Adoration of the Shepherds / Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650
In a stable in Bethlehem, Mary had a baby. She was certainly neither the first or last woman to deliver a child under less than ideal conditions. But she had an ordinary childbirth experience after an ordinary pregnancy.
She delivered no ordinary child. Mary conceived Jesus while she was still a virgin, a miracle that has happened exactly once. Angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds, who rushed to Bethlehem to see him.
The ordinary and the extraordinary persisted side by side throughout Jesus’ life. Luke’s gospel records both a week following his birth.… Read the rest
Pentecost / El Greco (1597)
Did your church acknowledge Pentecost? If so, how? The church has become divided over the significance of the events of the first Christian Pentecost.
Pentecostals emphasize the supernatural events and consider them normative. Others fear them and try to explain them away.
Some even teach that God no longer performs supernatural acts and that anyone who claims otherwise follows the devil! So what happened? And what does it matter now?
… Read the rest
Simeon Receives Jesus in the Temple / Simon Vouet, 1640-41
Have you ever had a vivid encounter with God? What happened a day or two later? A week? Years?
Quite often Christians have reported an overwhelming spiritual high followed by a deep spiritual low.
God’s presence can be so vivid that it seems like what he says is bound to happen in the next 15 minutes, but it never does.
A cherished promise never seems as far off and distant as it does after vividness of the divine presence fades.
Does that mean perhaps that we had no genuine spiritual experience?… Read the rest
Pentecost / Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, 1750s
This past Sunday was Pentecost. It coincides with an ancient Hebrew festival, but the events of Acts 2 on a particular Pentecost right after Jesus rose from the dead marks the birthday of the church. Alas, the church is divided into various Orthodox, Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal denominations, but we all have but one birthday.
“They,” probably the same 120 believers mentioned in Acts 1:15, gathered together in one place, and most certainly not for the first time. This group probably amounts to the first messianic synagogue. On Pentecost, Jesus baptized them with the Holy Spirit as he had promised.… Read the rest
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
The third chapter of Matthew opens on what, for John the Baptist, was a fairly ordinary day of baptism and preaching. Then Jesus showed up. We know that their mothers were related, but we have no idea how well they knew each other.
Up until this moment, Jesus had lived a perfectly ordinary life and had done nothing noteworthy, but when he lined up with everyone else for baptism, John got uncomfortable, even though, according to John 1:31, he had no idea that Jesus was the Messiah.
Jesus wanted John to baptize him, but somehow John suspected that Jesus had no sin to repent of.… Read the rest
Back in the mid ’80s I had an apartment in what used to be a storefront. My door opened directly onto the sidewalk. One winter it snowed a lot, and there was a stretch of several days when there was just a deep puddle during the day, then at night it would freeze. I didn’t know what my liability was, but I didn’t want to be responsible for someone slipping on the ice and breaking a hip or something.
I felt kind of helpless. There’s not much you can do about either a puddle or a sheet of ice with a cheap snow shovel.… Read the rest
In one of the best-known passages of an otherwise obscure book, Ezekiel described his vision of a valley of dry bones coming to life. Actually, it was more than a vision; he had to prophesy to the bones before anything happened.
Ezekiel recognized that the bones represented the whole lineage of Jacob. Both kingdoms that represented that lineage had been destroyed, their people exiled and scattered. In their shattered hope, the survivors felt as dead and dried up as the bones.
At Ezekiel’s first word of prophecy, the bones formed together as complete skeletons, and then the flesh returned. Now instead of a valley of dry bones, it was a valley of corpses.… Read the rest
In the Old Testament, Pentecost was the offering of first fruits, a memorial of the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant. Along with Passover and Tabernacles, it was one of three times during which the Law required Jewish men to present themselves at the Sanctuary.
By New Testament times, hardly anyone was able to get to Jerusalem for all three festivals. The largest number of foreigners came for Pentecost (Greek, by the way, for “fiftieth,” because it started fifty days from Passover).
The year of our Lord’s death and resurrection, Pentecost began ten days after the Ascension. The disciples had been waiting in Jerusalem for the promised empowerment of the Holy Spirit.… Read the rest
“Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak your word, but stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” — Acts 4:29-30
I keep reading of prophecies, or at least predictions, that American Christians face persecution like it has never happened here before. Quite a variety of people have written about it, and they offer a variety of evidence. Frankly, the writers exhibit quite a wide range of credibility, too.
As I read this passage from Acts, it struck me that, while I have no idea how likely we are to face systematic persecution, the Bible has already told us how to face it.… Read the rest