1. Proverbs 26:20a says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” The message is clear enough. You want to minimize contention? Then stop talking for a while. Our nation should try it. The last thing anyone needs right now is another opinion on social media, which can only become fuel for the dumpster fire that has become political discourse in our country. As such, I will say very little today. De-esclation is sorely needed after yesterday’s riot and storming of the U.S. capitol by protesters. There’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl 3:7b), and I will stay largely silent for right now.
2. What I will say is the obvious—what everyone should be able to say across the board without equivocation: I condemn violence and destruction in the attempted furtherance of any political agenda, whether it comes from the left or the right. I also condemn the hot, biased, and inflamed rhetoric of our corrupt media. They are as guilty as any politician or protester. Alas, I’m not optimistic that they will do any self-reflection in this crucial moment.
3. For now, I have said everything I wish to say about politics here. Additionally, Carey Nieuwhof has a good post here on “Why Your Words as a Leader Matter (Far More Than You Think).” There is some overlap there with the study I did on TNL called “Oh, My Word.”
4. One of the joys of teaching at the master and doctoral levels is the depth and quality of work from my students that I get to review on a regular basis. I’ve been fed and inspired by projects submitted for my courses in preaching, ecclesiology, semiotics, outreach, and Old Testament. The students really hit it out of the park this semester. I’m also looking forward to serving as a member of the dissertation committee for three Th.D. students over the coming months. Not only are their topics fascinating, their passion and scholarship are coming together in such a way that I get to be the beneficiary of their labors.
5. Is it “de-decorate” or “un-decorate”? I’m not sure, but the time has come. Epiphany Day has passed, although the season remains for a little while longer. Putting the Christmas decorations away has always made me a bit melancholy. And this year we can’t have our Epiphany party for the neighborhood because of the virus. (Even this introvert misses that special get together.) Were it not for the bright sky today, I’d probably be sitting in the sad seat. So, let’s hear it for the appearance of the sun! Time to go out and make my FitBit happy, not to mention my spirits.
6. One last thing for now. We’re finally singing “The Blessing” this Sunday at church. I’ve already written about that song in this space, and I’ll post it again soon as it will be new for most of the folks in our congregation. “May his favor be upon” each and every reader of TNL, especially now since my frequency of posting has to drop for a while. Ugh!
The Lord bless you and keep you Make his face shine upon you And be gracious to you The Lord turn his face toward you And give you peace
A Bonus—Just for Grins
My son and I had way too much fun with this comic. We’re not sure if the two guys are to be understood as skinheads, or if the bear is to be understood as a butt-head. Either way, it…uhm…cracked us up.
1. Christmas Day has passed, and members of the extended family have all returned home. The house is quieter now (always a delight to us introverts, though still a bit depressing after all the excitement), but the Christmas season continues through January 5 on the liturgical calendar. Epiphany Day is Wednesday, January 6, and the season after the Epiphany extends through February 16, which is the day before Lent begins. Normally we would leave our decorations up and have an Epiphany Party for church members and the neighbors, but the virus makes gathering a real problem right now, so I’m not sure when the decorations will go back into hibernation.
2. The general theme of the Epiphany and the season that follows is Jesus’ manifestation of himself as deity. (The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance”). In lectionary churches, Bible readings and sermons during this time of year typically deal with Jesus’ identity. In the eastern Church, Epiphany commemorates the baptism of Christ. In the western Church, Epiphany commemorates the natal star and the arrival of the Magi, with the following week focusing on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. So, there is much for believers to look forward to, and any post-holiday spirits that are flagging can be reinvigorated by these great truths. In my experience, emotions can be like sine waves for many people (myself included); they go up and down in patterns, sometimes exhausting us in the process. Thankfully, Christ is the steady, unchanging “x-axis” that cuts through all the motion and commotion. That’s not a cliché; it’s an anchor for the soul when we’re feeling blue.
3. The civil calendar is fast heading toward January 1, which is New Year’s Day for most of the world. We find ourselves, then, living in between high moments. I suspect many people this year will be welcoming the calendar change from 2020 to 2021. That’s understandable, as a lot of awful things have happened this year. At the same time, believers are instructed to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). That’s easier said than done, but it does mean that God always has a purpose in the our pain.
