Jesus & the Story of God

On Sunday, I mentioned that the story and the scriptures of the Old Testament are all throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Because of this, Richard Hays compares Matthew to an annotated study Bible.

Hays focuses on 13 places where Matthew points to the Hebrew scriptures in clear, can’t-miss terms. If in Matthew’s day they had invented sharpies and oversized print, he might have used them in these 13 places.

On Sunday, I pointed to 3 of those 13. The first is in Matthew 1.22-23, just after the angel tells Joseph who Mary is carrying in her womb. “All this took place,” Matthew writes, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

I then spent some time highlighting two others (Matthew 2.15, 17-18). That leaves ten more. All key passages, all beginning with some form of the phrase: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet…. 

Matthew 2.5-6: Herod calls together the religious scholars to find out where Jesus had been born. They point him to Bethlehem, for this what we read in Micah 5.1-3.

Matthew 2.23: Though he was born in Bethlehem, he is raised in Nazareth – for this was spoken by the prophets, Matthew says.

So, five of the 13 references come at the beginning of Jesus’ life – indicating Matthew’s clear desire early on to connect this child Jesus to God’s Great Story. Jesus is clearly a vital part of what God is doing, and the wise reader will not simply gather around the nativity, but “read backwards” to better understand just who this child is.

Matthew 3.3: Along comes John the Baptizer, and Matthew wastes no time in tying him to the prophet Isaiah. John is the voice crying out: Prepare the way for the LordSo, before Jesus makes his first ministry appearance, Isaiah (through John) is letting us know: The Lord is coming.

Matthew 4.14-16: When Jesus begins his ministry in the region around the Sea of Galilee, Matthew again ties in the prophet Isaiah. He says that through Jesus a Great Light is coming, right in the midst of the darkness. So, this is the 7th of 13 clear references to the OT – and they all shine a spotlight on Jesus. Clearly, everything changes with Jesus.

Matthew 8.17: Jesus takes up our infirmities.

Matthew 12.17-21: This quote, again from Isaiah, makes it very clear: Jesus didn’t come for some limited, only-among-my-kind-of-people ministry. His coming brings hope to the Gentiles – the non-Jewish, outside-of-the-covenant people that fill the world. Jesus came among the Jews, but Matthew, relying on Isaiah, makes it clear that Jesus’ message is meant to reach every man, woman, and child across the globe.

Matthew 13.14-15: Jesus compares his disciples with the crowd. The disciples see and hear; the crowds do not. This has been prophesied, Matthew says – perhaps a glimpse at the way many of Jesus’ own people will not “see” who he really is.

Matthew 13.35: Those parables of Jesus reveal what has been hidden since the foundation of the world – which means: they are probably worth listening to, and learning from.

Matthew 21.4-5: Jesus is entering Jerusalem as a king, as THE king. The Messiah is coming, and within that pivotal week, those who have eyes to see will learn exactly what that means.

Matthew 27.9: The last “what was spoken by the prophet” is about Judas, and his betrayal of Jesus. Kind of interesting one to conclude with, but perhaps a clear pointer to the need for each person to decide: Who do I say Jesus is?

In fact, that’s the point of this season. Strip away the presents, the wrapping, the parties, the glitz & glitter of the season, and what’s left? Jesus. The one the prophets pointed toward. The one who has come to continue, and complete, the story that God is writing.

5 Christmas Gifts

I’m not sure what follows can be called Christmas gifts, exactly. They’re not. Unless … unless, words, ideas, and hopes can be gifts that point us to what is real, lasting, and true. And since I believe that the best gifts are not usually the ones under the tree, here are five different “gifts” that speak to me, just in time for Christmas. Maybe they’ll speak to you, too.

“Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked No Entrance and left through a door marked No Exit.”  Peter Larson

Is it all sewn up–my life?

Is it at this point so predictable

so orderly,

so neat,

so arranged,

so right,

that I don’t have time or space

for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings

or running to stables to see a baby?

Could this be what he meant when he said

Listen, those who have ears to hear…

Look, those who have eyes to see?

O God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds

who saw in the cold December darkness

the Coming of Light

the Advent of Love!

“To Listen, To Look” – Anne Weems

Where, O where is the child we seek?

In the stories of the aging,

In the kick of the unborn,

In the eyes of the homeless,

In the hearts of the broken.

“The Three Kings” – Simeon Swinger

The last two “gifts” are links you’ll have to click on to “unwrap.” One, is a Christmas song by Over the Rhine I heard for the first time just today. As Linford Detweiler sings, “I’ve committed every sin, and each one leaves a different scar. …I could use a Guiding Star.”

Finally, I loved this blog post that addresses the question, “What does Jesus want this Christmas?” His answer may surprise you, but I can’t help but think, deep down, he is right.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas Traditions

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things was having my aunt come visit us at Christmas. She lived in the frozen tundra of Buffalo, NY, and so I’m guessing she didn’t mind heading south to the (relative) warmth of balmy St. Louis. I remember with great anticipation standing at the baggage carousel, waiting for her luggage to slide down the metal ramp — for she always brought Christmas treats. Some of it we could eat (like amazing sponge candySponge Candy, a Buffalo specialty), and some of it was wrapped, ready to be opened and enjoyed.

