Values that are Larger than Self (Luke 2:25-38)

This is a busy season of the year, isn’t it?  As we view the majority of the people in the world around us, it is easy to possess a sort of latent condescension. THEY don’t get IT!  They don’t understand the reason for the season. For them, it is just all about Santa and elves and Walmart and Amazon and UPS. Those who “get it” – like us for example – are in a truly small minority.

The faithful are always a minority. Jesus said as much when speaking of the broad road that leads to destruction and the narrow path that leads to eternal life.

Throughout the Scriptures – especially over and over with the accounts of the Old Testament and Israel – the faithful comprise “the few and far between” of humanity. Only Noah and his family remained true to God as the great deluge approached. It took God working through Moses to revive a nation in exile and deliver them to the Promised Land. Elijah felt he was all alone when dealing with the prophets of Baal. God used the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires to bring judgment upon his faithless people.

But always there was a remnant. As evangelical Christians, we likely see ourselves as among the remnant of God’s people in our generation. And as we read the Bible and project ourselves back into the context of ancient times, we are completely confident that we would have been one of the few … the faithful … the ones connected truly to God and his work in that generation.

So, if we were living in the times of the birth of Christ, surely we would be among the good characters of the incarnation story. We’d be a wise man on a camel, a shepherd in the fields, a faithful follower of John the Baptist, or even a frequenter of the Temple – a person fully anticipating the coming of God’s promised Messiah. Maybe? Maybe not?

In any event, it is always difficult to be a remnant person when all of the current is going opposite of the direction you are swimming through life. And so it was in Israel, even at the Temple in Jerusalem in the era of Herod and the Romans. Malachi and the prophets who wrote of a coming Messiah were the stuff of ancient history. The majority of the Jewish world was busy with the stuff of daily life, not the ancient promise of messianic hope.

Today we meet a couple of remnant people in Jerusalem, elderly people who retained a great hope of the coming Messiah, even as their personal sands of time where almost completely in the bottom half of the hourglass. Meet Simeon and Anna …

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Luke 2:36 – There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

It is very imaginable that Simeon and Anna were seen even by the religious element in Israel as somewhat over-the-top pious and even a bit kooky and eccentric. But in the face of decades, generations … even centuries … of unfulfilled prophecies, they remained true to God’s promise by hanging onto hope. They longed for a new day and a new era. Though they themselves would not see the complete fulfillment of it, the greatness of God’s plan for the nation and all mankind gave them a perspective on life that was bigger than self.

It is rather clear from the story that these old folks lived under God’s favor. And certainly we can state that this is a timeless truth. God’s calling upon us is to see our place within his plan of the ages. We are members of the Kingdom of Light, members of the cast of characters of a drama that began with creation in a garden and heading toward an eternal city. This is the stuff of true reality.

Yet the nature of humanity is to see the immediate cares of daily life as the consuming reality. And whereas we need to be responsible in these details, the greater picture would call us to have a heart and values system longing for that which is truly eternal.

It is easy to become today as the masses of the Jewish population were at the time of Christ’s incarnation – not necessarily involved in bad stuff, but neither terribly interested in nor expectant about God’s word and plan. We too live with multiplied centuries now having been interspersed between the promise of a second coming of Jesus and the actual fulfillment of it. It is not like we don’t believe it, but likely we don’t think about it that much or long for it.

Being like, thinking like, and valuing eternity like Simeon and Anna did is not actually crazy or eccentric. It is actually having THE BIG IDEA of it all as front and center in our minds and lives. God likes that; God approves of such a person.

< This concludes the final devotional in the First-Person Christmas series. Our next teaching series will be an eight-part study on the person of God – his attributes and the trinity etc. – the stuff that in theology we call “theology proper.”  This will begin on January the 8th with associated devotionals throughout. >

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Why is this Guy so Weird? (Matthew 3)

We are very familiar with speed bumps and rumble strips. They are common now and are on every highway and interstate. I remember the first place I ever experienced them. On Route 22 in Easton, PA there is a very sharp curve, called “Cemetery Curve” – appropriately named in light of the many deadly accidents, though actually named because of the nearby, historic cemetery. Over time, the many warning signs leading up to the curve proved to be insufficient. Finally, rumble strips were used, and I remember the first time going over them and the startling sensation that made you slow down and pay attention.

The strips were there as a preparation for what was to come – to educate you that there was an appropriate way to negotiate that turn. Likewise, the Old Testament was full of signs and information that a coming Messiah would be on the scene. A part of that would be someone who, in the spirit of Elijah, would prepare the way for the coming of Israel’s king. This person was the cousin of Jesus – John the Baptist.

The idea of “preparation” is a major teaching point of Matthew chapter 3. But, prepared in what way?

The message of John was of repentance and baptism (identification); it was a message of spiritual preparation. It was a message saying, “You’re not okay with God simply because of who you are (the Jewish people – the Sons of Abraham). To be okay with God, there needs to be a repentance from sin and an identification with God’s truth and God’s program (such identification evidenced by baptism).”

