Christianity 201

March 21, 2019

Compelling Holy Books

Is the Bible evidence for the existence of God?

by Clarke Dixon

Does the existence and nature of the Bible point to the existence and nature of God? Some people just love the Bible. Others find reading it a head-scratching experience. Perhaps, of course, there is some selective reading involved. I suspect that many who love it, and are never driven to question their faith by it, stick to their favourite bits. Likewise, I suspect that those who question Christianity tend stick to their favourite tricky bits. We want to consider the Bible in its entirety as we ask whether it is a compelling aspect of Christianity. Does the existence and nature of the Bible actually point to the reality of God?

Our expectations of the Bible play a big role in how we respond to it and whether we will find it compelling or not. There are two expectations that people often have as they consider the Bible. Either it is written by God, or it is written by men. Let us consider how these expectations pan out.

If the Bible was written by God, and if it was simply downloaded to us as if God sent us an email, then it is not what we would expect. It is convoluted. There are obviously so many authors writing at different times, under different circumstances, writing for different reasons, using different genres which reflect the kinds of writing humans do. It is not simply a “Here are some messages from God with all humans, at all times, and in all situations in mind” kind of book. Indeed what we think of as one book is really many writings written and collected over a very long period of time. That much is obvious.

In addition, the Bible answers questions we are not asking today. Have you ever wondered who the great-great-grandson of Esau was? The Bible gives us the answer.  However, the Bible does not answer questions we are asking. What about the dinosaurs? Who did Cain marry? How do we ethically use all our advances in medicine? If the Bible is simply a direct message from God, would we not expect it to be a simple message that anticipates all the questions of humanity?

Therefore the Bible is not what we would expect it to be if it is simply a message written and sent by God.

However, if the Bible is purely written out of the imagination of humans then likewise, it is not what we would expect. There is an amazing consistency in the presentation of God, the nature of humanity, the human dilemma, and the relationship between God and humanity. Despise the number of writings, the differing authors from different centuries living under different conditions, there is an incredible sense of unity in the Bible. There is also an incredible storyline that spans the many, many, many generations that lived while the writings were being written. Each generation would have had trouble making up its own part in that overall story.

Therefore the Bible is not what we would expect it to be if it is simply a product of the human mind.

So what is the Bible, then, if the Bible is not what we would expect if God simply sent us a direct message, or if we made God up? The writings we find in the Bible are the kinds of writings we would expect, if God created humanity, then humanity rebelled, then God chose and called a specific people for the working out of His purposes, making covenant promises with them, rescuing them from Egypt, giving them the law at Sinai, establishing covenant promises and consequences, bringing them into a promised land where the people kept breaking the covenant, then God appointed leaders and prophets to get them back on track while continuing to reveal more of His purposes, then He came to us as a man, teaching, working miracles, was killed, then rose from the dead, appeared to many, gave the Holy Spirit, then the many people who saw him alive went about as witnesses telling others what they knew to be true, while God gave the Holy Spirit to people who were not from His specifically chosen people so they could be in relationship with Him also, while groups of believers gathered together in assemblies which sometimes needed instructions which was given through letters written by Paul and others, while the stories about, and teachings of, Jesus, were committed to writing by four men in what came to be known as the Gospels. If all these things happened and more, then the Bible is exactly the collection of writings we would expect.

The opposite is true. If these things did not happen, then why do the writings that make up the Bible exist, why do they take the shape they do, and why do they say the things they do?

The writings that make up the Bible are records of the ongoing relationship between God and humanity throughout many centuries in history until God finally revealed Himself most fully through Jesus:

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets.  And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.  The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. Hebrews 1:1-3 (NLT)

So are these writings from God, and therefore to be considered “The Word of God,” or are  they simply what humans wrote? They are both. As the Bible says of the sacred writings, what we now call “The Bible,”

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV emphasis added)

The writings that make up the Bible are “God breathed.” That means they are not simply written by God and downloaded to us, nor are they simply written by men without God’s involvement. Both God and humans are involved. They absolutely passed through the minds of people, they were absolutely penned by people, but they absolutely have God’s blessing as expressing well what we need to know. God would not have a long, long history of relationship with humanity, culminating with His very coming to us to enable relationship with Him, without providing for an accurate representation to be written and collected for future generations. So the writings of the Bible are “God breathed,” which means they are neither “God written,” nor “human invented.” Both God and humans are involved. When the writings of the Bible seem to be from another time and place, we are not surprised. They were written by people in another time and place. When the writings of the Bible seem timeless we are not surprised. The creator of time, Who still relates to us in our time, was involved!

This being the nature of the Bible, we want to check our expectations. The Bible is described by Paul as being “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” and useful for “training in righteousness.” This means it is not a handbook to answer every question and satisfy our curiosity. Neither is it an idol to be worshipped. It does help us know God in Christ, Whom we do worship. Knowing about reconciliation in Jesus is infinitely better than knowing about the dinosaurs, or where Cain found a wife!

The Bible is not what we would expect if God simply sent us a direct message, nor if we made God up. However, it is what we would expect if God has had a long relationship with us, interacting with us throughout history. The Bible itself, in all its convoluted mess, in all its wonderful consistency and amazing storyline, is compelling evidence that God exists and that God loves us.


This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

March 14, 2019

Compelling Religion

Why Christianity Provides a Compelling Account of, and Vision for, Religion

by Clarke Dixon

Religion often gets a bad rap. From the infamous saying by Christopher Hitchens “religion poisons everything,” to my own disdain for religion and anything religious. Yes, I am a Baptist pastor, and yes, I sometimes agree with Christopher Hitchens that religion can poison everything. Religion has destroyed many lives.

However, when it comes to the topic of religion, Christianity is compelling for two reasons.

Christianity provides a compelling account for why there is religion in the first place. While walking through Athens, Paul was impressed and disturbed by the amount of religious devotion he saw:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. . . .

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” Acts 16,17:22-23 NIV

Walking through Athens is much like taking a walk through all the world throughout history; being religious has been the default for humanity. There is a religious impulse, a desire, a reaching to grasp hold of something greater than ourselves. You might think otherwise if you are a Westerner, but even here in secular Canada, spiritualities and religions are still very popular despite an education that is very much slanted toward scientism.

Why is there such a religious impulse among people? Why do we seem to be different from animals in this respect? C.S. Lewis, in his book “Mere Christianity,” points out that we have desires that correspond to things that exist. So for example, we desire food, and food exists. We desire sex, and there is such a thing as sex. So too with our spiritual longings. Our longings for something greater than ourselves point to there being something, or Someone greater than ourselves, namely God. If we evolved from a purely natural process and there is no God, then why do we have any spiritual inclination at all? Christianity provides a compelling reason as to why religion exists; because God exists and He created us for relationship with Him.

Christianity provides a compelling vision for religion. Not all religion is created equal. Again, Christopher Hitchens is sometimes correct in saying that “religion poisons everything.” But only sometimes!

Among various world-views there are different visions for religion, that is, what religion is supposed to do or accomplish.  Some religious people are focused on escape. The purpose of religion is to help you escape the troubles of this world and enter Nirvana, or heaven. Other religious people, however, are focused on rules, regulations, and the consequences of obedience or disobedience. Sometimes those rules and regulations make no sense, but if a deity has given them, they must be obeyed, no matter who gets hurt. The purpose of religion is to keep people in line and ensure everyone gets their just deserts whether through bad karma or divine punishment. So where do Christians find themselves in these two differing visions for religion?

Some will point to the apostle Paul’s famous expression, “salvation by grace through faith” (see Ephesians 2:8) and say that escape is the vision for the Christian religion. The Christian will therefore say “I’ve got my golden ticket gotta here, I’m forgiven!”. Others will point to the famous expression of James, “faith without works is dead” (see James 2:17) and say the vision for the Christian religion is rules, obedience, and punishment. The Christian will therefore either say “I have failed yet again,” or, “look at how good I am.” Why do Paul and James have differing visions for religion? Which is correct?

Actually those two visions for religion we outlined miss the mark for what Christianity is about. Paul and James are not giving competing visions for religion, they are looking at two different aspects of our relationship with God. Let me give the example of a marriage relationship. When Paul says of our relationship with God that “salvation is by grace through faith,” it would be like Paul saying to me “you are married, not because you deserve Sandra, nor because you chose to be married, but because she said ‘yes.’ She chose to be married to you!”. When James says of our relationship with God that “faith without works is dead,” it would be like James saying to me “a marriage with no time spent together, no communication, and no serving of one another, is dead.” It is as if Paul is speaking about the marriage covenant signed on the wedding day and how we got to that place, while James is focused on how marriage is lived out every day since.