4. Yes, God is always up to something good, even in the challenges we face. And, of course, he’s always faithful to his people in the midst of those challenges. I’ve been thinking of Matt Redman’s song “Never Once” as I look back on 2020 as a whole. It’s a good reminder that God has never abandoned us—not once.
Scars and struggles on the way But with joy our hearts can say Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone Never once did You leave us on our own You are faithful, God, You are faithful
5. As I look back on the fourth quarter of 2020, and especially the month of December, I do so with a good deal of gratitude and satisfaction. It’s been a joy to put more time and energy into This New Life, establishing a number of templates for future posting. I especially enjoyed preparing the articles I did that focused on the Incarnation—one of my favorite theological topics to research and ponder. I’ve never been a huge fan of “The Little Drummer Boy” song, but I’ve been thinking about one line in it for several days now: “I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum.” What do I have to offer my Lord except what he’s already given me? Absolutely nothing! Moreover, there’s not a single thing he ever needs from me—a mere human being with faults and flaws all over the place. He is, after all, the sovereign king and creator of the universe; he has no needs.
But he does accept our gifts when we offer them in sincerity of heart—like parents who open a small, homemade present from their young children on Christmas morning. The parents’ delight in that moment is not manufactured; it’s a genuine response of gladness to the relationship, more so than the intrinsic value of the thing itself. It was the love with which the gift was made that sparks joy in the parents. I have a few things like that from my own kids, and they’re precious to me.
Looking back on this past month, I can honestly say, “I wrote my best for him,” seeking to honor and somehow articulate the incomprehensible miracle that is Christmas. Jesus doesn’t need my pen, but I gladly give it in service to him, as I can think of nothing more incredible to write about. My earnest hope is that he was pleased with my literary drumming. (And I hope it didn’t keep baby Jesus awake!)
6. Perhaps there is one thing more incredible to write about than Christmas, and that’s the other end of Jesus’ earthly life, where on the cross something truly astonishing happened: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). When that kairos moment took place, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom—a highly symbolic and theologically rich act of God that will be the focus of my dissertation. My broader work on Israel’s tabernacle has been narrowed down to explore the significance and implications of that one incredible portent at Herod’s temple in the first century. What exactly happened? Why did it happen? Why does it figure so significantly in the book of Hebrews? What does it mean for us today?
7. So, my research and writing efforts must now shift to that project during the first part of 2021. It will be labor intensive, so I need to disappear from TNL for a while—though not completely. I’ll continue posting a few things from time to time, but not as much as I have been these past several months. I’ll keep scanning my favorite blogs when I can (because I love your stuff, and it gives me hope and inspiration!), but I won’t be able to generate as much content for a while—just sermon summaries, classroom handouts, weekly songs in the sidebar, and occasional updates and fun stuff as time allows. All prayers are appreciated for this new venture, as I cannot do it alone. “No man is an island,” said John Donne, and he was right. So, thanks for your support!
I look forward to getting back in the blogging groove again after this major project is completed, and I can say with Jesus, “It is finished!”
Love to all in Jesus’ name. Be blessed on your journey in 2021.
I may be rolling into the New Year. My sister-in-law, who’s an expert baker, brought a trove of goodies to our house for the Christmas break. Alas, my tongue is craving more than my stomach can handle. Among her delectable treats are:
Peanut Butter Cookies
Yule Log Cake Roll
Chocolate Covered Pretzel Sticks
Other Assorted Cookies
Joan is a high-power exec at her company, so it’s a wonder she has the time to do all this work. And not just do it but do it well. Her husband John is an expert bread maker and a boss at the grill. So, I’m raising the white flag today because I can’t come close to competing with these skills. (Not that this is a competition.)
I will say, however, that my peanut butter blossoms—topped with Wilbur buds—are right up there in taste. And, as I like to say: Chocolate is proof of God’s existence. Peanut butter is proof of God’s power. And the two together are proof of God’s goodness.
All of this divinity, however, is giving me a sugar headache!
I mentioned yesterday that I got way too many gifts for Christmas—all of them special and much appreciated—with two from my kids that truly captured my heart. Here are snaps of those two gifts.
The wooden Phillies mug on the right is made in the shape of—and out of the same material as—an MLB bat. It’s so tall I needed a chopstick to stir the creamer! Drew has a way of getting us the most unique gifts—the kinds of things we would never buy for ourselves but bring a smile to our hearts when he gives them.
