Warnings Or Threats


Jesus Christ came to seek and to save. That cost Him His life. But Scripture also says He gave us an example to follow. Peter said it clearly in his first letter.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:22-24)

So Christ is our model. When he was condemned, censured, abused, attacked, He didn’t sling invectives back. While he was beaten bloody, while he hung dying, He didn’t curse those who were responsible. He didn’t threaten them with Hell, and surely He could have.

I started thinking about threats in the context of warning sinners about their eternal destiny if they don’t repent.

I’ve said before that part of a Christian’s responsibility is to tell people the truth about what their headed towards. How else can they turn from the error of their ways if they haven’t heard that their ways are leading to destruction?

I’ve likened the Christian’s role to that of an emergency worker warning traffic that up ahead the bridge is out. They can’t slow down and carefully easy their way forward. No, the bridge is gone! If they continue down the road, they will crash. No other option. They must either turn around or die.

Is that a threat?

I know some atheists think so. They look at Christians as gleeful in their pronouncements of doom.

The truth is, there’s a difference between warning someone of impending disaster and threatening someone with it. In the first case, the person is trying to prevent harm and in the second, he is calling it down on another’s head.

Sadly, I believe the Christian’s job to proclaim the truth about God’s justice is much harder as a result of a misguided group of people professing Christ but listening to false teaching—five years ago it was the Westboro Baptist folks and now it’s many in the alt-right.

Five years ago the Westboro Baptist group was in the news here in SoCal as they made plans to come and picket the funeral of a soldier killed in combat. As it turned out, they didn’t show up, but the local community was up in arms and ready to spring a counter-protest.

These wrong-headed people are in no way following in Jesus’s steps. This from a news release sent out days before the funeral and still available on their web site:

GOD HATES AMERICA & IS KILLING
YOUR TROOPS IN HIS WRATH.
Military funerals have become pagan orgies of
idolatrous blasphemy, where they pray to the
dunghill gods of Sodom & play taps to a fallen fool.

The last line is the worst: “THANK GOD FOR IEDs.” That would be the weapon used to kill this soldier.

So how is it that people like this think they are walking in obedience to God’s will? Christ was suffering but He made no threats. Do they think that because they’re not the ones suffering, it’s OK to issue threats and recrimination?

In the end, all they accomplish is to confuse society so that when someone wants to issue a warning, it’s taken as a threat. But that’s what false teaching does—it plays right into the hands of Satan, the father of lies.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2012.

Published in: on June 19, 2017 at 5:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
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Manger Scenes


christmas-lights-in-brea
I’ve been thinking this year about some of the traditional activities connected with Christmas—presents, trees, music. This week I enjoyed a tradition that dates back to my childhood: I took a tour of a neighborhood where the majority of the homes set up incredible displays of Christmas lights.

Not just any lights. These home owners in this section of the city of Brea go all out at Christmas and decorate in every imaginable way. They hang and drape and wrap and wind and string lights from the peak of roofs to the edge of lawns and everywhere in between.

The result is magical. I mean, it’s astounding the creations these people come up with. They portray every aspect of Christmas you can think of. There are yards outlined with candy canes, others filled with presents. There are arches with holly wreaths and poinsettias and bells and jack-in-the-box-like reveals of children or elves or Santa.

There are presents and flashing lights set to music, icicles, and candy canes. Snoopy and his his crew get a bit of attention and of course so do snowmen and carolers and reindeer. But clearly, Santa is the star of the show.

A few years ago the new thing seemed to be to upgrade his transportation, and that’s still in place. While there were some sleighs, there were also trains, helicopters, airplanes, and even a hot-air balloon or two ready to whisk Santa away to deliver toys to all the good little girls and boys.

I truly did enjoy the light show, and this year there was a noticeable increase in the number of manger scenes, some in especially prominent places.

One home displayed several Bible verses in among the light display. One verse was Luke 2:11, “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” I think one might have been a Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament, and the third was John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

A couple houses had big Noel signs and another had a lighted cross in an upstairs window. They also put a cross inside the star that they put on the top of a gigantic evergreen tree beside their home.

Most surprising were the two dozen or so that said “Wise men still seek Him.” I suspect someone in the community had them printed up and made available because they were all the same, all placed prominently in the front.

