Christianity 201

January 8, 2023

Jesus Enters as a Warrior Behind Enemy Lines

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:35 pm
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“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

In our quest to bring writers from the broadest spectrum of Christianity, our devotional author today is Benedictine writer Fr. Becket Franks, who writes at Becketmonk. Click the title below to read this where it originated.

And Yet…

In the words of C.S. Lewis,

“Jesus entered the world so anonymously and clandestinely- as a baby born to insignificant parents in an out-of-the-way corner of the Roman Empire- because he was a warrior compelled to slip quietly behind enemy lines.”

Why would he say this?  It is because of mercy.  In the world of Caesar Augustus, God sends down his mercy behind in quiet and in secret.  And who is the first to receive such mercy?  Our Christmas cards and our Christmas creches depict cute scenes of shepherds and Magi adoring the new born babe.  In the words of Bishop Robert Barron,

“We ought not to be romantic about shepherds…they were considered rather shady characters, ne’er do wells unable to hold down a steady job, unreliable and dishonest.”

AND, YET, God the Almighty chooses these people to announce the birth of The One who will sit and eat with sinners, and, die between two criminals.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Tell the people whom God frequents, salvation is upon you.”  According to this prophet of comfort, God never forgets.  God never forsakes.  God always brings reward. However, how will anyone know of the abundant mercy of God unless one of us shares this message with a waiting world?  Or, better, maybe it is you and me that need that merciful word today, right now.

To illustrate, a few years ago in the New York Times, Doctor of New Testament at Wheaton College, Esau McCaulley, writes,

“Christmas is Weird…it never promises to soothe every pain or cure every ill.  Instead, [it] gives us enough hope to walk a little farther;  [it] suggests that God has not forgotten anyone. He came as a child, weak and vulnerable…so that the weak and broken things might feel comfortable approaching the divine…”

like the shepherds, the “common workers.”

Now, of course we are not shady shepherds on the fringe.  But we are people who are in pain, physically, or mentally, or psychologically, or even existentially.  Just last week two of our residents lost a daughter suddenly.  In the last two years, we lost friends to Covid.  Last year, one of my brothers told me that Christmas lacks joy because he has to take his wife to kidney dialysis.  The people of the Ukraine fear for their lives and in America we continue to witness attacks upon our democracy.

Not to be a Donny Downer…this is what the Gospel means when the angels announce news to the shepherds:  mercy given is mercy received.  This is why St. Titus says,

“when the kindness and generous love of God appeared…because of his mercy…he saved us and renewed us by the grace and words of the Holy Spirit.”

AND YET, in the middle of the quiet night, the angels of the Lord speak the Good News to the common workers.  These unexpected everyday people become the first evangelists of the Gospel. Why God decides to come to us this way, I don’t know.  What I do know is that the Spirit speaks all the time to common workers in times of unbearable pain, unrest, and injustice.  When Christ speaks that same word of glorifying hope to you…, share it…  Please.  I promise to do the same.

December 27, 2022

The Son of God Incarnate: Jesus or Yeshua?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm
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She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” – Luke 1:31 NIV

For behold, you shall conceive and you shall give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua. – Luke 1:31 Aramaic Bible in Plain English

And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21 NLT

She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Yeshua, [which means ‘Adonai saves,’] because he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:21 Complete Jewish Bible

For our reading today, I found something which on the surface appeared rather lighthearted, but the more I considered it, the more I realized there was an underlying significant observation, even it goes down the complicated rabbit hole of the Anglicizing of the Greek and Hebrew that make up our scripture texts.

Today we’re introducing you to a new writer, Christine Gabriélle who lives in Florida. Clicking her name in that last sentence will take you to her blog, and clicking the title which follows will take you where this article first appeared.

On Names

I’ve been struggling with names for the past couple of days.

How it started: Christmas Eve I was on Google doing Googley things and somehow found myself in the middle of an article about the transliteration of “Yeshua” and how it changed from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Swedish (I think) to English and became “Jesus” when a more literal Hebrew-to-English translation of “Yeshua” should be “Joshua.”

So, here I am—on Christmas Day—watching movies with my brother and falling down a spiral of “Dear Josh” jokes and telling him I hope his future wife has a sense of humor because my future niece(s) and/or nephew(s) will be taught by their auntie that the Son of God’s name is Joshua and not Jesus and we start our prayers with “Dear Josh” because He’s kind of like our heavenly brother and we don’t need to call Him by His full name.

Today, I’m sitting in the bathroom—where I tend to dig out my most intelligent (or rebellious) thoughts—and I say out loud to myself, “we shouldn’t even be translating names!” I understand translating the Bible into languages more people can understand, but names are names and don’t need translation.

Like, my name is “Christine” no matter what language you speak.

And then this thought spun me around to a memory of middle school when we would have Asian foreign exchange students come hang out with us for part of the school year, and instead of us being taught their actual names, they were given ridiculous English names like “Cutie” and “Sweety” (though some had less ridiculous English names like “Mary”).

Imagine being eleven, going to a new country, and instead of people calling you by your name, you get stuck with “Strawberry” or “Purple” for your entire stay because it’s easier for the locals to pronounce. Now, we’re not talking about nicknames or shortening a name (Christine > Chris, Michael > Mike, etc.), we’re talking about completely different names here.

It’s stupid. And I’m angry about it.

A person’s name should not be translated into something that isn’t their name just to make it easier for someone else to say.

Calling me “Christina” because it’s easier for you or because you like the way it sounds better (yes, I have actually been told that as an adult by an adult) is a sure-fire way to make me hate you just a little.

So, I swing back to the Yeshua/Jesus/Joshua thing and I’m sitting there like, “Yeshua” doesn’t need to be “Joshua” either. Yeshua is Yeshua. Period.

Now, full disclosure, I was one of those people who thought Christians who called Jesus “Yeshua” were being pretentious and annoying, but I get it now and I’m a little piffed it took me this long.

So, no, we will not be calling the Son of God “Josh”, nor will we be calling Him “Jesus”. His name is Yeshua. My name is Christine.

The point is, call people by their actual name (the one they give you) and not some version of their name that makes more sense to you.

 

December 25, 2022

After a Time of Silence, A Prophet Speaks

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Whether you prefer to think of the time leading up to John the Baptist as a period of absolute silence, or a period of relative silence, there is a ‘calm before the storm’ that ends when the prophet John announces the coming of the Messiah, and the day after directly points him out.

