Christianity 201

December 25, 2017

The Gift of Peace

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

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

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

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

On a day where we focus on the beginning of the account of Christ incarnate, we tend not to focus on the end of the story. In my early 20s, I had a poster in my room with these words,

The Father gave authority to the Son to send the Holy Spirit, with the results you are now seeing.

This a paraphrase of Acts 2:33.

At the very, very end; when atonement had been purchased and death had been conquered, we see Jesus in his final moments with his disciples in John 20:21 and 22 and there again is a reference to peace.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

For many of us this has not been a peaceful year. Many of you would echo the words of the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

For you and for me I would wish the words of the song that follows.

Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray,
In fathomless billows of love.

December 21, 2017

The Rescuer Has Come! Don’t Be Surprised By Weeds

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

Some people can’t wait for Christmas to come. Others can wait for it to be over. Unfortunately there are many in the world who are waiting for something much deeper. Many are waiting for something good to happen. Many are waiting for something bad to stop happening. Many are waiting for a rescue. Having recently watched the latest Star Wars movie I couldn’t help but wonder if its release was timed for Advent. The theme of waiting for a rescue during a time of struggle is key to the season of Advent, and is also the theme of Isaiah 61:

1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Isaiah 61:1-3

While the news is good, the situation leading up to announcement has not been. The words describing the desperation of God’s people pile up; “oppressed . . . brokenhearted . . . captives . . . prisoners . . . mourning . . . faint spirit.” Perhaps some of these describe how you might feel sometimes. Further,

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61:4

“Ruins” and “devastations”. Perhaps there are moments that it feels like your life, health, finances, or relationships are in ruins. Or that your experiences have been devastating. Like God’s people in the prophecy, significant changes are needed. You need a rescue.

Good news does come. And the coming of Jesus into the world is good news indeed. In the first teaching of Jesus that Luke focused on, Jesus read the words quoted above from Isaiah 61:1. What happens next is significant:

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:20-21

God’s people were waiting for the Messiah, and here is Jesus saying “your wait is over, Here I am!” Good news indeed, and as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would teach us, this is not just good news regarding the relationship between God’s people and the Romans, but good news regarding the relationship between all peoples and God. This was not just release from captivity to a stronger nation, but release from something darker and more sinister, release from the captivity of sin itself. The waiting of Advent is over, the good news has been announced. The Messiah has come! This is a large part of what we are celebrating at Christmas. The Rescuer has been born!

However, when we come down from all our Christmas celebrations, life goes on, and we still find ourselves waiting. Waiting for bad things to stop happening, and good things to start happening. If Jesus came to rescue us, then why do we find ourselves in the same boat as God’s people waiting for a rescue? Part of the answer lay in the fact that while the Rescuer has come, the rescue itself is still underway. Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was younger I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong. Now Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming unless you go for a swim in the middle where it is not so weedy. So I would sometimes drop the sails, throw out the anchor and go for a swim in the middle of the lake. On one particular day I took a young lady sailing (no, not the young lady who would become my wife – that is another story!). Being a very gentle breeze we decided to go for a swim. Time was getting on and so I got back into the boat. My friend didn’t. She couldn’t. She tried, and I tried to help, but to no avail. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What to do? Being the hero of this story I knew what to do. I threw a line out the back of the boat and I towed her in. Now you remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I was telling you about? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds.

What has this to do with our rescue? God’s people in waiting for the Messiah, were like people stuck in the middle of the lake with the promise of a rescue. Advent is about waiting for the Rescuer. We live in a moment of time where the Rescuer has come. Jesus’ hand is stretched out to us. Don’t hesitate to take hold of his hand, for He will grasp your arm and not let go. However, we are still in the water so don’t be surprised by the weeds. The rescue is underway, we will get to the shore, but there are still weeds. Peter has a word of encouragement for us when we get to the weeds:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:3-9

While some people can’t wait for Christmas and others can’t wait for it to be over, the Christian is waiting for Jesus. But we don’t just wait, we make progress, we point others to the outreached hand of the Rescuer, we encourage those who are feeling overwhelmed by the weeds. The rescue has come, but don’t be surprised by the weeds. May you have a Merry Christmas, and a hope filled Advent no matter how weedy life gets.

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Read more at ClarkeDixon.WordPress.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.

December 25, 2016

Rejoice, O World! Rejoice! A Savior Has Been Born!

by Russell Young

Today is Christmas! It is a celebration of the revelation of God’s grace and mercy to humankind. For millennia the human condition had been one that had brought grief to the Creator through the rebellion and intransigent hearts (Gen 6:6) of those whom he had created for his good pleasure and purpose. The mandate of the One born as a baby was to rescue or redeem the world from its depravity so that it might please God once again. It was and is the Creator’s desire to fellowship with those who had been formed in his image. For this purpose, the babe in the manger was born, lived his life and died among us.

John wrote: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it through him.” (Jn 3:16─17 NIV) He did not come to condemn the world to destruction but to rescue it and it not just humankind that was his mandate, it was the world—all that had been created. The Lord came to complete God’s creation so that it would accomplish their (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) purposes. He came to “save” it.