Now consider the two competing visions for religion we spoke of earlier. Suppose my wife said to me on our wedding day, “I love you and want to be married to you today, but on the day in which you are less than perfect, we are done.” I would not be married for very long! So too, a relationship with God that is focused on our performance would not last long at all. Now suppose I said to my wife on our wedding day, “go on the honeymoon without me,” then on her return said “good, I’m glad you are back, I now need to go on a fifty year mission trip and will not be able to be in touch too often. See you on our 50th!” That would not be a marriage, that would be an arrangement. So too, a relationship with God that is focused only on one’s technical standing before Him, one that is focused only on escape and getting to heaven. Being forgiven so as to get to heaven without an ongoing relationship with God is not a covenant relationship so much as an arrangement. Marriage is life-changing and is to be for life. The vision for religion as expressed by Christianity is a life-changing relationship with God that extends into eternity. This is neither escape, nor performance.

Paul and James are not promoting different visions for Christianity, they are speaking about different aspects of our relationship with God. What is the Christian vision for religion, then? An everlasting relationship with God that changes everything. We experience God’s love in Christ. We learn to love like Christ. We experience God’s life-changing presence through His Spirit. We learn to keep in step with the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

So much religion is about our reaching God. Christianity is about God reaching us, in fact reaching right into our hearts and massaging them back to life.

Many translations use the word religion in James 1:27:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 NIV

Here the Christian religion is not poison, but a solid example of the expression of love, the fruit of the Spirit. It is what happens through a relationship with God. This is a very positive thing in our lives, and in our world. The Christian vision for religion is compelling. It is more compelling than religion that is focused merely on escape or obedience. It is more compelling than a vision of no religion which recognizes the need for goodness in our world, but cannot provide an anchor for such. Religion certainly can poison everything. Atheism can poison everything too. A life-changing relationship with God, however, can heal anything.

The yearnings for a higher power point to the reality of God. The love of God enables us to enter into a life-changing, society-changing, world-changing covenant relationship with Him. Christianity provides a compelling account of, and vision for, religion.


This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

March 7, 2019

Compelling Minds

by Clarke Dixon

Can a thinking person be a Christian? Can a Christian be a thinking person?
Is thinking discouraged within Christianity?

First, there is a lot of thinking going on in the Bible. We often find the Psalmists in deep thought:

“I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” Psalms 143:5 (NRSV emphasis added)
“On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.” Psalms 145:5 (NRSV emphasis added)

There is a whole portion of the Bible known as “Wisdom Literature” which is devoted to some deep thinking. We find wisdom applied to life in Proverbs and deep contemplation in Ecclesiastes:

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven . . . Ecclesiastes 1:12-13 (NRSV emphasis added)

Thinking continues into the the New Testament:

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. Acts 17:2-4 (NIV emphasis added)

Paul spent up to three years in Arabia following his conversion. Some Bible scholars believe this time was devoted to thinking through the results of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. With his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, the startling revelation of the living Jesus would have given him a lot to think about.

Second, there is a rich tradition of thinking throughout the history of Christianity. Some great thinkers throughout history include Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and Descartes to name a few. There are many great Christian thinkers in theology, but also every other field of study besides including science, literature, and philosophy.

So yes, a thinking person can be a Christian, and a Christian can be, in fact ought to be, a thinking person.

There is more we can say about Christianity and thought . . .

Christianity gives a good account for the reason we can freely think for ourselves. If there is nothing supernatural, if there is only matter and the physical, then the brain operates just like a machine, and therefore none of our thinking is free thinking. Rather, our thoughts are like the falling of dominoes. Or, to use another example, they are like the weather. We might experience a “random” gust of wind. However, a gust of wind is never random. The air is simply following the laws of physics and under the circumstances, the gust had to blow the way it did. If there is no God, then the same is true of our thinking. Every thought, though seemingly random, had to happen as it did. If this is the case, how can we hold people accountable for anything? However, we intuitively know that we have free-will. Christianity accounts for this experience of freewill for our minds are more than mere machines. Ironically, the atheist “free thinker” will have difficulty accounting for free-will under a purely naturalistic worldview.

Christianity gives a good account for the reason we can reason in the first place. How do we get from a brain to a mind? How do we get from physical matter to conscious thought? The brain and the mind interact, but they are different. Lee Strobel, in his book “The Case for the Creator” gives the example from Sam Parnia of the brain being like a television set. The TV is necessary for the watching of a movie or show, but the signal carrying the show is quite a separate thing. Should the TV be damaged, it will be hard for the signal to get through properly, but the signal is still a separate entity. So too with our brains. A physical problem with the brain will affect how the mind is expressed, yet they are not one and the same thing. In fact, there is no good theory as to how the two work together.

How did the brain give rise to consciousness in the first place? Strobel goes on to quote J.P. Moreland on this question

Here’s the point: you can’t get something from nothing . . . It’s as simple as that. If there were no God, then the history of the entire universe, up until the appearance of living creatures, would be a history of dead matter with no consciousness. You would not have any thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, free actions, choices, or purposes. There would be simply one physical event after another physical event, behaving according to the laws of physics and chemistry. . . . How, then, do you get something totally different – conscious, living, thinking, feeling, believing creatures – from materials that don’t have that? That’s getting something from nothing! And that’s the main problem.

However, there is no problem accounting for the rise of consciousness in the Christian worldview. Continuing to quote Moreland:

. . . .you see, the Christian worldview begins with thought and feeling and belief and desire and choice. That is, God is conscious. God has thoughts. He has beliefs, he has desires, he has awareness, he’s alive, he acts with purpose. We start there. And because we start with the mind of God, we don’t have a problem with explaining the origin of our mind.

Strobel also references Phillip Johnson: “you either have ‘in the beginning were the particles,’ or ‘in the beginning was the Logos,’ which means ‘divine mind.’” If part of that sounds familiar, that is because “logos” is the Greek word for “word”;

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. John 1:1-3 (NIV)

When we consider the evidence of consciousness and free minds we can infer an intelligent, conscious and free agent as the Creator. Christianity fits that inference very well. Our minds are yet another compelling facet of Christianity.

Can a Christian be a thinking person and a thinking person be a Christian? Thinking is encouraged for every Christian. In fact thinking points to the One Who thought us up in the first place!


This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

February 21, 2019

Compelling Evidence

Science and Christianity

by Clarke Dixon

Should Christians be afraid of science? Should scientists be afraid of Christianity? We Canadians can tend to be more science-focused than Bible-focused, including those of us who call ourselves Christians. When we fall ill, do we follow James 5:14 and call the elders of the church, or do we call the doctor? As a pastor, I would be pleased to come and pray with you, but I will likely also encourage you to call the doctor if you have not already done so!

There can be a sense of conflict for a Christian. Do we learn from the Bible or science? Do we lean on the Bible or science? Do we lean into the Bible or science? Are we to choose between Christianity and science?

With this apparent conflict, what are we to think?

First, we should be aware that Christianity has provided a good foundation for science to flourish. Belief in a God Who has ordered the universe, creating laws that govern how things work, inspires the investigation of how it all works. Christians were, and still very much are, involved in science.

Second, we appreciate science for what it is, and what it is not. Science is the expectation that things operate according to patterns and laws which are predictable and discoverable. There is no argument with Christianity there. Science is therefore done without explicit reference to God, even by Christian scientists. Let us consider a simple example of how science works. In this past week my youngest son baked a rather large batch of very good peanut-butter cookies. I could run an experiment where I eat twenty cookies a day until they are all eaten, then step on the scales to observe the effect of eating the cookies. If the rest of my eating patterns remained unchanged, we could predict a weight gain. What we will not do is ask how God will intervene in my life based on my cookie consumption. To do so would be to hold a “God of the gaps” kind of theology. The experiment is not about finding God, but finding out how things work.

Science is the belief things operate according to laws, however, it is not the belief that there is no God. As Christians we would say that science is the discovery of how God made things to work. A Christian doing science does the same thing as an atheist doing science. Both are discovering how things operate, but one thinks of the laws of nature, however they came about, the other of God’s Creation operating according to His design. Science is a methodology which does not seek God in the workings. However, to say there is no God is not science, but scientism.

Third, we appreciate what the Bible for what it is, and what it is not. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself within history with each part written to different people at different times using different genres. The Bible is not a science textbook written to science-minded westerners. Of the many genres used in the Bible, one genre you will not find is a lab report.

