Planting Tears, Harvesting Joy

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Please read Psalm 126 in your Bible.  I’ve used the NIV to prepare this article.

Jesus is our joy.  Our joy is our strength.

          From an anonymous author and for your Advent enjoyment, I present a “Theology of Christmas Toys.”   This humorous article answers the question, “If adults were as concerned about toys as kids are, how would different faiths think about toys?”

  • Atheism: There is no toymaker.
  • Polytheism: There are many toymakers.
  • Darwinism: The toys made themselves.
  • Capitalism: Sell your toys.
  • Communism: Everyone gets the same number of toys.
  • Islam: You can only play with my toy. Get rid of yours or else.
  • Buddhism: The world would be a better place if we all stopped asking for toys.
  • Presbyterian: These toys were chosen for you to play with and these toys were chosen for me.
  • Methodist: Consult the “Book of Discipline” for the right method of playing with toys.
  • Episcopalian: We don’t care where the toys come from, we just play with them.
  • Baptist: We have played with this toy this way for years and we’re not about to change.
  • Unitarian: There are no bad toys or bad players.
  • Pentecostal: Real toys can speak in tongues.
  • Assembly of God: Name the toy and claim it.
  • Seventh Day Adventist: Eat your vegetables and play with your toys on Saturday only.
  • Christian Scientist: Broken toys are a figment of your imagination.
  • Amish: No toys with batteries.
  • Orthodox: There is only one toy and it is in our church. It was our toy first.
  • Catholic: No, it’s our toy.
  • Televangelist: Send me $100 and I’ll tell you how to get more toys.

(Adapted from the Joyful Noiseletter, Dec. 2010.)

It turns out that the real joy of this season was wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” not in wrapping paper.  Do you want to have a joyous Christmas?  Focus on Christ.                2

  1. The LORD’s restoration is the peoples’ joy.

Restoration brings joy.  The word “restoration” is one of two key words in this passage.   It is described as A SONG OF ASCENTS; a hymn sung as people walked up the hill to the temple.

The historical occasion is the return of God’s people from their exile in Babylon. RESTORE OUR FORTUNES…LIKE STREAMS IN THE NEGEV (4).  Traditionally, this psalm is believed to have been written by Ezra, the priest who helped lead God’s people back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.  The joy of returning home was no doubt tempered when they saw the ruins of the city and fully realized the work that lay before them.  That’s why verse four feels a bit out of place – a downbeat among all the excitement.  In the Hebrew, the word RESTORE is in the imperative voice, so it’s pleading with God (use an “!”).

In the region of the NEGEV, the STREAMS have dry up over the summer.   When winter rains fall, even just an inch results in rushing waters & flash floods.  Ultimately the water revives the land: there are blossoms in the desert.  To the first readers of the song this would have been a dramatic illustration as they would have experienced this personally.

Spiritually, this image means we are restored from slavery to sin with its deadly effects.  We are restored to fellowship with God and one another.

“Joy” is the other key word.  Their joy upon returning home was so deep, it was beyond understanding: WE WERE LIKE THOSE WHO DREAMED (1).  Have you ever said to someone, “Pinch me; I must be dreaming” and regretted it later?  Deep joy is one of those rare moments when life feels too good to be true and we are overwhelmed by joy.  It’s a more common experience to anticipate something but still be overwhelmed when it actually happens.  This passage reads like the eyewitness account of someone who’s experienced this kind of joy personally.

In verse two their joy found expression.   OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER, OUR TONGUES WITH SOUNDS OF JOY.  The repetition of MOUTHS and TONGUES is for emphasis.  The point: joy is sometimes so powerful we can’t hold it in.

LAUGHTER and SOUNDS OF JOY may be the same thing, but they certainly come from the same thing: profound joy.  Whether we celebrate with laughter or song, God wants us to worship Him with joyous hearts.


The phrase IT WAS SAID AMONG THE NATIONS means the message of God’s restoring His people was spoken so widely and with such intensity of joy even pagan nations knew God had acted on their behalf.

The deepest joy flows from remembering all the GREAT THINGS God has done for us (v. 3).  God so worked on the heart of Cyrus, the Babylonian king, that he allowed the people of Judah to return to their homeland without paying any ransom.  He allowed them to take back temple treasures and even aided their return and reconstruction with generous gifts.  When enemies tried to undermine the Jew’s efforts, Cyrus took their side.

The rebuilding of the city, its walls, and the temple within was no small feat.  The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah detail the obstacles overcome to achieve this.

Tears are “joy seeds,” as affirmed in verses five and six.  THOSE WHO SOW WITH TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY (5). Obviously we don’t weep seeds, so this is a poetic, symbolic statement.  It is a promise that our sorrows are not wasted.  The tears we cry are like seeds in the sense that they will bring better days ahead.


The Jews struggled to emerge from their captivity.  The promise is overcoming.  It will make a difference.  Tears of grief and frustration will become tears and songs of joy as God rewards faithfulness with fruitfulness.

The Bible is clear on this point: our TEARS are important to God; He sees them.  As a psalmist wrote: Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll— are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8)  Other versions translate this verse as saying God collects our tears in a bottle.

From Egyptian times to the American Civil War and even to today, people have used small bottles to collect their tears as a sign of grief at death or parting.  These bottles are called “lachrymatories.”  (You can order them online, spending from $7 to $70.)

The agricultural metaphor implies that restoration is a gift that demands effort on our part.  As we’ve learned recently, our part is to be faithful and trust that God will make us fruitful.  For them, this involved risk; seed was buried in the ground and if it didn’t produce a crop, there would NOT be any for next year’s planting.  Faithfulness requires risk.

  1. Jesus’ birth was a joyous occasion.


Elizabeth and unborn John the Baptist rejoiced (LKE 1:44).  “AS SOON AS THE SOUND OF YOUR GREETING REACHED MY EARS, THE BABY IN MY WOMB LEAPED FOR JOY.”


In Luke 2, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna gave glory to God when they saw the baby Jesus, which is exactly the right thing to do when we experience godly joy.

It has been suggested that we proclaim 2018 to be a Year of Joy here at Emmanuel.  Sounds good.  But proclaiming requires doing or we’ve only succeeded in exchanging words.  We’d all like a 52 week break from negativity and worldly concerns.

Theologian Huston Smith is quoted, “At the center of the religious life is a peculiar kind of joy, the prospect of a happy ending that blossoms from necessarily painful ordeals, the promise of human difficulties embraced and overcome.”
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All Good Things

Please read Psalm 85 in your Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

One part of the process of maturing is setting aside the myths and mistaken thinking that comfort and guide us when we are young and/or immature.  For example, the inevitable moment in growing up when we set aside the Santa Claus myth.

In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller tells the story of when he first realized that Santa was not real.  He was eight years old at the time and at the mall.  Needing to use the restroom, he went inside and was awestruck to see Santa himself, standing there using the facilities.  He thought it an honor to see jolly ol’ St. Nick, even though he was outside of his usual environment.

Santa finished what he came for, turned around and caught young Donnie staring at him.  He said, “Ho, ho, ho, kid.”

There were no words in young Donald’s mind and nothing came out of his mouth.   Santa shrugged & walked out of the bathroom.

After being starstruck wore off, Donald realized that Santa had left the men’s room without washing his hands.  Yuck!  He could not believe that someone with Santa’s reputation for fussiness about keeping naughty and nice lists could be so lacking in simple hygiene.  It was then and there that Donald decided there was no such person as Santa Claus and the guy with germy hands was just someone trying to earn some extra money during the holidays.

He left the restroom to join his family who were already in line to see Santa Claus.  He asked his mother to be excused.  He sat down in the lingerie department and consider the ramifications of this important decision.

(Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller, 2004, pp. 22-25.)

This process is not just for children, however.  All our lives we are supposed to continue maturing, continuing to put away the myths, superstitions, and half-truths that have made us comfortable but are wrong.

Jesus came, in part, to keep God’s promises.  He became one of us to give us the whole truth about God and set us free from the untrue things that hold us back from real life with God.  Psalm 85 is packed with “adult words” and encouraging promises.

  1. The key words in these promises.

FAVOR (v. 1).  The object of God’s FAVOR is the LAND.  The Promised Land was one of the chief points of Jewish theology, it was a sign of God’s love for His people.

Restoration (v. 1+4).   The historical object of restoration was to be returned to their LAND, to end their 70 years of captivity.

Forgiveness is named and described in four different ways.

God forgave and COVERED ALL THEIR SINS (v. 2).  True forgiveness requires some forgetting, putting away the offense.  When God forgives, He forgets completely.  We must do the same.

