Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2013
December 2, 2013
“Now after these things the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself was about to come. And he said unto them, The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest. Go your ways; behold, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no wallet, no shoes; and salute no man on the way. And into whatsoever house ye shall enter, first say, Peace be to this house.” Luke 10:1-4, ASV
I’m not very gracious when I answer the door and discover that someone is there evangelizing. When I open that door and see them standing there with hands stretched out with books and pamphlets, I get frustrated and tongue tied. I usually tell them with a voice full of nastiness that I am a Christian and that I am too busy to chat. I seek God’s forgiveness when it is over, and I always wish that I had the courage and boldness to allow them in so that I can speak to them about my own faith. I am so much smarter and stronger hiding behind the computer keyboard and monitor than I am face to face.
It is funny: I respect them greatly for their bravery and their passion, but I’m annoyed that they think I need to be saved. I know: they have no idea who is behind the door. I do not always agree with their understanding of God, but it is a blessing that they are willing to do what they believe they are called to do. It can’t be easy having doors slammed in your face for hours on a Saturday, or to see eyes peaking around the curtain as people pretend they are not home. It must be hard to have so-called Christians reject them with harsh voices.
I am sure it is hard, but they have it easy in my neighborhood, at least compared to those who are doing missionary work across the globe. There have been a number of stories recently of missionaries who were captured and beaten. Some have disappeared. I’m certain missionaries are murdered on a regular basiss. The culprits are often fanatics from other religions, terrorists or revolutionaries, who are hurting these ministers. Sometimes the government is to blame. Many missionaries have ended up in prison. They go to these places knowing that it is a dangerous enterprise, but they go in faith following the call from God.
There is another, even more fiendish way that the missionaries in China are being persecuted. A group called “Eastern Lightning are deceiving the Christian fellowships by becoming part of the group as if they have been saved and are growing in faith. After months or even a year of building trust, they seek the aid of the leadership and convince them to go to other villages to share the Gospel. Once they are separated from the group, they are kidnapped, beaten and even killed, leaving the small village churches without any leadership. One story tells how four missionaries were drawn away from the fellowship and once in the new village they were convinced to split up to do more ministry. “If you each visit separate villages, more will hear the Gospel.” When they were alone, they were vulnerable.
Christian missionaries are like lambs being sent in the midst of wolves. They are often in danger, not only their ministries, but their lives. Jesus sent His disciples in groups of two or more. Two disciples provide the physical, spiritual and emotional support needed so that they can witness boldly for the Lord. Unfortunately, we do not always follow this pattern, often running off to strange and dangerous places on our own, trusting that God will protect us. He will take care of all those who serve Him, but that protection does not mean we may not suffer.
Let us pray for those who are serving in strange and dangerous places, who are suffering persecution for their faith. Let’s pray for those who have been kidnapped, beaten and killed by people they’ve trusted, by governments that have too much control, but terrorists who will do anything to stop the Christian faith from spreading. Let’s pray for the lambs who are sent into the world among the wolves to serve God and share the Gospel message of forgiveness and peace.
“On the morrow he seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man who is become before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not; but that he should be made manifest to Israel, for this cause came I baptizing in water. And John bare witness, saying, I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven; and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize in water, he said unto me, Upon whomsoever thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon him, the same is he that baptizeth in the Holy Spirit. And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” John 1:29-34, ASV
Yesterday we talked about how Jesus sends us out into the world as lambs among the wolves. This image makes us think about the sacrificial lamb, and we put that expectation on our own ministry. We expect to be persecuted and even willingly act so that we can wallow in our suffering for the sake of Christ. We speak boldly but without grace. We bash people with the bible and forget that Christ calls us to love. We wear our faith on our sleeves, display our generosity to be seen and pray loudly like the Pharisee in the Temple who wanted the sinner to see his righteousness. It is no wonder that the world sees Christianity so negatively, since we Christians can be pretty unchristian.
The Lord does not send us out as lambs to be devoured by the wolves, but reminds us to be shrewd in our ministry so that we can serve those whom God is sending without being deceived. Christian missionaries in China have been deceived by people who come from Eastern Lightning that they have grown to trust. Their misplaced trust has led them to the slaughter. This happens, and as Christians we must trust that God will either protect us from these wolves or use our martyrdom for His glory. That doesn’t mean we should go looking for trouble. We don’t need to be the sacrificial lamb. The Lamb of God was the final sacrifice.
Jesus is the Lamb of God. During Advent we await the coming of the Baby in the manger, but we are constantly reminded that He came to die. The Lamb of God is loved by the Great Shepherd, but He was sent as the Lamb sent to be sacrificed for our sake. We are sinners, and our own sacrifices will not save anyone. The work we do and the suffering we face would not make a difference in the world if it were not for Jesus Christ and His cross. We may be lambs among the wolves, but He is the Lamb who reconciled us to the God who will protect us, deliver us, and if we do die for His sake, receive us in heaven for eternity.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 8, 2013, Second Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10, ASV
After we moved into our house in California, we walked around the lot planning our landscaping. We talked about which bushes to plant and were to put flowers. We talked about pruning the trees and removing the old, dead plants. In the front corner, a very prominent spot, there was a plant that perplexed us. It was a stick, a single branch sticking straight out of the ground. It looked ridiculous. We thought about removing it, but wondered what it might be, so we decided to leave it there until the spring to see what it would do.
We were so glad we did. By the next spring we realized that we had a treasure on our hands. It was a lilac, a white lilac. Lilacs are not typically found in the Sacramento valley, and white lilacs are even rarer, so we had something special. By the time we left that house, our lilac bush had spread and was so beautiful that many of our friends begged us for some to plant in their own gardens. We didn’t know what to do and we didn’t have the Internet back then, but we discovered that lilacs propagate by spreading the root system and then sending shoots through the surface of the earth. We were able to dig down and cut through the root system, pulling out each shoots which could then be replanted anywhere. For a moment our friends had a single stick somewhere in their yards, but they too ended up with big beautiful bushes.
Sadly, the people who bought our house saw no value in the lilac bush. We heard from a neighbor that they parked an old car on top of it. Thankfully, the lilac was not lost forever because we were able to share those shoots with others.
In the beginning, Israel was little more than that lilac bush when we moved into the house, barely a branch sticking out of the ground. God blessed Israel, and she became a great nation. Throughout her history, however, there were many who saw her as nothing of value, driven over and destroyed. Israel’s troubles were not always caused by other nations; sometimes she suffered from self-inflicted wounds. The kings did not live according to God’s Word. The people chased after false gods. They were caught up in their own lusts. They lost sight of God.
