Christianity 201

December 27, 2019

The First Christmas. An Ordinary Day?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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This week Clarke Dixon posted both his Christmas Sunday message and his Christmas Eve message. We decided to share this second one while it was still closer to the 25th.

by Clarke Dixon

For most of us, Christmas is no ordinary day. We prepare for it, we take time off, we meet with family, we play special music. This is no ordinary day. Yet the first Christmas was actually quite ordinary in many ways. It was not marked on anyone’s calendar as being a holiday, or anything out of the ordinary. Yet there was something extraordinary about that first Christmas. Let us consider the many ways Christmas Day points to both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Mary. An Ordinary Woman. An Extraordinary Calling!

Mary was an ordinary young woman, like every other young woman. We don’t know too much about her, but we can assume that she had quite an ordinary childhood. Like other young women of her age, she was engaged to be married. Her life was quite ordinary, until she had an extraordinary calling from God.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee,  to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.  Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.  “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!  You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.  What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.”
 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.Joseph.

Luke 1:26-38 (NLT)

Joseph. An Ordinary Man. An Extraordinary Family!

Joseph was also quite an ordinary person. He was a descendant of David, but he was also a normal man like any other man. In fact when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he decided to do what any good man would do, he decided to call off the wedding. However, this was no ordinary child Mary was carrying. As it turns out, while Joseph was an ordinary man, he would have an extraordinary family.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)

Bethlehem. An Ordinary Town. An Extraordinary Fulfillment!

That first Christmas took place in an ordinary town. Bethlehem at that time was probably no bigger than the small town we live in which only has 2000 or so people. It had a rich history, with King David being from Bethlehem. However, living in Bethlehem would feel no different to the locals than living in a small Canadian town does today. Life there was quite ordinary. But something extraordinary did happen there.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 (NLT)

While being an ordinary town, through the birth of Jesus this town became the site of an extraordinary fulfillment of prophecy.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” Matthew 2:1-6 (NLT)

The Shepherds. Ordinary People. An Extraordinary Invitation!

You might think that the birth of a long awaited king would be announced to a long list of important people, like rulers or religious leaders. God chose to announce the birth to quite ordinary people, shepherds working nearby. In doing so, God indicated that ordinary people are important people. They are important to him.

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.”
 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.  All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. Luke 2:8-20 (NLT)

Jesus. An Ordinary Baby. An Extraordinary Baby!

Jesus himself was quite ordinary in some very important ways. He was a baby like any other. Despite the claim of a favourite carol, he cried like any other baby would. He needed fed like any other baby. He probably kept his parents awake at night, like any other baby! But he was also extraordinary. He was the incarnation of God. He was “Immanuel,” God with us.

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone…
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. John 1:1-4,14 (NLT)

Christmas. An Ordinary Day. An Extraordinary Event!

That first Christmas Day was a very ordinary day. It was not marked as special on anyone’s calendar. There were no decorations. There were no Christmas carols. There were no Christmas trees. There were no gifts under the trees. There was no Christmas shopping. It was such an ordinary day, that really the only ones who knew about it were Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and perhaps a few others. The Magi probably didn’t arrive until later. It was actually a very ordinary day with a very ordinary birth.

Yet that first Christmas Day was an extraordinary day. It was a day which would lead to the possibility and opportunity for reconciliation with God. Because of the Son of God, Jesus, who was born on that day, we could become God’s children.

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. Galatians 4:4-5 (NLT)

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. John 1:10-12

We could go on to speak about how ordinary people would experience the extraordinary teaching, miracles, and presence of Jesus. We could speak of his crucifixion, unfortunately an all too ordinary event in that time and place. We could speak of God’s extraordinary love expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although we may feel like we are far far extraordinary people, we can experience that extraordinary love.

My family and I wish you a Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2019

A New King in Town at Christmas

Dealing With the Powers That Threaten Us

by Clarke Dixon

What is the biggest threat to your well being this Christmas? It might be health, family dynamics, addiction, work or a lack of a work. It could be Christmas itself, with all the stress that often comes with it. For many it is the anxiety in the air thanks to events and politics all around the world. What was in air when Mary and Joseph were making their trek to Bethlehem? What was felt to big the biggest threat to everyone’s well being that first Christmas? Luke mentions it when he begins to tell us about the birth of Jesus:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:1 (NRSV)

The emperor was the big threat of the day. Rome was looming large in the background of the Christmas story. The power of Rome was looming large in the background of everyone’s story. When Luke describes what happened on that first Christmas, he tells us in a way that subtly shows a contrast between the emperor and a new king. There are subtle hints of a movement from the powers that be, to something much greater. As the angels announced to the shepherds; there is a new king in town.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:10-14 (NRSV)

Let us consider this move from the emperor, to the true King.

There is movement from the peace of Rome to the peace of God. There is an expression, pax Romana, which refers to a time when there was relative stability and peace between nations and peoples, thanks to the Roman Empire. However, this peace could be defined as an absence of conflict. It did not mean there was perfect harmony. It was the kind of peace that is held when a bigger power threatens to wipe you out if you fight with your neighbour. With this baby king, there would come a different kind of peace, the kind of peace implied by the Hebrew term “shalom.” It goes far beyond absence of conflict, to the presence of perfect harmony. This kind of peace comes when you love your neighbour. This baby king will bring true peace; reconciling us to God, and teaching us to live reconciled lives with others.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14).

There is a movement, from the privilege of one class of people, to the opportunity for blessing for all people. The Roman empire could give you great freedom and opportunity, if you are free, and not a slave, if you are male, and not a female. Life in the empire was not that great if you were not born in a privileged position. The angel announces good news for everyone: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (verse 10 emphasis added). Because of this new king, Paul could later write:

. . . for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 (NRSV)

There is a movement, from indifferent and uncaring, to intensely interested and caring. Augustus would have known nothing about Mary and Joseph. Caesar Augustus didn’t know, and likely didn’t care that his census made life difficult for Mary and Joseph. God knew Mary and Joseph. God chose to announce the new king’s birth to shepherds. In doing so, God showed his intense care and concern for the regular folk.

