QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Make the most of your chances to tell others the Good News. Be wise in all your contacts with them. Let your conversation be gracious as well as sensible, for then you will have the right answer for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (TLB)]

doris longwing butterflyWhen Meg and John walked into the church narthex, Meg was visibly disturbed. “I just can’t believe they said that. How can they call themselves Christians?” she asked her husband. Seeing Meg’s obvious distress, the pastor who’d been greeting at the door went over to talk. The two had been at a small group study before service when, after class, another couple nonchalantly dismissed the virgin birth as fiction and, as they walked out the door, added that the resurrection was as much a fabrication as the virgin birth.

The virgin birth is a doctrine plainly stated in the Apostle’s Creed—a creed that is regularly recited at that church. Christianity holds that Jesus had no earthly father and was not the product of intercourse. How it happened, we don’t know and certainly can’t understand. The resurrection of Christ is also affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed. For the most part even non-believers won’t argue the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus nor will they dispute that his tomb was empty on the third day. They simply can’t accept how the tomb came to be that way. Just because we can’t understand how something happened, however, doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur!

This devotion, however, isn’t about defending the virgin birth and the resurrection. It’s about Meg and John. “I don’t think that group is right for us,” she said. “Let’s find another group; we’re not going back there again.” Her husband, however, emphatically disagreed: “Oh, yes we are! We’re not going to let this go unanswered.” Meg and John have a valuable opportunity to share the gospel and one that I hope they use wisely.

This devotion is also about that other questioning couple and I think back to nearly fifty years ago when a young woman, from a Buddhist background, was about to join our church. Having grown up in a Buddhist home with a family altar, she was struggling with a way to reconcile praying to her ancestors (something she had always done) with her new Christian beliefs. While there is no place for ancestor worship in Christianity, our pastor’s answer was gentle and loving. Rather than condemning her for her past beliefs and practices, he encouraged her to grow in her new ones. His words were encouraging and accepting—not of ancestor worship—but of her.

Meg and John’s experience is a reminder that not everyone we meet at church, Bible study, or small group is a firm believer. The fact they are there, however, is a step in the right direction! We must do our best to keep them there by being sympathetic, compassionate, humble, loving, gracious, patient, and willing to listen. If people can’t freely question doctrine, express their disbelief, or ask for further explanation in church, where should they go? Remember, even Thomas had doubts! Rather than telling them what we think and why we think it, perhaps we should start by asking them what they think and why they think it. Let’s meet them wherever they happen to be, walk with them into a deeper understanding of the gospel, and pray with and for them.

Try to help those who argue against you. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save some by snatching them as from the very flames of hell itself. And as for others, help them to find the Lord by being kind to them, but be careful that you yourselves aren’t pulled along into their sins. Hate every trace of their sin while being merciful to them as sinners. [Jude 1:22-23 (TLB)]

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WHERE WAS HE? (Daniel – part 3)

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. [Isaiah 41:10 (NLT)]

Frabel - Naples Botanic GardenSomeone was missing from yesterday’s story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace: their good friend Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar’s giant statue was erected on the plain of Dura, word was sent to all of his officials to assemble there for the statue’s dedication. We know Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were there because Daniel reported that they got tossed in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to an idol. But what of Daniel? He’s the one who chronicled the event: the one who wrote that all of the high officers, officials, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and provincial officials were present. Daniel gives no explanation for his absence at the dedication of the king’s golden statue.

We’d like to think that Daniel remained back in Babylon for some important task at the palace, was elsewhere on a vital mission, or even sick in bed. We want to think Daniel wasn’t there because, if he’d been in Dura that day, he should have joined his friends in the furnace. Four men would have been sent to certain death unless, unlike his friends, Daniel had bowed to the idol! Daniel, however, is our hero: the wise prophet who later braved a king’s wrath to pray and survived being thrown into a den of lions. We never want to think that our heroes are real people, with feet of clay, just like us. When we look at the Bible’s heroes, however, they really are every bit as flawed as are we! Among others, we have drunken Noah, lying Abraham, impatient Sarah, deceitful Jacob, thieving Rachel, temperamental Moses, jealous Miriam, weak Aaron, immoral Rahab, psychotic Saul, adulterous David, sex-addicted Solomon, bad dads Eli and Samuel, the thieving publican Matthew, and Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus. They all disappointed God and sinned at one time or another.

