Monthly Archives: December 2014

Luke 2:8-21

When I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago, it was cold out, so I started a fire in the fireplace. I cleaned out the ashes left over from previous cold mornings, went out to the wood pile, and gathered firewood. Before I stacked the firewood in the fireplace on the grate, however, I put an armful of dried leaves on. When I lit the fire, the leaves caught first in a spectacular conflagration that immediately caught the wood. Within seconds, I had a nice warm, steady fire in the fireplace. Without those leaves, however, I might as well have been rubbing two sticks together. The leaves picked up the tiniest flame and made it a big one; they spread the smallest aspect of a fire until it became large.

The Anunciation is the part of the Christmas story where the good news of Man’s redemption catches some fire among the people. What had been a small flicker of divine doings on the down-low becomes, in the hands of the shepherds, the first evangelism campaign.

 

8Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were greatly terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not fear, for behold: I bring you good news of great joy, which is to be for all the people, 11that today is born to you in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign to you: you will find the baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly, there was with the angels a vast army of heaven, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15When the angels had gone from them into the heavens, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go indeed to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us. 16So they went in a hurry and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. 17When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about the Child. 18And all who heard them were astonished at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, wondering about them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them. 21And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

 

Just like with Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph, today we find the Lord’s angel appearing before someone else: unnamed shepherds in a nearby field, doing their tedious and thankless job. This time, the angel is not alone: he’s brought some friends. The text here uses a word (στρατιας) that has sometimes been translated “multitude” in verse 13. However, this usage of the Greek carried a military connotation with it: a much better rendering is “army,” as in “suddenly there was with the angels a vast army of heaven.” What a stupendous sight that must have been! One minute, you’re minding your business in the bitter cold, watching smelly livestock and living out in the elements as the lowest rung on the social ladder (just above tax collector)—and the next, you’re in the presence of the “hosts” spoken of in the Old Testament any time you’ve read about the “Lord of Hosts” (Sabaoth). God chose these shepherds to carry this first message of good news. The ones who would most have appreciated a Messiah were the first to hear about Him.

A pattern that we’ve seen developed in earlier readings in the Christmas story is perpetuated today: people interact with God’s word, then immediately seek out a community of like-minded believers with whom to fellowship. We frequently point to the humble nature of the manger scene—and rightfully so—but another aspect of this setting that is so profound is that, once again, it is church. There, in the manger, is a concentrated collection of people who have been interacting with God’s word and are together with one another. There is praise, singing, and adoration—and there is the presence of Almighty God. And alongside this church paradigm is an evangelism one. The angel explicitly told the shepherds that he was the bearer of good news; the Greek word for “I bring you good news” (εὐαγγελιζομαι) is the root word for the English “evangelism.” The text tells us that the shepherds didn’t waste any time spreading this news around, and everyone who heard it was astonished. Long before the Great Commission, the first evangelists were shepherds, the ultimate metaphor for the God-Man relationship. The Child about whom they were so excited would grow up and claim to be the Great Shepherd. The lowly disciples He would befriend and train would be known as shepherds who were to “feed [His] sheep” (Jn 21).

God’s plan for the redemption of Man and Creation was executed brilliantly and powerfully. While the enemy no doubt rejoiced at the pagan rule over the known world, the defilement of the temple by the infamous pervert Herod, and the oppression of God’s chosen people, something awesome was happening in David’s old hometown:

God was made flesh.

The venerable theologian Anselm gave us the great Theory of Satisfaction that best paints the picture of God’s great Home Run that was hit in Bethlehem that morning: In Eden, Man offended God. He MUST reconcile to God, but is unable. God IS able to reconcile, but shouldn’t have to—since He’s the offended party. The solution: the God-Man, born in Bethlehem—fully divine, fully human. He is able to reconcile the unbridgeable chasm between God and Man in a way that leaves the enemy on the run for two millennia—in fact, for all eternity.

On this blessed morning, when it was dawning on the shepherds Who this child really was, there was church happening in that manger. There was evangelism happening thereafter. The Plan was in effect, and the hosts of heaven bore witness to it. Man’s only hope came into the world, guarded by the hardiest stewards of His creation, adored by a small community of fervent believers. From this tiny, unassuming flame, the conflagration of the gospel would spread.

As you and your family take some time this season to reflect on the God-Man’s birth, consider the community to whom you belong. Consider that you are part of a great flame that is even now burning through the darkness of history. Consider that your destiny is to help spread the good news that has come, “to give light to those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” And consider how that darkness was banished once and for all by the Sunrise from heaven on this first Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas!

 

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Luke 2:1-7

When my wife and I felt called by God to come to Dallas for me to attend seminary, it wasn’t a sudden audible voice from heaven that rang out unmistakably. There was an inkling in our hearts that such a path was consistent with some gifts that we already had; much of what we were reading in the Word seemed to confirm it, and we spent a lot of time in church with others of God’s people who were involved in the same process. By July of 2008, after a time of prayer and fasting and running this past others in our circle of influence who knew us and our gifts and were also in His community, we were certain of His direction. And while we were excited about the new adventure that awaited us, we had no idea what was really in store for us. We had no idea that we would be without a home for four months, or that we would suffer financial hardship. We had no idea how strange and irresponsible this would all seem to our extended families. And we still have no idea what kind of impact we’re to have on our culture—though we occasionally see evidences of that impact in church with others who are now walking in the same faith. Sometimes it costs something to follow God’s will on your life. And sometimes, extraordinary things happen while you’re on the road He’s put you on.

