Monday, December 21, 2020

The "Christmas Conjunction"

 I took these photos in my front yard starting just after 5 p.m. CST today with Cathy's assistance. I used my Samsung S9 smart phone mounted on a tripod. Tonight is the closest approach of Jupiter and Saturn; tomorrow and for a few days afterward they will be farther apart, but still seem quite close. Not long after I finish this post, they will disappear behind the horizon. 

But according to NASA, if we placed a dime on the goal line of a football field and pretended it was the sun, Jupiter would be at about the 10.5-yard line. Saturn would be almost twice as far out, at the 19-yard line. So they do not ever actually come close to one another. (Earth would be about two yards out from the dime-sized sun.) 


Here is looking from our front yard. The planets are the bright dot above our neighbor's house, between the power lines. 


Here is a telephoto view. I do have conventional digital and film cameras, but not with 8X telephoto like my phone has. This shot is about 4X.


Here is a series of 8x telephoto shots. Basically, if you've seen one you've seen them all. The phone does have a "night" photo setting, but after I used it, I could not tell any difference, probably because the phone was already stable on the tripod. But you can definitely tell there are two separate planets, and which one is Jupiter. 
 




One final frame and we bid the conjunction adieu.


I hope you got to see it, too!

BTW, the Bethlehem star that the magi, or wise men, followed to find the Christ child was also a conjunction of Jupiter, although not with Saturn, but with the star Regulus. Modern astronomers have calculated it quite precisely. Read about that in, "Why is Christmas on December 25?"

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Five Days Out: Why is there Christmas?

 “Why is there Christmas at all?”
This question makes it clear that we are not speaking of a holiday or the layers of secular commercialism that lie atop it. It is to ask, Why was God born into flesh and blood and all that those things entail? It is what we call Jesus’ Incarnation – the deity of God being born as human.
We can say what this did rather easily: it brought the sacred and eternal being of God into the carnal and temporal sphere of human life. God had done this before, though not in flesh and blood. He did so in Sinai in the giving of his Law to the chosen of Israel and in bringing them to the Promised Land. The Jews understood that God was made personally present in every aspect of their lives by the giving of his commandments even when they did not understand all of them.
The Jews call the commandments specifically and the Scriptures generally the Torah, the Word of God. Torah is the main way that Jews understand God to be present with them. The great Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod explained the meaning of the Torah. Instead of becoming present in the Word, wrote Wyschogrod,
    God could have played a godly role, interested in certain features of human existence, the spiritual, but not in others, the material. He could even have assigned [to] man the task of wrenching himself out of the material so as to assume his spiritual identity, which is just what so many [religions] believe he did. Instead, the God of Israel confirms man as he created him to live in the material cosmos ... There is a requirement for the sanctification of human existence in all of its aspects. And that is why God's election is of a carnal people. By electing the seed of Abraham, God creates a people that is in his service in the totality of its human being and not just in its moral and spiritual existence.[1]

Of course, we Christians have a different understanding of what forms the greatest manifestation and revelation of God on earth. We agree with the Jews that God’s Word is the purest manifestation and revelation of God that we have on earth. However, we don’t say “what” is God’s actual presence with us, we say, “who.” John’s Gospel tells us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The Word of God, the Torah of God, the revelation of God, the Word become flesh – and so Christmas, of which Charles Wesley wrote:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

The Jews are exactly right: “that God and the Torah are one.” Because Jesus is the Word made flesh, the actual, living embodiment of the Torah, when Jesus said, “I and my Father are One,” his Jewish hearers understood him more deeply than the typical Christian reading those words today.
 Jesus of Nazareth is God’s proof that we can become what we should most desire: to be holy in our own flesh, in this life. God sanctifies us in this life, for he took on this life in his own person. We cannot be gods. But we can be godly. The birth of the Son of God into humanity shows us that.
Our daily headlines show us a world not much different from the one Jesus was born into. It was and remains a world of death, of tragedy, of evil, of pain, and of suffering, though thankfully leavened with beauty and joy and goodness. God wages war against everything that resists or opposes God’s intentions for his creation. But God does not war against flesh and blood. Instead, God sanctifies flesh and blood. Paul knew this, so he wrote,
For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.[2]

