The Mirror in the Manger (Luke 2:25-35)

Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.

Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.

In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Calm before the Gospel Storm

I appreciate this portrayal of Christ’s Nativity by Gari Melchers, a 19th-century American artist who captures a rare moment in the life of the holy family. 

Before bug-eyed shepherds burst through the door to gawk at the mangered infant, before Magi from the East come kneeling in homage to present their costly gifts to the tiny Christ, before a nervous King Herod dispatches hardened thugs on a murderous rampage to commit deicide in Bethlehem, there’s a quiet moment of peace and stillness. 

Mary is exhausted from her labors of love. Joseph is contemplating the mysteries of all that has happened and all that lies ahead. Before them both is the baby who will change everything, not even aware of his own sacred identity and the heavenly glory that was his just nine months ago. It’s the “dawn of redeeming grace” and a moment for all to breathe. Indeed, it’s the calm before the gospel storm.

I also appreciate that the scene takes place in a house, which is likely where the incarnation happened (see my article, “Why Lies He in Such Mean Estate?”), though that’s not an issue to quibble about. Jesus came, and that’s all that matters.

Karl Whiteman has said, “I love the fun and excitement of Christmas, but I cherish the quiet moments to stop and gaze at the baby.” Amen. May all of us find moments to reflect on this profoundest of all miracles in such a busy time of year. 

Tomorrow I’ll post my own Christmas reflection for 2021, called, “Here’s Your Sign.” After that, our own church services and family celebrations will be set in motion. In the midst of it all, I’ll be looking for true peace from the Prince of Peace. How about you?

Lord Jesus, help us meet with you in the midst of all our Christmas activities, preparations, and festivities. Without you, there is no Christmas. With you, everything changes. Amen.

O Holy Night, Part 4: Chains Shall He Break (1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Ephesians 6:5-9)

It’s easy to overlook the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves. Every slave who has ever lived, then—whether in physical shackles or some other kind of bondage—has a friend in Jesus. He can identify with the struggle, which is a tremendous source of encouragement to the oppressed of this world.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His Name all oppression shall cease.

Cappeau’s reference in verse 3 of “O Holy Night” to the equality of all persons, whether slave or free, got the song banned by the church hierarchy in the early years of its popularity. Congregations all over Europe, however, sang it anyway. Such was the French revolutionary spirit. In a qualified sense, St. Paul may have agreed with that sentiment, having written to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor 7:21).

Once again, Sullivan Dwight’s theology—not Cappeau’s lyrics—drives the English translation. Dwight elevates an important biblical ethic (viz., loving others and standing against oppression), but he eliminates part of the gospel in the process. Lost in Dwight’s translation in v. 3 is:

  • The concept that Christ, the Redeemer, has already broken all shackles
  • The concept that Christ has already freed earth and opened heaven
  • The concept that Christ was born, suffered, and died for all humanity
  • The concept that gratitude is a proper response to this good news

Dwight really did a hack job on Cappeau’s lyrics. And yet what remains is true and beautiful. In this particular message, we focus on two admonitions to two groups of people: (1) to those under authority—remember the contentment of Christ; and (2) to those wielding authority—remember the kindness of Christ. Indeed, we can begin to conquer our own sense of oppression by adjusting our attitudes even before adjusting our circumstances.

In the end, we celebrate the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves to set us free. Consequently, no one who knows Jesus can ever live perpetually with a victim mentality. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 3: He Knows Our Need (Hebrews 2:9-18; 4:15-16)

Verse 2 of “O Holy Night” contains these two lines: “In all our trials born to be our Friend! / He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” These concepts are biblically true and spiritually encouraging. Once again, however, the translator’s theology, not the original lyrics, are driving the carol’s rendering into English. 

Lost in translation is the sinful pride of humanity for which Christ came to die as an atoning sacrifice. But by eliminating the reference to human brokenness, the good news is not as good as it could be. For example, it’s certainly amazing that a holy God would befriend sinful people, but that’s amazing precisely because in our natural state, we were first his enemies (cf. Rom 5:8).

