Tagged: Christmas

A Tale of Two Christmases

I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.

This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.

christmas-fireplace-01One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.

So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.

Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.

The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

christmas-nativity-02

The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.

From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.

Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”,  and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.

Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both…  it’s easy to mistake one for the other.

Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.

And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the  children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.

I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.

Advertisements

The Gift of Peace

  • Read Luke 2:8-15 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

[Christmas Eve, the day after I presented this sermon on “God’s Gift of Peace” the city of Rochester tragically entered international news headlines when firefighters were ambushed responding to a deliberately lit fire. You can read the story here. Two firefighters were killed by gunfire and another two were shot and injured. In addition eight homes were destroyed by the fire.]

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”   Luke 2:13-15 (NLT)

Jesus was born into a period in world history of relative peace. The Roman Empire provided a lot of stability. But if you talked to the Jews of Jesus day, many of them would have resented the presence of the Roman military in their country. They longed for the return of independence and their own king upon the throne in Jerusalem. Caesar might have brought peace, but he maintained it by having such a strong military that no one dared challenge him.  Peace in this environment is defined by the absence of conflict, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s happy.

In contrast when the Bible, which was written by Jews, talks about peace, it talks about a concept deeper than just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word Shalom also has a sense of wellbeing or completeness. It even holds a concept of justice. When Shalom is present the world is as it should be, as God intended it.

Shalom takes us back to the very beginning of Creation, to God walking with Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. Certainly there’s an absence of conflict, but there’s also a close relationship. Everything is whole. Then sin enters the picture and decay begins. Sin erodes humanities relationship with God and with each other. By the time of Jesus violence was a natural part of life. Israel’s history for hundreds of years was earmarked by battle, defeat, captivity and destruction. And now they faced violence from Roman armies. Violence from Jewish revolutionaries. Violence from thieves and bandits on the roads. But the peace Jesus offered wasn’t relief from violence, it was Shalom, the restoration of wholeness. The restoration of relationship with God. Surprisingly, he offered a more significant peace than Caesar.

Not only did the nature of peace differ between Jesus and Caesar, but the means of achieving peace also differed drastically. Instead of crushing all opposition to eliminate resistance, Jesus told his followers to live as proactive peacemakers. (Matt. 5:9)

Rather than responding to violence with greater violence. Rather than adopting the attitude of an eye for an eye he instructed his followers to break the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek, and even taking the extreme step of “loving our enemies and praying for them.” Yes, this baby in a manager, this king in the cattle trough, brought the gift of peace to the world, but he wrapped it in some surprises.

When we hear the promise of peace it’s easy to look around the world, see the conflicts in every corner of the globe and mock the angels’ declaration. But it’s important to read the whole verse. The idea of giving glory to God is connected to the declaration of peace. The people on whom God’s favor rests, are those who accept the kingship of Jesus. The world will never experience peace until it submits to God’s rule.

God’s peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the restoration of wholeness. That’s our gift. It’s also our gift to give.

  • Do the recent shootings in our society give you a greater longing for God’s peace, or pose more questions for you?
  • How can Christians become more effective peacemakers?
  • For additional reading on a peaceful Christian response to the recent shootings I recommend a friend’s blog here and here.

Joy Produces Hope

  • Read Luke 2:8-14 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

In my current sermon series I will spend one week discussing some of the bigger concepts in Christianity: Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love. I don’t think the Bible ever groups them all together, but they often appear together in pairs or triads. Since they are core Christian values it’s not surprising that they’re each associated with the birth of Christ. Despite the connection they share to Christ’s birth, I chose to use Romans 15:13 as the key text for this series since it mentions Hope, Joy, and Peace.Joy Jump

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

I find the logic in this sentence a little complicated to follow. The verse has a lot of great words, but the way they connect takes a little thinking through. Here’s my step-by-step breakdown of the syntax.