Yet why does this godly battle require God’s presence in human form? John’s most famous passage explains it quite simply: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ... .” And John later also quotes Jesus, “There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”
We see on our nightly news the horrors visited by terrorists and other random violent acts of no apparent purpose. There are other sufferings we can hardly imagine. Evil is powerful in our world. Father Dwight Longenecker, a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, wrote,[3]
   The true answer to the absurdity of evil is the supernatural rationality of love, for love is the outgoing goodness that counters evil. By "love," I do not mean merely sentimental or erotic love. I mean a power that is positive and creative and dynamic and pro-active in the world—the power which Dante said, "moved the Sun and the other stars." … Love is the light in the darkness ... .

All who are baptized into the body of Christ cease to be subject to the powers of this world and are transformed and transferred to a new and different kind of life, with different powers and possibilities for life, with new eyes to see the world, with a new family and a new Lord.
That is why to celebrate Advent and Christmas are not simply acts of worship. They are acts of defiance, for in singing carols and reading Scripture we announce that we do not submit to the principalities and powers of darkness or the spiritual forces of evil at loose in the world. To sing, “What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” is to speak more importantly than all the other voices in the world and to proclaim that we, God’s people,
... do not lose heart because we are being renewed every day. The promises of God far outweigh all the terrors of this world. We live not according to the fallen standards of this world because we are only here temporarily. We live in Christ’s Kingdom because it is eternal.[4]

The Reverend Nadia Bolz Weber put it this way, [5]
   Amongst the sounds of sirens and fear and isolation and uncertainty and loss we hear a sound that muffles all the rest: that still, small voice of Christ speaking our names.  … the very reason we can do these things is not because we happen to be the people with the best set of skills for this work.  Trust me, we are not. ...  – the reason we can stand and we can weep and we can listen is because finally we are bearers of resurrection. We do not need to be afraid. Because to sing to God amidst all of this is to defiantly proclaim ... that death is simply not the final word. To defiantly say that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it.

Consider this painting by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556):


Manger scenes became a popular artistic motif during the Renaissance. In almost all such paintings, the artists included the cross somewhere in the scenery. Sometimes it was on the horizon outside the manger. One artist, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), painted a cross on a shelf on the manger’s wall, such as many homes would have had. 


Let us take a cue from those theologically-trained artists. They knew the connection between the manger and Calvary. So did Jesus. As his last trip to Jerusalem loomed, knowing what it portended, Jesus told the disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). 
When we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the birth of someone who was born to die, as this artist recognized. For at its most basic level, the meaning of Christmas is the cross. To consider the life and death of Jesus, what possible expectation could we mortals have that the God who created the universe could be required, much less expected, to put on flesh and blood, be born as we are and die as we do, to take upon himself the sin of the whole world? Faced with this fact, what do we do in return?
That is the central question for us who celebrate the birth of Jesus because he put his own body between us and eternal destruction. Jesus died to bring us into everlasting life. The mystery of the Incarnation is conjoined by the shock of crucifixion. Both are resolved by Resurrection. "God With Us" did not start in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, nor was it ended at Calvary. God With Us happens today among those who follow the One who had “no crib for a bed,” the One who died on a cross and then ascended to the right hand of God.
 To celebrate Christmas, therefore, is not simply to sing carols in December in a church garlanded in greens. It is to become holy in this life each day of the year, to emerge victorious over sin, evil and death, to do the work of Christ in the world, to live knowing that Jesus is God with Us, and so we can, and must, be with God.
 
