Christianity 201

February 1, 2019

Never Say “The Bible Doesn’t Talk About Politics”

This is our second time featuring the writing of Craig Greenfield, founder and director of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice and Mercy in a Broken World.

Yes the Bible talks about politics. All the time.

You’ve heard it.  I’ve heard it.

We’ve all heard it.

“Jesus was never political. He was only interested in saving souls and building his church.”

The problem is, the Bible is a very political book. And the scriptures have a LOT to say about how we should organize ourselves as a society.

Remember all that stuff about orphans, widows and foreigners that Jesus emphasized? That’s deeply political. Because we vote for people who make decisions about the poor, on our behalf. That’s what our love looks like in public.

Now Jesus was no Republican. Nor was he a Democrat. And he wasn’t a capitalist OR a socialist.

As Jim Wallis says, “The right doesn’t get it. And the left gets it wrong.”

The way of Jesus is the Third Way.

And this Jesus-way of bringing his Kingdom, ON EARTH as it is in heaven – has a lot of political implications.

Look at the context. Almost the entire Bible is written by people living in the shadow of one political Empire or another. The first readers of our scriptures were slaves and fugitives, fishermen and fools. They were the oppressed of Egypt, the exiled in Babylon, and the peasants under Roman occupation.

And so, it made perfect sense that Jesus would choose to come as one of those underdogs of a political Empire—a vulnerable child with nowhere to go, his parents shuffled about by the Roman demand for a census.

But here’s what we miss about Jesus’ birth. There are really only two goals in carrying out a major census – the kind that framed his entry into the world. Just two reasons to go to all that extra expense and bureaucratic hassle to count every single head in the entire Roman world (Lk 2:1).

The first reason is to determine the number of people who can pay taxes.

And the second, is to figure out the number of men who can fight in an army.

Tax and War.  Money and Power. Politics.

In other words, the birth of Christ took place in the shadow of the twin pillars of a typical political Empire: economic power and military might.

Isn’t it interesting then, that when Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist is asked what it means to repent, he directly addresses the representatives of those two pillars of Empire by calling on the tax collectors (representing economic power) and the soldiers (representing military might) to act with justice (Lk 3:12-14).

Then, Jesus comes along preaching a radical alternative to this type of Empire. Something he called the Kingdom of God (or as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven).

Jesus’ subversive Upside-Down Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the way we like to do politics. It’s something that will come on earth as it is in heaven.

Whereas Empire comes on a white military horse wielding weapons of shock and awe, the Upside-Down Kingdom comes on a donkey’s back and says love your enemy, even if he crucifies you. That’s a deeply political stance.

Whereas Empire consolidates power and says let’s make our nation great, the Upside-Down Kingdom kneels with a towel and washes feet, saying I come to serve – even those of other tribes. That’s a deeply political stance.

Whereas Empire honors the influential and celebrates the celebrity, the Upside-Down Kingdom welcomes little refugee children and gives food to the hungry. That’s a deeply political stance.

Whereas Empire is about power and status and tax breaks for the rich, the Upside-Down Kingdom is led by a handful of unemployed fishermen, rejected bureaucrats, a prostitute and some failed revolutionaries. That’s a deeply political stance.

Whereas Empire is a rat race to the top, the Upside-Down Kingdom says the last should be first, losers are winners, and the most important among us will do the dishes. That’s a deeply political stance.

Such a radical alternative to the Empire could only lead to one outcome – the leader being silenced and murdered by the State. And that’s exactly what happened.

The fake divide between our personal morality and political morality is a lie. We vote for the kind of society Jesus wants – or we don’t.

The Bible is deeply concerned about how a nation treats its poor, which is a political issue (though you might argue about how a government can do this most effectively).

The nation of Israel was punished for its disobedience in this regard:

“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50)

Here’s the problem. Many of us live lives that are comfortable enough to be untouched by politics.

We’re not affected by refugee quotas, or welfare systems, or how much money is put into inner city schools.

