The Birth of Jesus is All Wrong

Jesus' Birth Is Unexpected In Every Way

Unexpected Jesus

Unexpected Jesus

By Beth Demme

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

For church folks this line is so familiar most can probably recite it from memory, even if they aren’t much on memorizing Bible verses. It is an integral part of every Christmas pageant, no matter how humble. In terms of world-changing events, it is a drop the mic moment—the birth of Christ.

And yet, we tend to forget how unexpected it is.

We expect God to use the mighty and powerful to do mighty and powerful things. We expect God to work in big, extraordinary ways. But actually, the birth of Jesus gives us the opposite perspective.

For the birth of Jesus, we might expect God to use a king and a queen, important people from an important place. But no, we start with an unmarried couple from nowhere—Mary and Joseph from Galilee in Nazareth. It’s hard to draw conclusions from what is not said, but I think it’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t describe Mary or Joseph as especially pious or righteous.

We do know from what is said that God doesn’t work with the most well-respected couple in Judaism, or even someone important in the Roman Empire. God didn’t find someone who was imminently believable and memorable to the people of the day. Instead, God found someone who was willing.

Christmas IS About What You Get

Is it really better to give than to receive?

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Christmas IS About What You Get

By Beth Demme

“Tis Better to Give Than Receive” – you’ve definitely heard it, and you’ve probably said it. It’s what we are supposed to think about gifting in general, but it is especially supposed to be our attitude at Christmas. Paul even tells us in Acts 20:35 that Jesus said it!

Giving instead of getting fits in well with American culture. We like to give because receiving requires humility. We may even feel like the person giving us a gift has something over us, or that we now owe them a gift in return. Have you ever had the awkward experience of a friend or neighbor unexpectedly showing up with a Christmas present for you when you have nothing to offer in return? Do you keep a few extra small gifts or baked goods on hand just in case?

Receiving can be uncomfortable for us.

Receiving when we can’t reciprocate with an equal gift can leave us wanting to jump out of our skin (in other words, really uncomfortable).

Giving, however, leaves us feeling happy.  Giving generously can make us downright giddy. Last week I got to give a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and star topper, to a family that didn’t have one. I had a big grin on my face the whole time I was shopping for them. As I chose the ornaments, I imagined the wonder on the faces of their young children as they saw the lights reflecting in the shiny orbs. I sang Christmas carols to myself as I drove the hour to deliver it. When I dropped it off I didn’t mind hauling the boxes and bags out of my car. And I sang even more loudly in my car on the way back!

Giving really is fun!

The Irony of A Too Busy Advent

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The Irony of a Too Busy Advent

By Beth Demme

I read a prayer the other day that has really stayed with me: “As water is restless until it reaches its level, so the soul has not peace until it rests in God.” It’s by Sundar Singh and if you happen to be a United Methodist you can find it on page 423 of the Hymnal (that’s one of those book things that has songs and other stuff in it; I realize they are nearly extinct in some churches).

In this busy, busy season my soul longs for peace, but this poetic prayer reminds me I can find peace only when I rest in God.

Is it just me or is Advent too busy for resting in God? Am I the only one who feels taking time to rest in/with God is just too dog-gone time consuming right now?

I know Advent should be about preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of our Savior, but instead I tend to make it about decorating, buying presents, baking cookies, sending out Christmas cards, going to fun parties, signing up for Health Insurance before December 15th, you know—the usual Advent stuff.

The truth is, the busy-ness of the Advent season can dull our senses to God’s abiding presence.

Advent Is Like An HGTV Show It’s All About the Big Reveals

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Advent Is Like An HGTV Show, It’s All About the Big Reveal(s)

By Beth Demme

I admit it, I have spent way too many hours of my life watching HGTV. I love house hunting shows, but I also love home renovation shows. I especially like it when they set out to renovate and restore an entire house. Of course, the best part of those shows is The Big Reveal.

Have you noticed they always take a commercial break just before the good stuff is showcased? We spend 20 (or 50) minutes journeying with the homeowner and we know something really great is about to happen aaaaaaand … cut to commercial.

Advent is like that, too. In a way, Advent reminds us we are living in the commercial break. We celebrate what has already happened, but we know something incredible is still to come.

