was ever there. At least not in what our culture has come to know as Christmas. But before you paint me with pine tar and turkey feathers and run me out of town on a yule log, please hear me out.

What we call, “Christmas,” today is an event fueled by commercialism, secularism, romanticism, and paganism.  I have no problem with celebrating the birth of Christ. None at all. I love Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.” I like turkey and cranberries. I give special gifts to the people I cherish. I value time with my family. I like the smell of balsam firs and freshly-baked cookies. I enjoy times of quiet contemplation and nighttime walks in the snow. I love reading O. Henry’s, “The Gift of the Magi” and “Gian-Carlo Menotti’s, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” But none of these things has any real bearing on the Incarnation.

So when December rolls around, I begin doing two things every year: studying the gospel account of the birth of Christ, and listening to Handel’s MESSIAH. Each of these activities helps me to focus on my real appreciation for this time of year, disconnected as it is from the more likely timing of the Incarnation around Passover. One of my goals as I undertake my annual reading and listening is to learn something new.

This year, Madeleine and I are reading Luke’s account of Christ’s birth together. In Luke 1, I was struck with two things.

The first is the fact that Zechariah, John’s father, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, ask the Angel Gabriel the same question: “How?”

Upon hearing the announcement of the barren Elizabeth’s delivery of a son in her old age, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (LUK 1.18) Gabriel tells him he will be mute until John’s birth: “…because you did not believe my words.” Zechariah’s question is related to the possibility of John’s conception.

Jesus’ conception was even more improbably than John’s, though they were both miraculous. When Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Son of God, she also asks, “How?”  Her question concerns the process of Jesus’ conception, not the possibility: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (LUK 1.34) She believes the angel, but wonders how God will bring this about.

The same question. Two different reasons for asking it.

The second thing I noticed this year is Mary’s summation of her exchange with the Angel Gabriel. After he explains how she will conceive and tells her that Elizabeth is already pregnant, he reminds her that “…nothing will be impossible with God.” (LUK 1.37) In the next verse, Mary responds simply, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Would that God would give me Mary’s believing heart and submissive will!


Make Yourself Comfortable


It’s MESSIAH time again, as it is at this time every year. I usually begin listening to Handel’s monumental work in early December, and play it many times before Christmas. It has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I have most of it memorized. I never tire of it, and every year I determine to learn something new, something of value to my soul that will help me to grow closer to the Subject of the oratorio.

It didn’t take long this year. After the intense orchestral prelude, the tenor sings:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” ~ Isaiah 40.1-2

That first word–“comfort”–hit me like a bus. It’s what I need this year. I began to think about comfort and Christmas, but especially about comfort and Christ.

Isaiah is speaking to Israel, but His words reach into the nation’s distant future, when her King will return to decimate her many enemies and establish theocracy as global governance with righteousness, justice, and peace. Given the state of God’s chosen people in Isaiah’s day (and ours) and the magnitude of their impending judgment, the promise of comfort would have come as a welcome reassurance to a believing Jew.

Comfort–real, lasting comfort–comes from God alone. Despite their best intentions, even the most dearly loved family members and most well-intentioned members of the Body cannot provide it without His help. Comfort is God’s domain.

Isaiah looks ahead to Israel’s restoration. Her geographical and political restoration have already occurred, as Isaiah and many of the other Old Testament prophets said it would millennia ago. Isaiah asks rhetorically,

“Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” ~ Isaiah 66.8a

The unexpected answer is, “Yes!” On 13 May 1948, Israel did not exist. On 14 May, it did. At 4:16 PM on 14 May, Israel did not exist. At 4:17, it did. Regardless of what one thinks of the Jewish people, Israel is here to stay. God clearly stated in many Old Testament Scriptures that He would take them back to the land He gave them through their patriarch, Abraham. And there they are. He also promised that He would make them a righteous nation–one that would truly love and obey her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah’s promise of comfort to Israel also comes with the promises of  peace and pardon–neither of which Israel enjoys now.