It is helpful to remember that the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. In Bible studies I often ask “what do you find striking in this passage?” We really should ask how the passage would have struck the first readers and hearers. What were the original readers meant to learn, or what were they likely to learn? To give an example, the prevalent worldview when the Book of Genesis was taking shape held that there were multiple gods who had complicated relationships with each other, the world, and humanity. The original hearers/keepers of the passages in Genesis would have been struck by the fact there is only one God worthy of consideration, that He is a God of order, He is the Creator of everything, and He wants a relationship with all people, which will be worked out in some way through one particular group of people, the people descendant from Israel. No one would have questioned whether the universe really did come into existence fully formed in six literal 24 hour periods. That is a question we ask today when we fail to appreciate the theological poetry of Genesis 1.

Fourth, we learn to navigate the relationship between science and Christianity as we follow the evidence. If our science and theology do not fit together, then our understanding of theology is correct and our understanding of science is wrong, or, our understanding of science is correct and our understanding of theology is wrong, or a wee bit of both. Scientists are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the data can be off. We believe the Bible to be infallible, meaning it is exactly what God wanted it to be. However, our interpretations of the Bible are not infallible. With humility in our understanding of both science and theology we follow the evidence.

Consider John chapter 9. A blind man healed by Jesus is willing to follow the evidence. He was blind but is healed, therefore the evidence leads him to the conclusion that Jesus is someone special. The Pharisees are also trying to follow the evidence in figuring out how the blind man was healed. However, they have prior assumptions which affect their conclusions:

The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight.  They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind.   But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.”   (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place.   That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.

John 9:18-24 (The Message, emphasis added)

The blind man does not begin with assumptions:

He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.”

John 9:25 (The Message)

Operating with different assumptions, the healed man comes to a very different conclusion about the identity of Jesus!

Science-minded people may come to an investigation of Jesus and the Bible with assumptions, and so miss the truth. They may have already decided that miracles cannot happen and therefore they have already concluded, before their investigation, like the Pharisees did, who they think Jesus is. In doing so they can miss an amazing opportunity for relationship with God.

The shoe can be on the other foot, however. Notice that in John 9, it is the religious leaders who are the ones with the assumptions. The Christian may also hold assumptions about science and/or the Bible and miss truth. In doing so we can miss opportunities for growth, and importantly, opportunities for witness. The man born-blind follows the evidence and it leads him to worship Jesus:

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.

John 9:35-38 (The Message)

One of our goals as Christians is to help others come to know Jesus. If we hold to the view that science and the Bible are at odds, then we may be creating a stumbling block for others. Are we willing to follow the evidence? Do we give the freedom to others to do the same? I believe that if we send our youth off to university with the belief that they need to choose between science and Christianity, we have failed them. Do we give them the tools to follow the evidence?

Do we need to pick between Christianity and science? Far from being in conflict, there is a good relationship between science and Christianity. One can follow the scientific evidence and still be a Christian. In fact many people come to Christianity because of the evidence provided by science. Many religions have fallen by the wayside, some would say thanks to science. However, the fact that science and Christianity can enjoy a good relationship is another reason Christianity is compelling!


This is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

February 14, 2019

Why Church? Becoming . . .

Today’s post is from Clarke Dixon’s archives and is part of a February, 2013 series called Why Church. It appears here for the first time.

by Clarke Dixon

I met a remarkable man many years ago. He told me of his Bible study routine which included at least three hours of intensive study in the Word each day, this being a man who knew the Bible very well and could quote it from memory better than anyone I know. But what struck me about this man was not his Biblical knowledge, it was his seeming complete lack of grace. Showing my own sinfulness I must admit to hoping that he would not die during my time as pastor of that church lest I may be called to officiate at his funeral, something I did not want to do! My impressions of him and relationship with him would have made a eulogy difficult. Here was a man who knew his Bible, yet something was amiss.

I have a book that lists 4,400 guitar chords, of which I suppose I know about 20, enough to play a few songs at least. It is entirely possible, given enough time and boredom, that we could learn all 4,400 chords, knowing exactly where on the fret-board to place our fingers. Yet if we have never practised playing, our fingers may not want to go where our vast knowledge knows they should go. Knowing the chords does not a solid guitar player make. Knowing the Bible does not a solid Christian make!

Ephesians 6 leads us to three words that are important for becoming a solid Christian.

First: Maturity

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,  to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV

As a pastor I don’t exist to simply convey information, any more than any parent exists to simply convey information to their child. Part of the work, and a fulfilling one I must admit, is to help people mature in Christ. Maturity in this passage is defined as “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Looking at it that way, we all have some distance to go!

Second: Change

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24 NIV

We often hear things like “I was born this way.” How quickly we run from change, sometimes even denying the possibility. And how often we hear of churches resisting change, even in minor details like carpet colours. Yet change is what a Christian is to do! We are a people who are all about change!

Third: Imitation

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2

What a challenge, to imitate God! This is challenging to some because they would actually prefer to be God, and so like Adam and Eve try be something they are not. Others find the challenge rather in trying to do things they don’t think they can, like forgive or learn patience. But we must be imitators of God and all the wonderful character traits that we see in Him, we reach for and by His grace, and through His Spirit, we begin seeing in ourselves.

So why bother with church? Because maturity, change, and imitation of God works so much better with others. We are not likely to do well in these things without others, and amazingly, God wants to use us to help others do well in these things also. Sure, we can memorize the entire Bible on our own, but memorizing the Bible does not ensure our growth as Christians.  Jesus did not call just one disciple, but twelve. Discipleship always works best in bunches!


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

…or, if you prefer, all his articles here at C201 can be seen at this link.


Valentine’s Day Devotionals – various authors:

February 7, 2019

Compelling Life

by Clarke Dixon

Why is there life? It turns out there are a number of questions worthy of consideration.

How did the earth become suitable for life? Despite the longing for “life out there,” many scientists tell us the odds are against life happening anywhere, even here! Many things need to come together with precision for life to be possible. They happen to do so for us. The earth just happens to have the right qualities such as the right atmosphere, right orbit, right tilt (thanks moon!), right weather patterns, right core temperature, right distance from and right orbit around the right kind of sun which is in the right place in our galaxy. We are only scratching the surface of things that need to come together for life to be possible. The earth appears to be a finely calibrated machine for the flourishing of life. When we see such kinds of precision we don’t normally ask “how did that happen?”, we ask “who did that?”.

How did life come about in the first place? Why is the universe not made up solely of non-living matter? In the past we were taught that life began with very simple organisms in a “primordial soup. ” However, life is incredibly complex even in its simplest expressions. The simplest of life forms require complex machinery and teamwork. As a  student I used to take my pens apart and write with just the ink tube and the attached ball-point. The pen could be reduced to very few parts and still work. Living things, however, cannot be reduced like that. They are more like a mechanical watch where messing with one cog renders the watch useless. Only living things are way more complex. When we see complex machinery we don’t ask “how did that happen?”, we ask “who did that?”.

Also, life happens thanks to an incredible amount of information such as we find in DNA. How did all that information get there? Back to my student days, anytime I would see a Commodore 64 computer on display in a store, I would write a short program that would write the same words, over and over again, on the screen. I knew just enough of the computer language called “Basic” to be able to do that. I am sure no employee on finding the computer would have asked, “how did that happen?”. Rather, they would ask the obvious question, “who wrote that?”.

How did there come to be such diversity and inter-dependence among amazing living things?  Why is the world not just covered in something like moss? Why such wonderful, often beautiful and awe-inspiring creatures? How did eco-systems come about which require the very diversity found within them? Living things are found in environments where not only can they flourish, but importantly, they can help other living things in the environment flourish also.

We are very often told that animals “adapted” to their environments. However, did they adapt, or were they, plus their environments, adapted to each other? When we see race cars whizzing around race tracks do we wonder how the cars adapted and became so fast? When we see trucks hauling heavy loads down a highway, do we ask how they adapted, becaming so big? We can speak of the evolution of the vehicle, but we know that intelligence is behind that evolution. Adaptation of things to environments is a matter of creation. When we see things uniquely placed according to what they are and can do we do not ask “how did that happen?”, we ask “who did that?”.

The real question.

John Entwistle, bass player for “The Who,” released a solo project including a song called “I Wonder” in which he marveled at the way things were put together. The song includes these lines in the chorus:

Thank you Mother Nature
For the way you got things planned
Don’t ever change a thing, I’m happy as I am.

In thinking about nature he was on the right track. There is a “who?” behind the “what?” and the “how?” questions.

