Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Lord of the Covenant

Texts: Deuteronomy 27:9-13, 28:1-14; Matthew 5:1-12

A FEW YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS a full time pastor, I got a strange call one day from a man who wanted to know about our church. I got the definite feeling that he wasn't really interested in attending, rather, he was checking to see if our doctrine and practices were orthodox; at least, from his point of view. He seemed more or less satisfied with the answers I gave, until he asked, "What Bible do you have in your pews?"

"The New International Version," I told him.

"What?" he cried, "You don't use the King James Version!?"

"No," I replied. "The King James Version was good for its time, but now we have so many other better translations that are more faithful to the original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic."

"What do Hebrew and Greek have to do with the Scriptures!?" my caller challenged me.

I said, "Sir, the Bible was originally written in those languages. Jesus Himself preached and taught in Aramaic and maybe in Greek. The Apostles and Evangelists all wrote in Greek."

The man had his back up now. He said, "Well, my Bible has nothing to do with Greek and Hebrew. Those are the languages of unbelievers. The only true Bible is the King James Bible. Jesus had nothing to do with any Greek or Hebrew or any pagan languages like that! And if you and your church believe otherwise, you're a false church and a false minister!"

Well, if he had no concept of history, we were at a stalemate. I told him I had to go and rung off. And no, I never heard from this King-James-only crusader again. But I tell you this story to illustrate how easy it is for us 21st century Americans to imagine that the customs and practices of our Biblical era spiritual ancestors were just like ours and what we're used to. When we open our Bibles, if something in there sounds like something we do today, we often take it for granted that it's the same thing we do, and we interpret the word according to what is familiar to us.

Our passage from the Gospel According to St. Matthew is an example of this. The scripture begins, "Now when he [that is, Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them."

So, looking through our modern eyes, we think, "Here's Jesus giving a open-air sermon, and his disciples are listening." Right? We all know what preaching is. You hear it every Sunday. You're hearing it right now, today. Maybe the sermon will have something to apply to your life, maybe not, but in the end it's just a sermon. You don't expect it to radically change your whole relationship with God.

But listen with the ears of the disciples who heard Jesus' words that day, and you'll realize there was a lot more going on on that mountainside that just words from a rabbi preacher's mouth. What Jesus proclaimed that day was nothing less than the inauguration of New Covenant with His people, promised for centuries by the prophets of old. And those who are bound under that covenant, both then and now, will never be the same.

To understand this, we need to know something about the Old Covenant that the Lord God made with Israel through Moses back in the days when He brought them out of Egypt with an outstretched hand and mighty arm and made them His own, the covenant that Israel ratified when God led them into the Promised Land under Joshua.

Everything about our God is wonderful, but one of the most wonderful, to my mind, is the way He chose to manifest Himself through the everyday customs and practices of His chosen people and of the world around them. Around the time Jehovah God was freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, some nations in the ancient Near East were using a covenant form called a suzerainty treaty. If you were a minor king or nation was threatened with destruction by some more powerful enemy, a greater king and lord might send his forces to rescue you and your people. The fact that you needed to be saved proved that you couldn't survive and thrive on your own, and now that the great king had delivered you, he made a treaty with you to be your suzerain, your overlord, and you agreed to be his vassal. In the treaty he'd agree to keep on protecting and helping your nation, in return for good behavior and just tribute from you..

So our God chose to use this suzerainty treaty form when He made His old covenant through Moses with His newborn people Israel. There are elements of this treaty form displayed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but the most complete setting out of the treaty between God and Israel is the entire book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy we have all the articles and stipulations that were typical in the treaties between human suzerains and their vassals. God first identifies Himself as the Maker, Initiator, and Lord of the covenant, promising to be Israel's God and to have them as His people. Then He reminds Israel of everything He has done for them to save them. Next He sets out His laws and requirements for their conduct as His people, which they are expected to ratify. God the covenant Lord then lays down blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, and concludes with rules for the administration, preservation, and perpetuation of the covenant. This all was for Israel's good and for God's glory.

We see God as the Lord of the covenant in Deuteronomy chapter 27, verse 9, where it says:

"Then Moses and the priests, who are Levites, said to all Israel, ‘Be silent, O Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the LORD your God. Obey the LORD your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today.'"

Moses then commands the people to reaffirm and re-ratify the covenant when they have crossed the Jordan. The tribes are to remind themselves and each other of the blessings for obedience and of the curses for disobedience. We did not read verses 14 through 26, where the ratification curses are laid out, because today I wanted us to focus on the Old Covenant blessings and compare them with the blessings of the New Covenant that Jesus pronounces in the Sermon on the Mount.