There was a movement from taxes gained to a gift given. The purpose of a census in the ancient world was to predict military strength and tax revenue. While the Jews were exempt from military service, they were not exempt from paying taxes. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem so that the powers that be could figure out what they would be getting. In the bigger picture, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because there was a precious gift that God was giving.

There was a movement from a small world to the universe. “All the world” (verse 1) was not all the world, it was just all the world under Roman jurisdiction. It felt large to the people of that time and place. But it was not, especially compared to all the world, or better, worlds, under God’s care. The angels announce “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14). God’s sovereignty stretches everywhere. This new king was a much bigger deal than Augustus.

There was a movement from a very temporary Augustus to an eternal Lord, God. The Christmas story begins in chapter two, verse one with Augustus, the most powerful man of that time. The angels announce the birth of  “the Lord” in verse eleven. Augustus Caesar is dead and gone by chapter three. By the end of the whole book, Jesus is killed, but not gone. The Lord God is eternal, here long before Caesar, and here here long after.

There was a movement from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The cross was originally a symbol of fear, the fear of Rome. It was a method of execution and it induced terror. The word “excruciating” comes from crucifixion. The pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome,” existed partly due to the Roman cross. Crucifixions were common and public. You could see people hanging on crosses on your way into town. Step out of line and you could end up on one yourself. However, the cross has now become a symbol of love, of power turned on its head. It is the symbol of God’s reconciling love through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rome used the cross, and the fear it represented, to keep the peace of Rome. God used the cross, and the love it represents, to bring us peace with Him.

Rome loomed large as a large threat in the days of the first Christmas. Indeed, the Romans did eventually destroy Jerusalem. Augustus, and Rome, had the power to destroy many an individual, and a people. We may feel threatened by the powers looming in our lives. There is a downturn in the economy, or in a company. There is a downward spiral of ill health. There are powers that threaten to undo us, which are indifferent to us. However, there is power which holds us, and rescues us, which is intensely interested in us. Christmas is a signal of a big change; from the power of Rome to the power of God. What is your Rome? What is the power looming in the background of your life? This Christmas, make the move from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The Christmas story begins with the power of Rome, but ends with the glory of God. Will yours?

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:13-14 (NRSV)


► This week, a bonus item from Clarke Dixon which he wrote for his church family in Ontario, Canada:  Shortbread for Christmas on a Journey of Grief.

December 22, 2019

The Tower of Flock and the Birth of Jesus

Recently I reconnected with a longtime friend who is now working for Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. While checking out their website earlier today, I discovered their blog and the article below. Its author Bruce Scott is the director of Program Ministries at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry and is the author of The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah. Click the header below to see the article in full — which deals with context, cultural conditions and historical background in interpreting this type of text — of the following is a portion:

The Jewish Life of Jesus

What Is the Tower of Flock?

We read in Genesis 35:19-21, “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day. Then Israel journeyed and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder.

The phrase “tower of Eder” literally means “tower of flock.” In those days when a flock of animals, particularly sheep, were being cared for and watched, the shepherd would oftentimes be in a tower overlooking his flock, keeping an eye out for bandits or wild animals. This particular tower of the flock was near Bethlehem of Judea, and it was here that Jacob pitched his tent after Rachel died.

The only other place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew phrase “tower of flock” is found is Micah 4:8:

And you, O tower of the flock,
The stronghold of the daughter of Zion,
To you shall it come,
Even the former dominion shall come,
The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

Targum Jonathan (an ancient Aramaic translation) sees the word “tower” in this verse as referring to the Messiah, and the word “flock” as referring to Israel. It therefore translates the beginning of the verse as, “And you, O Messiah of Israel . . . .”

Based on these verses, therefore, later Jewish tradition taught that when the Messiah would come, He would be revealed from Migdal Eder, the tower of the flock (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Gen. 35:21).

No Ordinary Shepherds

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the Scriptures say, “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8). What is interesting about these shepherds is that according to Jewish law, small animals from herds and flocks were not allowed to be raised in the land of Israel because they could damage people’s fields (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7.7; Demai 2.3; Talmud, Sukkah 29a; Midrash, Exodus Rabbah 2.3). They were, however, allowed to be raised “in Syria or in the wildernesses that are in the Land of Israel” (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 7.7).

But in Luke 2:8 it states “in the same country,” meaning the same region of Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching their flock. If there was a prohibition against keeping flocks so near a community with cultivated fields, why were these shepherds in the same region as Bethlehem?

When you learn the value of these [Jewish] contexts, they will richly enhance your understanding of the Scriptures.

One explanation could be that by the phrase “in the same country” Luke meant a wider territory than first thought, a territory that included a nearby wilderness area used for keeping sheep.

Another explanation could be this. The rabbis taught that if a male sheep, one year old or younger, had strayed and was found one month before Passover roaming around in the area between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder, or the area equidistant from Jerusalem to Migdal Eder in any direction, then the sheep could be used for sacrifice at Passover (Mishnah, Shekalim 7:4). The inference is that sheep found anywhere from Migdal Eder near Bethlehem to Jerusalem were most likely used for Temple sacrifices.

Therefore, could it be that the shepherds watching over their flock by night when Jesus was born were not ordinary shepherds? Instead, could it be they were shepherds specifically hired to watch sheep that were destined for sacrifice?

If so, then how appropriate it would be that God should first reveal the arrival of the Messiah to those particular shepherds near the tower of the flock not far from Bethlehem. And how appropriate that these shepherds wanted to go to Bethlehem and watch over the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, who was destined to be, as the Lamb of God, the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice that would take away the sin of the world.