The precise alignment of parameters required for life to flourish on earth points to intelligence and capability. The complexity found within even the simplest of living things points to intelligence and capability. The use of language in the building blocks of life points to intelligence and capability. The care shown through the placement of living things in finely balanced eco-systems points to intelligence and capability. The question is not “how,” but “who?”. Who has this kind of intelligence and capability?

Christianity provides a compelling answer to this question; “who?”.

Consider what we discover in the first two chapters of Genesis:

  1. On the suitability of the earth for life, God put all the necessary conditions and circumstance into place for life. Obvious things are mentioned like light, dark, the sun, the moon, water and land (see Genesis 1:1-19). We are not told about things like gravity, oxygen, and the like. We should not expect a science report from a book that is introducing us to God!
  2. On life getting life started in the first place, God, a living being, created life and living things. In being created by God living things are complex right from the start. In fact living things are created with “seed in it” (eg. Genesis 1:11), the ability to reproduce is baked right in. Besides, how could non-living, non-thinking things give rise to living, thinking things?
  3. On diverse living creatures being found in well balanced eco-systems, God created life according to their kinds (see Genesis 1:20-25). Also, food is provided (see Genesis 1:29-31). The required systems are put in place for life to flourish.

As we consider life and living things, there is one more question.

Why do human beings seem to be so different from the rest of the animals in remarkable ways? There is a difference in intelligence, creativity, language skills, morality, and religion. There is an ability to reflect and a desire for significance that is not found in other animals.

When a child in an orphanage is taken into a family where they are then fed, clothed, coached, taught, and experience loving and caring relationship for many, many years, we do not ask “how did that happen?”. When we see one child marked out from all the others in such remarkable ways, we ask, “who desired a special relationship with that child?”.

Back to Genesis chapters one and two. God created humanity in His image, and for a special relationship. Biblical scholars point to two accounts of creation, the first being found in chapter one and the second being found in chapter two.  In the first account humanity is created last, but “in his image” (see Genesis 1:26). In case we think that we were an afterthought, the second account has humanity created first (see Genesis 2:4-9). Both accounts point to how we were created by God for a special relationship.

The life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus are also a confirmation that God has created us for special relationship. God did something special for humanity about 2000 years ago in Jesus. Why? Because humanity has had a special place in God’s heart from the beginning. Humans are different from all other living things becuause we were created for a special relationship.

What the Bible tells us about God, our creator and redeemer, fits very well with the questions raised about life through philosophy and science. When we consider these questions of life and living things, it turns out there is a more compelling question than “how?”. It is “Who?”. The answer is God as revealed in the Bible, as revealed in Jesus. The answer is God, Who wants a special relationship with you.


This is all very introductory and merely a scratching of the surface of things. There are many fine resources available. Good starting points are “The Case for a Creator” by Lee Strobel, and “God’s Crime Scene” by J. Warner Wallace. This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.

January 31, 2019

Compelling Morality

by Clarke Dixon

Are Christians better than everyone else? Are they more moral? Are they more likely to do the right thing, the good thing? Are people compelled to believe in God because Christians are moral people? The world may not find the moral performance of Christians to be compelling, but the fact of morality is compelling. The very fact that everyone can come up with an opinion on the above questions points to the existence of God. How so? Let’s take a look.

The Bible teaches that there is a moral lawgiver. Last week we looked at Psalm 19 and how the universe points to the existence of God. Some Bible scholars believe that Psalm 19 is actually two Psalms because there is a sudden shift following verse 6 from speaking of planetary systems to speaking of morality:

4 In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes; Psalms 19:4-8

But is it actually a shift?  We read about the sun following its course in verses 4-6. Though written, of course, from the perspective of the Psalmist standing on earth, we know from scientific discoveries that the planets and the sun are following the laws of physics. God created these laws so there could be a well-functioning, life-permitting-and-sustaining universe. Verse 7 then turns to another kind of law which is given by God for a well-functioning, life-permitting-and-sustaining universe; the moral law. When the sun and the planets follow God’s laws of physics, it works well for everyone. When we follow God’s moral law, life works well for everyone.

Imagine for a moment what would happen if the sun and earth did not follow the laws of physics. It would be catastrophic. We do not get very far into the Bible before we discover what happens when people do not follow the moral law. Had Cain kept to God’s moral law, it would have gone so much better for Abel. It would have gone so much better for Adam and Eve. It would have gone so much better for Cain also! Experience confirms what the Bible teaches; life just does not work well without morals. The vast majority of people know that morals are important and good for the well being of humanity, even if they do not like certain ones. The laws of physics point to a Creator. The laws of morality do also. As Psalm 19 points out, both are part of God’s life sustaining universe.

Philosophy confirms that there is a moral lawgiver. Consider that if we say there is no God, then we can not speak of objective morals existing either. You might not balk at that at first. After all, don’t different cultures have different moral standards? However, do you think there are certain things which would be wrong for all people in every place and time? Is murder on a whim ever okay? Most of us would think not. Either objective morality exists, or morals are just subjective and are determined by social norms and personal preference. Either murder on a whim is truly wrong, or we prefer it not happen so that society can function well. When ancient peoples conducted the practice of “exposing” a child, that is, leaving an unwanted infant to die, was that wrong? If God does not exist, if there is no lawgiver, then it was not objectively wrong. Some atheists are willing to admit that morality is subjective, a matter of preference from society to society, but not too many of us would go that far. If human rights are real, then so too is the existence of God. You can watch a short video that explains all this much better here. [Also embedded below*.]

Are Christians better than everyone else? Perhaps not. There are atheists who live very moral lives, and there are Christians who live very immoral lives. However, the very fact people have opinions on the question is compelling evidence that objective morality is real. It is therefore also compelling evidence that God is real. If you find the fact of morality compelling, then so too is God.


All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV. This is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.


*We decided to include the video which Clarke referred to.

January 24, 2019

A Compelling Cosmos

by Clarke Dixon

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Psalm 19:1 (NIV)

You can imagine the Psalmist looking up to the stars in awe, praising God for all creation. But do the heaven’s still declare the glory of God in our day? Do the skies still proclaim the work of his hands to a people as sophisticated and learned as we are? The heavens would compel the ancients to glorify God as Creator. But are we compelled by them today?

It turns out that the heavens still speak. Philosophers and scientists do the talking, but through the study of “the heavens,” the cosmos, we can learn something about the existence and nature of God.

Let us look to three questions inspired by the heavens. Please note that this is all very introductory.

What is behind the beginning of the universe?

Beginning in the last century a majority of scientists have been won over to the view that our universe had a beginning. While some Christians balked at the “Big Bang” theory, others saw the implications for theology. After all, we people of the Jurdeo-Christian tradition have long been saying that the universe had a beginning. William Lane Craig lays out what he calls the Kalam Cosmological argument in this way:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Further, the cause “must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, uncaused, and powerful.” Sound like anyone you know? God, as revealed in the Bible, fits this cause of the universe perfectly. But then you might object with “who created God?” Consider the first premise, and then note that God does not begin to exist, therefore we do not need to consider what caused his existence. Again, this is all very introductory, but here is a short video from William Lane Craig which explains it in a much better way.

Why are the conditions just right at the beginning of the universe for it to be life permitting?

Scientists tell us that certain physical constants, like the force of gravity, are so very specific, that if they were just slightly different at the beginning, the universe would not exist as we know it. It would not be life permitting. This is commonly called the Fine Tuning Argument.

Just how specific must these constants be? The web resource godandscience.org quotes Dr. Hugh Ross from his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, on one such constant, the ratio of electrons to protons:

One part in 1037 is such an incredibly sensitive balance that it is hard to visualize. The following analogy might help: Cover the entire North American continent in dimes all the way up to the moon, a height of about 239,000 miles . . . Next, pile dimes from here to the moon on a billion other continents the same size as North America. Paint one dime red and mix it into the billions of piles of dimes. Blindfold a friend and ask him to pick out one dime. The odds that he will pick the red dime are one in 1037. (p. 115)

Did this degree of fine tuning happen by necessity, chance, or by design? Design can be shown to be the most reasonable alternative. I am only scratching the surface, but here is another short video from William Lane Craig to give you a better handle on the fine tuning argument.

Why does anything exist at all?

Looking up to the heavens above on a starry night, we might ask not just how this all began, or how it ended up being so delicately balanced for life, but why is there anything at all? Gottfried Leibniz asked “why is there something rather than nothing?”. He then went on to show how God is the answer. William Lane Craig has formulated Leibniz’s thinking using the following premises:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. The explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This can be a tricky one to wrap our minds around, but basically the idea is that the universe is contingent, that is, something else was required for its existence. We experience this in daily life as we see that all things have some cause behind them. There is a computer here in front of me because someone built it, and I bought it. This computer did not need to exist, nor did I have to buy it. Its existence and placement is contingent on many things. However, God exists necessarily. Nothing caused God to exist. The only way a contingent universe could exist is if something which existed necessarily caused it to exist. This is consistent with what the Bible teaches.

