Sunday, November 30, 2014

Darkness and Dawn

Texts:  Isaiah 9:1-7; 2 Kings 15:27-29; Matthew 4:12-17

“REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM of heaven is near!”

Is this good news for you, or bad news, or no news at all?

The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and every kingdom must have a king.  The King is coming!  Will you rejoice, will you cower in fear, or will you ignore Him and go about your business?

But this King you can’t ignore.  A governor or president serves at the will of the people.  His term ends in a few years and then he has to give up his office.  Dictators usurp power and cling to it until they die, but eventually their lives do end and their hold over the people ends, too.  Modern-day kings and queens hold ceremonial roles.  But the King of the Kingdom of Heaven truly reigns over all, He assumes His power by right, on His own authority, and His rule will never, ever end.  Get ready, repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near, and you are a subject of that kingdom whether you want to be or not.

       Nearly two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth returned to His home country of Galilee making just that proclamation.  Gradually He would reveal that He Himself was the King of the kingdom, the one to whom, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, every knee must bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.  But the people of Galilee don’t know that yet.  That is what Jesus is getting ready to prove.

What kind of king will He be?  Will His reign bring joy or fear, darkness or light?

St. Matthew writes his gospel primarily to Jews, Jews who were expecting the kingdom of heaven.  Because he is writing to Jews, who hold the name of the Lord especially sacred, he avoids the term “kingdom of God.”  But we can assume that Jesus used both expressions and they both mean the same.  The coming of the kingdom of heaven or of God meant that everything on earth would finally bow the knee to God, from the widest galaxy down to the thoughts of every human heart.  It’s Matthew’s purpose to prove that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the King of the heavenly Kingdom, the long-expected Messiah who Himself is Lord and God.

To prove this Matthew cites texts from the Old Testament prophets.  “See!” he says, “The Word of the Lord said the coming King would do all these things, and this is exactly what this Jesus has done!”

And so in our passage from Matthew chapter 4 the evangelist cites Isaiah 9, verses 1 and 2.  He paraphrases, he doesn’t quote word for word, but his message is this: For those who were dwelling in darkness, the light has come.  The King comes as the bringer of daylight and dawn.  So repent!

  The first verse of this passage from Isaiah 9 evoked deep and painful memories in the hearts of the ancient Jewish people.  They are our spiritual ancestors and we need to put ourselves in their place and understand what the problem was– and still is.

For that we turn to our reading from II Kings.  The name I want you to notice first is that of Jeroboam son of Nebat, at the end of verse 28.  Jeroboam was one of King Solomon’s officials who rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam back in the later part of the tenth century before Christ.  Ahijah the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, had said that God would give the ten northern tribes to him and if he kept God’s commands he would be granted an earthly dynasty as enduring as the one the Lord had promised David.  But even after God kept His promise and Israel was in Jeroboam’s hands, he didn’t listen.  He sinned by setting up golden calves in the northern cities of Bethel and Dan.  He said to his people, “Here are the gods who brought you up out of Egypt.”  And the people worshipped them there, instead of worshipping the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The great sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat was idolatry.  It was blaspheming the Lord by giving false gods the glory for the salvation God alone had accomplished.

And the Israelite kings after him followed his pattern, down to Pekah king of Israel, mentioned in verse 27, who reigned from around 749 to 730 BC.  He kept up the same old idolatry.  It was politically expedient, you see.  Wouldn’t want the northern tribes going down to Judah for Passover and thinking about reuniting, now would we?  On top of that the people committed all the usual sins we human beings commit when we turn our backs on God.

For their sins the Lord God brought the Assyrians against Israel. He had sworn to Moses that if they did not keep His commands He would wipe them out of the land He was giving them and hold them to account just as He had the Canaanites before them.  So as the writer of II Kings tells us,  “in the time of Pekah king of Israel, about 734 BC, Tiglath Pileser [III], king of Assyria, came and conquered the northern Israelite cites of Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor,” in Zebulun and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and you can see their ruins to this day.  “He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria.”

This was a time of great darkness in the history of Israel and Judah.  Before there had been the darkness of willful sin; now add to that the darkness of war, famine, conquest, exile, and shame.  About this time, down in Jerusalem in Judah, the word of the Lord came to Isaiah the prophet.  God revealed it was not Tiglath-Pileser of his own will who had humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, he had only been an instrument in the hand of the Lord, to execute His just vengeance for sin.