The psalmist pleaded with God to forgive and SET ASIDE ALL YOUR WRATH AND TURN FROM YOUR FIERCE ANGER (v. 3).  Forgiveness requires giving up one’s right to seek revenge or punish.  To truly forgive, both the forgiver and the forgiven need to humble themselves and make some sacrifices

He also pleaded with him to PUT AWAY YOUR DISPLEASURE (v. 4).  Forgiveness does not allow grudge-holding.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs.  This truth is expressed twice in verse five, in slightly different ways.  (Do not BE ANGRY WITH US FOREVER, and do not PROLONG YOUR ANGER THROUGH ALL GENERATIONS.)  They show a concern for the future and a desire to move forward.

Revival (v. 6).  To “revive” something is to restore or renew life; to spark vitality where life is ebbing.  This is a gift from God, another act of grace.  Asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness is the first step toward revival.  Every revival has begun with intense times of conviction of sin and repentance.

LOVE (v. 7).  LOVE is an Old Testament virtue.  It may not be as obvious as it is in the NT, but it is true that throughout the Bible, LOVE is the greatest virtue.  This verse is as accurate and abridged statement of the Gospel as you’d hope to find in the NT.  LOVE has always been God’s thing.

RIGHTEOUSNESS (vs. 11+13).  We think of RIGHTEOUSNESS in moral terms and that’s true, but not the whole truth.  The origin of RIGHTEOUSNESS is not in our moral willpower.  It comes with the Holy Spirit.  It is another grace God gives us.  The Bible says that any righteousness we can achieve is inadequate to save us.  As v. 13 makes clear, the human form of RIGHTEOUSNESS was expressed in the living and teaching of Jesus.  We follow His example.

  1. The results of the promises kept.

REJOICE IN YOU (v. 6).  Joy is supposed to be our “default setting.”  If life is characterized by anger or gloom, something must change.

SALVATION (vs. 7+9).  It is likely the original readers/singers of this psalm saw restoration, revival, and SALVATION as returning home from Babylon.  For us, SALVATION takes on a more eternal perspective.  We think of SALVATION as our going from earth to heaven.

PEACE (v. 8).  This is REAL peace, the kind that passes human understanding (see Philippians 4:7).  More than the absence of conflict, this is an emotional stability that exists in the face of conflict, a contagious positivity and ease.

HIS GLORY will DWELL IN OUR LAND (v. 9).  God’s presence is His glory and is manifest in light.  God is among His people and in the LAND.

The combined virtues of LOVE and FAITHFULNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS and PEACE become possible (v. 10).  We know it is difficult to be loving AND faithful at the same time.  God will sometimes require us to do the faithful thing and someone will feel like we’ve been unloving.  Doing the right thing will put us at odds with people doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing.  When your choice is between doing God’s will OR anything else, pick God’s way.  Be obedient to God first and let the people sort themselves out.  We have to answer to God.

THE LORD WILL GIVE WHAT IS GOOD, the LAND WILL YIELD A HARVEST (v. 12).  Whether or not we recognize it at the time, the LORD will do what is GOOD for us.  What we HARVEST depends on what we have planted (see Galatians 6:7-8).

  1. Our part in receiving these promises.

We must LISTEN TO WHAT THE LORD GOD SAYS (v. 8).  On a practical level, this means two things.  First, listen to the LORD, not the world and CERTAINLY not the devil.  Second, as James 1:22-23 states, don’t just listen to God’s word and then go out and do whatever you please.  Apply the word.

Be FAITHFUL SERVANTS (v. 8).  Pride can get in the way of being a SERVANT, but you must serve others if you want to serve the LORD.  God’s will is that we should serve each other, not be individuals unconcerned about each other, or worse, in competition with each other, or worst of all, in conflict.

TURN NOT TO FOLLY (v. 8).  FOLLY here refers to claiming to be a child of God but behaving like a worldly person, not following the way of God.  It is the worst kind of FOLLY to see the life that God offers and then reject Him.

FEAR HIM (v. 9).   FEAR of God means at least three things.  One, feeling awe for God; being overwhelmed by His glory and goodness.  Two, having respect for God; complying with His will because you recognize His authority.  Three, it is legitimate to have a healthy FEAR of God.  A healthy fear is based on knowledge that God has all power and that one day we will have to stand before Him in judgment.

Verse 11 lists two virtues and describes their different points of origin.  FAITHFULNESS is something we practice: that’s why it SPRINGS FORTH FROM THE EARTH.   To be faithful, we must make our daily decisions based on the guidance we receive from God’s word; it involves our will.

RIGHTEOUSNESS is a virtue we receive from heaven: that’s why it’s said to look DOWN FROM HEAVEN.  To be righteous, we must allow the Holy Spirit within us to guide us into the right things to say and do.

  1. Jesus was born to keep these promises.

This truth is affirmed in the Gospels.  In Matthew 1:21, an angel declared to Joseph one reason for the birth of Jesus; “[Mary] WILL GIVE BIRTH TO A SON, AND YOU ARE TO GIVE HIM THE NAME JESUS, BECAUSE HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.”


Paul affirmed Jesus was the keeper of God the Father’s promises (see 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).  He is our RIGHTEOUSNESS, HOLINESS, and REDEMPTION

Jesus is Keeper of all God’s promises, the Giver of all good things.

Don’t be content to just hear the words; be ambitious to do them.  The world needs godly people ambitious to do God’s will.

The Shining Face of Jesus

Please read Psalm 80 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to research these remarks.

Jesus is our light and our salvation.

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking trail in the US.  It winds up and down the rugged Appalachian mountains and is 2,200 miles long.  Imagine!  It runs from Georgia to Maine.

Most people only tackle part of the trail, but if you’re really ambitious, the whole thing takes an average of 165 days to complete.  It is just putting one foot in front of the other, right?  Do that about 5 million times and suddenly you’re all done!

I mention this because it takes 365 days to hike through the average year.  As the average American takes just 5,900 steps a day, the year is a journey of just over 2 million steps.  That’s not half the distance down the Appalachian Trail.

This data helped me put into perspective what a “hike” a year of living can be.  I am grateful that Christmas comes at the end of the year.  Imagine how tedious life would be if we trudged through another year without anything more to celebrate than another one starting up?  Depressing.

Nobody really thinks Jesus was born on Dec. 25, but I say, who cares?  We need Christmas most at the end of the year and God bless it!

Similarly, the birth of Jesus Christ was the culmination of God’s plan for world salvation.  We celebrate His birth because in that one baby God kept the promises He had made to His people.  This Advent season we are going to uncover and explain some of the delightful promises of God in an unlikely place; the Psalms.  In these worship songs we see the footprints that led to the Messiah whom God had promised to His people.  It’s amazing to consider that the first part of this journey to salvation was literally taken in baby steps!

  1. Jesus is our Shepherd.

In Psalm 80:1-2 God promised He would send a Shepherd for His people.  Although shepherding was a major occupation at the time, in their culture, being a shepherd wasn’t a glamorous/desirable vocation.  In that respect I wonder why did God choose to represent Himself as a shepherd (PSS 23:1; ISH 40:11; JMH 23:1-3; 31:9; EKL 34)?  He had at least two reasons.

One, because we are all like sheep.  In Isaiah 53:6 it is written; We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; & t Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  Sheep need a shepherd to survive.  If the flock is to be successful, the shepherd must guide, protect, and care for them.  Like sheep, we tend to wander off to do our own thing and get ourselves in calamity.

Two, because God is our leader.  Shepherds need a protective and sacrificial attitude; God has demonstrated that spirit time after time.  A shepherd leads from among the flock, not from a distance.

In this Psalm the nearness of God is implied in the phrase, ENTHRONED BETWEEN THE CHERUBIM.  This refers to the statuary atop the Ark of the Covenant in the temple.  These heavenly creatures faced away from one another with their wingtips pointing backward.  They did not quite touch and the space between was considered to be the dwelling-place of God.  All of this is meant to reassure us that He is in the midst of His people; He is intimately related to us.

JOSEPH is chosen to represent the people of God because, according to 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, the rights of the firstborn were taken from Reuben and awarded to Joseph instead.  Also, Joseph is one of the holiest men in the Bible.

The psalmist calls on the SHEPHERD OF ISRAEL to AWAKEN to their plight and to SAVE them.

Anticipating the chorus (vs. 3, 7 & 19) in v. 1, the FLOCK asks the SHEPHERD to SHINE FORTH.  When God appeared to His people, He appeared in His glory, in actual light.

We find the fulfillment of this problem in John 10:11-15, where Jesus called Himself THE GOOD SHEPHERD and told us what that meant.  The Greek word translated as GOOD is kalos, which includes perfect competence and moral purity.  Jesus is the Ultimate Shepherd.