Here is one more short video from William Lane Craig to help you better understand the Leibniz contingency argument.

Some observations.

  • Some might wonder why not just read the Bible and not concern ourselves with such philosophical pursuits. However, the Bible itself says “The heavens declare the glory of God,” therefore it is worth hearing what the heavens declare. We do this through science and philosophy.
  • The fact that science and philosophy can be found to be in sync with theology reminds us that we need neither leave our brains at the door of the church, nor leave our faith in the parking lot of the university. This in itself is something compelling about Christianity. Many of us would find an “everything you know from anywhere else is wrong” kind of attitude to be off-putting.
  • Each of these arguments from philosophy and science are not a knock down argument for Christianity on their own. However, they are part of a larger cumulative case for the truth of Christianity which goes well beyond thinking about the cosmos.
  • You may feel like you can’t wrap your head around these arguments. As J. Warner Wallace points out, jurors in murder cases make decisions that affect the future of an individual in drastic ways, yet they don’t need to be experts. The jurors listen to the testimony of expert witnesses and consider all the evidence without becoming experts in any one part.

It is compelling that what was written so long ago in the Bible should provide answers consistent with what is being learned in our day. Christianity provides compelling answers to philosophical questions inspired by the cosmos, but far more than that, it speaks about God who loves! May you have confidence that Christianity is true. May you have confidence that God loves you in Christ!


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada.

All Scripture references are taken from the NLT. This is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full 36-minute sermon can be heard on the podcast here.

January 17, 2019

Compelling Truth

by Clarke Dixon

How can you know that anything is true? If Christianity is not true, it is not truly compelling. So if we can’t know anything to be true, how can we be sure Christianity is true?

The idea of truth permeates the arrest of Jesus in John chapter 18. We have Jesus appealing to truth in verses 19-23, Peter denying the truth in verses 25-27,  the religious leaders lying in verses 30-31, and Pilate trying to get to the truth in verses 33-37. This is all capped off with Pilate’s famous words:

37 Pilate said, “So you are a king?”
Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
38What is truth?” Pilate asked. John 18:37-38 (emphasis added)

What was Pilate’s tone of voice when he asked “what is truth?” If you were an actor how would you portray it? Would you make Pilate sound like a philosopher on a quest for knowledge? “Hmmm, an interesting question I would love to spend some time pondering.” Or would you make Pilate sound like a busy man who wanted to get back to his own plans for the day? “What does your version of truth matter when I’ve got so much more to worry about?”

Whichever you would choose, these are two approaches to truth today. There are those who get all philosophical about truth and say “We cannot be sure of anything, so don’t tell me about Jesus.” Then there are those who could care less; “It just doesn’t matter, so don’t tell me about Jesus.” Are they correct?

Can we know the truth?

How do we know that the entirety of our lives is not just some big dream and we will wake up some day to an entirely different world? How do we know we are not stuck in some sort of matrix kept alive by machines or aliens in state of dreaming as in the Matrix movies? Can we be 100% sure Christianity is true if we cannot be 100% sure anything is true? Can we be certain beyond all possible doubt?

Here’s the thing; we do not live as as if we cannot know anything. We live as people who know stuff! We are never 100% sure of anything before we make decisions. Even Pilate, after he asked “what is truth?”, immediately went to the people to report what he knew to be true:

“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime.” John 18:38

Pilate knew enough to be able to form an opinion and make a decision. This is how we live. I had a scary experience many years ago. The roads were icy and I lost control of my car causing me to be on the wrong side of the road. I did not take the time to ponder if in fact it was all a dream, or that possibly the truck bearing down on me was just a hallucination, or a trick being played on me by aliens. After all, anything is possible. I knew I was in trouble, I made the right decisions and got the car under control again. This is how we live, not knowing things beyond a possible doubt, but knowing them beyond a reasonable doubt. We make decisions all the time, not because we can be 100% certain we are correct, but because it is reasonable to assume that we are.

Now consider that ordinary people experienced the extraordinary person of Jesus in ordinary ways. They could be as sure about him as I could be sure about my situation in a skidding car. With the exception of Paul and his Damascus road experience, those who experienced Jesus experienced him in the same way they would experience anyone. This is true before Easter, when ordinary people heard his extraordinary teaching and witnessed his extraordinary miracles in ordinary ways. This is also true following Easter when people saw Jesus alive again. Yes, he was even more extraordinary that before, but again, ordinary people were experiencing his extraordinary presence in normal ways. They were not having visions or dreams, they were living life, but there was Jesus in front of them. They could see him and touch him. They knew him to be real, just as they would know anything to be real:

1 We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. 2 This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy. 1 John 1:1-4 (emphasis added)

All those who saw Jesus risen from the dead were ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary person of Jesus in ordinary ways. They could be as sure of him as they could be sure of anything. Sure you can always say “it was possible that the risen Jesus was actually an alien imposter,” for anything is possible. But we don’t live that way. Neither did people 2000 years ago. They knew beyond a reasonable doubt that this was the risen Jesus. The truth of Christianity continues to be beyond a reasonable doubt in our day. We will be looking at some reasons to think so in the weeks to come.

So can we know anything? Yes, we reasonably know things to be true, but . . .

Does truth matter?

We live as if truth matters, a lot. Back to my scary experience in the car. I knew that moment could have changed my life for the rest of my days, if I had any more days left in this life. Reality matters! What is true with respect to Jesus matters incredibly. Grasping the reality of Jesus is not the same as forming an opinion on whether Coke is a better cola than Pepsi, or whether the Boston Bruins are a better team than the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is more like grasping the reality of a truck bearing down on you. It impacts every moment of your future. Why do people often live as if truth matters, but when it comes to spiritual things, it suddenly does not? You could say it matters more! Truth matters and spiritual truths matter, a lot.

Why has truth been challenged in our day? 

Deceit and deception are at the heart of the Fall as described in Genesis chapter 3. Adam and Eve were deceived, and in that deception sinned creating a wedge between themselves and God. There are deceptions today which keep that wedge in place. For example, that knowing truth is impossible or does not matter. Deceit and deception also run through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate was being deceived by the ones who wanted Jesus dead. Pilate was not totally deceived by them, knowing that Jesus was innocent of their accusations. However, he failed to recognize that the deception mattered. He thought his relationship with the people under his charge was more important the his relationship with the one now under his judgement, the One under whose charge he himself was.

Ironically, while the crucifixion of Jesus happened because of failure to apprehend the truth, it is a clear window into the truth, that

. . . God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. 10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 1 John 4:8-10

Deception ran through the Fall. Deception ran through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Don’t let deception run through your life! God is love. That is a truth which can be known and which matters more than anything!


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada.

All Scripture references are taken from the NLT. This is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast here.

January 10, 2019

A Compelling Invitation

by Clarke Dixon

What do Chance the Rapper, Snoop Dog, Blake Shelton, Avril Lavigne, and Justin Bieber have in common? Beyond perhaps that they sing music you do not like? They have each expressed more than a passing interest in Christianity in recent years. They have this in common with 2 billion other people today, and a further few billion throughout the last two millennia. There is something compelling about Christianity. What is it? Why has Christianity stood the test of time? Why has it weathered every storm, from within and beyond?

Some have said that Christianity is appealing to people who need a crutch. Perhaps that is what is compelling. However, people like C.S.Lewis, Lee Strobel, and J. Warner Wallace have found it compelling for other reasons. Thinker C.S. Lewis became a Christian through thinking it all through. Journalist Lee Strobel became a Christian through a journalistic inquiry. Cold case detective J. Warner Wallace considered the evidence and became a Christian. None of these felt any need for a crutch. They, along with many, many others, have found Christianity to be compelling.

When it comes to providing compelling answers to important questions, Christianity is like a banquet. I am reminded of an invitation Jesus speaks of in Luke 14:

16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ Luke 14:16-20 (NRSV)

An invitation was given to great dinner. But some fluffed it off. While billions of people have found Christianity compelling why have billions of others not? Some things to think about:

People can be distracted by chip trucks.

You are invited to a great dinner, but on the way you drive by a chip truck. You have heard the french fries there are really good. You stop and your appetite is satisfied. “Please make excuses to the dinner host, I cannot come now.” This kind of thing happens with regards to worldview. When a worldview answers a few of the questions of life well, people may not feel the need to look any further. It is like enjoying great french fries at a chippy daily, yet not realizing what delightful foods are being served elsewhere.

