Christianity 201

December 26, 2020

They Had a Better Greeting Than ‘Merry Christmas’

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

Savior—Messiah—Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


C201 Archives:

The People Who Walked in Darkness

December, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

December 21, 2020

Jesus: A Paradox and an Oxymoron

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

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

A Culture of Paradox

Great power resides in the small, spare, simple.

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

Little is large if God is in it.

■■■

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

■■■

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


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


Previous excerpts from Jesus: A Theography here at C201:

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


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

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

December 18, 2020

The Birth of Jesus is a Study in Contrasts

At different eras in the Christian Church there have been different emphases in preaching. In the last several years, this has been evidenced in the Christmas narrative.

Emphasis #1 – No place to stay

With our current awareness of social justice issues, homelessness is a problem in our world — even in some quite affluent countries — to which the church must respond. So we often hear emphasis on Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem with no place to stay but a barn.

Without considering the (literally) hundreds of views on this, I currently lean to the idea that the night lodging for the animals may have been more of an annex to the house; in other words, not even an out-building. The phrase (Luke 2:7) “for there was no room for them in the inn” is not unique to the KJV, but the CJB has “there was no space for them in the living-quarters;” the NIV states, “there was no guest room available for them;” while you have to love the ambiguity of the NLV, “There was no room for them in the place where people stay for the night.” Young’s Literal Translation reads, “there was not for them a place in the guest-chamber.” But other respected versions such as NET and NASB stay with “the inn.”

I also reject the idea that they arrived in Bethlehem without any contact persons; not knowing anyone. If this was Joseph’s ancestral home, (“because he belonged to the house and line of David” 2:7) then he had relatives there, even if they were distant relatives. Remember this occurred in a society where tribe, family, clan, etc. mattered.

But we do tend to seize on the plight of Mary and Joseph, and in no small measure this is completely appropriate, as Jesus was born in an unexpected place (due to “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken…” 2:1) and in less than ideal circumstances (the not-inn, not-guest-room; and the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy.)

Emphasis #2 – Exile to Egypt

This is the preaching emphasis that Jesus was a refugee. We know that they left abruptly for Egypt (Matthew 2:13) and that in at least one, and probably two dreams Joseph is counseled that it is safe to make an adjusted return to Israel (2: 19-23); but we know absolutely nothing about their time in Egypt, though novelists like to speculate on this time.

With countries like Germany and Canada opening their doors wide to Middle East refugees in the last decade, it’s easy to see why this can be a highlighted subject in contemporary preaching.

Not Emphasized – Honor and Fabulous Gifts!

The story isn’t all bleak. Any contemporary emphasis on one element of the story is going to cause lesser emphasis on another, but Jesus, to use a game show phrase, does receive “cash and fabulous prizes” when the kings/wise men/astrologers come to visit. They recognize that something special is taking place; they come to pay homage; and they don’t arrive empty-handed. Matthew’s Gospel tells us,

Matt.2.1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem… …10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So we see that they bow down and worship him.

I’m sure that thinking of Gabriel’s announcement,

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:32-33

Joseph and Mary looked at each other and said, ‘Ah…That’s more like it;’ when in fact the exile is just around the next bend.

Gabriel’s words and the honor of the kings/wise men/astrologers is indicative of a long-time eternal destiny; a time to come when Revelation 11:15 states.

The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

This text is familiar to us at this time of year as part of the lyrics to “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah, but as climactic as that song is at the end of Part II, it is with these words from Revelation 5:12 that the oratorio ends;

In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

This should be the ultimate emphasis of our preaching in our churches and our sharing of the Christmas narrative individually to those with whom we come in contact.

December 10, 2020

A Messy Faith, But a Merry Christmas

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:27 pm
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How do you believe something when everyone around around you says that what you believe is ridiculous? How do you question anything when everyone around you says that your doubts are ridiculous? Faith can get messy. Should we believe? Can we believe?