Still looking ahead to Israel’s final restoration, Isaiah writes,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.”     ~ Isaiah 49.13

And again,

“I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets  himself to destroy?” ~ Isaiah 51.12,13

How can God offer comfort to His people? To anyone?

Paul of Tarsus, the Turkish Apostle, answers this question in his second canonical letter to the church in Corinth:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” ~ 2 Corinthians 1.3,4

Jehovah God is the “God of all comfort,” and the Lord Jesus–God in Flesh, Immanuel, “God With Us”–spent the bulk of His ministry comforting the afflicted. He healed the sick, restored hearing to the deaf, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, fed the hungry, reassured the sorrowful, and cast demons out of people possessed. After His resurrection, when He was about to return to the Father, He told His disciples that He would give them another Comforter–another Helper–who would be with them forever:

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”                       ~ John 14.16,17

Those who do not have the Holy Spirit, or do not even believe He exists–cannot know real comfort. The laws and trappings of religion, the traditions of families and cultures, even the ministrations of loved ones cannot approximate the comfort that comes from The Comforter.

Why is comfort on my mind this Christmas? This is the first Advent season in forty years that I have experienced without the marvelous woman I married in 1977. Only the “God of all comfort” has been able to treat the wound in my heart, which may seep for years to come. But His grace is more than sufficient, and the “comfort and joy” of which the familiar carol speaks has been our portion as we have celebrated this Christmas together without our beloved wife and mother.

But, as Paul says, comfort–like grief itself–is a stewardship. It is not something to simply receive. It is something to pass on to others who need it. Perhaps you need comfort this Christmas, as well. Seek it from the One Who can provide it because it His very nature. The Incarnation is not just about a Baby in a manger. It is more about a Saviour on a cross and a King on a throne.

Donna is not with us, but God is “with us,” and she is with Him. Together–she from there, we from here–we look forward to that glorious day in which the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will rule the earth with righteousness, justice, and peace.

Comfort and joy.

Is Anyone Listening?


As I do each year at this time, I’m drenching myself in my all-time favourite piece of music, Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah. Driving down the Queensway here in Ottawa, I sing along with it at the top of my lungs, conducting the London Philharmonic with my free hand. My absorption would probably be classified by an OPP officer as distracted driving–it would be interesting to argue that case in traffic court.

I never tire of this masterpiece, and can even forgive Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, for taking some biblical passages out of context. One of my earliest childhood memories involves this music—but that’s another story for another post. I learn something new every time I listen to Messiah, and I am prompted to contemplate different aspects of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus the Christ as dots from all over the Bible are connected in my mind.

Last year, it was the fact that religion fails to offer any savior—the True God is mankind’s only Saviour! This year, I was struck with the the motif of the “voice of the Lord” in the early passages. After the overture, the tenor starts by calling out through Isaiah to the listener—and to the nation of Israel (which, unfortunately, is not listening):

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”  

On my recording, Philip Langridge continues through the early verses of Isaiah 40 and then the chorus breaks in and sings,

“And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The next singer is Ulrik Cold, the bass, who dramatically connects the words of the prophets Haggai and Malachi:

“For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” 

Throughout human history, God has spoken—in fact, the universe itself is a product of the voice of the Lord. The phrase, “And God said…,” appears nine times in the first chapter of Genesis alone. The writer of Hebrews starts out with a summary of how God has spoken through the ages:

“Long ago, at many times and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (HEB 1.1-4)

Thinking of the voice of the Lord takes me to one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 29, which is a riveting description of a huge storm that moves across Palestine from north to south. It makes landfall on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and rips through Israel until it finally runs out of steam at Kadesh. As David looks on in awe, possibly from a cave, thunder cracks and roars through the valleys. Lightning splinters the stately cedars of Lebanon. Howling winds strip oaks of their leaves. Billowing black clouds obscure the sun. Driving rain drenches the land and causes the wadis and rivers to overflow their banks.