We’ll never know if Daniel was in that fiery furnace with his friends, far from Dura that day, or if he bowed to the idol. Oddly, the remote possibility that he might have bowed his head to an idol doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t disturb me because we have a great God of second (third, fourth, and more) chances. If Daniel sinned that day, along with prophecy and history, his story is one of forgiveness and redemption.

What we do know is that that God continued to give Daniel wisdom and revelations during the more than seventy years he served the four rulers of Babylon. We know that, when another opportunity arose to honor his God by rejecting idolatry, Daniel did the right thing. Perhaps he was inspired by his friends’ faith. In spite of knowing that he’d face certain death in a lions’ den, Daniel remained faithful and continued to openly pray to God rather than to the king. “May your God, whom you serve so faithfully rescue you,” said the king, and God did. Daniel, at the end of his story, was as faithful to God as were his three friends that day on the plain of Dura.

For he is the living God, and he will endure forever. His kingdom will never be destroyed, and his rule will never end. He rescues and saves his people; he performs miraculous signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions. [Daniel 6: 26-27 (NLT)]

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THE ALPHA

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneHaving forgotten the Greek alphabet he learned as a fraternity pledge, my husband asked the meaning of the symbols on the lecterns in the church sanctuary. On the left was A for alpha and, on the right, was Ω for omega: the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Hebrew, those letters would have been aleph and tau. Among Jewish rabbis, using the first and last letters of the alphabet was a common way to express the whole of something, from its beginning to its end. Today’s equivalent expression would be “from A to Z” or “from soup to nuts.” Those Greek letters refer to three verses in Revelation in which Jesus claims to be the Alpha and Omega. They tell us that that, as part of our Triune God, Jesus was there at the beginning and He will be there at the end.

As for alpha: only God could exist before time even existed! Although Genesis starts with, “In the beginning,” God was already there! Since time, space, and matter are co-relative and God created space and matter, we know it was God who also created time. God never had a beginning because He is the beginning! He didn’t emerge from something; everything emerged from Him!

One of the basic laws of science is that neither mass nor energy can be created. Simply put, it can only be converted or broken apart and put together in a new way. Strictly speaking, mankind can’t create; we can only synthesize or transform by taking existing materials to make something new. We can’t create ice or steam but we can convert water into those things by freezing or boiling it. We can take that water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide (CO2) and end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3) but we couldn’t create carbonic acid without the building blocks of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. God, however, started from scratch; with no time, space or matter before Him, he created mass and energy. Making something from nothing boggles the mind but it’s the only answer that makes any sense—even to scientists!

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. … The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. [Arno Penzias]

Arno Penzias was the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and Robert Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation. Their discovery supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe and showed that the Big Bang was not a chaotic random explosion. A highly fine-tuned explosion, it appears that some being guided it along.

The Apostle Paul said, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command.” [Hebrews 11:3] I don’t think we need faith to know that anymore; it appears that science tells us the same thing. The writers of the Bible, however, didn’t know the theory of relativity, didn’t have telescopes telling them the universe is expanding, and had never heard of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, radiation afterglow, or variations in the temperature of the “great galaxy seeds” – they just knew the truth. Our great God is the Alpha!

I alone am God, the First and the Last. It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order. [Isaiah 48:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. [Jude 25 (NLT)]

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THE REASON FOR MORE THAN A SEASON

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. [Hebrews 2:14-15 (NLT)]

The Holy Family - Willow TreeAlthough Epiphany celebrates the magi’s visit to the Christ child, for many people it simply marks the official end to the holiday season. It’s the day the tree goes down, lights are removed, and nativity scenes get stowed for another year. British tradition holds that if you haven’t removed the holiday décor by January 6, you must leave it in place all year long to avoid misfortune. I don’t know about misfortune but, in our community, you’ll face a fine if holiday lights or decorations remain after this week!

