The Downside of Immanuel

Cornelius Plantinga:

We must not get cozy with the idea of Immanuel. It’s not just a notion of Christmas cards and hymns, offering just the right little movement of joy for late December. The fact is that we might not enjoy Immanuel very much at all. Peter found him reproachful. Pharisees heard the sound of a whip in his voice. And any seedy, shifty human being might find it disconcerting to be absolutely transparent to a person who never compromised with evil, never shifted ground to make a better appearance, never sacrificed integrity for the sake of getting on with others. Would we dare to have God with us? As Malachi puts it (3:2), ‘Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?’

                            —Deep Down Faith (Study Guide)

Top Advent Music, Books and Daily Devotional

Advent, the prime time to fix our hearts on Christ’s birth, began yesterday. Here are some suggestions to get you started as we prepare for the Christmas season.

 Seeking God’s Face: Praying With the Bible Through the YearPhilip Reinders


Following the church calendar seasons of Advent and Lent (as well as “ordinary time,” i.e. most of the year) the brief daily devotionals, which include daily readings from the Psalms, another brief Scripture passage, and a daily prayer that specifically references Reformed creeds and confessions (i.e. Heidelberg, Westminster, Belgic, etc.) in an unobtrusive and winsome way, this book–far from being arid or erudite– will greatly help orient you for the Christmas season (even though it’s not exclusively a Christmas book). If you’re already using a daily devotional, you can still use it with this one. Download a free Advent PDF sampler here.

On the IncarnationSt. Athanasius, with a Preface by C.S. Lewis41QQ3xAgoQL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_

I owned this small book for over a decade before finally reading it two years ago. Why did I wait so long? I can’t think of a better book to help fix your mind on Christ’s Incarnation. And Lewis sets the table as only he can do.


A Christmas Carolers’ Book in Song and StoryTorstein Kvamme

I extensively examined a myriad of Christmas carol 51thahYV3GL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_-2books, and this is the clear winner. Originally published in 1935, it was written by a Danish man named Torstein Kvamme. (With a name like that, he was simply predestined to write this book.) Containing 49 songs with lyrics and music, this is a straight up old-school (and predominantly sacred) Christmas caroling book, replete with readable brief song introductions and minimalist illustrations. It’s also highly portable, kid friendly, and cheap (yet not cheaply made). This year I’m buying multiple copies, for our family and guests. And if you plan on caroling, this is the book to use.


                                                  ChristmasBruce Cockburn

  Although originally released in 1992 by Canadian singer-songwriter 51CkXgFB5XL._AA160_Bruce  Cockburn, this album is in our family’s top three Christmas favorites. Containing stripped down acoustic music and harmonies with hints of French, Creole, and Mexican stylings, there’s not a dud on the album. Twenty years later, it’s one of the few modern Christmas albums that sounds as good as when it was released. At times joyful, at other times somber and pensive, it’s a beauty.


                                 ChristmasHarry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte’s collection of Christmas tunes is unparalleled. I first51X-Q2ZQ96L._AA160_ heard it in the mid-1990’s on our local classical music radio station (although it’s not classical music). I was immediately smitten. Now it’s in our top three Christmas albums. Whenever we have guests during the Christmas season, they inevitably ask about it. And his song “Goin Down Jordan”? It’s strangely out-of-place, but a huge highlight (especially if you’re a Baptist).


41kjaDnRv+L._SL500_-2 The Holly and the Ivy: Carols from Clare CollegeJohn Rutter

This was esteemed choral composer John Rutter’s big splash into Christmas music in 1979. If you love classical choral music, you probably already own it. If you think you hate choral music, buy this, listen to it several times through, and get back to me. If you still hate it, lunch is on me. Or maybe some homemade eggnog.

61KasVMcH0L._SY355_ChristmasSufjan Stevens

Weird, quirky, occasionally haunting and mostly played with friends in his home on children’s toy instruments, Sufjan’s Christmas might take a bit getting used to, but once it clicks you’re hooked. One of a few of our family’s desert island Christmas discs.

—And what’s largely considered the definitive version of Handel’s Messiah? This one.

—Want a daily or weekly Advent devotional that strikes a nice balance of Scripture, song, and commentary—and it’s free? Read this.

What are your Christmas favorites? Let me know in the comments below.

“So, How Was Your Christmas?” A Tense Subject

The bait is set.

Unwittingly, during the next week someone will inevitably ask me, “So, how was your Christmas?”

Little do they know they’ve stepped into my (quite harmless) annual Christmas trap.

