Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Child is This?; Luke 2:22-38

This might be my favorite part of the Christmas story, although it’s not really Christmas. Jesus is just over a month old. This is his first trip to Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph are too poor to offer and substitute with 2 doves or pigeons. And as they make their sacrifice in the Temple, they meet two senior saints—Anna and Simeon. Anna is a prophet and has served in the Temple since she became a widow. Both of these senior saints knew the Scriptures and recognized the promised Messiah and gave thanks for him. As Mary and Joseph hear what is said about this child, they are amazed. They can’t help but ponder, what child is this? I want to focus a bit on what Simeon says about Messiah Jesus. Simeon answers the question, what child is this? Simeon says that Messiah is God’s salvation for all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of His people Israel. First he says that this Messiah is God’s salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples. This is God’s means of salvation for all the peoples. The word for peoples is laos and refers to people in general, many individuals. The Messiah is the Way—the Way in which all peoples can be reconciled to God. Jesus knew this. Jesus would later say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” The world would finally know that Yahweh is real and God cares about God’s people and will in fact deliver them. But Israel wasn’t destined to become a superior nation because… Simeon goes on to say that Jesus is a light of revelation to the Gentiles. The world for Gentiles is ethnos—ethnic groups. In the original covenant to Abraham, God said that God would bless Abraham and make of him a great nation so that he would be a blessing to all the nations. God intended for God’s salvation to reach to the ends of the earth. Jesus wasn’t just for the people of Israel, but a light to all the ethnic groups. As recently as a few decades ago in Japan it was surprising for the Japanese to learn that Jesus was born in the Middle East. They had only thought of Christianity as a Western religion. And while the Middle East is still far west of Japan, it was a surprising thing to learn and trips to the Holy Land by Japanese tourists became quite popular. The discovery helped them to realize that Jesus really did come for all ethnic groups, not just one. Third, Jesus is the glory of God’s people, Israel. In the beginning of this story we read that Simeon was promised he would not die until he saw Israel’s Consolation. Jesus would be the proof that everything God promised to His people would come to pass and it would come to pass in Jesus. Finally, all of Israel’s humiliation would come to an end. But just as in the Old Testament times, there would be people who would continue to resist the Word of God. Just as the prophets were resisted, disobeyed, mocked, and killed, Jesus would be treated the same way. Simeon elaborates that Jesus will cause the falling of some Jews and the rising of others. He notes that as glorious as Messiah will be, He will also be opposed because Jesus has the capability to reveal thoughts. Jesus challenges our notion of self-preservation. Because Jesus is the means by which all are saved, Jesus exposes our weaknesses. Jesus shows us that we cannot save ourselves. Jesus breaks through our disguises and reveals the truth, the ugly truth hidden in our hearts and minds. Some will be exposed and fall, but many will be exposed and rise—be resurrected—as they place their trust in the Savior. Simeon also lets Mary know that her own soul will be pierced. As thrilled and thankful Simeon is to hold Messiah in his arms, he knows that Jesus’s life will not be easy. Simeon understands the spiritual role of Messiah. For Messiah to fulfill His role would entail great suffering. The refrain, for the second verse of “What Child is This?” which we sang on Christmas Eve says, “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through. The cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe the Son of Mary.” And even Mary must endure the same scrutiny of heart that we all must endure at the eyes of Jesus. Jesus treats his mother as he would anyone else. He doesn’t have any higher regard for her. Think of the wedding at Cana, or the time when Mary tried to get Jesus to return to the family and Jesus replying that the people He was with were His true family. And yet Mary continues to follow her Son. She places her trust in Him all the way to the cross. And it is there that Jesus cares for her as Son. He entrusts her to John the apostle’s care. He makes sure Mary is looked after and provided for. Babies don’t stay babies for very long. They grow up, and this baby had a destiny. Even our new mothers in this room can tell you that their babies have changed a lot since they were born. And next year, at this time, they might even be standing. It’s hard to imagine what your child might become when you are just thrilled to have a child, when you are getting used to being a first time parent and feeding and changing diapers, when you are too busy noticing the small daily changes you see in your child as facial expressions emerge and different noises become associated with meaning. It’s hard to picture what they will be like when they are in their 30’s. Mary and Joseph are amazed at what they hear. And yet they’ve heard it before. Mary heard it from an angel and from Elizabeth. Joseph, too heard it from an angel. They both heard it from the testimony of shepherds. And now from two senior saints that they probably haven’t previously met, they hear again. They marvel that so many people know already that this child is special, that this child is really the Messiah, and yet they probably can still hardly believe it themselves. As often as Mary and Joseph heard what their child would be, it still caused them to marvel. They don’t cease asking, what child is this? Jesus was a child to be marveled at. He would bring both salvation and judgment, vindication and restoration, division and unity, not only for Israel, but for the world. This child would be a light of revelation, showing all ethnic groups what God is like. Our response to this child is what makes the difference in Christ’s function. His role and nature were determined well before his birth and confirmed in his infancy. The light has been given. Salvation, consolation, and glory have been offered. What child is this? What single person could do all of that? Only God’s right arm, the Anointed One, the Christ, the promised Savior and Deliverer, who was also the Babe, the Son of Mary.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Light in the Darkness; Psalm 89