Most importantly, it meant the GOOD SHEPHERD sacrificed Himself to save his sheep (11).  Jesus gave His life on the cross to save us.  For, unlike a hired hand, the GOOD SHEPHERD cares about the sheep (12-13).  This “hired hand” was intended by Jesus to be a symbol of the Jewish religious leaders and an indictment of their leadership of the people of God.

The GOOD SHEPHERD knows His sheep and He knows God the Father (14-15).  The Greek word for KNOW is ginosko, which implies a knowledge based on something more substantial than facts; it is also knowledge based on personal experience.

  1. Jesus is our Light.

A plea is made three times in this Psalm (vs. 3, 7, 19), a plea that becomes a promise of light to shine on God’s people.  Three times the psalmist plead with God, RESTORE US, O GOD; MAKE YOUR FACE SHINE UPON US, THAT WE MAY BE SAVED.  (See Numbers 6:24-26; Psalms 31:16; 67:1 for similar language.)  If it helps, think of these verses as the chorus or refrain of the song.

To have God’s FACE SHINE UPON you meant to have God’s attention, experience His presence, and receive His blessing.  When we endure trials it’s easy to feel lonely and wonder where God is.   The purpose of His attention – as far as the psalmist was concerned – was to RESTORE and SAVE them.  This is a plea for deliverance from their enemies and further, to bring them back to a place of favor.

According to v. 17, the FACE is that of God’s appointed representative; THE MAN AT YOUR RIGHT HAND, THE SON OF MAN YOU HAVE RAISED UP FOR YOURSELF (also in v. 15).  At the time this prophecy was made, the readers would’ve understood that the MAN referred to here was the king and/or the whole nation of Israel.  However, with the benefit of the New Testament, we have perspective to see that Jesus is this MAN.  That is the prophecy God intended to convey.  We see this cycle of prediction and fulfillment in the following details:

First, AT YOUR RIGHT HAND: the right hand being the position of power and influence in their culture as well as ours.  Matthew 26:64; Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; and Hebrews 1:3 testify that in heaven, Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father.

Second, THE SON OF MAN is the title Jesus preferred to use for Himself, as we see often in the Gospels.

Third, God the Father RAISED UP Jesus in two senses; from birth to maturity He raised Jesus in a human body and also He raised Jesus from the dead.

We look to a couple of places in the Gospels as examples of the fulfillment of God’s promise in the chorus of Psalm 80.

In Matthew 17:1-2 it is written, After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  (See 2 Peter 1:16-18 for Peter’s account of this event.)  This is the literal fulfillment of Psalm 80.  The face of Jesus literally shone brightly on three of His disciples.

This supernatural event was accompanied by a voice from heaven identifying Jesus as God’s Son, the Father was pleased with Him, and they were to LISTEN TO HIM.  This is called the “Transfiguration” because of the supernatural change in Jesus’ appearance.  Its purpose was to fulfill prophecy and confirm Jesus’ claims He was God’s Son.

In John 8:12 we read, When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Here Jesus used LIGHT more as a figure of speech than a literal luminescence.  The LIGHT is a symbol of the goodness, truth, and glory of God.  In Jesus, God the Father was present and the truth was revealed in His teachings.

DARKNESS symbolizes the evil and falsehood of this world where it is ruined by sin.  It is the opposite of the character of God and the righteous standards to which He calls us.

Jesus is our light and our salvation.

Not everyone embraces the rapidly-changing world of social media.  I, for one, will not surrender my 90’s vintage flip phone for a smart phone and only accepted the flip phone under duress.  But even I can see a couple positives in social media.

First, of all the technologies that could have experienced this unprecedented change rate of change, I’m encouraged that the one people chose the kind of technology that empowers our communication.  We could’ve been crazy about solar-powered vehicles or sunk a lot of research into robots or space travel, but the market chose phones.  This is proof to me that people want companionship.  We need and want to be heard and to listen.

Second, it has enlarged our definition of “neighbor.”  The Internet and all forms of social media have given us access to one another that defies geography.  “Neighbor” no longer means just the people who live near us or our co-workers or family.  We can access one another around the world literally at the speed of light.  Deeds of darkness can be exposed to the entire planet in minutes.

Obviously, as a human invention, social media is capable of grave sins and presents serious dangers.  It needs to be handled carefully and we’re still learning and feeling out the ethics of this kind of instantaneous and virtually unlimited access to each other.

The challenge social media presents to believers is to set an example in using it in the most God-honoring way possible.  Though the media has changed, the message remains the same.  We must let the world know that Baby Jesus became the Good Shepherd and the Light of the World so the world may be saved.  During Advent, make full use of your Contacts list.  Pray for them daily and contact them to proclaim Jesus as Savior.

Turns Out You CAN Go Home

(Please read Matthew 2:19-23 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to do my research.)

Matthew 2:19-23  X  “Turns Out You CAN Go Home”  X  EBC = 12/25/16

One of the offbeat things that 2016 brought us is “fake news.”   This is something entirely fictitious masquerading as an actual news story.  People put this stuff on the Internet for various reasons, but the common factor is that it’s fake.

In case you missed it, there was an example of fake news in the Twin Cities just last week.  Some guy got it in his head that the new stadium was a waste of tax payers’ money and should be opened up as a shelter for the homeless on that especially cold night.  So he “tweeted” that it would be.

A friend of his “re-tweeted” this as if it were a real news item.  That fellow had 14,000 followers, many of who “re-tweeted” this item as if it really were accurate.  Announcers calling the Minnesota Vikings game on TV talked about it during their broadcast, and the whole messy lie took on a life of its own.

Other examples abound.  Fake News is nothing new.  Anybody here heard about Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds?”  It has been suggested that dead children and grieving mothers in ISIS video are just actors.

Having more access to information does not necessarily mean we have more access to the truth.  It means that, more than ever, we have to exercise good judgment to discern what is true.

As believers, we have an alternative to “fake news.”  For about 2000 years we’ve been calling it “good news,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tim Stanley wrote an article entitled “Sick of fake news? Try the ‘good news’ about Christmas” for the London Telegraph.  I like his take on our more wholesome alternative to fake news.

“How do we test if faith is real? Look at what it produces. It is outwardly, indisputably more beautiful and magnificent than its secular alternative.   As my evidence, I won’t just cite the eyewitness accounts or the corroborating evidence from Josephus or Pliny. No, I cite love.

“You’ll think I’m mad. Love is just a concept, say the philosophers, or an evolutionary quirk, say the biologists. Society doesn’t seem very interested in talking about it; it’s out of style. The news, fake or otherwise, is dominated by evil.

Stanley cites a letter from an American agnostic who found a surprising alternative in Christianity: “Right now, I am struggling to accept the basic Christian doctrines (virgin birth, resurrection, second coming) because I feel the Christian tribe may be the right tribe for my family. We just finished watching a BBC miniseries about the birth of Jesus, which was so beautiful and moving compared to secular TV. My nine-year-old really enjoyed it.”

“That the events of two thousand years ago inspire all of this suggests, to me, that there has to be something to them. People wouldn’t turn their lives around over a myth – any more than the critics of Christianity wouldn’t waste so much energy trying to debunk a childish delusion. We do this big Christmas festival thing for a reason. Because deep in our soul, we connect the love on display in the nativity with our own needs and experiences.

“Some people have found 2016 depressing. It’s had its ups and downs. But evil trades in doubt and we should resist it. The fake news is that mankind is lost. The good news is that it can be saved.”

<Retrieved from on 12/23/16.>

  1. This event itself.

Verses 19-22 relate the third dream.  For the first and only time Joseph hesitated.  The angel’s message from God was simple; there was no longer any threat to the Christ-child, so it was time to come home.  King Herod died in 4 B.C.  This makes it possible that he did not live long after ordering the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem.

By Herod’s own will and the prerogative of Caesar Augustus, Herod’s kingdom was divided between his surviving sons.  Matthew recorded Archelaus was given jurisdiction over Judea (Jerusalem), Samaria, & Idumea (south).  His brothers Philip II ruled Galilee (north) and Antipas Galilee and Perea (middle).

The angel’s command was to go to THE LAND OF ISRAEL, which Joseph understood as being Judea, a province ruled by Archelaus.  Joseph was concerned about his family’s safety if they settled anywhere in Judea. He had good reason to be concerned: when Archelaus was king over Judea, he ordered the killing of 3000 people during the observance of the Day of Pentecost.  This massacre caused widespread rioting and got Archelaus in a great deal of trouble with Rome.  Later, in AD 6, a joint delegation of Jews and Samaritans went to Rome and pleaded Augustus to remove Archelaus from power.  Caesar agreed, and banished Archelaus to the frontier – the middle of Europe – in a place that would be called “Vienna.”  Archelaus was replaced by a governor appointed by Rome, which is where Pontius Pilate will come onto the scene when Jesus is grown to manhood and accused by the Jews of treason.  (Pontius Pilate was the fifth man to hold that title.  He was no great statesman and could be ruthless like Archelaus.)

