Prince of Peace

We are promised a king who will reign in the wisdom, power, and faithful love of God; therefore he will be the Prince of Peace.  Remove any of the first three names, and this fourth one becomes impossible, inconceivable, unfathomable.  Coming after all three of them, however, this one is almost inevitable.  Isaiah describes a ruler with the love and commitment to desire only what is good and right, the wisdom to understand how to make all things good and right, and the power to make that happen and to defeat any who would try to oppose him.  What else would such a monarch bring but peace?

This doesn’t just mean the absence of war, either.  If a king were powerful enough, he could accomplish that without being either wise or loving.  The biblical concept of peace is much bigger and much greater than that.  As I’ve said before, this is one of those Hebrew words that’s worth learning for everybody, because you can’t translate it with anything less than a paragraph.  This is the word shalom.

At its root, it means to be whole, perfectly complete and unmarred; it carries within it the concept we call integrity.  To experience shalom, to live in the peace of God, is to be in complete harmony:  first of all with God and his will; and because of that, second, within yourself.  The result is a calm, unshakeable sense that all is well, and freedom from anxiety.  This in turn creates harmony with others, to the extent that they are willing to be at peace with you.  There will always be those who aren’t, whatever their reasons; the peace of God gives you the ability to behave peaceably toward them regardless, and to pursue peace with them even so.  A life of shalom is a life lived in tune with God, ordered by his order, in accordance with his will.

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Everlasting Father

In reading Isaiah 9, I’ve always snagged on this third name:  “Everlasting Father.”  For one thing, you’d think Isaiah’s contemporaries must have had trouble with that one, too.  A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and he will be called Everlasting Father.  Putting those two things together, the fatherhood of a child, seems odd.  If the people of Judah and Israel had been in the habit of using “Father” as a title for their kings, that would have been one thing—they would have been used to seeing that sort of name hung on baby boys—but that had never been the case.  God was described as the Father of his people, and he didn’t even share that title with David.  To have this baby called “Father” is unprecedented.  To have him called “Everlasting Father,” one who will be the Father of his people for eternity, is even more so.  This is a title which could only be given to God—and here God’s prophet is using it as a name for a human baby boy.

Now, this looks less strange to us, since we know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say; we know how Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.  But is Jesus ever called “Father” in the New Testament?  No—he’s the Son, Son of Man and Son of God.  If we were to call him “Father,” wouldn’t that make God the Father our grandfather?  But Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “Our Grandfather,” he tells us to pray, “Our Father,” to see God the Father as our Father as well as his.  So how does it make sense to call Jesus “Everlasting Father”?

To understand this, we need to hold fast to the first principle of biblical interpretation:  let Scripture interpret Scripture.  In particular, we need to learn from the great rabbis, such as Gamaliel who taught the Apostle Paul:  if you want to know how to understand a word, go see where it’s used elsewhere in Scripture.  So when the Old Testament calls God Father, what does it say?

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Mighty God

(Isaiah 9:1-7John 20:19-29)

To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and that child will be the king who will bring an end to war and oppression and all the darkness of the world.  He will be the perfect king who will rule forever and bring eternal peace—but not the peace of the tyrant, who brings the peace of the grave by crushing dissent and killing anyone who opposes him.  His peace will be a peace of life and growth, in which all the world will flourish.  He will bring this about through his wisdom, for he is the miraculously-wise counselor, the one who speaks and leads with the perfect wisdom of the Lord of all creation.  He will bring this about through his power, for he is the mighty God.

The word for “mighty” in the Hebrew is an adjective, but it was often used as a noun, rather like our national anthem calls America “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  When it was used this way, it meant a great warrior or a great hero.  The meaning is clear.  This child who is king because he is God will not only rule with the wisdom of God, he will defend his people with the power of God, and so he will be incomparably mighty in battle.  He will defeat all his enemies, and he will never be overcome.  His kingdom will endure forever because there will never be any power that can conquer it; it will grow forever because there will never be any power that can stand against it.  His people will know absolute security and freedom from any threat.

That all sounds conventional enough.  Empires grow by winning battles and wars, after all, and they start to shrink when they start losing.  If you’re going to envision a ruler who will reign forever and whose kingdom will never stop expanding, it’s probably going to have to be someone who never loses a battle, let alone a war.  That’s why the greatest empire-builders in human history have been military geniuses like Alexander the Great.  But the funny thing is, that’s not actually what God has in mind.Read more

Wonderful Counselor

(Isaiah 7:1-17Isaiah 9:1-7John 12:20-26)

The people of God were a house divided.  They had been ever since the death of King Solomon.  In the later years of his reign, Solomon turned away from God and the ways of his father, King David, to worship the false gods of the surrounding nations.  In judgment, God took the ten northern tribes away from Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam.  The northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel, which was sometimes referred to as Ephraim, for its dominant tribe.  The south was known as the kingdom of Judah, after its dominant tribe.  One people became two nations; as is the way of the human heart, self-will and the desire for power and control turned that separation into rivalry, and often enmity.