My daughter and son-in-law choked me up with a canvas made on their cricut that says, “Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices, Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born,” a line from my mom’s favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to her when she passed away. Next year, Lord willing, I’ll write more about that carol and its history. It was an awful lot of work for Bethany and Micah to put this together.
It was a memorable day. (We even had a bit of snow for a few hours!) The greatest gift of course, was the child in the manger. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Andrew also made each of our likenesses into a 3D-printed comic figure. (I am Batman, haha!) We’re still waiting for the USPS to deliver them, but we have printouts of what they will look like. How in the world did I get such creative kids?
I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.
That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!
I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:
Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.
Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.
There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away.
We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.
We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.
I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts.
People don’t usually look for ways to get demoted. They try to go up the ladder of success not down. But if the eternal Son of God had a birthday on that first Christmas, it was a voluntary choice for demotion. It was the ultimate pay cut. It was the ultimate story of riches to rags. And he did it willingly. The Creator willingly became part of his creation. The Master Artist willingly became part of his painting. The Eternal One willingly became part history and subject to time. The One who is called in John’s gospel “the Light” took off his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin, winding up in Bethlehem’s manger two thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul’s Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”) in Philippians 2:5-11 describes just how low he went. And then how high. It’s a summary of his full journey.
The Swiss theologian Emil Bruner was the first to suggest that we can represent this three-fold movement of our Lord’s ministry using the mathematical formula of a parabola (y = x2), a journey from glory to humiliation, and back to glory again. This Christmas Eve sermon focuses on the first part of Jesus’ parabola. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus! He was big enough to be small. Indeed, hemade the crucial decision to have a birthday in Bethlehem, leavingthe splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress.
After his atoning death on the cross, God the Son rose from the dead to give his people a “new birth” day. “Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.” Indeed, God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours.And now he lives inside his people by the Holy Spirit. Lest you think you’re not worthy to have Christ come and live inside of you, consider all the dark and dreadful places he’s already been, all the places he’s already chosen to go: The dark womb of a teenager. The rough manger of Bethlehem. The red-light district of Nazareth. The corrupt temple in Jerusalem. The flogging post of a Roman torture yard. The bloody cross of Mount Calvary. The dark, damp ledge of the garden tomb. Do you think Jesus could be surprised by any dirt or darkness he might find in your in your own heart? No—that dirt and darkness is precisely why he came. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Give him your sin, and he will give you his divine life. Merry Christmas.
God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.
Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him.
No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us.
Are we listening?
The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.
For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before.
We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this:
Men are homesick in their homes And strangers under the sun… But our homes are under miraculous skies Where Christmas was begun.
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator.
God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.
Even if you’re a wizard.
Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.
Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And the most frazzled, too! But it’s a good frazzle. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Final preparations are now being made in the sanctuary and on the sermon for the candlelight service tonight at church. We’ll be on-ground and online this year because of the virus.
Final cleaning and food preparation is also taking place in our home, as we’ll be having more guests than we did for Thanksgiving. With my mother-in-law’s cognition declining, her kids and grandkids want to gather while she still knows who they are. It’s a good reminder for all of us to live life to the fullest while we have a life to live.
Lorena is a godly woman, and she’s most like herself when she prays. I’ve asked her several times not to say, “Amen” so we can all enjoy “the old her” longer. But she forgets and says, “Amen,” anyway!
The “new her” is still her, and we seek to honor her for who she is. God’s entire point in giving the fifth commandment through Moses was so Israel would be a good place for people to grow old. Our calling is now to live out that same vision for Lorena.
It’s often challenging (e.g., answering the same question dozens of times; adding an hour or two to cookie baking, etc.), but the Golden Rule helps keep us on track. I might be old some day, too, so I need to treat her the same way I would want to be treated if I were in a similar situation. Most of the time that approach works well, but I have lost my patience a few times. Thank God for the Savior, whose birth we celebrate tonight and tomorrow.
I also think of that poignant Twila Paris song, “Same Girl” in regard to Lorena. It captures well how I want to regard her, even today.
