Christianity 201

December 26, 2021

Ten Years of Christmas Greetings – Part Two

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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2016:

Nancy Ruegg writes:

“But when the appropriate time had come,
God sent his Son.”
–Galatians 4:4, ISV

Let’s see…Jesus arrived on Planet Earth during the height of the Roman Empire, some 2000+ years ago – long before television or radio, even before the telegraph.

Why didn’t God wait, at least until the 1800s, so news of Jesus’ birth could be transmitted quickly?

Then there’s the argument from the other end of the spectrum. Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Century upon dark and gloomy century had passed since Adam and Eve first sinned and a Savior was promised (Genesis 3).

There must have been something just right about that era when the Romans ruled the world. In fact, Bible scholars have identified a number of factors to explain the appropriateness of this time for God to send his Son.  Such information contributes proof of God’s wisdom and his ability to engineer circumstances perfectly… [continue reading here]

2017:

… I was sitting at a Christmas Eve service thinking about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, no doubt inspired by a reading of Isaiah 9:6

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I started thinking about the chorus of the song below. The song has an entirely different purpose, I doubt William D. Cornell had Christmas in view at the time of its composition. Nonetheless, the coming of Christ ushered in the opportunity for all of us to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit who brings us the peace the songs speaks about.

Peace! peace! wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above;
Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray,
In fathomless billows of love.

2018:

Heb.1.2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

Ruth Wilkinson writes:

In the nativity story we see over and over angels doing what angels do best.

They speak. They bring messages from God; particular information to particular people for a particular time.

It must be an amazing thing to receive one of these messengers. Because almost every time one shows up, the conversation begins, “Don’t be afraid!”

Don’t freak out. Don’t melt down. Don’t worship. Just listen.

So maybe it’s just as well that God has other ways that he chooses to speak to us.

Through prophecy and poetry – courageous and creative.
Through the mystery of dreams – ineffable and personal.
Through the beauty and power and transcendence of nature – silently eloquent and impossible to ignore.
Through the whispering and pricking of our consciences – the Holy Spirit and our own God-likeness.

Through His own human voice – the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature. Creator and heir of all things.

More often than not, though, he speaks to us through the written words that have been preserved in the Bible, or through other people in the power given us by the Holy Spirit.

He pours out His Spirit on all humanity – so that sons and daughters will prophesy.

He gives us psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to speak and sing to each other. The capacity for expression through singing and making music. The ability to give thanks always, for everything.

He gives us each other to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, so we can
train each other,
build each other,
speak truth to each other,
speak love to each other.

To speak tell each other, over and over – and to never let each other forget – the story the angels sang and declared.
The story of Jesus and His love.

2019:

While this is an Old Testament quotation, I believe it expresses God’s heart throughout time, Ezekiel 37:27:

I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 

There are, I suppose many ways in which Jesus might have come among us, however he chooses to live, 100% completely, the reality of human experience beginning from birth; birth in an obscure place, at an obscure time, in less than ideal conditions (in so many ways.)

While you might not do Christmas, my prayer is that each day contains reminders of the reality of God with us.

God’s revelation to humankind in the incarnation is a cause for celebration, not on December 25th, but every day of the year.

From another post that year:

This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–and I was the worst of them all. I Tim 1:15 (NLT)

…Hastily going through the files for a last minute Christmas Eve service request, we discovered that a short medley we’d done for 15 years prior. It was built around the worship chorus which perhaps was slightly more popular then than now, but still recognizable…

You came from heaven to earth to show the way
From the earth to the cross, my debt to pay
From the cross to the grave
From the grave to the sky
Lord I lift Your name on high.

The “Why” of Jesus birth is that Jesus was born to die. There is no particular cause to celebrate a Christmas unless there is an Easter.

Another song in the medley is the first verse of an old hymn,

One day when Heaven was filled with His glory
One day when sin was as dark as could be
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin
Dwelt among men, my redeemer is He

Living He loved me
Dying He saved me
Buried He carried my sins far away
Rising He justified
Freely forever.
One day He’s coming, oh glorious day.

The medley ends with the third verse of And Can It Be…

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace
Emptied Himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free
For, O my God, it found out me.
Amazing love!
How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me.

2020:

Clarke Dixon wrote:

…The sorrow in Bethlehem is a result of a very far-from-God kind of person in leadership. Herod the Great was really Herod the Horrible. He was great if you like buildings. The rebuilt temple was impressive among other building programs he was responsible for. He was horrible if you like people. He had one of his wives executed, plus several of his sons. He even arranged for many Jewish nobles to be executed when he died so that there would be weeping instead of rejoicing at his death. Thankfully, that was not carried out.

His son was not much better. In fact the Romans gave him the boot, which is why you have Herod ruling as king in Jerusalem at Christmas, but by the time of the events of Easter you have a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, in charge instead. Indeed the ruthlessness of Herod’s son is the reason Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth on the return from Egypt. This was still a time of fear. People can create incredible fear and sorrow in people.

The joy of the magi was over the birth of a closer-to-God-than-the-magi-knew kind of person born to be the new leader. The magi would hardly have known the full calling of Jesus, but they had joy over the birth of a king, a king that had a right to the throne, unlike Herod. This new and true king would potentially rule, not just over the people, but for the people. The Old Testament prophecies speak to this hope.

An excerpt from Jesus: A Theography notes:

…Look again at the babe from Bethlehem and see a King who was destined to redefine power, glory, and peace. And he would do it by subverting the kingdoms of this world by a cross–an instrument made of the same material that composed the manger into which He was born: wood. Even so, God’s glory was revealed not in the manger but on the cross. And therein lay His destiny.


These are just some of the Christmas-themed devotionals which appeared between December 21-26 in the years listed.

There is so much richness, so much death to this birth story. Most of our gospels are concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus which began at age 30, but we can’t skip over the passages of his birth and the glimpses of his childhood too quickly, or we miss out on the foundation which shaped the entire narrative.

December 25, 2021

Ten Years of Christmas Greetings – Part One

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:29 pm
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Looking back at previous things which appeared here at C201

2011:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
(Isaiah 9:2)

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9,10)

At a Christmas Eve service, Andy Stanley noted that when you attend an afternoon showing at a movie theater, and then walk out into the day light, the brightness hurts.  It offends the senses.  We tend to think of  “seeing the light” as a good thing; but initially it is an affront to one’s body.  (Note: The passage below wasn’t part of the original devotional but fits well.)

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

2012:

My expanded paraphrase/commentary on Philippians 2. I won’t dare to set this in a green font, equating it with scripture, but every phrase is driven by the original text. I’ve returned to this passage often here, but had forgotten this existed until today.

The mark of being a Christ-follower isn’t going to be measured in external, visible things as much it’s evident in an attitude.  That mindset should be the same as Christ’s.

Even though he was 100% God, he didn’t consider his fellowship in what we call the trinity something to be leveraged, a status update to be posted every five minutes, a trump card to play. Instead he came in a spirit of humility.

Any one of the following four would have been significant but he came in humility insofar as he (a) entered the world exactly as one of us, with all the physical ramifications of being human, (b) generally tended to play his role as that of a servant, doing the things which we would not expect of either an earthly or heavenly king, (c) experienced exactly what we would in leaving the world, through death, (d) not dying of natural causes or illness but in a cruel, violent, painful execution of one counted as a criminal, even though he had not sinned.

Upon completing all of this, God the Father lifted him up to the highest place in heaven, and gave him a title and a position which exceeds any other,  so that ultimately every knee will bow and every mouth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all people, all places, all things; with God the Father also glorified in this.

2013:

Did Jesus come to bring “peace on earth?” Yes and no. Here’s a passage I’ve never seen on a Christmas card:

Luke.12.49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

2014:

This one ties into what we posted yesterday.

The coming of Christ follows what we call the intertestamental period, where some would say that the prophets went silent. I believer personally that while there are not recorded prophetic words that are part of our scriptures, God always has a people, and that his man or woman, in the right place at the right time, was ministering to the needs of ones and twos and small clusters of people, using what we would call the prophetic gift. While historically, there was a great silence before the downpour of heaven in the incarnation, that does not mean God was not still involved; still working in hearts.

Some characterize the coming of Christ as God “breaking in” to our story. A Canadian writer, Tim Day, released a book titled, God Enters Stage Left. In a way, this is what happens, God breaks in; he becomes part of our story.  These elements — the breaking in, and the light imagery — combine together in a verse toward the end of Luke’s first chapter that is often missed:

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

This is why Christ has come. To shine on those living in darkness, and guide our feet to a new way, a new hope, and a new peace.