This year, my five-year old grand helped me take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations. Along with the ornaments, candle holders, stockings, and two Santas, we put away four nativity sets. As the little guy placed the Christ child in one of the boxes, he asked me why I had so many figures of baby Jesus. I reminded him that Jesus (not Santa) is the reason for the season and that we always want to keep Christ in Christmas.

After everything Christmas was packed up and put away, I realized a small resin figurine of the Holy Family remained on a shelf in the living room. The crates in the garage were filled to the brim and, just as on that first Christmas, there was no room anywhere for Mary, Joseph and the newborn King. Rather than having them spend the next eleven months in a high cabinet with assorted vases, I decided to keep them on my desk.

That figurine will serve as a reminder of how God deliberately chose to humble Himself: to be born of woman and live as a mortal man. That was God Himself who entered our world through a birth canal amidst blood and amniotic fluid. The baby who nursed at Mary’s breast and peed, pooped, spit up and drooled was God! He who created man was so helpless He couldn’t even roll over for the first few months of His life and had to learn to crawl and walk. The God who gave mankind the gift of speech had to learn to speak, the One who invented numbers had to learn to count, and He who spoke the law to Moses had to learn how to read His own words! The God who spoke light into existence had to light a candle at night and our omnipresent God had to walk to get from one place to another. The God who never gets tired, thirsty or hungry became a man who did. Jesus humbled Himself by living as a man and endured everything mankind does: blisters, bruises, colds, waiting, toothaches, bug bites, stubbed toes, hangnails, exhaustion, sunburn, skinned knees, and probably diarrhea. He even endured temptation but, unlike us, He remained sinless!

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the human part of Jesus: that our infinite God chose to live in a finite world with all of its limitations. That figurine will remain on my desk this year as a reminder that our invincible and invulnerable God freely chose to live as a man so that He could die as a man in my place. Fully man and fully God at the same time, Jesus is more than just the reason for the Christmas season; He is the reason for our salvation. Christ belongs in far more than Christmas; He belongs in everything we think, say and do.

Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.  Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. [Hebrews 2:17-18 (NLT)]

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THE STAR – Epiphany

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. [Micah 5:2a (RSV)]

star ornamentIn his gospel, Matthew writes of wise men from eastern lands who saw a ”star in the East.” This actually was a Greek term used in astrology at the time, en te Anatole, which meant “at the rising.” Now known as a heliacal rising, it describes a planet that rises above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. Just moments after its appearance, it disappears in the sun’s glare. Better reflecting this astrological meaning, many Bibles translate the wise men seeing the star “as it rose.” While we’re not exactly sure what happened in the sky that drew the Magi to Judea, today’s astronomers have a pretty good idea.

To begin, we have to clarify a few of our misunderstandings about Christmas. While we think of Jesus’s birth as being in December, it probably occurred between March and October. Winters are cold and rainy in Judea; rather than sheep being in the fields in December, the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks. Moreover, the shepherds would have been keeping watch over their flocks at night only during lambing season (March and April). We also often think of Jesus’s birth as being the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. when, in fact, our calendar is about six years off.

Because there is nothing accidental or random about the universe, the movement patterns of the sun, moon, planets and stars can be observed and predicted. From what they’ve observed of these patterns, astronomers can also work backwards. Using a computer program to do just that, Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar found that, at twilight on March 20, 6 B.C., the moon eclipsed Jupiter. Then, on April 17, there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and, at noon, the moon again eclipsed Jupiter. The heliacal rising continued until December 19 and, during that time, both Jupiter and Mars appeared in Aries, a constellation traditionally associated with Judea.