NIV.John.1.26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” …

…29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

But there’s a small microcosm of the time of silence vs. speaking when John’s father, Zechariah, goes mute for a period of several months, culminating in the naming of John. In December, 2019, Clarke Dixon wrote, “We might expect Zechariah to gush over this new baby boy, and he does gush, but not over his own child. He gushes over someone else’s, a child yet to be born.” These are his words:

NIV.Luke1.67b “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
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 passage is often skipped over in our reading — some people just want to cut to chapter two, the birth of Jesus — and several times I’ve shown it to people without the chapter of verse references to see if they can guess what’s being cited. Try it some time, the answers you get are often interesting.

For me, the distillation of the gospel in this passage is clearest in verses 69 and 70

He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
 just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago. (NLT)

The writer of Hebrews mentions the prophetic line as well:

The Message.Hebrews.1.1-3 Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words! 4 After he finished the sacrifice for sins, the Son took his honored place high in the heavens right alongside God, far higher than any angel in rank and rule.

The wording of verse 4 is similar to one of my favorite scriptures, Hebrews 10: 11 and 12.

CSB.Hebrews.10.11-12 Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in.

My point is that you don’t have the incarnation of Christ without a look forward to the atoning work of Christ that in our church calendar, we observe just a few months later.

I can’t think of these passages without leaving you with another of my favorites, also about the “fullness of time” when the Messiah appeared, from Titus:

NASB.Titus.3.4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior…

This is the message of Christmas, and of the gospel.

 

 

December 24, 2022

The First Christmas Eve and Ours

What brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem? Was it a census or was it a tax?

Older readers here grew up with Luke 2:1 in the KJV:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

However, the NIV, NLT, NASB prefer it was that the world — their immediate world — should report for the “census;” while the NKJV, CSB and ESV prefer “to be registered.”

The Pulpit Commentary blends the two meanings: “…more accurately, that there should be a registration, etc.; that is, with a view to the assessment of a tax.”  Ellicott’s Bible Commentary offers a different solution to the translation differences, in reference to our understanding of the key word: “The word ‘taxed’ is used in its older English sense of simple “registration,” and in that sense is a true equivalent for the Greek word. The corresponding verb appears in Hebrews 12:23. It does not involve, as to modern ears it seems to do, the payment of taxes.”

Some pastors have referred to what was happening as a “poll tax.” Wikipedia defines this,, “A poll tax, also known as head tax or capitation, is a tax levied as a fixed sum on every liable individual (typically every adult), without reference to income or resources. Head taxes were important sources of revenue for many governments from ancient times until the 19th century.”

In any event, online registration wasn’t an option, and it required travel to one’s birthplace. People with even a superficial awareness of the narrative know that this resulted in a lack of available guest space for Mary and Joseph, and the resultant childbirth taking place under inauspicious circumstances.

The travel crush is similar to what we see each year at this time, and the lack of available sleeping space is amplified this year in North America by the number of people being stranded in airports, forced to sleep in chairs and on blankets in waiting areas. I haven’t heard of any babies being born in airline terminals, but it’s still early in the story as I type this.

In a word then, chaos.

Jesus is born into a less than pleasant, less than ideal situation on the domestic front, and on the broader political front, the tax/census is a reminder of the Roman occupation. Further, looming on the horizon is the possibility that part of the census/registration is compiling updated listings of able-bodied people available for military conscription.

In several words then, inconvenience, taxation, foreboding (in terms of future military draft.)

This is the world to which Christ enters.

And it completely contrasts with the world that he vacated in order to be incarnate; in order to be Immanuel, God with us.

The Christmas carol, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” begins,

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room.
For Thy holy nativity

The song, “If That Isn’t Love” begins in the same place, but immediately cuts to the reason for His coming,

He left the splendor of heaven.
Knowing His destiny.
Was the lonely hill of Golgotha
There to lay down His life for me.

The cross is always in view, from the initial announcement to Mary that she is “with child” to Simeon’s prophetic word (Luke 2) that in Jesus, he (Simeon) has seen the salvation of God (or we could amplify, knowing the trajectory of the story, that he has seen the means of salvation.)

And Jesus himself takes on this role, looking past the chaos. With the narrow lens of our 2022 Christmas in North America, we could talk about looking past the canceled flights and the closed freeways. Or broader, looking past a situation where Christianity being increasingly marginalized each year at this time, and looking past the disappointment of canceled Christmas Eve services.

Historically we could say, he looks past the people who despise him, and even close friends who will betray him (Judas), deny him (Peter) or doubt his ability to have brought about the salvation promised (Thomas).

But he does all this awaiting a future promise, a future hope.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:2b NIV

Jesus enters our world in the place of chaos and inconvenience, and our similar circumstances this year should remind us of his.

 

 

 

 

November 26, 2022

Advent: A Promise is About to be Realized

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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This devotional was originally scheduled for Saturday and ties in with the first Sunday of Advent, Hope Sunday.

Today we’re back for a third time with who writes at Our Living Hope. Click the title which follows to read this where it first appeared.

The Advent: A Divine Fulfillment

“All the promises of God are yes and Amen in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

The Advent of Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to mankind, the word became flesh to show the world that the word of God will stand the test of time and will never pass away. As the world is facing lot of challenges, it’s important that we stand on those promises and offer hope to a hurting world. Through the incarnation of Christ God has assured us that he is Emmanuel, he will be with us always, even until the end.

The first Christmas saw a great rejoicing over the birth of Christ, the Angels sang, the shepherds shared, the people were amazed and the wise men worshiped, since God fulfilled what he had promised to his people. Even today Christ stands as a sign that God is able to fulfill his promises, to be a Saviour, to be a good shepherd, to be an everlasting King, So as to fulfill his eternal plan on this earth, that all might have hope.

It fulfilled the Scriptures:

“……and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet. ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son’. Matthew 2:15

There are four times in Matthew 1&2 its been written that certain incidents happened to fulfill what was told through the prophets found in the scriptures. The prophetic word and the divine revelation of the Holyspirit came in to life through the birth of Jesus. All through his life Jesus fulfilled the scriptures, it is the reason on the road to Emmaus, he opened the scriptures to the disciples and showed both from the Law and the Prophets all that was mentioned about him. Jesus is the central truth of the Bible, the old projects upon it, and the new proceeds out of it, and his advent becomes the focal point of human history. All the promises found in the scriptures leads to Christ and through Christ it becomes relevant in our lives. When the prophetic word comes to life it becomes life giving as in the life of Jesus. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible orients itself towards consummation of God’s everlasting will, on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus fulfilled all the prophetic word that was said about him, and the advent began that divine process, as the prophetic word spoken to Mary began to unfold the advent story unwraps itself to reveal the word to the world.

It fulfilled the appointed time:

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,”. Galatians 4:4.