We can do what we want, go where we want, and educate our kids in whatever damn school we want.

We can wash our hands of politics, and turn away from our poor neighbors. We can insulate ourselves from the needs of the world and make our faith a private, individual affair..

And our hyper-personalized theology reflects that privilege.

But instead, I’d like to invite you to consider a different path. I invite you to walk amongst the poor… Read Mary’s Song (Lk 1:46-55)… Visit a refugee holding center… Stay overnight in a slum… Find some way, somehow, to overlap with those on the margins.

And then tell me government policies don’t matter for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner – and that Jesus doesn’t care about all that.

Cos our faith is always personal, but never private.

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 27, 2018

Herod and a Ruined Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

December 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 3, 2017

Sunday Worship

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:30 pm
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This Sunday morning, being the season of Advent, many churches may have looked at the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that goes by the title, The Magnificat. That name is based on the first word of the text in Latin, and three other prayers or exultations with regard to the birth of Christ have names based on the first word in Latin. The passage in Luke 1 begins:

Magnificat anima mea Dominum;
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,

This announcement is also sometimes referred to as the annunciation, again based on a Latin word annuntiatio.
The full text in English reads:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”

The text contains allusions to at least a dozen Old Testament scriptures with which Mary would have been familiar. (Some set the number much higher.) Mary is conscious of the implications of the role to which she has been called, saying “Many will call me blessed.” But there is no arrogance in this. Rather it is preceded by a statement of great humility:

  • He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave (HCSB)
  • he has shown his concern for his humble servant girl (New Century Version)
  • he hath beheld the meekness of his handmaiden (Wycliffe)
  • he took notice of his lowly servant girl (New Living Translation)

Similarly, later verses have given rise to this being called a “song of reversals.” A new order is about to take place; a new paradigm is about to be introduced.

Some additional resources:

Here is a somewhat recent version of the prayer set to music by Keith and Kristyn Getty.

Second, the following resource was posted, with permission at the source linked, but the link in the introduction itself is no longer working. We felt this work was worthy of further exposure.

The Magnificat: A Prayer

Here’s a prayer based on Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55). It was written by Janet Morley, and posted on the Canadian Foodgrains Bank website.

The Magnificat: A Prayer

(based on Luke 1: 47-55)

O God, whose word is fruitless
when the mighty are not put down,
the humble remain humiliated,
the hungry are not filled,
and the rich are;
make good your word,
and begin with us.

Open our hearts and unblock our ears
to hear the voices of the poor
and share their struggle;
and send us away empty with longing
for your promise to come true
in Jesus Christ.
Amen.

—Janet Morley, in Tell Out My Soul, Christian Aid, 1990. Reprinted by permission.
From Bread of Tomorrow: Prayer for the Church Year, ed. Janet Morley
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992, p. 151.

Go Deeper: We looked at The Magnificat in much greater detail in 2013 at this article.

January 6, 2016

Blustery Winds and the Prevailing Will of God

•••by Clarke Dixon

To read this at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon, click this link.

Only twice in my life have I capsized a sailboat. The second time my future wife was onboard, until the boat ended upside down by which time no one was onboard. Long story, but it wasn’t even windy that day. The first capsize, however, was the result of a very unpredictable wind and my failure to see a major gust until it was too late. In sailing sometimes the breeze can be nice and steady, on other days it can be very shifty. Life may feel like that for us. Things may seem nice and steady one day, wild and unpredictable the next. We may even feel we are under the threat of a capsize.

An old expression goes, “It’s an ill wind blows no one any good.” There was an ill wind blowing hard on the heals of Christmas. The Magi had come to worship the newly born king of the Jews and so made inquiries to king Herod. This Herod had no right to be the current “king of the Jews” apart from the fact Rome said he could. This Herod was also in the habit of murdering anyone who threatened his power, and by anyone we include even infants:

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matthew 2:16-18)

Herod’s was not the only ill in the ill wind that blew in those days. Satan himself was in on the attempt to destroy Jesus:

Then another portent appeared in heaven:a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (Revelation 12:3-5)

Despite the ill and blustery winds that blew in those days we see the hand of God involved in keeping the child safe. As we read Matthew 2 we find that God used dreams four times to warn and direct, ensuring the safety of the child. Despite the ill and blustery winds, this ship would keep sailing in the course God had chosen.