2015:

Supplemental text inserts in The Voice Bible.

John’s prologue:

Before Jesus comes along, many wonder whether John the Baptist might be the Anointed One sent by God. But when Jesus appears in the wilderness, John points others to Him. John knows his place in God’s redemptive plan: he speaks God’s message, but Jesus is the Word of God. John rejects any messianic claim outright. Jesus, though, accepts it with a smile, but only from a few devoted followers—at least at first. Of course John is crucial to the unfolding drama, but he isn’t the long awaited One sent to free His people. He preaches repentance and tells everybody to get ready for One greater to come along. The One who comes will cleanse humanity in fire and power, he says. John even urges some of his followers to leave him and go follow Jesus.

The Hebrews 1 passage that we quoted yesterday:

Most images of angels are influenced by art and pop culture—and are far removed from the Bible. The word “angel” literally means “messenger,” and it can refer to either a human being or a heavenly being. The Hebrews author is writing about heavenly messengers.

In the Bible, heavenly messengers have several functions—executors of God’s judgment, guardians of God’s people, heralds of God’s plans. They appear at critical moments to chosen people who play important roles in God’s salvation, such as arriving to announce the birth and resurrection of Jesus and to transmit God’s law to Moses. They are no more than messengers, created beings, who serve the will of God and His Son. Recognizing their place, they bow before the Son in loving adoration.

The “why” of the census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem from Luke 2:

This political background isn’t incidental: it is crucial to the story. Conquering nations in the ancient world work in various ways. Some brutally destroy and plunder the nations they conquer. Some conquer people as slaves or servants. Other empires allow the people to remain in their land and work as before, but with one major change: the conquered people have to pay taxes to their rulers. The purpose of a census like the one Luke describes is to be sure that everyone is appropriately taxed and knows who is in charge.

And one of my favorites, the gifts brought by the star-followers in Matthew 2:

These are exceptionally good gifts, for gold is what is given a king, and Jesus is the King of kings; incense is what you expect to be given a priest, and Jesus is the High Priest of all high priests; myrrh ointment is used to heal, and Jesus is a healer. But myrrh is also used to embalm corpses—and Jesus was born to die.


These are just some of the Christmas-themed devotionals which appeared between December 23-26 in the years listed.

There is so much richness, so much death to this birth story. Most of our gospels are concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus which began at age 30, but we can’t skip over the passages of his birth and the glimpses of his childhood too quickly, or we miss out on the foundation of the entire narrative.

December 24, 2021

The Time of Waiting Has Ended

Christmas Eve marks the end of the period of waiting known as Advent. For four weeks we join with those in times past who waited four hundred years for the coming of the Messiah.

I choose that number carefully — Israel obviously anticipated a deliverer for a longer period of time — to represent the period when it seemed the prophets fell silent and the word of God wasn’t heard; a period we as Christians call the “Inter-Testamental” period, falling as it does between the first and second Testaments of our scriptures.

The silence is broken by John the Baptist (who is a type of the prophet Elijah) as promised at the very end of the book of Malachi.

“Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.”  (4:6 NLT)

The words that immediately follow in our Bibles are:

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1 NIV)

For those of us who know this story, the final words of the prophet lead to a pause — there’s usually an extra two blank pages between Malachi and Matthew — and then we take a deep breath and something new is stirring. Matthew doesn’t build the drama slowly, he simply blurts it out, “Jesus the Messiah.”

But there was still some waiting, as the people of the day asked the question asked in our day by a popular Christian song, “Could He Be the Messiah?” (see video below)

Increasingly he leaves no doubt, culminating in his resurrection…

…As some read these words today, they are also in a season of waiting. Just as the birth of Jesus marked the breaking in to the world’s stage, they are looking to see God break in to the affairs and circumstances of their life; to intervene in some aspect of their life that is a cause of major concern.

For some, it seems like the heavens are silent; if you will allow me the use of the phrase, a feeling that they are in their own personal Inter-Testamental period.

15 months ago, I wrote a devotional based on a line from an old hymn, “Teach me the mystery of unanswered prayer.”

I remember not to long ago explaining to someone that the subjects under discussion before a person has crossed the line of faith are not the same issues talked about after. The apologetics questions about the creation account in Genesis, or whether the Red Sea could actually be divided a strong wind, or if the “texts of terror” in the book of Judges don’t depict a God given to extreme violence; these topics fade into obscurity once someone is on the inside.

Instead, in our churches we wrestle with the question, “Can God be trusted?” Part of that has to do with the times the heavens seem silent. Can we count on the promises of God?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” – John 14:1

At the same time as God seems absent or silent, we believe that he is working in that silence. I also posted an article here titled, “God is Always Up to Something.”

Yes, even in the silences, and even when, at the end of 2021, the world seems to be getting worse…

…Back to the macro story. After 400 years of seemingly divine inactivity God breaks onto the stage once more.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. NIV Hebrews 1:1-2

But even in this, it does not have a spectacular beginning. Rather, the drama plays out in obscurity, in what one person has called a backwater village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The introduction of Jesus to the greater world has its ecclesiastic moment in the dedication presided over by an older man and a widowed woman; and its political moment is never quite realized as Herod is made aware of the potential importance of the birth but misses out on a personal connection.

But we know the end of the story.

We know the ramification of Christ’s birth, and it is that which we celebrate for all the right reasons, but also for the reason that it marks the end of the time of waiting; the end of Advent.


December 23, 2021

Ready for Christmas? There is a Bigger Day to Prepare For!

Thinking Through Mark 13:28-37

■ To watch the sermon on which this is based, click this link.

by Clarke Dixon

Which would have been the better opening for a sermon on the last Sunday before Christmas? These words?

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

“Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts

You probably now have the tune to this popular carol stuck in your head! However, perhaps these words from Jesus would make a better opening for a sermon so close to Christmas?

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

Mark 13:32,33,37 (NRSV)

I’m guessing that most people would pick the Christmas carol over Jesus’ words about the end of the world. But did you know that the carol “Joy to the World” is speaking about the same event Jesus was speaking about? The hymn writer was not originally writing about Christmas, but about the return of Christ!

We can also note that though we are so close to Christmas, we are not there yet. According to the Church calendar, Christmas does not begin until December 25th. Society begins celebrating Christmas much sooner of course, and since we Baptists are not good at following instructions anyway, we sort of follow along and get into the spirit of things early.

This is not Christmas, but Advent, a time set aside for preparing for the arrival of Jesus, both looking back to his arrival in Bethlehem, and looking forward to his return. At Christmas we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have not really celebrated Advent if we have not looked forward. Today we are looking forward!

As we look forward, there are some things to keep in mind.

The first thing to keep in mind is to keep an open mind.

There are different ways of understanding the Scripture passages that speak of “the end of the world,” especially the Book of Revelation, but also the Scripture we are thinking of today, Mark chapter 13. While many Christians may assume Jesus was speaking about his return, most Bible scholars think that much of Mark 13 refers not to the end of the world, but the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD.

This makes sense of Jesus’ statement in verse 30:

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

Mark 13:28-30 (NRSV emphasis added)

The NRSV marks in a footnote that the “he” of “he is near,” which may cause us to immediately think of the future return of Jesus, can be translated “it,” as in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem which did happen within a generation. Indeed this is how the conversation began in the first place:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Mark 13:1-4 (NRSV)

Some Bible scholars see a shift in the focus from the destruction of Jerusalem and the need to watch for the signs so the people of that day could get out of the city, to Jesus speaking about his return, of which there will be no sign, no warning:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

Mark 13:32-33 (NRSV)

Looking throughout history, many generations of Christians have had those who try to line up world events with Bible verses. So far every generation that has tried this has been wrong. One generation will turn out to be right someday. The point Jesus is making, however, is, don’t watch for signs, just be ready at any moment.

The second thing to keep in mind is that waiting for Christ’s return is an active thing.

When we use the word “waiting” we might think of waiting to reach a destination. You can fall asleep while waiting, but not if you are the driver! Jesus uses an example that puts us in the driver seat:

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:34-37 (NRSV)

The doorkeeper had a task, one which required him to stay awake, to be alert. We do not want to fall asleep at the wheel!

We can think of waiting for Christ’s return as actively anticipating, as actively embracing, and leaning into the coming future God has in store for us. While we wait for Jesus to return, we don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel, but be actively stepping in the direction of Jesus.