But God continued to bless Israel; He was faithful to His promises. Every few generations saw a king that remembered God and they repented. At times God allowed Israel’s enemies to overwhelm them, and each time the people turned back to Him. They cried out to Him and He answered. The priests offered sacrifices, the people sought forgiveness, and God had mercy. Those sacrifices and the forgiveness they gained were not lasting, however. The priests had to repeatedly offer the sacrifices in the Temple, regularly returning on the Day of Atonement to seek God’s grace for another year.
From the beginning, however, God knew that He would have to do something permanent. Human nature is fickle. We will always turn from God if we go it on our own. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we will try to become our own gods. But human beings cannot be gods. We are perishable. We make mistakes. We sin. On our own we will always make choices based on our flesh, and we will always find that those choices will lead us back to the place where we have to cry out to God for salvation and appease Him with sacrifices. We will even think that making a sacrifice will make everything right, turning our faith inward, trusting in our own works.
God knew human nature, and He planned from the beginning a way of overcoming our frailty. Jesus was the plan all along, and we see the promise of Him throughout the Old Testament scriptures. During Advent we look at these promises and we see Christ woven into the whole plan of God. He will be the King of kings. He will be the Lord of lords. He will be the final sacrifice that will restore God’s people to Him forever.
In our first lesson, Isaiah describes the perfect leader, the shoot that would come. This leader has wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear. Perhaps this sounds redundant. After all, isn’t wisdom, understanding and knowledge the same thing? No, they aren’t; a good leader has all three. Wisdom is the ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. Understanding comes from the heart, being able to identify with the circumstances. Knowledge is having the facts. A good judge has all three. A good judge also accepts counsel, heeding the advice of those who might have a better grasp of the situation. Might, or strength, means authority and power, and when used appropriately can provide justice. Fear is not meant to be understood in terms of a bad horror movie, but as a state of awe for the One who truly rules. A good leader will be all these things.
A leader will also be righteous, meaning he (or she) will have a right relationship with God. This means he has the heart to do what God would do. And a good leader is faithful. He keeps his promises. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we had leaders that were wise, understanding and knowledgeable, who accepts right counsel and proper authority, and who has the heart of God? Can you imagine if we had leaders that were righteous and faithful in all things? We might have leaders that display one or more of these characteristics, but it seems like none truly fit this bill. Only One, Jesus Christ, is the perfect leader.
Isaiah tells us what the world will look like when we have a leader like this. The lamb will lie with the lion, the bull and the bear will eat together. The world will be at peace; there will be no more enemies, no more hunter and prey. This is a world we long to experience, but it is a world that will not come by means of flesh and blood. Only Jesus can fulfill this promise. As we wait the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded by this text that we also await a second coming, for only in that advent will this kind of peace become real.
God created a perfect world where everything and everyone lived in harmony. Human creatures brought sin into the world by rejecting God’s Word and trying to be like Him. Through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, even the animals have to live in a world where there is hunger and thirst, threats and danger. Even the animals are forced to live in conflict with one another.
Human beings are the only animal that fights and kills for all the wrong reasons. Even lions, which are thought to be so wild and violent, will only kill when they are hungry or threatened. Even then, the killing is limited to only what is necessary for life. Unfortunately, that is not always true of humans. Human beings stalk after a different kind of prey, the weak and the innocent. They leave a pile of waste in their wake. Human beings do not find satisfaction in ‘just enough.’ We want more. We want everything our heart desires, and that often means causing unnecessary pain to others.
I love the image of the lion lying with the lamb, but it seems impossible. My own cats can’t even lie down together or go through a day without getting into a cat fight. My kids, as much as they love one another, have found a million ways to disagree, often bickering about the silliest things. Look at our nation these days: we are divided by ideology and find it difficult, if not impossible, to even get along. We see a picture of a lion and a lamb together and we assume that the lion is salivating in want for the lamb. It is a dog eat dog world, and the only way to win is to be the first to attack. We are no different than those kings throughout the history of Israel. We turn inward, trusting in ourselves, and we leave our neighbors and our God in the dust.
Yet, there will come a day when the entire world is in harmony again. Even the wolves and the leopards will lie with the sheep and the goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for even they will be satisfied by God’s provision. In that day even human beings will live in harmony with one another. No longer will men and women harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. We will be restored to our God and will live in His presence for eternity; we won’t have need of anything because God will provide. Our work will be praising God and our joy will be lasting. It is no wonder that we sigh with anticipation, especially since our human leaders so often fail us.
The Pharisees and Saduccees were the leaders of God’s people in John’s time. In the Gospel lesson from Matthew we hear his voice, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John the Baptist knew that the leaders were not taking care of God’s people. They were like those kings throughout history who sought their own righteousness, their own power, their own glory. They had been called to fulfill for that generation the promise of justice and peace, but they failed. John spoke to those that had followed him into the wilderness and he asks, “Who told you to come here?” The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their history, the same history we read in the Old Testament prophecies, but they did not understand.
John promised the coming of the One who has wisdom, understanding, knowledge, authority, righteousness and faithfulness, as well as that humble relationship with His Father. He will come and He will make all things right. He will baptize with more than water and feed us with more than bread and wine. He will give us His Spirit and remove from our lives the imperfections that bring us down. It won't happen overnight. It won't happen in the next few weeks. It’ll take a lifetime or more; it will happen in God’s time.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees went to the river because they were curious about his ministry. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. They wanted to destroy his ministry. John was talking to them when he said “You brood of vipers,” but his words cut to our hearts too. We have our facades, our masks, our sins from which we must repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. This is why we remember John’s call for repentance each year, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Though Christ has already come, we are still longing for the fulfillment of the promise of a world restored to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.
We dwell in a time between the already and the not yet. We know that the Christ child has come, but we wait for Him to come again as King. We know that Christ has died, but we wait until that day when the forgiveness that came with His blood is fully realized. We wait for that which already is, but is yet to be.
This is the tension of Advent. We know Christ has come. We know the kingdom of God is near, but we still long for Christ to come again. We are still waiting for the king who will bring the lion and the lamb to lie together in peace. We live in hope for the day when the powerful will lift up the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of God’s creation in the world today. We are part of that disharmony. That is why we need to be reminded to repent. We still turn from God. We still forget to meet the needs of our neighbors. We still trust in ourselves rather than in the One who can truly save us.