However, Satan’s ill winds would keep blowing in continued attempts to blow Jesus off course. There was the temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry which we can read about in Matthew 4. The promise of kingdoms and power in exchange for devil worship was an attempt to steer Jesus away from the journey to the cross. Likewise, we hear of another attempt when Peter declares that Jesus must not die.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. (Matthew 16:21-23)

And finally in the Garden of Gethsemane, though we are not told that Satan was present, we do know the same temptation to steer clear of the cross was:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. (Matthew 26:39)

As Jesus prays in the Garden we might wonder if the prayers he taught his disciples were reflected in his own prayers in those moments: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” which is easier prayed than done when the doing requires a cross. “And lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one,” which would require Jesus suffering the worst that evil could deliver, so that God’s people could be delivered from evil. Ironically, when the ill winds of Satan blew in the direction of Jesus, they were an attempt to kill him as a child but to keep him from being killed as a man. God the Father protects Jesus from death in Matthew 2, but the cross looms in the future. The rescue of this one baby was to ensure the rescue of all God’s children. His will was, and is, being done.

These are things we can keep in mind when the ill winds are blowing hard and blustery in our own lives, when they seem so unpredictable we feel a capsize might be imminent. Whatever the winds are, the will of our Lord is the prevailing will. His will is steady and predictable. Whatever gusts threaten us for the moment, keep on the course the Lord has set. The good sailor adapts to the winds moment by moment, trimming the sails, planning an unexpected tack to keep course for the chosen destination. Just as Joseph and Mary adapted to the changing conditions, becoming refugees in Egypt for a time, so too we adapt to the ill winds even as we look to God for protection, direction, and for his prevailing will to be done. Though sometimes the winds are wild, we could not ask for a better journey. Or a better destination.

December 17, 2014

Amid the Bad News, There is Good News for All People

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I really appreciate Clarke Dixon’s weekly contribution here at C201. To read this at source (and find a puppet script that goes with it) click the title below.

Finding Joy

Where do people find joy in our society? Often through fun, entertainment, and pleasurable experiences. Which would you like first, the good news or the bad news?

Let me begin with the bad news: Whatever fun you are having, whatever pleasure you are experiencing, it will come to an end. Experience teaches us this. I love to watch the snow fall, the bigger the flakes, the more blustery the conditions, the better. Clearing it afterward, not so much. Think of any fun or pleasurable experience you have ever had. It always comes to an end. If we pursue joy through pursuing fun and pleasure, joy will always fade or be replaced by the not so fun and not pleasurable. As the Bible teaches: “Whoever loves pleasure will suffer want” (Proverbs 21:17 NRSV).

Now for the good news:

10 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:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV)

The angel described his good news as being “of great joy.” I am reminded of good news of great joy when I announced the birth of each of my boys to friends and family. It is not just a happy moment, it is a permanent change in circumstances. I am now a Dad no matter what happens. In Christ we are given the possibility of being sons and daughters of the King of kings, Lord of lords – no matter what happens. The child of God will not always be happy, but there is a joy in knowing you are a loved, forgiven, reconciled child of God. That fact is permanent. That joy is known even when happiness is not felt.