To give an example of this, consider those worldviews that make reference to karma. The idea of karma gives a compelling answer to the question; “why do good people suffer?” The answer is that good people who suffer now must have been bad people at some point, likely in a previous incarnation. They are now working off bad karma. There is “cosmic justice” after all. The righteous really are rewarded and the evil really do suffer. Some people find this way of looking at things compelling. It is a nice tidy answer. However, how well do the karma-focused religions answer all the other questions? For a worldview or religion to be truly compelling it must provide compelling answers to many questions. In the weeks to come we will be looking at how Christianity provides compelling answers to many questions.

People can be distracted by various religions, which may offer good answers to some questions in the way a chippy can offer some tasty food, but what about those who say they just don’t believe anything?

Dinnertime comes for everyone.

Those who refuse the invitation to the great dinner are not saying “I refuse to eat.” They are saying “I refuse to eat what you are offering, I will eat something else.” All people have a way of looking at things. All people have some perspective on religion and “religious” truth. It is sometimes said that only people advancing religion who hold a burden of proof. As a Christian I don’t mind shouldering a burden of proof. There is good evidence for the truth of Christianity. It is compelling. However, anyone advancing any kind of perspective has the same burden of proof. The atheist who says there is no God and the agnostic who says it cannot be known if there is a God or not, will still need to give reasons why their perspective is compelling. All people have religious views. God invites all people to the banquet. All people need to think through their response to the invitation. All people need to explain why they find their choice compelling.

We focus on the food and forget about the host.

Think of someone you would not dream of declining if they invited you to lunch. Perhaps it is a loved one you have not seen in ages. Perhaps it is a celebrity you adore. Whoever it may be, you excitedly accept the invitation no matter what is on the menu! Now consider that God Who has revealed Himself in the Bible is far greater than that person in every possible way. The dinner is not that important after all. Being with the host is!

In the great dinner parable told by Jesus, the initial invitees are too wrapped up in themselves to go. Jesus told this parable to people too wrapped up in themselves to care about him. The scribes and the Pharisees could not, and would not, grasp the identity of Jesus. He did not fit what they thought the Messiah should look like. In the parable there are those who are initially invited, who then make excuses and decline. These represent the Jewish elites, invited by God to participate in what He is doing, yet who decline the invitation to participate in what He is doing through Jesus. Watch what happens next:

21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’ ” Luke 14:21-24 (NRSV)

The religious leaders did not respond well to Jesus, but everyone else is invited! We are reminded of these words from John, chapter 1:

11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:11-13 (NRSV)

While we will be looking at many reasons Christianity is compelling in the weeks to come, the most compelling thing about Christianity is not a thing at all, but a person, Christ Himself. Yes, the food is really great. But it is really about the host!

In the parable of the great dinner the master sends his servants to compel people to come to his banquet. It is funny that the servants would need to compel people, for there were already compelling reasons to go! It is a great meal, it is free, there is great company. You are invited to the table of the Lord. On the first Sunday of every month we invite people to partake of the Lord’s Supper, a symbolic remembrance of Christ’s body broken, his blood shed for forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. There are compelling reasons to say yes to the invitation to the table. The invitation to be reconciled to God through Christ is a compelling invitation indeed.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

…or, if you prefer, all his articles here at C201 can be seen at this link.

January 3, 2019

2018 “Bible Verse of the Year”

by Clarke Dixon

What was the most popular Bible verse of 2018? According to the popular Bible app YouVersion, the verse of the year was not John 3:16 or Romans 8:28 as you might expect. It was Isaiah 41:10.

Unfortunately, this verse is an indicator of what was on the hearts and minds of people around the world in 2018; fear and discouragement. We had many reasons for fear in 2018, such as changes in society and changes in our world with movements toward nationalism and various kinds of fundamentalism. We saw changes in relationships between nations, thinking especially of renewed trade wars. Most of us saw changes in ourselves. I am one year closer to the big five-O. Perhaps you are one year further away from it. Aging can be a great cause for fear. Then there are the things that stay the same; wars and rumours of wars, continuing oppression, natural disasters. There were reasons for fear in Isaiah’s day as well. Israel was a small nation surround by strong nations. That can be cause for fear in any age, but certainly back in the days when empires were eaten up by bigger empires.

What do we humans do when we are afraid? Isaiah tells us:

5 The lands beyond the sea watch in fear.
Remote lands tremble and mobilize for war.
6 The idol makers encourage one another,
saying to each other, “Be strong!”
7 The carver encourages the goldsmith,
and the molder helps at the anvil.
“Good,” they say. “It’s coming along fine.”
Carefully they join the parts together,
then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. Isaiah 41:5-7

The New Living Translation makes clear what most other translations don’t. The artisans and goldsmiths are making idols. We have a tendency of turning to idolatry in the midst of fear. In Isaiah’s time people thought idols could control the future. Are we any different today? What do we think controls the future in our day? In answering this we tend to either run toward superstition, or away from it so far that we run from the supernatural altogether.

It amazes me when I check the news headlines using the Internet on my tablet as to how often the daily horoscope shows up among the headline news. Here we are as very sophisticated people with great technology in our hands, and yet people are still looking to the stars for their future.

Superstition can sneak into Christianity very easily. I have often used an app on my phone called IFTTT which means “if this, then that.” I program this app so that when I do the right “trigger,” it will automatically do the right action. So, for example, I can say “time to eat,” and text messages are sent to our boys that dinner is ready. People often treat God that way. If I do this, then God must do that. I can control the future by doing a certain “trigger” which will force God to do the right action. Problem is, God is not an app or a phone that he must operate according to our scripts. God is sovereign. I am reminded of a prominent Christian couple who walked away from Christianity in 2018. God had not responded to them as they thought He should have. People do not tend to walk away from Jesus. They do, however, walk away from superstitious expressions of Christianity. Unfortunately, people tend to walk towards superstitious expressions of Christianity in times of fear.

While some, in thinking of the future, rush headlong into superstition, others will go the opposite extreme and become anti-supernatural. Nothing controls the future, it just all unfolds according to mechanistic processes. Even the process of thinking is said to be just a matter of one thing causing another, like a line of dominoes falling. Anti-supernaturalism can be found in certain expression of Christianity where people appreciate the benefits of religion such as structure, morality, and community. However, they don’t really believe in a transcendent and immanent sovereign God. The world is what it is and the future will be what it will be.

According to Isaiah, neither superstition, nor anti-supernaturalism speaks to our future. Who really holds the future? We find out in Isaiah 41:8-10

8 “But as for you, Israel my servant,
Jacob my chosen one,
descended from Abraham my friend,
9 I have called you back from the ends of the earth,
saying, ‘You are my servant.’
For I have chosen you
and will not throw you away.
10 Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:8-10

God holds the future. Notice how Isaiah points to the past, present, and future. God’s people could look back and see a long standing relationship with God, “I have chosen you.” They have been his people for a long time. They can look to the present “I am with you, don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.” They can look to the future, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” Nothing could provide hope and help in times of fear like God Himself. In thinking of the future we do well to leave behind our superstitions and our anti-supernaturalism and turn to God. He holds the future as surely as He has held the past and now holds the present.

The theme of “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you” will sound familiar to the Christian. We can think of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds:

9 They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! – Luke 2:9-11

That God had become present through Jesus was good news, and so “do not be afraid”! We are also reminded of the last words of Jesus to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew:

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:20

Like the people of Isaiah’s day, we can look to the past to see the relationship God has been pursuing with us. We can look to Christmas, we can look to Easter and the reconciliation that He has offered at the cross. We can also look to God’s presence in our lives now. We can look forward to God keeping His promises in the future.

2018 may have been a year marked by fear and discouragement for you. Perhaps Isaiah 41:10 is a verse you want to memorize for 2019.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. – Isaiah 41:10

May your New Year be blessed and happy!


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. All scripture references are NRSV.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon

…or, if you prefer, all his articles here at C201 can be seen at this link.

Scripture references today are taken from the NLT

December 27, 2018

Herod and a Ruined Christmas

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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by Clarke Dixon

You may have the kind of Christmas that is not Christmas-card-perfect. There are a great many things that can be the “ruin” of Christmas. We fret over things like finding that perfect gift, or having the perfect family gathering around the perfect Christmas dinner enjoying perfect relationships. Reality may stay from those ideals. For others, Christmas is ruined by grief. There is one less setting at the table. Christmas may not be Christmas-card-perfect for you this year.

