The myths of Christmas

Christmas is a date surrounded by myths, legends, and falsehoods. Worst of all, it’s a date into which the birth of Christ was inserted out of sequence. It’s certain that Jesus was not born during this time of year. But, ironically, the fact of his birth is what is most true, out of all the things that people think about during Christmas.

The myths could be easily resolved with a light reading of the New Testament, actually, of the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the story of Jesus on earth.

What is most worrisome is what the yuletide myths say about religion. Continue reading “The myths of Christmas”

Weighing for the Trip

by J. Randal Matheny
luggage.jpgAirlines have lowered their baggage weight limits and tightened their restrictions. Whenever we return to Brazil after weeks in the U.S., we usually take back clothing, gifts and even a small piece of home or office equipment at times.
These days, however, it’s harder to take back much more than the essentials. As my wife packed the bags for our return from our last trip, she weighed the individual items before packing them, so we’d not have to redistribute them when the bags exceeded their weight limit. The system worked well.
Perhaps we need to do the same in our spiritual journey.
As we take our flight toward eternity, it would do us well to take a measure of what we carry with us.
On this flight, only the weighter items are permitted.
Such as the weightier matters, justice and mercy and faithfulness, that Jesus listed in Matthew 23:23.
Of course, in this sense, “weightier” means “more important.” Those things that matter most, that give sense to the details of mint and dill and cumin.
On the other hand, there are some weights that won’t make it when we present ourselves for the final flight.
The cares of this world will keep you from flying: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34 ESV).
Not just worry about to-do lists weigh a person down. Lack of self-control — giving oneself to loose living –, while on the surface appearing as the carefree life, is actually a heavy burden to bear.
And the writer of Hebrews in 12:1 mentioned others: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.”
Under the figure of running a race — another activity where lightness is important –, any weight that gets in your way of finishing must be thrown aside. Sin is a tripper-upper. Or in our flight metaphor, a red flag that will get you pulled out of the boarding line, so it has no place in your baggage either.
On the spiritual journey toward heaven, then, it would appear that not the weight but the nature of the poundage is what really matters.
Pile in the good and right and just and holy. These are waved through with a smile.
Don’t even think of trying to hide sin and hate and care and vice under your shirts and slacks. These trigger the celestial x-rays every time.
What weights are you packing?

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To See the Face of God

“As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.”
Psalm 17:15 NASV
Perhaps Philip was thinking of this verse when he said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content” (John 14:8 NET).
Both contexts deal with betrayal and treachery. One, an appeal for God to act and deal with his enemies. The second, betrayal and denial by the Lord’s own disciples.
The first, an affirmation of trust; the second, a request of great desire.
Both David and Philip knew that no man could see God. But they desired and expected some divine manifestation of God that would indicate his personal presence and powerful action in their behalf.
Jesus in the flesh is the answer to Philip’s request (John 14:9-10). He should have seen it by now.
Jesus on the cross is the answer to David’s morning awakening. There righteousness reigned supreme, the enemy was vanquished and God’s face came near to man’s heart.
Jesus’ back-and-forth between heaven and earth, his ascending to heaven and coming again to take us to be with him, is no shuttle diplomacy, but the final solution to living in the Father’s house.
In the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup, we see the face of God, proclaim the coming of Christ and rejoice in the satisfaction of seeing his likeness.
For what David expected and Philip requested are now ours to enjoy.

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Shotguns, Rifles and Spiritual Service

by J. Randal Matheny
A shotgun ejects a group of pellets into an ever-widening pattern. It provides a better chance at hitting the target. A rifle shoots a single projectile that must be completely accurate in its aim.
One site describes the difference this way. “With a wider stream of potentially deadly projectiles, a shotgun is like using a can of spray paint if a rifle is like using a felt-tip pen. As long as the target is within its effective range, a shotgun will give you a much better chance of making critical contact with one pull of the trigger.”
There are other important differences; this contrast, however, serves my illustration. Basically, rifles are designed for accuracy to hit a precise point, usually at a greater distance. Shotguns send a spread of shot at moving targets at closer range. Both have their uses and advantages.
Spiritual service may also take a shotgun approach or a rifle aim.
I’ve often taken consolation and inspiration in Ecclesiastes 11:2, 6: “Divide your merchandise among seven or even eight investments, for you do not know what calamity may happen on earth. … Sow your seed in the morning, and do not stop working until the evening; for you do not know which activity will succeed — whether this one or that one, or whether both will prosper equally” (NET).
Or, as the old adage goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
But there’s more here than the caution against losing it all in one swoop. The multi-pronged approach sees manifold opportunities for success and positive influence.
If I could, I’d prefer being the rifleman rather than using the shotgun. I know which cartridge I’d chamber in the barrel. But time and circumstances appear to favor spreading out the spiritual efforts in a myriad of ministries.
So here in Brazil we do not only evangelism and church planting, but leadership training, youth camp ministry, children’s home board participation, seminars in congregations on various subjects, print publications including magazines, hymnals and books, writing, Internet ministry, personal counseling, lectureship speaking, among other things. (I’m sure I’m forgetting something.)
On the mission field, there are fewer people, fewer resources, fewer gifts and talents to count on.
But both approaches, rifle and shotgun, are valid, depending on the need.
Though I certainly don’t accuse them of being one-talent people, silver bullets were fired by Leroy Brownlow’s book, “Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ;” Jule Miller’s filmstrips; William C. Hatcher’s book, “Circles of Truth;” the World Bible School correspondence courses; Gospel Advocate magazine; the “Monday Night for the Master” program; the “House to House – Heart to Heart” mailing; among a host of rifle-accurate ministries.
Point being: understand the need of your moment, find your approach, discover your gift, take aim.
And pull the trigger.