More bad news: Whatever fun you are having, whatever pleasure you are experiencing, it may distract you from what is really great. I had quite a bit of fun playing on an Atari 2600 as a young lad. But if I could go back, I would play fewer games and read more books. How did I miss so many great reads? Jesus confirms that the seeking of pleasure can distract us from what is truly great:

There is good news:

10 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:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV)

While pursuing pleasure and fun can distract us from what it truly great in life, we take delight in the the good news of Jesus Christ for it leads us deeper and closer to what is truly great in life. Justice is good. Jesus leads us there. Honesty is good. Jesus leads us there. Compassion is good. Jesus teaches us that. Forgiveness and reconciliation is good. Jesus brings it and enables us to do it. And on and on we could go through a list of truly great things that the good news of Jesus Christ leads us to. No wonder the angel said the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy.

More bad news: Whatever fun you are having, whatever pleasure you are experiencing, it may not end well. Again we know this from experience. How many people have sought happiness through sex and ended up making themselves, and others, miserable. How many people have bought something that will make them happy, only digging themselves deeper into debt and stress and therefore misery.

There is good news:

10 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:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV)

There is joy in the good news of Jesus Christ because in Christ things will end well. The book of Revelation is a great place to go and see this. The angel announces the birth of the Savior. That is good news of great joy!

Not only is there assurance that things will end well, there is also the distinct possibility that things can go well when we pay attention to the teachings of Jesus, the prompting of the Spirit, and the wisdom of the Word of God. Though being no guarantee that life will be easy, paying attention to God’s will and way will have a very positive impact on our relationships, our work, and indeed all of life. The angel announces the birth of the Lord, the Shepherd who leads. That is good news of great joy.

And some more bad news: Whatever fun you are having, whatever pleasure you are experiencing, it is exclusive, even elusive. Have you been to Disney-world? Congratulations, the majority of the children have not gone and cannot go. Do you like to watch tv? Congratulations, you have a privilege that is unavailable for many. I may be grumpy that my motorcycle trades places with my snowblower, but how many people have the opportunity to enjoy motorcycling as much as I do? Or how many people enjoy the use of a snowblower to deal with the snow?

But there is good news:

10 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:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV)

While a select few will ever have the pleasure of piloting an airplane, skiing the Swiss alps, or sailing the oceans, the good news of Jesus Christ is good news for all. Anyone can come to salvation through Jesus, no matter your race, your abilities, your past behavior, or anything else that you may think defines you. Anyone can know this joy. I hope you do.

Now take a look around. You will see people pursuing joy through fun, entertainment, and pleasurable experiences. Joy found through such will come to an end, may distract from what is truly great, and may not end well. Just as the angels announced to the shepherds, and just as the shepherds announced to others, we have good news of great joy to share this Christmas.

~Clarke Dixon


I don’t usually think of this as a Christmas piece, but as I was preparing Clarke’s notes today, it occurred to me that it would go well in a medley with Joy to the World.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything other than a brief audio excerpt. The song is Rejoice, Rejoice, Christ is in You by Graham Kendrick.  There is also this cover version:

 

December 15, 2012

An Unlikely Event in an Unlikely Town Remembered for an Unlikely King

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:53 pm
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From Allen White at the blog Galatians419, this article, Getting What You Deserve

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Micah 5:2 (NIV) 

God delights in the obscure and the humble. Bethlehem wasn’t the big city. In fact, for Joseph and his family, Bethlehem was a good place to be from. The town was important for Joseph’s ancestral heritage. But, that’s about where Bethlehem’s importance ended for them.

Lowly Bethlehem was much like its most famous resident: King David (Luke 2:4). When Samuel, the prophet, approached Jesse’s family to anoint the new king of Israel, Jesse lined up all of his sons. Well, almost all of them. Jesse presented the top seven of his sons anyway, but “Samuel said to him, ‘The LORD has not chosen these.’” (1 Samuel 16:10).

“So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’

“‘There is still the youngest, Jesse answered, “but he is tending the sheep’” (1 Samuel 16:11).

David wasn’t his father’s choice for king. In fact, David wasn’t even considered a possibility in his father’s mind. David was tending the sheep. Yet, this humble shepherd became the king of Israel and the great, great, great, great…grandfather of the King of kings.