When I was growing up, Nativity Scenes were not unusual. We used to visit the State Capitol Building in Denver, and there was always a manger scene among the many lavish decorations. Often in the windows of homes we could see a wooden stable with figurines of Joseph, Mary, a collection of shepherds, and magi huddled around a manger where the fairly old looking pretend baby Jesus lay.

One of the families in the school where I taught had twelve children. And they happened to be a very musical group (VERY musical—tremendous talent). At some point they decided to go beyond a nativity display to a nativity re-enactment. I mean, they had, for quite a few years, a new born baby, whether child or grandchild, to play the part of baby Jesus. They did this on the front lawn of their very large home in Fullerton, and people would come from all over to watch the performance, much the way I did this week to view the Christmas lights.

The point is, the events the Bible tells about the birth of Jesus Christ, once were prominent in our Christmas decorations. Our technology has improved and our displays have become more elaborate, but now including something about Jesus is noteworthy.

On the other hand, when a manger scene at Christmas was an expected part of the decoration, it didn’t mean anything significant. They were common, and lots of people displayed them, whether they worship the Christ or not.

Now, I doubt people here in SoCal put up manger scenes unless they are purposefully, intentionally making a statement about what they believe about Christmas.

May the lights shining from the homes with Nativity Scenes shine ever brighter this year.

This post is an updated version of one that first appeared here in December 2013.

Published in: on December 21, 2016 at 7:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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God Come Down


Nativity_Scenes004Some years ago I opened up the USA Weekend magazine that came with my newspaper (I still took one then! 😮 ) and splashed across the front cover was the word GOD. The lead article was “How Americans Imagine God.”

I have a problem right there. God is not formed by our imagination. Consequently, what person A “imagines” about God has no relevance whatsoever as a means of actually knowing Him or anything true about Him.

I could say that I imagine the core of the earth is stuffed with daisies, but that would not make it so.

Oh, but someone may say, scientists know about the core of the earth. They’ve done science to prove that it’s most certainly not filled with daisies. However, no one can know about God, so we have to imagine him.

Actually, we can know about God more certainly than we can about the core of the earth. That’s where Christmas comes in. Yes, this actually is a Christmas post.

The whole point and purpose of the first Christmas was God coming to us, like us, so we can know Him.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; … And His name will be called … Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6).

Paul explained in Philippians 2 that Jesus, who existed in the form of God, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men.”

Then in 2 Corinthians 4:4 he said “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (emphasis mine).

Not your typical Christmas verses, I realize (except perhaps Isaiah 9:6). But here’s the point. Jesus—God Himself—came to earth that we might know Him.

He walked the roads that other men and women walked, debated Scripture with scholars, touched and healed beggars and blind men, preached to crowds of thousands and counseled a single woman. He shared Passover with His followers and blessed a number of little children.

In other words, He didn’t live His life incognito. He rubbed shoulders with people of all economic and social strata and was open about Who He was.

So there were eye witnesses who talked with God, face to face, because they talked with Christ. Some of these eye witnesses, then turned around and wrote down what they had experienced, so the rest of us have their eye witness accounts of some of the more memorable words and acts of God Incarnate.

Let me ask you. Of late have you talked to anyone who has visited the core of the earth?

Me either.

Yet we Americans are so sure of what’s at the core of the earth but we can only imagine God. I find that ironic and sad.

In reality, we can know God through Christ. Not all there is to know about Him, certainly. But we can know Him.

Someone who says they imagine God is this, that, or the other, is missing out on a real relationship with a real person. We can’t change Him by what we wish Him to be. He is who He is, and He hasn’t kept His identity a secret.

This post, with some editorial changes, first appeared here in December 2010.

Published in: on December 20, 2016 at 7:27 pm  Comments Off on God Come Down  
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The Opportunities Of Christmas


mary_and_baby_jesus017On Sunday, our fill-in speaker at church, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, delivered an unusual Christmas sermon. His key points were anchored by John 12:31-32.

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”

Jesus was speaking about His own death. He declared that two things would occur: 1) judgment upon this world and the ruler of this world would be cast out, and 2) He, Jesus, would be lifted up.