The world had become a place worthy only of destruction; it was not worth preserving given its state of evil. The minds of people had allowed them sovereignty over the world’s affairs. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work,” (1 Jn 3:8 NIV) which includes recognition of the sovereignty of the One who created all that is.

Part of the Lord’s ministry was to make people “acceptable” to God once again (Rom 15:16) and all creation is waiting expectantly for that to happen. (Rom 8:19–22) When the ministry of Jesus is completed there will be no more wars or hostility and he will reign in peace. It is in the hope of the restoration of God’s kingdom and our place in it that we rejoice.

Isaiah has presented his victory and the hope available to all of those “in him” upon his return as king.

“The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and power,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
And he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
Or decide by what he hears with his ears;
But with righteousness he will judge the needy,
With justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
The leopard will lie down with the goat,
The calf and the lion and the yearling together;
And a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together;
and the lion will eat straw like an ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child will put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

(Isaiah 11:2─9 NIV)

Rejoice and celebrate the hope, love, and promises provided through the One whose birth is honoured today, the One who has been provided for the salvation of man and of God’s creation, the One who has been faithful to the Father and to his promises. In the child whose birth is celebrated today rests the hope of humankind and of all creation.


eternal-salvation-russell-youngCheck out Russell Young’s book now in print and eBook — Eternal Salvation: “I’m Okay! You’re Okay!” Really? available through Westbow Publishing, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble; and in Canada through Chapters/Indigo.  9781512757514 $17.99 US

December 24, 2016

Jesus Was No Stranger to Our World

CEV John1:1 In the beginning was the one
    who is called the Word.
The Word was with God
    and was truly God.
From the very beginning
    the Word was with God.

And with this Word,
    God created all things.
Nothing was made
    without the Word.
Everything that was created
    received its life from him,
and his life gave light
    to everyone.

ESV Col 1:16 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

The incarnation of God the son; the one whom Mary is told to name Jesus; the one whom we call the Christ, the anointed one; this is not the first time that his world intersects with ours. One songwriter re-framed John 1:1 as, “Before the world was created there was Christ with God.”

Rather, this represents the first time he inhabits a human body. John 1 tells us,

NLT John 1:14a So the Word became human and made his home among us.

Paul writes,

Phillips Philippians 2:6-7a For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself.

christophanies-article

But earlier, we have examples which theologians and scholars call Christophanies, where what the writers termed “…an angel of the Lord appeared…” actually represents a visitation of the pre-incarnate Christ. Remember, since these are Old Testament narratives, the writers of those accounts had no context in which to frame what they were seeing in those terms. In a world where surrounding nations had many gods, our Trinitarian concept of the Godhead would have been confusing or even counter-productive to the idea that God is one. (However, it should be noted that they had an understanding of the Spirit, but not the same as a New Testament believer would frame it.)

If you look the word up on Wikipedia you will read this:

A Christophany is an appearance or non-physical manifestation of Christ.

So far so good, but then it emphasizes post-ascension appearances, such as happened to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.

‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’

But others would point you closer to what GodQuestions.org has to say. Here is the final paragraph of their answer:

Some Bible commentators believe that whenever someone received a visit from “the angel of the Lord,” this was in fact the pre-incarnate Christ. These appearances can be seen in Genesis 16:7-14; Genesis 22:11-18; Judges 5:23; 2 Kings 19:35; and other passages. Other commentators believe these were in fact angelophanies, or appearances of angels. While there are no indisputable Christophanies in the Old Testament, every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, where God took the form of a man to live among us as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

Having shown that, this is the part of their article which precedes it:

A theophany is a manifestation of God in the Bible that is tangible to the human senses. In its most restrictive sense, it is a visible appearance of God in the Old Testament period, often, but not always, in human form. Some of the theophanies are found in these passages:

1. Genesis 12:7-9 – The Lord appeared to Abraham on his arrival in the land God had promised to him and his descendants.

2. Genesis 18:1-33 – One day, Abraham had some visitors: two angels and God Himself. He invited them to come to his home, and he and Sarah entertained them. Many commentators believe this could also be a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.

3. Genesis 32:22-30 – Jacob wrestled with what appeared to be a man, but was actually God (vv. 28-30). This may also have been a Christophany.

4. Exodus 3:2 – 4:17 – God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, telling him exactly what He wanted him to do.

5. Exodus 24:9-11 – God appeared to Moses with Aaron and his sons and the seventy elders.

6. Deuteronomy 31:14-15 – God appeared to Moses and Joshua in the transfer of leadership to Joshua.

7. Job 38–42 – God answered Job out of the tempest and spoke at great length in answer to Job’s questions.

Frequently, the term “glory of the Lord” reflects a theophany, as in Exodus 24:16-18; the “pillar of cloud” has a similar function in Exodus 33:9. A frequent introduction for theophanies may be seen in the words “the Lord came down,” as in Genesis 11:5; Exodus 34:5; Numbers 11:25; and 12:5.