Every Thanksgiving my family and used to join my parents at the home of my younger brother, Usually there were 17-20 there, but one year there were only nine gathered around the table. My older brother and his wife came a long distance to be there, but only one of their four grown children could come. Our eldest child was not able to come, nor our second or his wife. My brothers and I had a running joke one of us always announced whenever we gathered for such celebrations. Sometime during Thanksgiving one of us would say to Dad, “Of course, you know that everyone who truly loves you came home for Thanksgiving.” And Dad responds, “Oh, sure, I know that.” We all laugh because we know it's just a joke.
But if you had been there that year, you would have seen fleeting sorrow flicker across our faces and a wisp of wistfulness in our eyes. For the breath of a sentence, our hearts were in Delaware or Wisconsin or Ohio or Florida because while the table was crowded, it was not full. Not everyone was there who belongs there.
That moment came to my mind when I read something author Bob Benson wrote in Come Share the Being. He and his wife had three children and he told of how they grew up and went away to college and then got married and made their own homes. They were proud of their children, he wrote, but after their youngest son moved away, “our minds were filled with memories from tricycles to commencements [and] deep down inside we just ached with loneliness and pain.
“And I was thinking about God,” Benson wrote. “He sure has plenty of children – plenty of artists, plenty of singers, and carpenters and candlestick makers, and preachers, plenty of everybody . . . except he only has one of you, and all rest together can never take your place. And there will always be an empty spot in his heart and a vacant chair at his table when you’re not home.
“And if once in a while it seems he’s crowding you a bit, try to forgive him. It may be one of those nights when he misses you so much he can hardly stand it.”

Maybe that is why Christ was born, lived, died and was raised from the tomb – because that’s what God does when he just can’t stand it anymore, when he just can’t stand the gulf of separation between us.
In Jesus’ day there was no occasion more festive or joyous than weddings. The best parties were wedding parties and feasts. The New Testament says that when Christ returns he will be reunited with his church in a celebration so magnificent that the Scriptures describe it as the grandest wedding celebration ever held. 
Are we preparing ourselves spiritually for this banquet? Do we understand how the reward of eternal life with God places a burden on us today? Methodist professor David Watson wrote,
When even a cursory thought is given to the countless millions in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who languish under injustice, or are ravaged by war, the prospect of anyone celebrating personal salvation . . . borders on the obscene. There are still too many of Christ’s little ones who are hungry, too many who lack clothes, too many who are sick or in prison. There are too many empty places [at God’s banquet table]. The appropriate attitude for guests who have already arrived is to nibble on the appetizers and anticipate the feast which is to come. To sit down and begin to [feast] would be unpardonable . . . especially since the host is out looking for the missing guests, and could certainly use some help.

When we deeply consider what Christmas really means and what it obligates us to be and to do, we can only admit that we have surrendered all our rights to everything except humility.


Why is there Christmas? Because there is a place for every person at God’s table, but not everyone has come. Because God cannot stand the separation between himself and his children.
This day of celebration should also evoke is us an equally unbearable sorrow that we are not doing all we are able to do to close the separation. The best way to celebrate Christmas is to carry out the commandments of Christ all the year long.




[1]Quoted by David Goldman, “Banning circumcision is dangerous to your health,” http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/NG03Dj02.html
[2]Ephesians 6.12
[3]http://www.patheos.com/Catholic/Aurora-Murders-Demonic-Possession-Dwight-Longenecker-07-24-2012
[4]See 2 Cor 4.16-18
[5]http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/07/sermon-about-mary-magdalen-the-masacre-in-our-town-and-defiant-alleluias/
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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A Quiz on the Origins of Christmas Traditions

Here is a little quiz on the origin of many Christian traditions of the Western world. First the quiz and then the answers. Good luck!

1.True or False:  The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

2. T or F: The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in December.

3. T or F: The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother.

4. T or F: The early church began the tradition of the Christmas tree.

5. T or F: Saint Nicholas figures prominently in our Christmas celebrations because he was the church leader who made Christmas a Catholic festival day.

6.Which of the following figures does not appear in the Gospels’ narratives of the birth of Jesus?
        a. Shepherds
        b. Angels
        c. Astrologers
        d. A drummer boy

7. T or F: Christmas gets its name because for centuries the Catholic church celebrated a Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve called the “Christ Mass.”

8. T or F: In colonial America, the Puritans were well known for celebrating Christmas as a major church holiday.

9.The pagan Romans celebrated which of the following on Dec. 25?
        a. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
        b. The birthday of the Roman deity Mithra, the god of the regenerating sun.
        c. The feast of Saturnalia.
        d. None of the above.