Look behind the lines till you remember She’s still the same girl
So, there are lots of emotions swirling around today. There’s the awe and wonder of the incarnation. There’s the “thrill of hope” in the salvation that Jesus brings. There’s the joy and laughter of extended family members gathering to celebrate. There’s the pain and disappointment of suffering and loss.
And then, of course, there’s a lot of nostalgia this time of year, too. Emotional triggers can come in the form of seeing old Christmas decorations, hearing old Christmas songs, writing out new Christmas cards, and smelling great Christmas recipes we don’t make the rest of the year.
One trigger for me is an old Santa pin that my siblings and I used to wear this time of year. You could pull a string, and his red nose would light up. It’s a silly thing, really. A worthless trinket. But it touches something inside me, although I’m not exactly sure what.
Maybe it’s the extra love we felt as kids at Christmas. Dad was a little nicer at that time, and mom was a pargon of positivity. We could also stay up later and eat more junk food. And, of course, we got a few gifts. What’s not to like about Christmas when you’re a kid?
In any event, I’ve met quite a few folks who had these pins growing up, and they always brighten up when they talk about them. They’re usually connected to pleasant memories “of Christmas long, long ago.” (We’re all getting older, aren’t we?)
So, yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—even when life is hard. “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
I can hardly wait to fall on my knees tonight.
Picture with me if you can A little girl in a younger land Running, playing, laughing Growing stronger Now the aging limbs have failed And the rosy cheeks are paled Look behind the lines till you remember
She’s still the same girl Flying down the hill She’s still the same girl Memories vivid still Listen to her story And her eyes will glow She’s still the same girl And she needs you so
Picture with me if you will A long white dress and a wedding veil Two young dreamers pledge their love together Now her lifelong friend is gone And she spends her days alone Look behind the lines till you remember
She’s still the same girl Walking down the aisle She’s still the same girl With the shining smile Listen to her story And her eyes will glow She’s still the same girl
Same girl She’s still the same girl Wiser for the years She’s still the same girl Stronger for the tears Listen to her story And your heart will glow She’s still the same girl And we need her so She’s still the same girl And she needs you so
From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day.
We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained.
After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.
Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.
Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.
Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen.
In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.
Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.
Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.
Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are?
“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” – Al Stillman
No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message?
In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed,the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!
After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…
His life showed us how to live.
His death made us ready to die.
His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end.
At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.
Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).
That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby!
It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was theultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God.
As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.
After all these years, I’m still learning the secrets of baking. Not just the recipes, but the techniques as well—things like temperature, pressure, consistency, mixing, cooling, decorating, and so forth. Let’s just say I have a long way to go! Here are the “win, place, and show” awards for this year’s Christmas cookie adventure.
Win—Peanut Butter Blossoms
The best cookie this year turned out to be the peanut butter blossoms. They’re delicious! We used an online recipe this time around and deviated from the instructions only by putting Wilbur Buds on top of them instead of Hershey Kisses. Half got the dark chocolate buds, and half got the milk chocolate. Readers of TNL will know that I’ll be eating the dark chocolate ones first! Everything about this particular cookie—the look, smell, taste, and ease of preparation—was top notch.
Place—Sugar Cut Outs
The sugar cookies turned out to be wonderful this year, too. They’re just a whole lot of work. And, sheesh, the flour can wind up in the strangest places! With all the rolling, cutting, trimming, and re-rolling of excess dough, the process can get tiring after several hours. We used my Nana’s cookie cutters, which always puts a lump in my throat. They may be 60-70 years old by now, and they bring back a lot of beautiful memories. She was a gem of kindness, and I was always in awe of her baking skills. We put red and green sugar sprinkles on the cut outs. They’re fun to look at and fun to eat!
Show—Chocolate Chip Cookies
Oh, what a near disaster! The chilled dough seemed “spot on” in terms of consistency (and taste), but I must have botched the recipe somehow. The first tray didn’t bake correctly, leaving us with greasy blobs of unrecognizability all over the oven. (I now know what a pregnant amoeba looks like.) I semi-rescued the rest of the dough with added flour and baking soda, and the subsequent bakes were okay-ish. Still, I was frustrated. Chocolate chip cookies have never been a problem before. Ugh!
My frustration led to other miscues on my part (e.g., kitchen spills, misplaced utensils, etc.), which just made me more disappointed with myself. I was not at the top of my game for part of the night, so I never got around to whipping up the snickerdoodles.
