Case Dismissed (Zechariah 3:1-10)

“If life had a second edition,” wrote John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” But as Steve Miller used to sing, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.” No part of our lives can be un-lived or re-lived. That’s why guilt can be such debilitating factor in many people’s lives. Past failures can feel like a ball and chain around the soul. Is there a solution for such a spiritual bondage? There is indeed, and we get a glimpse of it in Zechariah 3.

God gave the prophet Zechariah a message for the Jews who had returned from exile, many of whom were trying to get back on track with the Lord. They, too, had a past that was filled with shame. In picture form, God gives them his promised solution for sin and the guilt that usually comes with it. It’s the picture of Joshua, a high priest, who has dirty clothes and therefore is disqualified from ministering in the temple. God’s solution is to rebuke Joshua’s accuser in court and give the priest a new set of garments: “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you” (Zechariah 3:4). Case dismissed!

But how can God unilaterally dismiss a case without sufficient grounds? Wouldn’t he be violating a sense of due process in his own courtroom? Wouldn’t he be violating the canons of earthly ethics and eternal justice? Wouldn’t he be appealing to a legal fiction to simply declare that Joshua is now both sin-free and guilt-free? No, not in this case, for God speaks of that which is “symbolic of things to come” (Zechariah 3:8)—a “servant,” a “branch,” and a “stone,” all terms that refer to the coming messiah.

God says, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), and he did—on Good Friday. The case against God’s people is dismissed because God in Christ has paid their debt on the cross. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Apostle John wrote, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). Indeed, when God is your advocate, all charges against you will be dropped.

No part of our lives can be unlived or re-lived, but we can still have a new life in Christ by faith. It’s a life in which not only are the charges against us dropped, but we are also sentenced to eternal life in the unrelenting love of God. That’s why we call it the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ.

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Such Great Faith (Matthew 8:5-13)

There are only two places in the Gospels where we read that Jesus is “amazed” or “astonished” at anything, and they both have to do with faith. The first is in Mark 6, where Jesus comes to his hometown, and he is amazed at the Jewish people’s lack of faith. The second is in Matthew 8, where Jesus is amazed again, this time by the presence of faith—and it’s in a place we might not expect it. 

A Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant, acknowledging that he didn’t even need to be present in his home to make it happen. “Just say the word,” he said, “and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 10:8). Jesus “was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’” (Matthew 8:10). 

What made the centurion’s faith “great”? Not the amount of it but the object of it. Indeed, the greatness of your faith depends on the greatness of its object. And Jesus is the greatest of all time. Faith in him is never wasted. How much faith did the centurion need for his servant to be healed? Just enough to call on Jesus. He did call, and he got his miracle. The grace of Jesus extended beyond the borders of his own country all the way to the pagans, which surely must have infuriated many in the religious establishment.

We might wonder why miracles seem to be somewhat rare in our day. Whatever the answer to that question, we do know that the miracles of Jesus were a sign of who he was in the world. They were also a sign of where he was taking the world—to a grand telos or goal of perfect peace and restoration of God’s good creation. It will be a time when all that is wrong in the world will be made right again, and all that is sad will come untrue (Tolkein). As Tim Keller has said, “Miracles are not primarily suspensions of natural laws. They’re the restoration of natural laws. Death and decay and suffering are the suspensions of God’s natural laws, and Jesus—when he was here—started putting them back.”

For now, we walk by faith in Christ, trusting that he will assuredly accomplish his grand telos. To be part of that telos, we must recognize who Jesus is—not just a great moral teacher but the divine Savior. We must also respond to who Jesus is—not just with idle curiosity but with saving faith. They key is to call on him. Regardless of how much faith we may have.