The third thing to keep in mind are the examples of those who feel asleep at the wheel in the Christmas story, and those who were wide awake.

King Herod fell asleep at the wheel. Herod’s desire to destroy Jesus led to the terrible tragedy of many infants killed in and around Bethlehem. Needless to say, Herod was far from ready to embrace Jesus.

Herod was asleep at the wheel because he did not have a big enough way of looking at things. Herod was concerned about what people might believe about this one “born king of the Jews” and the threat that would pose to his power. Herod himself, did not believe Jesus was important. He was not watching for the arrival of the Christ.

Some people do not have a big enough view of things today. We can be guilty of this as Christians when we think that only the Bible can teach us anything. Science, history, art, and experience get pushed aside as potential sources of truth. We do this to our own detriment as Christians, and unfortunately, often to the detriment of others.

Having a too narrow view of things can also be true for the non-Christian, when, for example, someone claims that only science can teach us anything. Such folk will be found asleep at the wheel, not watching for Jesus’ arrival.

The religious leaders also fell asleep at the wheel, not having their minds open enough to consider that perhaps these foreign Magi just might have something to teach them about “their” Messiah. They were stuck in their own ideas and priorities. They may have been watching for the arrival of the Messiah, but they were not watching for the arrival of a Messiah that did not strictly fit their own ideas.

Some people do not have an open enough mind today. Their own ideas and priorities take precedence and they will be found asleep at the wheel, not ready to embrace Jesus on his arrival.

Mary and Joseph were wide awake. They were waiting and watching for Jesus’ arrival though I’m sure they didn’t feel entirely prepared. Laying a newborn in a manger does not sound near as prepared as a typical new mom in Canada is!

I am very hopeful that when Christ returns, he will understand if we feel unprepared. No matter when Jesus returns, none of us will feel that we have already “arrived.” We will still feel like there is so much more growth ahead. If we don’t then we definitely need to grow; in humility! However, let us remember that Jesus did not tell us to be the holiest person that ever lived, but to be fully awake. We are to be awake to God’s love and grace.

I am ready for Christmas, but not because I have done much by way of preparations. My wife has handled the lion’s share of the preparations. She normally does and is far better at it than I am.

When it comes to being ready to meet our Maker, Jesus has taken care of the preparations. Through his death and resurrection, through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus does a better job of preparing us to meet our Maker than we could ever do. We may not feel prepared, but in Christ we are prepared.

In Conclusion

It might seem strange to talk about the end of the world this close to Christmas. However, it is not Christmas yet! This is Advent, when we look forward, not to the end, but to a new beginning. There was a new beginning at the birth of Jesus. There will be a wonderful new beginning when Jesus returns. With Jesus you are prepared. But are you awake?


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario, a little town like Bethlehem. (Not exactly, but we couldn’t resist.) He returns here in two weeks.

December 22, 2021

Potentially Going Overboard with Christmas is Not a Reason Not to Celebrate

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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Preview: “…a far bigger mistake than dancing too much before our Lord in joy is to dance too little…”

Today another new author for you. Curtis K. Shelburne has been writing at Focus on Faith since early February, 2012. He also hosts a podcast with the same name. Readers, as always, please encourage our writers by clicking on the headers like the one which follows, and reading the article where it originated.

Finding Hope and Joy in the Light

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

It’s the light, you know!

   Twirling, swirling, splash-silvering

         crisp snow below.

   Liquid luminescence and stardust inadvertently shed

         By pirouetting angels in the sky

                 above the Christ-child’s head.

   They fly, as has been said,

         by taking themselves lightly!

   Ah, the delight! Such glory and brightness!

         O’er that rude Baby King-sized bed.

   And look! Nestled warm in the hay below,

         As the Christmas angels sing,

             Silver-tipped tongues of light hailing the King,

         He lies slumbering ̶ the Truth, the Light, the Way.

    Swaddled against the cold of the night,

          Whiffling and sleeping, the Babe sweetly sighs,

    And on and on the angels dance, and dark gives way to love-light

         And Heaven’s glory shimmers and shines,

               And joy, the angels’ light-essence,

                     Washes over all in His sweet Presence.

Yes, it’s the light, you know!

Wow, my poor poem needs a lot of work! But it really is the light, I think, that is one of the most beautiful features of this season. From the time I was old enough to slide under our family Christmas tree, clad in those wonderful old pajamas that came complete with feet, and gaze up through the branches of the tree and drink in the beauty, it was the light that lit me with joy.

I liked it then. I like it now. I knew instinctively then, and I know more overtly and reflectively now, that celebrating Christ’s birth with joy and light is, well, right. (I’m trying not to stay in cut-rate poet mode; I beg pardon.)

With regard to Christmas, it seems to me increasingly clear that we’re in a “if the people are silent, the very stones will cry out” situation (Luke 19:40), and, though I’m no stranger to self-righteousness in myself (it’s a cancer that all too often recurs), I’ve known for a long time now, as surely as I know my own name, that a far bigger mistake than dancing too much before our Lord in joy is to dance too little and force the rocks to praise him because we’re too full of ourselves and toxic “religion” let our joy—God’s joy—loose in our souls.

I’ve heard all of the arguments against Christmas celebration. Too much, too extravagant, too this and too that. Excessive! And with pagan roots, to boot!

Well, because we can go over the top with celebration is not a good enough reason not to celebrate when celebration is called for! It’s not praiseworthy to inconvenience rocks because we’re praise-mute for no good reason.

And the charges of paganism tossed about by folks who want to pour a little cold water on over-much joy is not all the story by any means. Reading some better scholars telling the historical truth about such will make you feel a lot better about feeling really good about the joy of the season. (I can point you to a great article or two well worth reading, if you ask.)

Our God is not worried that we might overdose on joy. The far greater danger is that we remain so hung up on ourselves that we are unable to dance selflessly before our Lord.

Jesus told us clearly (it’s still a very hard lesson) that being his disciples means laying down our very selves so that we focus on him. That’s the way God molds us into the truest versions of ourselves, exactly what our Creator had in mind when he made us for his joy.

G. K. Chesterton, an amazing and faith-filled wordsmith once wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.”

Too often we stumble around in darkness, always in one way or another taking mental “selfies” to see how what we’re doing is “playing.” But it’s hard to see at all when our universe is bounded north, south, east, and west by self. And how boring!

In his light, we begin to open ourselves up to the lives of others, and we find their lives and stories and personalities, their joys and trials and sheer courage, not boring in the least.

If we would let in the light of Christmas, God’s light, Chesterton writes, “You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

God’s light splashing our souls with God’s joy has been known to grow some very large souls indeed.

My Christmas lights won’t add much to the divine light kindled by our Creator, but nonetheless, I plan to join my neighbors in flipping the switch each night and adding my little attempts at glimmers of light to the nuclear reaction of God’s cosmic glory.

All genuine light is God’s light, you know.


Revisit the introduction for website link and podcast site link.

Copyright 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

December 21, 2021

Jesus Enters the Family of Mary and Joseph, So That We Can Enter the Family of God

And being found in human form, he humbled himself… Philippians 4:7-8a NRSV

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10 NRSV

Today’s title is, hands down, our longest title here. I always give our devotionals unique titles from what the author had chosen, in order that we don’t divert search engine traffic away from the original sources. This article is an encore from Clarke Dixon, and his title, in the link below really captured it so well.

His Birth, Our Adoption

by Clarke Dixon

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!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:4-7 NRSV

Jesus was born, so that ultimately we might receive adoption as God’s children. There are few things we can note:

  1. We cannot think of ourselves as automatically being God’s children just because we happen to exist. The Bible does not affirm that all people are God’s children, if we were, there would be no need for adoption. It does affirm that we are separated from God by sin. God therefore has no “fatherly” obligation toward us. Thankfully, it also affirms that we can become His children: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12 NRSV)
  2. Adoption is a result of God’s will, God’s desire. A parent who goes to an adoption agency has no prior obligation to adopt a particular child. God has no obligation to adopt us, or do anything for us. But He chooses to do so. It is His will to do something good for us, He sent His Son, that we might be adopted.
  3. Our background is not an issue for adoption. When God has chosen to adopt you, there is no “but Lord, you know that I am . . . or I have done . . .” He already knows and has gone ahead with the adoption anyway. There is repentance from those things in the past that separate us from God, but our past does not keep God from adopting.
  4. We are adopted by One who will be present to us and intimate with us: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6) Though we can point to the Lamb’s Book of life, an adoption certificate is not our proof now that we are His children. His fatherly presence through His Holy Spirit is. And through His Spirit we are to call him by what is really the more familiar “Dad” rather than the formal “Father.”
  5. We are no longer enslaved. We have been enslaved to sin this side of Eden. A particular people were called through whom God would bless all, they were enslaved to the law. Through adoption we are no longer slaves to sin or the law, but we are free children of God. Being freed, our desire will be to honor the One who has freed us from slavery, and adopted us as His own.
  6. As God’s children we look forward to an inheritance. While I appreciate translations that look to being appropriately inclusive in language, these are verses where it helps to know that the word “son” is used throughout. In fact it is even found in the very word for ‘adoption’. This is important because it was written at a time when sons enjoyed the inheritance, the daughters not-so-much. So the ladies among us also look forward to a full and equal inheritance in Jesus.
  7. A familiar expression is true: “God has no grandchildren.” Perhaps some prefer to think of God as a grandfather type of figure, close enough to enjoy a relationship, but far enough to enjoy freedom from a father’s discipline. When we are adopted, we are adopted as children, not grandchildren. We can expect His wonderful presence, we can expect a wonderful inheritance, and we can also expect His discipline. This too is wonderful!

