Issue #91

Are the Christmas Stories Fact or Fiction, Why Isaiah 7:14 Confuses People, Advent and the Near Irrelevance of Political Power, and more...

Issue #91
Photo by KaLisa Veer / Unsplash

Merry Christmas to all Garden Weekly readers! In two weeks will be the full "year in review" post, but I just want to take this moment to thank each of you for reading. The world is so full of toxicity and The Garden Weekly is dedicated to cutting through the noise, finding a few pieces of content that will provoke you to think about the spiritual life, and presenting them in a short and easy-to-read format. I hope we've reached that goal for you this year.

This Christmas weekend, I hope and pray that you have brothers and sisters in Christ to praise the incarnate and risen king and to remember that he came to earth in the past and he will return to earth again.

Christianity Is True ✝️

Are the Christmas Stories Fact or Fairytale? | Lydia McGrew, Jonathan Pearce, and Justin Brierley 📽 →

In this debate between Christian Lydia McGrew and atheist Jonathan Pearce, they tackle the historicity of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Are the two accounts so different that they cannot be reconciled? Are they just made-up fairytales? McGrew did a great job of defending and explaining these stories in the face of Pearce’s skepticism.

Living This Christian Life 🤴👸

God Doesn’t Use the Elf on the Shelf Method | Russell Moore 📃 →

Sold alongside a book of the same name, first published in 2005, the Elf on the Shelf is a plastic figure, bedecked in a long cap, that perches on the mantles (and various other spots) of some American homes. The elf is said to be a scout for Santa Claus, helping him determine who’s naughty and who’s nice. For some, the elf is uncannily eerie—the way creepy children in horror movies can be.

A decade ago, journalist Kate Tuttle argued in The Atlantic that the Elf on the Shelf is “a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a ‘tradition.’” She listed many reasons she hated the practice, but her most pointed one was the conceit behind the whole thing: teaching children that it’s all right to be spied on. The elf, after all, sits on his perch from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see whether kids keep the rules and behave.

While Tuttle might be right that there’s “something uniquely fake about the Elf,” the idea of controlling behavior with the notion that someone “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake” is rooted in something far older and deeper in human history. In fact, one writer argues that the impulse behind the Elf on the Shelf explains human civilization itself.

I was surprised to learn that the “elf on the shelf” isn’t even 20 years old, but this article examining the worldview behind the elf is fascinating and essential. As Christians, we should regularly inspect the ideas we bring into our homes.

What’s interesting is that behind this argument is a critical question about what religion is. Is it merely an evolutionary adaptation whose purpose is to bind societies together? If so, then the Elf on the Shelf and other such games are simply pantomiming in miniature the way grown-ups are manipulated into behaving—just with a cosmically more significant “Elf.”

We can and should learn a great deal from these observations. Certainly, religion is often created and used this way. We’ve seen that repeatedly when political, tribal, or religious leaders use a form of religion to keep the masses accountable but make themselves out to be unquestionable. Those of us who are Christians obviously believe that the gospel is much more than that.
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Consider Another Perspective 🤔

The Christmas Star | John Dickson 🎧 →

This podcast is pretty short but discusses a fascinating topic: the “Christmas” star.

It’s Christmas time and traditionally the season when critics of the nativity story take shots at some of its more prosaic elements. But what if the star above the manger and the three wise men had a historical basis?

Dr. Chris Forbes brings his expertise in the Greco-Roman world to bear on why historians believe the story of the three magi and the star over a stable might actually be based in fact.

Read and Reflect 📖

Has Materialism Distracted Your Heart? | Immanuel Marsh 📃 →

It’s hard not to get swept up in the quest for more. We are marketed to constantly (commercials, print ads, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Amazon Prime Day). The internet, our smartphones, and little speakers in our house listen to us and track us for the purpose of targeting us with ads.

And all these advertisements promise us something—pleasure, status, convenience, comfort.

As Christians, we know that we shouldn’t be distracted by money and material things, but the pull of culture is to obsess ourselves with stuff.

So, how do we resist the pull toward materialism during this season? Jesus gives us the answer: “Seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31–32, NIV).

