Christmas

Samson, Samuel, John and the Birth of Jesus

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).

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My Favorite Christmas Carol

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.”

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Books of Note - The First Thanksgiving and A Better December

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.

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Book Review - Why Christ Came

Why? Every young child’s favorite word is “why?” Why do we have to go to bed now? Why can’t we have licorice for dinner? Why do we have to always brush our teeth?

With the hustle and bustle of another Christmas season upon us. It is the grown up children among us who are asking “Why?” Why make such a fuss with wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, when the kids are just going to break the toy in a couple days and complain about it. Why go through with painful family trips to the in-laws, awkward holiday parties at work and endure the rush at the mall?

Christmas ultimately is much more than gifts and toys, we know. It is about a baby in a manger, and a donkey standing in the stable (or is the donkey really part of the picture?). The routine nature of Christmas choirs and holiday schedules threaten to have us asking “Why?” even as we think about the Christ child. We get it, Christ came. Can’t we make more of a fuss over the cross and the empty tomb?

Meditating on the incarnation

Against this backdrop, authors Joel Beeke and William Boekestein present 31 meditations on the incarnation in a little book titled Why Christ Came. Unlike many Christmas devotionals, this book does not recount the Scriptural account of Christ’s birth. It doesn’t play gotcha about the donkey and other extra-Scriptural additions to the Christmas story. Instead this book focuses on the big question: Why.  Why is it so special Christ came?

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Still Waiting

Christendom just wrapped up its official season of waiting. “Advent” (from the Latin, adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival”) is a nearly month long liturgical celebration marking the long-awaited arrival of Messiah some 2,000 years ago.

But coupled to this retrospective, celebratory focus, there is also to be a prospective, anticipatory disposition. To be sure, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, was born in a Bethlehem stable two millennia past. But this same Jesus will come again and Christians are called to await his second advent with expectant hope (Titus 2:13).

It is worth noting that the disposition of awaiting Messiah’s coming binds God’s people together across the millennia. From the first cryptic prophesy (Genesis 3:15), thousands of years of increasingly unambiguous prophesies encouraged a spirit of keen anticipation of Messiah’s first advent.

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What Guided the Magi?

Previously (Part 1) we looked at a few myths surrounding the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem. We questioned the ideas about the sources of their knowledge of the star and the “King of the Jews” as lying in astronomical phenomena or in astrological “signs.” What is an alternative explanation for their knowledge?

It is possible that the oracles of Balaam served as the source for their expectation of a Jewish king. Of the four oracles delivered by that fascinating man from beyond the Euphrates River (Num. 22:5), the last is most expressive: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). It is possible that the Magi from Persia had preserved the words of their “ancestor” Balaam and remembered his ancient prophecy when a “Star” did appear out of Jacob. Mention of the scepter also echoes an earlier Messianic reference in Gen 49:10.

An even stronger source for the Magi’s scriptural knowledge comes from the Book of Daniel. In the LXX Greek translation (Dan. 2:2,10), one of the words translated “wise men” is the same as the Greek word used in Matthew 2 (μάγοι/magoi). These Magi in ancient Babylon served as a religious caste in the state religion. One of their functions was to interpret dreams—a role in which they failed miserably in Daniel 2:1-13. Note Daniel 2:13—“So the decree went out, and the wise men (Magi) were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them.” Therefore, Daniel and his three friends were associated with the Magi due to their God-given ability (Dan. 1:20-21). When Daniel accurately interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:17-45), he was rewarded with an even higher position among them: “Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men (including the Magi) of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48).

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The Messenger

NickImage

He sped through the void, an ancient Authority trailed by an army of grave Dignities, together a legion of radiance and power. He thought nothing of the emptiness of space. Indeed, he did not perceive the emptiness, for wherever he flew he was bathed in the brightness of the One-Who-Is. He had been sent from the High Throne to bear a message from the One to the little creatures of that distant world.

Distant? In one way, certainly. One of the smaller globes whirling about a rather insignificant star perched on the edge of a nondescript galaxy, this world was a mere speck in the cosmic expanse. On the other hand, it was not distant at all, for here the One-Who-Is had shaped beings like Himself and had breathed His own breath into them. While the One saw everything always, He had focused His purpose upon this tiny planet. Here He had planned a drama that was unfolding like a long story in chapters of creation, fall, calling, redemption, tribulation, and consummation. A new chapter of that epic was about to open.

The Authority reflected that he had often journeyed this way in the past. He had once been sent to a man on the banks of the Ulai to deliver an explanation that outlined the future of this little world. Later on, he had been sent to that same tired man, this time to tell of a coming Anointed One. The man had written down these descriptions, and the information had become an important center of attention for those who anticipated the Anointed One.

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