Here’s how I’ll respond: “What do you mean how was my Christmas? The 25th wasn’t Christmas, 12 days treebut Christmas Day, the very beginning of the Christmas celebration known as the Twelve Days of Christmas that ends on January 5th, also known as Epiphany Eve. In other words, Christmas has only just begun! So the right question is, how is my Christmas?” In other words, it’s really just a matter of using the proper tense.

I don’t do this to be cheeky or malicious, but simply to get people talking—and thinking—about the spiritual meaning of Christmas as more than just a one-off. Generally, people of all religious stripes (even areligious), seem to find the discussion interesting. Here in the United States, few people know, and are even surprised, that there are an actual twelve days of Christmas—even though the song of the same name is heard on the radio or sung every year.

More disturbing, most evangelical churches seem eager to turn the calendar’s page to the new year, quickly moving on from Christmas. Yes, we have Advent. But would that more churches would recover a longer and richer Christmas season, more fully pondering and celebrating the staggering implications of Christ’s Incarnation.

So at the risk of sounding coy, I genuinely wish you and yours a joyous Christmas—now and well into 2014.

Oh yes, about my Christmas?

Check back with me next year.

Last Minute Christmas Gift Bargain

Sally Lloyd Jones’ The Jesus Storybook Bible, a sublime combination of graphics and text, is available 51SUEnc+gRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-41,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_this week for only $1.99 (e-book only)—the cheapest price I’ve ever seen for it.

Since its publication in 2007, this has been a Bible that I highly recommend not only for children, but also for adults (including new Christians). I even have a copy at my bedside table as well as on my Kindle.

Dripping with grace and squarely focusing on God’s loving rescue for his people through Christ, I can’t think of a more fitting gift this Christmas.

Saddest Christmas Songs Ever?

Today’s the longest (and darkest) day of the year. A good day for some darker Christmas tunes.

The LA Times:

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year,’ says one of the most popular songs of the season. Yet good cheer isn’t what everyone experiences during the holidays. With that in mind, Pop & Hiss hoped to compile a list of the saddest yuletide songs ever recorded.

We can’t claim these are definitively the saddest, because there are so many more available to choose from. Some are holiday standards, others may be less familiar because they typically don’t show up on shopping mall playlists and those 24/7 holiday-music radio stations.

Here’s their top 24 saddest Christmas songs, which include two by personal favorites Over the Rhine and Sufjan Stevens.

C. S. Lewis on the Incarnation


C.S. Lewis on the Incarnation of Christ:

—If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the Earth.

—What had happened on Earth, when [God] was born a man at Bethlehem, had altered the universe for ever.

—When Pythagorus discovered the square on the hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares on the other sides he was discovering what had been just as true the day before though no one knew it. But in 50 B.C. the proposition ‘God is Man’ [would] not have been true in the same sense in [when] it was true in 10 A.D. because tho’ the union of God and Man in Christ is a timeless fact, in 50 B.C. we hadn’t yet got to that bit of time which defines it.

—The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment in Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.

—In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down;…down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature he has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.

—The Incarnation…illuminates and orders all other phenomena, explains both our laughter and our logic, our fear of the dead and our knowledge that is somehow good to die, and which at one stroke covers what multitudes of separate theories will hardly cover for us if this is rejected.

—But supposing God became man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was almagated with God’s nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God….But we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man, That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

—The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.

—How thankful I am that when God became a man He did not choose to become a man of iron nerves that would not have helped weaklings like you and me nearly so much.

—‘Yes,’ said Queen Lucy. ‘In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.’

The Quotable Lewis, pp. 327-332. Excerpts taken from Perelandra, The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Miracles, Mere Christianity, Letters of C.S. Lewis, and The Last Battle

Christmas Past and Present: Revealing Research

How do modern Americans celebrate Christmas?

The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project just released revealing answers, christmas2013-1 especially noting the shift from how Christmas was practiced as children versus later on as adults.

The report begins,

Nine-in-ten Americans say they celebrate Christmas, and three-quarters say they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. But only about half see Christmas mostly as a religious holiday, while one-third view it as more of a cultural holiday.

Among the questions and topics considered:

  • Is Christmas more a religious or cultural holiday?
  • What are your views regarding the virgin birth of Christ?
  • Will you attend a religious service?
  • Christmas gift giving
  • Various holiday activities
  • Family gatherings
  • What do you most look forward to about Christmas?
  • What do you dislike most about Christmas?
  • Santa Claus

Read the Pew’s findings here, replete with relevant charts and interesting statistics.