100 Days of Christianity 201

On March 31st, 2020, Christianity 201 will have published a fresh devotional/study reading every day for ten years. On April 1st, Lord willing, we’ll still be here, but as I did with Thinking Out Loud, at the ten year mark I’m releasing myself from the obligation to post something every day. There will continue to be new content posting, as well as fresh articles by Clarke Dixon every Thursday, but not necessarily daily. If this is a subscription that you depend upon for daily input, I encourage you to start now following some of the other blogs which are featured here. Or consider writing for us to keep material coming! If you’re already a WordPress blogger and want to consider being an editor here, let me know. In the meantime, continue to enjoy “Digging a Little Deeper” daily at C201.

 

December 20, 2019

The Anointed One Who Was To Come

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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NLT.Jn.4.26 Then Jesus told her, I am the Messiah!”

NLV.Phil2.10-11 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Almost exactly one year ago, we introduced you to Michael James Schwab who has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico since March, 2005; “cooperating with God” at a home for needy children called Cristo Por Su Mundo (Christ for the World) operated by Foundation For His Ministry.  He blogs at ToEnjoyGod.com. Click the header below to read this one at his blog.

Advent – Waiting for the Messiah

I recently read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I’ve read it many times. It is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Every time I read it, something new stands out. This time I was struck by Paul’s use of the word Christ. He uses that title for Jesus over and over. 38 Times in this short, four chapter book. He uses the word Christ more than he uses the name Jesus.  When we study the Bible, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is “What did these words mean to the person that wrote them?” So, what did Paul have in mind when he wrote the word Christ? What is his concept of Christ?

We have to remember that Paul was thoroughly Jewish. His concept of almost everything was informed and shaped by what we call the Old Testament or, more accurately, the First Testament. The word we read as Christ, comes from the Greek word Khristos, which comes from the Hebrew word khriein, which means to anoint, translating the Hebrew masiah or Messiah. Paul was totally steeped in the Hebrew language, and every time he wrote the word Christ, he was probably thinking of the Hebrew word khriein or masiah.

The picture of someone being anointed in the O.T. is someone having olive oil poured on their head. This was a sacred rite reserved for three types of people: prophets, priests and kings.

The prophet Elisha was anointed by Elijah (1Kings 19:16).

The first priest, Aaron, was anointed by Moses (Exodus 29:7).

King David was anointed by Samuel (1 Samuel 16:1,13)

Most of the O.T. Prophets spoke and wrote about an anointed One that was to come. One that would restore peace, prosperity and wholeness to his people, his Chosen Ones. This person was commonly referred as the Messiah.  This Messiah was sometimes referred to as a great prophet, or a priest, or king, like King David.

Most of the post exilic Jews longingly looked for, prayed for, and hoped for this Messiah. Paul was no exception. He fervently and zealously awaited the Messiah and did everything in his power to bring about the soon return of this exalted Prophet, Priest and King.

There was always the questions among the Jews, “When would the Messiah come? ” “What was taking him so long?” What was the cause of his delay? “

The more zealous of the Jews, like Paul, thought they had the answer.  It was the Jews own fault. The Jews that didn’t take the law of God, or the Torah, seriously enough. They failed in so many areas of keeping the Law.  They were lax in their commitment to and obedience of the Law.  If only these slackers could be convinced or coerced to do better, that would surely hasten the Messiahs  appearance and rule and liberate the people from the despised Roman oppression.

And then there was The Way.  The Way was a group of Jews who proclaimed that the Messiah had come in the person of a man named Jesus. Not only was he the Messiah, but they claimed he was the Son of God.  Blasphemy! Obvious blasphemy!  This Jesus was shown to be a fraud and a heretic and hung up on a cross to die.  The Law said, “Cursed is any man hung on a tree!” This man Jesus was not the blessed Messiah, but a man cursed by God to die a humiliating death. Perhaps if there was one main reason the true Messiah would not come soon, it was due to the rabble called the Way, and Paul set out to do something about it!

He set out toward Damascus to persecute, jail, and maybe kill some of The Way, as those zealous for the Torah did to Stephen, one of the Way’s leader’s.  On the road to Damascus, a strong light and a voice from heaven caused Paul to fall to the ground. The voice called out to Paul, “Why are you persecuting me!”

Paul said, “Who are you?”

The voice from heaven basically said, “I am Jesus, the Messiah.”

After that, Paul’s world was never the same.  It was turned upside down and inside out. Indeed, the Messiah had come. Paul had to admit it. And he was glad. The long foretold  and divinely sent Prophet, Priest and King had truly come.  That fact totally transformed and revolutionized Paul’s outlook and worldview.

Paul’s new mission in life would be to proclaim the Good News that the Messiah, the Christ, had really come to earth to set up a new kind of kingdom, one that gave sight to the blind and set the captives free! Paul could now see the truth and live in true freedom! He was now living in right relationship with God and was filled with joy and peace.  And it was all due to the Messiah, Christ Jesus!

We are in the Advent season. Advent is a time of hopeful expectation. Paul spent the first part of his life in hopeful expectation, waiting for the Messiah to come. He spent the rest of his life rejoicing that the Messiah had come. In this period of Advent, we too can rejoice with Paul and be glad that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, has come, and because of that we are a new creation, living in His love and loving others.

Advent is also a time to remember that we are living in the Already, but Not Yet. We already are experiencing the blessings of being Kingdom dwellers, but the Kingdom is still growing and not yet complete. We already have that peace that surpasses all understanding, but we do not yet have world peace. We already have a new life within, but we are not yet free from pain and suffering; we have not yet had every tear wiped away by the gentle hand of Jesus.