The Lord speaking through Isaiah describes the people remaining in Galilee as “walking” and “living” in darkness.  Matthew in his paraphrase rendered both these words as “living” or “sitting” in darkness.  The point is the same.  Both the remaining native Israelites and the foreign people Assyria brought in were living without the light of the Lord.  They continued on in their sins, or if they were aware of them, they saw no hope of salvation.  The favor of the Lord all seemed to rest on Judah in the south, on Jerusalem.

About ten years later the rest of Israel was deported to Assyria.  Finally in 586 BC Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and Judah went into exile, too.
The Lord had mercy on them, and seventy years later the Judeans, that is, the Jews, were allowed to come back to the land and rebuild Jerusalem.  But things were never the same.  In the days our Lord walked this earth the whole land from south to north was under the control of Rome.  In His day the Jewish people from Judea to Galilee longed for the coming of the Messiah, the One who would save them from the darkness of sin and oppression.

But it was always considered that Judea had the edge when it came to readiness and righteousness.  That’s where the revived religion was the most pure, where the Pharisees were the most righteous.  When God’s Messiah came preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven, surely He would do it on the streets of Jerusalem, or at least somewhere close by.

John the Baptist preached and baptised in the Desert of Judea, and our Lord was baptised there.  We even read in John’s Gospel that Jesus performed many miraculous signs in Jerusalem during the first Passover of His ministry.  He and His disciples went out into the Judean countryside (John 3:22) and baptised there, at the same time that John was still carrying on his ministry by the Jordan.  Surely it would be Judea and Jerusalem that would be the first to be blessed, not the second-rate, Gentile-infected lands to the north.

But the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah came true after John the Baptist was put in prison.  At that time Jesus returned to Galilee, to the land of those dwelling in darkness, to the place traditionally overrun by Gentiles, and made His first formal announcement that the night was over and the dawn had come: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  He didn’t go where people were the most “deserving,” He went first to the place of greatest need.

. . . on those living in the land of the shadow of death,
a light has dawned.

That is the kind of Saviour He is.  But does He say, “There, there, all is well, go on doing what you’ve always done, it’s okay?”  No, Jesus commands the people to repent.  Reject the apathy, the idolatry, the immorality.  Turn back to the Lord your God for salvation and healing.  Stop loving darkness and come into the light.

This is Christ’s message for us today, though the kingdom has progressed since then.  Since then Jesus has died for our sins and been raised for our justification.  Since then He has poured out His Spirit and formed His Church out of all the peoples of the world.  Even so, He commands us, Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is no longer merely near, it is here among us in the Church He has called.  The day is fast approaching when all His elect will be gathered in and the kingdom of heaven will indeed come in its fulness.  At that time every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  As the hymn says, the Lord our God will surely “come and take His harvest home:

. . . from His field shall in that day
all offenses purge away.

Therefore He calls us His people to live as kingdom citizens, as children of light, as we turn from the sins of this world to the love of Him who died to make us His own.

This world is not as bad as it can be.  But the darkness looms over us and daily it’s getting worse.  Overseas and even in America radical Islamic groups are brutally killing Christians simply because they are Christians. Here in America men we’ve looked up to as models turn out to be the worst of sinners, and our citizens justify riot and murder for the sake of their cause.  More and more, people would rather spend another day shopping and acquiring rather than taking time to give thanks to God.  And it isn’t just other people.  The darkness of sin still keeps a foothold in our hearts, and we, too, need to hear Christ’s message: Repent– for the kingdom of heaven is here.

Jesus the Son of God was born for you, He died for you, He rose for you, that you might come out of darkness and live in the light of His heavenly kingdom.  He is the King who was to come, the King you can’t ignore, the

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Forever He will reign over you, me, and all the universe, and of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ came like the breaking dawn to save us, that all who believe in Him might live in His light and peace.  He will come again in the full light of His glory to judge the world.  For those who love darkness, that will be a day of wrath and distress.  But for those who love Him, those whose ears are opened by the Holy Spirit and heed His call, it will be a day of joy and celebration that will last forever.

This Advent season, heed the call of your Lord and King.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come to you.  By His grace, may this be the best news you will ever hear.  Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Price of Dedication

Texts:  Exodus 13:1, 11-16; Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-35

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF dedication?

