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Fear and Joy to the World – Guest Post by Philip Yancey

philipyanceyA guest post by Philip Yancey.

[See books by Philip Yancey in the Bible Gateway Store]

A friend of mine named Angela told me about a time when her faith was just awakening. Raised Catholic, she had a wistful interest in spirituality though scant knowledge of the Bible. As she started reading the Gospels she felt a sudden fascination for everything related to Jesus. She recounted one such day:

I worked in downtown Manhattan, and I’d even stop and listen to the street evangelists and the wild prophets who stood on the sidewalk announcing the end of the world. Everyone else mocked them or turned away. I stood there and soaked it in. What if they were right?

One day I was walking to the train station with a colleague from work. I caught a subway to Brooklyn, which ran every few minutes. But my friend took a train, and if she missed it she’d have to wait an hour, so she was always in a hurry. It was a blustery day, and we had our heads down against the wind. When we crossed one street and looked up, there was one of the street prophets holding a sign, “The end is near!”

He was muttering in a raspy voice, “Jesus is coming. Start singing.” I put my hand out and tried to stop my friend. “Did you hear what he said? Jesus is coming. We should start singing.”

She brushed off my hand and kept right on walking. “Angela, you need to get your hearing tested. He’s saying, “Jesus is coming. Stop sinning!”

———

Or did Angela get it right after all? Reading Luke’s account of the Christmas story this year, I couldn’t help thinking of a Broadway musical. The cast of characters—an astonished virgin, a devout in-law, a tottery old man, a choir of angels—burst into song at the news of Jesus’ birth. Even Jesus’ kinsman John [the Baptist] “leaped for joy” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.

Like any good musical, however, this one also has a counterpoint theme: fear. Angels who brought the message of the first Christmas felt obliged to lead with the words, “Fear not!” Zechariah was gripped with fear, and quite literally scared speechless. Mary was greatly troubled. The shepherds, terrified, cowered in the field.

If you study the songs, you can sense one reason for the fear: they lived in scary times, these witnesses of Jesus’ birth. Mary spoke with longing of a power that could scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their thrones. Zechariah sang about “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the previous centuries a succession of empires—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece—had tramped through the nation of Israel, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Now Rome, the most powerful conqueror yet, occupied the land.

Roman legions ruled with brutal force, repressing dissent and even invading the sacred temple to kill troublemakers. Although Romans did not invent the practice of crucifixion, the historian Josephus reports that they used it on an unprecedented scale, lining roads with thousands of victims. Crucifixion caused a slow, agonizing death, and made a gruesome public display of the consequences of rebellion.

“A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon warned Mary, a statement she doubtless pondered during her son’s time on earth. I wonder, in the three months that Mary spent sequestered with her relative Elizabeth, did the two expectant mothers have any inkling of the trials that awaited them? After enduring the shame of an unwed pregnancy and the ordeal of a late-term journey, Mary would have to flee to Egypt to save her baby from Herod’s massacre. That monarch’s successor would later behead Elizabeth’s son John as a party trick, and torment Jesus in a mocking trial.

Zechariah’s prophecy of “salvation from our enemies” did not play out as he hoped either. Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead victorious armies astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward crucifixion. Yet a few decades after Jesus’ death would come Israel’s ultimate humiliation, the razing of Jerusalem and the mass suicide at Masada.

Luke knew about these defeats, of course, by the time he compiled his account of Jesus’ birth. A good historian, he avoided flashing forward to future events and kept the focus on the present, a moment in time when joy triumphed over the background of fear. The night of Jesus’ birth, angels filled the sky, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

“Jesus is coming, stop sinning!” muttered the street prophet in New York. With his animal-skin wardrobe and insect diet, John the Baptist was the prototype of such wild prophets, calling from the desert for his people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But my friend Angela heard a different message.

“Jesus is coming, start singing!” A melody of joyous hope floated through the air that first Christmas and throughout much of Jesus’ life on earth, although not everyone heard it. Why don’t your disciples fast and pray like John’s? his detractors asked. Why do they go on eating and drinking—with tax collectors and sinners, no less? Jesus had a simple answer: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” A new day had come, an interlude of joy in the midst of fear.