We are still waiting for the Messiah. We are waiting for his return. When he comes he will not come as a baby in a manger, but as King of kings and Lord of lords, coming with the blast of a trumpet on clouds of glory. This time he will not be humiliated and crucified, but will rule with justice and righteousness and every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

 

December 19, 2019

A Christmas Reflection on a New Father’s First Words

Uppermost in Heart and Mind

by Clarke Dixon

What is the first thing a new father wants to talk about? Zechariah was unable to speak for nine months or so during his wife, Elizabeth’s, pregnancy. This is no ordinary pregnancy for he and his wife Elizabeth are quite elderly, well past the child-bearing years, and they have not been able to have children. This was no ordinary child for God spoke of the special calling upon him. He would become known as John the Baptist. Zechariah knew how special this all was. So what does he say?

We might expect Zechariah to gush over this new baby boy, and he does gush, but not over his own child. He gushes over someone else’s, a child yet to be born:

67 Then his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave this prophecy:
68 “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
69 He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
70 just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.
71 Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
72 He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
73 the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
74 We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live. Luke 1:67-75 (NLT)

With all Zechariah could talk about; the excitement of being a new father, Elizabeth bearing a child safely in her elderly years, his son John and the amazing things promised about him, Zechariah talks about Jesus first. Even when he gets around to talking about his son John, he does so only briefly:

76 “And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.” Luke 1:76-79 (NLT)

Zechariah starts talking forgiveness and immediately gets back to talking about the expected arrival of Jesus! Zechariah talks about Jesus first, and most.

It is fitting that Zechariah should focus on Jesus. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (see verse 67), Zechariah puts the focus on whom God wants the focus. Zechariah’s prophecy centres on the theme of rescue by God. This will be done through Jesus, not John. Jesus was uppermost in Zechariah’s heart and mind. Even upon the birth of his own child, Zechariah could not stop talking about Jesus.

What is uppermost in our hearts and minds? What, or whom, can we not stop talking about?

We sometimes have favourite themes within Christianity. Some love to talk about obedience, some love to talk about justice, some love to talk about the end of the world, some love to talk about systematic theology. All these things are important to talk about, but do we talk about Jesus first, and most?

In my early 20’s I focused mainly on the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul appealed to my analytical mind. In my mid-20’s I began reading the Gospels more because they are easier than Paul’s letters to read in Greek. In doing so I rediscovered Jesus! Paul would have us go back to Jesus too! I forget who said it, and the exact wording, but to give a rough quote: “the Bible is not the treasure, it is the treasure map. Jesus is the treasure.” Paul would agree. Jesus was Paul’s main focus. Paul knew that Jesus was the treasure. Likewise, Zechariah might say “my son John is not the treasure. John is the treasure map. Jesus is the treasure.” Jesus was uppermost in Zechariah’s heart and mind. Is Jesus uppermost in ours?

What is uppermost in the hearts and minds of people around us? What do they like to talk about?

When it comes to Christianity, they may want to talk about abuse in churches. Unfortunately it has happened, and still happens. Confess that, but talk about Jesus. Jesus-centred people don’t abuse, but want to help. They may want to talk about how Christianity was responsible for dark moments in history. Yes, sometimes Christians have created dark spaces, but talk about Jesus. Jesus brings light and healing to people living in dark spaces. They may want to talk about ethics and how Christians often can not agree on what’s right and what’s wrong. Yes, that is sometimes true, but also talk about Jesus and the ethic of love. We disagree over ethics because love is creative and not a blind following of rules. They may want to talk about theology and how Christians disagree on doctrine. Yes, that is often true, but talk about Jesus. We are united in and through Jesus, not our uniformity of thought. Whatever there is to talk about, learn from Zechariah, and keep talking about Jesus.

People, ourselves included, may want to talk about a messy Christmas, whether a result of a terrible situation, or sour relationships. Yes, Christmas can be difficult, but talk about Jesus. Let a messy Christmas be a commemoration of that first Christmas which itself was horribly messy. There was no room at the inn, Herod was violent. Things got messy for Jesus as he faced constant opposition during his life. He was arrested. That was messy. He was given a mock trial. That was messy. A crown of thorns was thrust upon his head. That was messy. He was crucified. It doesn’t get any messier than that. Talk about Jesus and how through him, God stepped into a mess, to deal with the mess we’re in.

We often hear the slogan, “put Christ back into Christmas.” We need to put Christ back into Christianity. I’m sure you are finished your Christmas shopping by now and ready to focus on New Year’s resolutions. Here’s a good one; commit to seeing Jesus in 20/20 in 2020. All the Bible is important, but let all the Bible point you to Jesus. Perhaps we might commit to reading from the Gospels every day.* If we, like Zechariah, have Jesus uppermost in our hearts and minds, we will be more likely to talk about him. Good news is worth sharing. Zechariah knew that. Do we?


* If you are interested in reading through the Gospels with a daily email reminder, you may be interested in the reading plan found here.

Commit to seeing Jesus in 20/20 in 2020

December 8, 2019

Only One Generation Saw the Promise Fulfilled

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Last year at this time we introduced you to a site where one wouldn’t expect to find devotional insights, at least based on its title. Rebecca LuElla Miller is a freelance writer and editor whose blog has the title, A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She had me from the opening sentence of what follows. Click the header to read this at her page.

And We Wait

There’s only been one generation in all of history that actually waited for the promised Messiah and saw Him come. All the rest of us wait. The people who believed God before Jesus came, waited for the promised Messiah.

We know this from Scripture but also from history. Any number of false messiahs claimed they were the one promised by God, and for a time groups of people believed them. Until Rome killed them.

From the early pages in Genesis, God promised to crush Satan’s head, the very thing Jesus did by defeating death, by freeing us from sin and guilt and the Law.

Many prophecies told the Jewish people to expect a King, but also to expect a suffering Savior. The King, they embraced. The suffering Savior, they overlooked.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem before His last Passover on earth, the people flocked to Him, expecting Him to declare Himself the promised King. They had waited and watched, and many thought Jesus was the One.

