in the hard, harsh world

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”

Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:

A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.

Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”

Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:1-23; MSG

Christmas Day as we celebrate it with all its festivities, opening of presents, and especially remembering the birth of Jesus, is a downright magical day. Good Friday and Easter might be the most important holy days and week in the Christian calendar, but without Christmas, and the Incarnation, there would be no Holy Week. But Christmas does have a unique charm all its own. We marvel at the mystery of God becoming flesh, and the wondrous story of a teenage girl who is told by an angel that she would become pregnant apart from a man. All the wonderful words and events which surround that. There’s nothing like it.

But in our world, and in that world at that time, after the shepherds came from the wonderful angelic visitation and announcement they had witnessed, it wasn’t long until harsh reality set in. More than a year had likely passed, so that evidently we might conjecture that Joseph was willing to settle down in that area, at least for the time being, but an unsettling would soon come. King Herod could brook no rivals, and any would be Messiah would not last in his kingdom. But Herod was not reckoning with what he was used to. Instead he was up against God and God’s kingdom.

We read in the above Scripture all that happened. The wise men, astrologers, astronomers, scholars, whatever they were called (even “kings” in Christian tradition) travel a long way guided by some astrological phenomena along with a cursory knowledge of Hebrew Scripture or the story of a coming ruler in them, and you have the unfolding of another part of what has become the Christmas Story. But there’s a quick and sudden descent into the darkness of that time as King Herod catches wind of what’s happening. An angel ends up warning Joseph who takes the “holy family” to Egypt for a time, before being led back to Nazareth, away from Bethlehem.

We’re reminded of our own time. Many of us were able to enjoy Christmas as the special day it has become. But now we have to face the real world where we live, the pandemic that is bursting from the seams once again before hopefully the vaccines can kick in and give the world something of an immunity against this virus. And all the turmoil surrounding it.

How to live during such times is another subject entirely, but the point here is that there’s no escape from the world in which we live, a world with a system that is opposed to the kingdom God brings in Jesus. But a world also that is redeemed in and through our blessed and wonderful King Jesus. Amen.

when living through sorrow and hurt

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

Who of us in this present life doesn’t experience sorrow and disappointment, indeed hurt? It is a difficult world, and hard to escape hurt inflicted on others. In fact we too have hurt others. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise.

Grace, God’s grace is what is needed. And God’s grace is what we get not only aplenty, but in every conceivable way possible. After all God became one of us in Jesus to live right where we live, to experience all that we experience, including the hurt and sorrow that accompanies that.

And we’re told here in the letter to the Hebrews that he is therefore uniquely able to help us through that, since he knows what it is like firsthand. Our call from God in this is to come to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help us in our time of need, whatever we’re facing.

Just remember, Jesus empathizes with us in our weaknesses. There is grace, grace, and more grace. We need to just keep coming, yes, just as we are to keep receiving all the grace we need. God will always give us more and more. And in ways that meet us just as we are in all of our weakness. In our sorrow and hurt, in whatever we’re experiencing. In and through Jesus.

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.

incarnational communities not popular

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.
He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.

Isaiah 53:2b-5; NLT

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.

1 John 4:16b-17; NLT

This prophecy refers to Christ of course. But some application can be carried over to Christ’s body in the world, the church. Christ alone saves us, but today this is done in significant part through the church. What Christ was in this world, his body is supposed to be now. This involves taking our crosses and following in God’s love for all. Again, it is Christ who saves. We participate in the outworking of that salvation through living out the message and sharing it with others.

The church is supposed to be Christ’s body, not something else that might be more popular to the masses. And actually the church is Christ’s body. We are ordinary, with glitches and struggles, sometimes erring. But present for each other, and for others, for the world as God directs our participation in that.

To be God’s incarnational presence in the world in Christ means to be human and the more Christ-like, the more fully human. We want to be the light of Christ in this world in love and good works. It’s not about programs, even lights out preaching and teaching, great worship music, none of that, although any of it might be good in its place. No, instead it’s about Christ’s presence among us and through us to each other and to the world. In and through Jesus.

what is “the lie”?

For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

2 Thessalonians 2:7-12

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5

Yesterday we talked about the truth. Today, we think a bit about the reverse of that, the lie. The lie began way back when in the Garden of Eden. And it will reach its ultimate expression in the end in the rise of “the man of lawlessness,” who will essentially be a law to himself.

We know that Jesus said he is the truth and the way and the life (John 14:6).  Jesus ends up being God’s final word (John 1; Hebrews 1) in whom we’re to believe. So naturally there would be a counterfeit to come, since the human heart no longer finds itself at home with God, but alienated from him just as Adam and Eve, when they were ashamed and hid themselves from God.

Eve listened to the serpent, was seduced, and Adam followed, and we’ve been on that trail ever since. But fortunately for us, just as God reached out to Adam and Eve, so he reaches out to us in the promise of the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That God took it on himself to come and make his home with us, so that we might at last be at home with him. And that he did not only by fully entering our sphere, even becoming one of us in the Son. But also undid what the serpent had done, yes dying for us so that we might be restored to the life in God and in creation we were meant for in the first place.

Now it is a struggle for us here. It is so easy even for us who are “in Christ” by faith to doubt God’s word, and in so doing, just as Eve did, doubt God’s goodness. Even in her unfallen state she was susceptible to doubt. One might well ask why God had one forbidden tree amidst all the other trees they could fully enjoy. The story for me is highly symbolic, and amounts to her thinking that somehow she could receive and even retain goodness, becoming good apart from trusting God. And even shockingly enough, that somehow God was withholding what was good. Click the Genesis passage above for the full story.