In Advent, we read passages like Isaiah 64:1, “O that you God would tear open the heavens and come down!” And Psalm 80, “Stir up your might O God and come to save us! Restore us!”

We ask God to restore us because we recognize we’re like the fixer-uppers on HGTV. We’ve got some dry rot, popcorn ceilings, and outdated linoleum but by golly we can be beautiful again if only God will restore us.

We celebrate Advent because we understand our deep need for renovation–our need to change our lives from the inside out. Our need for a savior. [Twitter Link]

One of my favorite Advent songs is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Verse one says, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Christ the King Sunday

A Timely Reminder of Who I Serve

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A Timely Reminder of Who I Serve

By Beth Demme

Did you notice that between Black Friday and Cyber Monday we had Christ the King Sunday?

The Christian church has its own calendar and it usually ends on the last Sunday in November with Christ the King Sunday. I say usually because it moves around a bit on the secular calendar. Christ the King Sunday is always the last Sunday of the church calendar—five Sundays before Christmas—but it is not always the last Sunday in November. About 25% of the time it works out the way it did this year, with Christ the King Sunday landing between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

When that happens, Christ the King Sunday feels especially timely.

It is a timely reminder of who I serve. I serve a selfless king who—let’s be honest—is probably not impressed with the consumer I become this time of year.

Why I Don’t Believe God Is Harsh

Why I Don’t Believe God Is Harsh

By Beth Demme

If you had to describe God in only one word, what word would you choose?

Go ahead, say it out loud. I’m waiting.

Seriously, I’m listening. Go ahead and say it.

Ooooh, good word! (I mean, probably. You probably chose a good word. I can’t actually hear you.)

I worry too many people think of God as harsh, demanding, and unforgiving. They make sure their exterior lives have a façade of respectability because they think that’s what God wants. They draw sharp moral lines and build fences out of them, trying to keep themselves in the safe zone. They live as if God’s judgment has a radius they can escape if they obey enough rules.

If we think of God as harsh, we end up like the Third Servant in the Parable of the Talents—the one who is not praised as “good and faithful.” (Matthew 25:14-30).

In this parable, the master is going away so he gives “talents” to his servants “each according to their ability.” He gives the first servant five talents, the second receives two talents, and the third servant gets only one. The first and second servants double what the master gives them and they are called “good and trustworthy (faithful)” servants. But the Third Servant, well, he wasted his chance to do something good and, instead, he buried what he was given and waited for the master to return.

In other translations, the “talents” are “bags of gold” (NIV), “bags of silver” (NLT), or “gold coins” (CEB). We can read the parable with that understanding; that Jesus is talking about actual money here. It is also true, however, that our English word talent, meaning special aptitude or ability, comes from this parable. We can read the parable to mean that we should recognize our talents and abilities as gifts from God and we shouldn’t waste them.

I think those are both valid, and valuable, readings. But what if? What if this parable is also telling us something important about how we should (not) see God? Listen to the third servant’s explanation for why he hid the money:

Bible Beware

It's Not Us v. Them

Bible Beware

By Beth Demme

It’s tempting. Really, it is. It’s tempting to read the Bible thru a lens of “we’re in, they’re out.” When it comes to faith, too many of us have been fed a steady diet of us v. them. We have developed an almost insatiable need to be sure we are “in,” compelling us to identify who is “out.” If we know who isn’t invited to the party, we feel more secure about our own place on the VIP list.

But don’t do it. Don’t give in to this lazy hermeneutic (a big word that means: way of reading the Bible). Let’s step away from that kind of thinking and choose, instead, to read the Bible through the lens of a God-sized love story.

A love story so big God erased the ultimate us v. them line and became human.

In Jesus’ day, I would have been in the out-out-out crowd. I’m a Gentile. I’m a woman. I’m a sinner. Three strikes! Throughout Acts and the Epistles, we see the early church struggling with how to handle the Gentile problem. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so how does his saving work apply to Gentiles? In other words, the Apostles Peter and Paul lived in a world where Jewish people were “in” and Gentiles were “out.” Guess what they concluded after spending time with Jesus? Gentiles are in! (Acts 15). (Although Paul wasn’t among the original disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry, Paul says he spent three years learning the gospel “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-18).)