People had asked John the Baptist if he was the one. They wanted so much to see the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy in their time. They wanted to have a King that would defeat Rome and free Israel once and for all from political tyranny. John said no, he wasn’t the one. But of Jesus he said, Behold, the Lamb of God.

The Lamb? Not, the King?

Not the King, yet.

So many missed the bigger picture. They missed that the Messiah was not just for Israel. They missed that His Kingdom was not an earthly or a political kingdom. Yes, they waited for the Messiah, but in some measure, they didn’t understand what they were waiting for.

A handful of people got the message—pretty much hand delivered to them by God. Mary received the announcement that Messiah would be her son. And the angel Gabriel also told her why the Messiah was coming: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:33)

Interestingly, her soon-to-be husband received even more information:

She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” (Matt 1:21-23)

Then there were John the Baptist’s parents. And the shepherds and the prophetess Anna and the godly priest Simeon and the magi traveling from the east. All were looking for and expecting the Messiah. And all saw the promise fulfilled. Their wait was over. Sort of.

Some undoubtedly began a new wait, the one we share today—the wait for the Messiah to return.

I know, kind of crazy to talk about the return of the King during Christmas time when we celebrate His first coming. But I think seeing the promise of His first arrival come to fruition gives hope as we wait for His second coming.

We live in a day that was similar to what the first century people waiting for Messiah experienced. There were problems morally, socially, even within the ranks of religion. They wanted a King who would set things right.

And so many people today want the same thing. They are empty, without purpose, filling their lives with pleasures that grow stale, thinking there should be more.

And there is. Waiting for the Suffering Savior to come as the triumphant King, is an awesome joy. It’s like the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to show in one of the parables. Or for the tenant workers waiting for the landowner to show and evaluate their work. It’s a glory and an honor to be found when the King comes, faithfully carrying out the tasks we’ve been assigned.

That’s why Scripture says over an over to stand firm, to “hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end” (Heb. 3:6b). It’s why we’re not to grow weary in well-doing. We have the promise that Christ is worth waiting for.

And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:4)

So yes, we wait, just like those Jews so long ago waited for the Messiah to come. And because Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Suffering Servant, because He came as an unblemished Lamb and shed His blood for the sins of the world, we can know with certainty that He will also come again.

God doesn’t do things half way.

December 6, 2019

Anna The Prophetess

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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This appeared originally as a Twitter thread. On our parent blog, Thinking Out Loud, I’ve taken threads from Twitter and grouped them into a single article on about eight occasions, believing that they need to be seen by more people. It’s in that spirit I’m highlighting these thoughts here today.

Rich Perez is the author of Mi Casa Uptown; a memoir of his experiences growing up in the inner city of New York and the intersection between faith, family, identity and the significance of place. He’s also the lead pastor of Christ Crucified Fellowship in New York City. The link below takes you to the original thread.

Anna: Going Deep in Three Verses

In the Bible, only 3 verses are dedicated to Anna the prophetess. Because most Christians lack imagination, they’ll miss how deep those 3 verses go….

NIV.Luke.2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.[*] She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

* Or then had been a widow for eighty-four years.

Something worth noticing about Anna: before she’s the daughter of Phanuel; before she’s known to be of the tribe of Asher, Anna is identified as a prophet.

Being part of a society that disregarded women, esp. an old widow like Anna, God shows us that his world is upside down. Women were identified by the men they were connected to. But God is making a different connection. God’s saying that the most important thing about Anna is not the man she’s connected to but the God that she’s connected to.

Anna also teaches us quite a bit about waiting and aging well. she was 105 years old when she finally saw what she was waiting for: Jesus. Eight-four of those years were alone after her husband died.

I think the real value of these verses is how waiting has the potential to change us.

In my life, waiting has often made me frustrated, hurt and then bitter. Then it’s made me distrusting, hopeless and sometimes, unbelieving.

As young people, we need Anna. she shows us how to grow old well.

God uses Anna to show us that waiting for God isn’t passive, but active. That waiting doesn’t have to mean we grow older and bitter. That waiting doesn’t have to mean we grow stale and skeptical, but waiting can mean we grow to be more present and expectant.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Anna had many moments where she doubted God’s promise. Many nights where her bitterness got the best of her. Many nights where trusting God may have seemed impossible. But whether it was her doubt, her bitterness or her distrust, it all happened in the temple with God.

“She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers.”

Waiting, with all of its frustrations and darkness, is welcomed in the presence of God.

Anna shows that her life of waiting— most of it in the dark and alone— is not possible without prayer. Anna discovered a kind of prayer that doesn’t simply speak to God, but more importantly hears from God and is present with God.

One-way prayers assume that what we have to say is of greater importance than what God has to reveal to us.

I can only imagine Anna’s days and nights in the temple with God to be filled with a lot of silence; waiting to hear from God.

More reflections on Anna…

God’s three short verses on her show us the power of names. In just the first verse we get three of them: Anna, Phanuel and Asher.

Anna means “grace from God.”

Phanuel means “the face of God.”

Asher means “good fortune.” And it was to the tribe of Asher that God said: “…May the bolts of your gate be iron and bronze, and your strength last as long as you live.

Throughout the decades of her life; of her waiting – filled with what I imagine were many lonely moments, Anna waited for “the good fortune” of seeing “the face of God,” and at the temple 40 days after Jesus’ birth, by “the grace of God” she did!

Did you know that patience comes from the same Latin root as passion, which means “to suffer”? In other words, patience ain’t easy.

It all makes me wonder how Jesus waited. How did knowing what he came to do shape HOW Jesus waited?

Jesus waited knowing the the end from the beginning. He waited knowing at least part of the outcome of his waiting. Jesus waited knowing that part of waiting involved disappointment. He waited knowing that part of waiting involved his own suffering and his death.

Yet he waited knowing that his waiting would lead to life… quite literally, revival. Not simply for himself but for all who would trust his work and wait for his finally fulfillment.