Paul writes of the harmony that exists in a kingdom where God rules. Like the promise in Isaiah, the people join together as one voice, glorifying God. We can’t do it without God’s help. Jesus came at Christmas as a down payment on the promise, to give us a glimpse of what it will be in the day when He rules over all. For now we have to wait for the promise to be fulfilled. We wait for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will care for the powerless. We live in this hope even as we dwell in the disharmony of the world as it is.
Israel was once like that lilac in my yard, barely worth the trouble of keeping around. It is no wonder that she was trampled over throughout history, even until today. It didn’t help that some of the trampling came from within, from those who were entrusted with her care and protection. But God knew, and God was prepared with a plan that would provide His people with an eternal solution to their frailty.
The psalmist prays that God will give the king justice, that he will dwell in God’s righteousness. Every good and perfect thing that can come to a nation and a people begins with the goodness of the king or leader. This particular Psalm was sung by David for his son Solomon, and during Solomon’s reign the nation of Israel did prosper. His heart for God, his desire for wisdom, his pursuit of justice brought a golden age to the land. The world sought Solomon’s wisdom and the kingdom benefitted. The kingdom benefitted because Solomon stood as a leader and the people followed. They did what was right. They listened to his wisdom, experienced his understanding, sought out his knowledge. They respected authority and had a healthy awe of the Lord. Together they lived in God’s blessing.
But even Solomon was not perfect, and his kingdom didn’t last forever. The offspring of Jesse, David and Solomon failed to be all that God intended for His kingdom. Only Jesus could fulfill the promises of the psalm. Only when Jesus rules the entire would will peace abound and righteousness flourish. Until that day, however, we can try to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable, seeking counsel and might, fearing the Lord. Perhaps, just maybe, we’ll experience a little bit of that promised peace.
“With the merciful thou wilt show thyself merciful; with the perfect man thou wilt show thyself perfect; with the pure thou wilt show thyself pure; and with the perverse thou wilt show thyself froward. For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but the haughty eyes thou wilt bring down. For thou wilt light my lamp: Jehovah my God will lighten my darkness. For by thee I run upon a troop; and by my God do I leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:25-29, ASV
There is a story about some mice that lived inside a piano. They were awestruck by the music they heard echoing in their dark world. They all believed in some unknown player, were comforted by the thought that someone made the music. They rejoiced over the Great Player they could not see. But one day one of the mice ventured to another part of the piano and found the strings. He came back thinking he knew how the music was made, for the music came from the strings as they trembled and vibrated. Everyone stopped believing in the Great Player. Later another mouse went exploring and found the hammers that made the strings vibrate and the simple explanation for the sound became more complicated. They still did not believe in the unknown player. Eventually the Great Player became nothing but a myth to the mice.
We are like those mice, living in a world where we cannot see the One in control. Natural explanations to unexplainable things have made many people doubt in the existence of a Great Player. Science and Mathematics explain away the most extraordinary things, leaving behind nothing in which to have faith. There are several shows on the television that have experts that explain away the most miraculous things. Ancient astronaut theorists claim that every God story is actually aliens from another planet. Shows that claim to explain the bible twist the words to fit their intellectual understanding of the mysterious things of God. Yet, the wonder that is God can’t be explained away by our minds, hearts or even souls. He continues to play the music of our lives as we ponder what it all means.
Faith is the only thing that will get us through our days. The world wants to confuse us, to lead us into doubt and darkness so that we will not look to God for our strength. But God lights our lamps with His Word and fills the darkness with His light. We can rely on Him; He is faithful, blameless and pure. Even when we cannot see the Great Player, He is playing the music of our lives. Those adventurous mice thought they found an explanation to the mystery, just as the ‘experts’ on all those shows claim that they have also done. But we don’t have to rely on their limiting ‘proofs’ to know that there really is a Great Player behind it all. We can’t allow the things of this world to cause us to lose our faith and we cannot allow the darkness to overcome His Light. We can only walk in His light, knowing that He is with us even when the world says He does not exist.
“Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge. O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee. As for the saints that are in the earth, They are the excellent in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god: Their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, Nor take their names upon my lips. Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; Yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons. I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; My flesh also shall dwell in safety. For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16, ASV
The psalmist writes, “Thou wilt show me the path of life…” I think we all know someone who has seemed to have seen how to walk the right path in this world, the path of life. They have a certain joy that doesn’t come from a perfect life. They have a peace that is true even when the world around them is chaotic. They seem to have a wisdom that is more than knowledge, deeper than understanding. They live in faith and do what is pleasing to God.
I imagine that St. Nicholas was one of those people. Today is St. Nicholas day, a day when many celebrate the generosity and gift giving of the original Santa Claus. Though we think of St. Nick as the fat, jolly magical elf who treats children to surprises on Christmas morning, the man was very real. The stories of his life may seem nearly as mythical as those of Santa Claus, but they describe a faithful man who lived a faithful and faith-filled life from the very beginning. His parents died when he was young, and they left him quite wealthy. Instead of taking that money and wasting it as so many might, Nicholas chose to share his wealth with those in need. One story tells of how he helped a poor man by providing dowries for his three daughters, who would have been sold into prostitution without those gifts.
Nicholas faithfully attended church, praying and fasting regularly. He was elected as Bishop of Myra at a very young age at a time when the Christians were being persecuted under Diocletian. He was arrested, beaten and imprisoned with the others. He was set free by Constantine. He managed to keep orthodoxy among the Christians under his care, rejecting the heresies of his day and standing firm on God’s Word. The records do not verify his presence, but tradition holds that Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea, and that he slapped Arius for his heresy of denying the divinity of Christ. This may be true, but Nicholas was known to be a gentle leader.
One miracle attributed to St. Nicholas involves a ship that was taking him to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. A storm arose and the sailors thought that the ship would be destroyed and that they would all die. Nicholas prayed and the storm subsided, saving the lives of those on board. As bishop, Nicholas was concerned with the welfare of the poor, especially orphans. Some of the modern tales about Santa Claus are based on the stories of Nicholas’ generosity. Besides the dowries for the three daughters, Nicholas often threw bags of coins in the windows of poor people; sometimes those coins landed in the stockings hanging by the fire. Once, it is said, that he tried to give a gift but all the windows were closed, so he tossed the bag to the roof where it fell down the chimney. These stories have led to modern Christmas traditions of stockings by the fireplace and Santa coming down through the chimney.