Jesus was born in humble circumstances. Not only was his birthplace in a small town, he was born in a stable in a small town. Jesus was born into a working class family that didn’t have a lot of money. We don’t even know that Jesus received a formal education. From a worldly point of view, Jesus really wasn’t set up for success. These were humble circumstances for the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

God’s power doesn’t need a “leg up” from our social standing, education, wealth or pride. In fact, God’s power is clearly demonstrated in weakness, not in high stature. When we see God use a person who we might not expect Him to use, then we can see God’s hand very clearly. When we humbly submit ourselves to Him, and He allows opportunities or gives insights into situations we wouldn’t have on our own, we know that God is working in us.

How is your heart inclined today? Are you working hard to promote yourself or to humble yourself? A clear indicator is what you feel that you deserve right now. The less deserving we feel, the more humble we are becoming.

December 28, 2011

Poetry Corner

Different people I know react to poetry in diverse ways. The Bible has five books which we call “the wisdom literature” which are poetic, though each in various ways. However, the song lyrics and poetic forms are found throughout both major and minor prophets, as well as in the historical books.

In the gospels we have the four examples of song associated with the birth of Jesus, with the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel being the best known.  And we have Paul’s Philippians passage beginning, “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus…” which many believe had become a hymn of the early church.

Modern Bibles indent poetic sections or typeset them in verse form so that we recognize the change in form, though they do not all agree as to which sections deserve this treatment. Many contemporary writers wish to place Genesis 1 as poetry, while others cringe at what they feel is taking the passage down the road to a more liberal interpretation of the creation story.

How do you react to the poetic passages?  Or contemporary verse?  If you have an ‘artsy’ temperament you probably relate better than those not so inclined.  Either way, poetry can’t be absorbed with speed reading. It requires you to slow down and adopt a more meditative posture; I would argue it also requires more than a single reading.

Today we have two post-season reflections on the incarnation.  The first by Thomas Watson comes by way of Ann Voskamp by way of David Fisher:

”He was poor, that he might make us rich.
He was born of a virgin that we might be born of God.
He took our flesh, that he might give us His Spirit.
He lay in the manger, that we may lie in paradise.
He came down from heaven, that he might bring us to heaven…
that the ancient of days should be born.
that he who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle….
that he who rules the stars should suck the breast;
that a virgin should conceive;
that Christ should be made of a woman, and of that woman which himself made,
that the branch should bear the vine,
that the mother should be younger than the child she bare,
and the child in the womb bigger than the mother;
that the human nature should not be God, yet one with God

Christ taking flesh is a mystery we shall never fully understand till we come to heaven
If our hearts be not rocks, this love of Christ should affect us .
Behold love that passeth knowledge!”
~Thomas Watson

The second is uncredited from Daniel Jepsen’s blog, and is perhaps his own work.

I have sometimes wondered, dear Christ
Which was the greater sacrifice
Was it the tomb or the womb?

Dark death held you inside
Three days, and nights beside
Imprisoned in the world you had framed

But nine months did You face
There in Mary’s dark place
Growing in the woman you had made

Did You know even then
You were the Savior of men
Or were your thoughts in darkness as well?

And as Your mind came to life
Could you sense of the strife
You would endure on Calvary’s Hill?

I have sometimes wondered, dear Christ
Which was the greater sacrifice
Was it the tomb or the womb?

December 19, 2011

You Can’t Dissect a Miracle

Today’s post is from David Kenney where it appeared today at his blog under the title The Mechanics of a Miracle.

“Just ’cause you understand the mechanics of how something works, doesn’t make it any less of a miracle…”

That was said by a man named Bill Compton. Bill is a civil war veteran, he’s fictional… and he’s a vampire. Yes, he’s actually a character on HBO’s True Blood (no, I have never watched the show, but I heard the quote today and liked it.)

But that quote above made me think a little more about the virgin birth. That’s what we should all be thinking about this week, right?