God’s promises and God’s time are inseparable and one in the same. The revealed word requires an appointed time. The Promise of Christ was mentioned in the early pages of the Bible, but it took centuries to be fulfilled. Prophet Isaiah proclaimed the prophecy of his birth almost six hundred years back. Its fascinating that God revealed his promise of Christ through his prophets much before its fulfillment shows his wisdom which is far beyond and that he is ahead of our time, to prepare us for the task ahead. Simeon and Anna in God’s appointed time saw the glory of God they desired. Elizabeth was too old to conceive, but for Mary it was too early, our time belongs to God! The advent of Christ established God’s sovereign authority over our time. It was during the edict of Augustus for a kingdom wide census, it was when Herod tried to gain the people’s favour by refurbishing the second temple, when Judea was seeing many nationalistic uprisings, and Rome was strengthening its authority all over its kingdom through administration, military and transport. It was God’s chosen time to enter man’s history and forever made it his story. Jesus stepped in when the set time had fully come, he fulfilled God’s appointed time. The right time is always His time!

It Fulfilled the work of Faith:

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Luke 1:34.

‘Faith makes all things possible, but it doesn’t make all things comfortable’. Just because its from God, it doesn’t mean it has to be easy. The first message of Christ’s birth was received with a doubt, Mary said ‘How can this be?’ and Joseph secretly planned to put her away. The human response to God’s plans are always with fear and doubt, because it’s always beyond human conceptions and thoughts, and God understands it and he alone deserves the Glory. He strengthened both Mary and Joseph beyond their doubts to carry out his will. God just revealed them his plan, but didn’t tell all the struggles they had to go through to bring out Jesus. God designed the advent story to be a faith story. God’s sovereign plan need a faith response, and God gives us that grace even in the midst of weakness and struggles. Joseph and Mary had to go through the struggle to bring out God’s promise of Christ. Mary had to go through shame as well as Joseph, they had to go through the times of unknown, constant shuffling from one place to another. It was a human struggle for a divine purpose, but God was with them every step of the way. Even the Magi needed to have faith to find the King in a manger, to become a part of that advent story, they were wise because they had faith to seek. Every faith story involves struggles, and God gives us grace to fulfill the work of faith. Those infants of Bethlehem killed by Herod I believe are the martyrs of the same faith. Even today the birth of Christ inspires us because it’s a story of faith beyond human struggles, fears and uncertainties. God just doesn’t give the promise, he also gives the faith to fulfill it.

It fulfilled the call to follow:

“But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus”. Matthew 1:25.

The greatest gift we can enjoy in this world is the very present guidance of the Lord. The advent story had God’s guidance every step of the way. Jesus followed God’s mandate in obedience to be a part of our human family and how it changed human history for good? Just his humility to give himself under our care as a child, he trusts us too, who are so unworthy and that’s hope! Everybody came together on that night because Jesus was at the centre of their desire. Joseph and Mary followed God’s guidance in bringing Christ in to this world, we can see in those verses that every time God spoke to Joseph and guided him, he responded with obedience. Joseph could have thought what does the redeemer promised to Israel going to do as a refugee in Egypt? But he still followed. Many times it’s not easy, following can be tough, but the advent story became a reality through God’s divine guidance in the life of a follower. Every time Christ’s birth is told and retold it will never be complete without the part of Mary and Joseph. The advent story is about the people who followed. Their perseverance to follow gave them the privilege to name the Son of God, the Saviour of the world and the King of all the earth as ‘Jesus’!

As we enter the season to remember Christ’s birth, lets acknowledge that its our story too. He came for every single person of this world, so that every one can become part of his plan. Jesus is the promise of God unto mankind and through whom every other promises are Yes and Amen. Jesus is the promise and assurance of God’s love to all humanity, in Love this kingdom is established and this promise of Love is to save everyone who believes,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. John 3:16.

It is the reason his first coming is as relevant even today as his second. Even with all the joy and excitement of the season, we also cannot forget the unfinished work that is ahead us, in reaching all and invite everyone to partake in the promise of God’s unfailing love through which humanity can find hope. We also enter this season with a sense of paradox understanding both the joys and responsibilities as those who become part of the promise to look forward and prepare others to look to another promise as well, A. Peter gives us a glimpse in to the heart of God, that he doesn’t want anyone to perish,

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. 2 Peter 3:9.

Come Thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise

Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home

July 25, 2022

More Than a Line Sung at Christmas

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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This is our fourth visit with the writing of Jake Hunt at his blog Wiser Time. Though the blog is currently dormant, we thought this devotional study was absolutely perfect for what readers here expect. Jake writes from Prague in the Czech Republic.

Don’t rush this one. There is a lot of value in what’s written here, but you might need to go a little slower (as is often the case when reading Hebrews.)

Born to raise the sons of earth

At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:8-9)

…Humanity is capable of incredible things. Of course, we’re capable of terrible things too. “Heaven have mercy on us all– Presbyterians and pagans alike– for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Since the Garden, this is what it means to be human. We bear the image of God, every single one of us. And yet, we also bear the unmistakable marks of sin and disease and death. So much potential for good, so much depravity. Not in different types of people, but in each one of us.

Hebrews 2 is at points a little tricky, because it’s not always clear who the pronouns are about. The author quotes Psalm 8, which praises God’s work in creation and marvels at the privileged place mankind has at its apex, and then by verse 9 we’re clearly talking about Jesus. Between the two, it’s a little unclear. “He [God?] left nothing outside his [man’s? Jesus’?] control.” “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to [man? Jesus?].”

The answer, I suggest (following smarter people), is to see the significance of Jesus as the second Adam, the true representative Man. As I said yesterday, he became human in order to experience everything we experience. But in becoming human, he also suffered what he did, and accomplished what he did, for us. He redeems our humanity, raises us back to our proper place. “In him the tribes of Adam boast / More blessings than their father lost.”

The consummation of our redemption is not yet complete. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to mankind. The earth still bears thistles and thorns. Vaccines are still needed because disease is still present. “Man, at war with man, hears not / the love song which they bring.”

Yet what do we see? We see Jesus, the True Man, the representative Man, the second Adam, who reinstates us in our Father’s love, who shows us what it means to be truly human, who gives his Spirit to perfect us more and more in his image. This is what Advent tells us: He came to redeem our fallen humanity, by taking it upon himself. He has redeemed us, he is redeeming us, and as we look to the second Advent, we know that he will redeem us.

He is “born to raise the sons of earth,” that we may become once more the sons of God as he intended. Because he is crowned with glory and honor, we will rule over the beautiful renewed creation as we were made to do. “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

 

December 26, 2021

Ten Years of Christmas Greetings – Part Two

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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2016:

Nancy Ruegg writes:

“But when the appropriate time had come,
God sent his Son.”
–Galatians 4:4, ISV

Let’s see…Jesus arrived on Planet Earth during the height of the Roman Empire, some 2000+ years ago – long before television or radio, even before the telegraph.