Sermon Resources:

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Squeezed, Part 3: So, All This Was Planned? (Philemon 1:15-25)

All the characters in this short letter get “squeezed” by the gospel. Onesimus gets squeezed by having to take responsibility for his crimes against Philemon and make an effort to be reconciled to him. Philemon gets squeezed by having to accept Onesimus back into his home after the whole family was offended by his departure. Paul gets squeezed by having to navigate the social customs of his day as well as the relational tension between two people he deeply cares about. It’s a classic case of triangulation, and the path forward for everyone is both challenging and awkward.

In this final message of the series, we look at who is doing the squeezing. If everyone in this situation gets squeezed, we have to ask, who does the squeezing? Who is putting the pressure on all the people involved? A careful reading of the passage shows us it’s the character who never comes on stage. He’s the silent showstopper who never delivers a line. He’s also the script writer and the wise director of the whole production. 

Paul knows who he is. He writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16). Philemon might have thought to himself, “Was separated?” What do you mean, “Was separated (passive voice)? The kid ran away (active voice)!” 

Paul is introducing yet another character into the story. Not only does he introduce this additional character, he also introduces a higher purpose. Paul is essentially saying, “Philemon, I want you to consider something in this whole mess that you might not have considered up to this point. Someone came and parted Onesimus from you in order for a greater purpose to be served—namely that you get him back for good as a true believer and a brother in the Lord.” That someone is God himself.

Paul goes beyond all secondary causes of the situation right up to the primary cause of all situations—God himself. Paul understands that God is sovereign; he is above all circumstances, and yet he is in those circumstances at the same time—letting Philemon and Onesimus be parted for a greater ending to the story. 

Grammatically, we call it “the divine passive.” That is, God is the agent behind the event, playing 3D chess in the world to bring about his perfect plan. Indeed, all the events of this world have their origin in—and are superintended by—the all-wise, infinitely good God whose name is “Love.” That means life is not a series of blind chances or accidents. God leverages the contingencies of this world, including its resident evil and the free choices of fallen human beings, to bring history to its rightful conclusion.

Peter brings these two paradoxical realities together in his Pentecost sermon: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). God in his sovereignty used fee human choices to pull the greatest good in history out of the worst crime in history. The result was “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the motivation for Philemon and Onesimus themselves to be reconciled.

Quite significantly, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 1:18). That’s a tiny picture of the gospel. Onesimus has a debt toward Philemon he cannot pay, and Paul offers to pay it. Fallen human beings have a debt toward God we cannot pay, so Jesus offered to pay it. He was squeezed when he was on the cross, and what came out was pure love and forgiveness. May the same be true of us when we get squeezed.

Sermon Resources:

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Widows, Orphans, and Immigrants (Exodus 22:21-24 and Selected Verses)

It is universally true, thankfully, that decent folks don’t like it when people take advantage of other people. Wherever we go in the world—from the most primitive cultures to the most civilized societies—people do not appreciate the intentional oppression of other people, especially disadvantaged people. More importantly, God doesn’t like it when people take advantage of other people. They are, after all, made in his image.

Unlike other law codes from the ancient Near East, God’s laws show a remarkable concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. Indeed, the penalty for mistreating such vulnerable people is high. This message looks at various aspects of these laws, all of which tell us something about the nature and ways of the God who gave them. Clearly, God is the champion of the poor, the outsider, the unfortunate, the defenseless, the powerless, and the desperate. As such, he wants his people to protect them, be kind to them, and provide for their needs. 

The God who gave these laws has a big heart, and it especially goes out to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” God is angered by such things as racism, prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, neglect, and harsh or condescending treatment of those of another race. Making life more difficult for those for whom it is already hard is infuriating to him. Therefore, God wants his people to try to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and to treat them as they would want to be treated if they were in a similar situation.

When Jesus was on earth, he embodied these laws perfectly. He cared for the widows, treasured the orphans, and welcomed the immigrants. To be Christlike, then, means to share God’s concern for widows, orphans, and immigrants. For God’s people, this concern must translate into action. The sermon concludes with a word of hope for those who may have broken these laws, and encouragement for how they might go about being better aligned with God’s heart moving forward.