Jesus offers an alternative to accumulating more things or worrying about our needs. We seek the kingdom: we pursue God and his will on earth. Rather than be afraid, we trust in God’s character and that he is pleased to give us the kingdom. (As indeed he has.) We develop a kingdom perspective. Instead of striving, seek. Instead of incessantly storing, seek. Instead of worrying, trust. Then all the things we need will follow.

This is your reminder, and mine, to seek his kingdom and for his will to dominate our hearts’ desires this Christmas.

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Listen and Learn 🎧

Christmas Hymns | Matt Anderson, Derek Rishmawy, and Alastair Roberts 🎧 →

This podcast looks at the theology of three classic Christmas hymns.

The first is “Once in Royal David’s City”. Here’s the first verse. All the verses of each song are in the podcast notes link below.

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

The second is “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”.

Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the Source, the Ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore!

The third is my favorite Christmas hymn:

Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king!”

For More:

Explore the Scriptures 📖

”The Virgin Shall Conceive”: Why Isaiah 7:14 Confuses People | Jean Jones 📃 →

For many years, the prophecy that confused me most was Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Every Christmas I heard pastors quote this, but none had ever explained its context. What confused me was that the next three verses say that the prophecy will be fulfilled within 14 years. If it was supposed to be fulfilled in the eighth century BC, how could it apply to Jesus?

Let’s go ahead and clear that up.

This is the passage in context:

Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel. By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey. For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. The LORD will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”
— Isaiah 7:14–17

The whole passage raises so many questions. How can this story be about Jesus if “before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good” (Jones’ fourteen years) “the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.” But if it’s not about Jesus, then why is it applied to Jesus?

Jones gives us the background of Isaiah 7, then takes a look at Isaiah 9:6–7 which clearly looks forward to the future Messiah. This prophecy and Jones’ article help us to clearly see that Biblical prophecy isn’t as simple as we often think of it. They are usually fulfilled multiple times in multiple ways with shadows forecasting the ultimate fulfillment in Jesus.

Jones’s story of the “Potato Portent” to explain how biblical prophecy works is funny and effective. You’ll learn a lot about how to read scripture in this post.

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Best with a Cup of Tea ☕️

Advent and the Near Irrelevance of Political Power | Bruce Clark 📃 →

The Advent story, as commonly conceived, tells of the remarkable events that lead up to the birth of Jesus, as found in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. It also introduces the reader to some of the most powerful political powers of the time–and indeed, of all time.

Only then to ignore them.

Clark describes the history of Herod the Great, the client king of Judea in the time of the birth of Jesus.

And yet in spite of either Herod’s astonishing capacity or cruelty–not to mention his impressively close connections with the family of Caesar Augustus himself, in the Advent story, he receives neither commendation nor critique; he is neither an opportunity to be exploited nor an oppressor to be exposed and overcome (although, yes, Matthew’s Gospel will have much more to say about the heart-wrenching brutality, if futility, of Herod’s scheming). Why is this?

Well, apparently, it’s because, for all his political power, Herod the Great is of little or no consequence to the coming of the King.

Clark points out how disinterested Matthew and Luke are in traditional political power, and how very interested they are in the “inconsequential” people, like Mary, the mother of Jesus. She finds her worth and consequence aligning with his will and her humility to serve.

In sum, in a way that is incredibly freeing (if quite foreign) to contemporary American Christians (myself included), many of whom have entered the Advent season as members of what David French calls an “exhausted majority” (found across the political spectrum), the Advent story looks at political power…and yawns. In the Kingdom of God the currency of political power has a value almost akin to the currency of Monopoly money: it fulfills a humble and divinely ordained role to be sure, but it can fool its owner into believing that it has a potency and permanence that it simply doesn’t.

Apparently, the awesome political power of a Caesar Augustus or Herod the Great just isn’t that great. But we American Christians (across the political spectrum) all too often seem to join our culture in wanting to make political power great again. Why?

This an important question for us all to ask of ourselves, and one that I will leave to you to ponder as you read this wonderful post.

Keep Your Mind on Things Above

I will be praying for you this week.

Bethlehem Ephrathah,
you are small among the clans of Judah;
one will come from you
to be ruler over Israel for me.
His origin is from antiquity,
from ancient times.
— Micah 5:2 (CSB)

Joel Fischer

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