10. T or F: The early church set Dec. 25 as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus so that it would occur between the Roman feast of Saturnalia, Dec. 19, and the Roman feast of Kalends, which occurred on January 1.

11. T or F: Christmas Day is a legal holiday in Egypt.

12. Saint Nicholas was Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in what is modern Turkey, in the early 300s. He is considered the protector of what kinds of persons?
        a. Virgins
        b. Thieves
        c. Children
        d. Sailors

13. T or F: Part of St. Nicholas is entombed in Flushing, NY.

14. When did the first retail-store Santa Claus appear? Between ...
        a. 1800-1850
        b. 1851-1900
        c. 1901-1950
        d. After 1950

15. T or F: The Christmas tree is actually of pagan origin, dating from pre-Christian Germany and adopted and Christianized by Christian missionaries.

 
Christmas Tree at NYC's Rockefeller Center, 2019

16.When did the Christmas tree come into widespread usage in the United States?

        a. Before the Revolutionary War 
        b. Between 1820-1840
        c. The late 1800s.

17. In Old England, on what day of the year did masters and servants eat the same meal at the same table?
        a. The monarch’s birthday, to signify that they were all alike subjects of the king or queen.
        b. June 15, the date King John agreed to the terms of the Magna Carta in 1215, to signify that they all alike had their rights as English people confirmed by the sovereign.
        c. Thanksgiving Day, to signify together their common dependency on a gracious God.
        d. Christmas Day, in the spirit of humility before Christ's incarnation, the act of divine condescension before which all persons are equal.

18. Which US president began the custom of lighting the public White House Christmas tree?
        a. Abraham Lincoln, who used candles
        b. Grover Cleveland, in whose term the White House was wired for electricity
        c. Calvin Coolidge, whose home state of Vermont sent him a tree.
        d. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used it as a beacon of hope during the Great Depression

19. T or F: Christmas carols were begun by church leaders 800 years ago, notably St.Francis of Assisi, because popular music had become too bawdy and impious.

20. Christmas cards began –
        a. In late Medieval times as a means by which the Pope sent Christmas blessings and instructions for the new year to the bishops in Europe.
        b. In the Thirty Years War, 1618-1648, when generals offered to send soldiers’ Christmas letters home free of charge.
        c. During England’s Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, when wages rose enough for ordinary people to afford the penny postage cost and the steam press enabled inexpensive printing of the cards.

21. Extra credit: What American economic occurrence is credited by historians with beginning the modern commercialization of Christmas, and when was it?

 

The Answers:

1. True The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Christians have said from the beginning that this verse, written several hundred years before Jesus was born, prophesied his birth in Bethlehem:  Mic 5:2   

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 

2. False "The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would be born in December." No time of birth was prophesied at all. 

3. True The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother. Matthew's Gospel (1:23) says thus: " 'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us'." 

However, Matthew is quoting a Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14, which says (NRSV), “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (my italics). The Septuagint translated the Hebrew word, almah (young woman, maiden) using the Greek word parthenos (virgin). So the answer might be, “True, sort of.” OTOH, the 70 scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek were no dummies and were all Jews besides, so their interpretation of almah as "virgin" should carry a lot of weight.

4. False        "The early church began the tradition of the Christmas tree." Nope, not even close. 

5. False "Saint Nicholas figures prominently in our Christmas celebrations because he was the church leader who made Christmas a Catholic festival day." It is a festival day, but not because of St. Nick.

Christmas was celebrated from the very early days of the Church in various localities (the nearer to Jerusalem, the more likely the celebration). Several church leaders promoted the day, including Chrysostom and St. Ambrose, and the day appeared on all Western Church calendars no later than the mid-300s and on Eastern Church calendars a couple of decades later.

6. Which of the following figures does not appear in the Gospels’ narratives of the birth of Jesus? 

        d. A drummer boy

7. True Christmas gets its name because for centuries the Catholic church celebrated a Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve called the “Christ Mass.” This word dates to 1038's Old English, “Cristes Maess.” Other languages use different words and word origins.

8. False "In colonial America, the Puritans were well known for celebrating Christmas as a major church holiday."

Puritans actually outlawed Christmas in Boston during part of the 17th century. English Protestantism generally resisted celebrating Christmas. Puritans also got Christmas outlawed in England during the Interregnum, resulting in pro-Christmas rioting, even in Canterbury. The ban was lifted in 1660 with the Restoration.