At the right time Jesus was born so that someday you might be adopted as God’s child. Have you experienced that?

December 19, 2021

Christ’s Birth Circumstances Prefigure the Upside-Down Kingdom

A year ago at this time we introduced you to Rev. John Partridge, the pastor at Christ United Methodist Church (UMC) in Alliance, Ohio. His website for sermon content and blog articles is PastorPartridge.com. We always suggest reading devotionals here at source, but especially today as we’re joining a larger article in progress. Click the header which follows.

The Miracle of Contradictions

…We see…contradictions at work in the story of Christmas as God upsets the status quo and sends the king of the universe to be born in stable and sleep in a feeding trough.  And the entire story of Christmas and the coming of the messiah is steeped in, and filled with, those contradictions from the earliest prophecies of his coming.  And, as we look for, and investigate, these contradictions, we find that these contradictions are some of the greatest miracles of all.  We begin this morning with God’s prophecy of the coming messiah found in Micah 5:2-5a where it says:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;and he shall be the one of peace.

Micah declares that the smallest of Israel’s clans will produce the greatest king that Israel would ever have and continues by saying that God was bringing something new into the world that was already ancient.  Micah says that someone new is coming to rule in Israel who already existed in the dark recesses of their ancient past.  And so, Judah would be both small and great, the messiah would be both new and ancient, and would have great strength but would bring peace instead of bloodshed.  And then with the coming of Jesus, the contradictions continue as we read Luke 1:39-45 where he says:

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth declares that Mary, despite being poor, is the most blessed woman on the planet.  Also, Elizabeth recognized Mary’s child, who was unborn, as her Lord and king.  And if those contradictions weren’t enough, Elizabeth’s child, John, despite being blind and still inside of his mother’s womb, sees clearly, and has the perception to recognize the arrival of Jesus and Mary.

And the contradictions continue in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews as he summarizes the coming of Jesus this way in Hebrews 10:5-10:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Jesus said that sacrifices and offerings were not desired by God even though history, tradition, scripture, and the law of Moses required them.  And then Paul says that the coming of Jesus not only abolishes God’s system of worship for his people, but also establishes a new system of worship for his people.

That’s a lot of contradiction in just a small sampling of scripture from the Christmas story.  But why would I say that this is a miracle?  What is this miracle of contradictions?

Simply put, the miracle of contradictions is that the story of Christmas isn’t just one big miracle about the birth of the messiah.  It isn’t just a story about the birth of a king, or even the birth of God’s son.  It’s a bigger and deeper story that involves ordinary people, with ordinary lives, and a story in which God, repeatedly, does the unexpected, in new, different, and surprising ways.

Judah is small, but great.

The Messiah is new, but ancient.

Would be strong enough to rule the ends of the earth but would bring peace instead of bloodshed.

Mary is poor but blessed beyond measure.

Jesus is unborn, but king.

John is blind but sees.

The sacrifices of God are required but undesired.

The messiah’s arrival abolishes but establishes.

The story of Christmas is filled with the miracle of contradictions, and it is that miracle that makes the story unexpected, fills the story with mystery and wonder, draws us in, and welcomes us, not only as spectators, but participants in the story.  The story of the coming of the messiah is filled, not with kings and princes, and rich and powerful people of influence, but ordinary people like us.  The story of Christmas is a story of poor people, farmers, laborers, sheep herders, scholars, infants, old people, the forgotten, the outcasts, and the unwanted.  In God’s most powerful and meaningful story, the pivotal actors are all people like us.  Ordinary.

God did not choose to use kings and princes.  Instead, he used ordinary people of faith.  God chose to trust the people who trusted him to begin his most miraculous work of all and to share the story of that miracle with the world.

And that’s still the way that God works.

That’s a part of the mystery and wonder of the story.

God still calls ordinary people; people like you and me.  God still calls farmers, laborers, sheep herders, children, the elderly, the forgotten, the outcasts, the unwanted, and the unexpected.  The greatest movements in history, the greatest agents of change in the world, are usually not presidents and prime ministers, bad boys, and billionaires, or even millionaires, movie stars and the monied elites.  The people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the orphans and the widows, bandage the wounded, and do the work of Jesus in the world are, most often, unsung, unheralded, unnoticed, ordinary people of faith because God trusts the people who trust him.

It’s mysterious and it’s wonderful.

The miracle of contradictions is that the God who spoke the universe into existence, wants me, and wants you, to do his work, to represent him, to be his ambassadors, to share his story with the world, and to be Jesus to the people around us.

We see it in the Christmas story, but God has been working like that all along.

It is one of life’s greatest contradictions.

But these are the contradictions that welcome us into the story.

Not just as spectators… but as participants.

And may just be the most meaningful Christmas gift of all.

December 18, 2021

Holiness Shines in the Darkest Moments

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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NIV.Luke.2.8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11a Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you…”

…15b …the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Our search to bring you the best in devotional writing took us to a new writer today. Jake Owensby is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States, holds a doctorate in Philosophy and as we learned later, is the author of Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope (Abingdon, 2021). We tossed an image of the book cover into the mix today, although I’m not sure the devotional is an actual excerpt. This appeared earlier today at his blog, which is also called Looking for God in Messy Places.

We always encourage you to read C201 devotionals at the place where we found them, and this one is beautifully illustrated there which adds to the reading experience. Click the header which follows.

Wherever You Are

If God can show up in the manger, God can show up anywhere. With anybody. With you and with me. Wherever life might take us.

The angels said to the shepherds, “To you is born this day … a Savior.” And once the angels had gone, the shepherds headed into Bethlehem to see for themselves.

What they found there was an exhausted young mother. A vigilant new father. And a baby. A baby lying in a feed trough. Surrounded by animals and hay and dirt and dung.

But it wasn’t just any baby. When they looked at him they knew in their gut, in their heart, in their marrow that they were seeing God in the flesh. And that this baby, in this place, born to these poor parents, was telling them everything they needed to know about God. About how God is saving them. Saving you and me and the whole world.

In the infant Jesus we see—like those shepherds saw long ago—that God can and will show up anywhere. At anytime. There are no circumstances so appalling, no dwelling so mean, no life so shattered that God will not make it his very own home.

In Jesus we see that God pursues us wherever we may be. Not to spy on us or to scold us or to judge us but to take up nurturing, healing, liberating residence in the very midst of our lives. No matter how messy our life might be. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

“If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

If you’re like me, the birth of Jesus offers relief and kindles a hope that I could never conjure up for myself. That hope is more than wishful thinking. More than the anticipation that my own desires will be fulfilled or my private agenda will get a divine thumbs up.

The birth of Jesus—the moment in which God takes on the vulnerability and fragility of human flesh in a dangerous town in some stranger’s crummy spare room— shows me that God is with us. That love inhabits even the darkest corners of this world.

And the divine love is no mere feeling. Love is the power that changes everything. As Howard Thurman says, Christmas assures us that “love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

Jesus will not force his way into our lives. His love is freely given. And we can freely accept it, reject it, or ignore it. Each of us will decide whether or not to make room for Mary and Joseph in the inn of our lives.

As preachers have said in Christmases past, each of us is an innkeeper. Jesus invites us to make a place for him at the center of our lives. And there is a part of us—a tender, wounded, weary, harried, bewildered part of us—that struggles to turn off our “No Vacancy” sign.

In the words of Henri Nouwen:

“A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.”