December 5, 2019

The Christmas Story: Just a Good Story?

by Clarke Dixon

The Christmas story is a good story. There is something about it that engages even people who would not call themselves Christian. Where Christianity gets a cold shoulder, baby Jesus seems to receive a warm embrace. The Christmas story is a good story for many reasons. It is a story of ordinary people experiencing the extraordinary. It is a story of the underprivileged experiencing an incredible privilege. There is nothing special about Mary or Joseph, either in their societal or religious standing. There is nothing special about the shepherds. The wise men don’t even belong, they are complete outsiders. Herod, rich, powerful, and privileged, threatens and kills, but the ordinary people battle through dire circumstances and participate in something truly remarkable. Everyone loves a good story where the underdogs come out on top. As for the divine, well the divine very clearly sides with the regular folk. You don’t need to be a Christian enjoy the Christmas story as a good story. But is the Christmas story just a good story and nothing more?

The way in which Luke begins to tell the story tells us something else about it:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Luke sets out to write, not a story, but history. Notice how Luke begins; not with “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away,” but with, “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” That is, events that really happened in Luke’s time and place and which people who were there would still remember. There are eyewitnesses. The original readers of Luke’s Gospel could check his sources. These eyewitnesses were not people indoctrinated into a school of thought, but people who witnessed things with their own eyes. They were not philosophers, or religious people, but ordinary people who experienced something, and Someone extraordinary. Luke is not making things up, but writing them down. Those who know Greek well can tell that Luke is an educated man from these first verses, for his Greek, we are told, is very good. Luke is not some religious nut who has been duped, but an educated man who has “investigated everything carefully,” so that the reader can “be certain of the truth” (v.4 NLT). The Christmas story is not just a good story, it is also a true story. 

You can imagine a scenario where something is known to be true, but it is not good news. A doctor gives the correct diagnosis, for example. What she says is true, but it may not be good news. Is the Christmas story good news? The way Luke continues drops big hints about that.

The name “Herod” elicited a response in people in much the same way that the name “Trump” does today. However, where Trump elicits a polarized response, Herod’s name always brought fear. Herod’s name shows up early, verse 5 in fact. Fear continues to be a theme of the Christmas story, especially whenever an angel appears:

When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:12-13 (NRSV)

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Luke 1:30 (NRSV)

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:9-11 (NRSV)

Every time an angel shows up there is much fear, yet fear not, for behold, there is good news!

People are often reticent about becoming Christians because of fear. They fear that becoming a Christian would have a negative impact on their lives. Their sense of freedom might be impacted. They might have to become “religious.” They don’t like religious people and fear they might have to become like people they don’t like. Therefore if the Christmas story and all the stories of Jesus, including the Easter story, are true, that would be bad news. However, when you dig deeper you discover that the story of Jesus is good news indeed!

Throughout his writing Luke does not come across as saying something like; “sadly, having looked at the evidence, I have to tell you that this religion is true, so you had better commit to it, even though it will be drudgery.” Rather; “having looked at the evidence, all this stuff about Jesus is true, and is great news and brings great opportunity.” It begins with ordinary people and with mean and privileged people but ends in great blessing for the ordinary people. It begins with sinful people, their relationship with God broken and shattered, and ends with people reconciled to God by his love and grace. It begins with death being a certainty and ends with eternal life being an opportunity. It begins with people getting religion all wrong and ends with people living a new kind of life focused on Jesus. It is true, but that does not mean you need to fear becoming someone you don’t like. You become a better version of yourself as you become more like Christ. It is all good news! The Christmas story is not just a good story, and a true story, it is also good news. 

Many people dabble in spirituality; “there is something out there.” Luke has good news based on a true story; there is something out there, in fact, there is Someone out there, and that Someone out there became someone down here. It is a good story, a true story, and is great news!


Clarke Dixon appears here most Thursdays and is the pastor of a church in a town located about an hour east of Toronto, Canada. Click here for his WordPress blog or click here to listen to the message on which this article is based.

December 2, 2019

In The Fullness of Time

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:57 pm
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Today it’s a joy to once again highlight the writing of Stephen and Brooksyne Weber at Daily Encouragement.

Lessons From A Blank Page

ListenListen to this message on your audio player.

“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son” (Galatians 4:4).

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent when we especially give attention to the first advent (coming) of Christ.

There’s a page in each of our Bibles we don’t read and probably have never given any consideration to. It’s the blank page found in many Bibles separating the Old and New Testaments. Now to be sure there may be another reason printers use this blank page and as more and more people read their Bibles on devices the concept of this blank page may not be apparent.

Today let us consider this wordless blank page and what it represents. There was a 400 year period that separated the final record in the Old Testament (Malachi) from the events in the New Testament beginning with Matthew’s Gospel. In secular history this was when Alexander the Great lived during the Greek Empire and the ascent of the Roman Empire. There are also some extra-Biblical records during this period recorded in the Apocrypha.

The blank page represents several things I can think of such as silence, hope and waiting, which we will consider today.

Do you have a hard time waiting? Are delays difficult to deal with causing you stress and anxiety? For most of us the answer is “yes.” God had first promised the Messiah after Adam and Eve’s transgression in the garden. Over the next several millenniums there was a growing body of Messianic promises that the Jewish people were given. But they waited and waited and waited.

At the time of Christ’s birth two elderly Jewish people are mentioned in Luke who had waited for the Messiah’s coming. Simeon had been waiting for the consolation of Israel, and Anna spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

In the daily text the Apostle Paul is reflecting on the events of Christ’s incarnation. He uses an intriguing phrase “But when the fullness of the time came” to describe that wonderful moment in space and time when God acted on our behalf in sending His Son for our redemption. The long wait was over. The faith of devout people like Simeon and Anna and others like them was now reality. God kept His promise.

And God still keeps His promises. He always will. He’ll keep everyone of them. We have the perspective of looking back and seeing the fulfillment of the greatest of God’s promises when “God sent forth His Son”. This occurred after a long wait and not until the fullness of the time came.