First, “this world” refers to the world system that opposes God, His will, and His way. It’s one of the three sources of temptation: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The one who is the mastermind of all the world systems that oppose God is Satan, but it is the system or systems he’s behind that entice us to sin.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis was masterful in showing that what particular system the tempter used was not the issue. Whatever pulls a person’s eyes off God, works just fine. So someone with the wealth of the world, like Solomon, is vulnerable, as is the poorest of the poor such as the beggar Lazarus.

So Jesus’s coming initiated judgment upon the world system that tries to squeeze God from our consciousness.

Christmas affords the believer the opportunity to ask ourselves if we are siding with Jesus when it comes to casting out the ruler of the world, when it comes to standing against the world system. Oh, someone may say, you’re talking about keeping Christ in Christmas, about refusing to replace Him with Santa.

Well, no, I’m not. The world system isn’t about Santa.

It’s actually about ME.

It’s about looking at the world with the idea of seeing what I can get out of every situation, every circumstance. What’s in it for me? Am I getting what I deserve?

Trying to discern our own motives is hard. Do I want to postpone the meeting because I have something else I want to do that day or because I think it will fit everyone else’s needs more? Do I want to sign up for the prayer team instead of serving in the homeless shelter because it means less travel for me or because I think I’m more fitted for that ministry? You see, even in doing “good things” we can have our eyes firmly fixed on ourselves because the world system tells us it’s all about us.

It’s all about us, and it’s all up to us. We simply have to look within. We have to find our inner strength, because whatever we put our minds to, we can do. Whatever we want to make of ourselves, we can make it happen.

Not really.

But that’s what our world system says over and over and over.

It also says that a person is more valuable if they have all the right bells and whistles. Do you have the newest car, the latest technology, the most up-to-date software? Are your clothes in style? Did you get a really cool gift for Christmas? Dr. Muehlhoff touched a nerve when he mentioned that one.

When I was growing up, we were very middle class. Perhaps low middle class, but I never felt poor. Still, my parents were frugal, because we had been poor. So I generally wore hand-me-downs, and our parents never gave us extravagant gifts for Christmas. We often got practical things—socks, pajamas, that sort of thing.

So going back to school after Christmas vacation was always a challenge because kids would always ask, What did you get for Christmas? I wanted to be able to answer without making my Christmas sound lame.

The thing is, I really didn’t feel deprived for not getting some hot new fad item. I generally didn’t ask for things that I knew were beyond the price my parents usually spent on us at Christmas. But I dreaded telling my classmates what I thought they would look down on.

That’s the world system—gifts have to be of a certain caliber to be considered worth. Really?

That’s the world system that attacks our contentment, that judges according to monetary value, not according to heart intention or thoughtfulness or sacrifice.

Of course all these years later, our culture has become exponentially more hedonistic. Is it fun, is it entertaining—these questions override, can we afford it. Because we can afford anything simply by putting “it” on the credit card. One statistic Dr. Muehlhoff gave was that what the average person spends for Christmas this year via credit card, will take four years to pay off. Of course, they’re still paying off last year’s Christmas, and the one before that, and the one before that, so it is an ever increasing problem.

This consumerism, this hedonism, this ME-ism are reflective of the world system—Satan’s schemes to keep us away from what God wants, and Jesus came, in part, to bring the world and the ruler of this world, under judgment.

As Christmas, ought we who follow Jesus not stand against the world, at least a little?

The second thing Jesus said was that He would be lifted up, with the end result that He would draw all men to Himself.

The next question seems obvious: we who follow Christ are lifting up Jesus in what way?

To be honest, I didn’t like Dr. Muehlhoff’s ideas on this one. Everything he mentioned, someone who was an atheist or a Buddhist could do. On the other hand, at the Atheist/theist Facebook group, someone posted a video of an obnoxious pastor (self-identified) who went into a mall where kids and their parents were waiting to get their pictures taken with Santa, and became shouting that Santa was a lie, that the parents were lying to their children, that Christmas was really about Jesus, not Santa.

Is that what lifting up Jesus looks like?

I don’t think so.

I keep thinking of the disciples who confronted the beggar by saying, I don’t have any gold or silver, but in the name of Jesus, get up and walk.