This Christmas especially, many people may be questioning their faith. God sent baby Jesus. Can he not send a vaccine? Science seems to be doing well on that front.

As the Christmas story unfolds in the Gospel of Luke we encounter someone whose faith gets messy. I will let you read the story for yourself:

When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”

Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

Luke 1:5-20 (NLT)

Zechariah had all the credentials of a good religious man, he was as a priest, he was mature, he was righteous, yet he wavered in his faith. It is clear that when the angel appeared, he was not prepared for an experience of the supernatural!

Perhaps there are many good religious people today, who are not prepared for an experience of the supernatural.

Christianity exists as a response to the supernatural, as an outcome of God’s direct involvement in our world. Though there are many examples, let us focus on three occasions:

  • The creation. Everything we consider to be “natural” is a result of the supernatural.
  • The incarnation of God in Jesus through the virgin conception.
  • The resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

When Christmas comes along, while some children begin to question if Santa Claus is for real, some adults and youth begin to question if a virgin conception is for real. Faith wavers. If we believe there is any possibility that God exists, that God conceived the universe then brought it into being, then for God to be involved in the conception of a child is no problem at all, especially if there was good reason to do so.

And there was good reason.

It is often said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That is not true, extraordinary claims require good evidence. There are many books and resources available regarding that evidence for the reality of God and Jesus.

Let us try this statement instead; “God’s extraordinary love provides extraordinary evidence.” The story of Christmas with the miracle of the incarnation is extraordinary evidence of God’s love. The story of Easter with the miracle of the resurrection is extraordinary evidence of God’s love.

Zechariah did all the godly things, yet he doubted the power of God. Do we? Faith gets messy when we doubt the power of God. Faith gets especially messy when we doubt the love of God.

There is another side to this coin. Zechariah had his moment of doubt, of asking a question. Since the angel seemed to scold Zechariah for his doubt, we might be tempted to scold anyone, including ourselves, for ever doubting or questioning. However, to do so is to miss the bigger story here.

Zechariah’s doubt did not disqualify him from being part of God’s people, from being a priest, or from the wonderful calling of being John the Baptist’s Dad.

You will not be disqualified for asking a question, for sharing a doubt. As messy as our faith gets, it does not mess up God’s love.

Questions and doubts can sometimes be a necessary part of faith. Wouldn’t the world have been a safer place if the men that took control of planes to fly them into the Wold Trade Centre had less certainty and more doubt? While we might claim that their faith was different, for they were Muslims of a fundamentalist variety, does it sometimes happen that we as Christians cause harm by our certainty on things where perhaps room for doubt or questions would be better?

A friend shared a video with me of a woman dealing with panic attacks and depression. Turning to Christian friends and professionals she was told to look for whatever sin was hindering her, or to have more faith. She eventually got better help beyond the Christian circles she was moving in. We can bring harm into people’s lives by our certitude.

We have questions and doubts. Questions and doubts are part of a growing faith, a growing relationship with God. We want to be careful that we are not acting like we know everything when the Bible does not tell us everything. While faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit, certitude is not.

Zechariah was not disqualified because he expressed doubt. On the contrary, just imagine how his faith must have grown when he saw the power of God at work. Perhaps our questions and doubts can be an important part of the journey of faith.

We may feel a pressure from society to never believe anything the Bible says. We may feel a pressure from our faith community to never doubt anything the faith community says about what the Bible says. As a father seeking a miracle from Jesus for his child said:

“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”

Mark 9:24 (NLT)

Is it time to take a step toward trusting the power and love of God, of trusting Jesus? Is it time to give yourself permission to have questions and doubts? When our faith is messy, it does not mess up God’s love. Zechariah’s faith was messy. It didn’t ruin Christmas.