We must recognize that it’s the fullness of God’s time, not ours. Many of us are waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled in our lives. The wait is very trying. Many are living with an ongoing burden for spiritually wayward family members, others have a long-standing physical ailment in their lives or in someone they love. And on my heart this morning are so many of our dear brothers and sisters living in very oppressive conditions. And we all wait for that next great cosmic event when Jesus again keeps His last word to us when He declared, “Yes, I am coming soon”.

God has fulfilled the biggest promise. Let us wait with faith and assurance that “in His time” He will also take care of the scores of other matters we all deal with. He is faithful!

In His time, in His time;
He makes all things beautiful in His time.
Lord, please show me every day
As You’re teaching me Your way
That You do just what You say in Your time.

Daily prayer: Father, we know that Your time table is pre-ordained in the events that make an eternal difference in our lives. Thank you that when the fullness of the time came, You sent forth Your Son in the first advent. In this age help us to patiently wait for Your will to be fulfilled in our personal lives, in the lives of our loved ones, and in the world around us. May we be found steadfast, sober, expectant and alert awaiting the day of your second advent, your promised return. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

December 28, 2018

Recurring Fulfillment: A Virgin Shall Conceive

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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Today’s post is new, but first I want to refer back to something we covered in 2012. At the time — as we will also consider today — the question was, “How can a prophecy which was so clearly fulfilled at ‘Point A’ in time, be considered to be one which will be fulfilled at ‘Point B’? Or to put it the other way around, “How can something which is so clearly speaking about something which will be fulfilled at ‘Point B’ be said to have already been fulfilled at ‘Point A’?

At the time I shared this:

I asked an old friend of mine and former seminary student about this, because it happens in the prophetic writings and also in the Psalms. He shared with me how the prophets see across a line of time, with the vision of someone following stones skipping across the water. So we find prophecies having fulfillment at various junctures in history; and while the a text in Luke [21] would seem to have its primary fulfillment in the destruction of the temple, it could also be argued that this is actually a secondary fulfillment because it is a mere foreshadowing of the main events to come.

When you’re in the moment however, things are different. In 2011, we shared this:

Bruxy Cavey is a pastor and author who maintains the prophecy should be read ‘backwards’ to see how God was in control all along, not ‘forward’ to try to predict the future. We can’t read forward. On the other hand, author and pastor Rob Bell teaches that every Jewish girl envisioned the possibility of herself being “the one” who would give birth to the Savior.

That brings us to today’s thoughts, our second visit to the site Discovering the Bible, written by Deborah, a retired doctor now living in Swansea, Wales.

The virgin shall conceive…?

Isaiah 7:1-17 [click here to read the whole passage]

King Ahaz has a problem: enemies are marching on Jerusalem, and he needs help urgently. The prophet Isaiah goes to meet him and declares that God will intervene. God even offers the king a sign of his own choosing, to bolster his faith. But Ahaz refuses – faith plays no part in either his religion or his politics. He has already made up his mind what to do – which is to entrust the fate of his people to the Assyrian empire (II Kings 16:7,8) – and he doesn’t want to be proved wrong.

But God doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer! David’s family cannot treat David’s God in such a cavalier fashion; so instead of being given a clear sign of God’s favour, they will be given an enigmatic one that they cannot understand…

“Therefore the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)

In its immediate context, this prophecy refers to a certain young woman (the Hebrew word literally means ‘young unmarried woman’, but those who translated the Old Testament into Greek chose to use the Greek word for ‘virgin’). She is known to the king (the virgin), and there is no suggestion that her child will not be conceived in the normal way, in due course, when she has a husband. Her son’s name is a statement of faith, echoed in the following chapter: “God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10). So the kingdom of Judah will not fall. In fact, the crisis will be over (because Judah’s enemies will have been crushed by Assyria) before the boy has even had time to grow up (Isaiah 7:15,16).

On the face of it, this prophecy was a straightforward one, fulfilled within a few years of its pronouncement. Why should it have anything to do with Jesus? Certainly the Jews never expected their Messiah to be born of a virgin…

And yet… there is nothing particularly unusual about a young woman having a baby (those of us who work in contraceptive clinics know that it happens all the time)! And after the solemnity of Isaiah’s preamble (“Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights”), this is surely something of an anticlimax! Perhaps this is one reason why the old translators used the word ‘virgin’. It was an interpretation rather than a literal translation; nevertheless, their instinct was sound.

However, it was only after the Messiah was born of a virgin mother that the full significance of this prophecy was realised (Matthew 1:20,21). ‘Immanuel’ turned out to be not a prediction of His name but an accurate description of His nature: Jesus is not a symbol of God’s presence with us, but its reality (John 1:14).

December 24, 2018

Despite the Festivity, Many are Suffering; Many are Broken

This is a shorter excerpt from a longer piece at the site Lake Ridge Student Ministries, which we are featuring here for the first time. Click the title below to read the full article.

Christ Our Comforter at Christmas

During Christmas time we all seem to become even more sensitive to the suffering of others around us. It is a lesson in contrasts. Christmas is a time set aside for joy and gladness, light and spectacle, celebration and community, laughter and gift-giving, peace and goodwill. Yet because of the nature of our world, we quickly see all the ways that the season does not live up to its promise. Instead of gladness we see sorrow, instead of joy we see despair, instead of light, darkness; instead of spectacle, poverty; instead of celebration, mourning; instead of community, division; instead of laughter, tears; instead of gift-giving, selfishness, instead of goodwill, bitterness; instead of peace, suffering.