Clearly, this account in Matthew 2 happened before Archelaus’ banishment.  No doubt reports of this grave abuse of power reached Joseph and other Jews living in Egypt.

God heard Joseph’s concern and sent a fourth dream, diverting the Holy Family to the province of Galilee, which was ruled by Antipas, not Archelaus.  Antipas was no real prize either, as the Gospels tell us he was the man who would order the death of John the Baptist and interrogate Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

The fourth dream and Joseph’s compliance are recorded in vs. 22+23.  Put yourself in Joseph’s place for a moment: all these dreams.  Are you worried about sleeping?  Do you lay down and think, “OK, what’s it gonna be tonight?  More angels bossing me around?”  So the family settled in Nazareth.  In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems like Nazareth is a new community, but Luke tells us it was the place from which both Joseph and Mary originated.

If you were looking for a place to “hide in plain sight,” Nazareth was a good choice.  It had a population of just 500-1500 people.

  1. The significance of the event.

The safety of the Christ-child is the most significant outcome.   Having preserved Him from Herod’s rage, the infant Jesus is now preserved from the lethal tyranny of Archelaus.

It proves that returning to Bethlehem was out of the question.  It was in the territory ruled by Archelaus and he was deadly crazy like his father.  It would have been the first place Archelaus would have looked if he followed up on his father’s bloody crusade against the new king.  Most importantly, growing up in Bethlehem was simply not God’s plan.

Another significant aspect of event is the fulfillment of prophecy (23).   Matthew is not directly quoting any single Old Testament prophet and that is why he used the plural term PROPHETS.  His statement is a summary and restatement of Scriptures he memorized from the Hebrew version of the Old Testament and that is a partial explanation why we can’t find this quote directly in the Old Testament.

Nazareth was an obscure town 70 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was a place of lowly reputation, especially among the city folk in Jerusalem.   For example, in John 1:46, Nathanael asked “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He found out something good had come out of Nazareth; Jesus.  He would go on to become one of Jesus’ disciples.  Another example: in Acts 7:25, when Christians were referred to as “the Nazarene sect,” it was intended as an insult.

Some people denied Jesus was the Messiah based on their false assumption that He was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.  It became a point on which they sneered at Jesus (John 7:41-43).

Finally, in this event some scholars see a repeat of the Exodus.  In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery to Egypt.  While it is true Jesus also came out of Egypt, but unlike the Israelites, He was tested in 40 DAYS, not 40 YEARS, and He was faithful to do the entire will of God.  He left Egypt a child, not a slave.  His mission was not to found a new nation, but appeal to God’s people to believe in Him as their Messiah and so be saved.

With more than a tad bit of cynicism, Arden Dier reported on a recent event that does not portend well for the new year.  This prediction is based on a relic that bears an odd resemblance to a “Magic Eight Ball.”

“According to legend, a woman collected the blood of Saint Januarius, or San Gennaro—the once pious bishop of Naples who was beheaded as Christianity was under attack around AD 305—and preserved it in a glass vial, reports Seeker.  Then a ‘blood miracle’ in 1389: the congealed blood liquefied. The archbishop of Naples now performs this ‘blood miracle,’ shaking the vial in front of thousands until the blood liquefies.  This occurs on three significant days each year, the most recent of which should have been Dec. 16. (Mount Vesuvius erupted on that day in 1631, and Naples was said to have been protected by the saint.) And yet last week, it didn’t.

“One website claims that when the blood miracle—which is ‘not quite sanctioned by the Catholic Church,’ per the Week—has failed to work, 22 epidemics, 19 earthquakes, four wars, and various other tragedies have followed. When the blood last failed to liquefy in 1980, an earthquake struck 30 miles from Naples, killing 2,400 people. The blood also remained congealed in 1939, the year World War II began.

“But ‘we must not think of calamities,’ says the local abbot, per the Catholic News Agency.  ‘We are men of faith and we must pray.’”

Whether this report worries you or not, having faith and praying is always good advice.  I can absolutely guarantee 2017 will be a good year if you commit to being more faithful and give more time to prayer.  It may not be “good” in the way you’re envisioning right now, because that’s up to God to decide.  But I hope we can all agree that any year which sees us drawing closer to God is a good year in the most important sense.

These first two chapters of Matthew are secretly about Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph.  We have seen how God guided Joseph by supernatural means – through his dreams.  It would be easy to be cynical and discount dreams, just as we might find the “Blood Miracle of Naples” to be a little hard to swallow.

Instead, let’s give credit to Joseph for being faithful and obedient.  Let’s give glory to God for the greater miracle of the life of Jesus.

God the Father Rejoiced

(Please read John 12:20-36.   My quotations are from the NIV.)

MESSAGE: By an audible voice, God the Father expressed His satisfaction with Jesus and His ministry.

In December 2010, a church erected a Nativity scene in their yard. One night, the folks came across the scene pictured in your message notes. An abandoned dog was looking for a comfortable, protected place to sleep. He chose baby Jesus as his comfort. No one had the heart to send him away so he was there all night.

doggie nativity      We should all have the good sense of this dog and curl up in Jesus’ lap from time to time. And did you notice that the dog is a “Shepherd”? Inspired by this photo I’ve written a new Christmas carol. I call it, “A Stray in a Manger.”



  1. The occasion was not particularly joyful.

The context: some Greeks wanted to see Jesus (20-22).  They were likely Gentile converts to the Jewish faith, as they were AMONG THOSE WHO WENT UP TO WORSHIP AT THE FEAST (20).  Philip is a Greek name, so they may have decided to approach him as a kindred spirit.  “WE WOULD LIKE TO SEE JESUS,” they asked (21).  For some reason, this had to go to committee, but ultimately the request was approved (22).

No doubt part of the buzz-kill was Jesus’ prediction of His death: HE SAID THIS TO SHOW THE KIND OF DEATH HE WAS GOING TO DIE (33).  Jesus used an illustration of a kernel of wheat (24-26).  The planting of a seed is a symbol of burial; the germination of the seed is a symbol of resurrection (24).  Jesus warned them that in like manner, He would be killed and raised to life (32).  He went on to explain a general principle that gaining eternal life requires sacrificing this life (25).  It’s a matter of priorities.  In v. 26, Jesus applied that principle to those who would be His disciples.  There is no true discipleship where a person does not follow Jesus.  God will bless everyone who follows Jesus.

And yet, His heart was TROUBLED (27-28).  This sounds a lot like the inner struggle Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane, prior to His arrest.  (Interestingly, the Gospel of John does not record Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, so this is it for John.)  Verse 28 is an apt summary of the purpose of Jesus’ ministry; to GLORIFY the NAME of God the Father.

– To GLORIFY means to draw attention to God, to worship Him and encourage others to do the same.

– The reference to God’s NAME includes His character & purpose. It’s a different way of referring to God Himself.

  1. God the Father expressed His approval.

Jesus saw His death as His time to be GLORIFIED (23).  The purpose of the cross is to make God known, to bring people to Him so they can be saved.  Jesus was GLORFIED because of His obedience to the will of God.  This means that He was identified with God the Father.  Of course, they are as one.

In this, Jesus gives us an example to follow.  If we will faithfully obey God’s will, we show that we are truly His children with a heavenly home and rewards.

God the Father affirmed Jesus with His words (28).  This is our key verse.  It is here that we see the joy of the Father expressed in His complete satisfaction with the work and person of God the Son.  In each case, the purpose of the voice is to confirm the identity of Jesus as God the Son and to affirm that His message is true.

This is the third time in the Gospels where God the Father speaks from heaven.  Each of these occasions represents a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, a time when additional affirmation was needed.

– Jesus’ Baptism was the beginning of His public ministry. We can use extra support getting started.

– Jesus’ Transfiguration was the turning point when Jesus’ steps began to lead to the cross.

– This occasion is John’s version of the Garden of Gethsemane. This would be a time when confirmation and affirmation would be especially necessary.

Jesus’ mission – and ours – is to lead people to God.  We do this by following His example of sacrifice and by grace.

  1. Some didn’t get it, so Jesus explained it to them.

People who heard the voice had different reactions to it.  Some didn’t even hear it as a voice; they thought it was THUNDER.  Others did not understand that it was the voice of God the Father; they attributed it to an ANGEL instead.

