Samson, Samuel, John and the Birth of Jesus

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Veneto's John the Baptist
John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Veneto, 16th Century

My favorite Christmas joke is a short one. He wanted a new car for Christmas; she wanted a fur coat. They compromised: they bought the coat, but kept it in the garage.

Christmas time is obviously more than gifts, but most of us do enjoy the celebration. Even from the biblical perspective, the birth of Jesus and his resultant work is far broader than the single night on which the Savior was born. There were countless events that prepared for or foreshadowed the Messiah. Today I would like to suggest that even John—the one who prepared the way for Jesus—was foreshadowed.

Jesus commented on John the Baptist in Matthew 11:11, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

We often associate John the Baptist with Elijah (as Jesus did in Matthew 11:14), because he came in the power and spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17). When John was questioned as to whether he was Elijah (John 1:21), he answered, “I am not.” Even John is himself a foreshadowing of Elijah who will return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).

Many modern scholars believe John was part of the Dead Sea Scroll community (the Essenes), but I am skeptical about that. The Essenes promoted isolation and joining their commune. John taught people to bloom where they were planted (Luke 3:10-14). Read more about Samson, Samuel, John and the Birth of Jesus

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The Struggle of Prayer - Part 5

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foldedhandsRead the series so far.

“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

One of the greatest difficulties for believers when they are praying is perspective. By this I have in mind particularly the perspective of time. God’s time-table is stretched out and often overruns the short span of our brief lives. Like the stride of a giant overtakes the scurrying of an ant, it can appear that God is hardly “in” our situation, because He has the vista of the whole future in front of Him. As Longfellow put it, “the mills of God grind slowly!”

Most of us struggle through life snatching only glimpses of the outworking of God’s plan. We expect this, for we are instructed to walk by faith and not by sight. So we trust that the plan is truly coming together. Indeed, this part of the “Lord’s Prayer” teaches us that anticipation plays a large part in daily prayers. We are to anticipate the culmination of present realities—as harsh as they so often are—foreseeing an era when God’s perfect shall indeed be done on earth as it is right now in heaven. Read more about The Struggle of Prayer - Part 5

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My Favorite Christmas Carol

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Years ago when our kids were very young, we lived in South Florida. Even though I hadn’t grown up with an annual white Christmas (snow in our part of Tennessee was a pretty rare event) I found it very difficult to get into the Christmas spirit when it was 75 degrees outside. You can only turn the air conditioning down so far, and there’s just something wrong with Christmas lights strung on palm trees.

In fairness, the people who lived there tried to get into the spirit of the season. One year a car dealership announced that they were bringing a truckload of snow to dump in their lot so that kids could come and play. There were a lot of kids there, including ours, to play in the “snow.” But what they ended up with looked more like something that came out of a snow cone machine than out of clouds in the sky.

Christmas has always been important to me. When we were very young, our parents had us memorize the Christmas story from Luke 2. We would quote it from memory on Christmas morning before opening the presents. When the only thing standing between you and presents is twenty verses from Luke, you can talk pretty fast.

Many of the traditions we set then when I was child carried forward into our family. Some of them, including Luke 2, we still do today. Although as long as my parents don’t read this, I’ll admit that these days somebody usually has a Bible handy in case we get stuck. I never can remember whether “and the shepherds returned” comes before or after “and Mary kept all these things.”

The world has commercialized Christmas to the point where it is almost unrecognizable. As poet and humorist Ogden Nash noted, “Christmas was once a season of love and good will. Now it’s the holiday that it’s so many shopping days until.” But it isn’t less important because the truth of the season is buried under mounds of presents and later mounds of credit card bills.

We wanted Christmas to matter to our kids as well, and so despite the south Florida environment, we did our best to welcome the season. We decked the halls, played Christmas music (starting after Thanksgiving), and started wrapping presents and putting them under the tree. As Christmas got closer and closer, the kids got more and more excited.

The church we were attending was having a candlelight Christmas Eve service, so we got in the car and headed for church. On the way, we were providing our own soundtrack, singing Christmas songs. We did old carols and beloved hymns and even a fun song or two (this was before Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer was introduced to the kids and promptly banned as being unfit for polite company) and were generally having a very good time. Read more about My Favorite Christmas Carol

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"Asia" in the New Testament

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Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

“Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, …” Acts 16:6, KJV

I have heard with my own ears more than one preacher quote this verse as certain proof that “if the Holy Spirit hadn’t stopped Paul from going to Asia, we’d have had to get the gospel from the Chinese.” The one instance that stands out most of these several involved the featured speaker at a missions conference a decade ago. This man was a Bible college graduate, had been 20 years in the ministry, and was (and is) a denominational bigwig.

