December 3- Advent 3 – Jesus is Baptized, the Genealogy of Mary

Read Luke 3.John, the first miracle child we learned about in Luke 1, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (who was once called barren) rises up from the wilderness preaching the Word of God, and baptizing people for repentance and the forgiveness of their sins.A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places 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.” – Isaiah 40:3-5 (ESV)John was indeed a curiosity. Many came to John for baptism not realizing that repentance was John’s central theme. Be baptized, turn from your old ways, prepare the way of the Lord!As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:15-17 (ESV)John’s calling was to point to the One far greater than him. John could only lead people to repent and to see their sins. John could only baptize with water. Jesus is the only One who would take our sins away.John was not without controversy. Herod had John imprisoned because John had the audacity to point out that Herod was sleeping with his brother’s wife among other evil things Herod was doing. But John would not be silent.Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21-22 (ESV)It seems odd that Jesus was baptized. Why would someone with no sin need baptism?At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, He took on all the sins of humanity. The waters that cleansed us of our sins, laid them upon the One with no sin, the one that would put those sins to death forever on the cross.Jesus was sent forth on His mission to do for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself.It seems odd too that this is where Luke puts Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew also records Jesus’ genealogy, but the two are different. It is said that Luke gives Mary’s genealogy- Jesus’ true human line, that traces him back to Adam. It is said that Matthew’s genealogy traces back through Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph. The point of the genealogy is to verify the prophecy that Jesus was a descendant of David and the rightful heir of the human side of the kingly line.Jesus is both God and man, which seems to make no sense, but for our salvation it does make sense.

December 2, 2019 -Advent 2- Luke 2- Emmanuel, God With Us, the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s Prayer)

nunc dimittis

Read Luke 2.

This is the Christmas story we read and love so much- the version with the angels and shepherds and the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. While we tend to romanticize the birth and the early days of Jesus’ life, there is so much more to this chapter. Luke gives us important evidence that underscores the veracity of his claim that Jesus is indeed the Messiah the prophets foretold.

The Messiah was to be a descendent of David, from the town of Bethlehem. Luke brings out these points that are foretold about Jesus and who He would be.

“The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.” -Psalm 132:11 (ESV)

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2 (ESV)

Luke also gives us an historical timeframe when he names the rulers of Judea- Caesar Augustus the Roman Emperor, and Quirinius the governor of Syria. (There is some conjecture as to when Quirinius was officially appointed and named governor, but it is well known that he was a public official with authority in that area at the time.)

Jesus comes to us not as a high and important public official, nor as a celebrity, but as a child born to a poor teenage mother of (outwardly) questionable morality.

Jesus was first revealed not to high officials or kings, but to shepherds. Shepherds were the lowest of the low social strata. They were dirty. They smelled like sheep and were likely caked in sheep poo. They were social outcasts, yet God sent His angels to dirty, forgotten shepherds first, to bring them the good news that the promised Son of David has arrived.

Or do we forget that David, the great king of Israel, was once a shepherd too? David, the shepherd boy who God chose over his older and more kingly-looking brothers?

When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple so that he may be circumcised and brought into the community of Israel, they come upon Simeon, an elderly man to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Redeemer in the flesh before he died. When Simeon first held up the infant Jesus in the temple he declared:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32 (ESV)

Simeon’s prayer of thanks was followed by a prophecy and a warning to Jesus’ mother:

“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35 (ESV)

Thirty three years later, a sword would indeed pierce Mary’s soul, as she stood beneath a Roman cross watching her first-born son die, whether she realized it or not, for the sake of taking away her sins and taking away the sins of the whole world.

A woman named Anna was also in the temple. She was a widow from her youth. Anna too, saw Jesus for who he was, thanking God and telling everyone who came in to the temple that she had seen her Redeemer. It makes one wonder, how many people saw Anna as a crazy old woman, and how many saw her as one who had been blessed by God to actually lay eyes on the Messiah in her lifetime?

Luke and the other Gospel writers give us precious little on the years after Jesus’ birth, before he began his ministry. Luke does tell us – a story likely gleaned from Mary, Jesus’ mother- of a time when Jesus got lost from His parents coming home from a trip to Jerusalem. How terrified Mary must have been.