———

We, too, live in scary times. Wars, a refugee crisis, terrorism, global warming, the rise of empires, a divided nation, unstable governments—we have much reason to fear. According to Google, on Election Day, 2016, more people searched “end times” than any other topic in the Bible. We do well to remember the setting of the first Christmas, also marked by violence, terrorism, empires, and refugees.

Jesus’ family hustled him off to Egypt to escape violence. Nowadays, most of Jesus’ followers are fleeing the region. Not long ago Bethlehem and Nazareth had a population 80 percent Christian; now only a small minority remains. The seven locations where John addressed letters in Revelation have few if any believers left, and Christians in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have virtually disappeared as a cultural force. The media daily report hostilities against Christians in far-flung places such as China and Pakistan. At such a time, joy can get swallowed up by fear.

While suffering from an illness that he believed would soon kill him, the poet John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote a meditation on Jesus’ resurrection. He turned to Matthew’s account of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb: they hurried away from the scene “very frightened but also filled with great joy…” In their “two legs of fear and joy” Donne saw a pattern for himself. He who had conducted so many funerals had every good reason to fear the bubonic plague ravaging London. Could he somehow trust God to keep his fear from triumphing over joy? Can I?

Reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection back-to-back, I note that Jesus began and ended life wrapped in restraints: the swaddling clothes in a manger, the burial shroud in a tomb. In order to visit earth, he fully accepted its constraints—the story of Christmas, and also of the cross. In order to restore earth, he broke out of the constraints, casting off the burial clothes to herald a new era that would end in hope and glory. In Henri Nouwen’s words, “The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign breaking through every form of human fatalism and despair.”

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” wrote the apostle Paul to the tiny knot of Jesus-followers in Rome, some of whom would be fed to lions or crucified like their master. Mary would have liked that analogy. As she held the baby Jesus, the childbirth pain receded into memory and her fears gave way to incautious joy.

I am listening to familiar Christmas carols differently this year. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years do rest on thee tonight.” Kurt Vonnegut used that phrase with a tone of bitter irony in his novel Cat’s Cradle: a nuclear physicist hears office workers singing it at a Christmas party. Do the carolers really believe that the hopes and fears of all the years, which can be obliterated if one person presses the wrong button, rest on a Bethlehem newborn? Do I?

Then this carol, which celebrates the message that my friend Angela misheard:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing….

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders, of his love.

May we remember that bright good news, this uneasy Christmas year.

———

Philip Yancey serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today magazine. He has written 13 Award-winning books and won 2 Book of the Year awards for What’s So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew. Four of his books have sold over one million copies. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado. Visit PhilipYancey.com for more about his work and ministry.

Died: Bible Scholar Thomas Oden (1931–2016)

Thomas C. Oden Thomas C. Oden died December 8 at age 85. He was active in the Confessing Movement in America, particularly within the United Methodist Church, and was president of The Institute for Classical Christian Studies. He suggested that Christians need to rely upon the wisdom of the historical Church, particularly the early Church, rather than on modern scholarship and theology and said his mission was “to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christianity.”

[See books by Thomas Oden in the Bible Gateway Store]

“We don’t read it without the work of the Holy Spirit,” Dr. Oden said of Bible reading. According to Christianity Today, Dr. Oden’s “scholarship on the church fathers led to his surprising mid-life shift from liberal Protestantism to evangelicalism, as recounted in his 2014 memoir, A Change of Heart (IVP Academic, 2014).”

“Tom Oden had a mind and heart that never rested,” said Andrew T. Le Peau, former associate publisher for editorial at InterVarsity Press. “He was always exploring what new things God was up to in the world, ultimately realizing that it was what God had been doing from ancient times to the present. His unusually entrepreneurial intellect and his warmth of spirit will be dearly missed.” See IVP’s tribute page to Tom Oden.