9. The Romans celebrated which of the following on Dec. 25?

        d. None of the above. 

Mithra, a deity imported from Persia by the Roman military, became an important member of the Roman pantheon as time went on. By the middle of the third century, Mithraism was the main religion of Rome. Modern skeptics' claims that Mithra's birthday is Dec. 25 lack historical documentation. The Feast of Saturnalia was instituted originally for Dec. 17 and was later extended to Dec. 24. The winter solstice, of course, is Dec. 21. 

10. False The quiz question was, "The early church set Dec. 25 as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus so that it would occur between the Roman feast of Saturnalia, Dec. 19, and the Roman feast of Kalends, which occurred on January 1."  

First, that Christmas was set to “take over” or Christianize the feast of Saturnalia (or of Mithra) is refuted by historical evidence. The early Christian scholar Tertullian dated Jesus' birth as Dec. 25 seventy-five years before Emperor Aurelian instituted a Roman, pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Tertullian's calculations were based on legendary-type beliefs about martyred Jewish prophets and so hold no weight today, but he nonetheless did date Jesus' birth to Dec. 25 decades before anyone in pagan Roman religion even noted the date on the calendar.

However, it is far more likely that Dec. 25 was celebrated from the very early days of the post-Pentecost church because that is the day of the year that modern astronomical calculations support as the day the Wise Men, or magi, arrived at Bethlehem to bring gifts to the King of the Jews; Jesus was probably a toddler by then, not an infant.

Read all about it in excruciating detail in my essay, "Why is Christmas on December 25?" -- Whatever date Jesus was born, it almost definitely was not December 25. So why do we date Christmas on it?

11. True Christmas Day is a legal holiday in Egypt. It only became a holiday in 2003.

12. Saint Nicholas was Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in what is modern Turkey, in the early 300s. He is considered the protector of what kinds of persons (include all that apply)?

a. Virgins
b. Thieves
c. Children
d. Sailors

All of the above. The legend of St. Nicholas was spread by sailors and took root in The Netherlands as Holland was becoming a great sea power. St. Nicholas was known in life to have been kind to maidens and children. Not sure how he became a protector of thieves, though!

13. True Part of St. Nicholas is entombed in Flushing, NY. Relics of the saint, including a piece of his skull, were brought to an Eastern Orthodox church there in 1972.

14. When did the first retail-store Santa Claus appear?

a. 1851-1900 

He was James Edgar and played the part in Brockton, Mass., in 1890, the same year that Katherine Lee Bates invented Mrs. Claus in “Sunshine and Other Verses for Children.” This makes St. Nicholas the only married saint, but of course neither the Roman church nor the Eastern church recognize Mrs. Claus. 

15. False "The Christmas tree is actually of pagan origin, dating from pre-Christian times and adopted and Christianized by Christian missionaries."

The oak tree was sacred to pre-Christian Germans, not the evergreen. The Christmas tree as a symbol of new life in Christ supplanted the oak tree in Germany, probably from St. Boniface who evangelized Germany in the early 800s. Legend has it that Boniface stopped the sacrifice of young boy against an oak and then cut the oak down, whereupon a fir tree sprang up in its place. More historically, the fir tree is known to have been used in Christmas plays in Germany in the 1500s to represent the tree of knowledge of good and evil (the Genesis story). Decorating the Christmas tree probably began from the way apples were hung from this dramatic tree to represent the fruit of temptation that Adam and Eve ate. By the 1700s Christmas trees became widespread in German homes during Christmastime.

16. When did the Christmas tree come into widespread usage in the United States? 

a. The late 1800s.

17. In Old England, on what day of the year did masters and servants eat the same meal at the same table?

Christmas Day, in the spirit of humility before Christ's incarnation, the act of divine condescension before which all persons are equal.

18. Which US president began the custom of lighting the public White House Christmas tree?

Calvin Coolidge, whose home state of Vermont sent him a tree.