Mary had to know Jesus was different than her other children. Jesus, the one who taught in the temple at age 12. Jesus who had to be in his Father’s house. Mary treasured these things in her heart, (Luke 2, verses 19 and 51) but at this point in Jesus’ life she could only wonder what this could possibly mean.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Luke 2:52 (ESV)

November 29, 2019- The Good Shepherd, God With Us- Ezekiel 34:11-24

feed-my-sheep

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.  As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country.  I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.  Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad,  I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.  And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. Ezekiel 34:11-24 (ESV)

Ezekiel was a priest who was taken to Babylon in 597 BC as part of the Babylonian exile.  When he was in Babylon, he received a series of prophetic visions from God.  The first vision was of Ezekiel coming down in a chariot of fire to deliver God’s judgment to Israel and God commissioning Ezekiel to be His prophet.  The second was convicting the people of all the ways that Israel as a nation had violated God’s Law via idolatry and immoral living.  The third vision was that exile wasn’t the end of God’s people Israel.  At the end of Ezekiel’s prophecies we get the glorious image of dead, dry bones being spoken into life again.  (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

Here through the pen of Ezekiel, God speaks of a new nation that will come to be- the remnant of the faithful, God’s sheep, the new Israel.

More importantly Ezekiel points us to the Good Shepherd- God Himself, Who we know as Jesus, God in human flesh, the Son of David, will gather His sheep.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

God is the One doing the acting.  He is the Shepherd.  He makes us His sheep.  He seeks out His sheep.  He brings back those who have wandered away.  He brings strength to the weak, and He will bring down the strong who have taken advantage of the weak.

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

Do we gladly learn and share God’s word, and the material gifts He so lavishly gives us? Or do we keep all of that to ourselves and fail to acknowledge the needs of those around us?  None of us do that perfectly. We sin daily and sin much.

Lord, please help us to share your good news and good pasture with others, that we would be generous and truthful and gracious in our dealings with our neighbors.

All of us are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Do we trust in Christ that He will transform our hearts and minds to His will?

As the church year comes to an end and we enter into the season of Advent, we can take comfort and confidence that the Son of David, the Good Shepherd, God With Us, Emmanuel, is gathering His sheep.

 

December 1, 2019 Advent 1- Luke 1: (Formerly) Barren Women, and Two Baby Boys

mary and Elizabeth

Read Luke 1 today.  Remember that you can always come back to a part of the study.  Today’s chapter is rich in fulfilled prophecy. We learn how God works in and through His people, and that His word always does what He says it will.  “Impossible!” for us is possible for God.

Luke begins his Gospel (as well as the book of Acts) with a nod to our friend, Theophilus (literally: God-lover.)  Theophilus may have been a person’s actual name, but it was more likely a way of addressing the reader, as a learned listener who loves God and wishes to learn more about Him.

Luke was by trade a physician, so he was the type of person to notice details and to be logical and thorough.  He was a traveling companion to the apostle Paul. Luke was thought to be a Hellenic Jew, (a person of Greek descent who followed Judaism) writing to a primarily ethnically Jewish audience, so he assumed his readers would be familiar with the Temple laws and the Old Testament.

The scene of Chapter 1 opens on Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest in the temple, and Elizabeth was his barren and long- suffering wife.

Zechariah is met as he serves in the temple by the angel Gabriel, who informs Zechariah that he and Elizabeth (even though she was way past menopause) were going to have a child.  He would be a child who even from before his birth would have to observe the Nazirite vow .  He would not be permitted to use alcohol or to cut his hair, among other restrictions.

 

Zechariah questioned Gabriel (which would seem to be a rational thing to do) and was rewarded with nine months of  being mute for doubting what God had to say.  God was true to His word in spite of Zechariah’s doubts- Elizabeth, the “barren,” did conceive a child.

Then the angel Gabriel pays a visit to Mary, the young girl who God has chosen to be Jesus’ mother.  Mary is another “barren” woman, but barren in the sense that she was a virgin and had never known a man.