It is clear in v. 29 that they were questioning this teaching.  Maybe they just didn’t understand and/or maybe they didn’t WANT to understand.  In vs. 30-32 He rephrased His teaching, restating it in different terms.

He said, “THIS VOICE WAS FOR YOUR BENEFIT, NOT MINE (30).”  Because He was in close fellowship with the Father (14:10), Jesus was constantly aware of the Father’s approval.  However, no one else was aware of this and so God the Father spoke from heaven to let them know clearly that He was fully satisfied with Jesus.

Jesus elaborated, “NOW IS THE TIME FOR JUDGMENT (31).”  THIS WORLD will soon be judged.  Unlike the Son, all of us will be found wanting, falling short of God’s standard.  The only way to avoid judgment against you is to accept Jesus as your Savior and follow Him all the days of your life.

A result of that judgment is that THE PRINCE OF THIS WORLD WILL BE

DRIVEN OUT; there will be no room for the devil or his followers in heaven. Jesus warned them not to be found a member of the wrong team when Judgment Day arrives.

The reference to being LIFTED UP in v. 32 is clearly about Jesus’ crucifixion.  By means of His death on the cross, Jesus drew all people to a saving relationship with God the Father.  Why say this?  The text explains, HE SAID THIS TO SHOW THE KIND OF DEATH HE WAS GOING TO DIE (33).  Jesus warned the about Judgment Day and the means to avoid the righteous wrath of God the Father that will be poured out on all wickedness on that day.

Some refused to understand; even so, further explanation was given them (34-36).  Truth is, they only knew enough Scripture to be dangerous.  What they thought they knew was that when he appeared, the Messiah would lift forever.  They understood Jesus to say that the Son of Man was going to be killed (LIFTED UP).  These two facts did not square up and in v. 34, they asked him who he meant by the SON OF MAN.

Jesus’ answer (35-36) was couched in symbolism and His response was to give them a taste of what life would be like without Him around.  He is the LIGHT.  Just as it is easier to walk in the light than in the darkness, so it is easier to navigate life in general with the illumination of Jesus guiding our steps.

After that, the text says, Jesus not only LEFT them, but also HID FROM them!  He provided these people with the opportunity to experience firsthand the things He had just taught them!

Here are a couple of news stories that form a commentary on the sad condition of American culture:

Entire School District Closed Over Calligraphy Lesson

By Arden Dier, Newser Staff                                                                                             Posted Dec 18, 2015 7:01 AM CST

           (Newser) – Students of Augusta County Public Schools in central Virginia are enjoying an early winter break thanks to outrage over a lesson in Arabic calligraphy. During a world geography unit on Islam on Dec. 11, Riverheads High School teacher Cheryl LaPorte asked students to practice calligraphy by copying an Islamic statement of faith known as the shahada. Some refused, with at least one parent calling the lesson “indoctrination.”

The Virginia Department of Education and Superintendent Eric Bond found her lesson involving the shahada met state standards and didn’t violate students’ rights because they weren’t asked to “translate it, recite it, or otherwise adopt or pronounce it as a personal belief.” (The translation: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”)   However, an abundance of “profane” and “hateful” calls and emails followed, says a sheriff. Based on the “tone and content” of the communications, the district on Thursday announced the Friday closure. School officials say a non-religious sample of Arabic calligraphy will be used in the Islam unit in the future.

< Retrieved from on 12/18/15.>

Kentucky School Edits Christmas Play to Remove Bible Passage; Protests Ensue

Bill Young

The scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where the character Linus quotes from the Bible has been cut from an elementary school production.  In the Charlie Brown play, as well as the classic TV special, Linus said, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger. And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.”

That is the part being cut from the play.

The Superintendent of Johnson County Schools said that Christmas programs district-wide were being edited for any religious references.  He also said that past performances where religious references were made lead to complaints to the district.

The decision lead to protests outside the district administration building. Despite the anger, the superintendent told CNN that he checked with the district attorney who advised the changes be made to honor law that requires separation of church and state.

<Retrieved from on 12/18/15.>

It’s remarkable how convenient the doctrine of the separation of church and state can be, isn’t it? Our objective as Christian citizens should be to ensure a level playing field, a uniform application of the doctrine of separation.  This nonsense of Islam receiving favorable attention and Christianity being ignored is nothing like a level playing field.  We must be vigilant and assertive without being offensive.  Especially in this Advent season, the world needs us to reflect the light of Jesus Christ.

Simeon and Anna Rejoiced

(Please read Luke 2:22-40 in your preferred version of the Bible.  My quotes are from the NIV.)

MESSAGE: In Jesus, God fulfilled the hopes of two godly people and they rejoiced to see it.

The front cover of New York’s Daily News for Thursday takes a strong stance against how some politicians are reacting to the San Bernardino shooting with calls for prayer instead of tighter gun control laws.

The headline says, “God Isn’t Fixing This.”

“As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes,” the cover reads.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham all responded with “prayers” for the victims of San Bernardino.

The tweet of the Daily News provocative front page is currently the most retweeted of 2015 for the news organization, according to Twitter.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, took a different tone and called for “action” to stop gun violence.

President Obama underscored the need for stronger gun control laws in the United States after Wednesday’s mass shooting, which left at least 14 dead and 14 wounded.  “There’s some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of the mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently,” Obama told CBS News.

<Retrieved from on 12/3/15.>

  1. The context: Joseph & Mary’s faithfulness (22-24).

Dr. Luke wrote for a non-Jewish audience, so he provides enough detail so that those unfamiliar with the Law of Moses will know why Jesus’ parents brought Him to the temple (22+24).  WHEN THE TIME CAME and REQUIRED BY THE LAW OF MOSES are phrases that indicate Joseph and Mary were faithful to observe the Law in all its particulars.  Luke uses the word LAW five times in this chapter, more often than it is used in the rest of his Gospel.  He very much wants the reader to understand that Joseph & Mary were godly people.

The PURIFICATION RITES were for Mary; her “purification” after birth.  This was a period of 40 days after birth if the first born was a son, 80 days if the child was a female (Leviticus 12:3-4).  (This is THE TIME referred to in v. 22.)  During this time the mother was not allowed to leave the house and was considered “unclean.”

Leviticus 12:8 allowed for the sacrifice of birds instead of a lamb in the case of those who were poor.  So Jesus’ family was part of the peasant class; they were poor but pious.  One bird was a burnt offering, the other a sin offering.  There is a fair amount of chatter among Bible commentators about how a sin offering was not needed in this case, as the Virgin Birth did not involve sin.  I believe this is simply Joseph and Mary being careful to observe the full requirements of the Law.  Besides, would YOU like to try to explain to the priest why you are the lone female in all of history who did not require a sin offering?

The consecration rite was for baby Jesus, as the Law dictated, EVERY FIRSTBORN MALE IS TO BE CONSECRATED.  The firstborn son had to be “redeemed.”  This was because the firstborn male of any species was considered to belong to the LORD (see Exodus 13:2; 34:19; Numbers 18:15-16).  That’s what CONSECRATED means.  In order for the parents to keep the child, they had to buy or redeem him from service to God by paying 5 shekels to the priests.

  1. Simeon was overjoyed to see the Messiah (25-35).

Simeon’s qualifications as a man of God are impeccable.  Luke wrote that he was:

– RIGHTEOUS or “just;” Simeon was faithful in his dealings with both God and man.

– DEVOUT or “feared God.”  Luke uses this word three times in the book of Acts to describe Jews who carefully kept the Law of Moses.

– WAITING F/T CONSOLATION OF ISRAEL.  This CONSOLATION was in the form of comfort, but also counsel from God, sending a leader who would lead His people to true freedom. This phrase was typically used of people who were expectantly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. This same phrase was used later in Luke to refer to Joseph of Arimathea, the man who provided the tomb in which Jesus was buried (see Luke 23:51).

This hope was so widespread it manifest itself in their culture in a couple of ways.  Jews who wanted to swear an oath to verify their statements would say, “May I never live to see the consolation of Israel if I am lying.”  This hope was also expressed frequently in prayer; “May I live long enough to see the consolation of Israel.”  This was clearly Simeon’s greatest hope and desire in life, the most important thing to him.

– THE HOLY SPIRIT WAS UPON HIM: at this time they were still under the Old Testament system: the Holy Spirit was only given to specific persons to do a specific job, and then withdrawn.  THE HOLY SPIRIT…REVEALED 2 things to simeon.

First, that he WOULD NOT DIE BEFORE HE HAD SEEN THE LORD’S CHRIST. From this people guess that Simeon was an old man, but the point is the God had encouraged him w/ a promise that his own eyes would behold God’s salvation.  The non-biblical “Gospel of the Nativity of Mary” sets Simeon’s age at 113.