I wish I could lift up Jesus’s name like that!! I mean, I can’t imagine someone who just received the ability to walk not wanting to know about this person named Jesus whose name made his healing possible.

So I can’t heal. Does that mean I can’t lift up Jesus’s name?

I think the key is the first part of the answer those disciples gave: I don’t have what you’re asking for, but I’ll give you what I can. I’ve always looked at it like, you want this thing you think you need, but I’ll give you something better. But why not accept it at face value. What if they had silver and gold, would they have given that instead of the healing?

I don’t think the key is in trying to give people the greatest thing they need. I think it’s in putting them before God and asking Him how I can lift up Christ before them.

So no one answer. But an awareness that lifting up Christ is the goal, and the greatest gift possible for Christmas.

Christmas History


christmas-tree-presents-1171095-1280x1920From time to time much is made of “keeping Christ in Christmas.” The interesting thing is, for four centuries Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth. In fact, to this day no one is sure what date or even what year Christ was born.

Many people speculate that His birth likely occurred in the spring rather than in winter because the shepherds were staying out in the field. But Judea is in the Mediterranean climate zone. Their temperatures would likely have been akin to Southern California, and therefore mild by the standards of those in a northern region. Certainly the colder nights wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Jesus was born in the winter, but we have no evidence one way or the other.

As to the year, the Romans didn’t start numbering their calendar AD 1 because they heard rumors of a new king born in Judea. The system of numbering years before or after Christ’s birth came much later, devised by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century. Based on his calculations, then, the years following the date he assigned to Jesus’s birth began from 1 forward.

However, historical and Biblical scholarship suggest that Jesus was actually born some two to seven years earlier, depending on which of several questionable dates a person accepts. The process requires taking context clues in the Bible and reconciling them with known historical data. However, the “known historical data” isn’t always precise, and in some instances it’s contradictory.

For example, the Bible clearly states that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king (Matt. 2:1). History doesn’t agree when precisely Herod died. If he died in BC 4 as many scholars have thought, then clearly Jesus had to be born earlier—perhaps two or three years earlier since the magi may have seen the birth star the night Jesus was born, then began their trip that may have taken as long as two year.

The point is, we don’t have a precise date. Scholars have looked at the calculations of a number of early church leaders who mostly suggest Jesus was born between BC 2 and BC 3. But the point I want to make here is, Christ’s birth was not something the early church thought was so significant that they needed to mark the day and institute a celebration.

Nowhere in the Bible is any mention of celebrating Christ’s birth.

What Jesus Himself instituted was the commemoration of His death with the celebration of communion.

The Bible is pretty big on commemorations, though, which means, God is big on commemorations. He instituted several key feasts and celebrations—holy convocations—the Jews were required to celebrate: Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles. There were daily worship activities and weekly ones. There were commemorative stones, and a celebration that required the people to build booths they lived in for a week. On and on God gave His people objects and events intended to remind them of Him and their relationship to Him.

So no surprise that Jesus, upon establishing the New Covenant, instituted the celebration, the commemoration, of His death.

But what about His birth?

I certainly don’t think God would forbid believers to set aside a day as “Jesus’s birthday,” but He also did not command us to keep such a day. How then did the Church create the tradition of celebrating Christmas?

Apparently in the fourth century in Europe (before Dionysius Exiguus had made his calculation—or miscalculation—about the year of Jesus’s birth), Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the official day to celebrate the Advent. His reasons seem to have involved bringing people into the church and taming some of the raucous pagan celebrations that occurred in December.

The middle of winter was a time of celebration in various places around the world, some because of the winter solstice, some as part of worship of a pagan god. For instance, in Germany the honored Oden and in Rome, Saturn.

The early Church was most likely affected by Saturnalia, a four week period of raucous hedonism in celebration of Saturn. Also around this time the Romans held a festival celebrating children, and another one to celebrate the birthday of Mithra, “the god of the unconquerable sun . . . For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year” (“History of Christmas“).

The establishment of Christmas, then, seems to have been a “Christian version” of the pagan festivities. The practice spread. By the end of the 8th century the celebration of Christmas had found its way as far north as Scandinavia.

Not until the seventeenth century—after the Reformation—did Christmas take on the religious nature Christians generally associate it with today.