Deuteronomy 28 begins, "If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God." If you obey, you will get these blessings. As it says in Leviticus 18:5, "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them." Which is not to say, "he will conduct his life according to them." Rather, by keeping God's decrees and laws the obedient person will inherit life and health and material prosperity. The blessings of the Old Covenant are conditional on the people's obedience. If you do this, God will do that.

Moreover, the blessings of the Old Covenant usually were material. Successful childbearing for mothers and fertility for the domestic beasts. Plentiful food. Safety at home and on the road. Protection from and conquest of Israel's enemies. Success in farming and business. Respect and fear from the other nations of the earth. This was God's will for Israel in their day. These material blessings were how they could learn what a gracious, loving Lord Jehovah was. They would demonstrate to other nations the greatness of Israel's God, and show that He was supreme over all the earth.

Now that we know what we're dealing with, the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurates in His sermon on the Mount at first seems like the same sort of thing. Matthew records that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Those aren't material blessings, exactly, but they're blessings in our everyday lives! Isn't Jesus promising that when we're feeling down or when we've lost a loved one, everything will be all right? And when He says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" and "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy," doesn't that depend on our obedience? Isn't He telling us to try harder to be good, so we'll get the promised blessings?

But look again. There is a definite and radical difference in the blessings of the Old Covenant and the blessings of the New. The Old Covenant says, "If you fully obey . . . you will be blessed." But the New Covenant says, "Blessed are those who are" poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, and so on. The New Covenant assumes that those included within it already are keeping it and so they are already blessed.

But look again at the picture of blessedness! See who it is whom Jesus describes as blessed. The humble, the lowly. Those who don't insist on justice to themselves, but instead show mercy. Those who are persecuted for standing up for the righteousness of God. Look at the rewards the New Covenant promises! Hardly a material advantage on the list. Who can say they truly desire these blessings? Who of us can truly aspire to this state of godly humility, or say we've come anywhere close to achieving it? "Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, peacemakers, persecuted," preaches our Lord. But we are proud, boastful, mindless of what is right, often merciless, quick to argue, and we prefer to avoid danger and persecution. We say we want comfort, righteousness, the sight of God, the kingdom of heaven, and all the other covenant advantages, but we want them on our own terms and according to our own definition.

There is only one Man who ever lived who can join with God in this New Covenant, and that Man is Jesus Christ Himself. He made Himself a servant, a vassal for our sakes. He identified Himself with our helpless state when we were besieged by sin, death, and the devil. He enters into covenant fellowship with God for us, and through Him and in Him, we enter into the blessings of the New Covenant as well.

But at the same time, our Lord Jesus is our sovereign covenant Lord. He says in verse 11, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." As He preaches the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to lay out the covenant requirements, even to lay out covenant curses, and again and again we hear, "But I tell you . . . " At the conclusion, the people are amazed, because He spoke out of His own authority, not citing others as the rabbis did. Jesus had and has every right to do this, because He is our covenant Lord.

The Sermon on the Mount is not just another religious talk and Jesus of Nazareth was not just another rabbi. The Beatitudes are not words to live by; rather, they point us to Jesus, who is both the perfect humble covenant vassal and the mighty covenant Lord. He ratified this everlasting treaty in the blood of His cross, where He rescued us from destruction and raised us up with Him to reign with Him in His kingdom. By the waters of baptism we are brought into His covenant, and by the bread and wine of Holy Communion He reaffirms it to us every time we partake of the sacred meal.

So, blessed is Jesus, the poor in spirit, for His is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed is Jesus, who mourned over our sin, for He has been comforted.

Blessed is Jesus the meek, for He has inherited the earth.

Blessed is Jesus, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for He will be satisfied.

Blessed is Jesus the merciful, for God showed Him mercy by raising Him from the dead.

Blessed is Jesus the pure in heart, for He beholds the face of God.

Blessed is Jesus the peacemaker, for by His obedience He has shown Himself to be the son of God.

Blessed is Jesus, who was persecuted and killed because of righteousness, for His is the kingdom of heaven.

