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

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

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

Hard times, a song of joy, and the meaning of Christmas

Today’s news seems bad all around. Pollsters find an unprecedented level of pessimism and anger at the ineptitude of our national government. Besides the sour economy and a bipartisan failure of leadership, we are beset with a number of foreign challenges. Do we have to shut out current events in order to find anything to be glad about this Christmas? Probably so for people who only celebrate the season. Not at all for people who understand the meaning of Christmas and celebrate the birth of the Savior.

The prophet Isaiah lived in bleak times. Early in his ministry an ungodly king, Ahaz, made a cowardly alliance with the Assyrian empire, which reduced the once proud kingdom of Judah to vassal status.… Read the rest

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us

While the stories of Jesus’ birth provide the narratives and symbolism for the religious observance of Christmas, Christians who attend churches that follow a formal lectionary, at least, hear John 1:1-18 on Christmas day. After all, we do not worship a baby. We do worship a man, but not just any man. We worship the man who from the beginning is also God. Here is what we learn from the appointed reading from John’s gospel:

  • The divine Word, referred to subsequently as “he” and not “it,” existed in the beginning. The divine Word, a person, was somehow both with God and God himself.
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The Visitation: Don’t forget Elizabeth!

Between the dramatic stories of how the angel Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah and then to Mary, Luke mentions that Mary paid a three month long visit to Elizabeth, one of  her blood relatives and Zechariah’s wife. Although artists have painted or otherwise portrayed The Visitation for centuries, it is all too easy to read right past it. So let’s give Elizabeth her due.

Luke says she and her husband were blameless, but they may not have looked blameless to the rest of the people in their community. After all, the old priest Zechariah had never been chosen to light the incense in the temple.… Read the rest

Preparing for the birth of Jesus, image of the invisible God

The season of Advent looks forward to the human birth of Jesus. Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem only because of human sin. The early church leaders who devised the Christian calendar recognized that  it would be inappropriate to celebrate his birth without a season of penitence to prepare for it.

We have forgotten that in our society. Today, we prepare for the birth of Jesus (or maybe just Xmas) by spending money we don’t have for things perhaps no one needs, and in some cases, to give them to people we don’t much like. If we’re not careful, the only times Jesus will intrude on our thoughts will be when we come to church on Sundays or if we happen to notice the Christmas carols piped into the mall.… Read the rest