In contemporary Canaanite literature, Psalm 29 would have been considered an ode to JHWH, God of the Storm–much like one would encounter in Nordic sagas or Wagner’s operas. It is far more than that.

If the Bible is the metanarrative of history–and it is–then Psalm 29 is a metapoem. Using the storm as a palette, David paints a picture not of Mother Nature having a hissy fit, but of the eternal and sovereign Father God making a speech. The motif he uses is, “the voice of the LORD”, a phrase which is repeated six times between the initial call to worship and the closing petition.

The psalm opens with an exhortation not to people, but to angels. David commands celestial beings to observe a fearsome terrestrial event and join the people of JHWH in ascribing to God “glory and strength”. It ends with the benediction, “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!”

The “heavenly beings” obeyed God’s command given through David. When they appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, these same angels shouted, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”  (Luk 2.14)

As the shepherd-king David heard the booming voice of God when He ravaged Palestine with that violent storm, so the shepherds who went to worship the King of Kings that night in Bethlehem of Judea heard His voice. But it sounded very different. The voice of the Lord was the wail of an Infant, and His contented cooing as His young mother put Him to her breast. Most appropriately, those shepherds heard the voice of the Lord as the helpless bleating of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (JOH 1.29)

This Christmas may not be as festive as others have been. As I type this post through my tears, my wife lies in a hospital bed on the other side of the city, suffering through the effects of pancreatic cancer and its treatment. But even though it may not be a festive holiday, it can still be a joyous one. Because God has spoken–at creation, in that storm David watched, through the prophets of old, and finally, through His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ–as I drive down the Queensway to visit my wife, I can sing with the London Philharmonic Choir those tender, comforting words of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 11.30:

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

God still speaks to us on the pages of the holy Scriptures. Oh, dear friend, I beg you: Listen to the voice of the Lord!

To read a longer essay on Psalm 29, click here.

Image is from ACT Emergency Services Agency.

A Very Dangerous Baby

There is no reason to celebrate Christmas.

No biblical reason, that is. No mandate. We are commanded by Christ to remember His death, but not His birth. Even so, this can be a spiritually significant time of year for someone searching for truth.

The significance of Christmas is that it produces love for the Saviour rather than slavery to a system; confident service rather than fearful compliance; devotion to others rather than absorption with self; grateful contentment rather than futile accumulation; assurance of glory rather than fear of death; anticipation of reward rather than dread of judgment.

Reckoning with the Christ of Christmas is a dangerous business.

Reckoning with the Christ of Christmas is a dangerous business. He will challenge the assumptions of your mind and the authority of your teachers. He will shatter your worldview and alter your very purpose for living. He will expose the futility of this world and give you the assurance of eternal life. He will redefine love and cast out fear. He will become your benchmark of truth and smash all that contradicts it. He will eradicate loneliness and become your constant Friend.

Dispel from your thinking the commercial image of the Christ of Christmas as a cuddly infant. He is the Creator God who spoke the universe into being by the word of His mouth; the coming Judge who will punish sin and condemn sinners; the selfless Saviour who gave His own sinless life in exchange for the lives of the vilest offenders; the conquering King who extends mercy to His worst enemies.

Do not take lightly this coming of God to earth. It is the watershed event of human history. Do not be misled: one day you will stand before the Christ of Christmas and give account for yourself. Your eternal destiny will pivot not on the goodness of your deeds or the cheeriness of your disposition; but, rather, on whether you trusted in Him or in whatever you are trusting now. His standard for judgment will be absolute holiness—something that, despite your devotion to religious practices or human needs or noble causes you cannot provide for yourself. Only He can impute it by His grace; and you can receive it only by faith in Him, by depending only upon His work on your behalf—the work that began in a borrowed manger, was completed on a Roman cross, and culminated in an empty tomb.

Why I Nearly Whacked Myself on the Head in Heavy Traffic

handelsmessiah-lThe other day I was coming home from a meeting with a dear friend and listening to Handel’s MESSIAH on my car stereo. My collar was pulled up around my scarf and one of my beautiful Ecuadorian Quechua toques (that’s Canadian for woolen knit cap) was pulled down over my ears and almost over my eyes.

