A study for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

The Gift of the Nutcracker

The Wait: What are you waiting for?

Jeremiah 33:12-18

Luke 21:5-15

Luke 21:16-24

Luke 21:25-36

Romans 8:18-25


The Gift: Are you expecting good toys for Christmas?

Proverbs 11:24-25, 17:8,18:16, 19:6

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 1:13-20

Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:67-79


The Battle: Could I please watch from a safe distance?

Psalms 24:1-10

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Matthew 2:1-6, 16-18

Luke 2:14; Matthew 10:32-39

Revelation 6:1-11


...to the World: How can we include others?

Micah 5:1-5a; Zechariah 8:19-23

Psalms 117:1-2; Isaiah 2:1-4

Psalm 42:1-11

Luke 2:8-14

Acts 1:6-9, Luke 24:52-53



Ugly Christmas Sweaters

2 Chronicles 30:5; Matthew 12:41; 1 Corinthians 1:21, Kerygma/Preaching

Micah 4:1; Isaiah 9:2, Luke 2:29-32, People

Acts 5:17, 15:5, 24:5, Galatians 5:19-20, Hairesis/Heresy

Numbers 12:3; Matthew 11:29; Meek

Luke 2:41-52, Scribal Errors


“Did he came yet??”

Mark 13:21-23

Matthew 17:9-13

Matthew 2:1-12

2 Timothy 2:16-19; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Revelation 1:4-5a, 1:8, 4:6-8


Christmas really does last 12 days!

Matthew 7:7-11

Luke 21:1-4; 2 Samuel 24:18-24

Matthew 4:8-10, 8:19-20

Romans 6:20-23

James 1:13-17

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NOTE: Bracketed numbers refer to the time stamp of the beginning of the week's sermon on the St. John's YouTube channel.

The Wait: What are you waiting for? [30:22]

Jeremiah 33:12-18 (11/22/21)

For the next few weeks, we'll be reading with Pastor Randall as he prepares his Advent sermons with special consideration of Matt Rawle's book, "The Gift of the Nutcracker." After that, we'll think some more about Christmas and what it means. Each week, we'll read the two scripture passages from the upcoming service, and three additional passages that seem to me to be related. (Other than that, the study tips and sermons won't be coordinated. Any resemblance between the two will be coincidental.)

This morning in Sunday school, our leader asked, "What does 'Advent' mean?" Several people said, "Waiting." Well, not so much – actually, it means "arrival." In the same way, "What are you waiting for?" can be a little ambiguous. It might mean, "Why are you waiting?" Or it might mean, "What thing or event do you expect?" The prophet Jeremiah gave clear answers to both questions. Much of the book is devoted to answering the first question: "We're waiting because we sinned against the LORD God, and now we're in trouble." Some of the book, as we read today, answers the second question: "We're waiting for God to send the offspring of David to bring us justice, to save us, and to return us to righteousness."


Luke 21:5-15 (11/23/21)

It seems like everybody at all times is waiting for end times. It also seems to me that very few people – including me – are getting ready for their own personal end time, which is likely to come about much sooner.

Naturally, Jesus had to discuss end times a couple of times, and today we read about one of them. Notice that he's not necessarily talking about end times in vss. 5-6. The first temple had been razed by the Babylonians, and now the Jews are always rabble-rousing against the Romans. It isn't too much of a stretch to predict that the temple might be razed again. The disciples, however, can't quite imagine life without the temple, and they immediately think he's talking about end times. They ask two questions in vs. 7. First, when is this going to happen? Second, what sign should we look for that it's about to happen? Jesus says, "Don't fuss about signs! Just be ready all the time to bear witness to what you have seen."


Luke 21:16-24 (11/24/21)

As we wait for the birth of King Jesus, we read a number of scriptures that talk about the Messiah as the suffering servant; however, it's easy to understand why most of the first-century Jews who were waiting for the Messiah were expecting a warrior king. "Messiah" and "Christ" are the Hebrew and Greek for "Anointed One." And who was anointed? Priests (e.g., Leviticus 4:3) and warrior kings (e.g., King Saul, 1 Samuel 23:1; King David, 2 Samuel 19:21; King Jehu of Israel, 1 Kings 19:16; King Cyrus of Persia, Isaiah 45:1). In intertestamental times, the idea of Messiah as a warrior king was even more fully developed. The downside of having a warrior king is that there are battles. A lot of people die, and Jesus predicts that some of his followers will be among them. Which Messiah are we waiting for?