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Selective Zeal

by J. Randal Matheny
Selective hearing, especially on the part of children or husbands, is a common phenomenon. One hears what one wants to hear and ignores the rest. “Take out the trash,” is one of those phrases that gets tuned out. “Do your homework,” has to be repeated. But say, “There’s ice cream in the freezer,” and reception is crystal clear. Or proclaim that one’s best friend called and the hearer makes a beeline for the telephone.
Zeal also suffers from selectivity. Zeal is an intensity of feeling toward a person or principle. It may be a virtue or take a turn for the bad, as in envy.
Jehu exemplified selective zeal. After he was anointed king over Israel and heard the prophecy that he would destroy the family of Ahab, he systematically pursued and killed all the former king’s descendants. As he carried out his gruesome task, Jehonadab found him and joined him. Jehu told him, “Come with me and see how zealous I am for the Lord’s cause” (2 Kings 10:16 NET).
The new ruler exterminated the rest of Ahab’s family in Samaria and eradicated Baal worship from Israel by killing all the false god’s prophets. In his 28-year reign Jehu did well, but his zeal wasn’t as white hot as he professed. “Jehu did not repudiate the sins which Jeroboam son of Nebat had encouraged Israel to commit: the golden calves remained in Bethel and Dan” (2 Kings 10:29).
Thus, the inspired writer recorded that “Jehu did not carefully and wholeheartedly obey the law of the Lord God of Israel. He did not repudiate the sins which Jeroboam had encouraged Israel to commit” (v. 31).
The killing of Ahab’s family and the extermination of Baal worship helped Jehu to consolidate control over the kingdom of Israel. While God’s will agreed with Jehu’s desires, he was zealous. He was quick to act. He was thorough. He was decisive.
But when the law of God didn’t further his own purposes, Jehu relaxed. He didn’t think it a priority. Leave that for someone else to take care of. Jehu’s zeal cooled off.
Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6 to tell the religious expert the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). The first commandment urges us to a zealous, intense love that gives all, obeys fully, makes every effort to please the Lord.
Our zeal cannot be selective and still please God. No giving up all ungodly relationships except that one that gives us special pleasure. No repentance from sins except that one which has its tentacles wrapped tightly around the heart. No obedience except when it becomes inconvenient. No godliness until the pressure becomes intense.
Zeal means rooting out all idolatry in the heart, putting an end to all sinful relationships, doing what is right in face of all opposition, insisting on truth when all opinions go against you.
Be warned: zeal that doesn’t pick and choose is dangerous. When Jesus cleansed the temple, the disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me” (John 2:17).
Zeal will cause you to do unpopular things, to take shocking action. And it will lead to a cross (v. 18-22).
But like the non-selective zeal of Christ, ours will erupt in resurrection on the other side. In glory for the zealous. In exaltation to the right hand of the Father for the completely obedient.
So let us not spare the horses as we race our chariots not only to Jezreel and Samaria, but to Bethel and Dan as well.