Clarke Dixon is a Baptist pastor — not that Baptist, the other one — in Southern Ontario. He writes at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon. Today’s thoughts alone on video are at this link or may be seen as part of this “online worship expression

December 5, 2020

When Communion Sunday Meets Advent

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.  “Now my soul is deeply troubled. Should I pray, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But this is the very reason I came!
 – John 12: 25,27 NLT

As I type this, tomorrow is the second Sunday of Advent, but it’s also Communion Sunday among churches which observe the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of each month. So which is more important: Christmas or Easter?

The Billy Graham Association website notes:

Both are equally important, because both were an essential part of God’s plan. Without Christmas, there would be no Easter—and without Easter, Christmas wouldn’t matter.

It’s true. The birth of a baby in an inconsequential Jerusalem suburb would hardly be worth noting if were not for the events which followed. And the death of a self-proclaimed Messiah might not have earned a place in history were it not for the events which preceded it, which includes what turns out to be a somewhat miraculous birth.

As simple as that seems, I think it’s something that Christians need to own to a greater degree. I say that because in a search for the phrase, “There’s no Christmas with Easter and…” etc., all of the page one search results directed readers to a quotation by a former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormon) and some of its related websites. While the sentiment is true, I would like to have seen more mainstream Christian expressions of that truth on page one.

Or in these words, as we put it this time last year:

There’s no incarnation without atonement.
There’s no atonement without incarnation.

As I looked at that article again, I felt I should just continue where it led us a year ago:

…There are key scripture passages associated with this time of year that answer the questions as to how Christ came into the world. The incarnation is key to Christian belief, so we need to define that. There are verses that explain where Christ came into the world. There are verses that explain who was around when Christ came into the world. But we need to get past the “Linus” verses — the verses that Linus in the Peanuts television special quotes from memory to Charlie Brown — and think about why Christ came into the world.

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

If you’re on social media, you know the phrase Direct Messaging. After years of speaking through the prophets, God decides it is time to send a DM, not only to his followers, but to all humankind.

John 6 gives us more details:

 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Verses 33 and 38-39 are key: Jesus comes to give life, and to see the salvation (although the word isn’t used here) of His children on the last day

…The Apostle Peter talks about how angels longed to see the day when salvation would be offered in a new way:

1Peter1.3 …It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, 4 and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. 5 And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. 9 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.

10 This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. 11 They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward.

12 They were told that their messages were not for themselves, but for you. And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.

As Jesus calls his first disciples, he ushers in this new way, an intersection of the heavenly realm and the earthly realm

Mark 1:15 The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

and urges his disciples this is the message they are to proclaim:

Matt.10.7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8b … Freely you have received; freely give.

For churches where the Eucharist/Communion intersects with Advent/Christmas, the key is not to say, ‘How do I deal with this awkward placement of two very different parts of our church calendar?’ but rather to meet the convergence head on by noting that the gathering around The Lord’s Table begins with the gathering around the manger to look at the promised child; and the gathering around the baby in the manger is the beginning of the path to the gathering in the upper room where “on the night he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it and said ‘This is my body…'”

Both of which lead to a gathering around another table, a banquet table we’ve yet to experience.

 

January 15, 2020

Did You Bring the Right Offering to Church?

Can we return one last time to the Advent/Christmas narrative? We weren’t sure, but we knew last week there was a possibility that Clarke Dixon’s article from last week, would have a Part Two, but it didn’t get published on his blog until this week. So today, this article, and then tomorrow, Lord willing, Clarke’s regular Thursday blog post.

by Clarke Dixon

Did you bring the right offering to your church? Perhaps pastors such as myself will be tempted to say “no.” That may be based on organizational number crunching for 2019 and a realization that red is not just a Christmas color. As Christmas fades into the past, an event following that first Christmas will help us reflect on our offering.

Let us consider the Magi. We usually think of the Magi as being at the manger along with the shepherds on the first Christmas Day. However, based on Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s 2-years-old-and-under infants (see Matt 2:16), they likely arrived later.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11 (NIV)

Being non-Jewish, the Magi do not bring an offering according to any religious rule, but rather from of a spirit of generosity. It is an interesting exercise to read through the entire New Testament, taking note of how often religious rules for giving are promoted in contrast to how often generosity is taught and modelled, especially by Jesus.