To put that another way, we struggle to give Jesus a place in our inn because we fear that our rooms will be too shabby, too plain, too messy to meet his approval.

So, I encourage you to look with your imagination at that baby. Not the idealized infant of Renaissance paintings and stained glass windows. But at that peasant baby on a dirt floor in a drab, untidy room. That baby breathing donkey’s breath, smelling of old straw, and wrapped in a tattered blanket.

If God can show up there, God can show up anywhere. With anybody. With you and with me. Wherever life might take us.

December 17, 2021

God’s Storytelling Writes People into the Narrative

Another new writer to feature today. Gabriel Ponce is a pastor in Tucson Arizona who “is passionate about developing people’s relationships with Christ.”I like the way he wrestles through texts, stating that, “if the Bible speaks to an issue, then God has a perspective that we as Christians should submit to. If not, there may be principles to garner, and if not then we fall to the realm of wisdom for help, always being aware of the history. In all things to give God glory.” He admits that “this is partly me working through many issues for myself, that a pulpit doesn’t always grant opportunity for on a Sunday morning.

His blog is Blogabers.

To avoid stealing search engine results from the various people we feature here, I always create our own title for the piece; but sometimes, like today, ask myself, “Did I accurately capture what the article is all about?” I appreciated this one greatly, and I hope it gets you thinking as it did me.

Clicking the header which follows will take you to its source.

The Humanity of the Gospel

As I read through the Gospels again, I was struck by the humanness of the story of Jesus. What I mean is not so much the humanity of Christ, but how much God seemed to allow for the agency of man to be a part of the story. This is first obvious in the advent itself. But I don’t mean God left the story’s rhythm up to the capriciousness of men. Yet, he did use the obedience of men, the experiences of men, instead of the supernatural intervention we might expect. Mary was a willing participant and, therefore, she was blessed by God to be a part of the story.

After the incarnation, the birth of Christ, it is almost as if the safety of Jesus is left up to Joseph to lead his family. Why no mention of divine protection like the angels standing guard in Eden? Why doesn’t God strike Herod dead for attempting to take the life of Jesus? Why do Joseph and Mary have to flee? That is not to say this wasn’t available, but the story is not told in this way. Obviously, this is to fulfill prophecy, yet there is an element where God seems to want to include his people in the story. (Matthew 2:15) Even Herod’s wicked deed was a fulfillment of prophecy. (Matthew 2:18) Later, when Joseph is warned not to return to Galilee, he escapes to Nazareth by warning of an angel, and again this is a fulfillment of prophecy, but wasn’t the angel wearing a sword? What I mean by the humanity of the Gospel is how earthy and human God allows all the parts of the story to be. (It is almost like he wants to relate to us)

Jesus lived the true human experience. He was raised by human parents, even being misunderstood when he stayed at the temple, yet remained obedient to his parents when told to return with them. Presumably he worked with Joseph learning a trade until the time for his ministry began.  This leads of course to John the Baptist. God is working through the evangel of a prophet here to fulfill his duty. Why does God use men instead of just throwing his weight around? Why even use a prophet–just write it in the clouds and have angels appear and announce the truth? Even the baptism of Jesus is so human. Jesus comes and demonstrates obedience instead of the, simpler for him and flashier to us, ways he could have given revelation. Just snap your fingers and have explosions, lights, and trumpets blare, or something…It is not just the Jews who like signs.

This leads to the temptations of Jesus. Jesus could have just one finger punched the devil into a mountain, instead, He puts up with the temptations from Satan. Jesus continually restricts himself to his humanity to demonstrate a supernatural reality. This same kind of thing happens when Jesus had Simon fish out a coin from a fish’s mouth to pay a temple tax. (Matthew 17:24-27) He does things with what is around him for a purpose. I could keep doing this, but there is an obvious point in all this. Maybe it is so obvious, this is redundant, but God is looking for people to respond to his call. Everything in the story is a lesson of revelation.

It is a similar epiphany I had when reading from Exodus 34:16-17. God shares his pedigree. When the opportunity to introduce himself formally to Moses comes, He doesn’t go all flashy. He doesn’t say, “I Am Holy, Beautiful, Powerful, Amazing, Brilliant, Perfect, Awesome, and so Gloriously bright you gotta wear shades!” while holy electric guitars were wailing. Though he certainly is all those things, instead he uses relational attributes. “The LORD the LORD merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in Love…”

These are attributes that have meaning in relation to his creatures. God invites us to worship him by his interactions with us instead of doing an impressive dance number singing, “U can’t touch this!” Though, if Genesis chapter one isn’t such an awe-inspiring mind-bending feat, then I don’t know what is. But God never flaunts his power, He states it, and then begins to teach. He is not like a kid demonstrating his might over ants with his shoe. No, He seems to want to bring us along to his truth. I think of when Jesus is being arrested. The disciples want to fight for him, and He simply reminds them that he has command of the angels of God, if such an endeavor was called for. If only…

52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26)

I love this passage. Jesus isn’t speaking in parables; He isn’t clouding his language. He isn’t speaking loftily in spiritual language flying over their heads. He is almost pausing the whole story and commentating, Hey, guys do you really think things are out of control? Do you really fear that things just happen outside the purview of God? Do you truly worry that I am without power in this situation? No, I am doing this for a reason. I love this story because this is how we would assume it would be. A king commands. A leader leads. God doesn’t lose. So, we must understand that while we may wonder at or desire this more supernatural approach, Jesus seems to want to bring us along with him, not leave us behind as he travels on clouds dealing out lightning bolts and flaming swords. God’s ways are higher than man’s ways after all. (Isaiah 55:9) Though they may not always look like it to us.

It seems that God is working through the obedience of men to fulfill his own will, not through the demonstration of the ability to dominate. But he did miracles all the time! Yes, it is interesting, the power he does demonstrate is always for verification of his words. Who He is. It is for establishing his truth, his pedigree. It is making the not-so-subtle point that God is on his side. As you read through the Gospels, especially in Mark, it is almost as if Jesus is doing many private miracles out of compassion, above his mission. He wanted to preach, not simply be a miracle worker, that would take all day–and this seems to be why he is always telling people to keep quiet about it. Think of how easy it could have been when the Jews continually asked for signs for him to do so. Anytime someone questioned him, he could snap his finger and the ground would shake and swallow them whole. Think of it, people would have believed then, but for the wrong reasons.

God didn’t merely want fealty. He does not show up like Loki slamming his specter down in power and demanding that everyone must kneel, not yet, he first comes with an offer of the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t do that because he desires that none should perish. He draws us by the Spirit and again preaches to us through the Gospel message. He wants a relationship and that is so interesting. He certainly requires obedience and calls us to repentance, but it is more of an offer than a coaxing. I know my Calvinist friends, and I consider myself one too, might want to push back with the calling and election, but the language is broader than that. Jesus doesn’t minister as if the election is the point, He ministers as if their faithful response is. When He calls out their hardness of heart, it is after they have demonstrated an unwillingness to respond. The Word of God is understandable.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)

That is why the humanity of the incarnation at the advent is so remarkable. Jesus came as a human to communicate to us, in a real sense, at our level. He came as a child to live like a man to minister to men and to call us all to himself. This is the miracle in the Christmas story. He came this way to sympathize with us. To be with us, as the name Emmanuel communicates.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4)

The story of Jesus is so human because we are. But it doesn’t stay there, He is God in flesh. The posture of Jesus towards us is sympathy because he desires that we respond to him. He came into the world so that the world might be saved through him. The message of Jesus is to repent and believe because we need it. Ask yourself, why did he come?

December 16, 2021

When We Were Hopeless and an Angel Set Us Straight

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Thinking Through Luke 2:11

by Clarke Dixon

Watch the sermon on which today’s devotional is based at this link. Note: Title is different.

It can all seem rather hopeless. Between nuclear weapons and climate change, it can feel like humanity is doomed. We wonder if this is going to end well for us. Or when bad things happen to good people and all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people, it can all feel rather haphazard. Is God really in charge, and if so, is there really a plan? Speaking of God being in charge, looking at past history, it seems like the ones in charge have often used their power for evil. It doesn’t go well for the people under their care.

Is there hope?

According to the angel who spoke to the shepherds that first Christmas, there is great hope:

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12 (NLT emphasis added)

The angel described this baby with three words that bring great hope no matter how things seem.

When it seems humanity is doomed.