Whether the stories are mythical or magical or real, St. Nicholas was a man who loved God, who followed the path which God ordained. He walked with joy, glorifying God with everything. He willingly gave to those in need, he spoke with conviction and taught with grace. He impacted the lives of so many people by his generosity and his faith. “Thou wilt show me the path of life…” is something that Nicholas might have prayed, as he sought God’s guidance throughout his life.
“But ye, beloved, remember ye the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; That they said to you, In the last time there shall be mockers, walking after their own ungodly lusts. These are they who make separations, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have mercy, who are in doubt; and some save, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 1:17-23, ASV
We just celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, but it seems like this season of Christmas is one filled with thanks. We thank those who serve us with extra tips and gifts. We thank our teachers and bosses and employees with tokens of our appreciation. We thank our friends and family for the gifts they send to us. We thank God for sending Jesus to save the world. There are so many reasons for us to be grateful.
Want to say “Thank you” in a new way? Here is “Thank You” in thirty different languages: Orkun; Doh je; Xie-xie; Dekuju; Dank je wel; Moshakir; Kiitos paljo; Go raibh maith agat; Danke schön; Evkaristo; Mahalo; Toda raba; Shoukriah; Takk; Grazie; Domo arigato; Kamsu hamnida; Paldies; Attyu; Vayarla; Salamat; Dziekuje bardzo; Obrigado; Spasibo; Gracias; Asante sana; Sagol; Cam ôn; Diolch yn fawr; Merci.
Merci. This is what the French say to thank someone for something. Interestingly, this word comes from the same root for the word “mercy.” Now, we know that mercy is a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts. We have mercy on the poor. We have mercy on people who deserve punishment. We have mercy on those who have sinned against us. We think of mercy as being a free gift. After all, a criminal might not deserve mercy, but receives mercy at the hands of a compassionate person of power. However, the root of the word means “price paid, wages.”
“Thank you” is, in essence, the price paid for a gift. Unfortunately, too few people remember to give thanks. How many of us have sent presents to someone long distance, either for Christmas, a birthday or a wedding, and never received a note? I’ve often worried that the item did not arrive because I had no response from the recipient. One friend who is a grandmother stopped sending gifts to her grandchildren because they never said “Thank you.” She told me, “If they can’t acknowledge the gift, then I can’t waste my time and money to send it. I have felt the same way, but thankfully God has so much more patience than we do. See, He’s given us the greatest gift of all, mercy. He paid the price. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid it for us.
Though God’s compassion is without requirement, He is so blessed when we respond to His gift with merci. And mercy. See, God’s mercy makes it possible, and compassionate, for us to have mercy on others. In today’s passage, Jude points out three ways to have mercy. We have mercy on those who need to see God’s grace. We have mercy on those who are on the verge of being destroyed. And we have mercy on those who do not deserve it at all. We have mercy in response to God’s mercy, paying Him with our thankfulness by sharing His grace with the world.
“I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all; the testimony to be borne in its own times; whereunto I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I speak the truth, I lie not), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7, ASV
I love to read the stories of the Saints. They lived such incredible lives of faith. They faced persecution and even death. They were asked to do extraordinary things. And some of the stories are filled with miraculous deeds. Who among us can say we would willingly face the guillotine or the stake, just to stand firm in our faith in Jesus Christ? Which of us is certain that we would reject a bribe that might save our life? Would we renounce Christ if we had to protect our world? Many of the Saints faced exactly those questions and they persevered. They died because of their choice, but they also most certainly lived to see the Promise.
They are valuable allies in the fight against sin and death and the devil not because they stand in our place but because they offer us an example of how to rely on Christ for our life. Now, throughout the history of the Church, people have looked to the Saints as more than fellow believers. There are many who look to the Saints to be mediators. Take Martin Luther, for example. There is a story that Luther was riding back to law school after a visit to his parents when a terrible storm blew around him. He was frightened by lightning that struck nearby and he cried out to St. Anne for help. “I will become a monk,” he said, a vow he honored soon after.
It is not surprising that Christians might turn to the Saints for comfort and peace, after all they were people just like you and I. We see their stories and we think that they were something special, especially when there are examples of miraculous deeds, but they did not have any more faith than the rest of us. They simply lived the life God gave them, trusting in Him. They can’t do anything to save anyone. They can’t stop the lightning or ensure that we will not be harmed. We don’t need to go to them to mediate for us with God because Jesus is the only One we need.
I think it is absolutely wonderful what Paul says in this letter: “For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all…” He gave Himself for all. That’s why we are called to share the story of Christ with the world, to stand firm in our faith and to do all those extraordinary things that God has given us to do. God wants our neighbor to know Him, to love Him and to be with Him for eternity. And He wants us to tell them the stories so that they will see the His power and His glory and His grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 15, 2013, Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
“Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you.” Isaiah 35:4, ASV
Sadly, we are at a point in our history, not only here but all around the world, when it seems like we are constantly looking for an enemy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that there’s never been an extended period of time when the world has been completely at peace. There hasn’t been a global war for many years, but there is always some battle waging between neighboring countries or clans or kingdoms. If there isn’t war on our continent, there’s war somewhere. Violence between enemies takes lives every day.
It is no wonder that we find great comfort in the words of Isaiah, “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you.” We want God to do away with our enemies, to punish them for the harm they have inflicted on us. It is particularly strange, though, when the enemies fighting one another both believe in the same God. Take, for example, the wars in England between the fifteenth and seventeenth century. Those wars were about power and control, mostly between family members, but there was often an underlying question of religion.
The question was not what religion, but which type of Christianity would be followed? People were beheaded because they wanted to follow the ideas of the reformers and people were beheaded because they wanted to continue to follow Rome, it all depended on who was in power. The years during Henry VIII’s reign were particularly difficult because he was so easily swayed by whoever was in his favor. If he liked you, he believed you, and you could convince him to implement policies favorable for your point of view. But the minute you did something to fall out of favor, and it could be the silliest thing, you were out and the next guy moved in to implement the policies favorable to his point of view.
Of course, this meant that the average person had no idea what was in favor and what was not in favor at any moment. There was confusion not only in the court, but in the streets. It was the death sentence to disagree with the king, but how do you agree when you don’t even know what he believes today?
I read a lot of historical fiction from that time period in English history. I am fascinated by the relationships of those in the court. The most recent book revolved around Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr. While the book is fiction, historical fiction writers try to stay true to the historical evidence of what happened. This particular book showed the constant jockeying between courtesans to be in favor not only with Queen Katherine, but especially with King Henry. After all, if the queen falls out of favor, you better have your foot in the next door. And with King Henry, we know the queens often fall out of favor. Katherine did eventually, but she was lucky that Henry died before he could remove her head.