Luke 21:25-36 (11/25/21)

You might want to check out Daniel 7:9-15 for striking parallels. Daniel was anxious and alarmed about the coming of the Son of Man, and we probably should be, too. The Son of Man will come suddenly, all over the world. There will be distress and perplexity, fear and foreboding, and judgment and redemption on that day. You might get a sign, but you might not recognize it, so you have to stay awake and on guard at all times. If you are aware of a scripture that says the Day of the Lord will be all sweetness and light, send it along, because I missed it. What do we think we're waiting for?


Romans 8:18-25 (11/26/21)

It is all of creation, and not just us, that waits with longing for redemption.


The Gift: Are you expecting good toys for Christmas? [25:52]

Proverbs 11:24-25, 17:8,18:16, 19:6 (11/29/21)

Gift giving has three parts: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. Proverbs has two contrasting views of the giver. On the one hand, the giver is even more blessed than the recipient. On the other, people may only like me if I give them something. Like all the contrasts in Proverbs, either may be true, depending on the circumstances.


Malachi 3:1-4 (11/30/21)

Have you ever gotten a gift that you really didn't want? God has the same problem. Gifts given to God in righteousness – which means given out of love and in a right relationship with God – are pleasing. Gifts given because we think the gift itself is pretty fancy and will make us right with God, not so pleasing; see Jeremiah 7.


Luke 1:13-20 (12/01/21)

Sometimes when we really, really want something for Christmas, we're afraid to believe that anyone would give it to us.


Luke 1:57-66 (12/02/21)

When I ask my adult friends, "Did you get good toys for Christmas?" they typically react like Zechariah: "Toys? I'm old, man." But The Cambridge dictionary includes the definition, "an object that is used by an adult for pleasure rather than for serious use." Zechariah and Elizabeth's baby was what they wanted more than anything else, and he brought them great pleasure. Remember to rejoice and bless God for your toys.


Luke 1:67-79 (12/03/21)

Prophecy is all about expectation. When Zechariah prophesied about his son John, he uses the words salvation twice and saved once. It's not a coincidence that Jesus' original name, before he became famous in Greek, was Joshua, "God-saves." Are we expecting salvation for Christmas?


The Battle: Could I please watch from a safe distance? [29:45]

Psalms 24:1-10 (12/06/21)

Well, gee. I should have been providing links to tunes from The Nutcracker. One of the most famous is the March of the Toy Soldiers.

When the LORD of Hosts goes to battle, he also brings soldiers. I would prefer to watch the battle from a safe distance. Remember that "LORD of Hosts" means "LORD of Armies."


Zephaniah 3:14-20 (12/07/21)

Scripture and popular literature are of one mind about the battle of Good versus Evil: Good will ultimately triumph, either in the short term (vs. 15 and the Nutcracker's annual defeat of the Mouse King) or in the long term (vs. 19 and the Federation's eventual defeat of the Empire).


Matthew 2:1-6, 16-18 (12/08/21)

Quick! How many kings in the Christmas story?... If you said "three," then please review the Christmas IQ Test that we did several years ago.

In The Nutcracker, there is only one, the Mouse King. In the scriptural Christmas story, there is only one, King Herod, who was a rat.


Luke 2:14; Matthew 10:32-39 (12/09/21)

You hear about "the Bible contradicting itself." I don't think it does, but a superficial reading of today's scriptures, especially in an older translation, might make you wonder. The older ones say, "On earth peace, and goodwill toward men," which is hard to reconcile with "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." That's because the best Greek manuscripts are better translated "on earth peace among people in whom God is well pleased." If you aren't pleasing to God, you'll be in the battle. If you are pleasing to God, you get to watch from the sidelines.

Just in case you're completely ready for Christmas, here's a longer discussion of the translation of Luke 2:14.