And blessed are you in Him, for He gives all these blessings to you. Blessed are you who rely not on your own goodness and good works, but who trust in the perfect obedience of your crucified and risen Lord. Blessed are you who seek His righteousness, His mercy, His peace, even in the midst of trouble and persecution. Rejoice and be glad, for great is the reward He has won for you in heaven. For one greater than all the prophets speaks here; Jesus Christ, our covenant Lord. He has made you His people, He wraps you in His blessedness, and His promises are faithful and sure.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

His Father's House and Business

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 2:40-52

IMAGINE FOR AWHILE THAT you're Mary of Nazareth. One day the angel Gabriel encounters you with the news that you, yes, you are going to bear the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God. You spend six months with your cousin Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant in her old age. Your husband-to-be Joseph is told in a dream that the Baby you're carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Then the Baby is born, and before you have a chance to shake your head over the less-than-ideal circumstances, a band of shepherds appears and tells you a whole host of angels had told them to come and find your little Jesus, because He is the Saviour of the world. Forty days later, you go to the Temple to dedicate Jesus in obedience to the law, and not one, but two prophets come up and announce that your Infant is Israel's promised Redeemer. Then you return to Bethlehem for awhile, and one day, magnificent Magi appear from miles to the east, bow down and worship your Child, and give Him lavish gifts.

I think you'd be convinced that your Child Jesus was unique among children, and not just the way all mothers think their children are unique. You'd understand pretty thoroughly that He had a special relationship with God and that God had given Him a particular mission and purpose in this world. Even when you have to flee to Egypt because King Herod is after Jesus to kill Him, that'd just go to prove that your Son has a prodigious role to play in the history of nations and men.

But eventually you and Joseph return from Egypt and resettle in Nazareth. You get back to your everyday lives. And the other babies start coming: James, then Joses, then Judas and Simon. And two or three sisters for Jesus, too. You don't have time these days to ponder how divinely special your Firstborn is or marvel over His relationship to the Lord Most High. In fact, you get to taking for granted what an obedient, trustworthy, helpful kid He is. "Never a bit of trouble out of Jesus," you say to the neighbors, when you think about it at all. "I wish all the children were like Him." But it's been a long time since you've considered why there's no way they could be. Jesus is just the good kid every mother thinks she has.

Meanwhile, every spring you leave all the kids with their grandparents and you and Joseph go up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. As a woman, you aren't legally obligated to go, but Joseph as a Jewish adult male is. And this year, Jesus has reached His twelfth year and become a bar mitzvah-- a son of the covenant. He's now a man under the Jewish Law, and He comes with you to celebrate the Feast, too. You travel in a great cavalcade of friends and relatives from Nazareth and the surrounding villages, singing the Psalms of Ascents and praising God. At last, you and your husband and your Firstborn stand in the crowd in the Temple courts as the Passover lamb is sacrificed, and you're filled with awe at how God saved His people from slavery in Egypt so long ago.

Do you stay for all for the Passover and for all seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread? Probably not. Jerusalem is expensive, and work is waiting back home.

So you, Mary, leave the house where you've lodged and start out ahead with the other women and the little children. It's a chance to catch up on all the news, and you're sure Jesus is safe with His father Joseph. They'll be with the men, who bring up the rear.

But that night you make camp, and rendezvous with your husband. You say, "Joseph, where's Jesus? I thought He was with you."

Joseph says, "I thought He was with you!"

You ask friend after friend, relatives after relative, if they've seen Him. No one has. You begin to get worried, and having to spend the night not knowing makes it worse. Jesus has never caused a problem like this! Where can He be?

At first light, you and Joseph head back south to Jerusalem, seeking and inquiring among all the pilgrims who're heading back north. "Have you seen Jesus? Have you seen our Son?"

Your anxiety grows. You reach the capital. Could Jesus be seeing the sights? Maybe He wanted to see the Roman soldiers drill at the Fortress Antonia. Could He have been drawn away by the excitement of the marketplace? In yourself you cry, "Oh, Jesus, Jesus, how could You of all my children do such a thing to me! Where are you? My heart is about to break!"

Finally, the two of you exhaust all the places where you think a smart, curious twelve-year-old boy is likely to be. Then one of you says, "Where haven't we looked yet?"

"We've looked everywhere!"

"What about the Temple?"

Together you hurry up the hill to Mount Zion. But this time you aren't singing psalms, your words are a jumble of panic and hope. You enter the Temple courts, and there on the terrace you see the gathering where members of the Sanhedrin are teaching during these last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The listeners seem very excited. There is a rumble of sage old voices, and then, right out of the midst of those venerable scholars, you hear an adolescent voice raising a question. A familiar voice. The voice of your Son Jesus.