Why didn’t God wait, at least until the 1800s, so news of Jesus’ birth could be transmitted quickly?

Then there’s the argument from the other end of the spectrum. Why did God wait so long to send Jesus? Century upon dark and gloomy century had passed since Adam and Eve first sinned and a Savior was promised (Genesis 3).

There must have been something just right about that era when the Romans ruled the world. In fact, Bible scholars have identified a number of factors to explain the appropriateness of this time for God to send his Son.  Such information contributes proof of God’s wisdom and his ability to engineer circumstances perfectly… [continue reading here]

2017:

… 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.

2018:

Heb.1.2 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.

Ruth Wilkinson writes:

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.

2019:

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.

From another post that year:

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)

…Hastily going through the files for a last minute Christmas Eve service request, 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.

2020:

Clarke Dixon wrote:

…The sorrow in Bethlehem is a result of a very far-from-God kind of person in leadership. Herod the Great was really Herod the Horrible. He was great if you like buildings. The rebuilt temple was impressive among other building programs he was responsible for. He was horrible if you like people. He had one of his wives executed, plus several of his sons. He even arranged for many Jewish nobles to be executed when he died so that there would be weeping instead of rejoicing at his death. Thankfully, that was not carried out.

His son was not much better. In fact the Romans gave him the boot, which is why you have Herod ruling as king in Jerusalem at Christmas, but by the time of the events of Easter you have a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, in charge instead. Indeed the ruthlessness of Herod’s son is the reason Joseph and Mary headed back to Nazareth on the return from Egypt. This was still a time of fear. People can create incredible fear and sorrow in people.

The joy of the magi was over the birth of a closer-to-God-than-the-magi-knew kind of person born to be the new leader. The magi would hardly have known the full calling of Jesus, but they had joy over the birth of a king, a king that had a right to the throne, unlike Herod. This new and true king would potentially rule, not just over the people, but for the people. The Old Testament prophecies speak to this hope.

An excerpt from Jesus: A Theography notes:

…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.


These are just some of the Christmas-themed devotionals which appeared between December 21-26 in the years listed.

There is so much richness, so much death to this birth story. Most of our gospels are concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus which began at age 30, but we can’t skip over the passages of his birth and the glimpses of his childhood too quickly, or we miss out on the foundation which shaped the entire narrative.

December 25, 2021

Ten Years of Christmas Greetings – Part One

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:29 pm
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Looking back at previous things which appeared here at C201

2011:

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

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9,10)

At a Christmas Eve service, Andy Stanley noted that when you attend an afternoon showing at a movie theater, and then walk out into the day light, the brightness hurts.  It offends the senses.  We tend to think of  “seeing the light” as a good thing; but initially it is an affront to one’s body.  (Note: The passage below wasn’t part of the original devotional but fits well.)

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

2012:

My expanded paraphrase/commentary on Philippians 2. I won’t dare to set this in a green font, equating it with scripture, but every phrase is driven by the original text. I’ve returned to this passage often here, but had forgotten this existed until today.

The mark of being a Christ-follower isn’t going to be measured in external, visible things as much it’s evident in an attitude.  That mindset should be the same as Christ’s.

Even though he was 100% God, he didn’t consider his fellowship in what we call the trinity something to be leveraged, a status update to be posted every five minutes, a trump card to play. Instead he came in a spirit of humility.

Any one of the following four would have been significant but he came in humility insofar as he (a) entered the world exactly as one of us, with all the physical ramifications of being human, (b) generally tended to play his role as that of a servant, doing the things which we would not expect of either an earthly or heavenly king, (c) experienced exactly what we would in leaving the world, through death, (d) not dying of natural causes or illness but in a cruel, violent, painful execution of one counted as a criminal, even though he had not sinned.

Upon completing all of this, God the Father lifted him up to the highest place in heaven, and gave him a title and a position which exceeds any other,  so that ultimately every knee will bow and every mouth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all people, all places, all things; with God the Father also glorified in this.

2013:

Did Jesus come to bring “peace on earth?” Yes and no. Here’s a passage I’ve never seen on a Christmas card:

Luke.12.49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

2014:

This one ties into what we posted yesterday.

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, 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.

2015:

Supplemental text inserts in The Voice Bible.

John’s prologue:

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

The Hebrews 1 passage that we quoted yesterday:

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

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

The “why” of the census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem from Luke 2:

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

And one of my favorites, the gifts brought by the star-followers in Matthew 2:

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


These are just some of the Christmas-themed devotionals which appeared between December 23-26 in the years listed.

There is so much richness, so much death to this birth story. Most of our gospels are concerned with the life and teachings of Jesus which began at age 30, but we can’t skip over the passages of his birth and the glimpses of his childhood too quickly, or we miss out on the foundation of the entire narrative.

December 22, 2021

Potentially Going Overboard with Christmas is Not a Reason Not to Celebrate

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Preview: “…a far bigger mistake than dancing too much before our Lord in joy is to dance too little…”

Today another new author for you. Curtis K. Shelburne has been writing at Focus on Faith since early February, 2012. He also hosts a podcast with the same name. Readers, as always, please encourage our writers by clicking on the headers like the one which follows, and reading the article where it originated.

Finding Hope and Joy in the Light

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).

It’s the light, you know!

   Twirling, swirling, splash-silvering

         crisp snow below.

   Liquid luminescence and stardust inadvertently shed

         By pirouetting angels in the sky

                 above the Christ-child’s head.

   They fly, as has been said,

         by taking themselves lightly!

   Ah, the delight! Such glory and brightness!

         O’er that rude Baby King-sized bed.

   And look! Nestled warm in the hay below,

         As the Christmas angels sing,

             Silver-tipped tongues of light hailing the King,

         He lies slumbering ̶ the Truth, the Light, the Way.

    Swaddled against the cold of the night,

          Whiffling and sleeping, the Babe sweetly sighs,

    And on and on the angels dance, and dark gives way to love-light

         And Heaven’s glory shimmers and shines,

               And joy, the angels’ light-essence,

                     Washes over all in His sweet Presence.

Yes, it’s the light, you know!

Wow, my poor poem needs a lot of work! But it really is the light, I think, that is one of the most beautiful features of this season. From the time I was old enough to slide under our family Christmas tree, clad in those wonderful old pajamas that came complete with feet, and gaze up through the branches of the tree and drink in the beauty, it was the light that lit me with joy.

I liked it then. I like it now. I knew instinctively then, and I know more overtly and reflectively now, that celebrating Christ’s birth with joy and light is, well, right. (I’m trying not to stay in cut-rate poet mode; I beg pardon.)