Second, the true nature of the baby Jesus.  I’m sure there was nothing about baby Jesus or His family that stood out to the unaided eye.  The Spirit gave Simeon true insight.

– MOVED BY THE SPIRIT (v. 27) means that God put Simeon at the right place at the right time to reveal the truth to him.  In contrast to Anna, Simeon did not stay in the temple courts all the time; he was MOVED physically and spiritually to be there right at the appropriate time.

Simeon’s relationship with God was manifest in a gift of prophecy.  Luke records what he prophesied about Jesus in vs. 29-32, 34-35.

– He would be the means of SALVATION God prepared for His people (v. 30).  We are saved because of what God has done for us, never by what we do for Him.  The universal offer of salvation is also affirmed in the phrase IN THE SIGHT OF ALL PEOPLE (v. 31).  I think this also implies that God had been working toward this end from day one and anyone who had, like Simeon, the Spirit-led eyes of faith, could understand that fact.

– He would be A LIGHT FOR REVELATION TO THE GENTILES (v. 32) so that non-Jews could be saved.  Verse 32 uses the word LIGHT in both of its typical biblical senses: revealing and understanding the truth and as the visible manifestation of the presence of God.  This was foretold by the prophecies in the Old Testament, Isaiah 9:6-7, 49; Psalms 98:3; Malachi 4:2.

He would bring GLORY to Israel because He was one of their own; a Jew (v. 32).  We need to remember that non-Jewish (Gentile) folks like us were ADDED to the Kingdom of God.  He has not abandoned His promises to Israel in order to save the rest of us.  Instead, as Paul explained in RMS 11, Gentiles were like a wild branch grafted onto an existing olive tree.  This means that the most glorious thing Israel is capable of doing is taking the Good News of God’s salvation to the Gentiles.


In any of us, being a stumbling block is a bad thing.  But where Jesus is concerned, He is the cornerstone that sets the rest of the building as true.  He is the standard that will condemn some as sinners and commend others as saints.  Even though the word CAUSE is used here, it is clearly a matter of individual choice, the individual’s destiny chosen by themselves in relation to Christ.  Jesus is like the line drawn in the sand and the content of our inner self is revealed by the side on which we choose to stand.

– A SIGN THAT WILL BE SPOKEN AGAINST (v. 34).   A SIGN is a symbol; something we can see that points to and explains something unseen.  Jesus would be SPOKEN AGAINST because He revealed things about God and from God that people did not want to hear.  This prophecy was literally fulfilled when people mocked Jesus at his trial and crucifixion.  But earlier, during His ministry, Jesus’ opponents insulted Him in many different ways.

– THE THOUGHTS OF MANY HEARTS WILL BE REVEALED (v. 35).  In the first case, the inner state of every person is revealed by their reaction to Jesus.  By faith in Him and their righteous living, the true followers of Jesus reveal themselves.  On the other hand, a lack of faith and the absence of good behavior are self-condemning revelations.  In the second case, all hearts were revealed to Jesus’ mind.  He supernaturally knew what others around Him were thinking (see Mark 2:8).  In the Bible, the word “thought” often had an evil shade to it; the word was used most often with the adjective “evil.”

What he prophesied about Mary in v. 35 is dramatic:  A SWORD WILL PIERCE YOUR OWN HEART TOO. This is a special word for SWORD; it refers to a large, two-handed weapon.  In this sense, Simeon may be using it as a symbol of a particularly strong grief.  It is the word used for Goliath’s sword in 1 Samuel 17.  Simeon predicted that Mary would share in the pain of Jesus being rejected by His own people.  Mary already had a strong faith, but God is speaking through Simeon to prepare her for even more heartache.

I had never thought about how unsettling this prophecy may’ve been for Mary over the next 33 years until I read this quote; “The childhood in the Nazareth home, and the early manhood in the Nazareth carpentry, were no doubt her happiest days, though, in those quiet years, expectation, fears, dread, curiously interwoven, must have ever torn that mother’s heart. The days of the public ministry for Mary must have been sad, and her heart full of anxious forebodings, as she watched the growing jealousies, the hatred, and the unbelief on the part of the leading men of her people. Then came the cross. We know she stood by it all the while.” <From the Pulpit Commentary, retrieved from on 12/4/15.>

We know Simeon found joy in Jesus.  There are several clues in the text.

– HE TOOK THE CHILD IN HIS ARMS (v. 28).  If he was a priest, this would have been expected behavior.  BUT, there’s nothing here to indicate priesthood, so Joseph and Mary were probably surprised at Simeon’s sudden action.

– He PRAISED GOD (v. 28).  Every experience in life should turn us to God.  Good times and bad should likewise result in praise.  Even so, THIS is the most praiseworthy moment in Simeon’s life.

– He blessed Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (v. 34).

– His joy was so complete that Simeon was content to die.  Now that God’s promise to him (v. 26) had been kept, his greatest desire fulfilled, he could see no further use of life in this world.  Imagine the level of satisfaction that is indicated in these words!  He is ready to be dismissed from this life.  DISMISS is a word that carries a lot more emotion in the Greek language: it means to “deliver from bondage or misery.”  It makes me wonder if Simeon was not old, but had a terminal or chronic illness.  We have all known someone in that kind of situation who is admittedly waiting to die.  He adds the words IN PEACE, implying that his life previously had not been peaceable.  This hymn of Simeon is called the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now you dismiss”) and has been used by Christians throughout history as a prayer to end the day.

– FOR MY EYES HAVE SEEN: Ironically, it was the spiritual vision supplied by the Holy Spirit that enabled Simeon to recognize the baby Jesus as Messiah when he beheld the baby with his physical eyes.

Of all the people we’re going to talk about this Advent, Simeon is arguably the best example to follow.  He was one focused individual!  You get the sense from Luke that Simeon’s life revolved around waiting to celebrate the appearance of t Messiah!  That should be our focus during Advent; not all the usual fluff-n-stuff we add during the season.

  1. Anna was overjoyed to see the Messiah (36-38).

Anna’s qualifications as a woman of God are impeccable.

– Anna was recognized as a PROPHETESS at a time when no men were recognized as prophets.  From the perspective of the New Testament, the office of prophet ceased with Malachi and there had been 400 years of silence, no prophecies given.  Some consider John the Baptist to be the last of the prophets in the Old Testament sense.

– Her family relationships were summed up as DAUGHTER OF PENUEL, TRIBE OF ASHER. It is strange that Anna is mentioned in connection with her father not her husband.  Perhaps this is because her father was a more noteworthy man.  The tribe of ASHER was NOT part of the southern kingdom.  This woman’s ancestry was Israelite, but not of the tribe of Judah.  In the strict sense, she wasn’t Jewish.  Women of this tribe were known for their beauty and were frequently wed to important people.

– A WIDOW: the text mentions the length of her brief marriage to establish that Anna was a godly woman and to show how long she had been a widow.  The reader would understand that Anna is on equal footing with Simeon in terms of religious authority.  In this society, widows typically held a very low spot on the social ladder.  Apparently Anna was the exception to this rule.  Though an old woman, she had never remarried after her husband died.  Her deep piety would have endeared her to the faithful who frequented the temple and always found Anna there.

– SHE NEVER LEFT THE TEMPLE, BUT…  Technically, only the priests resided in the temple district.  If this verse is literally true, then Anna was exceptional in this detail as well.  Her name means “grace” or “gracious,” so her personality may have also endeared her to the priests and they made an exception to allow her to live in the temple district.

Anna did not just occupy a space in the temple courts: she WORSHIPED NIGHT AND DAY.  There were set hours for prayer in the temple and she was on hand for all of them.  She was FASTING AND PRAYING; godly Jews fasted at least two days a week.

Anna’s relationship with God was manifest in a gift of witnessing.  Here’s something interesting; the phrase AT THAT VERY MOMENT means that she must have heard what Simeon prophesied about Jesus & added her affirmation.  We often overlook this detail of the narrative, but it’s important to connect these two events.

The witness she gave was not only immediate, but ongoing; SHE…SPOKE ABOUT THE CHILD TO ALL WHO WERE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE REDEMPTION OF JERUSALEM.  Like the shepherds, Anna went from the presence of the infant Jesus and told everyone about Him.  Like Simeon, she had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah (the phrases CONSOLATION OF ISRAEL and THE REDEMPTION OF JERUSALEM both mean this).

We know Anna found joy in Jesus because SHE GAVE THANKS TO GOD and SPOKE ABOUT THE CHILD.

