Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
I can’t believe I have forgotten the Sermon Redux for last week’s sermon. I have been very distracted with finals but this should not have happened. Every Christmas is challenge in presenting the story of Christmas in a new way or from a new angle. This year I have decided to focus on the first days of Jesus’ earthly life. In this series I hope to show the profound impact that Jesus had even as only an infant child.
The birth of Jesus is actually quite ordinary. The only real thing that is difficult is the fact that because there is no room for Jesus at the inn. Mary gives birth and it is not in a comfortable place. The thing about mangers in a city like Bethlehem is that they would have actually been more likely that they would have been in a place that was highly public. Our western minds always like to think that privacy is a big deal but the mind of the time where people lived in tents and had one room houses would not have had this notion. It has been my contention that Jesus was born in the area of the caravan drivers where they kept and feed their camels and such for the night. Probably this was right on the street in front of the inn.
We also need to remember Bethlehem is crowded at this time. Jesus’ coming into the world was not a private matter. Perhaps Mary got a makeshift blanket barrier so she could give birth without too many prying eyes but her screams of labor would have been heard and when Jesus cried out for the first time there would have been a smile on a lot of lips and when it was announced that it was a boy there would have been joy for Joseph for he is assumed by everyone to be the father. To all observation a normal birth and worthy of some congratulations.
Mary and Joseph probably though had a different perspective and I think that of all the people impacted by Jesus’ actual birth it is probably them. For Mary it is vindication but there is nothing to mark Jesus as anything but an ordinary child and so she might have had mixed feelings. Joseph is pondering being always conceived of as Jesus’ father even though he knows it is not true, but he is ready to lay down his life for this child who both of them know is the holy one of God and the messiah. A slice of heaven wrapped in an ordinary form of humanity and wrapped with swaddling clothes probably cut from the hem of Mary’s dress.
This is perhaps the great lesson of Jesus’ actual birth. That heaven can be wrapped in the ordinary. Too many times we are looking for the miracles of Christmas in grand forms and the truth is far more mundane in appearance. Heaven often casts itself resembling the ordinary and it is God working inside things that is providing the extraordinary. The challenge is to keep our eyes open and see these slices of heaven in the ordinary things of Christmas. Right now the scene is that a Jewish could gave birth to a son and that is a normal ordinary thing externally but that is about to change.
After spending a very long chapter on the resurrection where he takes his readers to new levels of confidence, meaning and hope because of the resurrection of Christ and the dead, Paul comes back down to earth and the here and now. It almost seems like a downer but the truth is as much as we would like to live with the hope of eternal life in our hearts and we should we have to get back to the world we live in for now and engage in practical ministry.
In this passage Paul does what he does many times which is in the context of the resurrection and eternal life and that is to remind his readers that life goes on and ministry must continue. In this passage he address the collection for the famine stricken saints in Jerusalem, makes not of his plans for future travel and asks the saints at Corinth to take care of Timothy and Apollos should they come to the city. Paul dealing with the practical issue of ministry from provision, to prayer to hospitality.
Many Christians often feel that this part of following God is not as exciting as many others but practical ministry is ultimately where the rubber meets the road when it comes to sharing the gospel, ministry to the poor and just getting things done for Jesus’ kingdom. The two great mistakes to make about practical ministry are 1) not to do it because we think there are far more important issues and 2) think our contribution will not be significant.
Our testimony is a great part of this and many people think that their testimony is insignificant because God has done little for them. That is of course absurd given that God saved them. Let me repeat that – God saved them. Salvation is a great miracle and it should be shared as much as possible as part of practical ministry. That, along with doing the work of ministry is what draws people to the gospel.
The crossroads is clear. You can either understand that the glories of the gospel are moved along and made manifest through practical ministry to others or you can simply live in the world of the resurrection without concern for others. Paul understood the nature of the resurrection and the gospel required practical ministry and work. We should do the same.