Buy your copy of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture in the Bible Gateway Store where you'll enjoy low prices every dayDr. Oden was the author of many books, and the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press, 2014) and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series (IVP Academic, 2009). He was the director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and he served as the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

Bible News Roundup – Week of December 11, 2016

Read this week’s Bible Gateway Weekly Brief newsletter
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Despite Worries, Hotel Bible Remains Almost as Popular as Wi-Fi
Facts & Trends
Download the free award-winning Bible Gateway App

Air Force Finds Nothing Wrong with Football Assistant Spreading Bible Verses via Twitter
The Gazette
Military.com: Air Force Academy Finds No Wrongdoing in Coach’s Bible Tweets

Underwater Hebrew Tablet Reveals Biblical-Era Ruler of Judea
Live Science
Read about the city of Dor in Smith’s Bible Names Dictionary on Bible Gateway
See the Biblical Archaeology section in the Bible Gateway Store

Tim Tebow Tells Incredible Story About a Crazy ‘Coincidence’ Involving John 3:16
Relevant
Read John 3:16 on Bible Gateway
Bible Gateway Blog post, Discovering Your Identity in Life’s Storms: An Interview with Tim Tebow

Judge Blocks School District’s Removal of a “Charlie Brown Christmas” Decoration Containing Bible Verse
Courthouse News Service
Read Luke 2:8-14 (KJV) on Bible Gateway
Bible Gateway Blog post, ‘That’s What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown’

Christian Church Promotes Bible Copying Ministry
China Christian Daily

Million Bible Mission In Cuba: “It’s a Miracle!”
American Bible Society

Audio Scripture Ministries Distributes Audio Bibles to Kurdish Forces in Syria
Mission Network News
Hear audio Bibles on Bible Gateway
Browse the audio Bible section in the Bible Gateway Store

Bible Animals: From Hyenas to Hippos
Biblical Archaeology Review
Bible Gateway Blog post, A Collection of Bible Museums & Exhibits

Vishal Mangalwadi: ‘Progress of Europe, Deeply Connected to Bible’
Evangelical Focus
Bible Gateway Blog post, How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization: An Interview with Vishal Mangalwadi

Nglea New Testament Among 21 Bibles Stored in a Glass Container in Solomon Islands National Parliament
Solomon Star News

Discovery of Rare Bible a Poignant Reminder of Southport Lifeboat Tragedy
The Southport Visiter

Bible Society Lebanon: 2016—A Year In Review
Bible Society Lebanon Video

Gifting for Scripture: Gift Wrapping Service Supports West Virginia Bible in the Schools
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Tears of Joy as Youngest-Ever Inter-America Bible Boom Winner Named
Adventist Review

Religion and Education Around the World
Pew Research Center

See other Bible News Roundup weekly posts

Inspiring Christmas Reading: The Best Holiday Devotions from Our Library

Over the past weeks, we’ve talked a lot about our Christmas devotionals—special seasonal devotionals focused entirely around the Advent season. It’s a bit of a Christmas tradition here at Bible Gateway to unroll a few high-quality Christmas-focused devotionals during Advent. Hopefully you’ve checked out one or two of them! But those aren’t the only place you can find inspirational Christmas content. Many of the “regular” devotionals in our library have been sharing insights about Christmas lately.

I’ve gone through our devotional library and identified some of the best Christmas-related writing from devotionals that aren’t specifically Christmas-season devotionals. Below are some of my favorites.

Charles Spurgeon’s Christmas Sermons

Charles Spurgeon, famous preacherCharles Spurgeon’s best-known devotional is Morning and Evening, but we’ve actually got two other Spurgeon collections in our library: Spurgeon at the New Park Street Chapel and at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Both collect excerpts from sermons that Spurgeon delivered at those churches—and both have a good collection of Christmas sermons worth reading.

Both sermon collections began focusing on Christmas starting this last Sunday, December 20; I recommend starting there and walking through the week to read all the Christmas sermons. Here’s December 20 in the Metropolitan Tabernacle sermon collection, and December 20 in the New Park Street Chapel collection.

Between them there are about a dozen Christmas-related readings. Here are a few of the best:

These readings are excerpts from his sermons—not the entire sermons, in case you were worried—and while Spurgeon’s writing is “dated” (he lived during the 19th century), he has a wit and a way with words that makes him a true delight to read. If you enjoy the language of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or other Christmas classics, you’ll feel right at home with Spurgeon. Give him a try!