Revelation 6:1-11 (12/10/21)

Everybody "knows" that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. Careful reading shows that there are really five (at least in this passage): Conquest, War, Famine, Death, and Hades. Maybe Hades was on foot; it's not clear. Four or five – either way, they presage a terrible battle, but the martyrs for the faith get to take a nap, presumably at a safe distance.


...to the World: How can we include others? [36:02]

Micah 5:1-5a; Zechariah 8:19-23 (12/13/21)

After the battle, what do you have? Peace. Two ideas that the prophets Micah and Zechariah have in common are that God wants everybody – not just you and me, but all peoples of the earth – to come to him, and God wants us to be at peace. This week, maybe we should think about ways to bring peace before the battle. Bring peace, not just to your home, but to your enemy. Maybe we can avoid the battle entirely. Bring peace.


Psalms 117:1-2; Isaiah 2:1-4 (12/14/21)

The way of the LORD is steadfast love, and our mission is to lead all peoples and nations to learn the way of the LORD. How? Love God; love your neighbor.


Psalm 42:1-11 (12/15/21)

Psalms are songs; this one has a chorus in vss. 5-6 and 11.

God's steadfast love for us gives us reason to hope. Hope in God, and share that hope with those around you.


Luke 2:8-14 (12/16/21)

Luke was an educated Greek, so of course his Greek is excellent. When he has an expression like "they feared with great fear," you know that he's working directly from an earlier source that he found during his research. These earlier sources contained "Hebraisms," which are expressions and structures normally used in Hebrew that are found in another language, in this case Greek. Anyway, the shepherds were terrified, but the angel said he had news that should fill them with joy. Bring joy.

Acts 1:6-9, Luke 24:52-53 (12/17/21)

We have come full circle. On Monday, the prophet Zechariah told us that ten people from other nations would follow each Jew to Jerusalem.

Now Jesus tells his Jewish followers to start in Jerusalem and go to all the other nations. Bring peace, love, hope, and joy to others this Christmas.

Bring Christ.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters [31:05]

2 Chronicles 30:5; Matthew 12:41; 1 Corinthians 1:21, Kerygma/Preaching (12/20/21)

My grandson's birthday was this past week, and the gift that got the most delighted reaction was a sweater: "An Ugly Christmas Sweater!," he shouted. He was thrilled and put it on immediately. When several of us objected that the sweater wasn't ugly at all, he said, " 'Ugly Christmas Sweater' is a technical term for this kind of sweater." I thought that was so interesting and so applicable to next Sunday's sermon topic (by the way, be there or be square!) that I immediately decided to revise the readings for this week. We'll look at four words that don't mean what you probably think they mean.

The first one, kerygma, really is a technical term whose modern meaning is different from its biblical meaning. You might never have heard of it, but in modern English as spoken by seminary graduates, it means "the proclamation of religious truths, especially as taught in the Gospels," that is, Christian preaching about the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. (See Acts 2.) Obviously, it can't mean that when used in the Old Testament or Gospels. In the OT, Gospels, Acts, and some of the letters, the Greek kerygma, translated as "proclamation" or "preaching" just means... "proclamation" or "preaching" – plain, ordinary preaching on any topic or any official or unofficial proclamation.


Micah 4:1; Isaiah 9:2, Luke 2:29-32, People (12/21/21)

Another word that may not mean what you think it means is "people," and unfortunately some translators don't seem to be clear on the distinction, either. "People" does not mean "persons." "People" has a lot more in common with "nation" or "ethnic group" than it does with "individuals," which is why Micah talks about "peoples" – more than one nation or ethnic group – coming to Mt. Zion. When Isaiah talks about the "people who walked in darkness," he isn't talking about a random group of individuals, but about some specific nation or ethnic group. Notice how Simeon (in Luke 2) distinguishes between "all peoples" and God's "people Israel." God worked through the Jews to bring salvation to all nations.