If scientists are correct, then it appears that we really are doomed. We’ve got bigger problems than climate change. There is such a thing as universe change. Scientists tell us that the expansion of the universe is accelerating and that ultimately, our universe will cease to be life-permitting at some point. That is a long, long way in the future. But it is still the future! Don’t worry, the heating up of our sun and the boiling of our oceans will get us before the expansion of the universe does.

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day a Saviour.

When we use the term “Jesus is Saviour” people often have in mind one of at least three things. We should have in mind all three:

  1. Salvation from the eternal consequence of our sin which separates us from God. Jesus brings reconciliation with God, saving us from death, changing our future from everlasting death to resurrection to everlasting life.
  2. Salvation from harmful ways of living which messes up relationships, inter-personal, and inter-national. Jesus saves us by teaching us and showing us the better way of love.
  3. Salvation not just of of people, but all of creation. With our resurrection also comes God’s re-creation of everything:

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Romans 8:18-21 (NLT emphasis added)

If we listen to scientists, and we should, it would seem we are in fact doomed. If we listen to the angel, and we can, we discover that the Creator who spoke all of creation into existence, stepped into creation as Saviour. We are not doomed.

When it seems like God is neither in charge, nor operating by a plan.

When bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and random things happen randomly to all people, it would appear there is no one in charge, there is no plan.

If God is in charge and working out a plan, why couldn’t he stop this virus from spreading, that cancer from spreading, this train from crashing, and that tornado from landing? Is God really in charge?

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day the Messiah.

Some people think God created the world, wound it up, then stood back. The fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, both words meaning “anointed one,” speaks to God stepping in.

The fact there is an “anointed one” speaks to God’s plan:

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.

Ephesians 1:9-10 (NLT)

Paul was not speaking about mystery in the sense of something that cannot be understood, though there is that kind of mystery, in life, and faith. There may well be an element of mystery in why some seem destined to suffer more than others.

When Paul spoke of mystery, he was referring to something that was hidden, now made plain. What is made plain in the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the ‘anointed one’, is that God has a plan.

If we look at the random events of our world, we can lose hope that God is in charge and operating according to a plan. If we look to that one event, the birth of the Messiah, we find hope that all is going according to God’s plan. God is in charge. There is a plan.

When it seems like the powers that be use their power for evil.

When we survey some of the famous rulers in world history, it appears that  those in charge don’t care about the people under their charge. How many people died because of the decisions of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and the list goes on and on. How many people did Rome crucify?

The history of the world is a history of people using power over others. The history of the world is a history of people in power using power to stay in power. This often does not go well for those not in power. We see this with Herod’s plot to kill the infant Jesus which did not end well for those in Bethlehem.

Jesus speaks about power as found in Luke, chapter twelve:

“Dear friends, don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.

Luke 12:4-5 (NLT)

The most the powers that be can do to us is kill us. That is all they can do. Their power is therefore limited! This is true of the people that might kill us, and thankfully I cannot think of any. This is also true of the diseases and afflictions that might kill us, and unfortunately I can think of many. God’s power, however, is infinite. God can allow for us to be separated from him forever, or can raise us to live in his presence forever. Now that is power! So don’t fear people, fear God. That being said, Jesus immediately went on to say:

“What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

Luke 12:6-7 (NLT)

Fear God, but don’t be afraid of God. God loves us. The ones using terror against others are the ones who need to be concerned!

According to the angel, there is good, hopeful news: To you is born this day the Lord.

Lord means “master,” and it means that neither Caesar, nor Herod, nor Hitler, nor Stalin is lord, but Jesus is. Their power is limited.

“Lord” was also the word that stood in for God’s name when God’s people read the Hebrew Scriptures. Even today, when Jewish people come across God’s name, they usually say “Adonai,” meaning “Lord”. This is reflected in our English translations of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) whenever LORD is in all capitals. It is also reflected in the Greek translation that the people of New Testament times would have been familiar with. So when the angel announces the birth of the “Lord”, there is a strong hint, especially when taken together with other passages, that this baby is not just one true master among many pretenders, but God Himself.

It may seem like those in power often use power for evil, draining us of hope when we discover that the powers that be are not for us but for themselves. But the angel tells us that this small baby is Lord, this Jesus has power. This infant was evidence that the Powerful One is for us and not against us.

In Conclusion

This can be a hopeless time of year for many. It is said that more people get depressed at this time than any other. Perhaps it is the shorter days, the busyness, or the expectations we place upon ourselves to provide and experience that “perfect” Christmas. It might be that all the glitter and happy songs do not match what is going on in our lives.

This may be a bleak season of your life. This may well be a season of bad news in our world. It is quite normal to feel perplexed by it all, to lose hope. We don’t want to minimize that bad news or gloss over it. But neither do we want to miss the good news.

The identity of Jesus as announced by the angel, of being Saviour, Messiah, and Lord replaces the hopelessness of how things seem with the hope of how things really are.


Clicking the header which appears above Clarke’s byline will take you to Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon, for more Advent-themed devotionals.

December 9, 2021

Adjusting to the New Reality?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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A Sermon for Advent

by Clarke Dixon

  • To watch the 17-minute sermon on which this devotional is based, click this link.

We live in a world where we are able to make changes, making all kinds of adjustments to all kinds of things to suit us. It might be changing homes, a job, career, the furniture, cars, or the TV channel. Sometimes, however, we must adjust to the way things are. There are things we cannot change or adjust, but rather we must adjust to. The pandemic has been one of those things for most of us. For some it is a medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. There is nothing we could have done.

Which type of thing is God? Is God a notion we get to make adjustments to according to our desire and perceived benefit? Or is God a reality we must adjust to?

Keeping that question in mind, let’s go back to the first Christmas. Let’s see if everyone adjusted.

Herod

Herod did not adjust. Upon hearing from the magi that there was one “born king of the Jews,” he wanted this baby destroyed, worried that people might come consider this child to be the true king. Herod knew that he was king of the Jews only because the bigger power of Rome said he could be. He had no right to that title otherwise. Herod was paranoid of losing power.

Does concern for power keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

The Religious Leaders

The religious leaders were able to tell Herod that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, just down the road from where they were, in Jerusalem. So why didn’t they go? If anyone should have taken an interest in the possibility that the messiah had been born, it is the religious leaders. But they didn’t go. Why not? We can just imagine their conversations around the water cooler: “What do you make of those magi?” “You mean those foreigners who have nothing to do with us, with our God, and our messiah?” “Yeah, the messiah will rescue us from foreigners, right!?” “Aren’t they astrologers? They don’t know our Scriptures!” “How could these guys possibly know anything about anything? What could we possibly learn from them?!” “Nothing!”

And so the religious leaders of the day missed the biggest event in the history of religion, in fact the history of the world.

Does pride in what we think we know about God keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Joseph and Mary

For Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy was a reality that they had to adjust to. Mary’s baby bump was no mere figment of her imagination. She really was pregnant, and the baby really was not Joseph’s.

There would have been a great temptation to not adjust. In fact Joseph at first did not and could not. He required the visit of an angel to change his mind. Why? The whole thing would have seemed crazy, and to Joseph, Mary would have seemed crazy.

Perhaps we sometimes imagine that young women like Mary were hoping to be the one to experience a virgin conception in fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

In the original languages, the word virgin can also be translated young woman which is how some translations have rendered it. Perhaps more importantly, when you read through the full prophecy of Isaiah chapter seven, we find that it is a prophecy that would have been fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. The sign wasn’t that a virgin would conceive, but that what God said would happen back then would happen before a newborn child could discern between right and wrong, that is, in a few years. Therefore no one in Joseph and Mary’s day were expecting a virgin conception, including Joseph and Mary. To the Christian looking back it all makes sense, as does Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, but to Joseph and Mary, this pregnancy would have been unexpected, crazy, and terrifying!

Joseph was clued in by an angel. Would anyone else have had that help?

Does worry about what people think of us keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Where do we find ourselves in the Christmas story?

Are we like Mary and Joseph who were able to adjust to the new reality of this baby named Jesus?

Whatever people may think of us, the reality of this baby points us to the reality of the opportunity for reconciliation with God, the reality of the better way of Jesus in the way of love, and the reality of a better future. This baby points to the reality of God’s love. The idea of the Creator of the universe coming to us in a strangely-conceived-baby-laid-in-a-manger might seem crazy at first glance, but can we, like Mary and Joseph, let God be God, and let Him love us?

Or are we like Herod and the religious leaders?