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The Echoes of Mount Carmel

by J. Randal Matheny
“From there he traveled to Mount Carmel and then back to Samaria.” –2 Kings 2:25 NET
Elisha had just lost his mentor. He’d insisted on following him from Gilgal to Bethel, to Jericho, and then to the Jordan, where he saw the fiery prophet swept up into heaven. Elisha crossed back over the Jordan River and went to Jericho where he cured the city’s water supply. From there he went up to Bethel and on the way called down God’s judgment on 42 unrespectful boys.
A map is helpful just now. From Bethel Elisha goes to Mount Carmel and then to Samaria. This is a major zigzag, not unlike when the airline company, as they are wont to do inexplicable malabarisms, sent my son from Memphis to Chicago for his flight south to Brazil. But Elisha did not have a fickle airline charting his route. He chose to go to Mount Carmel. The question is why there, why now?
The text quoted above does not answer our question. It merely mentions that Elisha traveled to Mount Carmel. Any idea as to why must therefore be put in the realm of conjecture. We are on dangerous ground here. Any time we start conjecturing we must tread carefully. Yet. And yet, the time and place are both suggestive, when we remember the mountain’s previous mention in Scripture. 1 Kings 18. Elijah confronts Baal’s prophets in a fiery showdown before all Israel. Both 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah closed ranks against him.
It is the Carmelian confrontation that is also responsible, indirectly, for Elisha’s anointment as prophet. From the heights of Carmel, Elijah runs for his life, fearing the wrath of Queen Jezebel. In a desert cave some miles from Beer Sheba, afraid and depressed, Elijah saw manifestations of the Lord and received mandate to pick back up his work, anointing Elisha, among other tasks.
Carmel was the watershed. Besides a great victory for Israel, it marked the beginning of the end of Elijah’s ministry. There the seeds were sown for Elisha to assume his place. When Elijah was calling down fire from heaven, Elisha was farming.
It would appear safe to conclude, therefore, that, before beginning his ministry in earnest, Elisha wants to tread the spot where his predecessor made his greatest stand. And whence he ran in fear.
We can imagine the new prophet finding the place of the confrontation, noting the drops of blood, not from bulls, but from pagan prophets. We can see him examining the altars, touching the scorched rocks and earth around one of them. He may yet feel the electrified air from the fire fallen from heaven.
He has Elijah’s cloak, dropped as he went to heaven in a windstorm. He has a double portion of his mentor’s prophetic spirit. The prophetic task has now fallen to him.
No doubt, he descends Carmel, perhaps even passing by the bone heap of the pagan prophets in Kishon Valley, never to look back, never to forget the lesson God showed that day. Never to fear, even when a good-sized Syrian army surrounds Dothan to capture him.
The echoes of Carmel stay with Elisha. To the last.

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Prayer and Asking in James 4

by J. Randal Matheny
In James 4:2-3, the readers fail to receive something because they failed to ask. But ask whom? One person thought there was nothing in 4:1-3 to suggest that James has prayer in mind.
The passage of James 4:1-3 says,

“Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? 4:2 You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask; 4:3 you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions” (NET).

TO SPEND ON PASSIONS
Within the context of 4:1-3, verse 3 does indeed suggest prayer. The supplicant does not receive because he seeks to spend it on his own passions.
This would suggest that the refusal is based upon the supplicant’s intent of the heart. Another person, the recipient of the request, could not know that. Only God could know. Therefore, verse 3 would lead one to believe that the asking is made of God and that James has prayer in view.
THE WORD “ASK”
In the book of James, the word “ask” (Greek, aiteo) is used five times, three of those in 4:2-3. The other two occurrences are in 1:5-8, where James writes,

“But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 1:6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 1:7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 1:8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways”.

So 1:5-6 provide us a context to determine whom should be asked. The usage in chapter 1 would lead the reader or listener (since letters were read to the congregation) to think of God when James again mentions asking and receiving (or not receiving) in chapter 4.
“RECEIVING” INDICATES PRAYER
The word “receive” (Greek, lambano) is used in both 1:7 and 4:3, strengthening the connection between the two passages and the subject of prayer. More so, since “receive” in other contexts in James refers to receiving from God: a crown of life (1:12), “heavier judgment” (ASV, 3:1), and early and latter rain (5:7, though here the giver may not be much in view).
The only other use of lambano (to receive) in James is 5:10, where it is translated as “take:” “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name.”
Considering that this common word with a very wide range of semantic meaning is used 5 of 6 times of “receiving” something, and that, of those 5 times, 4 are undisputedly as receiving from God, it would seem to indicate that when James speaks of receiving in his letter, one may fairly conclude that he automatically thinks of receiving from God.
Both passages of 1:5-7 and 4:1-3 discuss the possibility or reality of not receiving, which also appears suggestive, since it offers yet another connection between the two and reinforces the idea of asking and receiving from God.
APPLICATION
James highlights several lessons for us in this text. First, selfishness generates conflict. I want, you want, we fight.
Second, selfishness begrudges asking. “You do not have because you do not ask.” The self-centered person hates asking; he prefers taking from others.
Third, selfishness breeds privation. “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly.” God refuses to give to those who want to spend on themselves.
Through some attention to the details of the text, our understanding of prayer in the book of James is greatly enriched.

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