With regard to Christmas, it seems to me increasingly clear that we’re in a “if the people are silent, the very stones will cry out” situation (Luke 19:40), and, though I’m no stranger to self-righteousness in myself (it’s a cancer that all too often recurs), I’ve known for a long time now, as surely as I know my own name, that a far bigger mistake than dancing too much before our Lord in joy is to dance too little and force the rocks to praise him because we’re too full of ourselves and toxic “religion” let our joy—God’s joy—loose in our souls.

I’ve heard all of the arguments against Christmas celebration. Too much, too extravagant, too this and too that. Excessive! And with pagan roots, to boot!

Well, because we can go over the top with celebration is not a good enough reason not to celebrate when celebration is called for! It’s not praiseworthy to inconvenience rocks because we’re praise-mute for no good reason.

And the charges of paganism tossed about by folks who want to pour a little cold water on over-much joy is not all the story by any means. Reading some better scholars telling the historical truth about such will make you feel a lot better about feeling really good about the joy of the season. (I can point you to a great article or two well worth reading, if you ask.)

Our God is not worried that we might overdose on joy. The far greater danger is that we remain so hung up on ourselves that we are unable to dance selflessly before our Lord.

Jesus told us clearly (it’s still a very hard lesson) that being his disciples means laying down our very selves so that we focus on him. That’s the way God molds us into the truest versions of ourselves, exactly what our Creator had in mind when he made us for his joy.

G. K. Chesterton, an amazing and faith-filled wordsmith once wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you.”

Too often we stumble around in darkness, always in one way or another taking mental “selfies” to see how what we’re doing is “playing.” But it’s hard to see at all when our universe is bounded north, south, east, and west by self. And how boring!

In his light, we begin to open ourselves up to the lives of others, and we find their lives and stories and personalities, their joys and trials and sheer courage, not boring in the least.

If we would let in the light of Christmas, God’s light, Chesterton writes, “You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

God’s light splashing our souls with God’s joy has been known to grow some very large souls indeed.

My Christmas lights won’t add much to the divine light kindled by our Creator, but nonetheless, I plan to join my neighbors in flipping the switch each night and adding my little attempts at glimmers of light to the nuclear reaction of God’s cosmic glory.

All genuine light is God’s light, you know.


Revisit the introduction for website link and podcast site link.

Copyright 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

December 21, 2021

Jesus Enters the Family of Mary and Joseph, So That We Can Enter the Family of God

And being found in human form, he humbled himself… Philippians 4:7-8a NRSV

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10 NRSV

Today’s title is, hands down, our longest title here. I always give our devotionals unique titles from what the author had chosen, in order that we don’t divert search engine traffic away from the original sources. This article is an encore from Clarke Dixon, and his title, in the link below really captured it so well.

His Birth, Our Adoption

by Clarke Dixon

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!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:4-7 NRSV

Jesus was born, so that ultimately we might receive adoption as God’s children. There are few things we can note:

  1. We cannot think of ourselves as automatically being God’s children just because we happen to exist. The Bible does not affirm that all people are God’s children, if we were, there would be no need for adoption. It does affirm that we are separated from God by sin. God therefore has no “fatherly” obligation toward us. Thankfully, it also affirms that we can become His children: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12 NRSV)
  2. Adoption is a result of God’s will, God’s desire. A parent who goes to an adoption agency has no prior obligation to adopt a particular child. God has no obligation to adopt us, or do anything for us. But He chooses to do so. It is His will to do something good for us, He sent His Son, that we might be adopted.
  3. Our background is not an issue for adoption. When God has chosen to adopt you, there is no “but Lord, you know that I am . . . or I have done . . .” He already knows and has gone ahead with the adoption anyway. There is repentance from those things in the past that separate us from God, but our past does not keep God from adopting.
  4. We are adopted by One who will be present to us and intimate with us: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6) Though we can point to the Lamb’s Book of life, an adoption certificate is not our proof now that we are His children. His fatherly presence through His Holy Spirit is. And through His Spirit we are to call him by what is really the more familiar “Dad” rather than the formal “Father.”
  5. We are no longer enslaved. We have been enslaved to sin this side of Eden. A particular people were called through whom God would bless all, they were enslaved to the law. Through adoption we are no longer slaves to sin or the law, but we are free children of God. Being freed, our desire will be to honor the One who has freed us from slavery, and adopted us as His own.
  6. As God’s children we look forward to an inheritance. While I appreciate translations that look to being appropriately inclusive in language, these are verses where it helps to know that the word “son” is used throughout. In fact it is even found in the very word for ‘adoption’. This is important because it was written at a time when sons enjoyed the inheritance, the daughters not-so-much. So the ladies among us also look forward to a full and equal inheritance in Jesus.
  7. A familiar expression is true: “God has no grandchildren.” Perhaps some prefer to think of God as a grandfather type of figure, close enough to enjoy a relationship, but far enough to enjoy freedom from a father’s discipline. When we are adopted, we are adopted as children, not grandchildren. We can expect His wonderful presence, we can expect a wonderful inheritance, and we can also expect His discipline. This too is wonderful!

At the right time Jesus was born so that someday you might be adopted as God’s child. Have you experienced that?

December 19, 2021

Christ’s Birth Circumstances Prefigure the Upside-Down Kingdom

A year ago at this time we introduced you to Rev. John Partridge, the pastor at Christ United Methodist Church (UMC) in Alliance, Ohio. His website for sermon content and blog articles is PastorPartridge.com. We always suggest reading devotionals here at source, but especially today as we’re joining a larger article in progress. Click the header which follows.

The Miracle of Contradictions

…We see…contradictions at work in the story of Christmas as God upsets the status quo and sends the king of the universe to be born in stable and sleep in a feeding trough.  And the entire story of Christmas and the coming of the messiah is steeped in, and filled with, those contradictions from the earliest prophecies of his coming.  And, as we look for, and investigate, these contradictions, we find that these contradictions are some of the greatest miracles of all.  We begin this morning with God’s prophecy of the coming messiah found in Micah 5:2-5a where it says:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;and he shall be the one of peace.

Micah declares that the smallest of Israel’s clans will produce the greatest king that Israel would ever have and continues by saying that God was bringing something new into the world that was already ancient.  Micah says that someone new is coming to rule in Israel who already existed in the dark recesses of their ancient past.  And so, Judah would be both small and great, the messiah would be both new and ancient, and would have great strength but would bring peace instead of bloodshed.  And then with the coming of Jesus, the contradictions continue as we read Luke 1:39-45 where he says:

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth declares that Mary, despite being poor, is the most blessed woman on the planet.  Also, Elizabeth recognized Mary’s child, who was unborn, as her Lord and king.  And if those contradictions weren’t enough, Elizabeth’s child, John, despite being blind and still inside of his mother’s womb, sees clearly, and has the perception to recognize the arrival of Jesus and Mary.