A repeated theme in Advent is light. As we light another candle each week, the light grows brighter in anticipation of the True Light entering the world. But what about when the darkness seems to overcome the light? What about when it seems as if God really has broken God’s promises? I talked to the children about promises and broken promises and told them that God never breaks God’s promises. That’s what the Bible says, but in today’s psalm, it seems as if God has not only broken a mere promise, but God’s very covenant that God made with David. If you know about covenants, you know that they are binding legal agreements and that the penalty for breaking them is death. So if God can break promises is God really God at all? This psalm is interesting. The last verse 52 is not really part of it. You see, the psalms are actually made up of 5 different sections, or books. Psalm 89 is the last psalm in section 3. Verse 52 denotes the end of this section of psalms. This book has been made up of royal psalms—psalms about kings, mostly David, but even more than that, they celebrate the Lord as King. Since verse 52 is not part of the psalm, that means this psalm ends with a series of questions and a plea for God to remember God’s covenant. Second, we know who wrote at least part of this psalm—Ethan the Ezrahite. From I Kings, we find out that Ethan is wise. King Solomon is declared to be wiser than all the wise men, including Ethan the Ezrahite. This means that Ethan was a very smart dude. We also find out from I Chronicles that he was a musician. He was a singer, songwriter, and played the cymbals. He and some of his fellow musicians were commissioned to write, sing, and play. Third, this psalm is divided into 3 parts. Verses 1- 18 offer praise to God. This section contains all four Advent themes—hope in the sure promises of God, peace because God has conquered all God’s enemies. This victory is expressed in the picture, “You crushed Rahab like one of the slain.” Rahab is a metaphor for Egypt, and with the other references to the sea, symbolizes the crossing of the Reed Sea. Rahab was also a sea dragon in Canaanite mythology. It represented chaos. God brings order out of chaos. In fact, God created the world out of chaos. Genesis 1:1 says God created the heavens and the earth. In verse 2 of Genesis one, the earth is described as formless and void. The Hebrew is stronger, describing the water-covered earth as a big mess. The New Testament tells us that God is a God of order and not of confusion. When has God created order out of chaos in your life? Rahab also symbolizes demonic power. God is greater than all evil. The rest of that verse says, “You have scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.” Christ is often referred to in the prophets and New Testament as God’s mighty right arm. Joy is seen in verse 15, “Blessed are the people that know the joyful sound!” The “joyful sound” is a group shout of triumphal praise. It cannot be made by a lone individual. It is like cheers at a football stadium. What would it sound like if we shouted for joy for who God is and what God has done like when our favorite team scores a touchdown or makes that 3 point shot right before the buzzer? The people of the Bible didn’t know modern sports, but they knew this sound. It was common at their festivals and it was directed to God Almighty. Love is seen in the second section of the psalm as well as the first as God’s forever covenant with David is described in detail. And of course there is light. To describe the totality of the Lord’s kingly reign, the mountains Tabor and Hermon are used. Tabor means light and Hermon means a “consecrated place”. Mt. Tabor is also the likely place of the transfiguration, which is appropriate as its name means “light”. This is where Jesus radiated light brighter than the sun. He was revealed in glory. Tabor is west of Jerusalem and Hermon is east. With the north and south and with heaven and earth, it is shown that everything belongs to God and every being belongs to God. Again, God’s hand is mentioned, pointing to the kingship of Christ. Christ is light and Christ is holy. Again, this royal psalm speaks more of Christ’s reign than David’s. Verse 18 says, “The Holy One of Israel is our king.” Yes, David was holy and chosen by