I think this is one reason why the character of Tiny Tim shines forth so brightly in everyone’s minds when we think of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. He stands in stark contrast to the festive nature of the season. With his wooden crutch and metal braces on his legs, he is a hard reminder that all is not right in the world, that despite the festivity of the season, sin, brokenness, and suffering remain. They do not disappear at the stroke of midnight after Thanksgiving, nor should we act as though they have. In fact, Tiny Tim himself meditates well on the necessity of acknowledging suffering during the Christmas season, telling his father as he carried him home from church, “he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Tiny Tim, like all those who face various challenges in life are more than their disability, but his perspective is instructive. So we will take the time, on his recommendation, not only to acknowledge the presence of suffering during this festive season, but more importantly to see how Jesus uniquely ministers to us in our suffering.

We begin in Hebrews 4:14, 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. (Heb 4:14) Here the author of Hebrews reminds us that since Jesus has now ascended (passed through the heavens) to the very presence of God the Father, we can hold on tight to the confession of faith that he taught us to believe, specifically that by belief and repentance, we have forgiveness of sins and new eternal life in his name. But often Christians struggle in holding fast to the faith exactly because of Jesus’ current position. We know that it is good that Christ is in heaven now before the Father because he is able to act as our High Priest, always interceding on our behalf and pleading our cause (Heb 7:25). But somehow the remoteness is discouraging. We fear that this high and exalted Jesus might be disconnected from us, might see our world, so full of suffering with the indifference that comes from distance. Yet this fear is quickly pushed away.

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. 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. (Heb 4:15-16) Jesus is not a remote heavenly being, utterly detached from our human experience. This is Jesus we are talking about! This is the fully God, fully man, incarnate God. This is the guy who ate with tax collectors and sinners. This is the guy who hung out with fishermen, and preached the gospel among the poor. This is the guy who made the lame walk, the blind see, and raised widow’s sons back to life. This Jesus suffered in agony in the Garden as he submitted himself to the will of his Father even when it meant death on a cross and the weight of the sins of the world. Jesus is thoroughly aware of our sufferings and weaknesses.

Not only is he aware, but he experienced them. He was tempted in the wilderness by the devil to misuse his divine power when he was really hungry, and his belly ached after forty days without food. He was tempted to display his Messianic identity by throwing himself off the temple to be caught by angels. That would certainly silence those nagging Pharisees! Yet he knew that God was not one to be tested, and that the way to show himself to the world would take a different path. He was tempted with power, prestige, and even a chance to gain the whole world without having to go to the cross (Matt 4:8). If anyone knows anything about being truly tempted, it is Jesus…

…[The book of Hebrews] continues, In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb 5:7-10)

When you see “made perfect” think “brought to completion”. Jesus had to go through what he did in order to be for us what he is. Jesus went through his suffering so that he might save us from our suffering. He experienced the consequences of our sinfulness so that we might not experience them. Jesus became a human being for the purpose of suffering, so that he could walk alongside us in our own suffering, and one day deliver us from it forever. Because the good news is when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death”, “he was heard”. His grave was borrowed, he needed it only for a little while. Since Christ has experienced our suffering, he is able to offer us the grace and strength we need in the midst of it, and the hope we need for the day our suffering will be brought to an end.

Starting in verse three of 2 Corinthians 1, Paul gives us a way to understand what Christ does for us as our High Priest, and how we should respond.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)

click here to read the entire article

 

 

December 22, 2018

Christmas: The Birth Story is a Death Story

Today’s thoughts are from a writer who is new to us. (Thanks for those of you who send recommendations.) Michael James Schwab has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico since March, 2005; “cooperating with God” at a home for needy children called Cristo Por Su Mundo (Christ for the World) operated by Foundation For His Ministry.  He blogs at ToEnjoyGod.com.

December 20, 2018

Baby Jesus and the Surprising Visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to “Offering” by Paul Baloche:

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

December 16, 2018

Mary’s Burst of Worship

by Ruth Wilkinson

Magnificat. It’s a wonderful Christmas word.

I must confess, though, that when I hear it what springs to mind is an image of a feline superhero. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…. MagnifiCat!”

But that’s not what it means. Magnificat is simply the first word of the Latin translation of the passage we’re looking at today. And it just means, “I magnify.”

It’s a big, flashing arrow pointing at something. It means, “Pay attention! This is important!

It’s a magnifying glass held up to a fingerprint, allowing us to see all of the detail we’d otherwise miss. It’s a big, fat, stinky magic marker writing out a message, so it can be seen from a distance. It’s a melody played on a great, honking tuba, so you can’t possibly miss it.

I magnify!

When Mary, Jesus’ mother, realized what was happening — what she was in the middle of; what she had become instrumental to — Luke records that she burst out in what is essentially a mash-up of Old Testament verses and phrases that she had memorized; verses from the books of Psalms, Job, 1 Samuel, Genesis, Deuteronomy, Isaiah… Poetry and prophecy. Truths that she’d been steeped in all her life and which suddenly, joyously, tumbled out in a hymn of praise to the God who had set her on an unprecedented path.

And in this moment of irrepressible, inexpressible joy, she not only magnified God, she magnified something in particular about him. Something that was profoundly, thrillingly relevant.

As we read together these, her words, pay attention to what it is about her God that she magnifies.

Look for the details. Read the message. Listen for the melody.

And rejoice!

“My soul shouts the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit sings the joy I’ve found in God my Saviour.

Because He has looked on ordinary me
and now I, His servant, will be known in every generation
as happy and blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and His very name is unlike any other name.

For those who stand in awe of Him,
His mercy flows from
generation to generation,
wave after wave.

He has shown the strength of His arm against those with prideful hearts,
as He scatters them,
as He topples the powerful from their thrones.

He lifts up the lowly and the humble.
He has filled and satisfied the hungry with good things.
The rich He has sent away empty and empty handed.

He has helped His chosen, Israel,
keeping His kindness in mind.

And faithfully remembering His promises,
from day one, through Abraham,
and to eternity.”

Luke 1:46‭-‬55

 

December 13, 2018

Is the Story of Christmas Believable?

by Clarke Dixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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