What the translator did is what so many people try to do today—keep the good news of the gospel while eliminating the bad news that it answers. But if there’s no bad news, what is it that makes the good news good? The lack of a contrast renders the word “good” almost meaningless in such a context. It’s like the medical community announcing a great cure for some disease nobody has. So what?

Christmas is the announcement that God has a great cure for the spiritual disease everyone suffers from—the disease called sin. It’s a condition that manifests itself preeminently in human pride, as the author originally wrote. And pride needs to be confronted by the preaching of the gospel. So, yes, God knows our need, and let’s not minimize that need. By properly understanding it, we better appreciate God’s solution for it, and the lengths to which he went to deliver it to us on that first Christmas.

“He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” Our passages from Hebrews 2 and Hebrews 4 bear that out. God cares about our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our spiritual needs. Indeed, Christmas shows that God cares about our every need. He is attentive to our condition because he loves us. And his love for us is why he sent us his Son (John 3:16).

That’s why Jesus came. He would go on to suffer and die in our place on the cross. He made our hell his so that he could make his heaven ours. Our response of faith to such amazing grace is to “walk as Jesus walked” in this regard. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward other people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We serve humanity because the ultimate human served us. To our weakness that ultimate human—Jesus—is no stranger. So let us not be a stranger to him.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 2: And the Soul Felt Its Worth (Matthew 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12)

Do you feel valuable? Significant? Important? Not in the sense of an over inflated ego or an attitude of superiority toward others—but in the sense that you matter, that your presence here on Earth is significant, that when you make a footprint in the sand it means something?

We meet people on a regular basis who are down on themselves, down on hope, and down on life. And, really, all of us have some regrets, disappointments, failures, and wrong turns that we’ve made in our day. Consequently, as life unfolds, we sometimes feel used, abused, abandoned, and confused. We feel cheapened. Sometimes we even feel worthless.

Life has a way of leaving its skid marks on our soul. It has a way of drawing its map on our face, and those lines cut deeply—not only into the skin, but into the heart. Sometimes it’s because other people have been cruel to us. Sometimes it’s because life has simply dealt us an unfair hand. Sometimes it’s because we ourselves have made poor choices.

We get involved in worthless pursuits, and over time we feel worthless ourselves. As it says in verse 1 of “O Holy Night,” “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” Sometimes it gets so bad for us personally, we don’t even feel valuable to God any more, the one who made us. We say things like…

  • “God could never love me.”
  • “God could never be pleased with me.”
  • “After what I’ve done, God could never consider me valuable.”

Such thoughts are understandable, but they’re also wrong. Three times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus states that human beings are “valuable” (Matt 6:26, 10:29-31, 12:11-12). Moreover, the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. I first learned that lesson on eBay about 10 years ago. I was trying to get a few things from my childhood Christmas—silly decorations, like ShinyBrite Christmas ornaments, little red pixie dolls, Santa pins with noses that light up when you pull the string. I kept getting outbid, so I wound up going to my maximum bid right away. I refused to be outbid by anybody! 

Now, all of those objects were old, dirty, and defective, and probably meaningless to most people—but I was willing to pay top dollar for them. Why? Because I wanted them. They were valuable to me. If the value of something is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it, then look at what God himself was willing to pay for us. When we begin to do that, we quickly realize that God could not have paid a higher price for us than he did.

God the Father bankrupted heaven for us on that first Christmas. That’s why Christmas happened in the first place. God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. We can all be glad the song doesn’t end with, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.” It goes on to say, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Take a listen to this message, and dare to believe that your soul can feel its worth, too!

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

O Holy Night, Part 1: From Muddled Mess to Beauty (Isaiah 40:1-5, 61:1-3)

The hauntingly tender Christmas carol “O Holy Night” has a strange and fascinating history. Indeed, the version we have in our hymnbooks today was the result of a joint effort among individuals who would by no stretch be considered orthodox Christians. 