Christmas Is Good, But Not Ultimate

N.T. Wright:

…Christmas has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year—a move that completely reverses the New Testament’s emphasis. We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology of Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing. We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we hardly have any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day. Easter, however, should be the center. Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left.

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (p. 23)

An Open Letter to Clarence the Angel (From the Film It’s a Wonderful Life)

Dear Clarence,

At the outset, please forgive me if this letter seems a bit disjointed. I’ve never written an angel before, so I’m a bit imagesnervous!

What’s the occasion of this, my very first “Angel” letter? I realize it’s a tad tardy, but it’s regarding the movie that made you famous: Frank Capra’s iconic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve watched it for nearly every year I’ve been alive, and have even passed the tradition on to my growing children. Indeed, for much—perhaps even the majority?—of the United States (even Christians) Christmas is nearly synonymous with the movie. A Christmas passing without watching it? Unthinkable! Just recalling that famous line by one of the Bailey girls, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings!” gets me all misty-eyed. After all, you got your wings by helping George, right? Way to go!

However, as much as I deeply appreciate the film on many levels, I’ve had a budding concern. Really it’s not so much a concern as it is—how shall I put it?—a mild disagreement. I know, I know, lowly old me disagreeing with you, an angel. What nerve! Please allow me to briefly explain.

After you save George from attempted suicide and he gets a harrowing glimpse of what life would be if he never existed, almost in passing you comment, “You see George, you had a wonderful life. Don’t you see it would be a shame if you threw it all away?”

Now by any measure, it would appear George Bailey certainly had a wonderful life. (By “wonderful” I’m inferring images-1you mean “great” or “delightful”?) He had a beautiful wife, four kids, a home to call his own, and friends galore. His list of achievements is legendary:

  • Saves Harry (his kid brother) from drowning, who then goes on to become a war hero;
  • Keeps his wife from becoming an old maid;
  • Rehabilitates and rescues alcoholic Mr. Gower (his childhood boss) from inadvertently killing someone and rotting in jail;
  • Saves his dad’s business;
  • Averts the lovely Violet from becoming a prostitute;
  • Prevents Bedford Falls from becoming “Pottersville.”

At the movie’s end he almost had everyone eating from the palm of his hand. (I could make a comment about how that final scene may be interpreted as an act of worship, i.e. how they all enter his home dumping money on the table and breaking forth in song, but I really must focus!)

Back to my mild disagreement. Not to sound all curmudgeonly, Clarence, but is it really a wonderful life? I don’t mean exclusively for George Bailey, but for the whole of humanity. Can it be said—even for the Christian—that life is wonderful?

Yes, I concede there are moments in life where one can say, “That was wonderful!” I’m not discounting the many blessings, episodes of sheer exhilaration, joy, beauty and awe.

But surely you know how we are a fallen race, ruined and marred by sin and it’s ongoing, decaying effects. Even theimages-2 most sanctified Christian is not immune to a difficult marriage, job loss, miscarriages, cancer, the ebb and flow of friendships, unexpected tragedy. Life is hard, even considering wonderful moments.

Consider Jesus: did he live a wonderful life? (He is the Suffering Servant.) What about the Apostle Paul and the early church? Even today, I think of some of the most mature Christians I know who, even amidst life’s highs, would seriously question if this earthly life is “wonderful” (in the truest sense).

Does following Jesus mean one will have a wonderful life? Instead, Jesus promises a joyful life, even amidst significant suffering. In theological language, to expect a wonderful life now is to have an over-realized eschatology. We’re living between two worlds, the now and the not yet.

In other words, Clarence, the reason this isn’t a wonderful life (in the Capra-esque way)—even for the redeemed—is for this simple reason: Life this side of glory is not the way it’s supposed to be—even for George Bailey.

So this Christmas I’ll break out the hot cider, huddle the kids around our bulky T.V. with spotty reception in our cold basement and once again watch It’s a Wonderful Life, anticipating lines from memory. But this time, Clarence, I’ll do so thinking of the Redeemer who one day will make all things right in a world gone terribly wrong—even for the George Baileys among us. To think otherwise (especially for the Christian) is to prepare oneself for a life fraught with unremitting despair, disillusionment and despondency.

Rest assured, I’ll still robustly sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!” and mean it with all my heart. As Augustine once wrote, “…a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”

Jesus help us.

Advent Blessings,


—(Originally written for Desiring God)