* – bottom lip out – *
The unseen benefit was the reminder—once again—of how much I need a Savior. Fortunately, we have one in Jesus. The cookies were made in his honor, anyway. Eating them this year will be a kind of communion with him. But most of them will be given away to the neighbors when we go Christmas caroling tonight.
Except the chocolate chip cookies. Those are staying here. They’re not ready for prime time.
“And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
Our neighbors across the street have a nativity scene in their front yard. It’s simple, wooden, monochrome, and two-dimensional. It’s understated, sparsely lit, and lovely in its own way. It’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can go by it every day and not be jolted by the shock of what it communicates.
A manger? Seriously? Is that where they placed the baby Jesus after his delivery was complete and his cord was cut? A place where animals nuzzled their feed just moments prior and insects foraged for their own microsopic morsels? It’s a bit crude, don’t you think? As the old carol says, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” The temptation is to scoff at such an account.
But if the Son of God came into our world two thousand years ago as a baby—as a real person joined to our humanity—and his first bassinet on the planet was a feeding trough for animals, might there be something in that detail that needs our attention? Might there be more here than meets the eye? What might God be trying to say to us through the startling semiotics of this well-known scene in my neighbor’s yard?
Whatever it is, not only did it make sense to the shepherds, it set them into motion. The Christ child as described—swaddled in strips of cloth and lying in a manger—was a meaningful “sign” to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth (Luke 2:17). What are we to make, then, of the swaddling clothes and the manger bed, which figure so prominently in the original Christmas story?
We’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with Jewish prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:5-6). The word Bethlehem means “house of bread,” or “house of food.” The Arabic cognate means “house of meat” or “house of flesh.” It may have been known to the ancients as something of a food court—a corridor of lodging and hospitality for travelers. King David was born there a thousand years before Jesus. David, of course, was Israel’s leader who established the temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built under the reign of Solomon, his son.
The temple was the center of worship and sacrifice in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on the high holy days. Where did all those lambs come from? They came from the fields in Bethlehem, located about 4.5 miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless—without blemish or imperfection—or they could not be offered at the temple.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet when they’re born, and they can slip and slide quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of soft hay so it wouldn’t fall and bruise itself. If they did, they couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths used to wrap the newborn lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white garments worn by Jewish priests during their daily rituals. After regular use, those garments got so covered in blood, filth, and dirt, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t just get rid of their old robes. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them. The U.S. military has a similar view of old flags. They don’t just throw them away; they remove them from regular use with certain ceremonies and procedures for honorable disposal. The same was true with old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.
“This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told. They would go on to see a human baby wrapped in blood-stained priest garments. To a Bethlehem shepherd, such a sight would be loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He’ll be a bloodied priest himself someday in order to accomplish your salvation. He’s the child born to die a sacrificial death.”
God was speaking their language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first.
First-century mangers may have been made out of wood, but numerous stone mangers have been found in the region. As is the case today today, mangers served as food bins for animals. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the infancy narratives do we read that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave. The stable-cave setting is inferred because of the biblical references to a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). A better understanding of first-century culture makes the stable-cave setting unnecessary, though it certainly remains a possibility.
We need to go on a myth-busting journey here to sharpen our focus. The Bible neither states nor implies that Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, or that they had just barely made it before the final contractions. Such ideas find their origin not in the Gospels but in a third-century novella. The myth has been perpetuated in stories, art, and film ever since (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth, The Nativity Story, etc.).
In many films today, Mary is “ten centimeters dilated and ready to push” while still riding on the donkey (also not in the text) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But Scripture and logic both tell us that Mary and Joseph had sufficient time to find suitable lodging and make preparations for the delivery. “While they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6, KJV). That is, at some point during the unspecified period of time that Mary and Joseph had already been in Bethlehem, Mary came to term and delivered her baby.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives (even distant ones) to lodge with inside “the town of David.” If my wife had ever gone back to a certain region in Hickory, North Carolina while eight or nine months pregnant and said, “I’m Lester Taylor’s granddaughter, and I need a place to stay to deliver my baby,” she would have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding a sympathetic relative to take her in. (Lester Taylor was a well-known farmer in the area, and he had fourteen children back in the day, many of whom still live in that town.)