If we were to attempt to adjust God to make God better, to change God so that God would be a better God for us, it can’t be done. If we think it can, then perhaps we have a faulty notion of God. The God who is, the God who has revealed in Jesus that the divine is for us and not against us, is a reality we cannot change, but a reality worth adjusting to, and worth celebrating.


Years ago we realized that Pastor Clarke Dixon’s devotional postings were a perfect fit for us at C201, and he’s been here most Thursdays ever since. To read more, visit Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 2, 2021

This is Not the Way Things Are Supposed To Be: Welcome to Advent!

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:31 pm
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Thinking Through Isaiah 40

For a video version of the sermon on which this is based, click here.

by Clarke Dixon

Surely this is not the way things are supposed to be! Do you find yourself saying that a lot these days? You might say it about the pandemic or global conflicts. You might say it about your life, and the challenges you face. You might say it about big life-threatening things, or the little details. I said it when I went to print something in black and white and my printer told me I couldn’t because it didn’t have enough yellow ink. Surely this is not the way things are supposed to be!

Perhaps you can relate. God’s old covenant people in the Old Testament could relate, particularly in the moment spoken of in Isaiah 40:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

Isaiah 40:1 (NIV)

God’s people needed comfort at that moment. The city was in ruins, people were exiled to Babylon, the temple was destroyed, and according to the prophet Ezekiel, God had left the building (See Ezekiel chapters 10 and 11). Things were not as they should have been.

A message of comfort was needed.

A message of comfort was also appropriate:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2 (NIV)

God had said that if his people stuck with him, he would stick with them, but if they didn’t he wouldn’t. They didn’t and so he didn’t. Therefore the Babylonians invaded, the natural consequence of the sin of God’s people. However, comfort was now the appropriate message because God is good and faithful to all his promises. Now that the consequences of their sin had been rolled out, God would show his faithfulness to the covenant promises by returning his people to the promised land and also in his own return:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

Isaiah 40:3 (NIV)

In those days of exile things were not the way they should be. But things were also not the way they would be! There was great hope for the future.

The exiles did return and they all lived happily ever after, right?

Actually, no. God’s people did indeed return, but they entered a season of their history we could call “Advent”. Yes, they had returned, and yes, there was great work done on rebuilding Jerusalem, the temple, and the nation. However, apart from one short season of self-rule, it was one foreign oppressor after another in charge. This was to be God’s people, not Caesar’s. Things were still not as they were supposed to be!

However, things were not the way they would be. There was hope; God is good, and in keeping his promises, will intervene. Therefore God’s people could look forward to the arrival of a messiah. The time between the return to Jerusalem and the birth of that Messiah was an era of Advent.

Jesus was born and everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Yes and no. There is a happily ever after, but we are not there yet. We can still say things are not as they should be.

I grew up with the song by U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Christian faith is expressed in this song, but so too is lament, that something is not right. Things are not the way they are supposed to be.

We are now in the season of Advent, but we are not just referring to the time set apart to recognize Advent in the church calendar. We live, not just in four weeks of Advent, but an entire era of Advent where we are aware that things are not as they should be, but also that things are not as they shall be.

In many of our churches we are not really sure how to observe Advent, as we often rush into the celebration of Christmas along with the rest of society. More importantly, however, what are we to do when our entire lives are spent in an era of Advent? Here are three things.

We lean into lament.

This is not the time to sugar coat the world’s problems behind a veneer of faith. Neither is it time to sugar coat our own problems as if they don’t exist. As long as there are things like poverty, oppression, injustice, racism, sexism, discrimination of many sorts, depression, disease, and the list goes on and on, then things are not as they should be. Let us say that and lean into lament. In fact leaning into lament will drive us to the second thing to do:

We lean into the better way of Jesus

Upon the birth of John the Baptist, not long before the birth of Jesus, John’s dad, Zechariah had this to say of John, and Jesus:

…you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Luke 1:76-79 (NIV emphasis added)

Here is a wonderful allusion back to Isaiah 40, that indeed God was returning and ready to intervene in a significant way. This is a message of comfort. But in this message we also see a significant reason why things are still not as they are supposed to be: we humans, Christians and non-Christians alike, fail to walk in that path of peace that Jesus through his life, teaching, example, and way of the cross has guided our feet into. This is the time to lean into that better way of Jesus. This is the time to call for change, in ourselves, and in our world.

We want to be careful here, with our focus on lament and call for change, that we recognize the better way of Jesus is the way of love and not hatred. There can be a fine line between the two. How so? If you attended our church anniversary service, you would have heard my wife share how she came to a point three years ago of saying enough is enough. She chose to make certain changes that would be to the betterment of her physical, mental, and spiritual health. This seeking of better health is an expression of love; of self-love and love for others. However, sometimes the call for change can come from somewhere else. These lines from a Tenille Townes song are striking:

The voice that I don’t wanna hear, the hurtful words I say
The long list of things about myself I wanna change
The heavy cloud that won’t leave even after it rains
I try to be a hero ’til it brings me to my knees
Yeah, there’s a villain in me

From the song “Villain in Me” written by Alex Hope and Tenille Townes

Sometimes the call for change in ourselves can come, not from a place of love, but from a place of self-hatred. Sometimes the call for change in ourselves does not lead to self-love, but to even greater self-hatred. This is not the way things are supposed to be.

Likewise, the call for change in our world can come from a place of love, but it often comes from a place of hatred. Let us be careful, therefore, that our call for change, in ourselves and in others, comes from living out the better way of Jesus which is the better way of love.

Lean into the love and promise of God

The day is coming when things shall be as they should be. Even when our calls for change seem to fall on deaf ears, or our efforts at change seem to come to nothing, change is on the way. This is a season of Advent, but seasons change and the next one will arrive with the return of our Lord! There is reason for great hope!

In Conclusion

There is a Christmas carol that captures well the spirit of Advent, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day“:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on Earth, ” I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, good will to men

Things are not the way they should be. However,

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on Earth, good will to men

Things are not as they shall be!

While we observe Advent for four weeks, we actually live in Advent our entire lifetime. As we do so, we lean into lament, and we lean into hope, that God, who is good, will intervene in an incredible way some day. In the meantime we lean into the better way of Jesus.


Regular Thursday contributor and Ontario, Canada pastor Clarke Dixon initially posts the devotions here at his own site, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

December 26, 2020

They Had a Better Greeting Than ‘Merry Christmas’

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm
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Today another new writer for you to meet. Carolyn Kincaid writes at Carolyn Kincaid’s Potpourri for the Soul where her tagline is, “Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance of Christ.” May that be said of all of us. Look for her book online, Praying Prayers God Answers.

Savior—Messiah—Lord

NIV.Luke.2.10-11 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

This exclamatory announcement is so much greater than our simple, “Merry Christmas!” This proclamation was significant; it was a message that stated three consequential declarations.

One, our Savior was born. The One who would be able to reconcile us with God. God is holy and cannot abide wrong-doing, so we have a sin problem. We have a giant chasm between us and God that nothing up to this point could cross. The SAVIOR, born to make a way beyond the chasm, is born today.

The second declaration is that the Messiah was born. The Messiah, the Anointed One was long awaited by the Jewish community. All their hope rested in the coming Messiah Who would come and rescue Israel. What this means to us non-Jews is that the Messiah, who is a liberator has come to liberate us from the bondage we have to sin. It’s not that we will never sin again having accepted Him, but that we no longer are bound to sin. We now can choose through the power of our Liberator to walk, not in defiance to God, but in obedience to God.

The most important declaration the angel made was that the Lord, Immanuel had come to live among men. Immanuel means God with us. This announcement proclaimed Jesus to be God, Lord, Master. And through the Holy Spirit, God continues to live with us.

Today as you celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Savior, Messiah & Lord take a moment to assimilate the totality of Who He is into your worship. Don’t miss the opportunity to have an encounter with your Savior, your Messiah, your Lord.

   For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.Isaiah 9:6


C201 Archives:

The People Who Walked in Darkness

December, 2014

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
 ~Isaiah 9:2

Light is an image that is often present in the story of the incarnation.  Christmas is reminiscent of the star that pointed to Bethlehem, and in our times, the bright artificial lights reflecting on the snow at night. Even our music is ‘bright’ as brass quartets and bells — not usually part of church worship — are heard.

The coming of Christ follows what we call the intertestamental period, where some would say that the prophets went silent. I believer personally that while there are not recorded prophetic words that are part of our scriptures, God always has a people, and that his man or woman, in the right place at the right time, was ministering to the needs of ones and twos and small clusters of people, using what we would call the prophetic gift. While historically, there was a great silence before the downpour of heaven in the incarnation, that does not mean God was not still involved; still working in hearts.