In the days of King Ahaz of Judah, Israel allied with Syria to launch a plot against Judah—a plot to remove Ahaz from the throne of David and replace him with a Syrian puppet king.  This was nothing God would ever allow to happen, whatever might be said for Ahaz himself—which wasn’t much, to be honest—because it would violate the covenant promise God had made to David.  To reassure and encourage the king, God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz that hewould take care of those two burned-out torches.  Just sit quiet, don’t worry, and don’t do anything, Isaiah says, because God will stop them.  What’s more, the prophet makes clear that this is the king’s only hope:  “If you don’t stand by faith, you won’t stand at all.”  To confirm his promise, God invites the king to ask for a sign—anything at all—and God will do it.

Unfortunately, while Ahaz has spent his entire life around the worship of God, he doesn’t really worship God himself.  In our terms, he’s the sort who’s in church every Sunday but isn’t actually saved.  Like a lot of folks like that, he’s become adept at using the Bible and spiritual-sounding language to make excuses for not doing what God has explicitly told him to do.  He’s so good at that, in fact, that he thinks he can pull that on God’s own prophet and get away with it.  He doesn’t.Read more

The Way Leads Through

(Isaiah 43:16-21Mark 6:17-29Luke 7:18-23)

It didn’t end well for John, as the world counts these things.  It’s no surprise; when you greet visitors with “You vipers!  Who warned you to flee the coming wrath!” chances are you won’t be elected president of your local ministerial association, let alone offered a book deal and a radio show.  This isn’t classic church-growth strategy; it’s more like bizarro Dale Carnegie:  How to Win Enemies and Influence People to Kill You.
We might say this is because John told the truth; but that doesn’t go far enough.  Fact of the matter is, this world doesn’t necessarily mind truthtellers, so long as they keep it within acceptable bounds.  You can preach truth all day long and not ruffle anyone’s feathers at all, if you’re careful about it, and a great many preachers do.  It’s only when you go from preachin’ to meddlin’, as they say down South, that you’re in for trouble.  John was a meddler, in a big way; he spoke the truths the world wanted to avoid.
The world wants to avoid them because it wants to avoid anxiety and pain.  You can see it in how we react to the prospect of conflict—it tends to be fight or flight.  Some­one challenges us, or does something we really don’t like, and we get anxious; if we don’t consciously stop ourselves, we’ll let the anxiety drive us into reacting rather than thinking.  We may opt for flight—avoid the conflict; back down, deny, change the subject, pass the buck—or we may choose to fight, to go on the attack and try to win the battle.  Similarly, when we face doubt and the struggles in our souls, we tend either to flee—perhaps through denial, or losing faith—or to fight.  We may fight our doubt by explaining it away; we may turn our anxiety outward, looking for someone else to blame.  What we don’t do when we’re just reacting is deal honestly with the real issue, whatever it is.
When we see something unpleasant, we want to avoid it, or to make it go away.  That’s perfectly understandable; but often, it isn’t healthy, and it isn’t right.  What’s more, it produces tendencies in our societies, and in our churches, that really aren’t good.  We hide our sins and our weaknesses, we deny them or pass the blame, because we fear how others will react if we’re honest; we don’t want to humble ourselves before those we’ve wronged or let down, and admit that we need grace and mercy.  We don’t confront those who have wronged us, or who have done something we think is inappropriate or even sinful, because we don’t want to face the conflict; but that anxiety has to go somewhere, so we turn instead to gossip and complain about them to someone else.  We cover up our doubts and our struggles, because we think real Christians don’t have those problems.  And we don’t tell others about the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, about his love and grace and the price he paid for us, because we’re afraid of what they might say or do.
In short, when we see a problem, when we see an issue, when we see something hard, we look for a way to avoid it—we look for a way around.  John shows us, through his whole ministry, that God’s way doesn’t lead around:  it leads through.  Sometimes speaking the truth, even doing so in love, brings conflict; we would prefer to avoid that conflict, but God leads us through it.  Not that we should try to create conflict, but we shouldn’t let the threat of other people doing so dissuade us from speaking the truth or doing what God is calling us to do.  As Paul tells Timothy, God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline—the self-discipline and the power to look our fear and our anxiety right in the face, acknowledge them, and then do what they’re telling us not to do, in the love of God.
We see this in John, in his treatment of the Herods.  They were a mess of a family in a lot of ways, some of which are on display in Mark 6.  Herodias was at this point the wife of Herod Antipas; previously, she had been married to Antipas’ half-brother Herod Philip, until she divorced Philip and Antipas divorced his wife to marry her.  What exactly John had said about the whole affair we don’t know, but it’s not hard to see why he felt the need to say something; if you’re calling the nation to repentance, you can’t really ignore that kind of flagrant public sin among the rulers if you want to have any credibility.  So, John called out the whole situation, Herod Antipas had him arrested, and ultimately Herodias connived to have him executed.
It’s hard to face much more resistance than that; but even though it cost him his life, John did not back down from speaking the truth.  Still, it’s clear that the whole situation rattled him.  At the time of our passage from Luke, John is in prison, and he’s starting to wonder if maybe he’s made a mistake; yes, he’s known all his life that most of God’s prophets came to a bad end, but having it happen to him has shaken his faith.  But you’ll notice, he doesn’t try to rationalize anything, and he doesn’t just give in to his doubt—he goes to Jesus with it, through his disciples.  He moves throughhis doubt, to the Lord; and he is comforted.
That’s how it is, in the wilderness.  We see the valley of the shadow of death, and we think we can find a way around it—or maybe even avoid the wilderness altogether.  We can certainly find paths that look like they’ll do the trick.  The thing about the wilderness, though, is that what looks like an easier way is usually a dead end, or even a trap.  The path laid out for us may seem unnecessarily hard, and often seems to be going the wrong direction; but if you leave it for a shortcut, you’ll usually find yourself sooner or later in a blind canyon, or up on a ledge with no way forward and no safe way back.
If we want to make it to the end, we need to trust our Guide; he’s the one who made the way, and he’s been through it before.  And more than that, he’s the one who promised to make the way for us in the wilderness, through the desert, and to provide for us along the way so that we can make it through.