Jesus! You and Joseph simply do not care who those teachers of the law are, Gamaliel or Hillel or Joseph of Arimathea or the high priest Annas himself. You rush right in and there, sitting respectfully among them, is your Son Jesus. All around, you hear the learned men murmuring, "Amazing child! Remarkable young man! Such wisdom, such understanding! Such insightful answers to all the questions put to him! Would scarcely believe it if I weren't hearing it myself. Amazing!"

But that doesn't make you feel any better. You are overcome with astonishment at where your Boy is and what He's done. You look at Him and exclaim, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Look, so anxiously your father and I have been searching for you!"

And that firstborn Son of yours, that Child who never caused you a bit of trouble in His life, replies simply and very respectfully, "Why were you searching for Me? Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house?" But it's been a long, long time since the angels and the wise men, and neither you nor Joseph can make head or tail of what Jesus could possibly mean. But He comes along with you obediently, and after this He is again the obedient, dependable, willing Son He always was-- if He had ever been anything else. And you, Mary, store up this incident in your heart, trying to work out what it means. It's only years later, after your Son has died and risen again, that you fully understand why you should have sought Him first in the Temple, His Father's house, and why He was so careful-- and so right-- to remind you and Joseph who His true Father really was.

"Why were you searching for Me? Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house?" These are the first words of our Savior that we find recorded in Scripture, and we must consider them spoken in wonder and even disappointment. You do not search, either anxiously or not, for something that is in exactly the right place. You go directly to that place and get it. After twelve years Mary and Joseph should have known that Jesus' place and business was in the house of God. And as much as He was their son in human reckoning, even more He was and is the Son of His Father in heaven. It wasn't Jesus' purpose on this earth that He should live out His life as Jesus bar Joseph, the good and godly carpenter of Nazareth, building houses and mending broken tables and chairs. No, He came to earth to be the Jesus the Christ, to shed His blood to build up the house of His Church and to make sin-destroyed lives whole and new.

If Mary and Joseph could forget Who Jesus was and what He came for, how much more the rest of humanity down through history! You've heard what is made of Him, by unbelievers and by those who claim to be Christians alike. They say, "Jesus is primarily a great moral Teacher." Or, "He died to show us how much God loves us and how we should love one another." Or, "He came to be our Good Example for how we should live."

Friends, these ideas about Jesus seem really attractive and possible. But all of them make Him out to be the same thing Moses and the prophets were. They're about what we have to do to make ourselves acceptable to God, about Jesus somehow helping us keep the Old Testament Law, which is summed up in love to God and our neighbor. We didn't need the death of the incarnate Son of God to teach us that! We've known about morality and the love of God and right living for millennia! A purely human prophet would have done to remind us of all that.

But the Man Jesus was and is no less than the divine Son of God, come in human flesh to save us sinners and reconcile us to God. From His earliest youth He knew who His true Father was, and from His earliest youth He had a hunger and thirst for the word and counsel of God. Heeding God's word and counsel would eventually take Him to the Cross to die for your sins and mine, for that was the predestined goal of the Christ who was to come. Let us never get so used to Jesus that we make Him mundane and comfortable and merely human. To take Him for granted like that is to miss the new life He won for us in His blood, and all the blessings He came to give.

The scholars and teachers those three days at the Temple could well be amazed at Jesus' answers and understanding. If they'd only known it, He was giving the first proofs that He was the Messiah promised by the prophets of old. As Isaiah says,

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of power,

the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—

and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

Among the teachers we see the Boy Jesus overflowing with wisdom and understanding; and in His answer to His earthly parents we see how above all He delighted in the fear of the Lord. Later on, the writer to the Hebrews would say that Jesus, "for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." From His earliest awareness He knew who His true Father was, and when the time was right, Jesus grew to understand that He had come to seek and save the lost, and to give up His life as a ransom for many. Jesus' focus on God's will for Him was total, even from His boyhood.

It is God's will for us that we be found in Christ, washed in His blood, clothed in His righteousness, enjoying His peace, focussing on His will, and delighting in the fear of the Lord. As His redeemed people, we now are able to follow Jesus' example as we choose our priorities in life and decide whom we will serve. When we know-- "know," mind you, not merely "feel"-- that any earthly authority is exalting itself above the revealed will of God as recorded in the Scriptures, we must obey God rather than man. And if our love for any human being-- parent, child, sibling, or spouse-- becomes an idol that takes the place of our love for God, that human idol must be dethroned, as much for that person's sake as for our own. God and His will for our lives must come first, as for Jesus they came first.