19. True "Christmas carols were begun by church leaders 800 years ago, notably St. Francis of Assisi, because popular music had become too bawdy and impious." 

A “carol” was a form of circle folk-singing and dancing. Beginning in the 700s, traveling minstrel shows spread the form across most of Europe and, like all pop musicians, had found great success with risque lyrics and movements, which only goes to show how long this sort of thing has been going on.

20. Christmas cards began –

During England’s Industrial Revolution in the 1840s, when wages rose enough for ordinary people to afford the penny postage cost and the steam press enabled inexpensive printing of the cards. Also, as far as I can determine, the first British penny was minted in 1840 and the penny price for postage was set then, too. 

42. Extra credit: What American economic occurrence is credited by historians with jump starting the commercialization of Christmas?

The depression of 1839-1840

The commercial aspect of the holiday began at a low level in the 1820s with the publication of “The Night Before Christmas,” attributed (later) to Clement Moore. This poem is credited with making Christmas a children’s holiday and starting the practice of giving gifts to children by parents; before then, kids were given sweets and treats. But the commercialization of Christmas in the US really got a head of steam when gift-giving was promoted to overcome the depression of 1839-1840. It’s never looked back. In England the trend was accelerated by the publication of Dickens novella, "A Christmas Carol."

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

A Christmas Quiz

Here is a Christmas-related quiz I put together a few years ago. First four pages are the questions, the last six are the answers and explanation. Covers the Bible, religious traditions and secular history. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Christmas and the Cross

 My family and I have lived in neighborhoods that had Homeowners Associations and and other ones, like our present one, that did not. I could make a cogent case to have them, and also not to have them. The devil, as they say, is in the details. 

But this takes the cake. Now an HOA has decided that it is a theological-decision panel.

A family in Raleigh, North Carolina were shocked when their homeowner’s association (HOA) tried to force them to remove a six-foot Christmas cross that the family put up as a holiday decoration, stating that crosses can only be displayed during Passover or Easter.
 
“Lo and behold, after putting it out right after Thanksgiving, we got a notice in the mail. It shocked us,” James Faison said to the local ABC affiliate in the city. “We believe that the cross is symbolic of hope, salvation and deliverance. It’s so important that we have this cross up for Christmas time.
 
But the HOA disagreed. 
 
In a letter, the Faisons were told, “The board does not consider this a Christmas decoration, but Easter/Passover seasonal decoration.” Ironically, James reports that there are many Christians on the board, but they believe that there should be a distinction and separation between Christmas and Easter.
 
Perhaps they forgot that you need Christmas to get to Easter, or maybe they haven’t gone to a Christmas Eve service that serves communion as a reminder of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
 
Either way the Faisons were given notification that if they didn’t come into “compliance,” they would be forced to pay a $100 fine.
 
“They didn’t mention anything in the bylaws, they didn’t say go look here in the bylaws as far as it relates to the HOA in the community, this is the reason why. They didn’t say any of those things,” James said. “They asked me to provide biblical references.”
 
The Faisons did as asked.
 
Part of the HOA’s response included, “The cross represents the death of Jesus Christ who died for our sins so we can have eternal life. The Christmas season is associated with the birth of the Savior such as nativity scenes would be appropriate representation of the season. The Board believes that the Bible is very clear on the distinction between these two major events in Christ’s life on earth. The cross is appropriate for display during the Easter season, but not as a decoration during the Christmas season. Unless biblical references can be provided noting the cross as a symbol of the Christmas season for the board to reconsider, the cross is not considered to be a Christmas decoration.”
So this HOA thinks it can meet for what - 15 minutes? - and refute about 2,000 years of Christian theology, as well as hundred of years of Christian iconography. 

Well. 

"For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," promised the Scriptures, and the glory of God can hardly be beheld impassively. One either runs to embrace the Lord or runs from him. Neutrality is not even possible.

So the passages for Advent typically include reminders that, absent God’s gracing presence, we mortals are lost in our sins. Almost every Advent, the lectionary passage for the first Sunday is of the severity of God's judgment. We are reminded that, “Christ has come, Christ will come again.” And his next advent will not be so innocently or unthreateningly accomplished.