What is repentance? By definition, it means to agree with God about the nature of sin (to see it from the same perspective He sees it), along with a commitment to walk in the opposite direction (which is the proof, or fruit of a genuine repentance).

You surely know of the most famous Peanuts comic strip – the one with Lucy and Charlie Brown practicing football. Lucy would hold the ball for Charlie’s placekicking. But every time Lucy had ever held the ball for Charlie, he would approach and attempt to kick with all his might. At the precise moment of the point of no return, Lucy would pick up the ball and Charlie’s momentum would send him through the air and deposit him on his back.

One of these strips had Lucy holding the ball, but Charlie Brown would not kick it. Lucy begged him to kick the ball. But Charlie Brown said, “Every time I try to kick the ball you remove it and I fall on my back.” They went back and forth for the longest time and finally Lucy broke down in tears and admitted, “Charlie Brown I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have. I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you. I’ve been wrong, so wrong. Won’t you give a poor penitent girl another chance?”

Charlie Brown was moved by her display of grief and responded to her, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.” He stepped back as she held the ball, and he ran. At the last moment, Lucy picked up the ball and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back. Lucy’s last words were, “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”

Now that is not really repentance. Saying you are sorry is one thing, but living a different way is another. My favorite college professor Dr. McGahey always said, “Nobody was ever saved being just sorry for their sins.” True repentance leads to change because of a new heart condition resultant from faith in the work of Christ.

John preached a message of preparation through repentance and baptism. The key word related to baptism is “identification.”

We choose identification all the time. Perhaps in our culture it is an identification with a sports team … a school … a club or organization. Sometimes, the things we identify with may be counter-cultural. In fact, identifying with Christ is that very thing. In a world that is going the wrong way and is under the control of the kingdom of darkness, identifying with God – with Jesus Christ – is always going to be counter-cultural. It was that way for the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. It is true where you work out in the world, or go to school. It has always been this way and always will be, until the day God makes all things new and right upon the return of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 3:1 – In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “

Prophetically speaking, this was spoken of by Isaiah …

Isaiah 40:1 – Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

3A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

5And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Another Old Testament foretelling of John the Baptist is in Malachi 3:1 …

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

John certainly had a unique appearance, even for that era …

Matthew 3:4 – John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

My question for the title today: Why is this guy so weird? It is because he was a “rumble strip” pointer to Christ. For anyone who had a heart to know the truth and who knew the Scriptures of the O.T., they would be led to understand that this man was the Elijah-like forerunner – the one who would point to the Messiah. Look at this passage in 2 Kings 1 …

1After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”

3But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, `Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says: `You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!'”  So Elijah went.

5 When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”

6 “A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, `Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ‘ “

7 The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”

8 They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.”  The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

So Elijah was an eccentric dresser as well. Again in Matthew 3 …

5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

 MT 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

MT 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

These remarks would have reminded the “tuned in” Jewish listener of two Old Testament passages:

Verse 11 here would recall these words in Joel 2:28-29 …

 JOEL 2:28 “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.

 JOEL 2:29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Verse 12 of Matthew 3 should remind them of Malachi 3:2-4 …

 MAL 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

The time came when Jesus was likewise baptized by John …

MT 3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

MT 3:15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

MT 3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Here is what we may take away from the story of John the Baptist:

We learn of the story of the coming of Christ and see that story in the bigger context of Scripture. It reminds us of the great plan of God and of the great blessing we have to be a part of that. Our inclusion is resultant from the ultimate rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation, the postponement of the earthly kingdom, and the subsequent spread of the Gospel to all peoples and nations.

We also take away the timeless truths of preparation / repentance / identification. There is a tendency to not be prepared, but to rather be impressed with the wrong things – the busy things of this world.

So are you prepared? There is another coming of Christ foretold; and for that, the Scriptures also have “rumble sticks.”

1 Peter 1:3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1PE 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

1PE 1:13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

How do we show our preparation?  Through repentance and identification …

REPENTANCE – seeing our sin or human condition as God sees it and doing what the Scriptures say to do.

IDENTIFICATION – We boldly wear our team uniform of faith, even in the context of rejection and despise. It’s okay to be weird.

Trying to Piece Together This Puzzle (Malachi)

So here we are the day after Christmas, and my title today includes the word “piece.”  I really, really dislike that word!  And it is Christmas that caused this disaffection, especially for the pluralized version: “pieces.”  All of this has to do with having had a large family of children with the celebration and giving of gifts at Christmastime.

It remains a traumatic memory, even though the years now are waning a bit. Everything about Christmas – from the setting up of decorations, to the construction of larger outdoor toys like the Little Tikes heavy-duty plastic stuff, to playing with puzzles and legos given as gifts – all of it involved “pieces.”  The directions would say something like “142 pieces for assembly.”