God, but Christ moreso. He is absolutely holy. And His being chosen from the people speaks to the incarnation. He is fully man, but He also is Lord of heaven. He rules over the sea. He is the One who calls God, “Abba, Father.” He is the anointed Christ. He is the firstborn. We also know this psalm is about Christ because the angel Gabriel quotes from it in his annunciation to Mary when he says, “He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” David was great, but Christ is greater. Scholars are divided as to whether Ethan wrote the second and third sections of the psalm in addition to the first, especially the 3rd section, which is a lament. In this section, the lamenter reminds God of God’s forever covenant with David, but the external evidence points to God breaking that covenant. If Ethan wrote it, he may be referring to Absalom’s rebellion, or perhaps he outlived Solomon and saw the kingdom divided. If it is a later addition, perhaps it was written during the exile or even right when Assyria conquered Israel or Babylon conquered Judah. We don’t know, but it is clear that this is a continuation of the psalm as it calls into question all the “forevers” promised by God. Notice that forever 4x’s in reference to God speaking plus an additional time by the psalmist as a pledge of praise and it is alluded to even more times than that. So this psalmist wonders, “What happened to ‘forever’?” Is it possible God renounced this covenant? Have you ever wondered if God has broken a promise? When has it seemed like God is not keeping God’s promises? Even this week, we learned of the massacre of school children far worse than the one in our country 2 years ago, the murder of more than 132 children and 9 staff in Peshawar. This was an act of darkness. It is evil. If God’s covenant is a forever one made to bless all the peoples of the earth, did God leave out Pakistan? Where is the light? The psalmist or psalmists recognize that there is a warning from God about punishing the descendants of David if they break God’s commandments, but even so there is a promise of restoration, grace, and that the covenant will never be broken. And yet, whatever the psalmist is describing is far worse than punishment or discipline. The psalmists’ questions are legitimate—“What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his life from the power of Sheol?” It has been said that the psalms are the prayers of Christ. I can imagine Jesus praying this psalm in the garden. He was the One who had to bear all the many peoples in His bosom. He was the One who had to endure our shame. Even Jesus had to die. The only two who never died were Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire, and possibly Enoch, who walked with God and was no more. But Jesus had to die. And the answer to the second question is, “Yes!” The psalmist might not have known it, but Jesus did rise from the grave! Even as He grieved in the garden, He already knew the positive answer to the question. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him. God’s covenant was not broken, and it will never be broken, even though it seems like darkness triumphs temporarily. Because of Christ, even we are light. Ephesians 5:8 says, “For once, you were darkness, but now in the Lord, you are light.” We didn’t just live in darkness; we were darkness. We were enemies of Christ, but now in Him we are light. We don’t just live in the light; we are light. We can illuminate the way for others. And so Paul exhorts us in the rest of that verse, “Live as children of light!” We can sing of the mercies of the Lord forever. We can make known His faithfulness to all generations. We have been reminded this season that our timetable is not God’s, and yes, God will always remain true to God’s word. We can claim all these victorious promises. With Christ, who is, as the Nicene Creed says, “Light from light, true God from True God,” the darkness will never win, and has in fact, been given a deadly blow. His death and resurrection made certain of that. Even so, Lord quickly come.

Monday, December 15, 2014

We Will Rejoice; Psalm 126, I Thessalonians 5:16-28

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Experiencing God's Shalom; Psalm 85, II Peter 3:8-15

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