Some characterize the coming of Christ as God “breaking in” to our story. A Canadian writer, Tim Day, recently released a book titled, God Enters Stage Left. In a way, this is what happens, God breaks in; he becomes part of our story.  These elements — the breaking in, and the light imagery — combine together in a verse toward the end of Luke’s first chapter that is often missed:

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

This is why Christ has come. To shine on those living in darkness, and guide our feet to a new way, a new hope, and a new peace.


Read more: Also from December, 2014, Clarke Dixon reminds us that Jesus’ birth certificate allows for our adoption papers. Check out Adopted into the Family.


C201 is always looking for both submissions and suggestions for sources of material. Use the submissions page in the margin.

December 24, 2020

Messy Emotions, But a Merry Christmas: Two Very Different Kings

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:28 pm
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by Clarke Dixon

Christmas can be a time of wide ranging emotions from excitement & happiness, to dread and sorrow. It is said that depression is a bigger problem during the Christmas season than any other time of year. Our emotions can get really messy with highs and lows, sometimes even in the same day.

While mixed and messy emotions may be part of our Christmas, especially this year, they were part of the original Christmas also. We become especially aware of this when we read Matthew chapter 2. The exceedingly great joy of the magi on the birth of one child stands in stark contrast with the great sorrow in Bethlehem on the death of many. These emotions are important for two reasons.

First, the emotions of the Christmas story speak to influence and relationships.

The contrasting emotions in the Christmas story are a result of contrasting leaders. There is joy over the birth of a new and better king. There is sorrow because of the rule of a bad king.

The sorrow in Bethlehem is a result of a very far-from-God kind of person in leadership. Herod the Great was really Herod the Horrible. He was great if you like buildings. The rebuilt temple was impressive among other building programs he was responsible for. He was horrible if you like people. He had one of his wives executed, plus several of his sons. He even arranged for many Jewish nobles to be executed when he died so that there would be weeping instead of rejoicing at his death. Thankfully, that was not carried out.

His son was not much better. In fact the Romans gave him the boot, which is why you have Herod ruling as king in Jerusalem at Christmas, but by the time of the events of Easter you have a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, in charge instead. Indeed the ruthlessness of Herod’s son is the reason Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth on the return from Egypt. This was still a time of fear. People can create incredible fear and sorrow in people.

The joy of the magi was over the birth of a closer-to-God-than-the-magi-knew kind of person born to be the new leader. The magi would hardly have known the full calling of Jesus, but they had joy over the birth of a king, a king that had a right to the throne, unlike Herod. This new and true king would potentially rule, not just over the people, but for the people. The Old Testament prophecies speak to this hope:

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies
will make this happen!

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NLT)

The magi would likely not have expected the death and resurrection of Jesus and all that would mean, but they did expect a good king! They expected a leader far greater than Herod. They expected a king that would bring joy. People can bring incredible joy to people.

What kind of people are we? What emotions do we create in people through our influence in their lives? Do we bring about joy in people? Or do people breathe a sigh of relief when we no longer have influence in their lives, like at Herod’s death? Are we like Christ? Or are we like Herod? Just as the magi had joy when they saw the sign of the star, do people have joy when they see the sign of our street? They can’t wait to see us. Or, as with Herod, do they find another route so as to avoid us, so as to avoid the hurt created by us? Christmas can be a time of heightened emotions because of family dynamics. In our relationships are we peacemakers like Jesus, or joy killers like Herod?

Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ in our influence over others, and less like Herod. Let us pray for the Herod’s of our world, that they would be more like Christ.

Second, the emotions of the Christmas story speak to death.

The weeping in Bethlehem is directly related to death.

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A cry was heard in Ramah—
weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
for they are dead.”

Matthew 2:16-18 (NLT)

It is estimated that between ten and thirty infants would have been killed that day. Even one would be too many. Can you imagine living in Bethlehem at that time? The whole community, likely a thousand people or so, would have been gripped with sorrow over such needless and untimely death.

Much fear and sorrow in people’s lives relates to death. We have all faced restrictions in our day because of the fear of death, and rightfully so. The potential of people dying from COVID-19 is a big problem for our leaders to navigate. Death is not actually our biggest problem, however. Death itself is a symptom of a bigger problem, a problem we can not deal with on our own. That problem is the problem of sin that separates us from God.

The magi would not have known that this infant Jesus would take on more than the injustice in the land as the new king, he would take on the greatest reason for fear and sorrow as Saviour. He would take on the reason for death itself, the problem of sin at the cross.

There is a verse in the Bible which speaks to our emotions regarding death:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NLT)

We do grieve when there is death and loss. But we grieve as people who have hope. There is an element of joy when the one who trusts in Christ thinks of death. Death is not the end of the book, but the turning of the page, concluding one chapter, and beginning the next. The story does not end. The best is yet to come.

What are our emotions when we think about death? Is it all fear and sorrow? Grief is real, and a certain amount of negative emotion is normal, even healthy and necessary. But as you think about your own death, does the thought fill you with dread, or is there an element of joy stirring in your soul?

Is there space for both sadness and joy in your Christmas this year? There may be much to grieve, it is natural to feel sorrow over loss and change. There is also great reason for incredible joy.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Posts here at C201 appear first at his blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon. Today’s full reflection (sermon-only video) can be seen as part of this “online worship expression” (full video).

December 21, 2020

Jesus: A Paradox and an Oxymoron

Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.
 – 1 Corinthians 1:27 NLT

This is our third time looking at what I consider a significant book dealing exhaustively with various aspects of the life of Jesus. Jesus: A Theography was written in 2012 by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.

A Culture of Paradox

Great power resides in the small, spare, simple.

A box cutter brought down a skyscraper and nearly bankrupted a nation.
A pamphlet on common sense sparked a revolution.
A song about overcoming changed the world.
A little town birthed the Messiah.
And a small room on the lower level (a dirty room called a stable) cradled the Son of God.

Little is large if God is in it.

■■■

In the Bible, Jesus always comes in surround sound. If you hear only one thing, you aren’t hearing Jesus. It is a sign of Jesus’ greatness that one thing can be said about Him and the opposite be true at the same time. Jesus is a paradox and an oxymoron rolled into one.

That makes Christianity a culture of paradox. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner pegged it right: “The hallmark of logical inconsistency clings to all genuine pronouncements of faith.”

The Living Water gospel is a cocktail of opposites, a paradoxical brew of hydrogen and oxygen, fire and wind, “Lord I believe” and “help my unbelief,” as well as…

Come and live. Come and die.
Be as wise as serpents, innocent as doves.
My yoke is easy, my burden is light.
You want to be first? Be last.
You want to find yourself? Lose yourself.
You want to be famous? Be humble.
The Prince of Peace came bringing a sword.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

Jesus never tried to unknot His contradictions. Rather, he used these knots as rungs in the ladder to enable us to climb higher in truth and revelation.

What brings the opposites together and connects them is the sign of the cross. The Bible in general (and John’s gospel in particular) is sometimes called the Book of Signs. But the sign above all signs is the cross, which brings together the vertical and the horizontal. Jesus’ love is agape love. Agape love is made of two dimensions: love of God and love of neighbour. The horizontal and the vertical go hand in hand. How do you show love of God, love of neighbour, and vice versa?

The gospel goes parabolic beginning with Jesus’ birth, where God works little large with the whole of faith encapsulated in a very small package: one little act of love. Jesus is the definitive localization of the Creator’s universality. The incarnation is the original “small is big.”

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Look again at the babe from Bethlehem and see a King who was destined to redefine power, glory, and peace. And he would do it by subverting the kingdoms of this world by a cross–an instrument made of the same material that composed the manger into which He was born: wood. Even so, God’s glory was revealed not in the manger but on the cross. And therein lay His destiny.


Excerpted from pages 52, 53-54, 71; This 448-page hardcover is a steal at $19.99 US; learn more at ThomasNelson.com.


Previous excerpts from Jesus: A Theography here at C201:

April, 2013: Intricacies in the Jesus Narrative.
May, 2013: Jesus is the New Temple.


For my friends in the UK and in Ontario and Quebec, Canada (which is 61.5% of all Canadians):

I know announcements of increased lock-downs are discouraging. I felt impressed today to share the song You Are by the band Sonic Flood which is based on Psalm 91. When I checked however, I found that we did that already, during the last lock-down in April. Still, I felt someone here needs to hear this, so check out A Psalm We All Need Right Now.

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