When God handed out the logical reasoning ability that enables a person to instinctively know how to put multi-piece things together, I was apparently standing elsewhere in some sort of academic geek-squad type of line.

And as proof that I never learned a lesson from this, yesterday Diana and I did it again!  Yesterday we gave as a gift to our eight grandchildren a gigantic outdoor trampoline that will be set up at our house and be always here to get them out of the adults’ hair by sending them outside to enjoy jumping and playing upon like their fathers did when growing up at the same house. However, the trampoline was shipped to us in two very large boxes, and there is “some assembly required.”  Ugh! Pieces!dsc_1012

The Christmas story (which is the beginning of the pinnacle scene of God’s Big Story) involves a lot of pieces over time. The actual end of the story is yet to be seen and fully realized, and it is confusing to know what is yet to come in the culmination of time and the return of Christ. We have Scriptural puzzle pieces for this, but Christians don’t always agree as to exactly how they fit together.

But if you think our situation is confusing, imagine what it must have been like for an Old Testament prophet. At least for us we have the story of the incarnation, the life of Christ, the cross and the resurrection as historical events. All of these things were puzzle pieces to God’s people before the coming of Jesus. How could they – even a spokesman for God like a prophet – put all of these pieces together? The answer is that they really couldn’t … not nearly completely at all.

So let’s pick one of these prophets – the last one, Malachi – and use him in a first-person way as an illustration of that frustrating conundrum for those who so, so, so wished to understand what it all meant.

(This is the rough text of a first-person sermon on Malachi from eight years ago… so picture an ancient prophet sitting at a rough-hewn table with scrolls all over the place, with others nailed to the wall of his cave in haphazard fashion.)  Malachi speaking …

“Look at this! This is incredible!”

(Reading from Exodus 12:21-28) – Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe” …  “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, `What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'”  Then the people bowed down and worshiped. 28 The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. 

“The people obeyed … imagine that! The people of Israel sure don’t obey like that anymore! They are in complete rebellion and far from God! They don’t listen to prophets like me anymore. They say to me, ‘Malachi, why should we listen to you? So what if you say you are the last of the prophets to Israel? What good have any of you prophets been to us? You tell of a coming Messiah, but we see nothing!’”

“Yes, a Messiah has been long prophesied by those who have gone before me! But I am the last! And I don’t know how this all goes together myself! You would think that the last of God’s prophets to Israel would understand these things a little bit better than I do!”

“Okay, Malachi …. Go over it all again …”

“Now… here is what the Lord has said to ME to say to Israel.”

MAL 3:1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

MAL 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So now, that means that a person is going to come in advance of the Messiah and announce his coming … and … the Messiah is going to clean things up, especially with the Levites (good – they sure need it!) … and then offerings will be restored in righteous ways and the good days of true worship will come to Israel.”

“Very good … but how does that fit with all the other prophetic words that have gone before me?  Like this one from the beginning … by Moses…”

GE 3:14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock  and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.    GE 3:15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

“Now this is interesting about the tribe of Judah… Moses wrote this one too…”  (pointing to a manuscript pinned to the wall) …

GE 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

“Okay… and now this ONE! Wow… this is as old as Moses, and it is incredible!”

  JOB 19:25 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  JOB 19:26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; JOB 19:27 I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

“And then here are some of my favorites … from Isaiah 300 years ago, when being a prophet meant something – not that they didn’t have problems with the people too!”

Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:6-7 – For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Isaiah 49:6 – I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

“And then, what in the world can this prophecy of Micah mean about Bethlehem, that little sheep village out there in the middle of nowhere?”

Micah 5:2 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

“And Zechariah adds this piece to the confusion, talking about coming on a DONKEY???”

Zechariah 9:9 – Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

“And this last one especially confuses me as to what it means … about suffering and death.”

Isaiah 53:5-6 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“WHAT does it all mean? How does it all go together? I have looked and searched and still do not understand it all. But it is not for me to understand.”  (Praying) “That is what You want me to understand, isn’t it my Lord? All of this is for generations to come to know and to see and to believe.”

(A voice reads from 1 Peter 1:10-12) Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

“OK…let me try one more time to piece this together:

  • there’s the serpent and the heel,
  • the king from Judah’s family,
  • the virgin giving birth to a ‘God with us’ child, and Isaiah’s thing about a king forever
  • Micah’s thing about Bethlehem,
  • Zechariah and a donkey ride of the king into Jerusalem,
  • something to do with Gentiles as part of it all,
  • suffering and death – but not seeing any decay!! Good night! How can any of this go together?”

“If I am a prophet from God and I can’t figure this all out, how will just any ordinary person ever understand it?”  (pause)

“Okay God, I guess I am not supposed to understand it all. I’m just supposed to add my piece to the puzzle.”  (Pinning his revelation and writing on the wall)  My piece is the last piece, but someone else in the future will have to put it all together. Oh how I would like to see that; it is going to be grand!”

“Even though the people have sinned and rebelled, God will make a final atonement, and His Messiah will come. I don’t understand it all, but I BELIEVE!”