  • The lyrics were written by a lapsed Catholic.
  • The score was written by a non-practicing Jew.
  • The piece was first sung in public by a popular opera singer.
  • The English translation came from a transcendentalist who denied basic biblical doctrine.
  • The official church hierarchy originally opposed the song even though congregations loved it and demanded that it be sung.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how this alluring carol came to our ears today. Yet for all the twists and turns in its strange and bumpy journey—not to mention its wildly loose translation into English—the result is truly beautiful. In fact, it’s just not a Christmas Eve service if we don’t sing “O Holy Night.”

The carol itself, then, can be seen as a helpful illustration of life itself. We, too, experience many zigs and zags on the way to our divinely intended destination. But God can take the broken pieces of our lives and shape them into a beautiful mosaic.

We do much the same with stained glass windows. We gather sharp and broken pieces of colored glass and fit them together with design and intentionality to tell the Jesus story. The God of the universe does the same with his people. He tells the story of Jesus and his love through the order and design he brings to our chaotic lives. God’s gracious work in us is “a thrill of hope” for which “the weary world rejoices.”

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Christ Community, Part 6: The Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came. 

•  With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.

•  With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.

•  With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.

•  With his feet he went to their side to be with them.

•  With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.

•  With his voice he spoke God’s word to them

In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand. 

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.

•  We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the ears of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the heart of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the feet of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the hands of Jesus on earth.

•  We are the voice of Jesus on earth.

Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

“Big Enough to Be Small” (Philippians 2:5-11)

People don’t usually look for ways to get demoted. They try to go up the ladder of success not down. But if the eternal Son of God had a birthday on that first Christmas, it was a voluntary choice for demotion. It was the ultimate pay cut. It was the ultimate story of riches to rags. And he did it willingly. The Creator willingly became part of his creation. The Master Artist willingly became part of his painting. The Eternal One willingly became part history and subject to time. The One who is called in John’s gospel “the Light” took off his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin, winding up in Bethlehem’s manger two thousand years ago. The Apostle Paul’s Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”) in Philippians 2:5-11 describes just how low he went. And then how high. It’s a summary of his full journey. 

The Swiss theologian Emil Bruner was the first to suggest that we can represent this three-fold movement of our Lord’s ministry using the mathematical formula of a parabola (y = x2), a journey from glory to humiliation, and back to glory again. This Christmas Eve sermon focuses on the first part of Jesus’ parabola. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be?  T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus! He was big enough to be small. Indeed, he made the crucial decision to have a birthday in Bethlehem, leaving the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress. 

After his atoning death on the cross, God the Son rose from the dead to give his people a “new birth” day. “Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.” Indeed, God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. And now he lives inside his people by the Holy Spirit. Lest you think you’re not worthy to have Christ come and live inside of you, consider all the dark and dreadful places he’s already been, all the places he’s already chosen to go: The dark womb of a teenager. The rough manger of Bethlehem. The red-light district of Nazareth. The corrupt temple in Jerusalem. The flogging post of a Roman torture yard. The bloody cross of Mount Calvary. The dark, damp ledge of the garden tomb. Do you think Jesus could be surprised by any dirt or darkness he might find in your in your own heart? No—that dirt and darkness is precisely why he came. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Give him your sin, and he will give you his divine life. Merry Christmas.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus

God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick. 

Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.

Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him. 

No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us. 

Are we listening? 

The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.

For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before. 

We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this: 

Men are homesick in their homes 
And strangers under the sun…
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where Christmas was begun.

If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator. 

God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.

Even if you’re a wizard.


Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.

Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!

Image Credits: shutterstok.com; shepherdthoughts.com; countryliving.com.

Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God

From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day. 

We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained. 

After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.

Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.

Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.

Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen. 

In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:

I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve. 

“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.

Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.

Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.

Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are? 

Image Credits: shutter stock.com.

Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.”
– Al Stillman


No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message? 

In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed, the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!

After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…

  • His life showed us how to live. 
  • His death made us ready to die. 
  • His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end. 