New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that pregnant women receive special attention in nearly every culture, especially if they’re about ready to deliver their first child. Furthermore, the honor of all Bethlehem was at stake in caring for a pregnant woman from out of town. Given the unwritten hospitality rules and customs of the Middle East in ancient times, rejection of a pregnant woman is unthinkable.
But wasn’t there “no room” for the holy family in any of the local hotels (cf. Luke 2:7)? That’s a vast over-reading (and therefore a misreading) of the story. The text does not mention an inn keeper who turned away Joseph and Mary. Moreover, note the layout of a typical Middle Eastern home in the first century:
What’s labeled as a “stable” on the left end of this diagram is similar to our attached garages today—an extra room built off the side of a house where farm equipment and other household items could be stored. The house itself features a main “family room” and a “guest room.”
Animals were typically kept in the house at night to provide extra heat, prevent theft, and keep the elements off of them. For example, we read in 1 Samuel 28:24, “Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house….” Additionally, consider Jephthah’s famous vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). Jephthah fully expected an animal to come out of his house, not a person.
Luke 2:7 reads, “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma].” A kataluma is a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11), not an “inn.” A pandocheion is an “inn” (cf. Luke 10:34). That’s not the word used in the infancy narrative.
It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were granted the use of someone’s family room or “garage” in a house, since the guest room was already in use, possibly due to the influx of people because of the census. A manger was available, then, as a cradle in the house. So, Jesus may have been born in a garage-like room attached to a house, with mangers setting around for the animals sheltering in place overnight.
Nothing in this reconstruction minimizes the shock of the Christ child being laid in a manger. It’s still a feeding trough for animals. It’s still a crude bassinet in a crowded, makeshift room, not a satin-sheet crib in a royal palace. The point is that God ensured the safe delivery of his own Son on earth and sent a powerful message to those who first saw it. What was that message?
Christmas means the end of haughtiness. It’s the end of snobbery. It’s the end of pretense. It’s the end of airbrushing ourselves and preening for the camera or the academy. Oswald Chambers once said: “Beware of posing as a profound person—God became a baby.” There’s a powerful message in the manger, and it’s this: God is humble. God is gentle. God is winsome. God is relational. What’s more accessible and unassuming than an infant? What’s more inviting and endearing than a newborn baby?
Here, too, God’s wisdom is on full display. People want to be attracted to faith, not coerced into it. They want something that’s beautiful, true, and good, not pompous, overbearing, and intimidating. Bethlehem’s manger gives them all that and more. It’s the most disarming invitation there is to genuine faith. Besides, religion says, “Work your way up to God.” Christmas says: “God has worked his way down to you.” All the way down. The Prince of Peace comes in peace. He comes as a baby. And that must mean the end of all pomposity on our part. God doesn’t need to show off, so neither do his people.
During World War II, a man named John Blanchard was a lieutenant in the Navy. At one point he checked out a book from the library that had previously belonged to somebody else. Even though he liked the book, the thing he appreciated most were the handwritten notes in the margins. A woman who lived in New York City had written all of her own notes in the white space, and Blanchard loved those notes.
He was intrigued by their wisdom and insight, and he started getting attracted to the mind of the person who wrote them. Her name was on the inside of the book, so, with a little bit of effort, he discovered where she lived, and he wrote to her. Her name was Hollis.
During the war, they wrote back and forth. They had wonderful correspondence, and it turned into a deep friendship. Blanchard had the utmost admiration for her, but he also had an imagination of what she looked like. He asked her for a picture, but she never sent one.
Finally, the war was over, and Blanchard was coming home. He had arranged to meet Hollis at Grand Central Station at a particular spot at 7:00 p.m. Her last letter said, “Hey, we don’t know what each other looks like, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand at a particular place, and you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a great big red rose on my lapel.”
Blanchard got out of the train, walked over to this spot, and he saw two women there. One was young and beautiful, and the other was much older, much heavier, and much dowdier than he had imagined. That was the woman wearing the big red rose. Blanchard stopped in his tracks. As he waited there, the pretty woman walked away, and the woman with the red rose on her lapel stood there looking for somebody.