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Peter’s Restoration (Mark 14:27-31; John 21:15-17)

One of the factors that makes the Bible ring true is that it tells the worst about its best people. There’s never any attempt to hide or gloss over the moral failings of its heroes. There’s never any attempt to dress people up with slick packaging. Very often we see the ugly truth about God’s people, and, frankly, it can be upsetting. 

Noah, Abraham, Samson, Jonah, and King David are but a few who come under significant censure by the biblical writers. So does Peter—the man to whom Jesus gave the “keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19). That is surprising because Peter blew it so often as a follower of Christ. 

Still, we like this rough-around-the-edges fisherman with a big mouth, don’t we? Perhaps we think to ourselves, “If Peter can blow it so badly and so often and still make it into stained-glass windows, then maybe there’s hope for me, too.” But we never take refuge in the fact that Peter stumbled badly on more than one occasion. We take comfort in the fact that Jesus dealt patiently with Peter. He dealt graciously—and at the deepest heart level—with Peter to help him become a useful disciple.

How did Jesus do it? It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty. It certainly wasn’t overnight, either, but it was real. In fact, the Peter we meet later in the book of Acts, and then also in the epistles, is almost a completely different person from the one we see in the Gospels. What happened? Why the transformation? Jesus labored to show Peter his desperate need for grace. And after Peter saw that need, he was finally ready to lead.

Specifically, after Peter denied three times knowing Jesus, the Lord came into his shattered world and gave him a new beginning, a new hope, and a new opportunity to set the record straight. Three times he asked Peter to re-affirm his love for him—one for each denial. Peter did exactly that, and Jesus gave him his job back right there on the spot. “Feed my lambs,” he said. In other words, “Teach my Word to others.” 

Spiritually, it can be devastating to learn we can’t earn God’s favor, that his love is not for sale. It can’t even be purchased with the currency of good behavior. No, divine love is a gift. This “gospel” is good news for the broken, for those who think they’ve completely ruined their lives. Indeed, the restoration of Peter shows us that Jesus restores his people by re-storying them in grace. He takes back the pen we stole and writes a better ending than we ever could have imagined.

We cannot go back and change our past, but by the grace of God, we can start right where we are and make sure there’s a different tomorrow. “A bruised reed he will not break,” said Isaiah. “A burning wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). That’s the Jesus Peter knew. Harsh and condemnatory religionists would have taken back his keys. Jesus never did.

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Strength in Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-12)

There are many paradoxes in the Christian life—truths that seem to oppose one another, and yet they somehow work together. We might call such realities “truth in stereo.” For example, God is sovereign over history, yet human beings can make real and meaningful choices. The Scriptures are authored by God, and yet they come to us through hands of human beings. Jesus Christ is fully human, and yet he is also fully divine. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The list of examples is long.

The paradox in Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” testimony in 2 Corinthians 12 is likewise stark: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10b). But how could he say such a thing? Is he making a self-contradictory, self-refuting statement? No, Paul learned firsthand that the thing he most wanted removed from his life was the very thing God was using for the apostle’s good and heaven’s glory. That is why, paradoxical though it may seem, believers can learn to glory in their weaknesses. As Hershael York has said, “It is in our weaknesses—more so than in our strengths—that Christ is most clearly revealed.” 

In sharing his testimony, Paul gives us three good reasons to glory in our weaknesses: First, glory in your weakness to direct people’s focus away from yourself. Paul’s goal in life was not to get people to think that he was wonderful. His goal in life was to get people to think that Christ is wonderful. As John the baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Second, glory in your weakness to distance yourself from your own strengths. Jesus said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5a). Believers should take him seriously on that reminder! Besides, we tend to learn a lot more about God in the thorns of life than we do in our “third heaven” experiences, which Paul also describes in this passage.