You would not be the first to have a ruined Christmas. Herod ruins a perfect first Christmas for Mary, Joseph, and many others as we discover from a Bible passage we often associate with Christmas:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16–18 NRSV)*

Christmas is ruined. However, was it even a Christmas-card-perfect Christmas before Herod’s killing spree? Rumours would have been swirling about Mary and the legitimacy of this child. Remember that Jospeh needed an angel visitation to be convinced. Bethlehem was an ancestral home, but Mary and Joseph were hardly home for the holidays. There was no room at the inn. There was no family gathering, in fact the first to show up were complete strangers. Meanwhile Mary and Joseph were bringing a child into a rather unsettled world. Roman power is in the background, indeed it is why they end up in Bethlehem. When Rome spoke, Jews jumped. At least, according to the Romans. Jewish people-power is in the foreground. Herod was stuck between Roman leaders, for the Romans said he could be king, and the Jewish people, many of whom were saying he ought not to be king. These were dangerous times and revolution hung in the air. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with Mary and Joseph forced to flee to Egypt as refugees with their baby. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with the grief of many mums and dads who lost their babies. The first Christmas was anything but Christmas-card-perfect. Herod made sure of that.

How do you define the perfect Christmas? Is it the perfect family with perfect people with perfect lives gathering for the perfect dinner, carrying out the the perfect family traditions, enjoying perfect Christmas baking while opening perfect Christmas gifts fetched from under a perfectly decorated tree? A lot of that stuff doesn’t happen for a lot of people at all, never mind perfectly. For some people, “Merry Christmas” is met with “I think I’d rather give it a pass this year.” For many people Christmas is a hot mess. Life itself just gets too messy for Christmas.

What really makes for the perfect Christmas? Christmas is not the celebration of sentimental moments that are free of mess. Christmas is the celebration of the moment God stepped into our mess. Every year around Christmas we mention Herod. Herod reminds us of the mess God stepped into through Jesus. So if your Christmas is messy and less that Christmas-card-perfect, celebrate God who steps into our mess. Let’s focus, not on the celebrations themselves, but on Him Whom we celebrate.

Herod ruined Christmas for himself. Look again at Herod. How was his first Christmas? Herod was self-focused. Herod was paranoid of losing a throne he did not belong on. Indeed historians tell us that Herod was so paranoid he had his favourite wife and some of his own children killed. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Herod was troubled by the news from the magi and indeed sought to destroy the one “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod knew he was king of the Jews thanks to Roman benevolence, but not by birth. It is no surprise that such a self focused person as Herod would have trouble celebrating the birth of Jesus. Nothing ruins Christmas like a focus on oneself, and one’s own power. Such a self-focus causes us to reject, rather than celebrate, Jesus.

God stepped into a messy world that first Christmas. But Herod was too self-focused to notice. God steps into our mess, but if we insist on being front and centre, if we insist on being the hero of our story, we won’t notice. We try to be the hero when we try to fix every problem. We try to be the hero when we act as if life can go on without God in it. We put ourselves front and centre by trying to put God in our debt, as if He owes us something. When we think of Santa Claus, we may think we are owed not a lump of coal, but a good gift, for we have not been naughty, but nice. However, the original Saint Nicholas gave gifts, not because he owed the help to anyone but because people needed help. His inspiration was Jesus. God will never be in our debt, but He will give us the gift of eternal life, not because we are owed it, but because we are in need of reconciliation with Him. Christmas could have turned out very differently for Herod had he thought about himself less, and thought about God more.

If we are really focused on the birth of Jesus, rather than on the celebrations themselves, or on ourselves, then Christmas can never be ruined. No one can ever take away God’s Christmas gift to us.


*The magi were most likely not included in the manger scene we envision in Christmas scenes. They likely arrived later. However, they are very much part of Jesus’ infancy so we traditionally associate them with Christmas.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. All scripture references are NRSV.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 20, 2018

Baby Jesus and the Surprising Visitors

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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by Clarke Dixon

When a baby is born certain people are invited to come and see. Usually they are loved ones; family, or good friends. Sometimes people take the intuitive to show up even without an invite. The birth is significant to them. Now let us look at the visitors on that first Christmas.

Shepherds are invited. Surprise! This is not an invitation from Joseph and Mary, who presumably would not have even known the shepherds. This is a special invitation from God! Why the shepherds? Why does God not invite the religious leaders or the political leaders? The shepherds were not the elite representatives of clean, holy, set apart Israel.
They were representative of the worldly, unclean, normal people of God. These are the kind of Israelites who would not be welcome in the most holy places of the temple. They are not holy enough. Why them?

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11 emphasis added)

The wisemen take the initiative and show up. Surprise! Who are these wisemen? They are technically magi, which means they are astrologers, perhaps even priests, from a foreign religion and people. They would have been frowned upon by the holy and especially not welcome within the temple. But they were welcomed into the presence of Jesus. The magi represent those beyond Israel, people different from, and not as holy as the Israelites.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

This is only the beginning of “surprise visitors” who are invited and welcomed.

Look to whom Jesus went; people on the margins, the unclean, the diseased, sinners and tax collectors, even a Samaritan woman. Look who took the initiative to call upon Jesus, to come and see Jesus; the diseased and unclean, sinners and tax-collectors, foreigners even.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

Read through the Book of Acts and pay attention to whom the early church was sent. Anyone and everyone! There is even a special mission to an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter eight. Phillip is sent on a mission from God to help the eunuch discover Jesus.

“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”” (Acts 8:36 NRSV)

What if the question was “What is to prevent me from being in the presence of God at the temple?” We should not lose sight of the fact that the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship. The answer would be clear; “you are a foreigner, a eunuch, you are not a priest, you are not the High Priest, you simply don’t make the grade and never will.” However, nothing hinders him from being baptized. Nothing hinders him from experiencing the presence of God in Jesus.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

We have been looking at the “who and whom.” Now let us look at the “what.”

In the Old Testament, as God takes the time to teach about holiness, there is a constricting, a narrowing down of those who belong in the presence of God.  There is a narrowing down to those who are set-apart, or a “holy” people. They are narrowed down to being descendants of Abraham, then down to the descendants of Isaac, then down to the descendants of Jacob. Then there is a narrowing down to those who could approach God in the temple, those who were set-apart as the holiest of the holy. First there is a narrowing down to the tribe of Levi, then those priests who had properly prepared through consecrating themselves, then only the high priest. He was to be the cleanest of the clean, the holiest of the holy. However, even he does not belong in the presence of God. Only certain people make the grade and then even they can never make the grade. No one can truly stand in the presence of God.

We find this fact reflected in a passage from the Book of Revelation which reflects on the question “who can stand” in the presence of God given the consequence of sin.

“Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”” (Revelation 6:15–17 emphasis added)

This thought is reflected in the words of a song often sung during Advent and Christmas:

The sun cannot compare to the glory of Your love
There is no shadow in Your presence
No mortal man would dare to stand before Your throne
Before the Holy One of Heaven, . . . 

(from “Offering” by Paul Baloche, emphasis added)

This reflects the teaching of the Old Testament, that really, no one has the right to stand in the presence of God “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NRSV).

We are not without hope. The question “who can stand” is answered:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, . . . .“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9,14 emphasis added)

Back to “Offering” by Paul Baloche:

It’s only by Your blood
And it’s only through Your mercy Lord I come

While there is a constricting and narrowing down in the Old Testament, there is an opening up, a widening up which we see beginning at the birth of Jesus and continuing through his life and the ministry of His Church. The shepherds, the magi, the people on the margins, the unclean, the eunuchs, the Gentiles, anyone and everyone is invited and welcome.

We might give up hope for people. We might give up hope for ourselves. We are not the right kind of people, we don’t make the grade, we are too sinful, too different, too intellectual, too something or other. We may not be the kind of people who would make the grade for serving as High Priest but don’t worry, that job is already taken. Jesus is our High Priest, God the Son, and he has given his life as the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile us to Himself.

Don’t ever give up hope for others, or yourself. If shepherds are invited and foreign astrologers are welcomed into the presence of God, then you are too!

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

“All the people” includes you. The shepherds responded to the invitation by going to see Jesus. The magi took the initiative to seek him. Have you responded to God’s invitation? Are you seeking Him?



Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. All scripture references are NRSV.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 13, 2018

Is the Story of Christmas Believable?

by Clarke Dixon

Can you blame Joseph for doubting Mary? If a woman said she was pregnant and no man was involved in any way, would you believe her? Sometimes a person’s claim may be surprising, but believable. At other times they go beyond surprising to being unbelievable.