Wildfire Season

(Isaiah 40:1-8Malachi 3:1-5Mark 1:1-8Luke 3:7-9)

One of the realities of life in the wilderness is that fire is very much a threat.  To the extent that there is any life at all, there are wildfires—in all but the harshest deserts, in the grasslands, and of course in the forests.  We knew this well in Colorado:  when wildfire season comes, you prepare, you keep watch, and you pray.  It may not be you, but there will be those who see their whole lives burn.  There always are.  Whether you’re thinking about the threat or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s always there.

One of the things that made me shake my head when I was at Trinity was how many people weren’tthinking about the threat, and in fact were actively refusing to.  The fire danger for us was astronomical due to millions of acres of dead trees, killed by the mountain pine beetle; everyone was supposed to have their trees sprayed every year, to protect them from the beetle, and to thin the trees around their homes and other buildings, to slow the spread of any fire.  Many home­owners, though, refused to do either.  They didn’t want to cut down any trees, and they didn’t want to pay the money for spraying, so they just ignored the problem; and all their trees died.

By the grace of God, we didn’t see the whole county burn down; indeed, by his grace, it still hasn’t, and by now I’d guess most of the dead wood is gone.  But as the threat of fire loomed, judgment for decades of mismanagement of the land, there were many voices warning of that judgment and demanding repentance; and most people understood that those voices were good and right.  When judgment is real, when the warning is true, proclaiming it is not cruel or unkind—it’s a necessary act of love for others.

This is why John the Baptizer—or John the Forerunner, as the Orthodox call him—speaks so sharply to the Pharisees when they come down to see him.  He doesn’t care to trim the message to fit what they want to hear; he’s not focusing on meeting their expectations, or judging his success by whether or not they’re happy with him.  Instead, he’s telling them the truth.  He’s proclaiming the comfort of Israel, but that message of comfort is also a warning, and they need to listen up.

His language here is striking.  David Rohrer, teaching pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, captures it vividly from his childhood experience of wildfires:

The image that comes to mind for me is the fires that burn various parts of the foothills in Southern California each year.  One of my memories of growing up there is watching these fires destroy just about everything in their path.  

After the dry summer, the chaparral plants were like fuel waiting for ignition.  When that spark came and the Santa Ana winds fanned the flame, this fuel burned hot and fast.  As these fires voraciously consumed chamise shrubs and sage brush, the cha­parral animals fled before the flames, trying to find safety.  John is making use of a similar image.  In effect, he says, “You are like a bunch of little snakes coming out from under a burning bush.”

Calling them vipers is harsh.  Not only are vipers poisonous and de­structive, but snakes were associated with the enemies of God going all the way back to the Garden of Eden.  John is looking out at those who considered themselves the best among the children of God, and he’s calling them children of the Devil.  He knows they aren’t coming in sincere repentance; he sees their hypocrisy and calls them on it.  But here’s the key:  he isn’t just condemning them, he’s trying to grab their attention and shock them into listening.  There is still time for them to hear his message, to understand the significance of his baptism, and to repent of their sin—or else, the judgment.

That’s why we have this oddity at the beginning of the gospel of Mark.  All four gospels present John as the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah 40; in the gospel of John, we see that that association comes from the Baptizer himself, as he uses that passage to tell the Pharisees who he is.  That, of course, is a word of hope and comfort—God is announcing the end of judgment and the day of his favor.  He is coming to deliver his people from slavery and bring them back from exile.  This is good news.

But.  Mark does something with this that none of the other gospels follow.  He introduces the quote from Isaiah, and then he quotes Isaiah, but in between, he sticks another passage altogether.  This sort of structure is pretty common in Mark—commenta­tors have dubbed it the “Markan sandwich”—and it’s designed to emphasize whatever is in the middle.  So here, right in the middle of this good news from Isaiah, right when his hearers would have expected the word “Comfort,” first they get this piece of Malachi 3.