At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.

Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).

That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby! 

It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was the ultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God. 

As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.

So, welcome to Jesus.

And welcome home.

Image Credits: shutterstockcom; wallpapers.fansshare.com; theconversation.com; studios.vidangel.com/the-chosen/.

Jesus, the Preemie

When our kids were younger, we always wanted to help them remember that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. Everything else—the gifts, the lights, the dinner, the travel, the parties—was a celebration of that. To assist in this effort, we would set up the nativity scene with everything in it—except baby Jesus.

Every morning leading up to Christmas Day, I would take them past the manger and ask, “Is baby Jesus here yet?” It created a sense of anticipation, the kind for which Advent is well known. Finally, when the big day arrived, and we all saw that Jesus was now in his manger, we could celebrate, exchange gifts, and make merry. 

I suppose I made it a bit worse by insisting we read Matthew 2:1-12 around the tree before the first gift was opened. It takes less than two minutes to do so, but eager kids can say with their faces, “Dad, we already know the story,” even if, out of respect, they don’t use words. Message received. But we always read the story, anyway. We still do, astonished that it’s Jesus’ birthday, but we get the gifts. The very practice itself gives us a whiff of the gospel.

Last year gave us a dilemma. The family rule says, “No gifts until baby Jesus is in the manger, and no baby Jesus is in the manger until Christmas Day.” But family and work schedules required that we hold our gift exchange on Christmas Eve. What to do? We actually had a serious theological discussion about it!

I proposed that we consider Jesus a preemie. That is, he would come earlier than expected that year, allowing us to celebrate a day in advance. Would that be bending the rule too much? Some thought it did, so I offered an alternative rationale. In Jewish reckoning, the new day begins at sundown, so we could legitimately hasten the arrival of Christmas by about six hours—just what we needed to make the holiday schedule work.

Problem solved. And the family rule stayed intact. 

Silliness aside, those ponderings got me to thinking about the non-romantic aspects of Jesus’ birth—the parts that don’t make it onto the gold-foil Christmas cards with glittered edges. Things like diapers. Placenta. Giving birth 90 miles away from your home. Strange visitors and bug-eyed prophets showing up out of the blue to gawk at your baby. Political machinations behind the scenes putting your child at risk. The first Christmas was no picnic. 

Jesus was born “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), but Mary probably didn’t have a specific due date in mind. Did Jesus—from her perspective—come earlier or later than expected? Was he, in fact, born prematurely? When he was born, how much did he weigh? Did he have hair? Was he jaundiced? What would his Apgar score be had he been born in our day? We don’t know for sure, but the questions themselves highlight the earthiness of it all. His conception was miraculous, but his birth took place in a most ordinary way. 

As such, Jesus stands in solidarity with babies of all kinds, including preemies. Including those who, like me, were unwanted at birth and placed in an orphanage from day one. Whenever I see a TV commercial for a children’s hospital, I think about emptying my bank account and sending them everything I have. “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.” He used to be one.

As noted in a previous post, the Incarnation puts me on overload. I can never fully get my mind around it. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I can just enjoy what God has done for us, and try to love him in return. Moreover, I can live with less-than-perfect devotionals that have already been written for this year. Be looking for them toward the end of next week if you like.

  • “Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World”
  • “Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God”
  • “God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus”

Until then, be a child at heart. For of such is the kingdom of God (Luke 18:16).

Image Credits: renestance.com; pexels.com.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.

Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.

The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours. 

Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.

Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.

Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.

Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.

Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.

King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?

The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). 

I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came. 

We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
the Lord make his face shine upon you 
and be gracious to you; 
the Lord turn his face toward you 
and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).

Amen.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 4: The Colors

We continue our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” the portrayal of a hypothetical encounter between the two main mothers of Scripture—the mother of the human race and the mother of the new human race. The descendants of the former are spiritually broken and stand in need of redemption; the offspring of the latter is spiritually perfect and thus stands able to serve as humanity’s redeemer. The colors in the sketch assist the artist in telling the story.