(A voice reads …) 2PE 1:19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, here in 2016 we still have some assembly required. But we have enough of the pieces of the puzzle to know and see God’s Big Story with a great deal of clarity. And in this, we are very blessed, even as we look for the next coming of our Lord.

Wise men and a kingdom turned upside down (Matthew 2:1-12)

Not all outcasts are poor.  Or, perhaps more accurately, not all poverty is for lack of riches.  It might be easy to read the Christmas story and focus on figures like the shepherds or the manger’s filthy hay. But sometimes the spiritually poor neither dress in rags nor smell like sheep.

Matthew’s biography of Jesus was written through a strongly Jewish lens.  It’s why he begins with a thorough tracing of Jesus’ ancestry, emphasizing Jesus’ connection to Abraham as well as establishing his legal claim to David’s throne.  But one of the features of Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus offers God’s kingdom to God’s chosen people—the Jews—and they not only reject his offer, but crucify his Son.

So it should come as no surprise, then, that at the beginning of the gospel we find this pattern in miniature, with the unlikely story of the visit of the magi.

WE THREE KINGS?

Admittedly, we have romanticized this story a bit.  Well, actually a great deal, and from a surprisingly early date.  As early as the second century A.D. Christian writers sought to add details and to embellish the story of the wise men to such a degree that it might be helpful to strip away the image cast by our nativity figurines and look at what the Bible (and ancient culture) has to teach us.  Here is how Matthew describes the event:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  (Matthew 2:1-2)

Who were these “wise men?”?  The term is magi—or magus, if there’s only one—a term that comes from the Greek magos meaning something like “sorcerer” or “magician.”  The magi were a special priestly caste from the east, usually identified with Persia and Babylon.  If you asked the Greek-speakers of Matthew’s day, they would have told you that the magi were well-respected not only for their wisdom, but also their ability to interpret dreams, tell the future, and even demonstrate magical powers.  The magi were regarded as something of the “Jedi Knights” of the ancient world.

But of course, if you asked the average Jew, they would have described the magi as brutish and vulgar, known as enemies of God’s people since Daniel’s day (Daniel 2:2, 10).

Were there really three of them?  Not likely.  Matthew seems to hint that the city was somehow aware of them, and they attracted the attention of Herod.  It’s likely that these men traveled in a whole caravan—both for style as well as security.  They were, of course, men of wealth; there’s evidence that points to these men occupying positions of political influence in their ancient settings.

What about this star?  Though the wise men quote from Micah, it’s unclear that they shared anything of Israel’s hopes for a Savior.  No; it’s more likely that these wise men were familiar with ancient accounts of stars and signs pointing toward the arrival of kings.

But what about the star itself?  Obviously, it was no ordinary star.  A comet is a possibility, but Halley’s comet passed overhead in 12-11 B.C., at least five years before Jesus’ birth.  Others have speculated that the star they saw was actually the brightness caused by the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn.  Still others have thought that they may have been witnessing a supernova—a distant explosion of a star that would have been visible in the night sky.  Or, perhaps it’s best to think of this star as having only a supernatural, divine origin.  Because if you were reading this story as a faithful Jew, what might this remind you of?  When God’s people fled Egypt during the exodus, how were they guided?  The star guiding the wise men to Jesus seems parallel to the pillar of fire guiding God’s people.  Only this time, the star is guiding men who would be unlikely visitors to Jesus’ side.

A KING’S JEALOUSY

Again, the journey of these magi would have attracted considerable attention, not least of which was from the king himself:

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. (Matthew 2:3-9a)

The combination of prophecies about Judah and the rumors of stars as royal heralds certainly stirred jealousy in the heart of Herod.  We know from the pages that follow this story that Herod became so jealous that he took the lives of all young boys under age two—only a miraculous intervention spared the life of Jesus.

WISE MEN AND THEIR WORSHIP

It doesn’t seem as if the magi were phased—or even aware—of Herod’s jealousy.  They continued onward to meet the child Jesus:

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:9b-12)

We’re meant to understand that the magi did not find Jesus in the manger, as the shepherds had.  Most likely Jesus was around 1 or 2 years old when they finally reached him.

The gifts they brought were fit for a king in every sense of the word.  Gold seems obvious enough, but frankincense and myrrh were both fine and exotic perfumes that were deeply valuable in the ancient world.  It’s true that each of these elements had distinct religious usage, but it’s more likely that these magi intended to present these treasures as an homage to the newborn king.

But why?  As we said earlier, the Jews didn’t look on the magi fondly; they viewed them as enemies.  What’s going on here?

Matthew is trying to illustrate a point: while Jesus’ own people rejected him, strangers from far away drew near to him.  It’s not clear whether the magi came to anything that resembles saving faith, but what is clear is that for at least this moment, the magi rightly acknowledged Jesus’ unique place as king.