We know what it is like to have division in the church. The number is impossible to verify, but worldwide there are at least 50,000 different denominations in the Church. Some of these are tiny, cultural, geographic and have similar beliefs to others. Some counts place all the non-denominational congregations within the same group, even though they do not even consider themselves denominational. Even the Christians who call themselves Lutheran are divided, with at least six major groups, with dozens of others in North America. If we, who have very similar ideas about God’s grace, can’t even remain whole, how can we ever expect the world to see the Church as the body of Christ?
The biggest problem, however, is not that we see things differently but that we see the others as our enemy. We might not have the power to chop off our neighbor’s head, but we sure find ways to bring the wrath of God down on them. We are hurt by one another because we doubt their faith, we reject their perspective and we ignore their needs. We bash one another with the Bible without really hearing each other. We damn them for their point of view and push them away because they are inconvenient to our agenda. We even cry out to God for vengeance because we assume their disagreement is hatred.
This statement from Isaiah brings light to the real question: who is my enemy? Of course, in those years of battle in England, the religious wars always quietly disappeared while the country was in battle against France. It was easy to love one another as they faced a common enemy. But as soon as one war was settled, the old disagreements rose to the top and the fighting began again.
We are human. The reality is that no matter what we believe, there are always human beings that just can’t get along. We have conflicting personalities. We see the world differently. There are just some people who rub us the wrong way. This happens within the closest groups, even families. As Christmas draws closer, many are dreading the impending gatherings because it is almost certain someone will say something to make someone else angry. There is no way to escape, especially when you are visiting distant family and friends. We’ve experienced within our church congregations, too, often over insignificant questions like which color carpet we should use. We are human and even the best of us simply do not get along with all the other humans.
But does that make them our enemy? See, we might not agree about the issues, the big and the little ones, and we may even get into heated discussions with them, but does that make them an enemy? Sadly, I have to admit that I have cried out to God about those who have hurt me. Did I want Him to hurt them? I wish I could say I didn’t…
But when God says that He will deal with our enemies, He’s not really thinking in terms of those neighbors with whom we do not get along. See, we have greater enemies about which we should be concerned, i.e. the devil. When we disagree with our neighbors about the silly things, and even the big things, Satan takes advantage of our weaknesses. He makes us think that those people are our enemies. He wants us to hate them. He wants us to divide. He’s done a pretty good job.
In the days when Jesus was born, the people were waiting for a Messiah, a savior or liberator. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans and return Israel to the Golden Age of David. They wanted God to take vengeance on their enemies. But the Jews faced the same question as we do today: is that the enemy God intended to take vengeance on? Jesus came to save the people, not from the threats in this world but from the threats that keep them from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.
Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? I haven’t seen it, but it is said that the desert is absolutely beautiful when it blossoms after a spring rain. The flowers seem to appear out of nowhere. It happens here in Texas, not quite so magically, but still beautiful. If the conditions are perfect, the rains of February will bring out the Bluebonnets in such numbers that the fields turn to blue. Isaiah goes on, “It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing…”
Something spectacular was about to happen, and God’s people would return home with shouts of praise and song. When it happened, extraordinary things would occur: the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the speechless tongue would sing and the lame would dance. They shall see the glory of God. But this promise was not for all men, it was for God’s people. The highway leads directly to the gate of Zion: the unclean would not walk the Holy Way.
This promise is given to the exiles as they waited to be released from captivity. It must have been difficult to wait. We know that God is faithful, but when things don’t happen in a timely manner, we begin to doubt our certainty. But things happen in God’s time for a reason. Perhaps they weren’t ready. Perhaps they did not fully understand the depth of God’s grace. Perhaps there were still some that needed to be cleansed of the attitudes that sent them into captivity in the first place. The people were there to be transformed, to remember the God of their forefathers and the power of His Word. The promise would be fulfilled when the time was right, when God was satisfied that all were ready to return into His presence.
Though the words were spoken to those in exile, it is understood that these words are also pointing to another day, a future time when God will redeem the world and will transform His people forever. Can you imagine a world as is pictured in the text from Isaiah? We might catch glimpses today, but there are still those who are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The lions and jackals still roam. Were things changed when the exiles returned to Jerusalem? People still became sick, children were born blind. By the time Jesus was born, the unclean were walking into the gates of Zion.
So, they continued to look for the Messiah. Even John, who leapt in joy in his mother’s womb and did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he was not worthy to even touch His feet, wondered whether Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. In today’s Gospel lesson, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus. It is hard to see the depth of this question in English, but in the Greek John is asking if Jesus is “Coming One” or “the Messiah.” He wanted to know if Jesus was the One who would set them free.
While it is true that Jesus was the Messiah, He wasn’t coming to set them free from the enemies they thought needed God’s vengeance. Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” Jesus was not going to be what they wanted Him to be. He was going to be what God intended Him to be. And that would be a scandal to the religious leaders and those who wanted to continue to have power.
I wonder if John was confused about Jesus because He didn’t come as a warrior. Last week John was telling the listeners that the Messiah would come in a blaze of glory-baptizing in fire and power. Jesus answered by pointing to the Old Testament scriptures we read today. “See what is happening. Isaiah’s promise is being fulfilled.” And then Jesus identified John as another promise from the Old Testament. John was the messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah.
Yet, even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of these promises. The blind are still blind. The lame are still lame. The wicked still walk in our midst. But the day will come when God will complete fully all these promises. That day will come in God's time, not in our time. Will it be a day? Will it be a thousand years? We don't know. What we do know is that God is faithful.
So James tells us to be patient. “Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” God knows what He is doing. He is longsuffering. He is forgiving. He wants all to know Him. He wants everyone to walk on the Way.
Isaiah says, “Even the fools shall not go astray.” This line is translated several different ways. One way suggests that the fools will not find their way to the path, but the Greek lends itself to a different translation: that God will make sure that even the fools will not get lost. It is all about God’s mercy. He is the One who makes it happen. He has made a plan that will fulfill all His promises, and one day we’ll know what it is like to live in that wilderness that has been transformed into a garden of life. The water will flow.
The water will flow. Actually, the water already flows. While we are still waiting for the promises of God, they were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Living Water that makes the desert bloom, and He is already doing so through His people. Though He never defeated the Romans, He did defeat the real enemy: death. The devil is still wandering around, trying to convince us to hate one another and taking advantage of our faults, but God is still in control. Even the fools will walk on the Way.