And the contradictions continue in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews as he summarizes the coming of Jesus this way in Hebrews 10:5-10:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Jesus said that sacrifices and offerings were not desired by God even though history, tradition, scripture, and the law of Moses required them.  And then Paul says that the coming of Jesus not only abolishes God’s system of worship for his people, but also establishes a new system of worship for his people.

That’s a lot of contradiction in just a small sampling of scripture from the Christmas story.  But why would I say that this is a miracle?  What is this miracle of contradictions?

Simply put, the miracle of contradictions is that the story of Christmas isn’t just one big miracle about the birth of the messiah.  It isn’t just a story about the birth of a king, or even the birth of God’s son.  It’s a bigger and deeper story that involves ordinary people, with ordinary lives, and a story in which God, repeatedly, does the unexpected, in new, different, and surprising ways.

Judah is small, but great.

The Messiah is new, but ancient.

Would be strong enough to rule the ends of the earth but would bring peace instead of bloodshed.

Mary is poor but blessed beyond measure.

Jesus is unborn, but king.

John is blind but sees.

The sacrifices of God are required but undesired.

The messiah’s arrival abolishes but establishes.

The story of Christmas is filled with the miracle of contradictions, and it is that miracle that makes the story unexpected, fills the story with mystery and wonder, draws us in, and welcomes us, not only as spectators, but participants in the story.  The story of the coming of the messiah is filled, not with kings and princes, and rich and powerful people of influence, but ordinary people like us.  The story of Christmas is a story of poor people, farmers, laborers, sheep herders, scholars, infants, old people, the forgotten, the outcasts, and the unwanted.  In God’s most powerful and meaningful story, the pivotal actors are all people like us.  Ordinary.

God did not choose to use kings and princes.  Instead, he used ordinary people of faith.  God chose to trust the people who trusted him to begin his most miraculous work of all and to share the story of that miracle with the world.

And that’s still the way that God works.

That’s a part of the mystery and wonder of the story.

God still calls ordinary people; people like you and me.  God still calls farmers, laborers, sheep herders, children, the elderly, the forgotten, the outcasts, the unwanted, and the unexpected.  The greatest movements in history, the greatest agents of change in the world, are usually not presidents and prime ministers, bad boys, and billionaires, or even millionaires, movie stars and the monied elites.  The people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the orphans and the widows, bandage the wounded, and do the work of Jesus in the world are, most often, unsung, unheralded, unnoticed, ordinary people of faith because God trusts the people who trust him.

It’s mysterious and it’s wonderful.

The miracle of contradictions is that the God who spoke the universe into existence, wants me, and wants you, to do his work, to represent him, to be his ambassadors, to share his story with the world, and to be Jesus to the people around us.

We see it in the Christmas story, but God has been working like that all along.

It is one of life’s greatest contradictions.

But these are the contradictions that welcome us into the story.

Not just as spectators… but as participants.

And may just be the most meaningful Christmas gift of all.

December 18, 2021

Holiness Shines in the Darkest Moments

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NIV.Luke.2.8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11a Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you…”

…15b …the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Our search to bring you the best in devotional writing took us to a new writer today. Jake Owensby is a Bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States, holds a doctorate in Philosophy and as we learned later, is the author of Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope (Abingdon, 2021). We tossed an image of the book cover into the mix today, although I’m not sure the devotional is an actual excerpt. This appeared earlier today at his blog, which is also called Looking for God in Messy Places.

We always encourage you to read C201 devotionals at the place where we found them, and this one is beautifully illustrated there which adds to the reading experience. Click the header which follows.

Wherever You Are

If God can show up in the manger, God can show up anywhere. With anybody. With you and with me. Wherever life might take us.

The angels said to the shepherds, “To you is born this day … a Savior.” And once the angels had gone, the shepherds headed into Bethlehem to see for themselves.

What they found there was an exhausted young mother. A vigilant new father. And a baby. A baby lying in a feed trough. Surrounded by animals and hay and dirt and dung.

But it wasn’t just any baby. When they looked at him they knew in their gut, in their heart, in their marrow that they were seeing God in the flesh. And that this baby, in this place, born to these poor parents, was telling them everything they needed to know about God. About how God is saving them. Saving you and me and the whole world.

In the infant Jesus we see—like those shepherds saw long ago—that God can and will show up anywhere. At anytime. There are no circumstances so appalling, no dwelling so mean, no life so shattered that God will not make it his very own home.

In Jesus we see that God pursues us wherever we may be. Not to spy on us or to scold us or to judge us but to take up nurturing, healing, liberating residence in the very midst of our lives. No matter how messy our life might be. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

“If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”

If you’re like me, the birth of Jesus offers relief and kindles a hope that I could never conjure up for myself. That hope is more than wishful thinking. More than the anticipation that my own desires will be fulfilled or my private agenda will get a divine thumbs up.

The birth of Jesus—the moment in which God takes on the vulnerability and fragility of human flesh in a dangerous town in some stranger’s crummy spare room— shows me that God is with us. That love inhabits even the darkest corners of this world.

And the divine love is no mere feeling. Love is the power that changes everything. As Howard Thurman says, Christmas assures us that “love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

Jesus will not force his way into our lives. His love is freely given. And we can freely accept it, reject it, or ignore it. Each of us will decide whether or not to make room for Mary and Joseph in the inn of our lives.

As preachers have said in Christmases past, each of us is an innkeeper. Jesus invites us to make a place for him at the center of our lives. And there is a part of us—a tender, wounded, weary, harried, bewildered part of us—that struggles to turn off our “No Vacancy” sign.

In the words of Henri Nouwen:

“A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.”

To put that another way, we struggle to give Jesus a place in our inn because we fear that our rooms will be too shabby, too plain, too messy to meet his approval.

So, I encourage you to look with your imagination at that baby. Not the idealized infant of Renaissance paintings and stained glass windows. But at that peasant baby on a dirt floor in a drab, untidy room. That baby breathing donkey’s breath, smelling of old straw, and wrapped in a tattered blanket.

If God can show up there, God can show up anywhere. With anybody. With you and with me. Wherever life might take us.

December 17, 2021

God’s Storytelling Writes People into the Narrative

Another new writer to feature today. Gabriel Ponce is a pastor in Tucson Arizona who “is passionate about developing people’s relationships with Christ.”I like the way he wrestles through texts, stating that, “if the Bible speaks to an issue, then God has a perspective that we as Christians should submit to. If not, there may be principles to garner, and if not then we fall to the realm of wisdom for help, always being aware of the history. In all things to give God glory.” He admits that “this is partly me working through many issues for myself, that a pulpit doesn’t always grant opportunity for on a Sunday morning.

His blog is Blogabers.