It is an interesting exercise to also consider the difference between giving out of religious duty and a spirit of generosity. For example, it is possible to earn millions of dollars, tithe a tenth of all that is earned to a church, and yet be completely lacking in a generous spirit. We would be left with incredible wealth, yet could still be stingy to everyone and every need that crosses our paths. Even though we have given much to our church community, we can be Scrooge-like in sharing our gifts of time and talents. Are our offerings of time, talents, and treasures an expression of a growing and generous spirit, or merely an expression of how religious we are? Our offering is not just a matter of accounting and number crunching, but a matter of the heart.

Further, let us consider that the Magi bring their offering, not to the temple, but to a person. Are our offerings focused on Jesus? Are they focused on Jesus when they are given to an organization we call a church? It is more important that churches help people connect and walk with Jesus, than simply keep churchy and religious things happening. Since our offerings are part of personal devotion and worship, we would bring them as an act of worship, even if we were asked by God to be burn them on an altar.  But God has not asked for that. He has directed us to help people connect with Him.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT)

Do our offerings help people connect with God and walk with Jesus?

There is another offering for us to consider as we bid farewell to the Christmas season. Let us go back to the temple, to the moment Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” Luke 2:34-35 (NLT)

A sword would indeed pierce Mary’s soul when Jesus was opposed by his own people, who should have known better, and hung on a cross by the Romans, who should have done better. We are barely beyond Christmas and already we are hearing about Good Friday. While we think of the offerings of the Magi, the offering brought by God for outsiders like the Magi is the real news here. God’s generous spirit is on full display!

Have you brought the right offering to church? Come to Jesus, see the gift he has for you. Then see where generosity leads you.


Clarke Dixon is a musician, motorcycle enthusiast, and pastor in Ontario, Canada. He is the single-most-frequent contributor to C201, with articles appearing most Thursdays.

December 25, 2019

A Devotional for those who Don’t Celebrate Christmas

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” – Isaiah 7:14

Increasingly among people with whom I come in contact, are those who, while they are committed followers of Jesus, do not celebrate Christmas in any form. After a half hour of discussing many faith related topics, one such individual reminded me, “We don’t do Christmas.”

In many ways these people have my sympathies. Let’s face it:

  • We can be almost 100% sure the date is incorrect.
  • There is no denying that many aspects of Christmas (and Easter) have their roots in pagan festivals taking place at the same time(s).
  • The commercialization of Christmas is rampant; a celebration of materialism and greed more than Jesus; something which we should all grieve.

That said however, in my personal life I find that with each passing year:

  • I am not celebrating the birth of the baby I came to know in Sunday School, but I am celebrating the notion of incarnation, the idea of God with us.
  • I am continuing to marvel at the grand story arc of scripture; a redemptive plan that was set in motion long before Adam took his first breath.
  • I am increasingly aware of God’s invitation to experience intimacy with him; that this is a God who can be known.

The story arc ends with God and mankind in absolute, unclouded, undistracted fellowship. Revelation 21:3

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.”

But eternal life with God starts now. John 1:14 states:

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

In the first part of that verse, Eugene Peterson famously renders it as

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.

Biblical commentators take this one step further and say, “God pitched his tent among us” as a shepherd would among the sheep in his care. Also, the comparison here between tent and the tabernacle of the Hebrew scriptures is not to be overlooked, and the appearance of tabernacle above in the verse from Revelation.

This is amazing! Marvelous! Beyond our scope or imagination!

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

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

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

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

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


– today’s scriptures are NLT


In case you missed it from Monday: There’s no incarnation without atonement.