In a much longer article at Icthys.com the writer offers an even earlier visitation of Jesus to earth:

In my view (and not only in my view) it was our indeed Lord Jesus Christ who appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden (in Christophany, see the previous link), for He has always been the Father’s representative on earth, appearing for Him and as Him.

This is a long and complex topic, but one it may be helpful to be aware of. In general, if we refer to the verse in Colossians at the top of this article, we see that Paul holds a view of Jesus as creator (or if you wish, co-creator) of the world “by whom all things hold together.”

In the incarnation; the Christmas narrative; we see Jesus entering our world in flesh. Did the baby in the manger have full knowledge of the things which Christ “holds together” today? If not, when did come into the authority and power that could heal the sick, calm the storm and raise the dead?

That’s the subject for great speculation.

Today we’re thankful that God chose this plan, and that through his birth, his death and his resurrection we find salvation.

May you experience the blessing of God on your life this season.


Related: April, 2014 — The Divine One Became Human

 

 

 

 

December 25, 2015

Hear The Voice

The Voice BibleLast night I read to the family from several sections of Christmas narrative in The Voice, a new Bible translation which we’ve used here a few times at C201. One of the interesting things about The Voice is the use of explanatory or transitional passages — they call them narrative links — which add commentary and context to what you’re reading. Further, in John 1, the phrase ‘the Voice’ is used where we are accustomed to hearing ‘The Word.’  Following our tradition here, I’ve left the Bible verses themselves in green, but the other sections which form part of the excerpt are in teal. (If by this time in December you feel you’ve heard the standard texts too many times, then just read the teal sections, but I assure you that you haven’t heard the Christmas texts themselves in exactly this manner.)

We start with John’s prologue in chapter one:

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.

    The Voice was and is God.
This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;
    His speech shaped the entire cosmos.
Immersed in the practice of creating,
    all things that exist were birthed in Him.
His breath filled all things
    with a living, breathing light—
A light that thrives in the depths of darkness,
    blazes through murky bottoms.
It cannot and will not be quenched.

A man named John, who was sent by God, was the first to clearly articulate the source of this Light. This baptizer put in plain words the elusive mystery of the Divine Light so all might believe through him. Some wondered whether he might be the Light, but John was not the Light. He merely pointed to the Light. The true Light, who shines upon the heart of everyone, was coming into the cosmos.

Jesus as the Light does not call out from a distant place but draws near by coming into the world.

10 He entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. 11 Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. 12 But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; 13 He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative but by God’s will.

14 The Voice took on flesh and became human and chose to live alongside us. We have seen Him, enveloped in undeniable splendor—the one true Son of the Father—evidenced in the perfect balance of grace and truth. 15 John the Baptist testified about Him and shouted, “This is the one I’ve been telling you is coming. He is much greater than I am because He existed long before me.” 16 Through this man we all receive gifts of grace beyond our imagination. 17 You see, Moses gave us rules to live by, but Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth. 18 God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice, God’s only Son, straight from the Father’s heart.

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

We also read from Hebrews 1:

Long ago, at different times and in various ways, God’s voice came to our ancestors through the Hebrew prophets. But in these last days, it has come to us through His Son, the One who has been given dominion over all things and through whom all worlds were made.

This is the One who—imprinted with God’s image, shimmering with His glory—sustains all that exists through the power of His word. He was seated at the right hand of God once He Himself had made the offering that purified us from all our sins. This Son of God is elevated as far above the heavenly messengers as His holy name is elevated above theirs.

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

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

And also Luke 2:

Around the time of Elizabeth’s amazing pregnancy and John’s birth, the emperor in Rome, Caesar Augustus, required everyone in the Roman Empire to participate in a massive census— the first census since Quirinius had become governor of Syria. Each person had to go to his or her ancestral city to be counted.

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

4-5 Mary’s fiancé Joseph, from Nazareth in Galilee, had to participate in the census in the same way everyone else did. Because he was a descendant of King David, his ancestral city was Bethlehem, David’s birthplace. Mary, who was now late in her pregnancy that the messenger Gabriel had predicted, accompanied Joseph. While in Bethlehem, she went into labor and gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped the baby in a blanket and laid Him in a feeding trough because the inn had no room for them.

Finally, here is a short excerpt from Matthew 2, after Jesus has already been born:

9-10 The wise men left Herod’s chambers and went on their way. The star they had first seen in the East reappeared—a miracle that, of course, overjoyed and enraptured the wise men. The star led them to the house where Jesus lay; 11 and as soon as the wise men arrived, they saw Him with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. They unpacked their satchels and gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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

12 And then, just as Joseph did a few months before, the wise men had a dream warning them not to go back to Herod. The wise men heeded the dream. Ignoring Herod’s instructions, they returned to their homes in the East by a different route.


Read an excerpt of what we call the Palm Sunday passage in Luke 20 from The Voice.