The truth is in Christ himself. And since we’re so far removed from that, it will be a struggle for us until Christ returns, and we see him as he is, and become like him in each of our God-given unique ways. Just as it was for Adam and Eve after they were driven from Paradise.

Our intention needs to be to learn to trust in God, which means trusting God’s word, even and maybe especially when it doesn’t make sense to us. Learning to trust in God’s goodness instead of our own fallen inclinations which always reject God’s word. That God is indeed good, and in that goodness will do what is good, even in the midst of the evil, or whatever trouble we’re facing. In and through Jesus.

the end of the last enemy

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
Exalted be God my Savior!
He is the God who avenges me,
who subdues nations under me,
who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
from a violent man you rescued me.
Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing the praises of your name.

He gives his king great victories;
he shows unfailing love to his anointed,
to David and to his descendants forever.

Psalm 18:46-50

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:25-26

God is going to take care of all the enemies of humankind: the basics of that being sin and death. We see proof of that in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, along with his ascension and the promise of his return.

None of us look forward to death, unless one is quite sick. We don’t. But it’s a fact of life, and the sooner we can reconcile with that, the better. At the same time we don’t have to fear, because Christ has taken the sting out of death, and made it the gateway into life, eternal life, by his death on the cross.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:55-57

We win, included in that victory, the last enemy to be destroyed: death itself, in and through Jesus.

 

 

how Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:2b-3

If I would choose one passage to summarize my life, it might be this, and with a hope so. Jesus begins here, and this is where we need to begin and keep beginning. This is not like a one time thing, and then we move on. It’s something that should always characterize our thought and attitude about ourselves.

We’re ever in need of God’s grace and if we look at our lives honestly, we’ll know that we don’t measure up both in terms of sins of commission as well as omission. That doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves or our sin. But it does mean that we acknowledge our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin through confession, and acknowledge too our utter need of God’s grace to grow spiritually. We should never dismiss or minimize God’s promise to not only forgive our sins, but cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

I have often seen Christians who looked down on other Christians or churches as not being “Spirit-filled.” But it has seemed to me over and over again that too often what is exhibited in such attitudes is a demonstration of leaving this saying of Jesus behind. They somehow are beyond that, or maybe to them that only applies to people before they come to Jesus for conversion. Utterly false. I would rather be with the humble, poor in spirit any day, than with the Spirit-filled who have to look down on others. I’m at home with the “poor in spirit,” since I’m most certainly one of them.

At the same time it is the poor in spirit who will actually know more of the work of God’s Spirit in their lives. Especially in terms of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-26) as we note that no matter what spiritual gift we might exercise, if it is not exercised with love, it amounts to nothing (1 Corinthians 13). That doesn’t mean we leave the Spirit-given gifts behind, but only that we put first things first.

If we fail to accept the reality that we’re poor in spirit, then we’ll inevitably be proud and compare ourselves with others, favorably for us, of course. Instead we’re to take the way of Jesus who made himself nothing (Philippians 2:7), who was humble in heart (Matthew 11:29). In and through Jesus.

the mystery of Christ’s conception and birth

I was struck this morning by the thought of how Christ was in the womb, soon to be born. The idea that God through a miracle, was fully human, to soon pass through his mother’s womb into the world as a newborn.

That is amazing in itself, a mystery of the faith to be sure. And evident of God’s triunity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We might say the Father oversaw it all, the Spirit was active in it, and the Son was the human embryo, nine months after conception to be born.

It is amazing, but somehow tied to God’s amazing work in our own lives.

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

 

what we celebrate at Christmas

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

John 1:14a

Christmastime is special for the church in that we remember and celebrate the coming of the Messiah. And as no more than a little baby, but no less than God. “God in the flesh.” God become human, the God-Man, the God-Human.

This means that God in the Person of the Son became fully human, one of us. So that God knows our struggles firsthand, in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

Our Savior. Our Lord. The one hope of the world. That’s what we Christians celebrate at Christmas. No less and no more. In and through Jesus.

“God is good” confirmed by the incarnation and resurrection

The claim that God is good is seen over and over again in the Bible. And God’s people took it by faith that such was the case, seen in God’s mighty acts, such as the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian army by the parting and collapse of the Red Sea. So they could take it be faith that such was the case, God demonstrating it by signs and wonders for the protection and preservation of his people

But ultimately it would be challenging to make a case that God is good if we didn’t have the rest of the story. After all, God’s people did not live up to their calling, even after their return from exile. And generation after generation came and went essentially doing no better. Even with God’s calling and help, humans would inevitably fail him.

Enter into this picture something that was never imagined. The God, yes the God actually becoming completely human. Unfathomable, something that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. And yet true. Shockingly true. What in Christian theology is called the Incarnation: God becoming flesh, or human through the Son coming into the world, born of a woman in miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, yet no different than any other fetus. Though still God, completely human.

In that we see how seriously God takes our plight. God comes to our rescue, not from the outside, but from inside, becoming one of us. God-with-us, yes, but as one of us. Of course without sin, and a unique being indeed: God-human. Completely human with undiminished deity, but human. To show us by his life and teaching how he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring in God’s kingdom. Jesus.

But this happens in another completely unexpected, unanticipated way: Through Jesus’s death on the dreaded, despised Roman cross, would come God’s breakthrough to defeat Satan, more than save humanity, and ultimately bring in a new world through the new creation. That death spelled the end of death through Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.

“God is good” is thus confirmed, which means we can thank God for every blessing, knowing that what we see now with all the danger and despair is not the end. God’s goodness will leave nothing untouched in the end through the full judgment and salvation Jesus achieved at the cross, when he returns. All the repentant, believing, faithful will know that all is well, at last fully at home in the eternal life and new creation of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In and through Jesus.