No surprise, then, that the culture has worked hard to reclaim what was once theirs.

I’ve thought more about the merging of the religious with the secular of late, in part because of my reading in I and II Kings. Compromise was the watch word of those years. Worship, God, sure, but also worship Baal and Molech and the Ashtoreth and Chemosh. Sacrifice to Yahweh in the temple, but to Baal on the high places.

The path of Israel’s departure from God is a litany of disobedient acts, prompted by a desire to be like the nations around them.

Human nature being what it is, we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that today professing Christians are moving toward our culture in our behavior, more than we are moving toward God in a desire to be holy because He is Holy (see 1 Peter 1).

We see it in Christmas. We shouldn’t expect our culture to celebrate Christmas the way believers do, but we’ve been handed an opportunity to make Christ known.

If we’re obnoxious and demanding and short-tempered, or if we see Christmas as another excuse for a party, how are we different from that which we’re not to conform ourselves to? But if we live according to the Spirit who dwells in us, the world can learn of God’s patience and love and forgiveness.

And our celebration can go down deeper. We can proclaim the name of Jesus, God Incarnate, God with us, God Who left His throne to reveal Himself to us, that we might be born again. There’s a gift worth giving away.

Published in: on December 16, 2016 at 7:11 pm  Comments (6)  
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God Incarnate


Nativity_Scenes015

“And I will put enmity
Between you [the serpent] and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Rev. 12:9)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus, not just because Christmas is approaching, though there is that, but also because on the Facebook atheist/theist group I visit from time to time, something came up about pretend Santa and “pretend Jesus.”

Jesus is not pretend, though it’s become more and more popular for atheists to say He wasn’t. However, there’s a great deal of scholarship that makes this fact clear—more even than I realized. If you’d like some specifics on that, listen to Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace discuss the subject.

But the fact that Jesus lived doesn’t of itself mean that everything else Christians believe, is true. The central point of the Good News is that Jesus, God’s Son, is the Seed God referred to in Genesis, Who will bruise the head of Satan. He did that by taking the form of sinful man, though He Himself knew no sin, and by bearing the punishment—death—which humankind earned. In the perfect triumphal twist, He rose from the dead, and will return at some unknown future time to claim His rightful throne as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So. A lot going on as far as what Christians believe about Jesus. Was He a real person? Yes. Is He the Son of God? The Gospels say He is and the rest of Scripture confirms it, but they also say He IS God.

Both facts are true.

So is the fact that Jesus wasn’t pretending to be a man. He actually was a man. He ate and drank, cried, got tired, slept, wept, and ultimately died.

So God, but also man.

As if those claims weren’t hard enough of themselves, throw in the fact that Jesus’s mother was a virgin at the time she birthed Him.

Anyone who dismisses the supernatural must freak out at Christmas time because of all the outside-the-box facts about Jesus. Add in the angelic announcements—to Mary that she was going to have a baby, to Joseph that he should still take Mary as his wife, even though she was pregnant, to the shepherds that the Messiah was born that very day—and the star that served as a heavenly sign declaring the birth of a King in Judea, and there’s a lot of supernatural activity connected to the birth of Jesus.

The thing that seems so obvious but so overlooked is that all these claims could so easily have been debunked if they weren’t true. Take pregnant Mary, for example. If some guy had slept with her, how hard would it have been to disprove the idea that she was a virgin.

But say he had personal reasons for keeping his indiscretion to himself, what about the shepherds and their claim to have seen angels? How else could their decision to leave their flocks be explained? Or that they “just happened” upon a baby in a manger, as they’d been told?

What about their story made people believe them? And if they didn’t believe the lowly shepherds, why wouldn’t they come forward and expose this band of frauds? If someone else made up the story about them, why didn’t they stand up and clear their name?

Well, of course, none of this was written down until years after the fact, someone could argue. But without doubt the account of Jesus’s birth was not new information when the gospels came into being. Luke, for example, who wrote one of the two birth narratives said he investigated carefully in order to compile an account “just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2)

The implication is that people who knew what happened were still talking about what they’d seen and heard at the time of Luke’s investigation.

The more I dialogue with people who reject God and Jesus and the Bible, the more I realize that what we believe is dependent upon who we trust. Atheists trust “the scientists” and Christians trust the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the people who have also come to faith in Christ.