Below is a page sample of the end of Mark 1 and beginning of Mark 2 showing the dramatic script translation style, and two types of transitional notes.

The Voice Bible - Sample Page

 

December 23, 2015

When Christmas Goes Off the Rails

•••by Clarke Dixon

Christmas always seems so picture perfect in the cards we give and receive, yet Christmas can go off the rails so quickly becoming more like Christmess. What are we to do when it seems the devil has his horrid hands in our lives during this most wonderful time of the year? Perhaps your Christmas is not shaping up to be the picture perfect scene worthy of a Christmas card.

Christmas is found in the book of Revelation and it has something to teach us about Christmas in the midst of a mess:

1 A great portent appeared in heaven:a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 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. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days (Revelation 12:1-6 emphasis mine)

Granted it is only one verse, but there it is, the birth of Jesus, Christmas in Revelation. Did you notice anything about this Christmas? Looking at the verses before and after, this first Christmas is a messy one, with the evil one lurking and looking to destroy.

It will help us to consider what is happening in these verses and we can begin by considering the identity of the woman about to give birth. Notice that within a few verses we have a) a woman, b) agony in childbirth, and c) a serpent. Do you remember the last time we found these three things together in scripture? Yes, in Genesis 3 at the Fall. The Serpent tempts Eve and comes under a curse including this prophecy:

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15)

Eve succumbs to the temptation and also is cursed:

16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, . . .” (Genesis 3:16)

What we have in Genesis 12:1-4 is the history of the world from Eve great with potential to Mary great with child. In fact in chapter 12 of Revelation we have a snapshot of the history of the world from Eve to the situation today with a break to consider the victory of Jesus in verses 7-12. But how would this history lesson help the original readers of the book of Revelation who were facing great persecution in their day? And how can this history lesson help us today? It helped them, and helps us now, by taking us out from our troubles to see the big picture. And in looking at the big picture there are certain things we can learn:

First, the devil and his schemes are real, so expect a mess. According to Revelation 12 we should expect evil to be alive and well and we should expect to suffer the effects:

But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, . . . . Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:12,17)

Are you surrounded by mess and misery this Christmas? Do not be surprised, this is normal in a Fallen world.

Second, the devil’s nasty work is temporary. Thanks to the baby mentioned in verse 5, the evil one’s days are numbered. He has a “best before date,” or in this case a “worst before date”:

But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short. (Revelation 12:12 emphasis mine)

Are you surrounded by mess and misery this Christmas? This too shall pass.

Third, the devil’s schemes cannot ruin the purposes and plans of God. In Revelation 12 we see an allusion to Herod’s plan to destroy the infant Jesus. We know that did not happen and the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus all happened according to plan. Additionally, many verses in chapter 12 point to God’s protection of His people:

. . . and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished (Revelation 12:6) . . .the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished (Revelation 12:14) . . . the earth came to the help of the woman (Revelation 12:16). . .

Are you surrounded by mess and misery this Christmas? God has a plan. We ought not assume His plan does not include our own death at some point. God’s plans go way bigger than that.

Fourth, the devil is already defeated. The devil is a deceiver, but he is also known in the Bible as an accuser. Indeed this is what the very term Satan means. Satan is spoken of in the Old Testament as standing in the court of God, ready to accuse. We might think of the first chapter of Job where Satan accuses Job of loving God only because life was good. Satan is portrayed as the one who can stand before God and say “look at this guy, or look at that woman, they are deserving of destruction.” And Satan could stand before God and say of you and I, “look what they did, look how undeserving they are.” And we give him plenty to talk about don’t we? Except he cannot do that, for he is not there. He has been thrown down:

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God. (Revelation 12:7-10)

Far from winning a hearing in the presence of God, Satan has been conquered. While the passage speaks of the angel Michael leading the fight, it is really speaking about Jesus and trust in Him:

11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. (Revelation 12:11)

Keeping all this in mind let us think of the Apostle Paul’s words:

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)

Are you surrounded by mess and misery this Christmas? There is good news of great joy, for God has made possible a rescue from the greatest misery possible, eternal separation from God. In Jesus we have eternal life ahead with no dragons.

When the Christmas train goes off the rails, when it seems Satan has his evil hands all over your life, look at the big picture and remember that the final destination is Christ and His arms of love. Need a hug this Christmas? You are already in His embrace.

All scripture references are taken from the NRSV

 

December 14, 2015

April 18, 2013

Zacchaeus Meets The Christmas Story

Ever wondered what you were thinking when you wrote something years earlier?  This was first published at Thinking Out Loud in November, 2009.  I read this three times before I finally noticed what the reference is to the Christmas story. This has actually appeared here before as well, in 2011; I hope you don’t mind a repeat.