Christmas Videos by Sheri Rose Shepherd

Speaker and author Sheri Rose Shepherd has written a great deal of inspirational devotional content for Bible Gateway over the past years, including His Princess Every Day, and most recently the THRIVE devotional. Some her best Christmas devotional content can be found in her library of video devotionals. Here’s one:

The other video devotional, Unwrap the Gift Inside Your Loved Ones, is also worth watching.

Encouragement for Today and Girlfriends in God

The Encouragement for Today and Girlfriends in God devotionals both dedicate much of the second half of December to Christmas-related reflections. While not every devotional in December is Christmas-related, many of them are; it’s worth following both of them throughout Advent to see what they come up with. Here are a few particularly good ones:

Women of the Christmas Story

An angel brings Christmas tidings in this painting by Eustache Le SueurAnn Spangler’s Women of the Bible devotional highlights the major female characters of the Christmas story, with writeups about each woman’s life and reflections on what we can learn from them:

These are just some of the Christmas-related devotionals lurking in our devotionals library in “non-Christmas” devotionals. The links above should give you plenty of inspiring reading material over the next few weeks, but if you like these, I encourage you to spend some time browsing through the many other free devotionals in our library during the Christmas season!

Reading Scripture in Public This Christmas? Here’s Why It’s Important (And How to Do it Well)

Marble lectern in the Pisa Baptistry, Italy, for public reading of ScriptureWill you be reading part of the Bible out loud in a public setting this Christmas season—perhaps narrating the Christmas story at your church or a family gathering? Pastors and worship leaders around the world will, of course, be reading Scripture out loud at worship services throughout the holiday season, as they do all year. But many churches use Advent as an opportunity to involve “the rest of us” in worship services, and that means you may have been called on to read a Bible passage in public in the next few weeks.

Does the thought of reading the Bible out loud in front of others make you nervous? I won’t tell you not to be a little bit nervous—there’s probably no helping that. However, we can offer you a bit of encouragement from the Public Reading of Scripture page from our Scripture Engagement article archives. It’s a collection of reflections, practice tips, and resources to help you understand the importance of what you, as Scripture reader, are doing.

When you read God’s Word out loud, you aren’t just crossing off another item on the worship service checklist. You’re participating in a beautiful and important activity that dates back to the very earliest days of the church:

To hear someone read the Word is a different experience than to simply read silently to oneself. A well-prepared and gifted reader can bring out meaning in a text through voice inflection, rhythm, and intonation. A talented reader can present the Word of God to a group or congregation so that the listeners may experience the Bible in a rich and powerful manner.

So why is Scripture reading often treated as something of an afterthought? Writers and pastors are asking this question and many suggest that we give the public reading of Scripture a more prominent role in our ministries. What would happen if readers were encouraged to really study a passage, seeking the background and meaning of the text that they could then bring out in their voice and body language when reading? What if the reading of Scripture was treated as more than just the precursor or set up for the sermon? How powerful it is when a congregation or small group has the regular opportunity to audibly experience together significant portions of God’s Word.

So if you’ve been tasked, willingly or otherwise, with reading Scripture out loud this Christmas, take a moment to read why it’s so important, and then peruse the big list of books and web links that can help you to do it well. And while you’re at it, if your church is putting on any Christmas-themed drama production or musical event, you might find the sections on Dramatizing Scripture and Singing Scripture relevant to the holiday season as well.

Reverend Fun’s Top Five Christmas Cartoons, 2016 Edition

Each year, we highlight the highest-rated Reverend Fun cartoons related to Christmas. Here are the top-rated cartoons as of 2016!

1. Too Bright This Year

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2. The Coolest Thing

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3. The Guy Who Has Everything

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4. Proper Placement

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5. What You Need

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Reverend Fun has “retired,” but there are hundreds of cartoons in the archive for you to peruse, including many more Christmas-themed cartoons. Enjoy!

Watch Our Discussion: Bible Reading is Broken, And It’s Not Your Fault!