Eve is covered in her own beautiful brown hair, and brown is the color of the earth. In fact, the garden floor in this sketch is also brown. It’s the earth from which Adam was created by God. Eve, who was derived from Adam, was therefore made of the same “stuff” as Adam. As such, Eve is of the earth, and to the earth she will return in death because of her sin (Gen 3:19).

On a side note, what Eve is wearing underneath her hair is not immediately apparent in the sketch, but Scripture tells us it would have been the garment of skin that God had made for her so her shame and nakedness could be covered. God replaced the garment of leaves she made with her own hands with a more suitable covering made by his own (Gen 3:21). The theological point is that salvation is never rooted in human effort; it is always rooted in divine grace. Self-salvation is no salvation at all.

And do note that it was God who drew first blood on the planet, not Cain. God sacrificed the life of one of his own creatures so that Eve could be spared the imminent death sentence she rightly deserved. Somewhere in the garden, a bloody carcass lay dead because of Eve’s sin (and God’s mercy in covering that sin). 

Mary is covered in a garment of snowy white, which is the color of purity. In Catholic theology, Mary’s purity is due to her own “immaculate conception” in her mother’s womb, preserving her from spiritual depravity. In Protestant theology, however, Mary is a member of the fallen human race like any other woman. As such, she needs a Savior, too (cf. Luke 1:47). Her purity comes from the fact that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I hold to the latter view, as the former is a late theological development with no biblical warrant. 

In any event, the white garment signifies that just as Mary is made pure by the gracious presence of Christ in her, so the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, can make Eve and her descendants pure, too—but only through the cross, which also makes an appearance in the sketch.

In addition to her white robe, Mary is also draped in a blue head scarf, and blue is the color of the skies and/or heavens. She herself is not from heaven, but she carries the one who is—Jesus, “the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:14-49). Ominously, her headscarf forms a crown in the shape of a cross, which corresponds to the awful prophecy Simeon gave Mary just after the birth of Jesus: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). 

Eve’s “crown,” on the other hand, is earthy brown—a row of curls made by her own tainted fingers. It’s a hint, perhaps, at the crown of thorns that will go on to encircle the head of Christ in his atoning work on the cross. But notice further that the blue cross seems to flow like living water down Mary’s shoulders and back, directly toward the head of the serpent. The crafty beast will soon get what’s coming to him.

The fair skin of the women is not historically accurate. They would have been much browner in tone, Easterners as they were. I suspect the fair skin represents an application of the universal biblical story to the specific race of the artist—an acceptable practice if applied across the board with equal acceptance. That is, were the artist non-Caucasian, Eve and Mary might well be portrayed in that artist’s race, too. “Red, and yellow, black, and white—they are precious in his sight.”

The garden arch is predominantly green, which speaks of life, abundance, and divine goodness, a theme discussed in the previous post. Moreover, the archway is lush with ruddy-yellow fruit, an indication of the kindness, grace, and provisions of the generous God who gave it. He delights in giving good gifts to his children. The single forbidden fruit in Eve’s right hand is solid red, distinguishing it from the copious good fruit made available to her throughout Eden. The serpent is green, too, because it’s a living creature, but it also features dark splotches, an indication of its sinister intentions toward God’s treasured child.

Best of all, the encounter takes place in a yellow-gold light, one that illuminates the entire scene. This color can represent both royalty and divinity, so the stage is awash in the presence of God. That presence envelops both Mary and Eve. Moreover, the in utero Christ is “Emmanuel,” God with us. The point is that God is here. He is in this scene despite the presence of the sinner and the serpent. He has not been put off. He has not abandoned his people.

The implication is that God is with us in our moments of failure and shame (as represented by Eve) as well as our moments of faithfulness and obedience (as represented by Mary). He does not run away. Rather, he pursues us with his “goodness and mercy…all the days of our lives” (Ps 23:6). 

That pursuit took Jesus to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane, where he “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Quite significantly, the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord in the garden before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken (cf. John 10:17-18). 