Yet Advent also shows that by being born the baby in the manger God was not going on the offensive against us. He joins us an our ally. In fact, God’s kingly, overwhelming power is found there literally to be defenseless, so much so that Joseph and Mary had to flee the town to save Jesus’ life.

Is there power in such weakness? No, not in weakness per se. Jesus’ Godly power, or our own, is found neither in human in weakness nor in strength, but in faithfulness. It is God who is strong, not we mortals. Compared to the God’s strength, human weakness is inevitable but it is also inconsequential. God knows this, so he did not shrink from being born of woman, just as we are, nor from enduring the travails of human life in all its triumphs and disappointments, its joys and frustrations.

And at the end, death on a cross. But death could not hold Jesus because God is stronger than death.

Manger scenes became a popular artistic motif during the Renaissance. In almost all such paintings, the artists included the cross somewhere in the scenery. Sometimes it was on the horizon outside the manger. One artist, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), painted a cross on a shelf on the manger’s wall, such as many homes would have had. 

Let us take a cue from those theologically-trained artists. They knew the connection between the manger and Calvary. So did Jesus. As his last trip to Jerusalem loomed, knowing what it portended, Jesus told the disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27).

As for scripturally connecting Jesus' birth with his death, read these passages.
 
What is the meaning of Christmas? The meaning of Christmas is the cross.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

A reflection on the second Sunday of Advent

Advent is when we should make the jump -
will we do it willingly?
Every year at this time we list the things we want for Christmas. Kids expect great things from Santa Claus. Let’s face it, there usually is not a lot of humility in our lists of what we want. Deep down, we both expect to be given those things and think we deserve them anyway. Now, no hands, please, but how many of you have gone shopping after Christmas to buy something on your list you did not get as a gift? Somehow, at Christmas we think we deserve nice stuff, and we’re quite okay with giving nice stuff, too. But there’s a certain system at work in Christmas gift giving: we give, we get, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Have you ever gotten what you did not deserve? I don’t mean just at Christmas, when you were either disappointed or delighted with a surprise gift. In the Bible some people get what they deserve and others what they don’t deserve. Sometimes a king, or maybe an entire nation, say, Egypt or Israel, does wrong or sins, and then they suffer the consequences. It’s what they deserve. Like crime, sin has consequences, some of which are realized in this life, others in the next. 

There are also examples in the Bible of people getting what they do not deserve. Some of them are tragic – Jesus being sentenced to death is the leading case. Even Pilate, who sentenced him, declared that Jesus had done no wrong. But he ordered Jesus crucified anyway. 

Other times, people get what they do not deserve, and it is good. Second Samuel, chapter nine, tells the story of Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, who was son of Saul, whom David succeeded as king. At the very pinnacle of his reign, David remembered Saul. He asked his court, “Is there anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” 

David did not ask, “Who among Saul’s house deserves some kindness?” He didn’t ask whether there was anyone from Saul’s house who could serve him now. No, David asks simply, “Is there anyone whom I may show kindness?”

David’s question was purely graceful and loving. “Yes,” says a former servant of Saul. “Jonathan’s son still lives. He is crippled in both feet.” Immediately, David replies, “Bring him to live here!” David restored Mephibosheth’s property, and handicapped Mephibosheth ate at David’s table. 

The story of Mephibosheth at David’s table illustrates God’s grace. Divine grace is the unmerited, unearned favor of God. Mephibosheth didn’t deserve a place at the table. He could not possibly have earned it. He was crippled and very much out of place compared to the famous generals and statesmen and the royal David and Bathsheba. Yet, there he was, dining at the finest table that could be prepared. Nothing but grace brought him there. He didn’t deserve it. 

Another fellow who didn’t deserve what he got was a young man Jesus told of who got sick and tired of living at home with Dad and Dad’s rules, Dad’s regulations, Dad’s list of chores, Dad’s discipline. He demanded his share of his inheritance now, which was basically telling Dad, you are as good as dead to me. I renounce you. And then he left the country. But he went broke and in desperation returned home, hoping that his father would at least hire him as a field hand. 

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. The he threw a big homecoming party for his rebellious son because he felt as though his son had died, and was alive again, had been lost, but now was found. 