Third, glory in your weakness to display the greatness of Jesus Christ. Somewhere in his agonizing “wrestling match” with God, Paul’s attitude toward his thorn changed. The very thing that troubled him the most was the thing that moved him into deeper intimacy with the Lord. It’s a good reminder that if we have a thorn in our life (and who doesn’t?), we can face it, and let God grace it. Just like Paul did.

Charles Spurgeon has said, “A primary qualification for serving God with any amount of success…is a sense of our own weakness…. Dear reader, are you mourning over your own weakness? Take courage, for there must be a consciousness of weakness before the Lord will give you victory. Your emptiness is but the preparation for your being filled.” Spurgeon was right. Our weakness is the vessel of God’s strength. If such a paradox is truth is stereo, then let the weak turn up the volume on this one and dance.

Sermon Resources:

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Disability, Dying, & Death: Relational Theology and the Gift of Hope

Below for your encouragement is a slide presentation called, “Disability, Dying, and Death: Relational Theology and the Gift of Hope for Life’s Descending Triad.” It comes from a seminar I did a while back with two other colleagues and may be turned into a small book someday. Even without the presentation script—which awaits another round of editing—you might be able to find some encouragement here for whatever challenges you may be facing these days.

What is relational theology? The God of Scripture (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is thoroughly relational; hence the field of relational theology, as distinct from systematic theology, contextual theology, etc. As I’ve written before, the Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”

Human persons made imago Dei—in the image of God—are therefore relational beings, much like their Creator. Even introverts are aware of their interrelatedness with others! This connectional dynamic has much to say to us in a broken world marked by disability, dying, and death. It also has much to say to us in a world marked by the risen Christ, who knows firsthand what it’s like to feel disabled, go through the dying process, and then eventually taste death itself.

May the Lord enable you to revel in the gift of hope, even if through tears.

Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Image Credits: narnia.fandom.com; geeksundergrace.com.

Kneels in Humility and Washes Our Feet

May we never get over the shock that our God does feet.

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:3-5).

“Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.”

“A new command I give you: Love one another just as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

Meekness and majesty,
Manhood and Deity,
In perfect harmony,
The Man who is God.
Lord of eternity
Dwells in humanity,
Kneels in humility
And washes our feet.

O what a mystery,
Meekness and majesty.
Bow down and worship
For this is your God,
This is your God.

Father’s pure radiance,
Perfect in innocence,
Yet learns obedience
To death on a cross.
Suffering to give us life,
Conquering through sacrifice,
And as they crucify
Prays, “Father forgive.”

O what a mystery,
Meekness and majesty.
Bow down and worship
For this is your God,
This is your God.

Wisdom unsearchable,
God the invisible,
Love indestructible
In frailty appears.
Lord of infinity,
Stooping so tenderly,
Lifts our humanity
To the heights of His throne. 

O what a mystery,
Meekness and majesty.
Bow down and worship
For this is your God,
This is your God.

The Gospel Unchained, Part 12: Hope in the Midst of Hardship (2 Timothy 4:9-22)

What would you like your final words to be? When it comes time for you to leave this life and enter the next, what would you wish to say to those who remain behind? The Apostle Paul’s last words to the church can be found in 2 Timothy 4:9-22. 

In this passage he chronicles the kinds of earthly hardships he endured throughout his ministry (i.e., the pain of seclusion, desertion, deprivation, opposition, and isolation). But he also sets forth the kind of support he received—and believers can expect—from God, even as they follow in his footsteps. To paraphrase, Paul reminds the church, “God will supply you, God will strengthen you, and God will save you.” 

In short, Paul instructs the church to overcome earthly hardship with heavenly hope. He reminds his readers that the earth cannot take them when God is keeping them, and the earth cannot keep them when God is taking them. He is sovereign over the lives of his people and the unfolding history of the world.

Paul then bids farewell with a blessing: “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22). After this, we hear nothing else he says. After this, we read nothing else he writes. After this, we learn nothing else he thinks. His martyrdom is imminent, so these are the final words of Paul to the church. What does he want believers to remember as he signs off? What does he want ringing in their ears until Jesus comes back? 