The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19: 1-9 is the ultimate children’s Bible story. Think about, it’s got:

  • zacchaeusa short key character; kids can identify
  • a parade — or something similar — about to pass by
  • tree climbing; what kid doesn’t like that?
  • unlikely guy gets singled out for special treatment
  • Zacchaeus and Jesus have a tea party, at least according to the children’s song; actual serving of tea may have been unlikely
  • restitution of unfair trade practices; he did something bad and is going to make it right

But the tree climbing is the fun part of the story, so much so that we omit to notice the fact that respectable adults in the culture don’t climb trees. In the book Preaching the Parables to Postmoderns, Brian Stiller reminds of another story where we miss the cultural nuances.

Stiller notes that in the story of the prodigal son, the father sees his returning son in the distance and runs to meet him. To run meant to lift the lower hem of the tunics worn at that time, which would expose the ankles and lower leg. While that may not seem out of line with the bathrobes worn in most church plays you’ve seen, it in fact is out of line with norms in that society. Besides, the patriarchal head of household doesn’t run, period.

Zacchaeus climbs up a tree because he doesn’t want to miss Jesus. The father in the story of the two brothers runs because he doesn’t want to miss a moment with or hide his enthusiasm for the return of his lost son. Both actions involve a considerable loss of dignity on the part of both parties.

David understood this. Consider this account from II Samuel 6:

14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.

20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

21 David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

The line I like is verse 22: I will become even more undignified than this. Nothing reinforces this like the Matt Redman song,

I will dance I will sing
To be mad for my King
Nothing Lord is hindering
The passion in my soul

And I’ll become even more
Undignified than this
Some would say it’s foolishness but
I’ll become even more
Undignified than this

David’s removal of his outer garment ought to remind you of something else. Think about this moment from John 13:

1It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.

The outer garment that Jesus removed was the fine piece of clothing that symbolized his authority as a rabbi. Hours later, Roman soldiers would gamble for the chance to walk way with this prime specimen of clothing as a souvenir of their day’s work.

This action symbolized his servant leadership, but as he told Peter, there was a bigger picture yet to be grasped. I believe that the removal of his outer garment symbolizes something else entirely, as shown in Philippians 2:

5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor…

Jesus gave up the splendor of heaven — took of his outer robe — to enter into our human condition. But then, as John 13:12 shows us, he puts that outer robe back on, i.e. he returns to the glory he had known before at the right hand of the Father.

There are lots of words we could use to describe this, but the key one for today is that he made himself undignified.

Now, he invites you to find a place where you can lose your own dignity in order to accomplish his purposes in your generation.

I Samuel and John passages – NIV; Philippians passage – NLT

A edgier version of Undignified by David Crowder appears here

December 12, 2012

Anxiety, Depression and the Hope of Christmas

Fear, worry and anxiety are strongly linked to depression; and at this time of year, when everybody else is celebrating, depression seems to get larger, not smaller, for some people. Today is a double-post from Ben Nelson at the blog Another Red Letter Day.  I thought it significant that he dealt with both of these issues a few days apart. Links to the individual articles are in the titles, and you’re encouraged to read these there, leave comments, and browse other articles.

The Catch

Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. (Matthew 6:31-34 NASB)

In Monday’s post [Much More] I told you that God provision was not a principal or a promise, but more of a forgone conclusion.

Today there is actually another shoe about to drop.

There is a condition – a catch – one itty-bitty proviso.

And that goes back to the last paragraph – Who’s your master?

Here is the thing – If Jesus is your master, you have nothing to worry about – really –nothing.

Worry is a total waste of ‘redeemed time.’

The time you have is a gift of God. He gave it to you with a plan and a purpose.

Worry is a waste of that precious commodity.

Remember this guy?

And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. (Luke 15:13 NASB)

We call him the prodigal son. Do you know why we call this young man prodigal? (yes it is an adjective) Prodigal means wasteful.

So are you a prodigal when it come to your time – wasting it on worry? 

I pray today you would come to your senses like the prodigal son, and run home to Papa who is more than willing to take care of ‘what you will eat’ and ‘what you will drink’ and ‘how you will clothe yourself.’ And He has your tomorrow well in hand.

So get yourself comfortable in the role of servant, and our Wonderful Lord and Master will sweat the details.


Got Gloom?
Check this out

We all know this Christmas verse thanks to GF Handel:

The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. (Isaiah 9:2 NASB)

But look what comes right before it:

But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. (Isaiah 9:1 NASB)

I love this – Jesus growing up in Galilee of the Gentiles making it glorious – but check the beginning

No more gloom for her who was in anguish.

Are you in anguish?

Are you living in gloom?

Are you stuck in a dark land – a dark place?

Christmas is here to break the gloom – break the anguish.

Ok – that was a bit mushy – how ’bout this:

Jesus was born, lived, and died a cruel death to break the gloom with an astonishing light

~ Ben Nelson

After posting this I discovered we had already borrowed an article from Ben just a few months ago, which I try not to do. But obviously this is a great source of devotional thoughts  which you might want to bookmark.

November 26, 2012

An Optimal 30 Days for The Church

The period from the American Thanksgiving holiday to Christmas marks approximately 30 days that the church — make that The Church (with capital letters) — really gets to shine. It is the time we celebrate the story that forms the Biblical narrative that is probably most known to society at large, albeit with a little help from Linus Van Pelt. Play your cards right, and you get into a deep discussion with your friends about the meaning and implication of incarnation.