This is one of those sermons that I had to be a bit careful but as I blog about it now I realize (because of the fact this post might very well be read in other parts of the world) that my caution is in need of being double. Other cultures still live this way and Christianity is still practiced in many places with the idea of women keeping their head covered up. That said I must say that I can read the last line of this passage (verse 16) and realize that Paul is not being dogmatic but really engaged in an argument of reasonableness. After two chapters on liberty, the last thing I think Paul wanted to make this is a contentious issue. The problem is it has become one mostly because are looking at the application and fighting about it rather than looking at the principles involved. I always try to determine the principle of something by basically asking if I was thrust onto a desert island naked how would I do this? The fact that Paul’s culture and personal opinion are very evident in this passage but the principles are still golden.
In the first place Paul lists a principle he writes about in several places – God the authority of man, man the authority of women. The question of being under proper authority is still very present and Paul want this understood when it comes to the sexes. How this plays out I think is going to be very different but Paul is talking about either hats or hair here and the more modern translations go with hair. Remember naked on a desert island? How would a couple represent this authority in such a situation? He would keep his hair cut and she would let hers grow practically but it goes deeper than that as in such situations, one has to have the final authority. Paul says this belongs to the nature of man.
This is not readily accepted in modern Western society but it goes back to the idea of part of accepting who you are and part of that acceptance is to accept your male or female nature as the way God created you. Paul is very clear elsewhere that being one or the other does not affect the nature of salvation but it does affect the nature of society and culture. Like it or not men and women are different and have different strengths and weaknesses and both sides need to be Ok with that both with themselves and with each other. Up until recent history people did not have the ability to change sexes and even now such process is fraught with peril. My main concern for transgender folks is that there is a massive lack of acceptance of who you are in such a state and changing genders will not change that. Just because you change sexes it does not magically erase your internal struggle. This is why, IMHO, that the suicide rate in transgender is so very high. Fact is most of our discontent comes from simply not accepting who we are and trying to be someone else we are not made to be.
I see much struggle in my society between the sexes. Most of this is just friendly jibbing but some have taken it to very definite extremes. One the one hand radical feminists have proposed we live in a patriarchy still (I strongly disagree with this) and their solution is to reduce the population of men and severely curtail their rights. On the flip side is the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) community who want to discard women altogether because of the hostility ( I also disagree strongly with this). There are many positions in between. The real problem is lack of self acceptance and other acceptance. This war ends once people simply accept who they are and accept the authority they are under because of it.
The crossroads in this case is a hard one. It is not easy to look at this passage and realize that all of us fall under authority because of who we are and our choice to become Christians. This means acceptance of the authorities over us and who we are in the power of that authority. The alternative route is rebellion and self-hatred.
Paul continues on with a discussion of the people of Israel. He first cites all the wonders and glories they saw when they waked out of Egypt to freedom from slavery. He then reminds people that they went the opposite direction in that they grumbled complained and disobeyed God. They even engaged in immorality and other sins that God disciplined them quite harshly. The real problem with them is that no mater how much God came through for them they continued to make the same ‘mistakes’. Paul however never mentions the word mistake.
Instead, Paul reminds the Corinthian church that these things were written for their education and examples of what not to do. That as much as they may be tempted, there is always a way of escape. As much as they might be pressed to grumble, complain and disobey God, they have the means to not do so.
There are many lessons here but chief among them is that it is not a mistake if you keep repeating it. If you fall on your face the first time you might be able to claim ignorance or that you underestimated the temptation, but once that is don to repeat the same action knowing what will happen is no longer a mistake. Some think the result will be different this time as we can handle it. Others think that they now have a solution and others simply will not give up because of pride. Sin is like that. The pleasures of it often drive us to literal insanity. The thing is Paul’s point is that we are only victims of our own temptation. It is our will that gets us into trouble and there is no mistake involved most of the time.
Paul’s answer is to realize that there is always a way provided by God to escape. Understand that while we are free to do anything, not everything is profitable for us nor may it be edifying to the church. Remain silent for conscience sake. Finally, that one should always remember that one should always do things for the Glory of God.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
The opening teaching of the book of James is very interesting in that after a very brief introduction he gets right into addressing the fact that they, wherever they are, are facing persecution. One of the things that Christian Jewish people had to face was the fact that persecution came from two fronts. 1) as Christians they often faced persecution from the secular Roman authorities although not always and 2) The faced most of their persecution from Jews that had rejected Christ as Messiah.