Paul wants the church to remember the presence of God (“The Lord be with your spirit”) and the powerof God (“Grace be with you”). Grace, of course, is the unmerited favor of God that can captivate a terrorist like Paul. It’s also the unlimited power of God that can convert a terrorist like Paul and use him to change the world in Jesus’s name. What could the grace of God do through you?

Sermon Resources:

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A Supernatural Walk (Matthew 14:22-33)

The Apostle Peter did something that no other mortal has ever done. He walked on water at the invitation of Jesus. He also sank like a rock after a few steps because he was distracted by the wind and became afraid. At that point he needed a lifeguard and a towel. Mercifully, Jesus rescued Peter out of his predicament.

Such is often the case for Christ’s followers today. Jesus calls us to a supernatural walk with him, but so often our lives lack a supernatural component. Honestly, when is the last time something truly supernatural happened to you or through you—something that can be explained only in terms of God having done it?

A miracle? A divine healing? A real and specific answer to prayer? A deliverance from some sort of bondage? A victory over some sort of besetting sin? A restoration to wholeness and true contentment, whatever the circumstance? A divine love that God gives you for the unlovable? The ability to forgive someone who sinned against you? Could it be that we’re just too comfortable in our Christian boats, never stepping out of them in faith, where the chances of sinking are greatly multiplied?

For all that, this story is primarily about the identity of Christ. Jesus says to Peter, “It is I. Don’t be afraid” (Matt 14:17). Literally, Jesus says: “I am. Don’t be afraid.” That’s a reference to the divine name, “Yahweh,” that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3). Moreover, Job 9:8 says that God alone “stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” So, here on the Sea of Galilee we have another declaration and another demonstration of the deity of Christ. He is God in human flesh.

We also have a revelation of Jesus’s gracious character: (1) Jesus responds to our cries for help (v. 31a); (2) Jesus rescues us in our time of need (v. 31b); and (3) Jesus reminds us to keep our faith in him (31c). That’s because without Jesus we’re sunk. Or, as Jesus himself said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

After Peter and Jesus climbed into the boat, the wind died down (v. 32). That’s not coincidental timing; it’s another indication that even nature bows to the lordship of Christ. If all nature bows to Jesus, shouldn’t we bow to him as well? That’s where the supernatural walk begins. And if we should stumble along the way, Jesus is right there to catch us (v. 31).

Sermon Resources:

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God’s Delight at Christmas (Luke 2:6-20)

Do you believe it’s possible for God to delight in you? That he loves you? That he takes joy in you? That he treasures you? Many people say, “Not me” in response to such questions. “God could never delight in me. You don’t know where I’ve been, and you don’t know what I’ve done.” 

Maybe not. But we do know where King David has been and what King David has done. For the most part, he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), but he also committed adultery at one point during his reign. And then he arranged a murder to cover it up. He stumbled badly on several other occasions, too, leaving him with some awful red marks on an otherwise good report card. 

And yet King David could write, “God rescued me because he delighted in me.” (2 Sam 22:17b). God didn’t delight in David’s sin, but he did delight in David. He was part of the covenant. So, believers today can dare to believe that God delights in us, too. In his famous Christmas carol “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley includes these heart-stirring lyrics:

Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

The truth is, God is more excited about Christmas than we are! He sent his Son into the world for the ultimate rescue. Why? Because he delights in us. In this message, we look at four delights of God at Christmas: 

God delights in SURPRISING us (Luke 2:6-9).
God delights in SAVING us. (Luke 2:10-12).
God delights in SATISFYING us (Luke 2:13-14).
God delights in STIRRING us (Luke 2:15-20).

