We shall be whiter than snow

Introduction: I am a member of Grace Covenant PCA, a church planted by Midway PCA, the church I belonged to for many years after we moved to Georgia. I enjoy attending women’s events at Midway where my daughter Mary and her family as well as many long-time friends are still members. I was privileged to be asked to bring the devotion for this year’s Christmas event. img_2643

In spite of my best intentions to turn the contents of the devotion into a pre-Christmas blog post, holiday preparations as well as numerous family celebrations kept me from doing so . . . until now. This post is longer than usual so I invite you to pour a cup of your favorite coffee or tea and spend a few quiet minutes contemplating Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the most precious gift ever given.

As always, thank you for reading along. May God bless you and yours in the coming year.

(The following has been modified to more appropriately fit this setting and timing.)

Imagine my surprise and delight at being asked to bring the devotion for the women’s Christmas event at Midway, an event I look forward to attending each year. Upon agreeing to be the guest speaker, I asked Wanda, the woman who contacted me, about the theme for the event. When she replied, “We shall be whiter than snow”, I thought, “Good! I can work with that! There’s a Christmas-y tie in even if we rarely ever get snow on December 25th here in Georgia. Then, near the end of our conversation, Wanda added, “We’ve also been talking about unity in the church.” Uh oh. That topic could be a bit stickier. I could step on some toes with that one. I could even step on my toes. In the week I had to prepare, I prayerfully considered the topics before me, hoping the message would honor God, as well as be an encouragement to all of us gathered that evening.

In thinking about unity, I found it easier to start by pondering what creates disunity.[1] Misunderstandings, taking sides, judging, assuming – these are just some of the things that come to mind when I think of sources of friction and disharmony in congregations and relationships in general. I think it’s safe to say all of us have been a part of or witnessed situations where these dynamics come into play. Someone hurts someone else’s feelings and the two people become cross with each other. Instead of working it out they tell others. Before you know it sides form, with supporters in each camp assuming the worst of the other side. Often judgements are based on very little information, other than that provided by the offended party which is no doubt embellished as it gets told and retold by ones not directly involved.

Scripture gives us clear guidance on how we’re to conduct interpersonal relationships. As presented in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus outlines the process to follow if a brother offends you. Though this passage provides basis for church discipline, it begins with, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” (Emphasis mine.) Ephesians 4:26 reminds us to not let the sun go down on our anger. Disagreements should be dealt with quickly so hard feelings won’t fester. As part of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonished his listeners (and us) not to judge lest we be judged, to be more concerned about the log in our own eye than the speck in our brother’s.[2] And what about the ninth commandment which tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor? Given Jesus’ “heart of the matter” approach to adultery and murder[3] isn’t it reasonable to consider gossip to be bearing false witness?

Work out your differences directly with those who’ve offended you and do so quickly. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Don’t judge. Don’t gossip.

Yet we can make it even simpler. These rules (and others) for harmonious relationships can be boiled down to the Golden Rule and the second greatest command, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”[4] and “love your neighbor as yourself”[5], respectively. Being with my grandchildren on a regular basis is always a blessing, but sometimes a challenge. As much as I love them, children will be children. “Do unto others” has become an oft-repeated phrase, as in, “Joshua, would you like it if I hit you? No? Well then don’t hit your sister. Do unto others!” And so it is with me. As I’ve repeatedly re-enforced this concept with Joshua, my heavenly Father has reminded me to do as I say. When I’m tempted to judge or assume or gossip, “do unto others” often brings me up short.

So let’s turn back to our theme. The phrase “whiter than snow” appears in Psalm 51, David’s psalm of repentance, his cry for forgiveness after Nathan had confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba.[6] David was God’s chosen king. Scripture refers to him as a man after God’s own heart yet he committed adultery and murder, probably the furthest things from his mind the night he went up to the roof of the palace to get some air. His first mistake was not being where he should have been – with his troops. 1 Samuel 11:1 tells us: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army . . . But David remained in Jerusalem.” David’s behavior is a sobering reminder that any of us can be led astray, step by step, if we make poor choices and give in to temptation.

As long as we’re in the flesh, we’ll sin, but as believers, we’re no longer slaves to sin[7], nor will God ever let go[8] or lose sight of[9] one of his children. In fact, God promises to provide a way out when we’re tempted[10] and, when we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness[11], to wash us whiter than snow. Times of wandering and restoration in my own life have humbled me. They remind me I have no grounds to judge others. Without Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, I would be totally, eternally lost.

Isaiah 53 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. This Messianic passage paints a vivid portrait of the suffering Savior. When I read verse 5, I usually personalize it: “But he was wounded for my transgressions; he was crushed for my iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought me peace, and by his stripes I am healed.” It brings things into clear perspective. Nothing in my hands I bring. Simply to his cross I cling.

In addition to our sinful natures, we all carry burdens and grief known only to God and a trusted few who are closest to us. When the load becomes particularly heavy, our stress may manifest itself in a number of ways – sadness, irritability, withdrawal from normal activities – things that could lead others to draw all sorts of conclusions, assume the worst or possibly even take offense over something that has nothing at all to do with them. Instead of indulging in such presumptions, may we choose to “do unto others”. At the very least, we can give the other person the benefit of the doubt and we can pray for discernment on how to reach out. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul referred to the church as a body with different parts, each having an important role to play in the well-being of the whole. Furthermore, he said there should be no division in the body of believers and called us to rejoice with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffer.[12]

At this point I’m sure some of my listeners may have been thinking, “This isn’t much of a Christmas message.” Possibly some of you are thinking the same. After all, we usually focus on the Baby in the manger, multitudes of angels singing, the new star in the sky, shepherds looking on in wonder. But if that baby hadn’t grown up to be the man of sorrows, who took our sins upon himself, was crucified, dead and buried and rose again on the third day, we would be most to be pitied, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians. However, as Paul went on to affirm, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.[13]

As we look forward to a new year, let us celebrate the entire life of our Savior who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Where should our unity come from? From recognizing we’re sinners, saved by grace, a free gift from God that leaves no room for boasting or judging or looking down on others.[14] Instead, all power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory and blessing belong to the Lamb.[15]  It’s all about Him.

According to Isaiah 1:18, the matter is settled. For those who’ve been cleansed by the precious blood of the spotless Lamb, “though their sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Good news. News worth celebrating and rejoicing over and telling others.

And as we do so, may we humbly extend to them the forgiveness and compassion shown to us by the One who has washed us whiter than snow.

[1] Yes, “disunity” is a word, as is “disharmony”!

[2] Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-38

[3] Matthew 5:21-30

[4] Matthew 7:12

[5] Matthew 22:37-39

[6] 2 Samuel 12:1-10

[7] Romans 6:1-23

[8] John 10:27-29

[9] Psalm 34:15

[10] 1 Corinthians 10:13

[11] 1 John 1:9

[12] 1 Corinthians 12:24b-26

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:12-28

[14] Ephesians 2:8-9

[15] Revelation 5:12

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