Why is this important?  Well, Malachi 3 is talking about the same thing as Isaiah 40, but in a profoundly different tone.  He’s echoing a verse from Exodus 23, where God declares, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”  There’s the promise, given for the first exodus, after they have already escaped Egypt for the wilderness. But then comes this:  “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”  There’s the warning:  God will guard and guide you, but only as long as you’re faithfully fol­lowing him.  If you don’t, watch out.

And so here we have Malachi, and here we have Mark pairing him up with Isaiah.  “Comfort, comfort my people . . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together”—but, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”  When the Lord comes, he will come like a conflagration—a refiner’s fire, that burns away all the dross and all the rubbish.  For the righteous, he will be a purifying flame, but for the unrighteous, he will be a blaze of judgment, as their lives burn to ash before their eyes.  No one is exempt; as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3, all of us will be tested with fire, to show what sort of work we have done and what sort of lives we have lived.

Wildfire season is coming; we know it, and because we know it, we need to warn others.  It’s coming at the end for all of us, as we will all stand unguarded before the Judge of all the earth to be tested by the fire of his holiness, to face the reckoning for all we have done; and most of us will face it many times before that, as our world keeps trying to burn itself down, letting the passion-fire of its lusts and its hatreds set everything ablaze.  Even earlier this week, I’d been thinking we’ve seen an awful lot of blood and death in the news lately, and then came the horrifying atrocity in Newtown, like a cherry of plague atop a sundae of moral disease.  It’s wildfire season, once again.

This should not surprise us; and while it should make us weep, it should not make us lose heart.  To borrow from Abraham, the Judge of all the earth shall do right.  As much as we moderns flinch from the idea of any sort of judgment, the word of judgment is part of the word of comfort, and necessarily so, because the essence of God’s word of comfort is that all will be made right—which means that all that is wrong will be cast away.  Which in turn means that all those who hold fast to what is wrong, who would rather be cast away than repent, will go with it.  Randy Stonehill, after a ministry trip to Bangkok, wrote a song asking, “Can Hell burn hot enough to pay for all this suffering, the murder of the innocent?  Can Hell burn hot enough to balance out these scales?”  While I grieve that such a question could ever be asked, I have no doubt:  it can and will.

At the same time, God’s judgment isn’t only for those people out there, it’s for us; when we look at the news from Connecticut, we are seeing nothing alien to any of us, but only the same darkness that twists our own hearts.  We would not all be the same monster, but we are all capable of the same monstrosity; we all need the insight of G. K. Chesterton, to understand that when we ask what’s wrong with the world, the answer begins with us.  And so we need to recognize that for us, and for everyone, the only alterna­tive to absolute judgment is absolute redemption in the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Our comfort:  there is an alternative, there is a way out, there is salvation.  Our warning:  there is only one.  All other roads anyone might ever take, the wildfires sweep over them, and they are no more.  Only Jesus is the way through.  Let’s pray.

Bearing Witness to the Light

(Isaiah 60:1-3Luke 1:67-80John 1:6-8)

As we saw last week, the herald of salvation, the one who came to announce that God’s great promise was at last being fulfilled, arose not in the capital, not among the powerful, but out in the wilderness.  The word of life came in a place hostile to life; the message of hope rang out in a land of desolation.  Redemption for the fallen, healing for the broken, and love for the deserted was proclaimed in the desert.

And as we said, so it must be, for in the desert, there is silence for us to hear God speak.  The world makes an incredible racket, trying to get its way through manipulation and coercion, through bribery, seduction, flattery, threats, and blunt force trauma.  It shouts down and corrupts, lies and cheats, and shades the truth until there’s nothing left but shading.  Politicians talk about spinning the story, but what they’re really spinning is us; give them the voice of God that thunders over the waters, and they’d deafen us in the space of one 30-second commercial.  God doesn’t do that.

Instead, he calls us from the wilderness—he calls us into the wilderness.  He calls us away from all our striving to control our lives by controlling those around us, and all our attempts to control our world through the application of whatever power we can grab.  He draws us away from our efforts to cover up our sin and hide from our inadequacy.  He leads us out where our maps don’t work, we have no landmarks to steer by, and we do not know the way.  He brings us to the point where all gods fail, and we have no one else but him—where he is our only hope, and our only way—where we have to face the bad news of our life:  we are broken and we can’t fix it.  Our world is fouled up beyond our ability to make it right.  And once we understand in the marrow of our bones and the pit of our stomach that we are in desperate need of a salvation that we cannot provide, then we know that we need a Savior; then we can hear the good news as good news.

And once we get to that point, we can begin to see something else:  if the problem of our sin is far greater than we would otherwise believe, so too is the salvation God is working.  What does Zechariah say of his son?  “You will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”  If you have an ear tuned to the Bible, as Zechariah most certainly did, that’s a cataclysmic statement.