Jesus' place and business were in His Father's house. In Him, ultimately, our place and business are there, too. Wherever you go, whatever you do, study to be found in Him, living joyfully as a child of His heavenly kingdom. You belong in the salvation, love, and peace of the God and Father of your Lord Jesus Christ. May anyone who seeks your heart always find you with Him there, filled with His Spirit, expressing His wisdom, walking in His counsel, and delighting in the fear of the Lord. Not through your own works or virtue or strength, but through the finished work, the divine virtue, and the inexpressible power of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, to whom be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Brought from Afar

Texts: Ephesians 2:11-18; Matthew 2:1-12

THE CHRISTMAS SEASON ISN'T COMPLETE, is it, without the Three Kings finding their way to worship the Baby of Bethlehem. We read in Matthew chapter 2 how the Gentile wise men arrived to worship the newborn King of the Jews. How they came from the east-- probably Persia, 800 to 900 miles away, how they followed the star, how they caused a great hubhub in King Herod's court with their request for directions, and how they hurried on to Bethlehem. We read of their great joy in seeing the star rest over the house where Jesus was now living with Mary His mother and Joseph His foster father. In our mind's eye we watched as they bowed down and paid Him homage as Lord and King and presented Him their gifts. We sighed with approval and gratitude when they heeded the warning of the dream and did not go back to report to Herod, but returned to their own country another way.

It's impressive what the Wise Men did. It took a lot of work and they overcame a lot of obstacles. In sermons in pulpits all over the world we're exhorted to be like them. "Wise men [and women] still seek Him," we're told, and we should go to any lengths to seek out Jesus, too.

Humanly-speaking, that's true . . . but it leaves out whose really doing the impressive work in our Matthew 2 passage. That is, it leaves out the role of God. Without the work and will of the Lord Most High, the Wise Men would have remained in Persia and never offered their allegiance and honor to Jesus, the King of the Jews. It is God who revealed to them that a great King of the Jews would be born. It was God who impressed on them that that birth would have worldwide consequences. It was God who hung the miraculous star in the heavens to guide them, and God who directed them to follow it. It was God who gave the prophecies in His word so the Wise Men could be directed to Bethlehem, and it was God who caused these great men to bow the knee to a peasant Child in a humble dwelling. Without the work of God, none of this would have happened. It was the work and will of God that brought the Magi from afar. It was the work and will of God that included the alien and alienated Gentiles in the kingdom of the Messiah of Israel. And it is the work and will of God that brings us from afar and includes us in the kingdom of Christ as well.

For what does Paul the Apostle say in Ephesians, chapter 2? By the Holy Spirit he writes:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Brothers and sisters, this is talking about us! True, most of us were born into families who have been Christians for years. But most of us, I reckon, were not born of families with Jewish blood. Remember, there was a time when God's covenant promises were only for Israel. Only the Jews received the blessings of being His people. That excluded us who were of Gentile heritage. God Himself set the boundary of the ceremonial law between Jew and Gentile, to preserve His chosen people until Jesus the Messiah would appear. There couldn't help but be a dividing wall of hostility between us. The Jews hated the Gentiles because they were unclean and did not know the Lord. The Gentiles hated the Jews because they considered Jews to be strange and narrowminded and just plain weird for rejecting idols and worshipping an invisible God.

But now Jesus Christ has appeared in the world, and it is not our doing, it is the work of God. We Gentiles have been granted the epiphany that Israel's God is our God, as He is God over all the earth. The Jews have been granted the epiphany that the covenants of promise are now open to the uncircumcised. God accomplished this by the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ. In Christ the dividing wall is broken down and we are one in Him, and one with His church in all times and places. In Jesus we Christians are one new humanity. He has brought us from afar and become our peace.

But it wasn't just Jews and Gentiles that were far from one another in the sight of God. We were also far from God. See what Paul says in verse 16. Both groups needed to be reconciled to God. Israel belonged to God but too often were far from Him in their hearts. Our Gentile ancestors did not know God and were far from Him in both heart and physical distance.