This means that not all forms of poverty are material.  Some live in a deep, spiritual poverty that comes from denying the true authority of Jesus.  Jesus’ kingdom turns everything upside down.  The religious crowds reject Jesus; the outsiders praise Jesus.  Which are we?  We may not follow a star, but God has laid a path that we might continually come to him, to bow our knee, to worship.  While others might reject him as imposter or crucify him as criminal, we crown him as king.

Good News for Outcasts (Luke 2:8-20)

Some people are born outcasts.  Others have the label of “outcast” thrust upon them.

There’s a reason why the Christmas song talks about “certain poor shepherds.”  They weren’t just broke, though the job didn’t pay much.  They were outcasts, the lower rung of society.

Even in the first century they wouldn’t have been highly respected.  Even in today’s world, working with animals isn’t always a privilege.  I remember a young lady starting college to become a veterinarian.  It sounded so great on the surface, right?  I mean, who wouldn’t want a job where you spend all day, every day, playing with puppies?  This young lady knew better, of course—but I still told her to give me a call when they have to work with cows and horses and she realizes what that elbow-length rubber glove is for.

I was kidding, but only partially.

WHO WERE THE SHEPHERDS?

Even in the first century, shepherds weren’t well-respected.  In Luke’s biography of Jesus, he tells us that among the first to hear about Jesus’ birth was a gathering of shepherds:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)

Let’s not mince words, here.  These weren’t sheep being raised to make sweaters for the local Nautica outlet.  The ancient Jewish writings talked about the need to raise sheep—a lot of sheep—in preparation for Jewish sacrifices, particularly that of Passover in the Spring.  These shepherds would have been taking care of sheep that would eventually make their way to the temple, which during the Passover season would probably have more closely resembled a slaughterhouse.  Talk about your dirty jobs.

THE ANGEL’S ANNOUNCEMENT

We can only imagine their surprise when they are greeted with an angelic visitor.  If you read carefully, you notice that at first only one angel appears to make the initial announcement:

9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  (Luke 2:9-12)

What sort of “sign” is this?  There’s probably nothing significant to the idea of a “sign;” most likely it’s meant to simply confirm that this is the baby they’d been looking for.  Still, it’s somehow fitting that a group of shepherds would find a baby laying in a manger—an animal’s feeding trough.

Luke goes on to describe how the sky now exploded with an angelic choir:

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)

And here we have the two distinct sides of Christmas: the king of kings, Lord of Lords, God made flesh—yet found lying in a manger in a pile of dirty hay.

Jesus was God in the flesh, yet he spent so much of his time among the lowly, the outcasts—people just like the shepherds.

People just like you and me.

IT COMES TO PASS

The story wraps up with the angels departing, and the shepherds arriving at the manger:

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)

Interestingly enough, the shepherds became the first “missionaries,” so to speak.  They were the first to spread the word of Jesus’ arrival.

But what’s also interesting is that these shepherds were out of a job—or at least they would be in thirty-odd years when the Lamb of God proclaims: “It is finished.”  Jesus’ birth heralds his death.  It heralds the death of all death, in fact.  Though these shepherds raised sheep for religious slaughter, Jesus’ death would wipe away sin in a way that no other blood could.  And that’s how there can be “peace on earth” as we’re fond of quoting the angels as saying.  Even the outcasts can be confident that new life is available to them, even a life that begins as just a little child, asleep there on the hay.

 

Angels, Angels Everywhere! (Luke 2:8-15)

My college campus years were spent in downtown Philadelphia, the primary building being an eight-story structure just across the street from a large Sheraton Hotel and conference center. On one occasion, President Ford was coming for an event. I worked part-time for the college in campus security, and in advance of the President’s arrival I drew an assignment of manually operating an elevator to take two secret service agents with high-powered rifles to the roof of the building. The advance team and detailed preparation was impressive.

My sister had a somewhat similar experience a couple of year earlier when Ford was Vice President. His oldest son was married in the church facility where my sister attended, and she was the VBS director who had to run a week-long program on that church campus in Catonsville over the days prior to the wedding. While she was dealing with throngs of kids, throngs of secret service agents were running around the same space making preparations for the Saturday wedding, including things like trial runs of helicopter landings and evacuations.

When an important person like a President is coming to town, the advance preparations are extensive. And so it is not surprising to see angels here, there, and everywhere when the King of Kings came to town in Bethlehem.

What exactly are angels? You’re taught in Theology 101 that the answer is found in Hebrews 1:14 – “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”  They are servants of God to do His bidding. The word for angels – angeloi – means “messengers.”

Every so often in Scripture we see the curtains of heaven pulled back just a bit to reveal the work of angels, most of it being done out of sight. Angels are created, heavenly beings, dating back to before the creation of man. We know that one-third of them followed Satan in rebellion against God, and these fallen angels are the demonic forces at work against the progress of the Kingdom of God.

