God With Us, (Luke 2:8-20, John 3:16-17) Jesus, Herod and the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2:13-18)

300px-Adoration_of_the_sheperds_-_Matthias_Stomer

 

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:8-20 (ESV)

We all know and love the Christmas story. We marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation and can even imagine hearing the angels sing on that blessed night. The Light of God came down to earth. The birth of Jesus is good news indeed. It is wonderful for us to gather around in the light and the wonder of Jesus’ birth. We should celebrate and be glad that God has come to live and be with us. We are reminded of the timeless, sweet, saving Good News from the Gospel of John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”- John 3:16-17 (ESV)

If not for the miracle of Jesus’ birth, we would have no Savior. There would be no one qualified to be the one Sacrifice to save us from sin, death and hell. We would be left without hope and forever under the death curse of Adam and Eve.

There is another side to the liturgical season of Christmas that is not as popular with the culture around us, yet it is an integral part of the story.

Jesus entered into our world of suffering. The King of Glory, Jesus, entered into a world in which glory would be subdued, and sacrificed. He exchanged His sovereign crown for a crown of thorns. He became the cursed one to die on a tree, the One who bore our griefs, who carried our sorrows and was smitten by God and afflicted in our place. (Isaiah 53:1-5)  He took the punishment we earn and deserve.

In this world of not-yet, we have been baptized not only into the eternal life of Jesus, but also into a life of sacrifice and suffering in the here and now. Jesus Himself said that if we are in love with our lives here in this world we will lose our lives, but if we lose our life for Him we will gain it. (Matthew 16:25)   We are not promised an easy life here and now.  This is a temporary place.

In the liturgical season of Christmas- along with the joyful, blessed Incarnation- we also remember those who gave their lives, willingly or even unknowingly, for the sake of Christ.

Now when they (the wise men of the East) had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:13-18 (ESV)

The Slaughter of the Innocents is a particularly sad commemoration. Herod was so desperate to maintain his own earthly might- confusing the King of Kings for an earthly ruler- that he killed hundreds of baby boys so as to do away with any potential threats to his power.  God made a way to keep Jesus safe, just as He had provided for Moses to be pulled from the river Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Herod had no way of knowing that he would die in a few short years himself.  So much for earthly power.

Yet in Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth, we can see the anguish of so many mothers over the loss of their baby boys, the senseless killing, and the unspeakable grief. We cannot help to acknowledge in this not-yet world that even the most blessed and joyful of events are tainted with our suffering and grief.

It is sobering that even in great joy, we are living the paradox. In this bittersweet world full of sin, we are soaked in death and despair and disappointment.  Yet in Christ we are baptized- soaked in His LIFE- so that no matter what weeping and sorrow and loss we face in this life can win out.  We know the end of the story.  Jesus wins, and so do we who trust in Him.

 

 

December 27, 2016 – Putting the Rubber to the Road- Mark 1:9-13

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 by John St John Long 1798-1834

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1:9-13 (NRSV)

Of the four Gospels, only Mark completely omits any kind of nativity story.  Only Luke and Matthew go into details on the nativity, while John, in his rather otherworldly and ethereal way, makes the parallel between Jesus the Light of the World, and the Genesis creation narrative.

Mark goes right to the rubber hitting the road. Jesus was baptized, approved by God, and no sooner than He could turn around, He was stranded in the wilderness. Thanks, Mark. No fanfare or singing or shepherds or Mary pondering in her heart.  Mark gets down to the nitty gritty right away.

This sort of sounds like the story of most of our lives.  We just sort of end up plopped down in the wilderness at times.  We should expect Jesus in His humanity to be put in that wilderness situation.  God put Him in this world not to stash Him in an ivory tower and shield Him from all the dirty, painful and nasty aspects of humanity, but to immerse Him completely in the human experience.  How else was He supposed to be Emmanuel, God with us?

It’s telling that God equipped Jesus to sustain Him.  He gave Him what He needed to overcome the challenges He faced.  He did not take Jesus’ challenges away from Him.  He did not just snap His fingers and give Jesus an easy, uncomplicated life.  God did not play the old literary device of deus ex machina- literally “the god in the machine” in Jesus’ life. He didn’t just lift Jesus up out of troubles as if He were a hero in an action movie.  Jesus had to endure, and fight and suffer.

God gives us the resources we need to overcome temptation.  He gives us the strength to endure and overcome challenges, but normally He doesn’t just “magically” lift us out of them.

In the words of the great theologian, Mick Jagger, and the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want/ you can try sometimes / you just might find/ you get what you need.”  God might not give us what we want, but He does provide what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we need in the ways we expect, either.

I’m not sure why God allows us to go through suffering or trials. That to me is a mystery of faith that I will not understand this side of Heaven, and perhaps not even on the other side.  I do know that in suffering and trials He does sustain us and He does give us what we need to overcome and grow through them. That answer just has to be good enough for now.

If the goal in our earthly sojourn is for to become more like Jesus then we too, have to trust God and hang on when the rubber hits the road.  We aren’t called to a pristine, clean and untested faith, but one where we get dirty, make mistakes, suffer, cry out in pain, and struggle with questions and doubt.  Those are also parts of the journey- the one that Jesus came to earth to travel as well.

 

 

December 19, 2016- Do You Believe What God Said? Luke 1:11-24

zechariah_6

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.   He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. Luke 1:11-22 (NRSV)

Zechariah is one of the more interesting characters in the story of the Nativity.  He was a high priest in the temple, a man well educated in the Torah and in the Jewish faith.  He knew the story of Moses.  He knew the I AM God. He knew that all things are possible with God.

Yet when Gabriel (the same angel who later appeared to Mary to announce the impending birth of Jesus) came to him with the good news that he was to be the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah doubted that what Gabriel had come to say to him would happen.

Sometimes what we know in our heads is true doesn’t quite make it all the way to our hearts.  We all have those moments of, “I believe what God says is true, but…” The reality of the human condition is that doubt is part of faith.  God wants us to question our faith and to bring our questions to Him.  That’s the reason why God gave us intellect- so that we could seek, knock and ask, and grow closer to Him in our searching.

But Zechariah was a guy who because of both his education and his vocation, should have known that when God’s angel makes a special trip to tell you something that God is going to follow through with that announcement. It is interesting that God decided to literally shut Zechariah up until He made good upon granting him that gift of a son.  It was if God was saying in that action, “I have the final word.”

I have a plaque in my dining room that says, “Lord, keep Your arms around my shoulder,  and Your hand over my mouth.”  Part of the reason I like that short little prayer is because I tend to want to cut off the possibilities before I remember that God is the one in control, not me. In a crisis, I can only see what my narrow focus allows me to see, instead of the complete picture that God sees and of which God is the Author. Sometimes I want to say, “But, God…” or, “How can that happen?”  or, “Why,” without considering that it is the I AM God who is deciding things.

There are many promises God gives to His people throughout Scripture.  Some of those promises have been fulfilled, and some of them are not yet.

But God has the final word.  He hears our prayers, He answers them, and when He speaks, it will happen as He says.  No matter what I might have to say in disbelief or protest.