Remember Isaiah 40:  “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places shall become a plain.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”  In Isaiah 43, God declares, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

God calls us into the wilderness so that we must face our need, but also that we might see his power and his glory.  He brings us out where the lights of our cities no longer protect us from the darkness of the night—where the darkness goes on forever, leaving us isolated and alone with the darkness of our hearts and the shadow of death, crying out for any light we can find; and then over us like a sunburst comes the word of his promise:  “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness all the nations, but the Lordwill arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

This is the knowledge of the salvation of God which John proclaimed to his people, the forgiveness of all our sin; it is the sunrise of the grace and mercy of God in the darkness of our guilt and shame and the black shadow of death, to give us light and hope and guide us in the way of his peace.  God isn’t just about making the wilderness a little easier to live in, or giving us a little better flashlight so we can walk a little more easily.  The purpose of God is the utter obliteration of all that is evil and unholy and wrong, and the redemption and healing of all creation, us most of all; it’s to bring life where there is death, and light up the darkness from horizon to horizon.  God is making all things new.

This is the message John was given, to proclaim that God was coming to his people—not to do anything for himself, but all his life dedicated to bearing witness to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  This is the message we have been given, to proclaim that God has come and is coming again, to bear witness to his light in all that we do and all that we say; and in that, there are some things we can learn from John’s example.

One, he reminds us that spiritually, we too live in the wilderness.  We talked about this as we were going through Romans 8; as followers of Christ, we have passed out of the land of slavery, but we have not arrived at the promised land—we are in the land between, the place of testing and challenge, where we have to live by faith and we have to follow God because he’s the only one who knows how he got us here, and he’s the only one who knows how to get us where we’re going.  We’re still in this world, but we no longer belong here; and like John, God has raised us up as his heralds to call others into the wilderness, to hear his promise and to know his hope.

Two, this means that our focus needs to be as laserlike as John’s was if we’re going to do what God has called us to do.  He had one task and one message, to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the day of God’s mercy was dawning, and to call them to seize the opportunity and repent; and so to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.  That was the content of every sermon, and the purpose of everything he did, down to where he lived, what he wore, and what he ate.

This doesn’t mean we need to do exactly what John did; but as for him, in everything we do and say, our goal should be to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In our preaching, in our teaching, in our programs, as we give counsel to one another, we only have one word that gives life.  The late ex-Communist Arthur Koestler once declared, “One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up”; I don’t think ruthlessly is really the right word, but we have been brought into rela­tionship with the One who is truth, and we should follow the spirit of Koestler’s advice.  We should relentlessly proclaim the truth of the gospel, in every situation, in every issue, by our words and by our actions, or else we should be silent:  God is speaking.

Now, Jesus isn’t literallythe answer to every question; if someone asks you what has four legs, a bushy tail, climbs trees, and eats nuts, well, sometimes a squirrel is just a squirrel.  Even John, if you’d asked him the best way to prepare locusts, probably would not have said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  There are technical questions and technical challenges that need technical answers.  But those questions and challenges come in the broader context of life, of how do we live and why do we do what we do and what are we living for; yes, fixing the washer just requires the ability to identify and replace the broken part, but knowing why you do the laundry—that requires the gospel.

We need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, with the world, that we need more than just better tools, better skills, and a better to-do list; that the problem with us, with our marriages, with our children, with our relationships with our family, our friends, our co-workers, is not a technical problem, and can’t be solved by trying harder or managing things better.  I have sometimes regretted letting off that crack about “dis­organized religion” where Dr. Kavanaugh could hear it, but I stand by it, and I don’t think he’s wrong to keep bringing it up.  The problem with organized religion is that it too easily communicates the idea that being organized is the answer; being honest about it when we’re rather less than organized keeps our hearts soft to be honest about our greater struggles and failures, and keeps us honest about our need for grace.

“God Is Coming!”

(Isaiah 40:1-8Matthew 3:1-8)