Matthew 1:18 (CEB) says,

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

Now, if you want to get “hung up” on the etymology of the virgin birth, go right ahead, but the bible says that Mary became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s a miracle, right?

A woman who had never had sex… became pregnant just through the power of God.

And the sad thing is, us theologians who claim to understand the “mechanics” of scripture, we “break it all down” into digestible chunks. The bible becomes a system of words and things we “understand.” And from those understandings we develop “doctrine.”

So here is my question…

Do you really want to turn the virgin birth into doctrine? Do you really want to turn the miracle of Christmas into mechanics?

In Luke 1:34 (CEB) Mary asks the angel about the mechanics…

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

and what does the Angel tell her in verse 35?

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”

Does that explanation help? How did it happen?

Answer: it was a miracle.

Think about it this way, whenever a human being is born, someone “new” is created; and we call that a miracle. But when Jesus was born, that baby wasn’t new… but was the oldest living being. A being who had already previously existed before, was born.

And we think we can “fathom” or “understand” the mechanics of that miracle?

The virgin birth is also confirmed by the testimony of Jesus.

John 10:27-30 (CEB)

“My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Jesus gives testimony that he and God are equals. At this the teachers of his day pick up rocks to stone him. Jesus says, I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of those works do you stone me?”

The Jewish opposition answered, “We don’t stone you for a good work but for insulting God. You are human yet you make yourself out to be God.”

Ironically there are many today who wish to make Jesus a “human” again.

Jesus replies, “So how can you say that the one whom the Father has made holy and sent into the world insults God because he said, I am God’s Son?”

Jesus never said he was Joseph’s or Mary’s son. He never called himself a carpenter. No, when Jesus talked about himself, he said his home was in heaven and his Father was the author of the scriptures.

How can you or I claim to understand the mechanics of that? Even the people of Jesus’ day who knew him, lived side by side with him didn’t understand it, his own family didn’t even understand it (Mark 3:21) so how can we say that we do?

We’ve heard the Christmas story a million times, told a million ways from a million pastors – so I am sure the miracle can lose it’s luster, but let’s try to keep it in perspective….

When Jesus slept out under the stars on Christmas morning, he was looking up at a night sky that He made.

The one who calls himself the “ancient of days” was only hours old.

Let us not forget the miracle of Christmas!

* scripture taken from The Common English Bible

~David Kenney

December 11, 2011

Advent: A Time for Waiting

This morning our pastor read a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison in which he compares the time of waiting for the coming of the Messiah to being in prison and awaiting release.  There are actually two relevant quotations available online, and I want to share both of them:

“A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent: one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

—Lutheran theologian and anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers From Prison (1997) as quoted in the blog, A Boat Against The Current.

and

“Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent—that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door…” We however call to him: “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!”  “

   –Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), A Testament to Freedom: the essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelly, F. Burton Nelson, eds., HarperCollins, 1995, p. 186 as quoted in Christian Quotation of the Day.

While exploring however, I found an interesting sermon manuscript in the blog of First Presbyterian Church in Lodi, Wisconsin about how at least one denomination is changing its approach to the observance of Advent…

I know that if a lot of you had your way, we would be singing Christmas carols in worship by now.  That’s the way it used to be.  The carols would start with the first Sunday in Advent so that most of the popular ones had been sung by Christmas Day and we could then move on to the new year and think about something else.  Singing Christmas carols during Advent helped put us “in the mood” for Christmas and all of its trappings – most of which were unrelated to the real meaning of Christmas in the first place.  And I noted this week as I crammed in a little Christmas shopping that in at least half of the stores I entered, the background music wasn’t Christmasy at all.  By the music, you wouldn’t know Christmas was around the corner even though the decorations around you would tell you differently.  My guess is that there are those store managers and owners who have decided to set aside playing Christmas tunes this time of year in order that they would not offend anyone’s sensibilities.  Most of the music played in commercial places is of a secular nature anyway, with little if any allusion to the coming of Christ.