  1. God is given the title: God of Hope. I like that.
  2. God gives people joy and peace. We don’t generate them ourselves.
  3. Joy and peace are given to us as we trust the God of Hope. So if we don’t trust him, should we expect joy and peace?
  4. The God of Hope gives us joy and peace in order that we might receive hope.
  5. Therefore, our hope (confident expectation) is inspired by the joy and peace the God of Hope gives us.
  6. The Holy Spirit ties our joy, peace, and hope together. The Holy Spirit connects the dots for us.

I find it very interesting that hope comes from joy. It’s very tempting to say that our hope for the future comes from our knowledge of what Christ has done for us in the past. Or that our hope comes from the promises contained in Scripture. Both those things play a part, but since joy [and peace] is something we experience, it’s also true to say “Our hope arises out of our experiences of God in our lives.”

God promises to give us joy. When we fill our lives in such a way that we suppress God’s joy it impacts our relationship with Him and diminishes our overall hope. I’m not saying Christians should never be sad. Of course we should. We’re human. I do believe that Christians need to keep reminding ourselves of our reasons for joy. We need to remind ourselves of our experiences of God. We need to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness.

Even in times of great darkness our memories of good times, of joy, reminds us that life isn’t always dark. Our experiences of God inform our future. We need to remind each other individually, but also as a church. Our relationship with God isn’t limited to words on a page. It’s also experienced through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the blessings God gives us. Churches without stories are churches without hope.

Our trust in God should produce joy, that inspires hope. That’s why Paul could write to the Thessalonian church “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

  • Pop culture often portrays Christians as morbid party-poopers. Do you think that’s because we don’t convey our joy enough?
  • When do you most experience God’s joy? Is it a worship inspired feeling, or something that hits you at other times.
  • Do you agree that “joy inspires hope”?

Faith, Love & Hope

  • You can listen to this sermon here.

Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13 – CEB)

Since we belong to the day, let’s stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet.  (1 Thessalonians 5:8 – CEB)

For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven.   (Colossians 1:4-5a)

Most Christians quickly grow familiar with 1 Cor. 13:13, “Now abide faith, hope and love…”, but I was surprised to learn that this grouping of terms occurs in several places throughout the New Testament. I’ve listed some of these occurrences above.

But this isn’t a uniquely NT grouping. Look at these verses from Lamentations 3 describing God: Hope, Faith, and Love.

21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

An alternative, but similar, grouping occurs in other New Testament passages. In the verses below the concept of “endurance, or patience” replaces “hope”.

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance (2 Timothy 3:10 NIV)

Tell the older men to have self-control and to be serious and sensible. Their faith, love, and patience must never fail. (Titus 2:2 CEV)

I know all the things you do. I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things. (Revelation 2:19 NLT)

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness… (Galatians 5:22)

Since some of these groupings crop up only in longer lists the connection isn’t super strong. But finally… HERE’S THE POINT I’m making…

Hope and endurance seem to be closely connected terms. Perhaps in the minds of the early church they were even interchangeable. I was pointed in this direction by the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Hope”. It has this to say,

One may surmise that at one time faith and love were found paired without hope, perhaps as a summary of the double commandment of love of and and of neighbor. Living the commandment of love within the “already/not yet” tension brings the Christian personal experiences, denominated “trials” or “tribulations.”  At this point, there enters upon the scene a gift of the Holy Spirit to sustain the believer amidst adversity, that of “hope” which is sometimes accompanied by “perseverance.” (284)

A key verse in establishing this connection is 1 Thessalonians 1:3 “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” It would not be true to say work, labour and endurance are the equivalent of faith, hope and love. However given the previous verses I’ve quoted, this verse describes hope motivating endurance.

Hope, defined as “confident expectation”, not “wishful thinking”, motivates endurance in the face of opposition and persecution. Big picture hope gets us through our short-term struggles. It’s why 1 Cor 13 says hope won’t last: One day, God will fulfill all of the expectations he has given us.