Our live broadcast of “Bible Reading is Broken, And it’s NOT Your Fault!” is complete, but you can still watch it on Facebook or here:

As a special for viewers, you can you can get a special discount on Glen’s book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves! Through December 30, enter code 506-587 at IVPress.com for a 30% discount on Saving the Bible From Ourselves!

Special thanks to the Institute for Bible Reading for joining us and making this discussion possible!

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Learning to Read the Bible Well: An Interview with Glenn Paauw]


Poll: How is Your Church Celebrating Christmas This Year?

1280px-chanttie_dcantiques_de_noue_dezembre_2009_jerri_aMost people commemorate the Christmas season in their personal and family lives in one or more special ways: we decorate Christmas trees, hang up Advent calendars, and fire up lots of Christmas music. These familiar traditions are something we can look forward to and take comfort in practicing each year.

But beyond our personal Christmas activities, our church communities usually recognize the season with special programs and acts of worship. How is your church observing the Christmas season this year? Share your answer in the poll below!

How is your church observing Christmas this year? (Check all that apply.)

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Live Discussion This Morning: Bible Reading is Broken, and it’s Not Your Fault!

Update: The live discussion is now complete, and you can watch it here.

Join us at 11am EST today on Facebook for a special live discussion with the Institute for Bible Reading! We’ll discuss the challenges of reading and understanding the Bible—and some very good news: Bible reading doesn’t have to be so hard!

The discussion will take place live on our Facebook page at 11am EST today. See you there!

The Three Kinds of Popular Keyword Searches on Bible Gateway

Our 2016 Year in Review lets you explore how 2016’s 1,000 most-popular keyword searches in English have changed in popularity over the past three years.

Using this tool, you can see for yourself the three kinds of searches that are popular on Bible Gateway: perennial searches, event-driven searches, and holiday-themed searches.

For example, here’s how searches for believe, a perennial search, look:

Searches for believe on Bible Gateway

Think of this diagram like a clock (a “year clock“), with January at the top and July at the bottom. Each colored line represents searches over the course of a year (blue for 2014, orange for 2015, and green for 2016). As you follow the lines clockwise around the chart, you can see that certain days have more searches for believe–the farther away the line is from the center of the circle, the more searches there were on that day.

The perennial search is consistently popular, with little variation throughout the year; seasons and world events don’t tend to affect how many people search for it. While the number of searches for believe varies a little during the year, it’s relatively stable: you can generally predict how many people will search for believe on a given day. Other perennial searches include child and blessing.

Compare searches for end times, an event-driven search:

Searches for end times on Bible Gateway

The event-driven search reflects current events. Searches for end times surge with particular kinds of news: in the above chart, we’ve labeled peaks of violence, disease outbreaks, and civil unrest. Event-driven searches make sense in retrospect but are not necessarily predictable beforehand. A perennial search can become an event-driven search when something newsworthy related to the search happens. For example, searches for noah, a largely perennial search, spiked in 2014 when the Noah movie released. Similarly, searches for storm increase when there’s large-scale inclement weather, most recently with Hurricane Matthew.

In contrast to the unpredictability of event-driven searches, the holiday-themed search is easy to anticipate. Every year, for example, you can count on searches for Mary increasing around Christmas and US Mother’s Day:

Searches for Mary on Bible Gateway

The holiday-themed search spikes around certain secular or religious holidays: searches for freedom jump around U.S. Independence Day on July 4, while resurrection becomes more popular around Easter. The spikes and specific searches are predictable every year for each holiday. Other holiday-themed searches include fool (April Fool’s Day) and remembrance (US Memorial Day and Veterans Day / Armistice Day / Remembrance Day).

Naturally, not every search fits neatly into one of these categories. For example, the search as for me and my house is popular around New Year’s Day and US Father’s Day but also jumped after the US Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision and the 2016 US presidential election. As for me and my house has become a hybrid of the holiday-themed and event-driven search types:

Searches for as for me and my house on Bible Gateway

Though there are exceptions, this three-part framework provides a way of understanding the patterns of popular searches on Bible Gateway; jump in and explore the data yourself.