We know also that the good angels are organized in varied ranks in similar fashion as a military operation. They are given missions and assignments to carry out. And in that the incarnation of Christ and his subsequent work on the cross is the focal point of all history, angelic assignments related to this must have to rate very high with the heavenly hosts. If we are to have a first-person view of their role in the incarnation story, it probably is not stretching the point to imagine that the angels found these missions to be rather special among all their deeds of service over the eons of time.

To include the passages related to the angels and the incarnation, we would essentially have to print here the entire Christmas narratives from Matthew and Luke. An angel comes to Joseph on four total occasions. Gabriel visited Zechariah and scared him half to death. An angel spoke to Mary. And of course there was the vast angelic chorus who sang for the shepherds.

You might feel like this entire topic is so “back then” or “over there” in the spiritual realm. We’ll get to see angels when we pass from this life, but what does it have to do with the here and now? Well, chances are you’re not going to see an angel, but the truth is that they are rather near. The Scriptures teach that as children of the King we are in a constant spiritual battle … that though it appears our conflict is very much physical and material, in fact it is a struggle on a much higher level that is the true reality.

Ephesian 6:10 – Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Through the Eyes of Herod (Matthew 2)

When all you have in life is what you can hold onto in this world, you’ve really not got much. And you might think, “Yep, I’m poor by most worldly standards, so, there isn’t much to grasp.”  But the situation is actually worse for those who possess abundance, even those who seem to have it all – riches, power, and fame. Those poor folks have the problem of worrying about everyone gunning for them to take them down and steal all the accoutrements they believe define success and happiness in life.

This was the problem for King Herod. Everything he had he held onto only in the most tenuous fashion. His authority was only granted by the Romans. Herod had no true rights to be the king in Israel, as he was not even Jewish. Rather, he was descended from Esau and was therefore an Edomite. Though his accomplishments were commendable in terms of civic duties like construction projects, Herod’s soul was especially troubled.

The old phrase about paranoia – “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you” – was true of Herod. Such is a rather universal truth of those possessing earthly power. But Herod had it in spades – putting a couple of wives and a couple of children to death because he believed them to be conspiring against him. The Emperor Augustus is famously quoted to have said of Herod that it would be better to be his sow than his son, because the pig had a better chance of survival.

With this background we can see why the text in Matthew 2 says that he was troubled when hearing news from some truly wise guys from another place about a possibly legitimate king being born in Israel. Summoning the experts in Jewish law as to where such a legend would find fruition, he learned that it was in Bethlehem. So it is not surprising that a person who would kill his own family members would order the children in a second-rate hamlet to be executed.

The gifts of the Magi made it possible for Joseph to heed the dream of escape to Egypt. This second exodus back to the Promised Land after the demise of Herod gave a second meaning to the prophetic word of Hosea about God’s Son being called out of Egypt – first the nation, then the Messiah himself … all of which is loaded with redemptive tones, symbols and meanings.

Herod truly is an “exhibit A” of one who has no interest in the incarnation of Christ, being a person with investments only in this world. That is not a rare condition, as we sadly know of so many people.

But if you know and understand the eternal truth that this world is temporary and passing away, there is no need to hold tightly to the things associated with it. True life and true riches are beyond this mere flash of existence. And this incarnation story brings alive the meaning of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he said, “For 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.”

Having thought about the incarnation story through the first-person eyes of Herod, read through this familiar second chapter of Matthew again …

Matthew 2:1 – After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ [from Micah 5:2,4]”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [from Hosea 11:1]

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [from Jeremiah 31:15]

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

The Innkeeper and the Common Man (Luke 2:1-7)

There are some “bad guys” in the original Christmas story. None worse than Herod of course, who had foul motives based in jealousies and paranoia about a Jewish “king” being born, resulting in the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem.

Another bad guy assumed to be in the story is the presumed innkeeper – the fellow who had no room in the public boarding house for the travelling couple who were expecting a child at any moment. All he had to give them was a stable – a place that tradition ascribes to be essentially a cave for housing animals.

The story derives from the words of Luke 2:1-7 …

2:1 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

What a horrible person to be so cold-hearted as to stick a mother-to-be and her soon new-born in the smelly stable of animals with hay, straw, and … well … you know what.

And so it is that the innkeeper stands as the “exhibit A” of a person who has no room in life or priorities for truth and the Son of God. The annual Christmas sermon oft ends with the question, “Are you like the cold-hearted innkeeper, having no room in your heart for Jesus?”

Something that happens annually to me at Christmas is the dredging up in my mind of hundreds of Christmas songs I’ve done in churches over the years. The mental jukebox plays tunes that go back to my earliest musical memories – the annual church Christmas cantata, replete with a candlelit sanctuary.

We would process to the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Taking places in the choir loft, like all good evangelical church choirs of that era, we then presented the latest John Peterson cantata. Being a sort of musical prodigy kid, I was always assigned a solo to sing; and if I wanted to have a happy home and food to eat, I had best submit and sing it out! Those songs echo still through my mind, including one from a program entitled “Night of Miracles,” featuring a song I sang called “No Room.”  Here are the lyrics as I recall them …

No room, only a manager of hay / No room, He is a stranger today / No room, here in His world turned away No room, no room.