When Christians lose sight of the big picture of God working in our lives, and in our world we will also lose the perseverance we need to reach the fulfillment of those expectations. When we allow wishes to replace hope we dilute our faith and diminish our intimacy with God. In Christ, God has given us every reason to have confidence in his promises and love for us. He wants us to live confident, not wishful, lives.

In closing, consider this statement from Hebrews 3:14 “We are partners with Christ, but only if we hold on to the confidence we had in the beginning until the end.” May hope inspire the endurance you need to complete your journey to God.

  • Do you find it difficult to think of “hope” as a term of confidence rather than wishfulness?
  • Is your perseverance inspired more by “hope” or “duty”?
  • What do you think of the suggestion that “endurance” and “hope” are somewhat interchangeable”?

Matthew 2: The Wise Men

  • Read Matthew 2:1-18 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (26 December) you can listen to it here.

My current sermon series on Matthew concentrates on identifying themes and structures.  A verse-by-verse study of the book would just take too long.  So I need to point out that the magi’s search for a newborn king supports all the kingly concepts captured in 1:1.

Despite Jesus kingship, an appropriate word to summarise this chapter is “turmoil”.  Look how the events described impact people’s lives:

  • Joseph: His betrothed is suddenly pregnant!  (1:18-21)  I imagine this was pretty traumatic for Mary also!!
  • Jerusalem’s Religious Establishment: What would happen to them if the Messiah arrived?
  • Herod: Suddenly, his crown is threatened by an apparent challenger.
  • Bethlehem: When a king faces turmoil, so do his subjects.  The murder of all boys under the age of 2 surely brought unimaginable terror to the town.
  • Jesus’ family: Forced to live as refugees in Egypt for about 4 years.

While the Gospel of Luke presents the birth of Christ as the traditional Christmas message of peace and hope, Matthew conveys a different message.  Matthew presents the dramatic inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven that challenges the existing order and establishment.

Matthew’s dramatic narrative is not designed to inspire revolution.  Instead, he tells a story of reassurance.  In the midst of turmoil God is still in control.  Herod sought to use the magi to destroy the Messiah, but God protected him.  Chapter 2 concludes with Herod dying, and Jesus’ family settling peacefully in Nazareth.  After his tumultuous entry into the world, Jesus experienced 25-30 years of peaceful anonymity.  As frenetic as the magi’s visit may have seemed, God was able to bring Jesus and his family safely through the storm.

I wish I had better answers as to why all those children had to die in Bethlehem just to protect Jesus.  Was God in control in their lives too?  My best rationalisation is that it serves as a reminder of the severity of the spiritual battle taking place around Jesus.  It demonstrates the evil and suffering that Jesus came to forgive, and to remove.

This is a well-known story, please share your reflections with us.

  • Is there a particular aspect of this story that captivates you?
  • Do you agree that “turmoil” is an appropriate descriptive word for this chapter?
  • How do you process and explain the deaths of those Bethlehem babies?
While the Gospel of Luke presents the birth of Christ as the traditional Christmas message of peace and hope, Matthew conveys a different message.

Matthew 1: Jesus is King

  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (19 December) you can listen to it here.

Matthew 1:1 contains four descriptions of Jesus that each contain an important message for us.

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

FIRST: The first is the name “Jesus”.  According to 1:21 an angel told Joseph to name his son Jesus because, “he will save his people from their sins.”  The Hebrew name itself means, “The Lord saves.”  Right at the beginning Jesus name also contains his mission statement for life.

SECOND: The name Christ in this verse is actually better translated, “Messiah”.  Matthew wants his readers to know that the person he’s introducing is the long awaited king and deliverer of Israel.

THIRD: The Jews believed that the Messiah would be a descendant from the genealogy of King David.  In 2 Samuel 7:12-16 God promised David that his kingdom and throne would endure forever. So it’s no surprise that immediately after announcing Jesus to be the Messiah, he also states that Jesus is a son or descendant of David.

