Christianity 201

January 9, 2020

Do You Belong in Church on a Sunday Morning?

by Clarke Dixon

Listen to the original sermon on which today’s article is based at this link.

Do you belong in church on a Sunday morning? There are those who have no desire to go. I get that. However, there are those who who would like to, but don’t feel they belong. They feel they will be judged, by the regulars, or worse, by God. There are those who feel that they are not good enough to be found in church, their attendance would be hypocritical in some way. At the tail end of the Christmas story, there is an event which will help us reflect on where we belong.

Let us first consider Mary and Joseph:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord  (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Luke 2:22-24 (NRSV)

Often missed in the Christmas celebrations, and often neglected in our rush to get beyond Christmas, is this story about Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was known to be the place where God took up residence among His people. Of course everyone would have known that God, Who created the cosmos, could not be contained in any single building. But there was a sense in which God had chosen to dwell among a certain people and therefore dwelt at a certain place. The temple, therefore was a sign of intimacy.

Do we think of Joseph and Mary as just going through the motions, doing a religious duty and nothing more? Or was there a sense of wonder, expectation, gratitude, and recognition of the intimacy between God and his people? Indeed this intimacy with God would be worked out in a special way through this child Mary and Joseph carry. Would they really have known what a privilege they had? If they did, being regular people, would they have felt they deserved that privilege? I doubt it! Do we really get what a privilege it is to be in the presence of God together with God’s people? Do we think of going to church as merely ‘doing a religious thing,’ or are we aware of our participation in something quite incredible?

Let us also consider Simeon. While Joseph and Mary are at the temple, Simeon took Jesus in his arms and said:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32 (NRSV)

These are surprising words. We may have expected ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation, for this child will deliver us from all peoples, and kick these pesky Romans out.’ Instead, salvation is “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The temple was a place of nationalistic pride. Many held the attitude that “Romans don’t belong here,” not in Israel, certainly not in the temple. Many feared the Romans would destroy the temple, just as the Babylonians had done hundreds of years before. Many were hoping the coming Messiah would protect the temple by destroying the Romans. However, this infant called Jesus was not destined to protect the temple and destroy the Romans, but rather to include the Romans in God’s loving embrace!

Next, let us consider Anna:

 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38 (NRSV)

As God used Simeon to drop big hints about what was to come through this infant Jesus, so He used Anna also. Anna spent most of her time for most of her long life at the temple. However, if the temple stood as a symbol of intimacy with God, it also stood as a symbol of distance from God. Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy place in the temple, only once a year, and only after much rigmarole to ensure ritual purity. Such is the holiness of God. Your regular priest could not go as far into God’s presence. Non-priests were kept further away. Women were kept further away still. Anna spent her life in devotion to a God she could not properly approach. God would change all that through this infant Jesus. Following his life, death, and resurrection, people like Anna could “come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Hebrews 6:16 KJV).

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. Ephesians 3:12 (NLT)

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 (NLT)

In fact, people like Anna, once kept at a distance without Christ, together are the temple, the place where God takes up residence:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 1 Corinthians 3:16 (NRSV)

With Simeon and Anna we discover that God can surprise us with his inclusive love. Are you surprised by the fact you can be included in God’s love? One of the things I am fond of saying at the Lord’s Supper is “it is not necessary for you to be a formal member of our church, or indeed any other church to participate with us in the Lord’s Table.” People are often not “good enough” to be included in church membership rolls. God is good enough to include them in His love, in His mercy and forgiveness at the cross. Perhaps that describes you? You may think you should stay away from church for you are not good enough to enter. You are welcome to come. You would be in the right place.

December 8, 2019

Only One Generation Saw the Promise Fulfilled

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

And We Wait

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamb? Not, the King?

Not the King, yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God doesn’t do things half way.

December 27, 2018

Herod and a Ruined Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

December 13, 2018

Is the Story of Christmas Believable?

by Clarke Dixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

December 24, 2010

When God Invades a Life

From Internet Monk, this question:

Mary was more than likely no more than 13 or 14 years old when the angel appeared to her. She had her whole life in front of her—a marriage to a man who would be able to provide for her, and that was not something to take for granted in those days. And then … and then God came and turned her whole world upside down.

Was this fair? Shouldn’t God knock before entering someone’s life? How would you have responded if the angel had come to you with this news? And does God still move in impossible ways today? Is God still coming and turning people’s lives upside-down?

And these responses:

  • Karin: Being told that you are favored by God would make saying ‘yes’ a whole lot easier and saying ‘no’ a whole lot harder. Mary seemed wise beyond her years and said, “I am the Lord’s servant.” At age 13 or 14 one usually does not have preconceived ideas about the consequences of such a life changing decision. Perhaps this kind of visitation by an angel and being chosen to be the mother of the long awaited Messiah was every young spiritually minded Israelite girl’s dream!If my daughter had come and told me that she experienced the same as what Mary experienced, I would probably have needed a visitation from an angel to confirm it, just as Joseph did!
  • Joanie: I have noticed that when Zechariah questioned the angel about how his wife could possibly become pregnant, he was made unable to speak until John was born. But Mary questioned the angel about how she could possibly get pregnant and the angel explained. I have read that Zechariah was a priest, was old and should have known that God could do whatever God wanted to do. Mary was a young girl and as such, was treated more…patiently. Do you often wonder what it would be like to encounter an angel? Do you think angels take on human-like properties so that they can communicate with us? I wonder how long it took for Jesus as he was growing up to fully realize who he was, why he was and what he had to do? And how much of that would Mary have understood? When they were at the wedding in Cana together, she obviously knew that he could turn water into wine. How did she know he could do that and would do that?
  • Hannah: Mary’s response of submission to God is so beautiful. I wonder if this was, completely and utterly out of the blue for her, or if, in some way, God had been preparing her for what He needed her to do? He doesn’t test us beyond what we can bear, so says the word, and she must have trusted God so much to just submit to him like that, not knowing at that time if Joseph would stick by her or not. And if God was preparing Mary in some small way, would He have been preparing Joseph too then, to do the right thing and stay with her. Did they risk small town humiliation and unbelief, or was the culture of the time open to what they said to curious neighbors and family friends about Mary’s pregnancy? They had to be so strong, it seems to me, in their commitment to God and each other and their trust in what God had told them. I wonder what Mary and Joseph’s individual relationships to God had been like up to that time?
  • John: I think when God speaks to people in these more direct and miraculous ways, we encounter more closely just what the nature of his kingdom is and how it operates. And because of that, things like having our lives turned upside down tend to pale in comparison. It’s not that there aren’t real effects on our lives, but that we have encountered in some very real way an intersection between our earthly plodding and the fuller reality of God’s eternal kingdom and purpose. When that happens, priorities get shifted a bit. In other words, the reality of God with us begins to take hold and change things, starting with us. “Shouldn’t God knock before entering someone’s life?”  I think God does, but in our dullness and distraction we aren’t always listening. And even if we are, he still tends to look and act a little different than we imagined before the actual encounter.God still turns lives upside down and moves in impossible ways today, but it’s easy to miss if I’m not looking and listening. Lord, give me the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Read the other comments and join the discussion at Internet Monk.

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Heartfelt thanks to faithful blog readers and wishes for God’s best in your life in the year to come.   Merry Christmas.   ~ Paul.