As an English major, I love seeing words come alive in a new light, especially when it’s in the light of faith. Dale Vander Veen is a retired pastor who emails daily devotions and he graciously welcomed me to share his theological discoveries in the word solvent

I love to find ways to open the gospel in one word. And when that one word has more than one meaning, all the better.

Solvent: able to pay all legal debts (as defined by Merriam-Webster). Solvent definition from GoogleThe opposite of solvent is bankrupt: reduced to a state of financial ruin; utter impoverishment. Maybe you know where I’m going with this one. I am spiritually bankrupt. I am unable to pay my debts to God; I am ruined, utterly impoverished. My dictionary goes further in defining bankrupt: exhausted of valuable qualities.

God says, “Dale, your dictionary goes too far. You may feel that you are ‘exhausted of valuable qualities.’ I disagree. You are of great worth to me. I have claimed you as my own, redeemed you, given you a new start. I have solved your insolvency once and for all.” Wow! Paul puts it this way: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Wow again!!

Solvent: a liquid substance capable of dissolving or dispersing one or more other unwanted substances (as also defined by Merriam-Webster). My sin is an “unwanted substance.” It is a deep stain, a seemingly irremovable stain. Only one liquid substance can make me better than OxiClean. “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” One more Wow!!!

::– –::– –::

For nothing good have I whereby thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white in the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.
Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.
————————— – Elvina M. Hall, “Jesus Paid It All”

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O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Christmas carol graphic found at SermonCentral

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis in connection with Rachel, the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob. She dies in childbirth, naming her son BenOni, which means Son of My Sorrow. Jacob buries Rachel in Bethlehem and sets up a pillar over her tomb as a visible reminder of the sadness associated with this location.

After Genesis, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges which records a very dark time in Israel’s history. The first story concerns a citizen in Ephraim who crafts an idol made of silver and then hires a Levite from Bethlehem to be the priest for his false god. It’s a good gig for the Levite until warriors from Dan come and steal the idol. But it all works out because the warriors end up bribing the Levite from Bethlehem to become their priest instead. The second story from Judges concerns another Levite who has a concubine (think: mistress) from Bethlehem. The two are on a journey and overnight in Gibeah. The locals demand to have sex with the traveler, but he offers them his concubine instead. The concubine is gang raped and ends up dying after the ordeal. So what does the Levite do with his deceased concubine from Bethlehem? He takes a knife and cuts up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sends them into all the areas of Israel which then plunges the country into civil war.

After the book of Judges comes the story of Ruth. It begins with a famine in Bethlehem (ironically, the name Bethlehem means House of Bread) that drives Naomi’s family to Moab. Naomi later returns to Bethlehem as a childless, bitter widow.

We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t bother inviting his boy to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. The town is again part of a story in 2 Samuel, but the lines on the map have been redrawn: Israel has lost Bethlehem and it is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at this point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled A Not-So-Silent Night by Verlyn D Verbruggewith grief, idolatry, sexual immorality, war, depression, family dysfunction, military weakness, and infanticide. As Verlyn D. Verbrugge puts it, Bethlehem’s history “is connected with either extreme sadness, unfaithfulness, and seedy or despicable behavior.”

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.