To avoid stealing search engine results from the various people we feature here, I always create our own title for the piece; but sometimes, like today, ask myself, “Did I accurately capture what the article is all about?” I appreciated this one greatly, and I hope it gets you thinking as it did me.

Clicking the header which follows will take you to its source.

The Humanity of the Gospel

As I read through the Gospels again, I was struck by the humanness of the story of Jesus. What I mean is not so much the humanity of Christ, but how much God seemed to allow for the agency of man to be a part of the story. This is first obvious in the advent itself. But I don’t mean God left the story’s rhythm up to the capriciousness of men. Yet, he did use the obedience of men, the experiences of men, instead of the supernatural intervention we might expect. Mary was a willing participant and, therefore, she was blessed by God to be a part of the story.

After the incarnation, the birth of Christ, it is almost as if the safety of Jesus is left up to Joseph to lead his family. Why no mention of divine protection like the angels standing guard in Eden? Why doesn’t God strike Herod dead for attempting to take the life of Jesus? Why do Joseph and Mary have to flee? That is not to say this wasn’t available, but the story is not told in this way. Obviously, this is to fulfill prophecy, yet there is an element where God seems to want to include his people in the story. (Matthew 2:15) Even Herod’s wicked deed was a fulfillment of prophecy. (Matthew 2:18) Later, when Joseph is warned not to return to Galilee, he escapes to Nazareth by warning of an angel, and again this is a fulfillment of prophecy, but wasn’t the angel wearing a sword? What I mean by the humanity of the Gospel is how earthy and human God allows all the parts of the story to be. (It is almost like he wants to relate to us)

Jesus lived the true human experience. He was raised by human parents, even being misunderstood when he stayed at the temple, yet remained obedient to his parents when told to return with them. Presumably he worked with Joseph learning a trade until the time for his ministry began.  This leads of course to John the Baptist. God is working through the evangel of a prophet here to fulfill his duty. Why does God use men instead of just throwing his weight around? Why even use a prophet–just write it in the clouds and have angels appear and announce the truth? Even the baptism of Jesus is so human. Jesus comes and demonstrates obedience instead of the, simpler for him and flashier to us, ways he could have given revelation. Just snap your fingers and have explosions, lights, and trumpets blare, or something…It is not just the Jews who like signs.

This leads to the temptations of Jesus. Jesus could have just one finger punched the devil into a mountain, instead, He puts up with the temptations from Satan. Jesus continually restricts himself to his humanity to demonstrate a supernatural reality. This same kind of thing happens when Jesus had Simon fish out a coin from a fish’s mouth to pay a temple tax. (Matthew 17:24-27) He does things with what is around him for a purpose. I could keep doing this, but there is an obvious point in all this. Maybe it is so obvious, this is redundant, but God is looking for people to respond to his call. Everything in the story is a lesson of revelation.

It is a similar epiphany I had when reading from Exodus 34:16-17. God shares his pedigree. When the opportunity to introduce himself formally to Moses comes, He doesn’t go all flashy. He doesn’t say, “I Am Holy, Beautiful, Powerful, Amazing, Brilliant, Perfect, Awesome, and so Gloriously bright you gotta wear shades!” while holy electric guitars were wailing. Though he certainly is all those things, instead he uses relational attributes. “The LORD the LORD merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in Love…”

These are attributes that have meaning in relation to his creatures. God invites us to worship him by his interactions with us instead of doing an impressive dance number singing, “U can’t touch this!” Though, if Genesis chapter one isn’t such an awe-inspiring mind-bending feat, then I don’t know what is. But God never flaunts his power, He states it, and then begins to teach. He is not like a kid demonstrating his might over ants with his shoe. No, He seems to want to bring us along to his truth. I think of when Jesus is being arrested. The disciples want to fight for him, and He simply reminds them that he has command of the angels of God, if such an endeavor was called for. If only…

52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26)

I love this passage. Jesus isn’t speaking in parables; He isn’t clouding his language. He isn’t speaking loftily in spiritual language flying over their heads. He is almost pausing the whole story and commentating, Hey, guys do you really think things are out of control? Do you really fear that things just happen outside the purview of God? Do you truly worry that I am without power in this situation? No, I am doing this for a reason. I love this story because this is how we would assume it would be. A king commands. A leader leads. God doesn’t lose. So, we must understand that while we may wonder at or desire this more supernatural approach, Jesus seems to want to bring us along with him, not leave us behind as he travels on clouds dealing out lightning bolts and flaming swords. God’s ways are higher than man’s ways after all. (Isaiah 55:9) Though they may not always look like it to us.

It seems that God is working through the obedience of men to fulfill his own will, not through the demonstration of the ability to dominate. But he did miracles all the time! Yes, it is interesting, the power he does demonstrate is always for verification of his words. Who He is. It is for establishing his truth, his pedigree. It is making the not-so-subtle point that God is on his side. As you read through the Gospels, especially in Mark, it is almost as if Jesus is doing many private miracles out of compassion, above his mission. He wanted to preach, not simply be a miracle worker, that would take all day–and this seems to be why he is always telling people to keep quiet about it. Think of how easy it could have been when the Jews continually asked for signs for him to do so. Anytime someone questioned him, he could snap his finger and the ground would shake and swallow them whole. Think of it, people would have believed then, but for the wrong reasons.

God didn’t merely want fealty. He does not show up like Loki slamming his specter down in power and demanding that everyone must kneel, not yet, he first comes with an offer of the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t do that because he desires that none should perish. He draws us by the Spirit and again preaches to us through the Gospel message. He wants a relationship and that is so interesting. He certainly requires obedience and calls us to repentance, but it is more of an offer than a coaxing. I know my Calvinist friends, and I consider myself one too, might want to push back with the calling and election, but the language is broader than that. Jesus doesn’t minister as if the election is the point, He ministers as if their faithful response is. When He calls out their hardness of heart, it is after they have demonstrated an unwillingness to respond. The Word of God is understandable.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)

That is why the humanity of the incarnation at the advent is so remarkable. Jesus came as a human to communicate to us, in a real sense, at our level. He came as a child to live like a man to minister to men and to call us all to himself. This is the miracle in the Christmas story. He came this way to sympathize with us. To be with us, as the name Emmanuel communicates.

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. 15 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. 16 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. (Hebrews 4)

The story of Jesus is so human because we are. But it doesn’t stay there, He is God in flesh. The posture of Jesus towards us is sympathy because he desires that we respond to him. He came into the world so that the world might be saved through him. The message of Jesus is to repent and believe because we need it. Ask yourself, why did he come?

December 11, 2021

The Church Around the World

I checked the date this morning and noticed it was two weeks before Christmas, and it struck me that this date is applicable to the Christian community around the world. It’s not a regional or local celebration, but one that is visible (at the very least) to the entire population around the globe.