James’ opening is al about encouragement about telling them to count it all joy when they fall into trials. The reason for this is very much about character development. In particular trials being about patience and that when it is perfected it means a person will not have any lack in any thing. It is a very large promise for those who suffer trials of all kinds.
Next: Testing Your Faith – Part 2 (Chapter 1:5-8)
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
I wrestled long and hard as to whether or not to give the Jerusalem Council its own part in this study. Then I thought two things. It would only have two parts, but also that it really is the capstone in many ways of Paul’s First Missionary Journey. It is a resolution of sorts to a problem that has finally reached a boiling point and it is Paul’s journey that caused the heat to be turned up so to speak. The Jerusalem Council is something that needed to happen because the issue of Gentiles in the fold of faith had been growing for some time. It is actually Peter who started the issue in Cornelius’ house; Paul simply pushed it over the edge. The practical issue was circumcision but the real big issue was how much of the Law of Moses was still to be followed by the Gentile believers.
The Council of Jerusalem comes about when some Christian brethren come down from Judea and start preaching that circumcision was necessary for someone to be a Christian. In a sense the argument is that Jesus extends the covenant of Abraham to the Gentiles but that covenant is still necessary and part of that was circumcision. Paul and Barnabas of course disagree with this vehemently. It ends with Paul and Barnabas heading to Jerusalem to plead their case. The Pharisees that have accepted Christ were leading the charge for circumcision, Paul is leading against. What should be noted is this is an internal struggle. Pharisees have come to Christ but they still had their high opinion of the Law of Moses. Paul probably does as well but he is beginning to understand that Christ has changed things far more dramatically than simply allowing Gentiles an easier way to enter God’s kingdom.
The main events of this council are the Christians who are Pharisees laying out their simple case, Paul counters but gets help from Peter who as you remember also had come under fire for going to Cornelius’ house. He takes Paul’s side of things and because of the fact he is one of the original twelve apostles and one of the close associates of Jesus himself. I think this support was ultimately what will influence the Council’s decision.
Next: James’ Judgment
I must confess I do have a large sarcastic streak in me. I have used the expression “How is That Working Out for You?” in the ministerial context many times. It gets hard sometimes when you watch good Christian people disregard what is clear in God’s word and then come to you and express their failure. I feel that Paul might have been having a moment like this when he is dealing with the Corinthian church. He has already addressed the issue of divisions in the church in a way that seems obviously “What in the world are you doing?” in its tone and it does not stop their but continues to the end of chapter one.
Paul is trying to remind the church that there have been many ways tried before to live and follow God. One can either trust signs or wisdom or you can go with God seems to be the options Paul is laying before the Corinthian church. He points out that the Jewish leaders had pursued signs and it led to the cross of Christ being foolishness to them, The Greek philosophers had pursued wisdom (something the Greek Corinthians would have understood well) but it made the cross and the resurrection foolishness to them. You only have to read Acts 17:16-34 to see an example of how this was so. The truth remains that there is always a way that seems right to us that only leads to death and there is a way God has laid before us. A Way that is not as mysterious as it seems.
Today we might want to think the Corinthians foolish but we still do the same. I know people who daily spread out their fleece before God and wait for a sign to act. They are looking for the archangel Gabriel to come and tell them what to do. What is probably frustrating to God is that many of the issues they are waiting for a sign for He has already given clear instruction about in His Word. There is no need to ask God for a sign to love, forgive or to engage in simple obedience to his clearly stated commands.
On the flip side our reason often gets in the way. We don’t see the sense or logic in what God asks us to do. Sometimes God asks of us things that require us to have faith and not always does he give us the full picture. We come up with Plan B in case what God asks us to do fails. Like the Greeks, our mind is trapping us in a false sense of what is true reality. God is not part of the picture and we fail because we can’t logically see how God has our best interests at heart.
My ultimate Goal in my Christian walk is to not her God say: “How is that Working Out for You?” Rather to hear God say ” Well Done.” To this end whenever I stand at the cross roads of looking for sign, my head racing with my own logic or listening to the clear direction of God, the choice is to take the narrow path of listening and trusting and obeying.