 One theme of Advent is the judgment of God. God rarely judges judicially, as in a courtroom. Isaiah wrote that God's judicial-type judgment is unusual, calling it God’s “strange work” and “alien task” (Isa 28:21). God’s judgment is fundamentally that of salvation and unmerited favor. God judges like a father hoping for his children to come to their senses and exulting when they do. God is an unfair judge, by our standards, because from his judgment we do not get what we deserve. And thank God we don’t.

In 586 BC the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem after years of warfare and exiled a large number of Jews to Babylon, hundreds of miles to the east. For decades they remained, until the king there told them they could go home. Isaiah had prophesied for forty years that Judah was in mortal danger. The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah are concerned with that. But the last 27 chapters take a new tone, beginning with our passage for today, Isaiah 40:1-11:

1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. 

It has usually been thought that this passage announces the end of the Jews’ exile in Babylon. Or it may address the end of the troubles and wars in Israel before the exile took place. In any event Isaiah advises the people that their penalty has been paid, they have served their term, and that they have received from the Lord double for all their sins. Their sentence of war and conquest is finished, or their exile, so their debt for their sin has been paid. After all, when prisoners are released from a prison term, we say they have paid their debt to society. And that’s a sound interpretation of the passage.

But what about the part that says they have received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins? That’s not fair; is it a case of God punishing them twice as hard as they deserved? I think this is related to the assurance of comfort. Isaiah is assuring the people that their sin really is remitted, as much as if they had received twice the sentence they should have gotten. Hence, they should be comforted.

 What does comfort mean to us? La-Z-Boy tries to sell us its recliners because they are comfortable. When we try to comfort someone in grief we commiserate with them or help them with meals or errands. Consider, though, that the word, “comfort,” is from an Old French word meaning, “to strengthen,” derived from Latin meaning the same thing. 

When God comforts his people, he gives them the strength to do what needs to be done. But the way that God sets before them is not the way they are used to. When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I asked a paratrooper acquaintance of mine how many parachute jumps he had made. 

He said, “None.” 

I said, “None? But you’re in the 82d Airborne Division!” 

“Yeah,” he said, “but I have never jumped from a plane. However, I have been pushed out seventy-eight times!” 

The comfort that God is announcing is that he will give his people the strength to to jump into a new way of living, a new way of relating to him. There is a new day coming, a new advent of God’s presence, and they need to be ready. And sometimes, God pushes us when we won't make the jump.

God will do for us mortals what we surely don’t deserve: save us from our own sin, our own faults, our own inherent inabilities. Where our morality and spirituality is a desert, a wilderness, God will make a straight highway. There is to be a new order of things now, a leveling, as it were, so that all will be with God in the same way. 

Eventually, the Jews in exile in Babylon did return home, but their new independence was short-lived. They were again conquered by the Greeks under Alexander, enjoyed another brief period of independence, then fell to the Romans, who crushed the Jewish state so utterly that it vanished until 1948. 

 Of all the prophets who foretold Christ, Isaiah was perhaps the most compelling. His prophecies of the Suffering Servant are poetically beautiful and uncannily accurate in describing the Christ. What could be more remarkable than for the Son of God to appear in person, born of woman, living among his people? Jesus was indeed “the glory of the LORD,” revealed for all people to see. 

Empires come and go, withering like grass and fading like flowers, says Isaiah, but God remains. 

A young musician once went to see his old music teacher. During the visit, his elderly mentor took a tuning fork and struck it on the end of the table. He said. “That is ‘A.’” From the floor above them they could hear the voice of a singer rehearsing. “She sings sharp,” the old teacher said with a smile. He struck the tuning fork again and paused as he lifted it and said, “She is sharp, but this is an ‘A’ — always has been, always will be — 440 vibrations per second. It will still be ‘A’ five thousand years from now.” 

The word of our God, said Isaiah, will stand forever. 

Is there a wilderness in your life? Spiritually speaking, do things seem like a desert? Be comforted, be strengthened, and during this Advent season, prepare a way for the Lord and make straight in the desert a highway for God. The glory of the Lord is coming near. Be prepared!

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...