Christianity 201

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.

May 29, 2014

The Humility of Christ

Somewhere yesterday I read about someone who has memorized Phil. 2: 5-11 and tries to remember to recite it every day. I found that interesting because this is something I do when I wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep.

Recently I’ve been thinking in particular about these verses:

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!  (NIV)

This is the core of the text and lists four things:

He entered into the human condition.

John 1:14 states:

14 So the Word became human and made his home among us. (NLT)

The word that’s translated, “the word became flesh” is sarx.  A ‘nicer’ word would have been soma which would imply that God ‘took on a body.’ But sarx implies the nitty-gritty of humankind: The muscles, sinews, bodily processes and all. This is the sum and substance of incarnation. Jesus was 100% human while all the while being 100% divine.

He came as a servant.

Matthew 28 quotes Jesus as saying

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29  Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. (CEB, emphasis added)

The poem “One Solitary Life” says

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman… He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never traveled more than 200 miles from the place He was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness…

He could have been born into nobility. He could have established a major organization. He could have  built a religious empire. But rather, he chooses relative obscurity.

Note carefully the contrast between the verse 3 (I’ve added emphasis) and verses 4 and 5 that describe Jesus sharing a Passover meal with his closest disciples in John 13:

Jesus knew that the Father had given him power over everything and that he had come from God and was going back to God. So during the meal Jesus stood up and took off his outer clothing. Taking a towel, he wrapped it around his waist. Then he poured water into a bowl and began to wash the followers’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

I love that he picked up the towel and the basin knowing the extent of the divine power he possessed.

We see this again in Matthew 21, where in his “triumphal entry” — oh, the irony — he chooses to enter the city riding on the back of a donkey.

His human experience included submission to death.

Jesus experienced the full arc of human living, including death. It’s critical that he identifies with us in his death, especially when so many fear end-of-life experiences. But he didn’t simply die in his sleep, we’re told:

He experienced the most tortuous death known to people of his day.

Sometime soon, we’ll look specifically at the doctrine of the suffering of Christ before and during Calvary.  I wanted to focus more on the first two points of the text, and leave room to include a song that we haven’t featured here before. The lyrics are included the video. Meekness and Majesty reminds us of this contrast between his divine attributes even as he submitted himself to earthly life with us.