The odd thing is, Christians don’t dismiss science as not true. In fact, many Christians played significant roles in advancing our scientific understanding. We trust science, but we trust the Bible more.

Atheists, on the other hand, have no place in their understanding for the supernatural. They don’t believe it exists because it’s beyond their scope of study. They’ll all believe in DNA and genome sequencing and black holes and the god particle, however. Not because they’ve seen any of those things but because someone else they trust says those exist and are real.

I’ve had discussions with atheists on line before, who say, If God really exists, why doesn’t He simply show Himself—end of discussion. But the fact is, He has shown Himself. And the very people He came to, did not believe Him. In fact they tried more than once to kill Him because He claimed to be God.

I have to admit, I’m baffled by unbelief. Christianity makes sense of so much. The one problem, the only real problem, is whether or not God exists as He says He does. The only way God can “prove Himself” is by revealing Himself. He has done so in as many ways as possible, culminating in His incarnation—He took on flesh to live among us that we might know Him.

Christmas provides we who believe in God Come Down the opportunity to explain what all the ruckus about the birth of a Jewish baby over 2000 years ago is all about.

Published in: on December 15, 2016 at 7:23 pm  Comments Off on God Incarnate  
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Why Bells At Christmas


golden_christmas_bellsI love the trappings of Christmas. I love the light displays, the decorated trees, the candles and stockings hanging off the mantelpiece, I love wreaths and gingerbread cookies (or the idea of them, at least), and I love Christmas carols and candy canes and bells.

But why bells? How did they make their way into Christmas?

I’ve not really researched the issue, but I can speculate based on some of the carols we have. When Christmas was primarily a religious holiday, churches undoubtedly rang their bells, whether for a special service or simply in celebration. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a carol based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, contains these lines:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet
The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along
The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Ah, yes, all those church belfries.

christmas_bells_in_the_snowIn winter climates, during the horse-and-buggy era, sleighs provided a means of transportation during the Christmas season, and apparently bells were part of the adornment. We learn this from a number of Christmas songs that have become classics: “Silver Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” and of course, “Jingle Bells”:

Bells on bobtail ring’
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight!

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
Oh! what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh.

Then there are the songs like “White Christmas,” and “The Carol of Christmas” that indicate bells were nothing more than instruments of joyful celebration:

Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away

Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer
To young and old
Meek and the bold
Ding dong ding
That is their song
With joyful ring
All caroling

One carol that seems to come closest to capturing all these facets of bells at Christmas is “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” Apparently the music was originally a French dance tune. The lyrics were first published early in the twentieth century. Today we are most familiar with the first verse and the chorus, but here are all three verses:

Ding dong merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rime
Your evetime song, ye singers.
Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis!

Clearly in this song the bells are a means of celebration, whether on high or here below, and the note they sound is that of glory accompanying the cry of Hosanna. This is worship.

Besides all we learn from the holiday music, I can’t help but think of bells as a means to ask for people’s attention. The Salvation Army bell ringers do this. I imagine town criers of old going along the streets, ringing bells and shouting, “Hear ye, hear ye.”

That use of bells, of course, would fit for the Christian about to proclaim good news—which really is what Christmas is all about. Perhaps, then, bells are one of the most fitting accouterments of Christmas.

This post, minus the embedded video, is one that first appeared here in December 2012.

Published in: on December 14, 2016 at 6:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Songs Of Christmas – Silent Night


Christmas_Mary_and_Baby_Jesus011As I traditionally do, I’ve been enjoying the songs of Christmas. For years I had a tradition each year of buying a new tape, then a CD, of Christmas songs. The thing I’ve come to realize, however, is that some of them are horrendous. Oh, they might sound fine, and they might invoke nostalgic thoughts, but the words are a bit of a mess.

And I’m speaking of the religious carols. For instance, one which I’ve loved for years, has a line about the shepherds looking up at the star shining in the east. Well . . . , no, the shepherds had nothing to do with the star which the wisemen saw and eventually followed.

Then there’s my childhood favorite, “We Three Kings”—about an unknown number of eastern astrologers who likely were not kings at all. Christmas songs are not the best when it comes to Biblical facts and theology.