Note this: God did not need to be reconciled to us! God has never offended against us, but we by our sin repeatedly have offended against Him. And then we blame God for the consequences of our own sin and the consequences of the sins of others, starting with Adam and Eve and their disobedience in the garden. Our rebellion alienated us from God and put us far away from Him. As Ephesians 1:5 says, we were dead in our trespasses. Even those of us who were raised in families with godly parents were born into this deadly condition. All of us-- all of us-- deserve nothing but God's wrath until God has mercy on us and sends Jesus Christ to find us and reconcile us to Himself. Israel was helpless and enslaved until God called them out of Egypt and brought them nearer. This was part of God's great plan of salvation, so at the right time the Christ might be revealed. And now Jesus has come and shed His blood for our sins, so we aren't at war with God any more. As it says in verse 17, Jesus has come and proclaimed peace with God to us Gentile-born who were far off, and peace to His Jewish children who were near.

Think of it-- together in Christ we all have access to the Father in heaven-- the great Creator God who made us and loves us--though the one Spirit He has put in our hearts! No longer are we strangers and aliens, but together with the Wise Men, God has brought us from afar. He Himself has made us fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of His own household. If you make and keep one resolution for this new year, promise that you will study to know and appreciate how amazing that is! And what a wonderful gift God has given you! You are a citizen of His divine kingdom! You are a temple for His worship, His very dwelling place! You have been brought from afar and made a child of the only, true, and living God!

And please, make another promise to God and yourself: That you will remember how far away you used to be and in His power be His instrument to bring others near as well.

Because it's a sad thing: Even though Jesus two thousand years ago died on the cross to break down barriers and wipe out distances, we in His churches too often erect new barriers and imagine new distances to keep ourselves separate from people who are different from us. I've noticed there isn't a problem, usually, with sending missionaries to evangelize people "over there" in Africa or the Far East or other places far away. The problem is the barriers we erect between our congregations and those who are physically close to us, who are our neighbors and even our friends, but who are distant culturally or economically or religiously. What I mean is this: Suppose you're talking to someone, either a chance stranger or someone you know, and this church and its ministry come up. And you learn that they don't attend church anywhere. And it crosses your mind to ask him or her to come here the following Sunday. But you look at the person's clothes and think, "No, they're too shabby or too well-dressed to fit in here." Or you think, "They're Jewish-- or Muslim-- or Mormon-- or totally secular-- or whatever-- They're got their own thing going, they wouldn't be comfortable with us and we wouldn't be comfortable with them." So you don't give the invitation. Believe me, I know. I've been guilty of the same. The only thing that should stop us from inviting someone who needs Christ to worship with us is the certainty that he will not hear the Gospel preached from this pulpit. We should never keep silent out of discomfort and fear. Jesus Christ has broken down the barriers between one human being and another. No, not so we can run around celebrating our "diversity" as if being different were a virtue in itself. But so He could make us one in Him. And it is the privilege and glory of us who are already in His Church that He uses us-- our words, our service, our loving extended hand-- to bring the alienated and the lost from afar to enjoy His peace. Even if that alienated and lost one dwells in your very household.

The habits and ways of this fallen world put obstacle after obstacle in the way of the Wise Men as they came from the East to worship the Christ Child. The habits and ways of this fallen world put obstacles in our way before we came to Him. But God had mercy on us, as He had mercy on the Wise Men. He sent His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ into the world to die and rise again for our sakes. He sent His Holy Spirit into our hearts to convince us that this is true. Jesus came to us when we could never come to Him and He has brought us near by the shedding of His blood; He has made people of every race, tribe, language, and culture one body in His flesh.

This morning, the Lord's Table is spread before us. Here is Christ's epiphany to us, our God appearing to us through the elements of bread and wine. As you partake of this holy sacrament, receive the peace and reconciliation of Jesus in your hearts, as surely as you receive the elements in your mouth. Be reconciled to one another, as surely as God has reconciled you to Himself. Draw near to Him in gratitude and joy. Jesus your Lord has brought you from afar: this is His glorious work and His gracious will. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

God's Answer to the Blue Christmas

Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Luke 2:21-40
HAVE YOU EVER HAD A BLUE Christmas? I'm not sure why this year in particular, maybe it's the economy, but in the weeks leading up to this Christmastide I seemed to hear even more talk than usual about how stressful, depressing, and sad Christmas can be. You probably heard talk like that, too. It reflects a real problem. For many people, Christmas hurts. Maybe somebody you love admitted that their Christmas wasn't feeling merry. Or maybe the person having a blue Christmas was you.

Going by our passage in Luke 2, a blue Christmas isn't anything new. I wonder if that's what Mary, Jesus' mother, started to have when she heard all the words of Simeon in the Temple. There she was with her husband Joseph, bringing her infant firstborn Son Jesus to be dedicated forty days after his birth, according to the dictates of the Law. This venerable old man hobbles up to her, takes her Baby in his arms, and begins to prophesy. At first his words are full of comfort and hope. Simeon says:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

What an act of God this was! A total stranger, seeing the salvation of God in this six week old infant! Mary's Child, bringing light and knowledge of the Lord to the Gentiles! This tiny Baby, recognized as the glory of Israel! How amazing! How marvellous!