Blanchard said, “I was split. I felt choked up by the bitterness of my disappointment, but so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had connected with mine and upheld me during the war, I thought, ‘Well, this won’t be love and romance, but it could be something precious, maybe a friendship for which I would always be grateful.’” So, he swallowed hard and summoned up his courage. He walked over to the woman and said, “Hello, I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard. You must be Hollis. I’m so glad to meet you. May I take you to dinner?”
She smiled and said, “Son, I have no idea who you are or what this is all about, but the young lady who was just standing here beside me—who walked away—she said I should wear this big red rose on my lapel. And only if you asked me to dinner should I tell you she’s waiting for you in that restaurant across the street.”
Blanchard knew what was most important in a person—not external beauty, however lovely it may be—but a beauty deeper down. A beauty of soul. A beauty of personhood in its totality.
The beauty of Jesus is not the beauty of this world. It’s actually better. Deeper. Richer. More authentic. Underneath the crudeness of the manger is the beautiful, disarming humility of God.
“Why lies he in such mean estate?” Because God doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants to have a relationship with us—freely chosen and warmly embraced. And nothing communicates that truth better than a feeding trough. So, come to the manger that holds the Messiah. He’s in a food bin so we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
May every nativity set we see this year jolt us a bit rather than just blending into the background. God has something to say to us through it. Something that can make our own lives beautiful, too.
Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn king.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; christianitytoday.com; israelmyglory.org; sketch derived from Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
1. I’m catching my breath after a long semester—just sitting here enjoying the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the season. Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol was playing last night in the background, but I couldn’t watch it because I was finishing up my last class. The animation in that production is amazing (even if dark in tone and temperature), so I’m going to have to catch it later. Right now, the grading marathon begins.
2. The countertop is loaded with Christmas cookie ingredients, all waiting to be mixed in the right proportions and then baked to perfection. Most ingredients don’t taste too good on their own, but together they form a delightful treat that’s not to be missed this time of year. There’s probably a sermon illustration in there somewhere—isolation vs. interaction, and all that.
3. I’m eating a Mint Milano cookie even as I contemplate the homemade delights to come—chocolate chip, sugar, and peanut butter cookies to start. Snicker doodles and sand tarts could make an appearcnce, too, but we’ll see. Either way, Nana’s old fashioned cookie cutters are ready to go. She was a kind and gracious woman who taught me the real meaning of Christmas when I was very young. She always lit a babyberry candle on Christmas Eve to serve as the birthday candle for Jesus.
4. I changed a car battery in 24° F weather today. Didn’t mind at all since the wind wasn’t blowing. Fall is my favorite season, and winter is a close second. Spring is very nice, and summer brings up the rear. (I’m not for hot.) Snow can be both beautiful and fun, but I always want peole to stay safe on the roads. I’m hoping the snowstorm that began an hour ago doesn’t wreak too much havoc on our region. Pennsylvania has had enough challenges for one year. Nevertheless, let it snow!
5. Firewood for the new fireplace is stacked and ready to go. We have a real one and a simulated one. Both are lovely, and both are flanked by Christmas trees right now. Gifts are piling up in the living room, and the nativity set is prominently dispalyed, minus the baby Jesus. His due date this year is December 25, though some years we grant him preemie status.
6. Speaking of nativity scenes, I’m fast becoming a fan of the 1515 painting by an obscure artist depicting the first Christmas, titled The Adoration of the Christ Child. The angel next to Mary and the shepherd in the focal center both display facial features associated with Down syndrome. Yes, Jesus came for the preemies, the Downs, the miscarried, the stillborn, and orphans like me. All are precious in his sight.
7. I’m looking forward to wrapping up the grading, celebrating our Savior’s birth, and then diving into the dissertation full bore. As noted in a previous post, that’s nearly a full-time job, so I’ll have to cut back on my TNL frequency for several months. I’ll stay as engaged as I can, though, since I love to write. I find it therapeutic, clarifying, and devotional. Academic writing, however, is another matter. That’s just tedious and painful, but there’ll be no more degrees after this, so I might as well go out with a bang.
8. Here’s a delightful song called “Memories” as performed by the One Voice Children’s Choir. It lifted my spirits and made me smile. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, too. We don’t all have photographic memories, but we all have phonographic memories.