We are not explicitly told what Mary said to Joseph, but it is unimaginable that she would not have shared about the angel visitation we read about in the Gospel of Luke. We do learn how Joseph responds to the surprising pregnancy:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Matthew 1:18-19

Joseph was a righteous man, and the right thing to do was get out of the betrothal. Joseph was also a good man, and the good thing to do was to get out of the betrothal quietly so that Mary would not be exposed to scorn and disgrace. Joseph is also a reasonable man, and the reasonable thing to think is that Mary is covering up a lack of faithfulness with an angel story. That is the most reasonable explanation. At least until an angel shows up:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:20-21

So Joseph believes the surprising news, with some help. But what about us? Why would we trust this one account of a virgin conception, and no other? Joseph, so we are told, had the evidence of an angel to help him believe. Is there anything that will help us know that the Christmas story does not cross the line from surprising to unbelievable?

History helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.

Can anything make the surprising story of Christmas believable in our scientific age?
Doesn’t science tell us that belief in such a conception is unreasonable? First, we should recognize that science is limited in its subject matter to what can be seen and observed in some way. Therefore, there are two kinds of facts not available to science; spiritual and historical. You will never be able to “see” God out in space no matter how powerful your telescope. God simply is not in our realm that we should see Him. Also, you cannot “observe” events that have already happened. When we want to know about history we turn to historians, not scientists.

Knowing that science does not specialize in spiritual or historical facts, let us now consider the Bible. The Bible primarily speaks not about science, but about spiritual and historical truths.

The Bible records for us historical events that speak about the relationship of God with people. Now let us consider that history very briefly. God created a world of great order and beauty. God created humanity for relationship. Humanity fell out of relationship with God having rebelled against Him. However, God did not give up on a relationship with humanity, rather He made loving promises which we find throughout the Old Testament. The only way God could keep those promises was through dealing with the sin that separates us from Him. The only way to deal with sin while maintaining both perfect justice and grace, is through becoming the suitable sacrifice Himself.  The only way to become that sacrifice is for God to be “killable,” to be “crucifiable.” The only way to do that is to become incarnate:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8 (emphasis added)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:4-6 (emphasis added)

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14 (emphasis added)

This is what we celebrate at Christmas. God Himself was “born in human likeness,” “born of a woman,” through God the Son, Jesus. When you follow the history of humanity’s relationship with God, then of course there would be a virgin conception. How else could  the events of Easter be effective in reconciling us to God except by the event of Christmas? And of course, such historical events, both Christmas and Easter, would only happen once. So yes, virgins do not conceive, and dead men are not raised from the dead (yet). But these things did happen this one time. The history between God and humanity, as recorded by many different people, over many centuries, leads us to consider that the virgin conception is not just believable, it is not even that surprising!

Jesus helps us believe the Christmas miracle is true and reasonable.

Look at the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is all unique. Look at the impact of Jesus on the world and individual lives. He is unique. He is widely held to be the greatest figure in history. If your Mum told you one day that that you were conceived without a man, is there anything about you or your life that would make you believe her? Are you unique in some way, or in many ways, that such an announcement would suddenly make sense of everything else about you? Of course not! But ask the same question about Jesus.

Consider what the apostles were saying about Jesus following the events of Easter. To give a summary, “Jesus rose from the dead, we knew him, we heard his teaching, we saw his miracles, we experienced him as being someone, or rather Someone unique. He is both the promised Messiah and Lord.” They were not going around talking primarily about the virgin both, and oh, by the way, he also died and rose again. Rather, he, as the impressive and unique figure that we experienced him to be, died and rose again, oh, and as you might expect, even his birth was unique. Too many people dismiss the story of Christmas without really considering the whole story of Jesus.

What makes a unique conception believable is the fact that Jesus himself is unique in every way. What makes Jesus believable, is the fact that he fits with what God had promised to do. The good news of Jesus, though surprising in some ways, fits the fact that “God is love.” Therefore the Christmas story is not only believable, it is not that surprising after all.

For Joseph the news of the baby was surprising, even unbelievable. But Joseph, with some help, trusted and good things happened. When we trust God good things happen. We might not have an angel appearance in a dream, but we do have history and Jesus as evidence that the story of Christmas is reasonable and true.



Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. All scripture references are NRSV.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 6, 2018

Mary, Did You Know

Editor’s Note: During the next few days articles here will weave in and out of the Christmas theme.

by Clarke Dixon

How would you have responded to such surprising news? Or even the shock of an angel speaking to you in the first place? A baby will be on the way, a little baby, but a huge surprise! Even more surprising, a man will not be involved in conception! Keep in mind Mary was possibly somewhere between thirteen to fifteen years of age according to Bible scholars. How would you have responded to this news at that age? How would you have responded if you were her Mum or Dad? Perhaps there is a reason she “set out and went with haste” (Luke 1:39) to see Elizabeth. Perhaps she would understand. Who else could Mary turn to with such a big and crazy sounding surprise?

Did Mary even grasp grasp what was really going on? Did she really understand what the angel was saying to her?

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. Luke 1:30-31

No mention of a virgin conception just yet, however the name “Jesus” would have set off bells for Mary. The name “Jesus” is the equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua” which means “God rescues.” Perhaps this child will be involved in a rescue somehow. Perhaps this child will be like Moses. Would Mary have grasped how much greater a rescue would happen through Jesus than the rescue of Israel through Moses? The angel continues:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, . . . Luke 1:32

Could Mary have known just how great Jesus would become? Would she have been able to guess the profound impact of Jesus? “He will be great” would turn out to be the understatement of the ages.

. . . and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:32-33

This must have set Mary’s heart racing, although I’m sure it was beating fast enough by this point. God had been promising that someone would sit on the throne of David, the Messiah, the Christ to use the Greek term. Could it be that Mary has been chosen to give birth to the promised Messiah?! What a surprise!

But there is an even bigger surprise to come:

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Luke 1:34

“Joseph is on his way to marry you sooner than you thought” would be surprising but not unreasonable. But no, there is a much bigger surprise in store for Mary:

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Luke 1:34-35

This will be a virgin conception, in fact something better, a God-conception! This has never happened before! This child must be something, or rather, someOne special indeed. This is the idea behind “holy” which means “set apart, different.” Was Mary aware of just how holy her child would be?

We should note here that the people of God were expecting God to return, and for God to send them a messiah. They were expecting it to be much like God coming to rescue Israel from Egypt, using Moses. They were not expecting God Himself to be the Messiah. This, however, is what the God-conception was pointing to. This was a huge surprise for everyone! While Isaiah 7:14 seems to prophesy a virgin birth, Biblical scholars point out that the original Hebrew often simply means “young woman” and that no one was really expecting a virgin birth to occur based on this prophecy, certainly not Mary.

Did Mary really “get it”? Would Mary have been aware that “Son of the Most High” meant much more than that her baby would have a special relationship with God? That the “Son of God” she was to carry was actually “God the Son”? Keeping in mind the age and education of Mary, would she have been thinking “this must be what future theologians will call the incarnation”? Not likely.

You have likely heard the song “Mary, Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. Here is the final stanza:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know
That your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know
That your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding
Is the Great I Am

Oh Mary did you know?

Did Mary really know Who her son really was? Did she get it? Do we? Do we get the big surprise God has for us?

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

The Bible uses the same language here for the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit, as it does for Mary conceiving Jesus. Mary had the awesome privilege of carrying God the Son. We have the awesome privilege of carrying God the Holy Spirit:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 1 Cor 3:16

Mary had the surprising privilege of being the mother of the Son of God. We have a surprise privilege too, of becoming the children of God:

And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:6

Do we really know? Do we really know the amazing wonderful and surprising privilege that is ours in Christ?

How did Mary respond to God’s little BIG surprise?

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:38

Mary submitted and committed to the surprise from God. We can too.

This last verse has often been used to preach on obedience, which leads us to think of rules of course. But the focus here is on the promise of God. Mary’s obedience was to say “yes” to the promises of God. Are we obedient like Mary? Have you and are you saying “yes” to God’s promises? When we say “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” what we are submitting to is:

  • the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
  • the promise of the Holy Spirit coming upon us birthing something new in is!
  • the promise of God’s presence.
  • the promise that we will be God’s witnesses.
  • the promise of eternal life.

How would you have responded to the surprising news if you were in Mary’s shoes? How do you respond to the surprising news in your own?



Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. All scripture references are NRSV.

Check out Clarke’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon. Portions of today’s devotional were pre-recorded! Listen to the original 23 minute sermon.

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