Why this incident stands out is that a man of such training and experience should have known that the assertion he made was completely devoid of any basis in fact, as even a meager amount of study and thought would have immediately shown. The truth is, Paul later did preach in Asia, and for a period of more than two years. Not only so, he evangelized the whole of it and saw many churches started there, all without coming in contact with a single Chinese.

The problem involves the meaning of the name Asia. Of course, today the term includes that great land mass east of the Ural Mountains in Russia in the north, and east of the Caspian, Aegean, Mediterranean and Red Seas further to the south. This, the largest of the seven continents, is also the most populous. But what a geographical term means today and what it meant in Bible times may have little or no connection, and “Asia” is one glaring example of this. Read more about "Asia" in the New Testament

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Books of Note - The First Thanksgiving and A Better December

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The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie

Every year around Thanksgiving, I enjoy reflecting on the Pilgrims, their Mayflower voyage and that firstThanksgiving back in 1621. Being a descendant of no less a figure than John Alden (the one who stole Miles Standish’s girl, Priscilla Mullins) only encourages my Thanksgiving reverie. This year, I enjoyed finishing a first-rate historical survey of that special Pilgrim holiday. The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (IVP, 2013), is a book I thoroughly enjoyed but one that challenged me to reexamine the historical record and the reasons why I love to reflect on my Puritanical roots.

McKenzie takes the occasion of writing a book on the first thanksgiving, to remind his Christian audience about the role history should play in our faith. He covers the nuts and bolts of historical research while he’s at it. Now, he does tip some sacred cows. He points out how we have scant records of the actual first thanksgiving, and demurs that it wasn’t the first thanksgiving in any true sense—at least four other public occasions of thanksgiving in America (the French Huguenots on Florida’s shores in 1565 being the earliest) have greater claim to that honor. Intriguingly “Plymouth Rock” was born from second-hand recollections of an original Pilgrim some 100 years or more after their landing. And more importantly, American history didn’t instill the Pilgrims’ autumnal feast with national importance for several hundred years. It was left for Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the first American President to directly connect the national observance of Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims of Plymouth and their historic feast. Read more about Books of Note - The First Thanksgiving and A Better December

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Who's Afraid of Proverbs 31?

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mom

Any woman who has been part of organized women’s ministry knows that sooner or later you’re going to encounter Proverbs 31. This passage is a mainstay for discussions about Christian womanhood; and in our consumer-driven culture, it graces everything from Bible covers to handbags to refrigerator magnets.

But recently, several women have been challenging a typical approach to this text. At the recent Q event, Women and Calling, progressive blogger and author Rachel Held Evans reiterated her long-standing concern that we tend to misuse this passage, making it more of a “Pintrest page come to life” than the poem it is. Sarah Bessey makes the same point in the recently released Jesus Feminist. She writes:

Some evangelicals have turned Proverbs 31 into a woman’s job description instead of what it actually is: the blessing and affirmation of valor for the lives of women… It is meant as a celebration for the everyday moments of valor for everyday women, not as an impossible exhausting standard.

These women have a legitimate concern. How many Mother’s Day sermons or Bible studies have turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist? How many times have teachers used it to reinforce their private applications of gender? How many times have you felt defeated from just listening to such sermons? So let me go on record as saying that I agree with Evans and Bessey. With one caveat. Read more about Who's Afraid of Proverbs 31?

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Sermons by the Greatest "Christmas Prophet"

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Barbieri (17th century). The prophet Isaiah reading from a scroll.

The prophet Isaiah was surely the greatest “Christmas Prophet” of the Old Testament. Let us briefly consider two of his most famous Christmas sermons.

Isaiah Chapter 7

One of the great marvels surrounding Jesus’ birth was the fact of His virgin conception.

But how could a virgin be with child and bear a son? Luke explains: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you [Mary], and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, NKJV). Was this impossible? No, “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).

Not only was it not impossible, it was predicted 700 years before by Isaiah. He received the message that Christ, the Messiah, would be one Person with two natures—divine and human.

At a time of great crisis for Israel, the house of David was given a great promise: Read more about Sermons by the Greatest "Christmas Prophet"

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The Struggle of Prayer - Part 4

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Read the series so far.

In the last post I cited what is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It would be good to have a brief exposition of it. Let us begin by dividing it up (Matt. 6:9-13):

“Pray, then, in this way…”

Introduction and First Petition: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come
Second Petition: Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Third Petition: Give us this day our daily bread.
Fourth Petition: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Fifth Petition: And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Doxology: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

As a matter of fact, and as most of you know, this isn’t an actual prayer to be prayed (although it can be put to that use), but a model or outline of how to pray. Since it comes from the One who hears the prayers we send up, this little outline is full of interest. Read more about The Struggle of Prayer - Part 4

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