Christmas Thoughts: The Heart of God’s Redemptive Story is Revealed through Mary

The final woman mentioned in the lineage of Jesus is central to God’s redemptive work in human history.

I have written a Christmas series of blog posts on the genealogy in Matthew that sets the stage for the narrative of the birth of Jesus, but I haven’t finished it… until now. The theme is the redemptive work of God in human history through the perspective of the five (5) women mentioned in the genealogy.

If that last statement gave you pause, you may have a hint of the radical nature of that storyline, which is the point of this redemotive story: There are five women mentioned in the genealogy. Five women.  

The Hebrew culture was paternalistic, like all cultures in the Ancient Near East, and almost all cultures down through history (and even now). The oldest male in that culture inherited his father’s estate. Lineage was traced from male to male.

So, what are five women doing in the sacred lineage of Jesus?

That Matthew mentions five women in his genealogy is truly remarkable. We might gloss over it in our modern thinking, maybe even being tempted to sneer that he didn’t include more. That he included ANY women is the the amazing thing.

I described four of those women in previous blog posts. I began with a post that sets out the genealogy in full and links to each of the subsequent blog posts. (Christmas Thoughts: God’s Redemptive Actions Through Women of the Old Testament). The posts continue in the following progression, from oldest to most recent:

  1. Christmas Thoughts: God Redeems the Line of Judah through Tamar;
  2. Christmas Thoughts: Rahab, a Foreign Prostitute & God’s Redemptive Plan;
  3. Christmas Thoughts: Ruth & God, the Kinsman-Redeemer;
  4. Christmas Thoughts: Uriah’s Wife and the Redemption Plan of God

All of the stories I have covered so far are of women from the Old Testament, showing God’s redemptive work leading up to the birth of the long awaited Messiah. The last of the woman is Mary, who gave birth to him.

This piece is inspired by Craig Keener, who has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins from Duke University and is a prolific writer of scholarly works on the New Testament, among other things. He was interviewed recently by Preston Sprinkle on Theology in the Raw as part of a series on Christmas.

He contrasts the appearances of an angel to Zechariah (Luke 1:8-22) and to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The passages are parallels, announcing the birth of the Messiah, but the response of the two are different. The contrast is intended, no doubt, to catch our attention: Zechariah responds with unbelief, while Mary responds, “May it be according to you word!”

The parallelism of the two passages is striking, so the difference in the responses stands out. It is meant to stand out.

Zechariah is an aged man, a priest operating at the center of the life and culture of his people, serving in holiest place in Hebrew culture: in the temple. He is male of course. Zechariah, of all people, might be expected to recognize and embrace God’s great entry into human history and the fulfillment of the long-foretold Messianic prophecies.

Contrasted to him is Mary, a young female (probably in her mid-teens), a relative nobody in a nowhere place in the eyes of that culture. She would not have been privileged to know Scripture like Zechariah She would have no stature, no power, no influence nor importance.

The contrast in status would be more evident to First Century Hebrews, but we can understand it even today. Despite the elevated stature of Zechariah, Mary is the hero of this story. She embraces what the angel says, while Zechariah hesitates in doubt at the threshold of God’s entry into the world.

Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) is one of the most eloquent and poignant responses to God’s redemptive work in all of Scripture.[i] Mary is glorified over the venerable old priest in the story. The spotlight is on her, and

Mary’s words also set the tone for the coming of the Messiah. She says God scatters those who are proud, but He lifts up the humble. He fills the hungry, but he empties the rich.

Leading the way to God’s appearance human history are five women who stand out in Matthew’s genealogy by the very fact that they were included at all. Their stories are at the center of God’s redemptive work and plans for mankind that He envisioned from before the foundations of the world.

The mention of five women in the genealogy of Christ, the Messiah, is no accident. In our western minds, we might tend to gloss over genealogy as a mundane recitation of historic fact. For Hebrews, the composition of a genealogy is not just about fact, but an emphasis of key facts.

The genealogy with the mention of five women sets the stage for the appearance of God. It is foundational and a central a part of that story. Take a moment to consider how utterly unusual that genealogy would have seemed at the time, and it’s significance in story of Jesus. Consider Mary’s grand response to God, and take some time to read the stories of the other women in the lineage of Jesus.


[i] And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

The 2020 Census and the Breaking Down of the Dividing Walls of Hostility

Fundamentally, Christians should align with Christ, and nothing else.

The 2020 Census reveals a story of changing demographics in the United States. It should hardly come as a surprise that the story is diversity. “Over the past 10 years, people who identified as Hispanic, Asian or more than one race accounted for larger shares of the population….”[1]

I suspect we could say the same thing about many a decennial census over the history of the United States. During the history of this country, from one census to another, we can trace the movements of people, including the Spaniards and Portuguese, the English and French, the German, the Irish, the Italian, the African, the Chinese, the Poles, and on and on.

I grew up learning that the United Stated of America is a melting pot. The news of the 2020 Decennial Census is simply the continuation of the same story that is America. It is an uniquely American story, though rhetoric in the 21st Century might suggest otherwise.

The new census may reveal a plot twist of sorts, though: a “pivotal moment”. Whereas the American story of the past was primarily an European story, the plot is tending toward greater diversity. The population of “people of color” are increasingly “younger and growing more rapidly” then their traditional American counterparts with Eurocentric origins.

The population growth since 2010 “was made up entirely of people who identified as Hispanic, Asian, Black or more than one race”. We can speculate on the reasons for this major shift, but the fact remains that people of color are increasingly making up a larger percent of the population, and that trend will surely continue.