I memorized MESSIAH as a child–we listened to it often, and it is still one of my all-time favourite works of any genre. But as with many other things we know well, I have not always paid careful attention to the text. I can still learn something when I hear it.

Which is why I nearly whacked myself on the head in heavy traffic.

The soprano (Felicity Lott, in this case) was singing about the message the shepherds received from the angel there on the Judean hillside, and the words of Luke 2.11 hit me like a bus:

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“That’s it!” I nearly screamed to nobody in particular. I caught my hand in mid-whack, just before it did me serious injury.

“There’s no Saviour!”

Under all those hand-knit llamas I had an Aha! moment.

Now I actually understand my last blog post, the one about bad news. The bad news about religion–any religion–is that it provides no saviour! Oh, it outlines a way to salvation, but a way to salvation and a saviour are two very different things.  Listen to what the Bible says about the “way to salvation” concocted by the founders of the world’s religions, under the direction of “the god of this world”:

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 16.25)…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.6)…Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7.13,14)

Because it can provide no Saviour, religion proposes a way to salvation. People either can’t decide which way to take, or they blaze their own trail, or they simply follow the crowds because it’s all they know to do.

But religion enslaves people. Religion controls and confuses people. It terrifies them. And eventually it destroys them.

Satan spent the Old Testament trying to prevent the coming of the Saviour, then worked hard to eliminate Him once He came. He isn’t concerned about all those presumed ways to salvation–after all, he invented them. He knows he is doomed to eternal fire, and wants to take as many people with him as he can. If they are on some religious road, and he doesn’t care which one, he knows he has them.

It’s the Saviour who terrifies him. And it’s the Saviour who said. “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6, ESV)

So if you’re one of those who thrives on bad news, here it is. Religion, because it can provide no saviour for you, leaves you to be your own saviour. As if you could.

Bad news doesn’t get any badder than that.

Image of MESSIAH manuscripts is from the British Library.

Why Do We Love Bad News?

We have an appetite for bad news.

Such an appetite, it turns out, that newspaper publishers understand good news just doesn’t sell. A Pew Research survey conducted in 2007 concluded that Americans, for instance, were still most interested in reading about war, bad weather, disaster (man-made first, then natural), money, crime, and social violence–in that order. Roy Greenslade observed in The Guardian a few years back that “people’s interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life.” Bad news wakes us up because it shakes us up.

Bad news wakes us up because it shakes us up.

I’ve never been what one would call a news hound, but I am interested in what’s going on in the world. We don’t take a paper–I got sick of paying an outrageous amount for page after page of godless drivel–poorly written and even more poorly edited. Despite its great musical programming (especially Tempo, with Ottawa’s fabulous Julie Nesrallah), our national broadcasting system is so far out in left field it appears to have climbed the fence, run up the steps, and leaped off the top tier of bleachers. Even when I can find a more conservative news agency, I notice there is indeed something conspicuously absent from the stories.

Good news.

From a spiritual standpoint, much of the world is also fixated on bad news. Despite the abundance of professing infidels, most people embrace religion in some form. And the religions of the world, like the news outlets of the world, thrive on bad news. Not a single one offers hope, joy, assurance, freedom, or purpose.

Good news at this time of year–one of the few times people are interested in it– revolves around such things as little children thinking of people other than themselves, a major retailer ending the year in the black, the quick arrest of a perverted Santa in the men’s room of a mall, renewed funding for body piercing research, or families adopting ferrets with crippling emotional issues. All uplifting, to be sure, but in light of the really bad news that’s out there, lacking in protein.

But many years ago, some poor shepherds out in a field got some good news in the middle of the night that changed their lives forever. Theirs and mine.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’

This biblical text from the Gospel According to Luke* (a first-century Greek physician) records a newscast from heaven that frightened the viewers out of their wits. Did you catch that description, “filled with great fear?” They were scared spitless. But the angelic messenger reassured them that he had great, joyful news–not just for them, but for everyone.