But Simeon wasn't finished. He fixes his gaze on the young mother and prophesies:

"This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Wow. And a merry celebration of the Messiah's birth to you, too, sir.

But Simeon spoke truly. Yes, the birth of Christ our Lord was and is an occasion for celebration and joy. Just ask the shepherds and the Wise Men. But there is a sad side of the birth of our Lord Jesus as well.

Let me say right now it's not the sadness we experience when we say we're having a blue Christmas. If we sat down and examined our feelings, we'd probably see we were depressed because we didn't have the time, money, or strength to make this Christmas all we wanted it to be. Or we were feeling upset because people around us expected us to make their Christmas the way they wanted it to be. Sadness might've gripped us because certain loved ones couldn't be with us on Christmas, maybe never again-- or because we were having to spend Christmas Day with people whose presence-- and presents-- we could do without. A blue Christmas can come because we're in a depressed state anyway and all the general cheer clashes rudely with the way we're feeling.

I'm not here to judge those wishes and moods. But know this: the tragedy and sorrow that God our heavenly Father mixes in with the happiness of His Son's birth is both deeper and darker than the blues we might feel at Christmas time. And God has determined that both His Son and we must go through that deeper darkness and woe if we are to emerge into the light and exaltation of Resurrection joy.

For why did the eternal Son of God choose to take on flesh and be born as a baby in this world? Is the nativity of our Lord merely about an adorable child in a manger, and we can forget about Him now that the new year has arrived? No, Jesus Christ came to this earth with a mission and a purpose. He came to bring God's judgment upon sin and Satan. He came to redeem His people from slavery to death and raise them up to live with Him forever. And He did all these things through the suffering of His cross.

Christian friends, without the Cross there is no point to the manger! Without the suffering of Calvary there is no joy in Bethlehem. Without the tearing of His flesh for the sins of the world, the Word made flesh brings no joy for us. Jesus was born to die, for without His death, there could be no payment for sins, no Resurrection, no life. But Jesus Christ the Son of Mary did die and rise again, that we His people might live and dance and sing for joy forever in His heavenly kingdom.

But before that would happen, our Lord walked the road of human suffering with us. And again, as Simeon said:

"This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

For others, too, from His infancy the coming of the Messiah Jesus meant trouble as well as peace, condemnation as well as rejoicing, and a sword in the soul as well as comfort and joy.

What? The Messiah's advent didn't bring universal cheer? We know that wasn't true by the reaction of King Herod. But even today, we don't have to be a paranoid ruler to have a hard time accepting the newborn King for who He is. Each of us is born bound up in our human sin nature. And unless and until God reaches out His hand in mercy to us, we think that's all right and normal. We think we're good enough the way we are, and God will let us and all our friends into heaven because we're nice people. But from the very beginning of His life Christ our Lord disturbs our peace and tells us we're living a lie.

Take His name. In Luke 2:21, we're told that "On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was given the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived." Jesus means "Jehovah saves." It's the same as the name "Joshua," but our Lord wasn't called that name because Mary and Joseph liked the sound of it. No, Jesus was given that name because He was to be the Savior of the world.

But that's uncomfortable, isn't it? To say Jesus has come as our Savior says that we need to be saved. His very presence on this earth condemns us for our sins. They aren't simply mistakes, or missteps, or inappropriate actions, or any of the other words we use to cover up what we do, they are sins, deepest offenses against our holy and righteous God. To say Jesus as a Good Example, most people are fine with that. But to proclaim Him as the Savior, Jehovah God come in human flesh to do for us with we could never do for ourselves, we sinful humans don't like that idea, do we? Not really.

But when the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, the news of the coming of Jesus who is Jehovah our Savior is the best news of all. When we accept that no amount of trying hard will make our Christmasses or our lives the way we-- or God-- want them to be, our eyes see Jesus as the glorious salvation that allows us to lay down our burdens in peace. Where stubborn sinners fall, repentant sinners rise on the grace of our Lord.