It all begins in a desert.  It has to, really—out somewhere quiet, out away from the world; the world talks too much.  In fact, it shouts too much, and always pretty much all the same thing.  That might sound strange to you, but when you get right down to it, it’s true; everything the world shouts boils down to this:  you have to do this, and do things this way, and you can’t do that, or do things that way.  It’s all part of our frantic effort to pretend we’re in control, that if we just try hard enough and do it right, we can make our lives be what we want them to be.  The problem is, nobody agrees on whatwe have to do and not do; and so people shout, hoping to drown out all those other voices, or at least make them give up and go away.
And out in the desert, out in the wind and the howl of the coyote, is another voice, with another message altogether.  Out away from the world and the riot of all its news, down by the one river running through a land dry as bone, stands a man offering something different:  good news.  Out where the sun and the heat stab like knives, where the harshness of the land sandblasts our defenses and lays our weakness bare, suddenly there is a word of hope.  We’ve made a mess of things; but God is coming to make things right.
God is coming!  That’s the good news John is preaching; though if you’re not sure that’s exactly comfortable news, you’re not alone.  Certainly a lot of people back in the city didn’t think so—especially the professional religious folk who thought they had everything under control and God all figured out; that’s why they came down to the river, not to follow John, but to spy on him.  They wanted to convince themselves that John was a fake so they could go back to their nice comfortable existence in the city where they were the experts who had all the answers and had their lives all together.  God already had them to do his work for him—what did he need with some anti-social loudmouth out in the desert eating bugs?  And in the backs of their minds—not that they would have admitted this to themselves—had to be the thought:  if God really was coming, what could he do but upset their applecart?
But if you understand that your cart’s missing a wheel, it’s already fallen over and the apples are bouncing down the street, and you don’t even know for sure where some of them got off to—well, then you get it:  this really is good news.  If you recognize that you don’t actually have it all together, that in fact you don’t have all the answers, and that nobody really does—if you see that all our efforts at control amount to little more than a house of cards, which stands only until the first hot wind blows in from the desert—then you can hear John’s message as a word of hope.  It’s only when you recognize that you aren’t going to fix your life yourself—and none of us do, and none of us can—that the announcement that God is coming is reason to rejoice; because then we know that every­thing needs to be made right, and we need someone bigger than ourselves to do it.
We don’t have to act like we’ve got it all figured out and we’re doing everything just right; and in truth, we aren’t doing ourselves or anyone else any favors if we try to.  Our message isn’t that if you just try hard enough and do things our way, you can work your way up to God; it’s that God came down to us, because he loves us.  It’s not about us being good enough, or having to be good enough—it’s about Jesus being good enough for us, when we never could.  This is the good news; and if we really understand this, we don’t need to pretend.  We can be a place where it’s safe to be honest about our sin and our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our struggles, both with each other and with God—where confession and repentance are met not with proud condemnation, but with humble grace.  That’s a gift.  Let’s pray.

True King, False King, Wizard, Priest

(Isaiah 60:1-6, Micah 5:1-5a; Matthew 2:1-18)

God leads us in odd ways, sometimes. I began this week with no real idea what I was going to preach on; when I did my sermon planning for this past year, I hadn’t been able to settle on anything for this Sunday, so I’d left it blank. I had ideas floating around, but nothing fit; and then I sat down Tuesday, and God just put it together for me. There were several things that contributed to that, including the fact that I’d recently been reading about the new movie version of John Le Carré’s book Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I’ve never read the book and don’t know much about it, but the title is resonant; and as this passage from Matthew was bouncing around in my mind, it bounced into that title with a loud clang, and suddenly I had a sermon title.

Which might not seem like a big deal (and often it isn’t), but in this case, it was, because it gave me a framework for the passage. You see, there are really four characters in this section of Matthew, the four in the sermon title; and there’s something rather shocking about this combination of the four of them, something which familiarity has dulled in our minds. I was thinking about this, too, thanks to a post on the Desiring God blog from Christmas Eve titled “We Three Kings of Orient Aren’t.” “We Three Kings” is a marvelous carol for many reasons, which is why we’ll be singing it later, but the people who came to visit Jesus weren’t kings, they were magi. Which I knew, but I hadn’t fully registered the significance of that until I read this:

They are pagan astrologers, not too far from what we’d call sorcerers and wizards.

Gandalf and Dumbledore are coming to worship the baby Jesus.

These magi are not respected kings but pagan specialists in the supernatural, experts in astrology, magic, and divination, blatant violators of Old Testament law—and they are coming to worship Jesus. . . .

The whole Bible, Old Testament and New, plainly condemns the kind of astrology, stargazing, and dabbling in the dark arts typical of the magi. In biblical terms, the magi are plainly marked as “sinners.”

The magi are the spiritual descendants of the priests of Egypt who struggled against Moses and Aaron before the Exodus, and of the Chaldean magicians who opposed Daniel in the presence of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. Really, to say Gandalf and Dumbledore are coming to Jesus isn’t strong enough, given the biblical view of these folks; this is more like Salazar Slytherin and Severus Snape. Everywhere else in Scripture, these people feature as the enemies of God. Yet here, they come to worship Jesus. What’s going on?

Two things. One, we have a gospel inversion going on here—God’s work of deliverance inverting the established order, as both Mary and Zechariah prophesied. Who are the characters here? On one hand, you have Herod the king, and you have the religious leaders—the priests and the seminary professors. These are the people who have the power and the position; they’re the ones who are supposed to be leading Israel in the ways of God. But the king is a false king—installed by Rome, holding power through military conquest, with no real legitimate claim to the throne in Jerusalem; in consequence, he’s becoming increasingly paranoid about his position. Somewhere in here he will execute his favorite wife on the barest suspicion of treason (she was innocent). And the priests aren’t challenging him, they’re serving him.

On the other hand, you have these foreign wizards, and you have Jesus, born among the animals. The wizards are hardcore pagan bad guys, and Jesus is so insignificant as to be completely beneath official notice. In the normal course of the story, they would be the threat to the people of God. Instead, Jesus is the true king, and the wizards are coming to worship him, while the priests of his people are indifferent and the man on the throne is the true enemy. The characters don’t line up in predictable fashion, because God is doing something very, very different from anything he’s done before; the previous rules and storylines don’t necessarily apply.