In The Apostles Creed, we affirm that we believe in “the holy Catholic church,” which references this global fellowship. A 2008 article on the Christian History page of Christianity Today notes that,

…Millions of Protestants still repeat these words every week as they stand in worship to recite the Apostles’ Creed. The word catholic was first used in this sense in the early second century when Ignatius of Antioch declared, “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.” Jesus Christ is the head of the church, as well as its Lord. Protestant believers in the tradition of the Reformation understand the church to be the body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space, the whole company of God’s redeemed people  through the ages.

Protestants, of course, do not equate “catholic” with “Roman Catholic.” To avoid this misunderstanding, some prefer to say “holy Christian church.” While there is nothing wrong with this term, we should not be embarrassed by the older wording. The word catholic simply means “general, universal, concerning the whole.”…

There is a passage in Isaiah giving the people a song that they are to use to “taunt” the King of Assyria upon their promised release. While it is specific to that time, I believe the prophetic language has broader repercussions.

26 This is the plan determined for the whole world;
    this is the hand stretched out over all nations.
27 For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
    His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?

God’s hand is stretched out, and is plans and purposes will be seen not only throughout the whole world, but throughout the all ages of history. It is “determined for the whole world.”

As New Covenant Christians, our Good News is also to everyone, everywhere:

Matthew.24.14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Elsewhere we read,

1 John.2.2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

and again, in the epistles:

Col.1.3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.

“Growing throughout the world world” means our story began then and continues now to spread throughout the earth.

Paul again affirms the international scope of the Christian faith in another epistle:

Romans.1.16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.

As we start to wrap up the implications of this “holy Catholic church,” three passages I know have already come to mind for you:

Mark.16.15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.

Matthew.28.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Acts.1.8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The global nature of the Christian faith, starting at the time when we entered the New Testament era, stands in contrast to the Old Testament era, where the surrounding nations’ gods were localized and territorial. (Thus the need for so many, in contrast to the God of Israel who was/is one.)

With two weeks to go, we join the community of believers around the world in recognition of incarnation, through human birth the divine one has entered into our history, Emmanuel, God with us.

The opportunities this gives to share this good news at this time of year are immense, if we’ll only look for them and be prepared for them.

This we say:

Psalm.72.19 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen.

June 10, 2021

Test the Spirits… Wait, What Spirits?

Thinking Through 1st John 4:1-3

by Clarke Dixon

Have you ever been in conversation with a spirit and asked “spirit, do you confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?”

No, neither have I. What is John talking about then when he says “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” then goes on to give us the test?:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

1 John 4:1-3 (NRSV)

At first glance we might think we are to be asking spirit beings to clarify their theological positions for us. Perhaps in thinking through these verses we may hope to learn more about angels and demons. While I believe such exist, we won’t be talking about them here. Why? Because John is not talking about them here.

What is John talking about?

John is continuing to talk about what he has already been talking about in this letter, namely, the false teachers who were trying to influence the early Christian communities. Let us read what John has written again, and as we do so, let us recognize that he is not changing topics when he moves from ‘spirits’ to ‘prophets’:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.

1 John 4:1-3 (NRSV emphasis added)

John was giving the recipients of his letter a simple test, a question they could ask to discern if a someone was one of those false teachers who had hijacked Jesus to promote a more Gnostic way of thinking. In this way of thinking, anything spiritual is good, anything material is bad. Therefore the false teachers would have claimed that Jesus is from God, yes, but he just seemed to be in the flesh. Surely God would not become flesh and dwell among us, right? From a Gnostic way of thinking, God certainly would not. But John knew better.

John knew better because John knew Jesus. He spent time with him, and knew he was no phantom ghost, no mere spirit being. John saw Jesus die, in the flesh. John knew Jesus raised from the dead with a resurrection body. That resurrection body seemed to be a different kind of body, but was no mere spirit. John knew Jesus and could say,

. . . 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 (NRSV)

Therefore in telling the early Christians to test the spirits, John was encouraging them to stick with what they had learned from the apostles who were with Jesus, including John himself. They should stay away from the false teachers who had the “spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

So, what does this have to do with us now?

I can think of three things.

First, it gives us a foundation stone which is part of a robust foundation for our Christian thinking and belief.

If you think that Jesus was a spirit, and not a man, as many false teachers in John’s day thought, then you are lacking a key foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. You are missing what John, and the other apostles who spent time with Jesus, knew about him. They knew that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

However, if you think, as is more common in our day, that Jesus was just a moral teacher, and nothing more, then you are lacking a key foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. You are missing what John, and the other apostles who spent time with Jesus, knew about him. They knew that in Jesus “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

We are reminded of this foundation stone when we participate in The Lord’s Table. His flesh was broken for us, his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. He was no mere spirit being as the Gnostic teachers were claiming. But neither was he a mere teacher of morality as is more commonly held in our day, but rather Saviour, and Lord. The bread and the cup remind us of these things.

Second, it helps us sort out the foundation stones from the wallpaper, it helps us understand how to read the Bible.

As you read through 1st John 4:1-3 and following, you may hope to learn something about angels and demons, or even the antichrist. John mentions these, but not to satisfy our curiosity about them. Rather he mentions them to make a point. John is not really talking about spirits and demons here. He is speaking about Jesus, and an important fact about Jesus the false teachers were getting wrong.

As we read the Bible, let us not attempt to force it to answer our questions, to satisfy our curiosity. Let us allow the Bible writers to speak what needed to be said in their day. Let us wrestle with what it means for us in ours.

Third, we remember the importance of reading more than just a few verses of the Bible.

When we read 1st John 4:1-3 in the context of the entire letter of First John, the entire New Testament, and the entire Bible, we will realize that it just gives us just one foundation stone for Christian thinking and belief. Immediately before, and immediately after, we have another foundation stone, the life of love patterned after God’s love.

Recently the bodies of 215 children have been discovered in a residential school set up to educate indigenous children. These are not just unmarked graves, these have been unknown graves. How many others are there? What happened, and how? Who could have allowed this to happen? As we ask these questions, let us remember that this was not just a Canadian school, but a school representing Christianity.

If we could go back and ask those who were responsible if they believed that Jesus is the Messiah come in the flesh, they would likely have passed that test. That foundation stone was probably in place. But was the foundation stone of love in place? From where we stand, it sounds like “love” was not the word of the day, but “colonialism.”

Would we have done better if we were there at that time?

We must do better now. Being able to pass a theological exam from a few verses of the Bible is not enough.


Clarke Dixon is a Canadian pastor who appears here most Thursdays. You can read more devotions like this by clicking the header which appears just above his name. Video of the full sermon on which this devotional is based can be seen on its own, or as part of this “online worship expression

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