Check these verses in your paper Bible. The singulars and plurals should be the same as the English Standard Version has here, because I checked the Greek and Hebrew, and the ESV is correct in these verses. If they aren't the same, then you need to read very carefully whenever "people" (or "everybody," or whatever) is used so that you can tell from the context whether your translator is using it correctly or in the more careless sense of "persons."
Acts 5:17, 15:5, 24:5, Galatians 5:19-20, Hairesis/Heresy (12/22/21)

Today we're going to talk about heresy, so first I want to say this: I sincerely expect that a lot of heretics are going to be in line in front of me when I get to heaven! In our lo-ong study of the biblical meaning of salvation, I concluded that orthodox belief is a way, but not the only way to be saved. Of course, I could be wrong.

"Heresy" is an opinion or doctrine contrary to orthodox belief. Like our earlier word "kerygma," it can't very well have our current meaning in the New Testament, because what constituted "orthodox belief" was still being debated. In fact, it's usually translated as "sect" (or a similar idea) in Acts, so you might not even notice that some group is being called "heretics." In Galatians, Paul includes "...rivalries, dissensions, heresies..." in a long list of works of the flesh, which sounds like it might be heading toward our modern definition, but I doubt it. Galatians is a very early letter; some say it is the earliest New Testament book. If the Church had already decided on what orthodoxy and heresy were, why does Acts, which was written later, use "heresy" to refer to the beliefs of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Nazarenes, in the same way we might use "denomination"? One thing first-century Jews and Christians had in common with us moderns is that everybody thought anybody who disagreed with them was not only wrong but also a troublemaker. Love each other and be at peace.

For a discussion of heresy and orthodoxy, see here


Numbers 12:3; Matthew 11:29; Meek (12/23/21)

Our last Ugly Christmas Sweater is "meek." Let me say right up front that my opinion of the biblical meaning of this word is somewhat outside the main stream. That doesn't mean I'm wrong, though.

The modern meaning of "meek" is either "gentle and humble" or "submissive and easily imposed on." But did you know that only two people are called "meek" in the Bible? They are Moses and Jesus. How is someone who calls down 10 plagues "gentle"? Read Matthew 23 and then come back and tell me that Jesus was "gentle" with the scribes and Pharisees. And humble? The Moses who claimed to speak face-to-face with God and the Jesus who claimed to be God were humble?? Maybe I don't know the meaning of the word "humble." As for "submissive and easily imposed on," both Moses and Jesus were leaders who laid down the law for their own followers; they weren't followers of someone else. So let's throw those definitions right out.

Whatever definition we use must describe Moses and Jesus, and nobody else named in the bible. Moses took a group of slaves who were loosely related to each other and whipped them into shape as a single, mighty nation, the people of God. He brought them God's Law and led them for 40 years. Jesus took 12 fairly ordinary men from all walks of life, taught them a new law without abandoning the old Law, and sent them out to convert the world. They were both charismatic and powerful, but they didn't use their charisma and power for personal gain or destruction. They treated their followers with kindness and emphasized the love of God in their teaching.

So here's what I think of when I hear the word "meek": a bull in a china shop. However, my bull walks through the china shop and doesn't break anything. Tremendous power, perfectly controlled. That definition of meekness fits Moses and Jesus, and nobody else. Here's an illustration from fellow reader Terri L.


Luke 2:41-52, Scribal Errors (12/24/21)

Speaking of YouTube, yesterday I watched a talk by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, who is a New Testament textual critic. Textual critics don't "say critical things" about the NT, they "apply critical thinking" – good scholarship and good detective work – to discover for us what the original (now lost) manuscripts of the NT really said. This passage is one that he talked about. Some late manuscripts have vs. 48 saying "we" or "Joseph and I" instead of "your father and I." Prof. Ehrman speculates that some later copyist thought, "Well, Joseph wasn't Jesus' real father, so Mary couldn't have said that," and he just changed it. The good professor makes the point that we can't interpret the Bible correctly until we know what it says.

So it's not just me telling you that you need to read a good, modern translation, which is more likely to be based on the best manuscripts and textual criticism. In this particular case, however, I looked at about 30 English translations, and – Merry Christmas! – not even the oldest ones (1568 and 1582) have the spurious reading. This Christmas, pray for textual critics, translators, and the spread of God's true word.


“Did he came yet??” [30:57]

Mark 13:21-23 (12/27/21)

Here's my advice. If someone tells you for sure that the Second Coming will happen on January 8, 2022, and that someone tells you to sell all you own and give him the money, don't! Because I'm pretty confident that if you do, on January 9, you will wake up broke and saying, "Did he come yet?"