Today is Groundhog Day, and you could certainly say those men in the long black coats and tall black hats are dedicated to getting up at the crack of dawn on a cold morning to wake up a rodent.  I sometimes think they’re also dedicated to saying we’ll have six more weeks of winter regardless of the weather, but that’s another story.

  And I don’t need to tell you that tonight the Super Bowl is being played over in New Jersey.  Stick a microphone in the face of any given player and ask him what it will take to win, he’ll say it takes dedication.  By that he generally means wholehearted effort as an individual and as a team.  He means he’ll keep his focus on winning the game and bringing home that trophy, and not let anything distract him from it.

But dedication goes deeper and costs more than football games and folk customs.  On this day, the fortieth after Christmas, the Church has traditionally celebrated the Feast of the Presentation.  It marks the day when, as we read in the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke,  Mary and Joseph took the Child Jesus, their first-born Son, to be dedicated to God in the Temple.

It’s easy for us to get distracted by the cute baby aspect of this scene.  But what they were doing gives us an idea of the price of being dedicated to God.

Verse 23 refers us to a verse from Exodus 13.  There we read that, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate (or dedicate) to me every firstborn male.  The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.”  In the name of the Lord  Moses commanded the people, “Redeem every firstborn among your sons.  In the days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal.  This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’”

Ever since the beginning of salvation history, to “dedicate” something or someone to the Lord was to give it up to death.  The only way your firstborn son could live was if he were redeemed by the blood of a lamb.  That’s how the Israelites saved their sons in Egypt the night of that first Passover.  The Angel of death saw the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, and they were spared-- but the firstborn of all the Egyptians were slain.

Blood was the price to get God’s people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  The price was blood for them to be dedicated to God.  They and their sons deserved to die, but God graciously allowed an innocent animal to die in their stead.

When Mary and Joseph come to Jerusalem with Jesus, they are acknowledging the price of being dedicated to God, by obeying the terms of God’s Old Covenant with Israel.  Jesus is Mary’s firstborn son, and his life is forfeit to God unless He is redeemed in accordance with the Law.

Mary in her obedience is also paying another part of the price of being dedicated to God as a Jew: the cost of purity.  The Lord commanded His people Israel that they were to be pure before Him, in order to come into His presence.  All sorts of things could make you ceremonially impure or unclean, and tops on the list was anything that involved the emission of any bodily fluid, especially blood.  When a woman had given birth to a child, any child, she had to wait a set number of days to be purified from her bleeding, forty days for a son and eighty days for a daughter.  Before that, she could not enter the Lord’s sanctuary.  And even then, there was still a price in blood to be paid, before she could again enjoy the full benefits of being dedicated to the Lord.  Leviticus 12 says, “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting [later, the Temple] a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. . . . If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering.  In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.”

We see in Luke that by Jesus’ time, the priests were allowing the sacrifice for the woman’s purification to also serve as the sacrifice for the redemption of the firstborn son.  And so it is implied that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford the lamb, and offered the birds instead.

But even with such allowances, being dedicated to God as an ancient Jew cost you something.  It cost you purity, it cost you obedience, it cost you sacrifices of blood as a substitution for your own life.  In return, you and your people belonged to God as no other nation did.  You enjoyed benefits and satisfactions that no other nation received.  It cost a Jew to be dedicated to God, but the price was worth it.

But now, in this passage, Luke reveals that God is doing something new.  A time was coming and now had come when other nations could and would belong to God, too.  This had been prophesied now and then in the old days; our Call to Worship  passage from Zechariah is an example of it. It says, “‘For I am coming and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord.  ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people.’”

But if a Jew thought about this at all, it never seemed quite real.  That day of the nations being dedicated to the God of Israel was always “someday,” far off in the future.  Or it wouldn’t happen until the Lord came and  judged the nations in power and set up the new age.  But now, on this fortieth day after the birth of Mary’s firstborn son, an old man named Simeon comes up to her as she is dedicating and redeeming her son Jesus there in the Temple.  This holy, Spirit-led old man takes the Child in his arms and declares to all who can hear that now salvation had come.  Now the light had come, that would reveal the Lord and His grace to the Gentiles, and make it possible for them to belong to Him.  Now, through this Child, Israel would find its true glory, because through this Child Jesus Israel would live out the reason it belonged to God in the first place.

Luke says that Mary and Joseph marvelled at what Simeon had said about little Jesus.  They knew what it cost for them as Jews to belong to God.  But how could Gentiles ever belong?  What could their son have to do with that?