But somewhere in the last 50 years or so, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Lutherans began to take a second look at what the time of Advent means and what kind of music is appropriate for it.  The Roman Catholics have always held to the strong sense of Advent – a time of waiting for the Christ to come.  So, I suppose, in some sense, the so-called main-line churches have given a nod to the Roman Catholic Church, acknowledging that in this instance, they are right to take the position they have.  Advent is a time for waiting, for anticipating with hope the peace, joy and love that will prevail with the coming of the Christ.  Advent is also a double entendre – has  a double meaning:  we anticipate Christmas because we know the Christ child was born 2000 years ago; but we also anticipate during Advent the coming of the Christ for a second time.  And so we wait.  We hold off on our Christmas carols during Advent and we sing songs that reflect our anticipation of that coming.  And to satisfy those of you who prefer the familiar carols, we provide Advent lyrics to the favorite and familiar Christmas tunes.

But we wait.  And often we are impatient about it…

This is about the first one-third of the sermon transcript. I invite you to experience the rest of what the writer has to say.

November 24, 2011

Mary’s Song

The following is from a new edition of a book by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Magnify The Lord, which is based entirely on Luke 1:46-55.  This arrives just in time for Christmas and Advent meditations.

…Why is Mary magnifying the Lord?  Why does her spirit exult in God her Savior? She really surprises us with the answer.  It is not primarily because of what has happened to her.  She does not mention that: it comes in but that is merely an incident in her hymn of praise.  So what is the cause of her adoration, of her praise?  It is because God himself is who and what he is, and because of what he is doing with respect to the world.

Mary’s eye, in other words, is not upon herself. You see how certain parts of the Church have so abused and made an utter travesty of this. Mary is full of humility. She refers to herself as what she is — ‘the low estate of thine handmaiden.’ There is nothing here about the ‘mother of God’ and about ‘the queen of heaven.’ Mary is not thinking about herself. Mary has seen something that makes her forget about herself and this is the ultimate test of a true understanding of what happened when God in the fullness of times ‘sent forth his Son made of a woman, made under the law’ (Gal. 4:4).

Mary is rejoicing not so much in the fact that she is to be given this great privilege, she has been reminded by Elizabeth of what this is and of how people are going to caller her blessed, and she repeats that, ‘from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.’

But that is not the thing that really moves her. It is what God is doing: this historic event, this climactic action of God himself.  She is humbled and grateful at the thought of the fact that she is to be given a part and a place in this, but it is the thing itself that moves her and makes her sing and worship.

She is filled with a sense of amazement, of worship, adoration, and utter astonishment. She sees the inner meaning of the action. She has a glimpse and a glimmering of understanding of the whole purpose of salvation, what God is doing in bringing forth his Son into the world, even out of her womb.

Now that is the secret of this song. And it is also the secret of the whole Christian position.  What is it that leads to worship and to praise, to exultation, to adoration? And the answer is that it is always the understanding.

The only singing that is of any value in the sight of God is that which is based upon the understanding, the understanding of the truth…

Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Magnify the Lord, pp. 19-20

December 19, 2010

The Servant King by Graham Kendrick

This morning while we were singing “Joy to the World,” I was reminded again that only the first verse is, strictly speaking, Christmas-oriented.  The other three commonly sung verses would fit better at Easter.

Which brings us to a similar situation with “The Servant King.”   Although I just posted another Graham Kendrick song a few weeks ago,  I always associate this associate this song with Christmas, even though it speaks more of Christ’s death and resurrection.     (Another song, which also begins incarnationally is “Here I Am To Worship,” which works well at this time of year.)

This song originates in the UK, and is well-known to Canadians, but probably many of my American readers are not familiar with it.     The lyrics appear onscreen.

Phil 2:5 (NIV)In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

(Some similar writing to “The Servant King”  can be found in Kendrick’s Meekness and Majesty, another song known well in England and Canada, but not so much in the U.S.  We’ll post that one here in a few days.)