In Protestant traditions we sort of shy away from talking about Mary, because we don’t want to put her in the place of God, but as long as we remember that Mary was a human, fallible sinner who, like us, also needed a Savior, there is no reason to hesitate to talk about her and to thank God for her and her role in the story of our salvation.

Mary’s response to Gabriel upon learning that she was to bear a son was similar to Zechariah’s – “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Today we don’t think a whole lot about unwed or teenage pregnancies.  They happen all the time.  But in Mary’s world there was a deep shame brought on the family if a girl was found to be pregnant before her wedding was consummated.  The assumption would be that she was breaking the seventh Commandment and not staying pure until her wedding night.  The penalty for this under the Mosaic Law can be found in Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” 

Mary had to be aware of the penalty for adultery. She had to know that in her present state pregnancy would be risky to her person to say the least.  She asked Gabriel about the “how,” which was understandable, but she did not question the “why,” nor did she ask, “Why me?”

Instead she listens to God’s messenger tell her of her formerly barren cousin Elizabeth and how she is already six months along. She believes Gabriel when he says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”  When Mary travels to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, even as she knows that her purity could be questioned,  even as she knows she could be condemned as an adulteress and her life could well be in danger, she sings the beautiful faith-filled Magnificat:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts: he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)

When Mary returns to her home after visiting with Elizabeth for several months, the time comes for Elizabeth’s child to be born.

Zechariah is finally given the ability to speak after nine long months of muteness. After the relatives wanted to argue about the child’s name, because no one in Zechariah’s family was named John,  Zechariah wrote emphatically on his writing tablet: His name is John!   Then Zechariah could speak again.

What then would this child of Zechariah and Elizabeth be?  He would be John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets- the one Isaiah spoke of (Isaiah 40:3) as the voice in the wilderness, making straight a highway in the wilderness to our God.

Out of barren women God works the impossible. One woman barren from age was enabled by God to conceive a child in the natural way, and another woman barren save for only the supernatural intervention of God, also conceives a son.   These impossible births mark the beginning of the story of salvation. Two baby boys, cousins, were brought in to the world by the providence of God- the voice in the wilderness, followed by Emmanuel, God with us.

 

 

 

November 27, 2019- To the Glory of God – 1 Corinthians 10:23-33

prayer-sinner

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.  Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 

For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—  I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?  If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?   

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 (ESV)

There is a fine line between seeking to live a sanctified life, a life that reflects one’s faith in Christ, and full blown pietism, which hearkens back to the holier-than-thou position of the Pharisee in the temple that Jesus speaks of in Luke 18:9-14.

Paul reminds us that our focus needs to stay on Jesus.  Our faith and trust need to be in Jesus rather than on whether or not we follow specific rituals or eat certain foods or hang out with certain people.

Our culture, our dinner plates, and even our habits and friends do not determine our status in the sight of God. We have no righteousness in and of ourselves, and nothing we can do (or fail to do) can justify us in the sight of God.

Our righteousness- our standing and validation before God – is outside of us.  Our Redeemer- Jesus- stands in our place.  He gives us all we need to stand. (see Romans 14:3-14)

We are reminded in the classic hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”   that Christian freedom is trusting in Christ alone- not in how good we appear to be on the outside or by what we do or don’t do.

Our freedom doesn’t mean we just do whatever we want, but that we act based upon what is best for those around us and on what brings glory to God.

When we pray do we make a display for others to see how holy we are, or because we know how much we need Jesus and that He listens to our prayers?

Do we do devotions and study so we can prove how much we know, or do we study so that through hearing and consuming God’s word we are transformed by the Gospel and filled with the Holy Spirit?

When our trust is in Jesus He purifies our motives.  The Holy Spirit gives us the discernment and the concern for others so that we can love and care for others in a way that glorifies God.

There is freedom in knowing that as imperfect as we are that Jesus stands in our places.  As we confess our sins to God, we know that our sins- every single one of them- was paid for by Jesus on the cross of Calvary.  He has done it all.  All we can do is respond to Him.