  1. Joseph & Mary were joyful at what they heard.

THE CHILD’S FATHER AND MOTHER MARVELED AT WHAT WAS SAID ABOUT HIM (v. 33).  I think the word MARVELED is perfectly appropriate here, because when we “marvel” at something, we don’t fully understand it, but still regard it as something great.  We welcome it even though we don’t have enough information to accurately gauge its importance.

Vs. 39-40 make it clear that they raised Jesus in their faith.  (Luke made a similar summary statement about the childhood of John the Baptist in 1:80.)  The point of these verses is two-fold:

– One, that Joseph & Mary continued to observe the law of Moses in all its details and that they raised Jesus to do the same.

– That Jesus was a human being; He grew as all human beings grow.  He was born a baby and grew up through all the stages of life that are common to our experience.

“The Year I Cancelled Christmas”

Author: Jon Weece                                Date Published: 12/4/2015

            Some years ago, Christmas fell on a Sunday: I challenged our church family to spend Christmas visiting people they wouldn’t normally visit to give gifts to people they normally wouldn’t give gifts to.

I cancelled Christmas.

Or at least that’s what I was accused of.

Instead of coming to church that Sunday I challenged them to be the church. Jesus came to us in person. So what better way to capture the incarnation than to go to people in person.

I didn’t feel like I was canceling Christmas. I felt like I was promoting Christmas.

Across town a 6-year-old girl named Rebecca baked brownies and stood at the entrance to the library at the University of Kentucky on Christmas morning and gave a free brownie to any college student who walked by during finals week.

“Why are you giving away free brownies to total strangers?” a Muslim student stopped and asked.

Rebecca is sassy. So she put her hand on her hip, and with a “no duh” kind of tone said, “Because Jesus wants me to. That’s why!”

Little did she know that this Muslim student had been wrestling with what he believed and had been questioning the tenants of his faith for over 2 years. Dumbfounded by her emphatic response he said, “Can I come to church with you?”

“Sure you can!” she blurted out without consulting her parents.

So here’s my favorite part–instead of bringing this PhD student into the big room with all the big people on Sunday, she took him into her children’s ministry environment where he sat on the floor and heard a lesson about Jesus’ love for Zacchaeus.

After months of sitting and listening he took a stand for Jesus and was baptized. His family told him they would kill him if they ever saw him.

As scary as that threat sounds, he’s safe.

He’s safe because he’s saved.

And all of it happened because a little girl partnered with Betty Crocker and the Holy Spirit.

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

When we express the love of Jesus in simple ways, people express their need for him in beautiful ways.

<The entire article may be found at>

The Shepherds Rejoiced

(Please read Luke 2:8-20.  The following remarks are based on the NIV.)

MESSAGE: God pointed the shepherds to their Savior and they rejoiced.  We should do the same.

A Domino’s Pizza delivery driver was left in tears when an Ohio church tipped her more than $1000 after she delivered a $5.99 pizza.  Natasha Boyer woke up Oct. 4 to find an eviction notice on her door. Then she headed off to her job as a pizza delivery driver for Domino’s, little knowing a “miracle” was about to come her way.

The 21-year-old single mother was on the receiving end of a random act of kindness performed by the congregants of Sycamore Creek Church in Pickerington, Ohio.  “Our church has been pushing congregants to do more acts of kindness, but this is the first time we did it together as a collective group,” pastor Steve Markle said.

When Boyer arrived at the church, the pastor called her up front and asked her the size of the biggest tip she’d ever received. Ten dollars, she replied.  Markle responded by giving her a $9 tip — followed by $1,046.

“I had no idea what was happening,” Boyer said. “They told me to wait 15 minutes because I was going to have to walk up on stage. I was in total shock.”

Markle had just finished giving a sermon about a financial miracle, not expecting to make one happen himself. “I called Domino’s ahead of time and asked them to pick a delivery driver that wouldn’t mind coming up on stage. That’s all I knew about her,” he told TODAY. “It was cool to see my sermon come to life.”

Boyer’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged Markle and thanked the congregation. Markle then said a prayer for her and everyone cheered.  Boyer now has enough money to pay her rent plus the late fee. “They saved me. They saved my son,” she said. “I’m forever grateful.”

<Retrieved from on 11/27/15.>

I offer this story to you as an example of grace.  Grace is extravagant, seemingly random, frequently illogical.  It is free and undeserved.  When it comes from God it always redeems.

  1. A promise is made to the shepherds (8-14).

Verse eight tells us that the first recipients of the Good News were at work; they were KEEPING WATCH OVER THEIR FLOCKS.  WHY the birth of the Messiah was first announced to shepherds is something about which we can only speculate.  What is more clear is WHEN the announcement came to them.

LIVING OUT IN THE FIELDS implies a springtime scene, not a winter one.  In the winter, the sheep were penned up at night.  One commentator speculated that Jesus’ birth happened close to the Passover.  This appeals to me as it provides a second linkage between Jesus and the most important Jewish Holy Day.  In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul referred to Jesus as our PASSOVER LAMB, a reference to His sacrifice for our sins.  But He may be our PASSOVER LAMB in both His birth and His death.

The traditional December 25th date was established by the Church in the fourth century for reasons other than strict biblical scholarship.  Since then, scholars have literally argued for the birth of Christ occurring in each month of the year.

The second clue for timing is the phrase AT NIGHT.  These people observed four “watches” during the night.  Shepherds of many different flocks would cooperate in watching the sheep by taking different watches.  The significance of this clue is subtle:  The first Passover occurred at night and the Jews expected that their Messiah would arrive at night.  Even this detail has some significance, so wonderful is the Word!

In verse nine the promise of GREAT JOY is announced: AN ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARED.  In the Greek, this language conveys a sudden, surprising appearance.  (Isn’t that how they always come?)  The phrase OF THE LORD is used to denote God’s actual presence OR it can denote something that is especially great.  OF THE LORD is always the BEST.  As Luke uses the word APPEARED, it means to stand by.  The angels do not appear overhead, but right among the shepherds.

THE GLORY OF THE LORD SHONE.  In the Bible, GLORY indicates the presence of God, His spiritual presence manifest in physical light.  This isn’t just a bright light, but an intense emotional and spiritual experience of God’s power and holiness; this is proved by the shepherd’s reaction.

THEY WERE TERRIFIED (a sensible reaction).  The experience of God’s holiness and power is so intense that smart people become aware of their own sin and shrink back in fear (i.e., Isaiah in Isaiah 6).  Think about it – how should you feel when you are suddenly in the presence of someone who knows you completely and can do anything to you?

Fortunately, there is no reason for their terror; the angels have appeared to bring a positive message, not condemnation.  In verse ten it is written: “I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS.”  The message breaks down into three parts.

“DO NOT BE AFRAID.”  This is often the first thing angels say when they appear.  It shows that the perfect love of God should cast out the fear we naturally feel (see 1 John 4:18).

“GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY.”  Notice the two qualifiers: GOOD news of GREAT joy.  The appearance of angels is extraordinary enough, but the occasion is not for them; the message is more important than the messengers and it is a VERY GOOD message.  Don’t let the three-letter word escape your notice; it is the focus of our Advent preparations.  JOY is what this season is all about.  We must share the shepherds’ JOY.

“FOR ALL THE PEOPLE.”  One of the understated themes of the Old Testament is that the nation of Israel was supposed to draw all people to God.  The original statement of God’s plan was that Israel should be a LIGHT TO THE GENTILES (see Isaiah 42:6) and that all the nations would be gathered for worship on Zion, the mountain of the LORD (see Isaiah 2:2).  Here’s an important part of the Good News: God has made salvation available to ALL PEOPLE in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Nationality no longer matters.

The specifics begin in verse eleven: “A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU.”

“IN THE TOWN OF DAVID.” (Bethlehem) Hundreds of years earlier, King David, as a boy, worked these very same fields as a shepherd.  The child would inherit his throne and so God is keeping His promises with perfect continuity by appearing to the Bethlehem shepherds.

“A SAVIOR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU.”  All human beings stand in need of a Savior.  Sin is a universal problem with deadly consequences.  We cannot solve it on our own.  Jesus is the solution to our sin.  So the YOU here is obviously not just the shepherds.  The birth of the Savior is a joy to all of us.

“HE IS CHRIST THE LORD.”  CHRIST is the Gk version of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”  It means “Anointed One” and refers to God’s promise to send a Savior.  This is clear in the Old Testament.  To be “anointed” is to be set apart for God’s service.  The person or object was dedicated to God’s exclusive use by putting oil on them in a ceremony.  The shepherds would be familiar enough with the Bible of their time to know this.  They likely understood the significance of this GOOD NEWS.