The gospel of Jesus is good news. In fact, that’s what the word, “gospel”, means–good news. And it’s simple: God the Creator, who is holy and eternal and just and gracious, took it upon Himself to solve the problem of sin by giving Himself a human body, entering history as a baby born of a virgin, living a sinless life, and then dying the cruelest death imaginable as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Three days later, having satisfied the righteous wrath of God, He rose from the dead, conquering the power of death and hell, and left this world as miraculously as He entered it.

But the news gets even better. By faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, the God-man, anyone can appropriate His righteousness–the only righteousness God will accept–and know beyond even the slightest doubt that he or she will spend eternity in heaven with the very God who made us. We need do nothing–because we can do nothing–but receive the gracious gift of salvation God offers us. News just doesn’t get any better than that!

Ordinarily one would hardly die for a righteous person; but still for a good person someone might perhaps bring himself to die. But God proves His own love for us by Christ’s dying for us when we were still sinners.**

If you are a religious person, you need to ask yourself a question: “In my religion [pick a religion–any religion], what is the good news?”

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll make a disturbing discovery. There isn’t any.

*Luke 2.8-10, ESV                                                                                     **Romans 5.5-8, The Modern Language Bible

So, What’s Under the Blanket?

ALet’s face it. Some properties look better under a thick blanket of snow.

It covers up the worn roof shingles, the toys strewn across the yard, the unkempt flower beds, the piles of tires or used lumber, the rusty tractor that hasn’t run in decades.

Today as I was shoveling my driveway, I was admiring the beauty of the foot of snow that has fallen on our city. It’s stunning–white and glistening, sagging off the roofs like duvets being aired by European housewives. Fresh snow makes the world seem quieter, friendlier, more peaceful–and cleaner.

Now as I sit here watching it snow and listening to Handel’s Messiah, I am reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

Isaiah doesn’t say our sins will be covered as with snow. In the Old Testament economy, sins and blood were irrevocably connected, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb 9.22) The Hebrews were required to offer sacrifices for sin, and the job of the priest was much like the job of a butcher. Priestly garments were undoubtedly covered with blood, and the blood of animals provided a temporary covering for sin.

My wife and I are involved with a local furniture bank. Just the other day, a colleague and I were looking at a beautiful leather sofa that had been donated to the bank. It was of a rich chocolate colour, big and bulky and masculine–the perfect sofa for a man cave, we decided. But there was a problem. The middle cushion was torn.  It wasn’t a large tear, but the ugly gash in the leather rendered the entire piece of furniture flawed.

Blanket to the rescue! We decided that a nice throw would cover the tear and still allow the sofa to be used with pleasure by someone who needed it. Blankets don’t remove flaws. They only cover them. Were I to see a sofa like this in a furniture store, I would immediately ask, “So, what’s under the blanket?”

The other place where the phrase, “white as snow” is used in Scripture is in Daniel 7.9:

As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.

In Daniel’s vision, he saw Christ adorned in clothing as white as snow. It is more than coincidental to me that Christ is pictured in this way, with clothes of blinding white, signifying His purity and righteousness–the very righteousness He gives to those who trust Him as their only Saviour from sin, as Paul declares in 2 Cor 5.21:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Christmas not just about covering up our sin with something that looks nice but doesn’t remove what’s underneath. It’s about righteousness. The righteousness we don’t have and desperately need. The righteousness Jesus has and freely gives.

Isaiah promises that through Him who would come as a helpless infant in Bethlehem, our sins would not be covered by snow, but would become as the snow itself.

Only God can change scarlet to white, blood to snow. Only God can effect such a transformation in a human heart, so that when He whips off the blanket in the day of judgment, He sees in us the perfection of His own Son.

Scripture quotation, including Isaiah 1.18, are from the English Standard Version. The image is from the Alyeska Ski Resort.