No room, here in the hearts of mankind / No room, no cheery welcome could find / No room, surely the world had gone blind / No room, no room.

Angels, in heaven up yonder / Watch with amazement and wonder / To see the Son of the Highest treated so / No room.

But the innkeeper was not alone in his status of not anticipating a coming king to be born in Bethlehem. Certainly there was a Jewish anticipation and hope for a Messiah, though the perception as to what that would look like did not include a baby who would become a king. Rather, it had expectations of political and military stature of a dynamic leader. The only ones who had any expectation of an infant king were the astrologically-oriented magi, who put together the ancient text of Micah 5:2 with a sign in the heavens.

Centuries of silence did not mean that God was not at work or had abandoned his plans for mankind, though most had given up hope and expectation. The Scriptures teach rather that God was exactly on schedule, writing in Galatians 4:4-5 that the coming of Christ was perfectly timed … “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

Just because we have not heard from God in some specific way for an extended time does not mean He has forgotten us. He’s not like that professional baseball scout who saw me pitch four shutout innings in college in 1975 and promised he would call me … still waiting for that phone to ring! No, do not believe that God’s silence is equal to God’s inaction or disinterest. And don’t give up trusting and hoping and looking for what God will do in and through you. Stay on course; stay faithful with what you know is the right way to live and serve.

2 Peter 3:3 – Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” …

8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. …

… what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. …

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Mary, did you know? (Luke 1)

Grace turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.  As human beings we have a long history of constructing our society on the basis of merit—the ugly result being a life of trying to “measure up” or comparing ourselves to others.  Grace shatters this society of merit because in God’s kingdom, human value isn’t rooted in human character, but God’s.

The story of the first Christmas should remind us that God’s grace elevates the lowly while it flattens the proud.  Joseph and Mary remind us that God indeed chooses humble people for noble purpose:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

If you’ve got any background in church, the story should sound familiar.  The curious arrival of Jesus through Mary emphasizes that yes, God is doing something wholly unique.

Did Mary really know what her Son’s life would grow to be?  At Christmas it’s not at all uncommon to hear the song “Mary, Did You Know?”  The lyrics list the many things that Jesus would do in his lifetime, the song repeatedly asking the new mom by the manger if she knew what her special Son would be capable of.  “Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?” “Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”

But when I read the text, it’s not clear to me that Mary really understood—or could ever have imagined—what being the Messiah was really all about.  As a faithful Jewish woman, she would have shared her people’s hopeful expectation for God’s deliverance.  But would she ever have expected Jesus to live the life that he did—to die the death that he did?

Think for a second what Mary would see through her mother’s eyes:

  • The death of children by Herod’s hand, as he sought to eliminate Israel’s king (Matthew 2:16).
  • Jesus’ preaching would emphasize that “here are my mother and brothers,” referring to the crowds and his spiritual family, rather than his natural family (Matthew 12:46ff).
  • Family division would arise when Jesus’ brothers refused to believe his message about himself (John 7:5).
  • And, most profoundly, Mary was present at the cross and watched her firstborn son breathe his last. The Jews believed in resurrection, yes—but she could never have expected it to happen in a matter of days.  And this is to say nothing of the fact that in Mary’s social world, she would have born the social scorn of being this “criminal’s” mother.

It’s no wonder that shortly after Jesus is born, Simeon would caution Mary that as she witnessed Jesus’ ministry, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).  Mary, did you know that you would share so much of your baby boy’s pain?

For now, however, Mary responds to the angel’s announcement with humble obedience:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Luke 1:46-56)

As a side note, we shouldn’t overlook the way that Mary’s words reflect her commitment to and knowledge of God’s word.  Granted, it’s not inconceivable that Luke would have given Mary’s words an editorial polish, but Mary’s theological understanding cannot be denied—a significant feat for a woman of her era.

What does this mean for us?  There was nothing really special about Mary, apart from her faithfulness, but through God’s grace she became “blessed” (v. 48) because of the “great things” God has done (v. 49).

And each of us, though we inhabit a world built on merit, can reflect on the way that our significance comes not on what we have done, but what God has done through us—and for us.  It’s hard to know if Mary understood just exactly what her son would later do, but we know exactly what her son did.  Trust in his work, not your own; this is the secret to true joy.

When Good News sounds like bad news (Joseph–Matthew 1)

“I’m not afraid of anything in this world, there’s nothing you can throw at me that I haven’t already heard.”  When Bono sang this song back in 2001 with the rock band U2, he was speaking ironically.  Though the song was upbeat, “Stuck in a Moment” was an anthem written amidst tremendous pain.  There are occasions, in life, when our fearlessness is revealed to be mere illusion—occasions when our confidence is shaken all the way to the core.