But it’s also a time when we get to show the world what the impact that same narrative has had on us through our generosity, and through being the hands and feet of Christ, we can do so much in our small corner of the world to make a difference where there is hurt, and where there is loneliness, and where there is hunger.

Brent Adams wrote the following just before U.S. Thanksgiving for The Southeast Outlook, the in-house church newspaper of Southeast Christian Church in Kentucky. It contains some specific references to their church. You may not know Southeast by name, but you might know their teaching pastor, Kyle Idleman, author of the bestselling Christian book, Not a Fan.  He titled this, The Perfect Time to Be The Church.

Southeast Christian Church Teaching Pastor Kyle Idleman recently challenged the congregation to understand that a church isn’t a building where people come just to be spiritually fed or recharged, but rather the church is a group of believers who worship God and carry out the teachings of Jesus Christ by building their lives around those teachings.

Among those teachings is that we should be thankful in all situations.

“Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

We also are taught in Scripture that we should act as the church by going to those less fortunate than we are.

In Acts 20:35, the Apostle Paul clearly laid out to his followers the role of the early church:

“In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

We should take these words to heart all year long, but we especially tend to focus on them during the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving.

Two recent experiences put things into perspective for me.

One was a September mission trip to assist our church plant teams in Rhode Island. While there, we spent a couple days serving homeless military veterans at a weekend camp-out where they received medical care, food, grooming, new clothing, Gospel teaching, fellowship and encouragement.

Each of the homeless and struggling men and women I met were so friendly and so grateful for the assistance they received. Some of the people receiving help were there because they clearly didn’t have the physical or mental capacity to hold down a job. Others were there because, despite their best efforts, they found themselves on hard times and humbly came to accept help.

They were starved for someone to show them some kindness. The smiles on their faces when they were engaged in a conversation said it all. They just wanted to be loved and understood. They didn’t want to be judged or treated like a charity case.

I had a similar experience the following week when I served as an escort for the Shine disabilities prom. I was partnered with a sweet girl named Heidi, who seemed to know everyone in the place. She beamed from ear to ear all night long as she danced and visited with friends. I did little more than dress nice and point her in the right direction, but at the end of the night, I couldn’t help but feel like I was more blessed by my involvement than anyone the event was intended for.

Proverbs 19:17 says,

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.”

Now, I certainly didn’t participate in those events because I wanted the glory or even because I’m focused on storing up treasures in heaven. I did it because it’s what we are called to do: To go out and love on people and serve them as Jesus served and commanded His disciples to do.

What I found along the way, and I hear this all the time from people who serve in the Lord’s name, is that I came away feeling like I was blessed far more than I was a blessing to those I served.

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to reflect on how you can show the love of Jesus to your family, friends and total strangers. The fact of the matter is, as my friend Denny Dillman often points out in his columns, even on our worst days, we still enjoy more luxuries (including things like running water and clothing) than the majority of the world’s population.

Instead of focusing on our wants and needs, we need to turn our attention to how we can be the church to the hurting. In James 1:27 we are commanded to look after widows and orphans. That’s a good place to start.

In Deuteronomy 15:11, it is written:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”

If you believe that the Scripture is the living Word of God, then you’ll know that the commands don’t get much clearer than that.

Find an opportunity to serve at a homeless shelter or food pantry—not just for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but make that a starting point for a life of service. Find some families in need to bless this Christmas by buying clothes and food and other items. But don’t just hand them the gifts and run. Find ways to do life with them. We’ve seen some great instances in the last 12 months of last year’s “More Than a Gift” Christmas outreach bringing people to Jesus Christ because they were shown love by people who went the extra mile to get to know them and share the Gospel with them.

The truth is, despite whatever trials we face, we still have an awful lot to be thankful for. We need to focus on those blessings and look for ways to be the church by reaching out to those who have yet to hear the Good News that Jesus Christ wants to give them the gift of eternal salvation if they simply will accept Him into their hearts and join the church in making disciples.

~ Brent Adams

  • If you missed it at Thinking Out Loud, here’s a great Christmas song from the ’80s, Christmas Bells.

December 24, 2011

The Outrage of the Gospel of Light

At the Saturday morning Christmas Eve service today at North Point, Andy Stanley noted that when you attend an afternoon showing at a movie theater, and then walk out into the day light, the brightness hurts.  It offends the senses.  We tend to think of  “seeing the light” as a good thing; but initially it is an affront to one’s body.

At this classic post from the late Michael Spencer at Internet Monk, he begins with a quotation from Sam Harris — who experiences what Andy Stanley is talking about — and suggests this is a barometer of whether or not we’ve got the gospel right.  If you read it here, be sure to click the “more” tag — grab a coffee or hot chocolate, this is a longer one — otherwise read it at Internet Monk.