Two, that fact tells us something important about what God is doing. To understand what, let’s look first at Micah 5. Bethlehem, you who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, are nevertheless not least among them, because out of you will come the king of Israel—and not just any king, but the one “whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days.” This is the Messiah God had promised, the Deliverer, the Redeemer, who would gather all the people of God back to Israel, who would rule over them as a king faithful to God, and who as a result would bring them peace and security.

What’s in view here is more than merely national and political deliverance, as we can see from the vision of Isaiah 60. The glory of the Lord rises among his people, drawing all the nations, their kings coming humbly to Israel, bringing their wealth. Note in particular verse 6—the NIV says that they will come from Sheba “bearing gold and incense,” but in fact that last word is more specific in the Hebrew: it’s frankincense. The magi aren’t actually kings, and they aren’t from Sheba, but their appearance with gifts of gold and frankincense is another sign that Jesus is indeed the Messiah—and more, that he is the glory of the Lord promised in Isaiah 60, rising among his people to be their light.

That’s not all that’s going on here, though; there’s one more thing that must be said. It’s foreshadowed in the reference to Micah—the king who comes from Bethlehem will cause “the rest of his brothers [to] return to the people of Israel”—but it really comes into focus in verse 15, in this strange citation of Hosea 11:1. Pull out your Bibles and let’s look at this a moment. The chapter begins, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is clearly talking about the Exodus—so why is Matthew applying this verse to Jesus? And why is he using it here, when Jesus and his family are heading down to Egypt, rather than a few verses later when they return?

The second question is no big deal, I think, since Matthew makes it clear in verse 15 that Jesus’ stay in Egypt was temporary. The first is the important one. If you look a little further on in Hosea, at verses 10-11, you see the prophet says that the Lord will roar like a lion, and his children will come to him: “They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves.” It’s a promise of a second exodus, a new exodus, in which the Lord will bring his people back from exile as he brought them up from Egypt, and establish them again in their land as he had done before.

The key here is that at the time of Jesus’ birth, those promises had really only been partly fulfilled. God’s people had indeed returned, mostly, from their places of exile to Jerusalem and their homeland—but when they returned, they were still a conquered people, and so they had mostly remained. Certainly they had seen nothing like Micah 5 or Isaiah 60. As such, there was a sense that the new exodus God had promised was still to come; that was why they were waiting for the Messiah, the prophet like Moses who would lead the new exodus as Moses had led the first.

This is what Matthew’s on about in verse 15; it’s a form of what we call typological interpretation. Jesus is the new Moses, the one who will lead his people out of slavery, and more than that, he’s the new Israel. He is the one who will perfectly keep the law Israel could never keep; he’s the one who will perfectly fulfill the mission Israel could never fulfill. And where God called Israel his son because he had chosen them as his people, Jesus of course is God’s Son at a much, much deeper level. And so just as Israel, in its infancy as a nation—just one large extended family—went down into Egypt, then was brought back up into the Promised Land in God’s good time, so Jesus will go down into Egypt as an infant, and then return.

In other words, in this passage we see Matthew laying down some of the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus is the true Israel; he is the new Moses, the one who will lead the new exodus of his people; he is the one whose light will draw all the nations, at whose feet kings will lay down their wealth, including gold and frankincense. He will be opposed by the powerful, who will scruple at nothing to strike him down, but they will not succeed; though they will murder the innocent—first the babies of Bethlehem, then in the end Jesus himself—yet they will not silence him, for he will rise again from the dead.

And in the end, no one who truly sees him will be able to stand indifferent; the priests were at his birth, but they wouldn’t be once they really got to know him. In the end, either you see him like Herod, a mortal threat, or like the shepherds and the magi—and you worship. There’s nothing else to do.

Extraordinary Obedience

(Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25)

It hadn’t occurred to me until just now (I don’t know why, it seems obvious once you see it), but in these two passages—Matthew’s account of the angel’s message to Joseph, and Isaiah’s message to Ahaz, which Matthew references—there’s a remarkable contrast between the two men who received those divine messages. The obvious one is between their social status; but more than that, there’s a sharp contrast between the two in faith and obedience.

Doesn’t it seem strange to you—lots of people ask God for signs; the Old Testament is littered with examples—but here, God’s prophet actually invites someone to ask for a sign, and Ahaz says, “No thanks.” He cloaks it in false piety, saying, “I don’t want to put the Lord God to the test”; which sounds great until you remember that God made the offer. Why does he do that? I could be wrong, but I think it’s because he honestly didn’t want the sign; he had his own plans for political and military deliverance. He’s fighting Syria and Israel, and his idea for dealing with them is to bring Assyria down on them—to ally himself with the tiger to get rid of the fox.

Really, that wasn’t all that bright an idea, as the long-term consequences would be severe; but he was trying to deal with his problems on an ordinary level—ordinary for a king, anyway—by means of plans he could devise and events he could at least hope to control. He was trying to solve political and military problems by political and military means, and here’s the prophet coming along with an offer from God to solve them in a way that was completely out of the ordinary and beyond his control. To that, he says, “No, thank you. I don’t want that.”