He does these things through his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. He’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. He’s the Name above every name. He’s the blessed Redeemer, the Emmanuel—the God-with-us. He’s the Rescue for sinners, the Ransom from heaven. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords. And he’s the only one who can remove those awful red marks from our report card. Trust in him so that your Christmas can be truly merry.

Sermon Resources:

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The Mirror in the Manger (Luke 2:25-35)

Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.

Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.

In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.

Sermon Resources:

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O Holy Night, Part 4: Chains Shall He Break (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Ephesians 6:5-9)

It’s easy to overlook the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves. Every slave who has ever lived, then—whether in physical shackles or some other kind of bondage—has a friend in Jesus. He can identify with the struggle, which is a tremendous source of encouragement to the oppressed of this world.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.

Cappeau’s reference in verse 3 of “O Holy Night” to the equality of all persons, whether slave or free, got the song banned by the church hierarchy in the early years of its popularity. Congregations all over Europe, however, sang it anyway. Such was the French revolutionary spirit. In a qualified sense, St. Paul may have agreed with that sentiment, having written to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor 7:21).

Once again, Sullivan Dwight’s theology—not Cappeau’s lyrics—drives the English translation. Dwight elevates an important biblical ethic (viz., loving others and standing against oppression), but he eliminates part of the gospel in the process. Lost in Dwight’s translation in v. 3 is:

  • The concept that Christ, the Redeemer, has already broken all shackles
  • The concept that Christ has already freed earth and opened heaven
  • The concept that Christ was born, suffered, and died for all humanity
  • The concept that gratitude is a proper response to this good news

Dwight really did a hack job on Cappeau’s lyrics. And yet what remains is true and beautiful. In this particular message, we focus on two admonitions to two groups of people: (1) to those under authority—remember the contentment of Christ; and (2) to those wielding authority—remember the kindness of Christ. Indeed, we can begin to conquer our own sense of oppression by adjusting our attitudes even before adjusting our circumstances.

In the end, we celebrate the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves to set us free. Consequently, no one who knows Jesus can ever live perpetually with a victim mentality. 

Sermon Resources:

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O Holy Night, Part 3: He Knows Our Need (Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15-16)

Verse 2 of “O Holy Night” contains these two lines: “In all our trials born to be our Friend! / He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” These concepts are biblically true and spiritually encouraging. Once again, however, the translator’s theology, not the original lyrics, are driving the carol’s rendering into English. 

Lost in translation is the sinful pride of humanity for which Christ came to die as an atoning sacrifice. But by eliminating the reference to human brokenness, the good news is not as good as it could be. For example, it’s certainly amazing that a holy God would befriend sinful people, but that’s amazing precisely because in our natural state, we were first his enemies (cf. Rom 5:8).

What the translator did is what so many people try to do today—keep the good news of the gospel while eliminating the bad news that it answers. But if there’s no bad news, what is it that makes the good news good? The lack of a contrast renders the word “good” almost meaningless in such a context. It’s like the medical community announcing a great cure for some disease nobody has. So what?

Christmas is the announcement that God has a great cure for the spiritual disease everyone suffers from—the disease called sin. It’s a condition that manifests itself preeminently in human pride, as the author originally wrote. And pride needs to be confronted by the preaching of the gospel. So, yes, God knows our need, and let’s not minimize that need. By properly understanding it, we better appreciate God’s solution for it, and the lengths to which he went to deliver it to us on that first Christmas.

“He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” Our passages from Hebrews 2 and Hebrews 4 bear that out. God cares about our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our spiritual needs. Indeed, Christmas shows that God cares about our every need. He is attentive to our condition because he loves us. And his love for us is why he sent us his Son (John 3:16).

That’s why Jesus came. He would go on to suffer and die in our place on the cross. He made our hell his so that he could make his heaven ours. Our response of faith to such amazing grace is to “walk as Jesus walked” in this regard. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward other people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We serve humanity because the ultimate human served us. To our weakness that ultimate human—Jesus—is no stranger. So let us not be a stranger to him.

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