New clothes for a new life

Gift wrappingDid you give or receive clothing for Christmas? God gives clothing, too. He always has. And if you gave or received underwear, God gives that, too.

When Adam and Eve sinned and became ashamed of their nakedness, they covered themselves with fig leaves.

Fig leaves aren’t very suitable clothing. They’re not sturdy enough to wear for very long, and I understand they’re itchy.

God clothed them in the skins of animals. But first, they had to take off their useless old clothes.

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The sin in Jesus’ family tree: why the virgin birth of Jesus was necessary

Adoration of the Shepherds / Murillo. virgin birth of Jesus

Adoration of the Shepherds / Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650

Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus from Joseph’s viewpoint in Matthew 2. Have you ever studied the first chapter of Matthew? Most Christians probably skip it. It seems like nothing but a boring genealogy.

But let’s pay some attention. Matthew mentions four women in the first six verses. And all four names recall stories of sin.

Jesus had to be born sinless, live a sinless life, and die as a perfect and unblemished sacrifice. Everyone from Cain and Abel onward has been conceived and born in sin.

And that’s not because they were conceived through sexual union.… Read the rest

Why did God become a man?

Nativity / Correggio

Adoration (a.k.a. La Notte) / Correggio, ca. 1528-1530

According to an old praise chorus, “Love was when God became a man.” That’s why we celebrate Christmas. Most people who have heard the story, even in the church, have a hard time wrapping their minds around it.

In the popular imagination, God is some distant and perpetually angry deity. He demands everyone do things his way or he will punish them by sending them to everlasting torment. Somehow we have to jump through all the right hoops if we want to get on his good side.

Nothing could be further from the truth.… Read the rest

Watching and waiting for Jesus

Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth carving

Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth / at Cloister’s Museum, New York. Artist unidentified

Thank you for coming to read this message. It means that you want to keep Christ in Christmas. And you know Christmas has meaning only because of a truth your church may affirm in the communion service:

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is coming again.

This season of advent, we mostly prepare for the coming of the Christ child, but it also provides a time to prepare for his return, his second advent.

God’s judgment and his grace are joined at the hip. He freely makes his grace available to anyone at all, but only those who repent of their sins can ever receive it.… Read the rest

Who Were the Magi, and Why Should We Care?

Magi

Detail from: “Mary and Child, surrounded by angels”, mosaic of an Italian-Byzantine workshop in Ravenna, completed within 526 AD by the so-called “Master of Sant’Apollinare”.

Did the three wise men really visit the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas day bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

The town and the gifts are right. At best, the rest of the familiar scene is dubious. Who were the wise men (magi), and what does it matter?

The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) simply says wise men (it’s plural, so there were at least two) followed a star from the East (a vague enough reference that only rules out other directions).… Read the rest

Preparing for Christ’s return

john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

The church sets aside the season of Advent to prepare for Christ’s coming. It is a season of penitence to prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas, the first coming of Christ. He entered the world by stealth, being born in an obscure village.

But the New Testament proclaims in many ways that Christ will return in triumph. Advent prepares us for that event, too.

Regarding John the Baptist, Luke 3:4-6 quotes a passage from Isaiah that has not yet seen its entire fulfillment:

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Benedictus: Zecharaiah’s song

Zechariah--annunciation

Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah / Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490) Fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

Zechariah’s song (known as the Benedictus) doesn’t get nearly the attention as Mary’s (the Magnificat) earlier in the chapter, but it is the first recorded prophetic word since the Book of Malachi some 400 years earlier.

Its outpouring of praise culminates a long life of both piety and disappointment. After years of waiting and hoping, Zechariah, an aging priest, drew the lot for the once-in-a-lifetime assignment of burning incense in the temple.

The angel Gabriel appeared to him and said his prayer was answered. What prayer?… Read the rest

Anticipation: the birth and return of Jesus

john the baptist

John the Baptist, Preaching / Luca Giordano, ca. 1695

The season of Advent is a time of anticipation. The word itself means “coming.” In secular contexts we can properly refer to the advent of any significant event. In the church year, it can refer only to the coming of Jesus Christ.

Scripture affirms that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again. Two passages commonly read at this time of year point to both the first and second coming.

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The law and the Seed

Scripture scrollGod made a lot of promises to Abraham, including a key promise to him and his posterity, or literally in Hebrew, his seed. These promises became the foundation of the Jewish nation, but before Abraham’s posterity could inherit the land, they suffered slavery in Egypt. On the way to the promised land, they received the law.

According to the New Testament, no one can ever be good enough for God by obeying the law. So what’s the point? Paul raised that question and answered it in Galatians 3, beginning with verse 19. His answer comes in the context of explaining that the promise to Abraham and his seed is greater than the law, and that the law did not supersede it.… Read the rest

Jesus an ordinary child? Yes and no

Nativity setA young woman has a baby boy. That baby grows to adulthood and lives 33 years. How many times has that happened in the history of the human race? Millions?

The young woman and her boy were not members of the ruling class. They lived in an unremarkable village about 2000 years ago. He learned an unremarkable trade, and then became an itinerant teacher. Death at 33 was probably not unusual at that time, but this man was executed for his teaching, because the leaders of his community disapproved. Again, it seems pretty ordinary.

Yet today we are still celebrating the birth, life, and death of this man named Jesus.… Read the rest