Matthew 17:9-13 (12/28/21)

Speaking through the prophet Malachi, God says, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple" (Malachi 3:1). By the 1st century, the scribes interpreted this verse to be speaking of Elijah as a forerunner to the Messiah. The disciples had already decided that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16), and now, coming down from the mountain after the transfiguration, they wonder why Elijah hasn't arrived.


Matthew 2:1-12 (12/29/21)

Herod was troubled about the birth of a new king of the Jews, because the Jews already had a king, and he was it! The magi wanted to know where the king had come, and Herod wanted to know both where and when. The magi and Herod were asking the same questions about the new king's coming, but for very different reasons.


2 Timothy 2:16-19; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (12/30/21)

Did the rapture already come and we missed it??? First-century Christians were expecting Jesus to return any day now (which, by the way, is an excellent way to live your life). When people started dying, the Thessalonians started worrying about their deceased loved ones. When Jesus came, would they be left behind? And wait, what about the rest of us? Some people had been saying that Jesus already came and we missed it. Paul grouses to his associate Timothy about Hymenaeus and Philetus for spreading such falsehoods, and he reassures the Thessalonians that those who die in Christ will be fine.

By the way, remember to pray for all those traveling this time of year. Between COVID, the weather, and canceled flights, holiday travelers are more than normally at risk this year. In Christ or not, let's keep people as safe as we can.


Revelation 1:4-5a, 1:8, 4:6-8 (12/31/21)

Pastor Tiffany assured Pastor Randall that her sermon title, "Did he came yet??" is not a typo. John's Greek is usually very simple, and over the years, I've concluded that when he uses a highly unusual word, I need to pay close attention. I am unaware of any other Greek construction in the New Testament as unusual as "the one who is and who was and who is to come." From reading Wm. Barclay and the Expositor's Greek New Testament, I'd say the Greek really is "from He-Ising, and He-Was, and He-Coming." It can't be a "scribal typo," because we see it three times.

The phrase looks really weird in both English and Greek, because it doesn't change the pronoun "he" to "him" in order to agree with "from." John's point seems to be that God's sacred name is immutable, just as is the eternal and omnipresent God. So the answer to the question "Did he came yet??" seems to be "Yes, and he is, and he will."


Christmas really does last 12 days!

Matthew 7:7-11 (01/03/22)

Merry Christmas! Christmas really does last for 12 days, so we're going to think a little more about Christmas gifts. One of my kids gave me no ideas about what he wanted, needed, or would accept. I repeatedly threatened him with coal, but I ended up promising him cookies once a month for six months. Jesus says, "If you, who are evil, give your children cookies instead of coal, how much more will God, who is good, give his children good gifts!"

And by the way, Happy New Year, too!


Luke 21:1-4; 2 Samuel 24:18-24 (01/04/22)

Merry Christmas! Don't get me wrong – I'm all in favor of "regifting" the things you don't have a use for to other people or to charitable organizations. Nevertheless, gifts to God that don't cost you much also don't count for much.


Matthew 4:8-10, 8:19-20 (01/05/22)

Merry Christmas! Not all gifts are good, especially if they come with a lot of strings attached. Jesus preferred having no place to sleep to having kingdoms given to him by Satan.


Romans 6:20-23 (01/06/22)

January 6 is Epiphany; Christmas is over. Unless, of course, you belong to a tradition that starts counting on a different day or includes a different number of days, in which case you may have real trouble when the 13 tubists tooting and 14 cowboys roping show up. Whatever your tradition about Christmas, Epiphany is also characterized by gifts – gold, frankincense, myrrh, and the richest gift of all, eternal life in Jesus Christ.


James 1:13-17 (01/07/22)

Well, Christmas is over, unless you're Roman Catholic, in which case it lasts until the Sunday after Epiphany, i.e., the day after tomorrow. Since I'm furiously trying to get Christmas letters out the door, I'm switching denominations for the next couple of days. Have I given in to temptation? Probably, but I can't blame God for that, because we know God tempts no one and gives only good and perfect gifts!


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