Picturing the magnificent star we often see depicted on Christmas cards, I’d wondered why the Magi were the only ones to take notice this stellar event. As Molnar explains it, these astronomical happenings were not spectacular because of their appearance but because of their rarity and would have had little significance to most people. The wise men, however, were not “most people.” Most likely astrologers from Babylon, they knew the prophecies that a king would be born to the house of David. Believing this king would be born when the moon eclipsed Jupiter, they probably had been searching the sky for years looking for signs like these.

While Molnar even offers a scientific explanation for the star appearing to stop, there also are other plausible explanations for this “star,” such as a close conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Whether it was an unexplainable miracle or an amazing natural phenomenon that miraculously coincided with Jesus’s birth, we know that these men saw something that made them believe a king had been born in Judea. Although we celebrate their visit to the Christ child on January 6 (often called Three Kings Day), they weren’t kings, we don’t know how many there were, and they probably arrived in Jerusalem anywhere from several months to two years after Jesus’s birth.

Although the events in the sky got them close to the new king, they had to stop and ask directions to actually find the child; it was only logical that they’d ask King Herod about this new king’s birth. Astrology was prohibited to the Jews and Herod had no astrologers but he did have priests and scribes. Knowing Micah’s prophecy, they directed the wise men to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.

Throughout Scripture we read that God speaks to us and reveals Himself in nature. It was through God’s amazing celestial creation that God revealed the birth of His son to these Gentile wise men. Yet, to find the king, nature wasn’t enough; they needed Scripture. The star told of His existence and got them close but it was the Word that got them there! Let us learn from these wise men. God reveals His power, majesty, and presence in nature but merely knowing that He exists is not enough. It is through Scripture that we actually will find and meet Him; it is though God’s word that we will come to know the King.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. [Psalm 14:2 (RSV)]

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NINE MONTHS

Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. [Luke 1:46-48 (NLT)]

campionWe know that within a few days of the angel’s visit that Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s home, but what of those first few days after the annunciation? Did Mary tell anyone or did she wait until she’d seen proof of Elizabeth’s pregnancy before she truly believed that she, too, was with child? Did she tell Joseph immediately or wait until she returned to Nazareth three months later?

Have you ever wondered how that conversation went and about Joseph’s initial reaction to her unbelievable news? The couple’s betrothal was far more involved and serious than today’s engagements. In those days, betrothal wasn’t just an agreement between two people; it was an arrangement and commitment connecting two families. Joseph would have presented a ketubah, or marriage contract, to Mary and her father and paid a bride price, called a mohar, to compensate her father for the cost of raising the young woman. He then would have returned home to prepare a place for her and their engagement may have lasted as long as a year. Although the couple didn’t live together and certainly didn’t have sex, they were bound to one another as if married.

Though unconsummated, their betrothal was binding and could only be undone by a divorce with just cause (such as Mary not being a virgin). Knowing he wasn’t the father of her child, Joseph could have had her stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he considered quietly divorcing her until he was visited by an angel who explained how the baby was conceived. But what of Mary’s parents? Worse, what about the reaction of Joseph’s family? How did Mary and Joseph explain this miraculous conception? Who would believe them? For that matter, what about the gossips of Nazareth? Mary had gone to visit her cousin and returned pregnant so it couldn’t be Joseph’s! There probably were whispers of scandal surrounding Mary all of her days.

After the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive without virtue of a husband, he left. We can only hope that when the Holy Spirit came upon her and the Most High overshadowed her that Mary was given more than a baby—that she was given wisdom and strength beyond her years. I suppose any doubts Joseph had about the baby boy eventually were allayed by the unprecedented visits of shepherds and angels at the nativity, their encounters with Simeon and Anna at the temple, and the visit of the Magi with their extravagant gifts. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that the angel who visited him also gave him wisdom and strength for the challenges ahead.

The Christmas story actually begins nine months before that extraordinary night in Bethlehem. In celebration of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, many churches celebrate the feast or festival of the annunciation on March 25 but it’s easily overlooked by many of us. Today, as I set out the figures for the nativity scene, I thought about Mary and Joseph and couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the nine months between Nazareth and Bethlehem.

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,  which means “God is with us.” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

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