And then, there is offense in this world in the fact that Jesus was circumcised at all. As a Jewish boy, of course He would be. But nothing that is recorded of our Lord in the Gospels is done by accident. Circumcision was the sign of God's gracious covenant with Abraham. It was the outward, visible sign of God's one-way agreement with Abraham, where God promised to do great things for Abraham and his seed, including the blessing of all nations through him. All Abraham had to do-- if you call it "doing something"-- was receive the promise of God by faith. Ever since that time maybe 2,000 years before Christ, the sons of Abraham regularly received circumcision as the sign of God's covenant with them. And just as regularly, they broke God's covenant by failing to walk before the Lord in faith.

Jesus was born to be that ultimate Seed of Abraham who would walk before God the Father in perfect trust and righteousness. His faithfulness condemned Israel's violation of the covenant with Abraham. His inheritance of the promises of God shows up the failure of the false sons of Abraham who forfeited their inheritance by their faithlessness.

But for us who are the spiritual seed of Abraham through faith in Christ, all the promises of God belong to us through Him. Doesn't matter if we're born Jews or Gentiles, through trust in Jesus we become children of Abraham, too, and we inherit the perfect righteousness that Jesus showed on earth, especially in His death and resurrection. Through Him we rise, while unbelievers fall.

And then, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated to God, as it is written in the Law of the Lord at Exodus 13, verses 2 & 12. The Law said that every firstborn male offspring belonged to the Lord. If it were a clean animal, it was to be sacrificed. If it were a human boy child, he was to be redeemed-- a price had to be paid to God to buy back His life. This is what Jesus' parents are doing for Him in the Temple. Through them by this action God identifies His Son with us.

What I mean is this: Because of creation, all our lives belong to God. He has the right to give us life or to take it away, simply because we are His. But because of Adam's fall, all our lives are forfeit to God because of sin. The wages of sin is death, and that's what we deserve. The traditional redemption of the firstborn symbolized this double debt to God. But when Jesus was redeemed by His parents, He became identified with all of us enslaved sinners who owed a debt to God we could never pay. He perfectly obeyed the Law of Moses that condemned us every time we broke one of its statutes. And so by His sinless life and sacrificial death Jesus became our Redeemer. He has paid the price we owed. And now because of Jesus' righteousness our Father God regards us as His own obedient children, made Christ's own brothers and sisters by His blood..

This is a cause for rejoicing, is it not? This hope is why we are filled with gladness at Christmastide, and all through the year! But there are those who reject the idea that they need a Redeemer. We rejected that idea until the Holy Spirit came upon our lives and showed us the depth of our sin. Jesus indeed grew up to be a sign that was spoken against, as the scribes and the Pharisees, the very religious people who should have recognized Him as Messiah and rejoiced in His coming-- those scribes and Pharisees rejected Him and spoke insultingly against Him. And why? Because they felt they did not need a Redeemer. Or if they did, they wanted to be redeemed from the power of Rome, not from the power of sin, death, and the devil in their own lives.

And so our Lord Jesus was arrested, condemned, and crucified as a blasphemer and liar, and thus the final part of Simeon's prophecy came true-- a sword pierced the soul of Mary, Jesus' mother.

But that wasn't the end of the story, was it? Oh, no. For the torn flesh and shed blood of Christ purchased the redemption of Jerusalem, as the prophetess Anna looked forward to, and not just of Jerusalem, but of all the world. The Resurrection of our Lord on the third day proved that He was, indeed, the Son of God, the Redeemer of Mankind, the faithful Seed of Abraham, the Savior of the world. The tragedy and woe that Jesus went through for our sake bought for us eternal gladness and peace that passes all human understanding, no matter what our circumstances might be at this Christmas or any other. Through Him the word of the prophet Jeremiah has come true, that the Lord will turn our mourning into gladness; that instead of sorrow He will give us comfort and joy.

The birth of our Lord did involve sorrow and woe, and that trouble was deeper than what we experience when we are having a blue Christmas. But it doesn't exclude that trouble. For when we bring to light the thoughts of our own hearts, we see that much if not most of our earthly Christmas sadness has to do with what we cannot do and what this world cannot provide. But rejoice, child of God! The birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, is all about what we cannot do and what this fallen world cannot provide! Offer up your inadequacy, your anger, your sorrow, and your need to Him, and accept Him in simple faith. In Christ, God has done for us all we could not do for ourselves; He has provided us with everything we need to be joyful and comforted in Him.

So let us dance and be glad; let us shout for joy on the heights of Zion! For the Lord has redeemed His people and will shepherd us forever. Christ, the Light to the Gentiles is with us; Jesus, the Glory of Israel has come!