God sacrificed the life of his only Son so that we could be covered by him and spared the imminent death sentence we rightly deserved, similar to what happened in Eden. One hymn writer described it like this: “Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.” The result is what the Apostle Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49:

“The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

In other words, we can go from earthly brown to heavenly blue, wearing snowy white—all because the golden Christ once became bloody red for us.

No wonder Mary is comforting Eve.

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.

Mary Comforts Eve, Part 3: The Fruit

We’re reflecting on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple pencil-and-crayon sketch portraying a hypothetical encounter between the two towering matriarchs of the human race according to the Christian Scriptures. My comments are from the perspective of a Protestant evangelical pastor and seminary prof with an appreciation for what this Catholic nun has produced, even though our views on Mary and the church will not always align completely. No matter: it is my privilege to learn from (and be blessed by) others.

Remington does not consider herself to be a professional artist. She simply likes to doodle while thinking and studying. She got the idea for this piece while pondering the differences between Mary and Eve. Interestingly enough, the practice of Bible journaling art has taken off among evangelicals in the last decade or so. In an age of ubiquitous online memes, this practice is a welcome trend, and getting started is not difficult. I’m not an accomplished artist, but I can’t study the Bible without a pencil in my hand, either. There’s a treasure trove of truth gems in the canon to sort out. Some of these gems make their way into Remington’s sketch.

The scene portrays three kinds of fruit, two of which are in plain sight. First, there is the good fruit of Eden, scattered throughout the garden archway. It’s important to note that there’s much more good fruit available to Eve than the one bad fruit she wound up eating. As noted in a recent post, God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God, and generosity is seen as a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees with fruit were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Celebrate the goodness of good in this divinely intended imbalance: God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotchety God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

Alas, Eve ate the one bad fruit of Eden, which is the second fruit visible in the picture. This fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). What made it bad was not its internal composition but the fact that God said it was off limits to Eve. In the sketch, she is still clutching the forbidden fruit, which brings with it all the miseries of guilt, shame, and despair (as seen in her downcast, blushing expression), as well as crippling bondage and eventual death (as seen in her legs, which are encoiled by the serpent).

Every descendant of Eve, save one, has experienced this sense of guilt, shame, despair, and bondage. Such is the beguiling nature of sin. We want what we want, and we take what we want, ignoring the clear instruction of our kind and generous God. Consequently, we are justly placed under the sentence of death for our spiritual treason. “In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Is there no hope? Is there no way out? Is the human race irreversibly doomed? Blessedly, God’s grace is much greater than human rebellion.

The way out is the third fruit in the Remington sketch, the fruit of Mary’s womb, soon to be born. “Blessed are you among women,” said Elizabeth, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary’s fruit—Jesus—is the way out. Indeed, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is our hope. He is our deliverer. He is our salvation from guilt, shame, despair, bondage, and death. In fact, Mary’s fruit is the fulfillment of the protoeuangelion in Genesis 3:15. Jesus is the good fruit that can undo the effects of the bad fruit.

And yet on the cross, Mary’s fruit looked exactly opposite of Eve’s fruit. The crucified Christ was seen as worthless, not pleasing to the eye, and foolish—another messianic pretender who got himself killed. But Scripture tells us he was wounded for our transgression. He was bruised for our iniquity. Our punishment was upon him. And by his stripes, we are healed (cf. Isa 53).

Both women in the scene are looking at each other’s fruit. Eve gazes at Mary’s fruit—the fruit of the coming Christ, while Mary gazes at Eve’s fruit—the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While only Eve touches the fruit of the tree, both women touch Mary’s belly since both need that fruit for their own salvation. And both are mothers of Christ, the good fruit who “comes to make his blessing known far as the curse is found.”

Part 1: The Gasp
Part 2: The Encounter
Part 3: The Fruit
Part 4: The Colors
Part 5: The Hands, Feet, and Faces

Image Credits: elledecor.com; illustratedprayer.org.