Lord, Jesus we are poor tools in your hands, but by your grace you hold us up and we stand in You.  Thank you for your sacrifice to save us from our sins, so that we can live in freedom, to your glory.

November 22, 2019 – Join In, Serve All- 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

coffee together

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.  1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (ESV)

Some of the best teachers are those who haven’t forgotten how to be kids- teachers who aren’t afraid to sit down with kids, join in their play, and get dirty with them.  After all, we tend to trust those with whom we share common bonds.

Hospitality is easy when other people are like us, when we share common culture, similar world views, eat the same foods and so forth.  It’s not so easy for us when others have radically different cultures, opposing world views and other differences from us.

For Christians, Jesus is the common bond, the Author and Perfecter of our faith (so says the writer of the book of Hebrews.)  As we look to find common bonds with others we remember that we can have unity in Christ even if our cultures, world views and even languages are different.

It is helpful for us to learn about our neighbors and to actually spend time with them.  Sometimes it is good to take a moment to share a meal or a cup of coffee with someone we may not be well acquainted with.  It is no coincidence that on the Emmaus road Jesus was made known to those travelers in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:13-35)

God can use those times when we connect with others for the Gospel to shine through us so that another may hear and be brought to faith.  God can use those moments spent with others to strengthen and encourage and teach His truth to us and others.

Every person we encounter is a person for whom Jesus died.  We respond to His love when we care for others enough to share with them and step into their lives.

 

 

November 21, 2019- Christian Freedom and Stumbling Blocks- 1 Corinthians 8

pagan sacrifice

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”  For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—  yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?  And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 

Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. 1 Corinthians 8 (ESV)

Christian freedom is a subject that the apostle Paul has to approach many times in his ministry.  Either people were guilty of wanting to impose all the old rules on everyone (that they couldn’t keep anyway) or of throwing out all the old rules and doing whatever.

What we do or don’t do should consider the example we show to our neighbor.  Most of us in our culture do not believe that man-made idols are real, and most of us do not sacrifice food in the temples of idols.  Paul was talking about going to the pagan temples to eat and socialize.  Many of the Greek and Roman temples had, for lack of a better word, cafeterias where one could get a meal.  The meats and other foods in these temples would have been offered up to the various pagan gods before being cooked and served up at the buffet.

A Christian who knows that there is only one God and that pagan idols are false gods, can partake of food without worrying whether or not it had been sacrificed to idols, because  food is food.  But if by partaking in the pagans’ food we would cause someone who is on the fence or weak in their faith to waver or fall from faith, we would be sinning against them.

We don’t want to use the freedom we have in Christ to make the road difficult for someone else.

A good example is that some of us do not watch R rated movies because we want to avoid improper or immoral subject matter.  Some of us observe very conservative dress standards, while others are more moderate in clothing choices.  There is only one “rule” we need to consider in those things that are not clearly spelled out in for us in Scripture:  Do our actions serve to strengthen or weaken our brothers’ and sisters’ faith?

Loving our neighbor means that we keep our focus on Christ.  There is plenty of room in God’s kingdom for adiaphora- or those things that are not essential to our faith.

dirtyharrygdff-727

If one feels that watching a Clint Eastwood film festival is wrong and it would be detrimental to one’s spiritual growth, then by all means, don’t watch Clint Eastwood movies.  But many of us enjoy watching Clint Eastwood (and Chuck Norris and John Wayne) and have no conflict between watching good action movies and living out our faith. We have the freedom to choose and to discern what activities are permissible for us as long as they are not forbidden by God’s Law, and they do not damage the faith of others.

The definition of the Law is love- first for God, and then for those around us. We must always consider the weaker ones and treat each other with gentleness, kindness and consideration.

Our activities are within the realm of Christian freedom if they do not contradict how we are taught to live in Scripture, and if they do not cause our brothers and sisters to stumble.

One definition of this teaching is to meet people where they are.  As long as it does not violate our faith we are free to partake in food, entertainment, fashion, etc., but if by doing so we cause others to doubt their faith, we should respect and honor their customs when we are with them.

Lord, help us to be Your ambassadors and good witnesses to people around us.  Help us to build up others by our examples.