My thoughts, as always, turn to the impact on the Body of Christ and how the Church is responding… and should respond… to the times. These times are a changing, crooned Bob Dylan in my youth….. But then, they are always a changing.

Continue reading “The 2020 Census and the Breaking Down of the Dividing Walls of Hostility”

Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes? A Tale of Scorpions and Frogs

A scorpion stings. That’s what they do. That is their nature.

Joel Furches recently posted the following on social media:

“The Aesop’s Fable I have come to most appreciate over the years is ‘The Frog and the Scorpion’ If you’re not familiar, it’s about a scorpion who asks a frog to swim him across the water. The frog doesn’t want to, because he’s afraid of getting stung. The scorpion points out that if he stings the frog, they will both drown. So the frog swims him, the scorpion stings the frog, and they both drown. Why? Because it is the nature of scorpions to sting.

“The moral: things act out of their nature, even at the expense of their self-interest. Or as my dad used to say, ‘a person will never do something that person wouldn’t do.’ Which, I suppose, could be rephrased, ‘A person’s always going to do what that person does.’ (My dad would say ‘peoples are peoples’)” 

A more modern phrase that conveys the same idea might be: “the tiger cannot change its stripes”; or “the leopard cannot change its spots”. The idea is that a person cannot change his or her essential nature or character.

My “take” on the frog and scorpion fable is that we shouldn’t expect people to be anything other than who they really are. Despite what the scorpions tells you, the scorpion IS going to sting you. That’s what they do. That’s who they are.

Fables are meant to teach life lessons. The wise, theoretically, learn from them without having to experience those lessons firsthand. In reality though, it seems most of us have to learn our life lessons from experience.

These fables are still helpful by allowing us to crystallize those hard learned lessons in graphic ways that we can remember and pass on – if only people would listen. Right?

But what is the lesson? We might “walk away” the next time someone hurts us with a lie swearing under our breath, “Once a liar, always a liar! I will never trust him or her again!”

Fables teach us something about human nature, but fables don’t always give us specific guidance tailored to our own dilemmas. We still need wisdom to apply the lessons in our particular circumstances. “A word to the wise” requires wisdom for its application in our own lives.

“Truth is truth” (wherever it may be found) is a “truism” I like to repeat. Aesop may have been a very wise man (if there really was an Aesop), and Aesop’s fables carry with them the ring of truth, but truth is often more complicated than we like to think it is.

Just when you think you understand the laws of physics, quantum mechanics comes along and turns everything upside down. Further, the wisdom needed to address our particular circumstances doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with knowledge and awareness.

The Frog and Scorpion fable rings true, but Scripture gives us a different angle on the truth of this fable and guidance that we need to deal with the scorpions in our lives. That lesson may not be immediately clear if we limit ourselves to the fable, itself.

Continue reading “Can a Tiger Change Its Stripes? A Tale of Scorpions and Frogs”

Jesus, Justice and Bruised Reeds

God’s justice is characterized by His preference for mercy.

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:18-21 ESV)

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4) that Jesus fulfilled according to the Gospel of Matthew. They are echoed in the baptism of Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke and said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:17)

Of particular note to me is the statement that Jesus came “to proclaim justice to the Gentiles”, and he will “bring justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope!” For the past two years, I have read through the Bible from start to finish focusing on the theme of justice (among other things).

The theme of justice is everywhere in scripture when you look for it! Justice is particularly embedded in the messianic prophecies and promises. The coming, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus is all about righteousness and justice.

I believe that modern Americans have a warped view of what justice means, biblically. We tend to view justice as retributive and punitive. Justice in a popular sense tends to mean people getting their just desserts, but that isn’t what we see in Scripture.

The prophets warned God’s people about two main things: idolatry and failing to do justice. Obeying God’s commands fit more or less into these two broad categories of worshiping God alone and doing right by people.

These are the two great categories of the ten commandments. Thus, the law is summed up this way: love God and love your neighbor.

When God executed judgment on His people in the OT in keeping with the warnings spoken by the prophets, He always did so in hope that His people would turn from their wicked ways. Judgement as a subset of justice was redemptive. It’s aim was to guide people back to right relationship with God and to each other.

Overarching God’s justice is His preference for mercy, because His ultimate desire is for relationship with us. He desires also that we would have healthy relationships with each other (love your neighbor) in the same way. A right relationship with God and with our other human beings (and the world we live in) is the essence of what it means to be righteous and just.

Continue reading “Jesus, Justice and Bruised Reeds”

From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self is a Matter of Choice

In Genesis 1:27, we learn that God created human beings in His image:

God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

In his letter to the Ephesians 4:24, Paul urged them (and us),

to put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Thousands of years have passed between those two statements. God has been working out His purposes in the heavens and the earth from before the beginning. Creating man in His image and establishing man in His likeness has been central to that purpose.

Reading the words of Paul in Ephesians, which clearly echo the description of God’s creation of human beings, got me thinking about the difference between the image of God that built right into human beings from the start and the “new self” that we are urged to put on that has created in the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of truth.

What was the image of in God which we were created?

What is the new self that has been created in the likeness of God that we must put on?

Why must we put on a new self when human beings have already been created in the image of God?

I try not to lean on the assumptions that come first to mind when approaching Scripture. I often go back and work through text looking for things I haven’t seen before. As I write this, I don’t know exactly what I will find. I was intrigued by the echoes of Genesis in Paul’s and prompted to dig into them freshly.

Continue reading “From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self is a Matter of Choice”