There is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after death; my current beliefs, drawn from scripture, will remain the best statement of the truth until the end of the world; everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell. An average Christian, in an average church, listening to an average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance simply unimaginable in scientific discourse and there have been some extraordinarily arrogant scientists

Sam Harris, Letters To A Christian Nation


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

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. …And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:9-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)


 


Christians in America have a preference for people like themselves. In this, we’re not unlike most human beings, but that’s exactly the problem. Most 4th graders would be able to give the correct answer to the question “Who is my neighbor As obvious as the answer would be, most of us would still like to be surrounded with people from our tribe, culture, language group, income level and, of course, worldview.

Christians like to participate in the fantasy that ours is a Christian nation in what is becoming a Christian world. Muslims, atheists, occultists and others occupying the planet get the requisite dose of rhetoric saying we love our neighbors who are unlike us, but if we’re honest, especially about our evangelicalism, we’d have to admit a strong bias toward familiar surroundings and familiar people.

Those radically, fundamentally different from ourselves make us uneasy, as if we were somehow under attack from different cultures and beliefs. The sound of the culture war is the sound of Christians- largely- declaring that they are in some way at war with their neighbors. The rumblings of culture expansion and population shifts in Europe and the American southwest brings out a kind of paranoia in some Christians remarkably similar to what one might have heard from white South Africans in the waning days of apartheid.

I am blessed to live in one of the most diverse communities in America, a place where various races, cultures and religions live and work together in the pursuit of education. For those of us who are part of the Christian mission and identity of our school, the command to love our neighbor takes on flesh and blood every day as students from Muslim, Buddhist, Communist and secularist cultures come into our classrooms and lives.

It is not unusual to watch Christians at our school struggle with the feelings this kind of diversity creates. I might find myself surrounded by Koreans speaking their language, and I am assaulted by a temptation toward resentment that they aren’t speaking English. A table of inner-city African-Americans seem too loud and their hip-hop culture seems alien and disrespectful to me. The hostile questions of an atheistic student cross the invisible boundaries I’ve set up; boundaries that demand he not find my worldview oppressive or ridiculous.

These experiences are common enough that our school might lose a staff family each year primarily to the stress and strain of relating to those different from us. The familiar rhetoric of “I thought this was a Christian school” often comes along with that resignation, insisting that a “real” Christian school would, of course, be populated by Christians in agreement on everything from politics to worship music.

Sam Harris’s description of the arrogance of the Christian faith is the kind of bold atheism that rankles many Christians. Despite the Tom Paines of our history, our belief that we live in a Christian culture inclines us to believe that unbelievers should be, at least, humble. If they want to have their little meetings and make the occasional speech, we can handle it. But when they write confident New York Times bestsellers lecturing all of us as if the nation really belongs to the secularists, it makes us mad.

Harris, however, has a better grasp of the Gospel than most Christians. Evangelicals have almost totally lost the outrage that lies at the heart of the Gospel. We believe that everyone ought to believe what we believe because it’s obvious that its the truth. We have big churches, media stars and books explaining everything so persuasively that it shows just how stubborn and hostile unbelievers really are. If they would just listen to our pastor answer all the questions, it would make sense. (more…)

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.

December 6, 2011

Inauspicious Beginnings

The story of incarnation begins quietly, builds, but then the narrative hits some bumps on the road where the disciples and others are conflicted between their mental picture of what Messiahship was supposed to look like, and how events in the life of Christ were playing out. 

Yesterday at Thinking Out Loud, I used the story of the Charlie Brown Christian Special, a television program, as an illustration of something toward which the great minds of the time declared, “This will never work.”  If you’re unfamiliar with the program or the scene in question, click here.

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior which is Christ the Lord…”

~Linus Luke, chapter two

For our American friends, last night was the occasion of the 47th airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. 47 years of the same show in an endless repeat. But according to this National Review story, by Lee Habeeb, the show almost didn’t happen:

As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a groundbreaking program in so many ways, as we learned watching the great PBS American Masters series on Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as “Sparky.” It was based on the comic strip Peanuts, and was produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.

We learned in that PBS special that the cartoon happened by mere serendipity.

“We got a call from Coca-Cola,” remembered Melendez. “And they said, ‘Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters?’ and I immediately said ‘Yes.’ And it was Wednesday and they said, ‘If you can send us an outline by Monday, we might be interested in it.’ So I called Sparky on the phone and told him I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve got to write tomorrow.’”

We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didn’t make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didn’t.

The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz’s team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.

The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.

Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.

There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBS’s prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands.     […continue reading…]

The CBS executives saw what they had as, at best, a tax write-off.

I couldn’t help but think that actually parallels the original Christmas story in more ways than one.

John the Baptist was sure that Jesus was the Messiah on the day that Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized.  But later, in the isolation of a jail cell, he wondered if had backed that wrong horse.  He thought he a flop on his hands.

Certainly there were people in the crowd who loved the miracles and the multiplication of the fish and bread that fed 5,000 men and countless women and children. But when he started turning his remarks to the “hard sayings” and spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, the crowd thinned out considerably.  Having seen other Messiah figures come and go, they figured that, once again, they had a flop on their hands.

