Tag Archives: love

Christmas Traditions, Religious Ritual, and Christian Freedom

Most families have treasured Christmas traditions. The sending and receiving of Christmas cards. Buying Christmas gifts. Searching for and decorating the perfect tree. Attending the Christmas Eve Candlelight service. Gathering the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhole extended family together for a turkey dinner.

But it must seem strange to those from other religious backgrounds that evangelical Christians have no rigid religious rituals that they must observe. This will be especially so for Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Shinto friends for whom external rituals are prescribed. Our Orthodox, Ukrainian or Roman Catholic friends may even consider this lack of ritual as an erosion of faith. And for some this dearth of fixed traditions may indeed indicate disinterest or a lack of faith in the reality of Christmas.

But to understand gospel freedom from ritual, we must consider the differences between the Old and New Testaments; the old and new covenants. Out of a pagan culture rife with superstition, human sacrifice, cruelty and oppression God called Abraham to be the progenitor of a purified people living in a just society—Israel. God gave to Moses the laws for this new nation. To remind them of the Lord’s centrality in national life, God gave them daily rituals, Sabbath rules, and seven festivals which the people were required to keep: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Weeks or Pentecost, Trumpets or Rosh Hashanah, Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles. To these festivals Jews later added a seven day long festival, Chanukah, to celebrate the re-dedication of the temple in 165 BC after its desecration by the Syrians. Clearly, obedience to law and ritual was mandated for those under the old covenant. ???????????????????????????????

However, in the New Testament we search in vain for required rituals. There is nothing about how to celebrate Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost. We are free to innovate. Only two important ordinances—baptism and communion—are mentioned.

Why this lack of prescribed rituals in the new covenant? Because external religiosity always fails to generate genuine devotion. God’s purpose in the old covenant was to demonstrate how external ritual and law is powerless to make us holy; is totally incapable of changing our fallen natures. Israel’s utter failure to keep the old covenant paved the way for something new.

Jeremiah and Ezekieh saw this problem and predicted a new covenant: “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts”(Heb. 8:8,10). Hebrews explains, “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete”(Heb. 8:13).

Jesus came to introduce this new covenant, but in doing so repeatedly clashed with those who loved the external trappings of religion found in the old covenant. Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men”(Matt. 15:8-9). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside ???????????????????????????????but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean…inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”(Matt. 23:27). Very tough words.

Clearly, obeying God’s law of love from heart and mind is the key to being a new covenant person. But the problem, as the whole Old  Testament points out, has no human solution. “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked”(Jer. 17:9). For real devotion to occur, we need heart surgery and mental transformation. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again….of the Spirit”(John 3:3,5).

Paul explained what being born again means to Titus. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared [through Christ’s coming at Christmas] he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior”(Titus 3:4-6).

The new covenant question is not have you kept the traditions but have you been??????????????????????????????? reborn through the Holy Spirit? How does this come about? The instant, you or I, sincerely pray to God confessing our sins and believe in our hearts that Jesus died and rose again for our salvation, the Holy Spirit changes us from within. He creates a new heart that loves God and others. The work of transforming our lifestyle really begins.

Jesus came at Christmas to establish a new covenant people who worship God from the heart. Sadly, we often tend to prefer ritual and law over heart devotion. When some of the early church leaders sought to re-impose the old covenant laws, Peter stood and said: “”Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear”(Acts 15:10)?

And so we find no Christmas or Easter rituals in the New Testament. A call to celebration and worship? Yes! And a challenge to infuse everything we do with heart devotion to the glorious Triune God. Lord, with your help, may all our celebrations come from deep within. ???????????????????????????????

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Fallen Leaves and Learning Patience

November winds and rain have torn most of the leaves off our trees. The maples and aspens, the ash and ironwood stand stark and bare. Only the oak, beech and, of course, all the evergreens cling to their leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fallen leaves will increase the humus that enriches the forest soil in the years ahead. A wise neighbour has a sign by the road, Leaves Wanted. He obviously understands the potential that too many of us waste. He must be a patient man.

The production of humus and compost takes time, lots and lots of time. The production of character takes even more time—and patience. Sometimes we are too impatient with our children or with ourselves. Why am I making the same mistake again? Why haven’t I yet learned to trust God, to stop being anxious, to give thanks in every circumstance, or to know unshakeable peace?

Our impatience is understandable. We no longer have to churn our own butter or knit our own sweaters. We have fast food, lightning fast Internet, smart phones, and twitter. We want things and we want them yesterday. Could this omnipresent pressure to speed things up be one component that leads to failures in so many marriages and the low level of social discourse?

As someone has said, almost everything comes to those who wait. But we don’t want to wait. We want things to happen now, fast…including the development of our children’s character and the change in our partner.

However, Scripture is clear. “The fruit of the Spirit is…patience”(Gal 5:22) and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApatience is a crucial component of character. We don’t learn patience without going through difficulties over a period of time. And patience expressed over a long period of time is called, perseverance. “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom. 5:3-5). We’ll never see God’s love poured through our lives without developing character and that doesn’t come without persevering through trials.

Which of God’s promises do we want? More faith? More peace? More joy? “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised”(Heb. 10:36). “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

05-07-2007-10-12-28-171Patience is needed in every sphere of human endeavour and in every relationship. As we develop character marked by “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” we are able to “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another”(Col. 3:12,13). Isn’t that one of our great desires, to live in a community where we all get along?

Humus takes time to develop, so does patience. Let’s give each other time.

The Fragrance of a Fruitful Life

Soon the squirrels will be scouring the walnut, oak and beech trees for their nuts. Red Maple KeysIn the flower garden, pods have begun to develop on iris, columbine, and even the smiling pansies. Everything that grows pours its energy into producing seed that will perpetuate the species. How could we enjoy summer without strawberries and corn, cherries and melons, peaches and green beans?

What about fruit in the spiritual realm? “Are we fruitful?” As Jesus makes clear, fruitfulness distinguishes those who are truly His disciples. “Watch out for false prophets.…By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistle? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. …Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down anOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAd thrown into the fire”(Matt. 7:15-20). In verse 21 of this passage, Jesus clarifies that, in this context, fruitfulness is doing the will of the Father.

The will of the Father includes many things; central among them is that we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior. (See John 6:40, 3:15,16) In a moral sense, the ten commandments define God’s will for us, as do the commandments and teachings of Jesus which further illuminate the moral law. In terms of what we believe, we are fruitful if we believe what is true as revealed by God. Otherwise, as Jesus said in Matthew seven, we are false prophets. But beyond being true and right in our beliefs there must be love.

In essence, to be fruitful is to be loving. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.…and love your neighbor as yourself”(Matt. 22:37,39). Hence, a fruitful person is one who is ravished by God’s love and expresses that love for God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—deeply and sincerely. He is also one who is loving, forgiving, and compassionate in all his relationships with other people.

Paul further identifies the various facets of spiritual love asOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22,23) A life manifesting this kind of fruitfulness is influential. It lights up the place where the loving person lives. (Matt. 5:13-16) It raises questions in those who are not Christian. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have”(1 Peter 3:15).

Living things produce fruit in order to reproduce their species. While Christians should bear fruit to glorify God, that process of glorifying God should result in others being attracted to the gospel of grace. Maybe we all can’t be soul-winners, but we all should be so attractive that non-Christians seek us out as bees seek out the sweet nectar in flowers. Let’s pray to that end and be prepared to give a reason for our faith in Christ.