In verse twelve the shepherds received specific instructions on how to recognize Him: “A SIGN.”  In the Bible, a SIGN is always an earthly reality that points to (symbolizes) a heavenly reality.  In this case, the SIGN is the unique aspects of this special child’s birth.  The word can also be used to refer to a miracle as miracles always serve as pointers to God.  Jesus’ birth to a virgin and many other aspects of this story point to all kinds of miraculous circumstances.

They were instructed to look for “A BABY WRAPPED IN CLOTHS AND LYING IN A MANGER.”  This is a self-contradictory description; an oxymoron.  How could both these things be true?  A baby WRAPPED IN CLOTHS is obviously wanted and well cared-for.   A baby left LYING IN A MANGER is evidently abandoned and unwanted.  It is a particularly odd choice of places to set the heir of David’s throne, who ought to be in a palace cradle.  Paul expanded on this amazing contrast in 2 Corinthians 8:9; FOR YOU KNOW THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, THAT THOUGH HE WAS RICH, YET FOR YOUR SAKES HE BECAME POOR, SO THAT YOU THROUGH HIS POVERTY MIGHT BECOME RICH.

They needed a SIGN this specific and unusual to avoid a case of mistaken identity.  Even in a village as small as Bethlehem, there might’ve been more than one baby that looked like a newborn to the shepherd’s eyes.  Would you trust the average man to tell the difference between one newborn baby and another?

In verses thirteen and fourteen a whole HOST of angels affirm this message.  A GREAT COMPANY OF THE HEAVENLY HOST.  Luke declares this fact in such understated language, it must be true.  A made-up story would be more descriptive and sensational.  The sole messenger is supported by an unnumbered throng of the angelic race.

The angelic host was PRAISING GOD.  GOOD NEWS should always result in praise to God.  Here the angels set a good example for us to follow.  One of the tasks God assigns to His angels is to deliver messages; the Greek word means “messenger.”  Another of their roles is to worship Him.  We see both of these functions in this passage.

Their hymn of praise? “GLORY TO GOD…PEACE TO MEN…FAVOR”  These two reasons they have for praising God have come into being because of the birth of the Christ Child.  As Jesus later said of Himself, glorifying God and bringing peace to men is why He came.  HIGHEST and ON EARTH are a contrast of places that describe the origin of this action and its recipients.

  1. The shepherds rejoiced when the promise was kept (15-20).

In verse fifteen the shepherds resolve; “LET’S GO TO BETHLEHEM.”  The angels returned to heaven, their message delivered and their worship offered.  The shepherds were given a SIGN, not a command.  Though it was certainly assumed in the SIGN they were given the shepherds were not commanded to go to Bethlehem; they decided on their own to go.

Though our English translations do not convey the emotion of the Greek words, you can still hear the eagerness in their voices as they discuss it and decide to go immediately to the village.  Their willingness to go is another indication of their faithfulness.

“WHICH THE LORD HAS TOLD US ABOUT.”  This shows the shepherds understood the angelic message.  By faith they accepted it and made immediate plans to act upon it.  We should all demonstrate this kind of trust in the word of God.

Making the trip, they found God’s word true (v. 16).  THEY HURRIED OFF is a detail that justifies our earlier interpretation of the shepherds’ eagerness.  Perhaps they had been particularly godly men who had been waiting eagerly for the arrival of the Messiah and now He’d come.

They FOUND MARY, JOSEPH AND THE BABY, WHO WAS LYING IN A MANGER, just as the angel had announced!  Seeing with their own eyes, they understood the reason for the child appearing at the same time cared-for and abandoned.

The joyous shepherds could not help themselves; they shared the reason for their joy with all who would listen (vs. 17-18 & 20).  WHEN THEY HAD SEEN HIM.  This is an important point.  The shepherds acted by faith and went to Bethlehem.  Then faith became sight – literally.   This is the way it’s supposed to work for all of us.  God never intended faith to be perpetually unseen.  It starts out that way, but it is supposed to become a personal experience after that.  How sad would it be if faith were only ever a theory.  Faith that is not confirmed in experience is a faith that is not yet realized.  This is the relationship between faith and works.  Doing godly works moves faith from spiritual to physical.  One of the godly works that confirms true faith is telling others about it and that happens in two contexts.

In vs. 17+18, we see the shepherds WITNESSING to the truth; telling others about their experience.  They SPREAD THE WORD = “gave exact information” (Greek).   Similarly, our witnessing needs to follow the “Joe Friday” method: “just the facts.”  the truth that we have to share is so wonderful it needs no embellishment.

Part of what this means is that we need to resist the temptation to attach our personal views and politics to the Gospel.  Don’t misuse the truth to propagate our stuff.  People know instinctively know the difference between the truth and a sales pitch.  We have nothing to sell, but the truth to give away joyously and generously!!

The reaction to the shepherd’s message was surprisingly positive: ALL WHO HEARD IT WERE AMAZED.  We’re so used to being lied to that the truth has an effect of causing amazement.  People want to hear the truth and most will respond positively when they hear it.  In the culture of that time, shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder.  They were popularly believed to be habitual liars and thieves.  So it’s almost miraculous that they were believed enough for people to be AMAZED.  I think their witness must have been so powerful, they were so fully convinced, that their witness overwhelmed people’s prejudice and they earned a hearing.  No one is more persuasive than an eyewitness.

In verse 20, we see the shepherds WORSHIPING because of the truth.  They were GLORIFYING AND PRAISING GOD FOR ALL THE THINGS THEY HAD HEARD AND SEEN.  Do you suppose the shepherds went about singing the same song the angels had sung in praising God (v. 14)?  A reason for their exuberance is that things WERE JUST AS THEY HAD BEEN TOLD.

The context of their worship was not in the temple, but amidst their everyday lives: we read THE SHEPHERDS RETURNED.  They went home and back to work.  They worshiped God in the midst of their daily lives and among their regular community.  Similarly, we must take our joy into everyday life.  In our individual contexts of home, work, and community, we are to worship and witness just as the shepherds did.

Mary’s response is private and quiet in contrast to the shepherds’: she quietly considered their witness (v. 19).  Note the two things it says about her.

MARY TREASURED UP ALL THESE THINGS = “guarded.”  They became sacred memories to her.  Isn’t this something most parents do?  As we get older, we hold the best memories and let the others go.  But this is an absolutely unique situation, so Mary’s treasure-house included statements by Gabriel, her cousin Elizabeth, and now the testimony of the shepherds.  She put all these statements about Jesus together and considered their meaning.  No one on earth knew as much about the destiny of baby Jesus as Mary did.  She was justifiably awestruck by the role she was playing in the history of God and His people.

She PONDERED THEM IN HER HEART; they became points of prayer, meditation, and consideration.  In the original language, to “ponder” means to weigh, examine mentally, think about.

Is it fair to say that most of us live out our faith following Mary’s example than following the shepherds’?  We prefer to keep our faith a “private matter;” we treasure and ponder our faith, but we don’t get excited and we don’t carry it out into public.

The thing is, this passage does not condemn either approach.  Instead, it offers both Mary and the shepherds as examples for us to follow.  I want to say that we should be both at various times and as various opportunities present themselves.  We should have private and public expressions of faith.

A janitor who heard a baby crying in an empty New York City church was astonished to find a real newborn baby in the church’s Nativity scene with its umbilical cord still attached.  Jose Moran said that he found the baby after returning from his lunch break on Monday, only about an hour after the manger was set up in the Holy Child Jesus Church in Queens.

Police say the baby boy, who was found wrapped in a blanket, was brought to a hospital and found to be in good health. “At least whoever abandoned him brought him to a safe place and didn’t leave him to die,” Moran says. “I hope he finds the right home. He’s a miracle baby.” Police are trying to track down the newborn’s mother.

New York has a “safe haven” law allowing people to drop off unwanted newborns at places like churches, hospitals, and fire stations, but the mother could still face charges because the law requires authorities to be immediately informed of the baby’s whereabouts. One of the church’s parishioners has already offered to adopt the boy. “God works in mysterious ways,” Father Christopher Heanue said. The infant was “a kind of gift to the church in a poetic way, so we’d love to see it stay in the community,” he says. <Retrieved from on 11/27/15.>

That’s an amazing story too, another example of grace. This baby’s mother gave her child the gift of life and a chance to be saved.  The law charges her with a criminal act, but God is gracious enough to redeem any action, turning even tragic events into praiseworthy times.

Grace is the thing we must cherish like Mary and proclaim like the shepherds.  There are plenty of legalists in the world, but too few gracious people.  Grace brings joy. What better time of year to be extravagantly joyous than this season of Advent, leading up to Christmas?  Let me challenge you to follow the examples of Mary AND the shepherds.