December 23, 2019

There’s No Christmas Without Easter

Or, if you prefer,

There’s No Incarnation Without Atonement

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

I Tim 1:15 (NLT)

I decided today to look at several things that were posted here during the first Christmas season of writing C201. I was under the impression my wife was doing a single song at the Christmas Eve service just days away. Then she informed me we were responsible for the whole service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are key scripture passages associated with this time of year that answer the questions as to how Christ came into the world. The incarnation is key to Christian belief, so we need to define that. There are verses that explain where Christ came into the world. There are verses that explain who was around when Christ came into the world. But we need to get past what I call the “Linus” versus — the verses that Linus in the Peanuts television special quotes from memory to Charlie Brown — and think about why Christ came into the world.

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

If you’re on Twitter, you know the phrase Direct Messaging. After years of speaking through the prophets, God decides it is time to send a DM, not only to his followers, but to all humankind.

John 6 gives us more details:

33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Verses 33 and 38-39 are key: Jesus comes to give life, and to see the salvation (although the word isn’t used here) of His children on the last day.

In addition to bread, the gospel of John is filled with other images. such as light:

John 3:46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

The Apostle Peter talks about how angels longed to see the day when salvation would be offered in a new way:

1Peter1.3 …It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, 4 and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. 5 And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

8 You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. 9 The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls.

10 This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. 11 They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward.

12 They were told that their messages were not for themselves, but for you. And now this Good News has been announced to you by those who preached in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.

As Jesus calls his first disciples, he ushers in this new way, an intersection of the heavenly realm and the earthly realm

Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

and urges his disciples this is the message they are to proclaim:

Matt.10.7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8b … Freely you have received; freely give.

Announcing the kingdom also is mentioned at the outset of Christ’s ministry, in his inaugural sermon:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

These verses should begin our thinking as to why Jesus came, but trying to encapsulate everything in a short article is impossible. So multifaceted was — and is — the ministry of Jesus Christ that our words cannot contain the whole of it.

It’s so much more than a baby’s birth, and as mentioned above, while summaries of the gospel are challenging, I want to close with Bruxy Cavey’s “Gospel in 30 words.”

Jesus is God with us, come to

• show us God’s love,
• save us from sin,
• set up God’s kingdom, and
• shut down religion,

so we can share in God’s life.


Note: We’ll continue this theme tomorrow with 15 reasons why Jesus came.

December 22, 2019

The Tower of Flock and the Birth of Jesus

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

The Jewish Life of Jesus

What Is the Tower of Flock?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Ordinary Shepherds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 Days of Christianity 201

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

 

An Advent / Prophecy Mix

Today, an original article from some previously published material invites us to think of ways the second coming of Christ could be similar to the first. But as you read this, remember there will also be dramatic differences…

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 “inter-testamental 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.

For the next two paragraphs, play a game with me. Not because I personally believe this, but because it stretches our imagination.

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, controversial 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. (We can’t edit out verses of scripture just because they don’t fit with our particular model!)

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

December 8, 2019

Only One Generation Saw the Promise Fulfilled

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

And We Wait

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamb? Not, the King?

Not the King, yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God doesn’t do things half way.

December 25, 2018

The Message of the Angels

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Hebrews 1:1 NIV In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

by Ruth Wilkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

December 24, 2018

Despite the Festivity, Many are Suffering; Many are Broken

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

Christ Our Comforter at Christmas

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

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

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

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

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:15-16) Jesus is not a remote heavenly being, utterly detached from our human experience. This is Jesus we are talking about! This is the fully God, fully man, incarnate God. This is the guy who ate with tax collectors and sinners. This is the guy who hung out with fishermen, and preached the gospel among the poor. This is the guy who made the lame walk, the blind see, and raised widow’s sons back to life. This Jesus suffered in agony in the Garden as he submitted himself to the will of his Father even when it meant death on a cross and the weight of the sins of the world. Jesus is thoroughly aware of our sufferings and weaknesses.

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

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

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

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

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

click here to read the entire article

 

 

December 13, 2018

Is the Story of Christmas Believable?

by Clarke Dixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

December 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.

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