FOURTH: Matthew next states that Jesus is a son of Abraham.  In some ways, this is stating the obvious, since a son of David must also be a son of Abraham, so there’s a deeper reason for making this connection to Abraham.  First, God made his initial covenant to create a nation with Abraham.  But also, while David was a very Jewish figure, in Genesis 12:3 God promised to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s descendants.  So Matthew reminds his readers of God’s covenants to bless Israel, but also to bless the rest of the world.

From the very first verse Matthew makes clear that Jesus is a king.  He further emphasises this point by being the only Gospel to include the story of the magi, or wise men, traveling to pay homage to a new king (2:1-12).

  • How does the title of King influence your relationship with Jesus?
  • What implications does the kingship of Jesus have for our lives?
  • Since kings are largely out of fashion these days, what title might Jesus assume if he were born now instead of then?

Luke 2: Peace on Earth

  • Read Luke 1-2 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (December 27) you can listen to it here.

Sermon audio refers to this picture.

I must confess that I found this week’s sermon preparation academically exciting.  I only hope the church members also experienced some spiritual excitement from the message.

I was fascinated by the similarities in the praise of Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79) and the angels (2:10-14) which I’ll lay out below.

Zechariah: [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies… (1:69, 74b)

Angel: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. (2:11)

While Zechariah clearly anticipates an earthly Davidic king and rescue from the oppression of the Romans, the angel doesn’t shy away from that expectation.  In fact, the angel emphasises Jesus’ Davidic heritage by referring to the “town of David”, rather than to Bethlehem.

However, we sell Zechariah short if we think his understanding of God’s salvation was limited to political deliverance.  Zechariah understood the connection between political peace for God’s people and their holiness.  He knew from studying the prophets that Israel had lost its freedom because of their sinful neglect of their covenant with God.  That’s why in v77 he summarises John’s mission as being to give his people the knowledge of salvation throug the forgiveness of theirs sins. Which is certainly consistent with the Christian understanding of Jesus as Saviour.

Zechariah: the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. (1:78b-79b)

Angel: Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. (2:10)

Zechariah and the angel both see God working through Jesus to replace fear and darkness with joy and peace.  While the reference to Jesus as “the rising sun” is unusual, the imagery of Jesus bringing light to a dark world is frequently used in the NT.  Eg. John 1:4-5

Paul uses similar language in an interesting way in Ephesians 5:8b-10 where he calls upon Christians to “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.”  Not only is Jesus the “rising sun”, but Christians are “children of light”.  And while Jesus bring joy and peace, Christians are to reflect our Saviour by first “finding out what pleases the Lord” and then living it.

Zechariah: to guide our feet into the path of peace. (1:79c)

Angels: …on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (2:14b)

Both Zechariah and the angels expected the Messiah to bring peace, but the both regard the peace as conditional.  Zechariah has already connected it with the forgiveness of sins, and here implies that while Jesus guides our feet, we still have to walk down the path.  Jesus isn’t dragging anyone down the path of peace.

Likewise, while the angels declared “joy to the world”, the peace is limited to those “on whom his favor rests”.  Without going into a lengthy explanation, I understand that phrase to reference those who accept Jesus as Saviour, Messiah, and Lord.  They are the ones who receive God’s favour.  Jesus comes for all, but not everyone benefits from his coming!

So maybe you’re not jumping out of your skin with excitement right now, but I find the comparison fascinating.  We find Luke repeating the same message, but quoting different people saying the same thing in different ways.

FINALLY:  An interesting point about 2:11 is that this is the only place in Scripture that all three of these titles for Jesus are used together:  Saviour, Messiah (Christ), and Lord.  Also, if you’re looking for some indication in look about the deity of Christ… there’s that whole Son of God thing in 1:35 & 3:37, but additionally, in 1:46-47 Mary refers to God as her Lord and Saviour, titles that the angels also bestow upon Jesus in 2:11!

I know I didn’t really discuss the nature of the promised peace, so maybe you can help me out?