In retrospect, knowing how the story ended, we can see how foolish Ahaz was; but in our own lives, in our own context, it’s much, much harder to see. Intellectually, we understand that God is out there and doing stuff—we say it, and at some level, we believe it—but in terms of the day-to-day operation of our lives, we don’t live by faith in what God is doing, we live by faith in what we can see and touch and quantify and control. When we have big problems (as certainly Ahaz did), we tend to look to big people rather than to God—to politicians, to the rich, to the famous, to the influential; to big corporations and big government. And yes, God can and does work through them as much as through anyone else; but he doesn’t need to, and he doesn’t rely on the powerful to accomplish his purposes. This time of the year above all others, we should remember that, because the birth of Jesus dramatizes the point with exceptional force.

Jesus’ parents came from Nazareth, a small town which lay in a high valley among the hills of Galilee; they were far from rich or powerful. They may have been poor, given that when they presented Jesus at the temple, they offered the sacrifice of the poor, two small birds, rather than a lamb; but it occurred to me this week, those were unusual circumstances—they had just made the trip to Bethlehem, and their families were mad at them. In a world with no bank accounts, ATMs or credit cards, the fact that Joseph couldn’t afford a lamb right then doesn’t mean he was poor in general. We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but in our terms, it would be better to call him a builder, even a general contractor; no doubt he did work with wood, but he probably did a lot more with stone, and the bulk of his work was most likely in construction.

That said, while economic times were pretty good, and building houses was a good way to make a living, this was still a man working for a living in a small town; Joseph was not a man to whom Rome would have paid any attention, save at tax time, nor a man who you would ever have expected to wind up in the history books. History is usually about those who are blue in blood, not in collar. Sure, he probably hoped Messiah would come, just like many in Israel did—but to have any part in his coming? Messiah was for Jerusalem, and he was for Nazareth, and his plans for his life would have been much smaller than that. No doubt when he and Mary were betrothed, he looked for nothing more than a happy marriage, a healthy family, and at least one son to learn the trade.

And then one day, Mary came to him and told him she was going to have a baby. One would think he must have been the first person she told; and one would also think he must have felt like one of his houses had fallen in on him. I don’t know if it made it better or worse when she then took off for Judea to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah, leaving Joseph alone to wrestle with everything; either way, it had to have been agonizing.

He had been dishonored—or so he thought, and so the whole society would think—and he had no option but to divorce Mary; engagements in that culture were as binding as marriage, they could only be ended by divorce, and not only Jewish but Roman law demanded that a husband divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery. If Joseph failed to do so, he would have two choices: let everyone think he had gotten Mary pregnant, or be subject to arrest by the Romans for facilitating prostitution. Either way, he would be shamed, subject to the scorn and contempt of everyone around him. What’s more, in divorce proceedings, Joseph could have claimed her dowry—whatever assets she brought with her into the marriage—and reclaimed any bride-price he had paid, thus coming out of the matter with his revenge and a tidy profit.

But instead, we see the first indication that Joseph, for all his ordinary life, was truly no ordinary man. Where financial considerations, the desire to save what he could of his reputation, and simple anger and hurt would all have pushed him toward a public divorce, instead he decided to do the best he could for Mary, rather than for himself. He had to divorce her, but he resolved to do it as quietly as possible, minimizing her public dishonor at considerable cost to himself. Justice would have permitted him to do much more, but he chose instead to treat her with mercy, which was a remarkable decision. Indeed, it was truly Christlike.

So Joseph comes to this decision, then goes to bed; he tosses and turns for a while, no doubt thoroughly miserable, and finally falls asleep. And in his sleep, an angel comes to him and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And then the angel was gone, and I imagine Joseph sitting bolt upright in bed, heart pounding, the room dark, but the light of the angel still shining in the backs of his eyes.

And then—he didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t say it was just a dream or try to explain it away: he did what he was told. He believed the angel, and he accepted Mary’s story, and he acted on it. Sure, it was impossible to believe; but then, what had happened to him was impossible to believe, too, but it had happened. It would cost him his honor in the eyes of his community, it would mean great shame for him and all his family, but God had commanded him, and he obeyed. This showed remarkable faith in God, and an even more remarkable willingness to follow God into the teeth of all the displeasure and contempt the world, and his family, could throw at him. It’s hard, hard as a door slammed shut, to buck the demands of family and society for God’s sake, but he did it.

We really need to appreciate this: Joseph gave up his life when God called, with no idea how much of it he might ever get back. He gave up his reputation, he gave up revenge, he gave up his own plan for how his life should go . . . he surrendered his life. He could have rejected the dream; he could have refused the call and chosen to keep control of his own life. Instead, he chose to put himself in God’s hands and accept the part God had for him, even though it meant being a fool to the world and a pariah to his family.

And because of that, he got to be there when God came to earth, a baby who would become a man whose footsteps would shake the world; and in so doing, in surrendering himself to the plan and the hands of God, Joseph surrendered himself to joy: the joy of the angels; the joy of the shepherds; the joy of all creation. His extraordinary obedience brought extraordinary reward.