That’s a great comfort to those of us who continue to find enemies in our neighbors and who silently and not so silently ask God to take care of them. This idea of mercy is a scandal even to us today. We don’t want the Good News preached to our enemies. But why should God have mercy on us and not have mercy on them? After all, we were once enemies, too. His enemies. But He came to save us, and He transformed us by His grace.
James tells us to be patient. “Establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” We aren’t very patient. The language of the New Testament has a sense of immediacy that seems to contradict the reality. Two thousand years is a long time since the first disciples followed Jesus. It is enough to make us doubt what we believe, just like John the Baptist. It makes us ask, “Are you the Coming One, or should we look for another?” In this world many people look for salvation in so many places. They cry out to God for all the wrong reasons. They don’t even realize why they need to be saved. They see enemies in every person who disagrees with them, but do not see that the real enemy has been defeated by God. Jesus’ work did not make sense to John. John preached repentance and the vengeance of God. Jesus healed and preached the mercy of God.
Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. The people He touched were the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the people who were outcast. He brought life to those who were dead to the world. He set the prisoners free, opened the eyes of the blind, and made the lame walk. He did not do good things for the righteous; He did great things for the sinners. The religious leaders saw the untouchables as enemies; they were outcast, rejected, and ignored. But Jesus loved them. It made no sense to them and does not make sense to us.
Jesus loves us. This is good because we do not deserve God’s grace any more than those untouchables deserved mercy from the “righteous.” Despite our foolishness, God leads us on the Way of Holiness. He fills us with the Living Water; He fills us to overflowing. His grace is not meant to be bottled up inside us, but left to flow out into the lives of our neighbors, even our enemies. He has ransomed us and invited us home. As Isaiah said, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
The psalmist sings, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” We might think that what we want for the future is a world free of those we call our enemies, but the reality is that in His world we will be brothers and sisters. This might upset us today, as we deal with the pain brought on by our differences. But in that day we will truly understand who was our enemy and we will be thankful that God has overcome sin and death and the devil. We will rejoice and praise God forever because He has promised that even the fools will walk in the Way. We will sing with gladness and joy.
“They said therefore unto him, What then doest thou for a sign, that we may see, and believe thee? what workest thou? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat. Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” John 6:30-35, ASV
We need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy. Jesus recognized the importance of asking God for nourishment when He taught His disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Even Jesus knew the importance of food for the belly, and so did Satan, who visited Jesus in the wilderness and encouraged Him to stop fasting and make stones into Bread. Hunger happens in the wilderness since there is no food available. The people got hungry when Moses was leading them through the desert to the Promised Land. God provided for their nourishment by sending manna from heaven, which they made into bread. The people were filled with enough food to keep their bodies strong for the long journey, and in the process they learned to rely on God for every bite.
Did you know that the word “manna” means “What is it?” They didn’t really know what this stuff was that was falling from heaven. They knew they could make it into bread. While we have an idea that it was white, powdery, somewhat like coriander seed, we still do not know what manna is. We do know that this unexplainable substance sustained God’s people for forty years in a miraculous way. God knew that they needed to eat, but the wilderness wandering was necessary for the people to learn to trust that God is faithful. They weren’t always faithful to Him. They grumbled about the gift and they begged for something besides bread.
When Jesus faced Satan, He answered, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” We learn that He is the true manna, the real bread that we need to live. God is faithful and He ensures that we have everything we need, especially the grace we need for eternal life. He gave us Jesus, the babe in the manger and the Savior on the cross so that we can have true life. The priests sought miracles like those Moses performed in the wilderness. But Jesus told them that the manna was not what they needed. They needed Him. We need Him to feed us so that we will be sustained today, tomorrow and always.
“And when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answered and said, Master, we toiled all night, and took nothing: but at thy word I will let down the nets. And when they had done this, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes; and their nets were breaking; and they beckoned unto their partners in the other boat, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Luke 5:4-8, ASV
One type of reality show has experts visit a failing business and offer advice to help the owners overcome their difficulties. The experts teach the owners how to run their business, they renovate the business and they provide them with supplies to make their business better. . It doesn’t happen that easily, though. Many of the owners are not open to the suggestions. They don’t want the character of their business to change, even though that’s often the biggest problem. They don’t care that the expert is more qualified to make good decisions for the sake of their business, they think they know best. In the end, the expert convinces the owners to make the necessary changes and the business does well as long as the owners follow the advice. It works because the expert has been very successful in the business. Imagine if the ‘expert’ had no experience or knowledge: they would probably offer ridiculous suggestions that would not only fail, but would make things worse for the owners.
Jesus knew absolutely nothing about fishing. He was, at best, a carpenter, but even at that, we don’t know how much He knew about carpentry. He probably learned at the feet of His father, but did He ever work as a carpenter on His own? The scriptures do not tell us what happened to Jesus between the ages twelve and thirty. He probably followed His father into the business, and might have done well, but we don’t really know. Whether He was a carpenter or not, it is highly unlikely that Jesus understood the business of fishing. This is pretty obvious from Simon Peter’s response, “Hey, we’ve worked all night and didn’t catch anything. My experience tells me it is time to pack up, go home, rest and come back when the conditions are better.” You can also hear him grumble under his breath, “What do you know about fishing?”
Yet, Simon Peter sees something in Jesus: an authority, power and control. He addressed Jesus as “Master,” a sign of respect and the recognition of Jesus’ right to command him. Peter might have heard Jesus speak, but the encounter on the shore was seemingly random. “Hey you, with the boat, will you take me out a little so I can teach?” I can imagine Peter’s attitude was much like those who get the expert advice but want to ignore it. But he doesn’t. He obeys. He takes Jesus out onto the water and listens as Jesus teaches the crowd. Then Jesus tells him to go fishing again. Despite the ridiculousness of the command, Peter obeys.
And he was blessed by that obedience.
Jesus is our Master. He has the authority to command us to continue His work in this world. He has the power, which He passes to us, and He can have control if we let go and let Him. The question is whether or not we are willing to obey. Do we see Jesus as that expert who comes into our life and think He has no idea what He’s talking about? Or do we see something in Him that causes us, like Peter, to do it no matter how ridiculous it might seem? He is Master, and He is the expert who can make our life and our ministry a blessing to us and to the world.