Judas Iscariot was one of the original twelve, and no doubt entered into that select group with enthusiasm and optimism.  But into the third year of apprenticeship with the this particular rabbi, dreams of political conquest and liberation from the Romans turned into disillusionment when the talk turned to a Messiah that would suffer and die. Like the parliamentarians of today who ‘cross the floor’ to join the other party, Judas figured he had a flop on his hands.

Time exonerated the decision and vision by Charles Shultz, and the events in Acts 2 showed the world that something new and exciting was beginning; that instead of a flop, the disciples had a hit on their hands.

Church history is full of examples where the “show” appeared to be cancelled. And today, there are those who complain that the Christian faith and worldview is foolishness. They have a checklist of things that they would change about the Christ story. They think we have a flop on our hands. 

But the ratings have yet to come out on that one. The ultimate scene in the play has yet to appear on stage. Stay tuned…

We do know how the above story ended, though:

To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.

Linus’s recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”

December 5, 2011

Two Aspects of Advent

Consider for a moment two aspects of the advent of Christ as it might relate to his second coming:

  • The timing of His coming
  • The nature of His arrival

The timing of His coming

I’ve heard many sermons about the fact that before the time of Christ, we find what Christians call the “intertestamental period” wherein the prophets seem to be silent. It’s a kind of ‘calm before the storm’ before Jesus breaks on the scene and teaches like no other rabbi or prophet ever.

Will there be a calm before the storm before Jesus returns a second time? The voices (prophets if you will) of our day are being silenced. In the east because of the rise of militant Islam or religious radicals in places like India. In the west because of the rise of militant atheism or political correctness. Could it be that the second coming of Christ will take place in a time where the voices of the prophets are not heard in the land?

The nature of His arrival

We tend to think of Jesus’ arrival on earth at Bethlehem, but really Jesus arrived so to speak when He began His public ministry. You can date this arrival by His submission to John’s baptism and identification by John as “the lamb of God;” or you can choose the wedding at Cana or the beginning of His teaching ministry.

We tend to think of Jesus’ second arrival as being signaled by the sound of trumpets and his appearance on a white horse.

I am not, in the following paragraphs, suggesting that it’s possible that Christ has already returned and is alive and on earth now; so please don’t write me off as a heretic.

What I’m wondering is, if it’s possible for Jesus to embed himself here on earth somehow for a short period of time, and then, suddenly, there is the sound of trumpets, there is the appearance of the conquering King on a white horse (as opposed to the submission symbolized by the donkey the first time around) and every eye sees and every ear hears. I say that only because that was the nature of His first coming. There was a beginning in Bethlehem that preceded — in this case by 30 years — the beginning of His taking up His spiritual office.

Before you jump all over this and find it full of flaws, remember, at the time of His birth, it is the belief of many commentators that nobody understood the “…then a virgin shall conceive…” passage as meaning exactly how we know today the story played out. There wasn’t the “messianic mindset.”

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 herself as being “the one” who would give birth to the Savior. Though all was quiet on the western eastern front, there was great expectancy. None of this type of speculation discounts the aspect of “being caught up to meet Him in the air;” the idea that the quietly building return should not have its moments of drama.

I’m just saying it would be most consistent if, in addition to the timing of His second coming following the pattern of His first coming; that the nature of His arrival should also include something that has an element of ‘process’ to it. That perhaps instead of looking “up” we should be looking to the left and to the right. Scanning the horizon for the Lion of Judah who has massed his forces, or, more likely, will mass his forces, right here prior to that moment when every eye will see and every ear will hear.

Or perhaps it’s something closer to the more traditional view, but there is a physical presence — similar to the angels at Bethlehem singing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ — followed by the taking up of the spiritual office. A period, a moment filled with signs in the skies followed by a dawning of the great significance of what is happening. Only instead of it taking up to a year for the Magi to arrive on the scene bearing gifts, we have CNN carrying the event live.

Either way of course, it will also be a dramatic intervention into world history on a par equal to His first coming; but seen and known by everyone instantaneously.

The point is, ultimately we just don’t know. However, though we don’t know “the day nor the hour,” we can know “the times and seasons.” And we can be prepared. Are you?

My point is to ask, “What if…?” We read scriptures with so many built-in assumptions — as I am sure Old Testament saints did with the writings available to them — and I think we need to be challenged to think outside the box, without tossing out the basic elements necessary for the Grand Story to play out to completion. Is it heretical to ask, “What if…?”? I think the next chapter will be full of surprises on so many levels.

I Cor 2:6 Yet when I am among mature believers, I do speak with words of wisdom, but not the kind of wisdom that belongs to this world or to the rulers of this world, who are soon forgotten. 7 No, the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. 8 But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord. 9 That is what the Scriptures mean when they say,   

 “No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
      and no mind has imagined
   what God has prepared
      for those who love him.”  NLT 

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