9. Finally, in all of our merry making this time of year, it’s good to remember that the cradle led to the cross. And the cross led to the empty tomb. And the empty tomb led to the ascension. And the ascension led to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Some day, history itself will culminate in the return of Christ for his people. But how to convey all that in one picture? Here’s one church’s noble attempt:
Praying for the safety, health, and joy of all who pass by TNL from time to time. Thank you!
Like many other people, I have a morning routine that includes coffee. Two cups at least. And most of the time, I drink Eight O’clock Dark Italian Roast with one cream and one Splenda. (Take my man card if you must, but that’s how I like it.) I drink other kinds from time to time, but the darker roasts and Columbian roasts are my favorites.
Often when I have my first cup, I think about and pray for the person who gave me the mug I’m using that morning. I have quite a collection, and as I drag myself to the place where I do my devotions, I pray God’s blessings over that person.
One of my all-time favorites is a light blue ceramic mug featuring a bleary-eyed Mickey Mouse on the front, and a printed message on the back, which says, “Some mornings are ROUGH!”
Mickey is right. Some mornings are rough, but coffee makes them tolerable. In any event, I treasure this mug because my son got it for me during his first-ever Christmas away from home. He was in college, and he did an internship at Disney World one year during the holiday break. That was emotionally challenging for us—not to have our son home for Christmas.
We got to Skype with him that year, and for that we were grateful, but it wasn’t the same as having him here with us. (One cannot hug pixels on an iPad.) When he returned from Florida, the Mickey mug was one of the gifts he gave me for Christmas. So, it’s special to me because it’s connected to a precious memory—an expression of a son’s love for his father.
Unfortunately, the handle broke off a few years ago. No one knows exactly how or why it happened, and it was quite upsetting when it did. “Not the Mickey mug!” I still have it today, and it looks like this:
My special mug without its handle. It’s now defective—less than what it had been when I first received it. But I still treasure it. It’s still special to me and always will be. The mug is broken but loved.
What an apt metaphor for people made in the image of God. After all, how much more valuable is a person than a mug! We’re spiritually broken but still loved by God.
I won’t ever get rid of my Mickey mug, even though it’s defective. Likewise, God won’t get rid of us—even if we’re broken in some way. We’re the reason Christmas happened in the first place.
So, drink up. And thank God for his caffeinated grace.
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1, KJV)
After the birth of my son, Andrew, I understood a little better why God wanted to be a Father. The same thought washed over me after the birth of my daughter two years later. (Her first act on the planet was to pee on the doctor. After I got his bill, I was glad she did.) I embarrassed both my kids last week with some incriminating kiddie pics. They took it well.
Tonight is movie night with Andrew. Last night was daddy-daughter date night with Bethany. We had a blast together, and we were texting today about what a wonderful time we had. I love lavishing them both with affection, encouragement, and good times. They even let me theologize once in a while. They’re the ones God gave me to care for, and it’s a joy for me to do so, not a burden.
Yes, there were a few rough spots during the teen years, but I can honestly say today, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). My kids’ interests, personalities, and love languages couldn’t be more different, but the delight they bring me is the same.
Additionally, my son-in-law Micah is no less a son to me than Andrew. He’s an incredible young man, too, and an answer to prayer. He’s been grafted into our hearts as well as into our family. When the kids have a joy, I have a joy. When the kids have a hurt, I have a hurt.
That’s why I’ve been grieving from a distance the death of Tim Challies’ son, Nick. Tim is an uber-blogger whom I read regularly, and I’ve shed some tears for the tragedy that has recently befallen his family. His young son passed away unexpectedly while attending my alma matter, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
I’ve never met Tim, but he serves the church well with his daily aggregations and reflections. I’m grateful to the Lord for him and his ministry. He has recently born witness to the power of God’s sustaining grace during this time, but oh what hard road for him to walk as a father. His persevering faith testifies to the reality of God. Many others have walked a similar path, but every step is agonizing. God the Father walked this path, too.
Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.
Next December, Lord willing, I’ll write about how my mother passed away in the hospital while we were singing her favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.” All her equipment flatlined just as we were singing, “O hear the angel voices.” And then she did—she heard the angel voices in her new heavenly home.
But we’ve had enough heaviness this year, so I’ll save that story for some other time. For now, let’s just settle into the reality of the Father’s love for us—fully revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who was:
Born that man no more may die.
The Father loves us a whole lot more than I love my own kids. And that’s a lot.