The birth of Jesus turned everyone’s world upside down.  And the first people to have their lives shaken by the Savior’s arrival?  A young couple, who had been making plans for their upcoming wedding, when God throws something that they’d not quite heard before…

BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT

Matthew’s biography of Jesus takes great pains to connect the life of Jesus to the story of the Old Testament.  His life would be a continuation—nay, a fulfillment—of Israel’s history and hopes.  In Matthew 1:1-17, we find a genealogical record that establishes Jesus as being in the line of David.  This alone would establish Jesus as the legal heir to David’s throne.  But this wasn’t enough—or, at least, this wasn’t all that God intended.  For a king could rule his subjects but never save them from the captivity of sin.  Only a Savior could do that, and a Savior’s arrival would transcend the boundaries of nature:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:18-19)

The first and most obvious clue that Jesus’ birth was a supernatural event was that he was born of a virgin.  We’re told that Mary and Joseph were engaged (“betrothed,” in the older way of saying it), but had remained faithful to God’s plan for a physical relationship.  This meant that Joseph knew that—unless he never paid attention in health class—if Mary was pregnant, he wasn’t the daddy.

Let’s not gloss over this.  It means that one of the first reactions to Jesus’ arrival was one of fear, anger, and betrayal.  We might imagine that if Mary had tried to explain the situation, he’d have found it a ludicrous way to conceal her infidelity.  In the absence of trust, the “good news” of the gospel first sounds like bad news, and for Joseph, that meant limited options.

He could proceed with the marriage, but being a “righteous” man he may have considered this shameful under the commands of God.  He could publicly expose his fiancée as unfaithful.  At minimum she’d endure the shame of a public divorce (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24), but this would mean that Mary would risk being stoned.  His only option was to divorce her quietly.  All he’d need to do is hand her a written certificate with two witnesses present (cf. Numbers 5:11-31).

But before his decision is final, God intervenes:

20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  (Matthew 1:18-23)

THE MEANING OF “FULFILLED”

But is this really a fulfillment of prophecy?  Sometimes the educated elite tend to look askance at the more radical of the Bible’s traditions.  In this instance, it’s become popular to point out that Isaiah—the text that Matthew quotes as being fulfilled—doesn’t actually refer to a virgin at all.

Keep in mind that Matthew is writing in Greek.  Isaiah wrote in Hebrew.  The Greek word parthenos means virgin in the literal sense, but Isaiah uses the Hebrew term ‘alma, which can simply refer to any young woman of marriageable age.  While the term often refers to literal virgins (cf. Genesis 24:43), the Hebrew language has a different word to refer to literal virgins—bethula.  So Isaiah never explicitly says that a literal virgin shall bear a son—only that a young woman will conceive and bear a child.

Confused yet?  What’s going on, here?  Prophecy isn’t always fulfilled just once.  So it’s perfectly likely that Isaiah is referring to a young woman in his day that conceives and bears a child.  But the prophecy is now being fulfilled in Jesus’ day through an actual virgin.  The emphasis here isn’t on the prophecy itself, but on the way it’s fulfilled.  It’s almost like Matthew is telling us: “You heard Isaiah say that a young woman shall conceive, but now—get this—not just a young woman, but an actual virgin.”  This is also why Matthew tells us that this doesn’t fulfill the prophecy directly, it fulfills what God said through the prophet.  Isaiah’s initial prophecy is a small portion of God’s unfolding plan—a prophecy that takes on greater meaning in the lives of Mary and Joseph.

JOSEPH’S TRUST

Joseph’s angelic visitation left him with a critical choice to make: do I trust God with this, or not?  Personally, I can imagine being tempted to dismiss the dream as just that: only a dream—“a bit of undigested beef,” to quote the Dickens classic.  Instead, Joseph demonstrates devotion.  And trust.

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-25)

Many of us have a similar choice to make.  Sure, maybe not a choice of this scale, but a choice nonetheless.  Do we trust God with our lives?  Do we trust God even when the path ahead appears unclear, or even socially disastrous?

If we’re honest, we tend to trust God with only portions of our lives.  Think about it: aren’t there times when you say, “I trust God when ______________” or “I’ll trust God if he _______________.”  What we fill in the blanks with are our real saviors, we just don’t admit it.  I’ll trust God if he helps me if I return to school.  I trust God when my choices seem easy.  But God calls us to trust him even when it doesn’t immediately seem clear.  And, without trust, the “good news” of the gospel sounds, to our ears, like bad news, and like Joseph we feel our options are limited.

But the wonderful good news of the gospel is that God engenders faith and trust even when we cannot find it within ourselves.  Joseph teaches us that we are to trust God for no reason other than he is God—and I am not.  Put in that perspective, trust becomes a clear choice, albeit a difficult one.  If you struggle with trusting God, the answer will never be found through self-examination.  On the contrary, if we struggle with trusting God, then we find the solution in him, in a God who empowers our faith and illuminates our paths when the way seems dark.

For Joseph and Mary did more than just give Israel her king; God used them to bring forth salvation itself.