What, indeed?  But let’s put that on one side for a moment.  For Simeon is still speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he tells Mary that this change in God’s covenant would cost many in Israel dearly.  For being dedicated to God means also being dedicated to all others who belong to God.  And there are and were many who want to feel that God belongs only to them and their kind.   Simeon says, “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.”  This baby Jesus, Mary’s firstborn son, would be the means by which God was introducing a new way, a new order of being dedicated to Him.  Those who received Him would rise.  Those who rejected Him would fall.

Simeon says, “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  Yes, that’s often how it happens.  Your relationship with some group or someone begins to go deeper, or some change comes in, even a good change, and very quickly you find out if you were really committed to that person or group, or if you were just there for what you could get out of it. You find out if you’re willing to pay the price of continuing to belong!

Mary belonged to God in a very special way.  She pledged to pay the price when she answered the angel Gabriel with “Behold, I am the maidservant of the Lord.”  She did what it took to make that journey down to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant, so the Christ Child might be born where it was prophesied.  She was willing to shoulder the responsibility of raising the Child who was Emmanuel, God with us.  But now Simeon says to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”  With these words the Holy Spirit tells her that the cost will be much higher than she has thought or imagined.  The sword will pierce her soul, because she belongs to God and she belongs to the incarnate God who is her infant Son Jesus,  destined to be “a sign that will be spoken against,” given as a light for revelation to the Gentiles.

Which returns us to the question we left off before.  What could this Child Jesus have to do with bringing in the Gentiles to belong to God?

To answer that question, we have to ask another question that is the deepest one of all.  We’ve asked, what is the price for us to be dedicated to God?  The fundamental question really is, “What does it cost for God to be dedicated to us?”

God didn’t have to get mixed up with humankind.  He could have wound up the world and gone off and let it run, like some people believe.  But instead He chose to descend to us in care and love.  And He did that with our sins still on us, with our rebellion and selfishness still making us unfit and unclean in His presence.  The blood of lambs, bulls, and goats really could never take away sins.  But all those years and centuries the Lord graciously accepted that blood to atone for the sins of His people.  Imagine what it cost God in patience and forbearance, dealing all those ages with His rebellious chosen people and the wicked Gentile nations around them!

But He did more than deal with them.  He loved them, too, deeply and earnestly.  He loved them-- He loved us-- so much that when the time was right God paid the price of being dedicated to us by entering into the womb of a young Jewish woman and becoming a human being like every other human being, yet without sin.  God paid that extraordinary price!  As C. S. Lewis puts it, think what it would be like for you to become an ant or a slug!

But that’s not all He paid.  Again, Simeon ends his ominous prophecy by saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul also.”  Also.  Who else’s soul will a sword pierce?  Who else will bear agony and pain and even physical death, for the sake of the new belonging that God is opening up to all peoples?  Why, it is this Child Simeon holds in his arms.   This Infant is the sign of God’s salvation that will be spoken against.  Jesus who is God in human flesh will pay the ultimate price for God to belong to us and for us to belong to Him.  Jesus who was God among us paid with His life, given for us on the cross.  He became the Lamb of God who made atonement for our sins and paid the price for our purification.  Not just for God’s chosen people the Jews, but for all whom the Lord will call, from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  “I will live among you,” says Christ even before His birth, “and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.”

And since He has paid the price of being dedicated to us, we don’t need to pay anything to belong to Him.  Jesus has borne all the cost in His body on the Tree!  There is no more need to dedicate our firstborn sons to Him and redeem them from death, for God has dedicated His only-begotten Son to us, and His death has brought us all eternal life.  There is no need for us to sacrifice lambs on His altar, for Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God who once and for all takes away the sins of the world.  We don’t have to prove our purity, or pay our dues by exerting our own righteousness, for Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and He has covered the cost of our being dedicated to Him from now to eternity.  Every time we baptise an adult or a child, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we affirm our membership in Him and He confirms His unity with us.  The Old Covenant has passed away, the New Covenant in His blood has been made, and a new way of being dedicated to God is open to all peoples everywhere.

Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion!  Rejoice with great joy, O nations of the world!  For the Jesus Christ our Lord has come and lives among us.  He has paid the price, and now He belongs to us and we belong to Him forever.  Alleluia, alleluia, amen!