“Oh come, let us sing unto Jehovah; Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; Let us make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth; The heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, and he made it; And his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before Jehovah our Maker: For he is our God, And we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To-day, oh that ye would hear his voice!” Psalm 95:1-7 (ASV)
This has been a very unusual Christmas season for us. We made a last minute decision to travel for the holidays, although we have been thinking about it for months. I’ve had a difficult time dealing with the usual preparation. Do we bother with the decorations if we won’t be here to enjoy them? What do we do about presents? Should I bake Christmas cookies and if I do, will we have room to take them with us? I have been walking through this Advent with indecision ringing through my head, putting off the tasks that usually keep me busy in the weeks leading up to the big day. I have managed to decorate, even put up a tree. I’ve bought a few presents and baked a few cookies. But I’m not really ‘in the spirit’ of it.
What’s interesting is that I’m not being a humbug, I’m just not so worried about the glitz and glitter. We talk about it every year: cutting back on our spending, focusing more on the reason for the season, keeping the Christ in Christmas. I’ve tried year after year, but always manage to go overboard. This year I’m not even trying, but it seems to be falling into place. I didn’t even go shopping on Black Friday.
It seems like our Christmas is upside down, but the reality is that this Advent has been right side up. It is not bad to have an enjoyable season with presents and cookies and decorations, but all too often we get so caught up in those things that we don’t have the time or energy to really think about the God who made it all. But isn’t the world a bit topsy-turvy these days? People go to church to be entertained and go to rock concerts to worship the singers on stage. We seem to have conquered the world. We build buildings that reach to the sky and can travel around the world in a matter of hours. We can see the DNA make-up of a human child before he or she is born and we can send men into outer space to build a city. There are scientists who are even working on recreating the moment when life began.
We might be able to do incredible things, but we’ll never duplicate the work of our God and Maker. We can splice different trees together to make stronger better producing trees, but we didn’t create trees. We can procreate and bring a beautiful baby into the world, but we can’t create life out of dirt. God made the heavens and the earth; He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives and He controls it all with His hands. He is our Maker; He is our God. There may be a million things left to do before Christmas, but let’s remember that we’d have none of this if God had not said, “Let there be…” and there was.
“Again on the morrow John was standing, and two of his disciples; and he looked upon Jesus as he walked, and saith, Behold, the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned, and beheld them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? And they said unto him, Rabbi (which is to say, being interpreted, Teacher), where abideth thou? He saith unto them, Come, and ye shall see. They came therefore and saw where he abode; and they abode with him that day: it was about the tenth hour. One of the two that heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He findeth first his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messiah (which is, being interpreted, Christ). He brought him unto Jesus. Jesus looked upon him, and said, Thou art Simon the son of John: thou shalt be called Cephas (which is by interpretation, Peter).” John 1:35-42, ASV
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Raphael paints wisdom, Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.” In this quote, Emerson names some of the greatest men in their fields. These are men who accomplished great things and are remembered long after their deaths for what they did. If he would speak those words today, he might add some other people like sports figures, politicians and entertainers that are important figures in the world. Great people have an effect on others by their words and by their deeds.
These great people came from somewhere. There is always someone—a parent, teacher, grandparent, pastor, Sunday school teacher, neighbor, friend—who had an impact on their life. Their words and wisdom help guide them into the right path for their lives. While each of these men also have incredible God-given gifts, it took someone to encourage their growth and learning in their field so that they might become great. These forerunners are often unknown; they never reach greatness or fame for the contribution they have made.
Peter was a great man of faith. He is known for his willingness to follow Jesus and for his leadership in the Church after Jesus ascended to heaven. He wasn’t perfect, but he was willing. Peter is always close to Jesus in the Gospel stories, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. His confession of faith was the foundation on which Christ built the Church. He was given the keys to the Kingdom of God. He stood in the forefront of the activities of the disciples and he preached Christ to the crowds at Pentecost. He did amazing things in his ministry, just like Jesus, like healing the sick and raising the dead. We remember Peter as being the greatest of the disciples, and yet he was not the first. He was not the first one called, nor even the first one to show faith in Christ. He was not the first of the Apostles to be an evangelist.
Andrew was the one who took Peter to the Lord. Andrew was the one who had faith enough to give Jesus five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand men. Peter may never have become a follower if Andrew had not gone to his brother and said, “Come and see. We have found the Messiah.” That is a most important confession of faith, because Andrew, even before Jesus had really taught them all about Himself, knew that Jesus was the Christ. There were many who claimed to be messiahs in those days, men who tried to defeat Rome by military power. But Andrew, the guy behind the guy, knew by faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the One promised by God.
We can identify Jesus as many things. He is friend. He is teacher. He is a merciful healer. He is Lord. He is the High Priest. He is the Lamb. He is the Light. He is the Word. He is the Baby in the manger. He is the Coming King. He is all these things, but there is one identity on which our eternal life rests: He is the Messiah. He is the Coming One who saved His people who will come again. Andrew somehow saw that; he knew that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting, and he took that message to Peter. “Come and see!” We are reminded that have been chosen to continue this work of telling the world that the Messiah has come, to invite them to “Come and see!”
Scriptures for Scriptures for Sunday, December 22, 2013, Fourth Sunday in Advent; Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
“Who is this King of glory? Jehovah of hosts, He is the King of glory.” Psalm 24:10, ASV
I always buy my Christmas cards during the after Christmas sales. The boxes are much cheaper, and if you get to the store early enough you can still find the right number of boxes of pretty cards. I store the cards with my Advent items and so they are accessible early in the season for sending our special greetings to our friends. I never remember the design until I pull them out in the new year, and it is always a wonderful surprise when I do.
This year my cards have a cute snowman with a cardinal in the middle of a glitter covered field of snow. The greeting inside says, “Thinking of you with smiles and warmth this holiday season.” I think it is funny that this is the thought for this year since it has been especially cold all over the country. We have had near freezing temperatures already, twenty degrees below normal. It has been even colder elsewhere. This particular card is perfect for this year because we all could use a little extra warmth during these arctic blasts.
One of the things I didn’t realize was that I purchased cards with glitter. I usually avoid glitter. I avoid glitter because no matter what you do, there is no way to get rid of the glitter after you’ve touched it. A friend posted this status on Facebook, “Forgot how much fun it is to work with glue and glitter with my son's kindergarten class...on a side note....if you shake my hand or I hand you a piece of paper...you too will have glitter.” Glitter is glued onto items, but it doesn’t stick completely. Some always rubs off and ends up on everything. But glitter is so cool; it makes things sparkle in a special way. It gives a simple design a touch of glory. And you just can’t get through the Christmas season at school without making something with the kids covered in glitter!