  • Do you think the angels are only speaking of spiritual peace / forgiveness of sins?  or are they speaking more broadly than that?
  • How have you experienced God’s peace in your life?
  • Should Christians expect peaceful families, or peaceful societies?
  • Surely churches should at least be peaceful places?  If so, then doesn’t that mean Christians carry a peace that goes beyond spiritual reconciliation?

The Good News According to Luke

  • Read Luke 1 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (December 20) you can listen to it here.

Since this is my last post before Christmas, let me wish everyone a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!

I’m beginning a new sermon series on the Gospel of Luke.  Since most movies and story books tend to tell a unified story of Christ’s birth, I thought I’d use this post to highlight how each Gospel tells the story in different ways, highlighting different events.

MARK:

  • Doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all.  The book begins with the ministry of John the Baptizer, then the baptism, temptation, and ministry of Jesus.

JOHN:

  • In his first 18 verses John presents the deity and incarnation of Jesus.  He makes it very clear that Jesus was divinely present at creation, but “became flesh and lived among us“.  But John never mentions Bethlehem, or gives details of Jesus birth.

MATTHEW:

  • Begins with a genealogy linking Jesus with David and Abraham.
  • We’re simply told that “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
  • An angel appears to Joseph, reassuring him of Mary’s fidelity.
  • The birth of Jesus is never described.  Chapter 2 begins after the birth of Jesus with the visit of the Magi.
  • Only Matthew tells of Jesus’ flight to Egypt and Herod’s execution of Bethlehem’s baby boys.

LUKE:

  • Begins with the promise of a son to Zechariah & Elizabeth.
  • An angel visits Mary predicting she would bear a miraculous son, even though she’s a virgin.
  • Mary’s song.
  • Birth of John the Baptizer.
  • Zechariah’s song.
  • Joseph & Mary travel to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.
  • Singing angels appear to shepherds and announce the birth of a Saviour, a Messiah.
  • 8 days after his birth Jesus is presented at the temple where Simeon and Anna prophesy over him.
  • Luke tells the only account of Jesus childhood when in 2:41-51 he describes Jesus’ visit to the temple at Passover when he was 12 years old.

I appreciate the efforts people make to consolidate these four accounts into one story.  I think that having one story makes it simpler to remember all the facts.  But generally, I’m cautious of efforts to harmonise the Gospels.

It seems to me that when we attempt to consolidate the Gospel stories we’re saying that the four writers made mistakes, or overlooked information.  While harmonisation may simplify the story, we do ourselves a disservice as Bible students in the process.

  • Did Luke really not know that Jesus’ family spent time in Egypt?
  • Was Matthew completely unaware of the angels singing to the shepherds?
  • Did Mark not know how or where Jesus was born?
  • Did John forget important arguments to support his statement that “The Word became flesh.”?

Each of the Gospel writers told the story differently because they were writing to different audiences with slightly different emphases.  While Matthew highlights fulfilled prophesy, Luke fills the pages with people rejoicing at the birth of a Saviour.  The two Gospels  present two perspectives of the same event and we can dwell on each perspective and benefit from it.  We lose something important when we merge the separate accounts into one generic story.

  • Have you considered the role each of the Gospels have in telling of Jesus birth?
  • Do you have a favorite one? As I said in my sermon, I relate to John who gets straight to the point and doesn’t require me to interpret his story.
  • Since only two Gospels describe the birth of Christ, does this mean it’s unimportant?  Where does his birth rank in importance compared to other events in Jesus’ life?

The Feast of Thanksgiving

  • Read Ecclesiastes 2 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (November 22) you can listen to it here.

My Thanksgiving sermon this year was heavily influenced by a presentation I heard by Dr Dave Bland at the Great Lakes Lectureship in late October.  As he taught on the book of Ecclesiastes a couple of things caught my attention.  First, the Jews today read Ecclesiastes during the Feast of Tabernacles (sukkot), which has a lot in common with American Thanksgiving.  Second, he highlighted Ecclesiastes’ emphasis on joy, which was news to me.