Of course some are more contemplative and others take the lyrics straight from Scripture. Still others are the work of poets who got it right. “Silent Night” happens to be such a song—at least as far as the English translation is concerned.

The original was written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an assistant Austrian priest, the illegitimate son of a peasant woman.

The Napoleonic Wars ended the year before, and Europe was in the midst of a shift in power, with Austria one of four powers forming the Quadruple Alliance (the other three being England, Prussia—Germany was not yet a unified nation—and Russia).

A variety of stories have been passed down regarding the first performance of “Silent Night,” but no one really knows the particulars other than that the words Mohr wrote in 1816, all six verses, were set to music by Franz Xavier Gruber in 1818 and performed on Christmas Eve at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.

The composer and the lyricist were both skillful and trained musicians, and they performed the song backed by the church choir. It quickly caught on because two traveling music groups (think, the von Trapp Family Singers) added it to their Christmas repertoire. Eventually “Frederick Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, heard “Silent Night” at the Berlin Imperial Church and ordered it to be sung throughout the kingdom at Christmas pageants and services” (Catholic Straight Answers).

In 1863 either Jane Campbell or John Young translated the song into English. Not long afterward, it made its way to America and appeared in print in Charles Hutchins’ Sunday School Hymnal in 1871.

Today we commonly see only three stanzas, but they’re worth singing again and again.

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth

Published in: on December 13, 2016 at 6:56 pm  Comments Off on The Songs Of Christmas – Silent Night  
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Advent


Advent_candle_1I grew up in a church that didn’t talk about Advent. We were as far from liturgical as you could get. Later, when my family attended a non-denominational church, I suspect the thinking there was to steer clear of anything that would seem identifiably one denomination over another, so again, no incorporation of “Advent” into the celebration of Christmas.

Of course, Advent really means the coming of Christ. In its generic form, the word means the coming of any notable person, thing, or event. In it’s proper noun form, however, it’s specifically used in conjunction with Christianity.

Some years ago on the radio broadcast Family Life Today, the hosts and guests discussed some of the more notable Christmas traditions. Among those was Advent, referring specifically to the lighting of advent candles and the reading of particular scriptures.

The thing I learned was that the focus of Advent in an earlier age was threefold: the first coming of Christ, as a baby, the coming of Christ to individuals who accept Him as Messiah, and the second coming of Christ which we await.

I really like this focus. It takes Jesus out of the manger and declares Him to be a living and risen Savior who is coming again.

This threefold aspect of Jesus’s coming mirrors the Christian life. We have fulfillment, appropriation, and anticipation. Christ died once for all the just for the unjust (fulfillment), but those who believe will be saved (appropriation), and one day we will receive the reward of the inheritance (anticipation).

One of the hymns now associated with Advent is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I have to admit, I’ve paid little attention to the words of this hymn, though I could go on automatic pilot and sing the first verse.

As I looked for the rest of the words, I found a number of diverse listings. One gave five verses, another seven, and the one below, eight. None seem quite the same. Besides the obvious extra, or missing, stanzas, however you wish to look at it, their order is different and some of the lines are dissimilar. Yet more than one site claims the English is a translation from the 12th century Latin original.

Looking at the various versions, I can see the threefold meaning of Advent shining through. I’m not sure I’d like to sing all these verses–the music, after all, originated as a funeral dirge, and honestly gets on my nerves after a bit, with it’s heavy, repetitive monotony, all except the “Rejoice, rejoice” notes.

But the lyrics are equally heavy. This is no “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.” This is a song about captives in need of ransom, about exile and Satan’s tyranny and the salvation from the depths of hell.

Merry Christmas!

But really, it is a merry Christmas for those who believe. We celebrate Christ’s birth, not because He was a cute baby. We celebrate because at long last, after centuries of waiting, the promised Son and Savior came and comes and will come again.

Perhaps “Merry Christmas” isn’t quite right after all. Maybe a better greeting would be Joyous Advent. (I wonder what secularists would do with that one! 😉 )

And now the lyrics which you might want to compare with those that appear in Wikipedia.

O come, O come Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. Refrain

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave. Refrain

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call. Refrain

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace. Refrain

This post is a revised version of one that first appeared here in December 2013.