I have two thoughts for this last Sunday in Advent: God is the King of glory and He has everything under His control. Now, there’s no way that I could have predicted that this would be a particularly cold year when I was choosing my Christmas cards, but I really like the way it worked out. God knew, and while I don’t know if my choice a year ago was part of some grand plan, I like to believe that God will use my simple message to make a life a little warmer for someone this Christmas. He certainly didn’t choose my cards, but somehow He will use my choice to His glory.
I have to admit that there have been times that I’ve been very particular with the message I’ve chosen for my Christmas cards, making them intentionally Christocentric. I didn’t this time; perhaps there wasn’t a pretty selection on the shelves or perhaps I just thought this snowman was super cute. It might seem odd to think that something that does not say “Merry Christmas” or have a picture of the Baby Jesus will glorify God. What does a snowman wishing special holidays have to do with God? But that’s just it: we don’t have to wear our faith on our sleeve to glorify God. We simply must trust Him to use our lives and our decisions to His glory.
In today’s lessons we see the stories of two men who are faced with tough decisions. Ahaz had to deal with an oncoming invasion from Israel and Syria against Judah. God is faithful to His promises, and all He asks of His people is that they trust in Him. But Ahaz looked to allies to help him with his war. He went to Assyria for strength. Isaiah spoke to Ahaz with a promise: “Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.” And a warning, “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.” The decision facing Ahaz was to believe in God and to trust in Him.
God even offered him proof. “Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” It isn’t very often that God offers us a sign to prove His promises, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, self-righteously decided that he didn’t want to test God. “No thanks,” he told Isaiah. How many of us would love to have proof that something we’ve heard is really from God? I know that there are times when I just wish He would speak more clearly so I can be sure. When we are making career decisions, considering marriage or making a move to another city, it would be so much easier if God said, “Yes” or “No.” But we are left without such clear guidance. We don’t have an Isaiah to tell us when we are going the wrong way. We just have to trust that God is guiding us and that He can use even our wrong choices to do His Work in the world. We glorify Him by our trust. Ahaz didn’t trust God, and He didn’t want the proof of God’s promise because then he would have to do things God’s way. God sent the sign anyway, and in the end Ahaz was not established. Ahaz was facing war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed.
Isaiah describes the sign, which then Matthew references in today’s Gospel lesson. Matthew often points back to the prophetic word of God as give through Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah nine times. Isaiah is often considered the fifth Gospel because it is the most messianic of all the Old Testament books. Matthew sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in Jesus Christ; he tells the story and explains the significance so that others will see how this fits into God’s plan. God knew in the days of Isaiah how Jesus would come to earth, and He promised it through the words of the prophet.
Now, the promise here was both for Ahaz and for all of us. The immediate fulfillment of this promise was probably a child born to Isaiah’s second wife. The child would suffer from the devastating invasion of Assyria, which would decimate the countryside and make fresh food impossible to produce. He would also see the destruction of Israel and Syria before he turned twelve or thirteen. This child would be called Immanuel, as a reminder that God is with His people, so that they might turn to Him, trust in Him and believe that He does have control.
We know, of course, that this fulfillment of the prophecy was also a foreshadowing of the ultimate plan of God, who would send His own Son to be the Immanuel (God with us) that would make an eternal difference for God’s people. Jesus, born of Mary, was set apart from all others, including the son of Isaiah; Mary was the virgin about which Isaiah was speaking.
Now, many have made a big deal about the use of the word virgin in this text. Some have suggested that the word used for virgin can also mean “young girl.” While this is true in the original Hebrew, the translators of the Septuagint understood that despite the double meaning, the woman would be a virgin. The word in Latin makes it clear. This is important because it establishes the divinity of Christ. If Mary were just another woman who got pregnant in the normal manner, then the son would have another father and would have no more power than any other man. The first Immanuel was a reminder that God is with His people, but this Immanuel is truly God with us.
So, we’ve seen how Ahaz chose to go his own way, do his own thing, follow his own path, but in the Gospel story we see how another man trusted God. Imagine it: you are legally bound to a woman who becomes pregnant. We might not make such a big deal about this in our day, but it was catastrophic for this couple. Not only would they suffer the ridicule of their community, but there were legal ramifications for this kind of unfaithfulness. Joseph could legally have Mary stoned to death. He did not want to do so, but there was still a problem: the child in Mary’s womb belonged to another man. That man had all the rights and responsibilities of that child. That’s why he felt he should divorce her, to free her to marry the father of her child.
This is why God appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” God is in control. This child is not the product of infidelity, but of the Holy Spirit. God is the Father, and in this dream He is calling Joseph to act as His legal guardian. “You shall call Him Jesus.” By naming the child, Joseph becomes His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. And Jesus becomes his son, with the heritage of the House of David. It was all in the plan.
Just like Ahaz, Joseph was faced with a dilemma: believe or not believe? Joseph chose to believe. He did all that the Lord told him. He took Mary as his wife and cared for her. And when the child was born, Joseph did what God said, and named Him Jesus. Joseph certainly could have taken matters into his own hands, did what was legally within his rights. Mary could have been sent away to have the baby in secret and then given up for adoption. The choice to take Mary, to live with the ridicule and raise a child that was not biologically his seems crazy. Just as the choice to face the enemy without allies seemed crazy to Ahaz.
But God calls us to trust Him and do the crazy because He is able to make it all work out right. When we don’t trust God, God still manages to make His plans succeed, but ours end up failing. We think we know better than God, but in the end we discover that we don’t know much. We might think that we will be blessed by doing things our own way, but the reality is that we are blessed when we trust in God and glorify Him, because His glory is like glitter: when He touches you, you can’t help but sparkle.
Jesus is named Immanuel. The name means “God with us.” God is with us. Have you thought about the implications of this? We often prefer to allow God to be a far off God, to be separate, to be out of touch. We want to be in control. We want to do what we think is right and follow our own ways. We are far more like Ahaz than we are Joseph. I don’t know many people who would be so quick to follow a dream, to do something that goes against their very character. And yet, God knew that Joseph’s righteousness was not a false humility or a self-righteous obedience to the Law. Joseph had a right relationship with God, a heart to do God’s will and a spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.
Who is the King of glory? Our God is the King of Glory, manifest in the life of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. He has, as Paul writes, “through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake.” God speaks to us, through prophets, through dreams, but mostly through His Word, and calls us to make decisions that will glorify Him among the nations. Will we be like Ahaz, going our own way, doing our own thing? Or will we trust God like Joseph, and do what He has commanded? It might seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world, but God knows what He’s doing. He will use all our choices to His glory, the question is this: will we be blessed by those choices or will they make us fall?