There are seven joy passages within Ecclesiastes.  (2:24-26; 3:9-14; 3:22; 5:17-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-10)  Scholars disagree regarding their significance, but the viewpoint Dr Bland presented establishes these passages as the core message of the book.  My message focused on the first of the joy passages found in 2:24-26.

In the first eleven verses of chapter 2, Qoheleth (the Hebrew name used by the author, a word thought to mean ‘Teacher”) searches for meaning by pursuing pleasure.  His quest is summed up in v10, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.”  And yet in v11 the pursuit only resulted in emptiness, “a chasing after the wind.

Instead in v24 he concludes that the best thing we can do is to “eat, drink and find satisfaction in our toil.”  Over in 9:7-9 the eating and drinking is placed in a context of enjoying life with family, specifically, one’s wife.  The enjoyment is not found in the food itself, but in the context of loving relationships.

This sounds to me a lot like Thanksgiving, or Christmas, dinner.  A meal with family and friends, contentedly resting from work, and celebrating God’s goodness.  Anyone who experiences conflict within their family may regard this picture as unrealistically idyllic.  And for many people it is.  Perhaps that’s why Qoheleth describes this scene as a gift “from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”

We don’t obtain meaning for our lives through pursuing pleasure, but through placing God at the centre of our lives.  When we do this He allows us to enjoy life.  While we might often see God in the big areas of our life: family, job, and health, God also makes possible the enjoyment of many small moments.

I hope that each reader will at some point pause their festivities and notice God around their dinner table.

  • Do you have a favorite “small part” of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner that reminds you of God’s presence & provision?
  • Is this an interesting way of approaching Ecclesiastes?  Should I write some more on this topic?
  • At first glance Ecclesiastes is a strange book to read at Thanksgiving.  What would you suggest as an appropriate Scripture passage?

If you’re trying to understand how these “joy passages” serve as a theme for the book a couple of extra points might prove helpful.

  1. Each ‘joy passage” addresses the “meaningless” passages before and sometimes after, so you need to read them in context.
  2. The phrase “People can do nothing better” needs to be read not as an exasperated sigh that “the only thing left to do is…”, but as a declaration that “The best thing that people can possible do is…”

Christmas Carols

I thought I’d just throw in a fun one this week, since it’s the season of fun!!

First of all though, yet me clarify my point of confusion as I introduced Sunday’s sermon.  We sang Joy to the World just before I spoke, and I commented that the lyrics were written by Issac Watts (1674-1748 ) and the tune based on music by Handel (the same guy that composed the Messiah).   I got muddled trying to place who Isaac Watts was and when this song would have been written.

However, despite my confusion on the details I still think my point is significant.  Although Jesus was probably not born on Dec. 25th, and although the Bible doesn’t teach us to celebrate Christmas, and although many of the Christmas traditions actually have pagan origins… Today Christmas has well and truly accumulated a lot of Christian meaning, while it’s fuzzy origins are mostly forgotten.  When we sing songs written 300 or so years ago we join with a long line of Christians who have sung those words to worship God, and truly the miracle of God becoming human is an event of great joy worth singing about.

What are your favorite Christian Christmas Carols? Mine are:

  • O Holy Night
  • Mary Did you Know
  • God With Us (by MercyMe, not really a Christmas Carol, but definitely a song with a Christmas message)
  • Grown Up Christmas List (Amy Grant’s version has an extra verse)
  • Jazz Gloria (this is a choral piece that I’ve picked up somewhere and got stuck in my head.  The best version I could find of it online was here.)
  • Messiah – the whole thing!! (I still get a buzz from reading Scripture and recognizing passages used in this work.)

Okay, that’s my rather unconvetional list.  Please share yours!!  Also Are there and Christmas songs you just can’t stand? This time last year I was working and Starbucks and must have heard “Frosty the Snowman” 5 times every day!!  Enough with Frosty!!