Adoption Changed My View of God

#NationalAdoptionDay

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How Adoption Changed My View of God

By Beth Demme

If you’ve known me for more than five minutes, you know that my husband and I are parents by adoption. I have some great stories about our adoption journey, some of which would make you roll with laughter and others that would leave you weeping.

Adoption brought a lot of changes to my life (hello, babies!). One unexpected change adoption brought me was a new understanding of God. In fact, adoption completely changed my view of God.

At the beginning of the journey, I thought of God as a detached, all knowing deity. I felt God had put me on my path, given me free will, and now was out there … somewhere. I would look to my circumstances and if things felt good, God was there. If not, God was absent.

The Problem With Loving God

Or, Is My Love On Backward?

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The Problem With Loving God

By Beth Demme

In the Gospel of Matthew, a lawyer (one of my people!) asks Jesus “which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus responds:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:34-38)

Did you catch that? The greatest and first commandment is that we are supposed to love God.

I spend a lot of time talking, thinking, and writing about how God loves us and how we can experience the love of God more fully and deeply. I believe that’s why Jesus went to the Cross—to show humanity unconditional, unstoppable love. And yet, the first and greatest commandment isn’t about how much God loves us. Instead, it’s about how we should love God.

I suddenly feel like I have my love on backward. Am I focused on myself as one-who-is-loved when I should be thinking of myself as one-who-loves? Is there a connection between the two?

The word for love here is agape, meaning unconditional love. In other words, the first and greatest commandment is to love God unconditionally with everything you have and everything you are.

Unconditionally. That means we love God when we are disappointed with his creation—whether it’s us or this broken world.

We love God when we are hurting, or sick, or mourning.

We love God when we can’t understand why people we love suffer from illness or injury.

We love God when today (or this week, or this month, or this life) is harder than it should be.

Even in the face of the worst circumstances, we can (and should) love God unconditionally with everything we have and everything we are.

The problem is, loving God this way means I can’t hold back parts of myself from God.

Are You a Bad Borrower?

Give to God What Is God's ... That Means You

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Are You A Bad Borrower?

By Beth Demme

When I was in elementary school, maybe third grade, I borrowed a book from the school librarian. Not from the school library (these days known as a “Media Center”), but from the librarian herself, Mrs. Whaley. Every Christmas she read The Cajun Night Before Christmas to us and I L‑O-V-E-D it. I loved the story, I loved the illustrations, and perhaps most of all I loved the tradition of hearing Mrs. Whaley read it in her terrible fake Cajun accent.

I begged Mrs. Whaley to lend me that book. I was a precocious, and persuasive, eight-year-old and I won the day! She lent it to me, but as I remember it, she clutched the book to her chest and said, “I will lend this to you, but take very good care of it. I brought this book in from home and if something happens to it, I won’t be able to replace it.” As she reluctantly handed it over, I grabbed for it and ran (not really—I’ve never been a runner—but that’s how the scene unfolds in my mind after more than three decades of accumulated dust on this old memory).

Somehow, while it was in my possession, the book got ruined.

To this day, I have no idea how it happened. It looked like I dumped a can of pea soup over each page and then left it outside to bake. I promise I didn’t, but that’s what it looked like. I avoided the library for weeks. I was so ashamed I couldn’t bear to face Mrs. Whaley. She was such a nice lady and she worked so hard for us. She put on elaborate puppet shows and never judged us for checking out the easy books. Her face was a collection of three elements: kind eyes, round pink cheeks, and giant glasses. (Eyeglasses were way bigger in the 1980’s, it’s a fact.)

A few weeks later, after Mrs. Whaley asked me about it several times, I reluctantly brought the book back. She was so disappointed I thought she might cry and I thought I might cry, too. To her credit, she was still always kind to me, but for the remainder of my time at that school, I carried a little bit of guilt with me every time I went into the library. To this day, I don’t like to borrow things. I worry they will be damaged, or broken, or lost.

There is a certain responsibility that comes with being a borrower.

I thought about that ruined book this week while reading the Gospel of Matthew. The Pharisees (the Jewish religious elite) and the Herodians (the Jewish social elite) try to test Jesus. They ask “It is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17). 

This story is told in all three of the “Synoptic Gospels.” Click here to learn more about the synoptics.