Monthly Archives: December 2010

Seashells

On Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birthday, but Christmas Eve is my father’s birthday. (Happy birthday, Dad!) He was born and raised in Ft. Myers on the Gulf Coast and we spent our summer vacations on a beach near there when I was growing up. I remember riding with my dad on a road trip to South Florida when I was in college. As we drove down I-75, I remarked to him that I was disappointed there aren’t the kinds of beautiful seashells on the beaches that I used to find when I was little. I speculated that it must be due to all the tourists collecting them to the point of extinction. I looked over at my dad and I saw him grinning like the Cheshire Cat, then he broke into a loud and boisterous laugh.

“What’s so funny?” I asked a little miffed, sensing that the joke might be on me. Once he regained his composure, he explained that those beautiful seashells were not native to Florida. Every year he stopped at a shell shop on the way to the beach and bought exquisite shells from all over the world to drop in the sand for my brother and me to find. As we grew older he stopped doing it, figuring we were too savvy to be fooled by his rouse. I can’t tell you how hurt and disappointed I was at first, like a child who learns there’s no Santa.

After much reflection I’ve decided my father’s deceit was really a sign of his love (and his bizarre sense of humor!). He loved us enough to go through the trouble of buying those fancy shells and secretly planting them on the beach, so my brother and I would have the joy of finding them.

When Mary wrapped the first Christmas present ever, it was a gift dropped into history. But this was no rouse, no elaborate hoax. Jesus looked, acted, and smelled like any other newborn human baby. But like the seashells he was something different, something special. In fact, he was the Savior of the world. My earthly father led me to believe something special was ordinary. But our heavenly Father gave us something ordinary that turned out to be very special. Now it’s up to us to believe.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).

Merry Christmas!

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Do Tell

In a historic 65-31 vote, the U.S. Senate today ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military. For some, this decision will seem another milestone on the path to moral decay in our country. For others, it marks the end of an era of injustice and discrimination. On thing is for sure, our society has changed and this new law is evidence of it.

I have a lot of thoughts on the issue of gays in the military, but I’m going to take some more time to formulate them before I share them here on my blog.

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Miracle Baby

The Birth of Christ (c. 1490), Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 34 x 25 cm, London, National Gallery

Stories of miracle births were common in the ancient world. According to Egyptian mythology, the goddess Isis miraculously conceived and gave birth to the falcon-headed god Horus. In ancient Greek mythology, Perseus was conceived when a childless princess named Danaë was impregnated by the god Zeus with a shower of gold. At the desert Oasis of Amen, it was revealed to Alexander the Great that he was the son of the god Amen-Ra. Demigods were a dime a dozen in antiquity.

The ancient Hebrews had their own stories of miracle births as well. Remember, Sara who gave birth to Isaac, even though she was barren and far beyond childbearing years? Samson and Samuel are two other examples of Jewish miracle babies. But there was something different, something special about the story of the baby born in Bethlehem. It’s such a familiar story that it’s easy to forget sometimes how difficult it was even for Joseph to believe.

The version of the nativity story most familiar is the one recited by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter two, and begins: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” It tells the story from the perspective of Mary. The lesser-known version comes from Matthew 1:18-25, our Gospel text for Sunday, and focuses on the experience of Joseph, who learned that Mary was expecting and knew he was not the father. Doubt, hurt, a sense of betrayal—he must have experienced all of these feelings as he considered what to do with his pregnant bride to be. Joseph faced a hard question, which must have caused serious soul searching: How could he be a parent to a child he did not father?

Joseph’s legal options put him in a difficult dilemma. Unlike modern engagements, betrothals in biblical times were legally binding marriage contracts and a betrothed couple was called husband and wife. If a woman who was betrothed became pregnant, the Mosaic Law offered only two options. If the fiancé was the father, he must marry his espoused wife as promised. If the baby wasn’t his, she must be stoned for adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deu. 22:22-24). At first neither option seemed acceptable. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, so he didn’t want to go through with the wedding. The Romans, who were occupying the Holy Land, reserved capital punishment for themselves, so stoning wasn’t an option either. Joseph decided to divorce Mary privately and the Bible calls him “righteous” for it. In a dream an angel of the Lord convinced Joseph that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 1:20). To put it in street slang, God himself was the “babydaddy.”

Not only did Joseph take Mary as his wife in obedience to his angelic dream, he also refrained from sleeping with her until after she gave birth (Matt. 1:25). Both Mary and Joseph displayed the virtue of chastity. Chastity is a word that sounds so old fashioned today, like the name of a character in John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century classic Pilgrim’s Progress. Old fashioned or not, God cares about sexual purity. In our sexually permissive society, we need to be reminded that God designed sex first and foremost for procreation, not recreation.

God chose Mary to bear his only Son at least in part because she was sexually pure. One set-piece battle in the fundamentalist-modernist holy wars fought in the last century concerned the translation of a single word in the text: virgin. Matthew interprets this miracle birth as fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Isa. 7:14). The word translated “virgin” is almah in Hebrew, which simply means a “young woman.” The word “virgin” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright explains, “there is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did.” However the Hebrews understood its meaning in Isaiah, the word in the New Testament is “virgin” (Gk., parthenos). If you change the meaning of that word or turn the miracle into a metaphor, you make the Virgin Mary into a harlot.

You can’t prove the virgin birth. You can’t disprove it either. As with other mysteries of the faith, the proper response is belief. It’s the same with all profound truths. You can’t prove beauty or love or kindness, but you know these things exist once you’ve experienced them. It’s also the same with Jesus himself. You know he’s real once you’ve experienced him.

The great nineteenth-century preacher Phillips Brooks wrote the words to the familiar Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. I hope we will make the last verse our prayer:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

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The Rub

St. John the Baptist Preaching (ca. 1650), Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Oil on canvas, 68 x 47 3/4 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When I read scripture I try to look for the “rub”—things I find confusing, difficult, or surprising. It’s a way of allowing the familiar to become fresh. Using this approach I often see something I hadn’t seen before. In Matt. 3:1-12, the gospel reading for Sunday, John the Baptist preaches a fiery sermon on the need for repentance in light of coming judgment. For me the rub is not only John’s televangelist tactics but also his message of God’s wrath: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His imagery is apocalyptic: wood is thrown into the flames; chaff is burned in “unquenchable fire.” The reference to hell is clear. John puts the fear of God into his hearers, literally. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed an act could not be morally praiseworthy if it was motivated by self-interest (like avoiding eternal damnation), but that’s exactly what John appeals to. It’s got me thinking about what motivates people to come to faith.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” St. Paul said it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). What is it that draws people to God anyway? Is it fear of punishment (John the Baptist), a sense of restlessness (St. Augustine), or God’s goodness (St. Paul)?

Maybe there’s no one right answer. Perhaps God is a pragmatist who uses whatever works to draw us to himself.  Maybe it takes a combination of carrots and sticks for most people. Unlike Kant, I’m not sure we can act with purely unselfish motives, even (or especially?) when it comes to matters of ultimate importance like faith. What do you think? And wherein lies the rub for you?

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