Christmas is truly a time for tradition and holiday memories. I have a friend who grew up in a setting where traditions were a bit different than what I experienced. As he described it, he didn’t have any church- or faith-based traditions in his family. The tradition he remembered, he said, was making sure he picked up the right Coke on the table, smelling it, so that he got just Coke – and not Coke and Jack. He also mentioned another tradition he remembered: watching his grandma cook while smoking, and hoping the ash from her cigarette didn’t fall into the food she was preparing. When it did, she would curse as she got a ladle and scooped it out.

Ah, Christmas memories. We all have them. Some good. Some not. But all memorable.

In a recent email, I asked folks some of their traditions. They were all tamer, and perhaps less interesting, then the one I just mentioned:

(My wife’s) family has everyone sit in a circle and open all of the presents one by one as people sit and watch. I have no idea how to react because my family would NEVER have done this. So I’ve had to learn how to fake being super excited about socks without coming off as sarcastic.

In my family we have always done advent with a small devotion and singing a few songs together every night. My parents would spice it up at times (or maybe they were just trying to find something to convince teenagers to come spend family time) by having a special snack or dessert with advent. When my younger siblings were little they would play with a nativity scene toy during advent and they always wanted to tell the Christmas story in their own words.
We started doing advent with (our oldest daughter) a couple of years ago, and now both girls love it. Not only does it help us put the focus back on Christ, it forces us to slow down for a few minutes and enjoy a little bit of family time.

We bake a birthday cake for Jesus and have it for breakfast. We stay in our pajamas all day on Christmas day and never leave the house. We buy each of the kids one big gift and then we spend the rest of our Christmas budget on a family trip. The kids will open up clues (a puzzle, a riddle, etc) and then collectively try to figure out what the trip is. The way we figure it, our kids will have many more lasting memories of the time we spent together doing something fun rather than the stuff they got.

So, what Christmas traditions do you remember? Better yet, what Christmas traditions are you starting? Are they the kind that help you, and those you love, remember the Reason for the Season?

Top Ten Christmas Memories

Around our house, today (Dec 23) is known as Christmas Adam. Ok, nobody else calls it that; but I do. Why? Because tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Of course!

As I think about Christmas, some memories come quickly to mind. I’ll bet that’s true for you, too. But, since this is my blog, I get to list my favorite ones. If you have ones you’d like to share, feel free to comment below. (Or get your own blog.)

So, in the spirit of the retiring David Letterman (he does look kind of like an elf, doesn’t he?), here are my best Christmas memories, in reverse order:

10. Having kids who are now old enough not to get up at 6am to open presents.

9. When they were younger, going with my kids on Christmas eve or day to visit with folks in the nursing home.

8. Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love that movie, and if you catch me at the right time, I just might do my best Jimmy Stewart impersonation.

7. 1968. It was my first Christmas. I don’t remember it, as I was born just a week before Christmas came. But my mom wasn’t supposed to have me until January, and since I came early, she hadn’t yet bought gifts for my four older brothers and sisters. So she sent my dad out on Christmas eve, and he came back with one present for the three oldest kids. My 20-month-old sister didn’t even get a gift; I guess she was young enough, so my parents figured she wouldn’t know — and my parents were living on mission support at the time. So, I pretty much messed up my first Christmas. But my siblings still love me. I think.

6. When my son was a toddler, we got him a train table. As I recall, I spent a lot of time on Christmas eve putting it together. Since you can’t wrap a train table, we covered it with a blanket. When my girls were looking at it, we asked them what they thought was under the blanket. Sophie, who was probably six, whispered her suggested “answer” to her little sister, which Ruth Ann promptly parroted back to us. What’s under the blanket? “Lemon pie,” she said. Huh?

5. When I was a teenager, we had a blue Volkswagen Van that was on its last legs (or tires, I guess). The heat wasn’t working in that old car, and I remember riding to Christmas eve service with my toes frozen. Don’t remember anything about the service, but I sure was glad to get into the warm sanctuary.

4. When I was in college, my sister and I snuck out of the house to go to Midnight Mass. What? Well, growing up in the Christian Church, I had never experienced mass, and I thought I would see what it was like on Christmas eve. And because it was late, and I didn’t want to worry my parents, I snuck out. Really.

3. Aunt Dorothy’s visits. She never married, and had no family of her own, so Aunt Dorothy would often visit us over Christmas. I loved going to pick her up at the airport, and waiting anxiously for the box of presents and candy she had brought to slide down the luggage chute. One of the things Aunt Dorothy would bring was sponge candy from where she lived in Buffalo. Our family loved that stuff — and wouldn’t you know, for the past two Christmases, I have received sponge candy as a present. It’s the perfect combination of chocolate, sugar, and stickiness. If you are ever in Buffalo, you really ought to try some.

2. One year, as our kids opened a present that was meant for all of them, my oldest, as she began to realize what it was, exclaimed: You mean you guys actually spent real money on us this year?!

1. Getting to share with those I love the power and the promise of the season: Jesus has come, and he is the light of the world!

Merry Christmas!