 

1It happened in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, to register the whole Roman Empire. 2This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone went to register, each to his own city. 4Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, to the city of David in Judah, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, who was pregnant. 6While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth, 7and she gave birth to her first-born son, and wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

 

Much has been made of Mary’s extraordinary faith; she believed God at His word, despite long odds. We spent some time noting the faith of Elizabeth and Zacharias, as well: against equally long odds, they believed what God had told them. We marvel at how easily they believed, given our Enlightenment-era propensity to doubt.

 

But how about that Joseph?

 

Here’s a man who already had the birthright: he was already of the lineage of David (2.4). He didn’t need Mary, and it shouldn’t be difficult for us to imagine that he didn’t need the social headache that came with the Virgin Birth story she gave him. He would have been well within his rights, in that time, to bring her before the Sanhedrin for death by stoning. She was espoused to be married to him; in that culture, in that time, this custom was much stricter than just a simple engagement. This arrangement was tantamount to marriage without consummation, and could only be broken by divorce.  Even in our own cultural marriage customs, it’s hard to imagine a man who would follow through with the marriage to a fiancé who turned up pregnant by someone else just prior to the wedding.

 

We’re told by Matthew’s gospel that Joseph was a just man (Mt 1.19). Rather than have her stoned, his idea was to simply divorce her quietly—that way, at least he wouldn’t be responsible for a terrible punishment being afflicted on her. Given Judaism’s penchant for justice in the 1st century legal aspect (which we’ll see plenty of in Jesus’ ministry), it’s interesting that the word choice Matthew uses is “just” to describe Joseph. We might use a different word in association with Joseph’s decision: “grace.” He was a man who was already motivated by grace rather than retributive justice toward his bride—and that was just when he was sitting there thinking about the problem (1.20).

 

Like Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Mary before him, Joseph is visited by an angel of the Lord and told about the holy goings-on. And like them, he readily accepts God at His word—despite the negative ramifications, culturally. He would be stuck defending Mary against the slings and arrows of her own countrymen. He would be stuck going through with a wedding in front of his family and friends with a pregnant wife—a pregnant wife who had come nowhere near him during their engagement. He knew how they would talk and whisper and hold her in contempt—and him along with her. Joseph had a hard row to hoe, right along with Mary. Sometimes it costs something to follow God’s will on your life.

 

But today’s readings paint a picture of a man who has willingly accepted responsibility for Mary and the future of this Child. He becomes her defender and provider, and the father to this Son. He is a law-abiding, decent man whose faith in God’s word led him to follow an extraordinary path. A pattern emerges in Luke’s Christmas story: the significance of faith. Each of these people—Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph—has interacted with God’s word and allowed it to permeate their lives. They have responded with action that reflected their acceptance of that word. They are immediately pictured with others who are also interacting with that word, as well—a community of believers who have each other in the midst of a culture that is destined to be radically impacted by their simple acts of faith.

 

Yes, it is significant that the Son of God came to earth as a child and was laid in a smelly manger with the animals. It is significant that there was no room in the inn for them. But the Christ child wasn’t alone: He was welcomed into the world by those who had already believed Him. When He ministered, He was surrounded by those who believed Him. When He returns, it will be those who believe Him who rise to meet Him.

 

Are you interacting with God’s word and believing Him today? Are you in community with fellow believers of that word? Joseph was an ordinary man who was given a powerful destiny and the strength to walk it—just exactly like you. The best you can do today is to interact with God’s word, be in community with other believers, and believe that word as you hear it. You never know how what extraordinary things will happen while you’re on the road He’s called you to be on—or how your faith choices will radically impact your culture.

 

Luke 1: 67-80

In a ritual that seems to repeat itself approximately 82 times per week, my ten-year-old will be getting ready for school on a weekday morning and suddenly realize that he’s left his shoes in the back yard. At 5:45 in the morning, it’s pitch-black outside. He knows he’ll never find anything stumbling around in the backyard in all that darkness, about which he’s vaguely afraid anyhow. So he goes to a handy switch that’s been installed on the wall and flips it into the “up” position. Now the back yard is flooded with bright light; it’s practically daylight back there, and he is able to find his shoes.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Christmas story is the promise that a Great Light has dawned upon Man in the midst of his darkness. That’s why it’s all the more tragic to hear the stories each year of millions of people who are depressed during the Christmas season—people who are living and walking in a sort of perpetual darkness, for whom the season isn’t bright and cheerful.

 

67And Zacharias his father was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,

 68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has come and accomplished redemption for His people,

69for He has raised up a horn of salvation for us, in the house of David His servant,

70just as He spoke through the mouths of all His holy prophets from of old,

71Salvation from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us,

72To show mercy toward our fathers and to remember His holy covenant,

73The promise which He promised to Abraham our father, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the                hand of our enemies, would serve Him without fear,

                75In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

76And you, child: you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,

77To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins,

78Because of the profound mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from heaven will shine on us,

79To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80And the child continued to grow and become strong in spirit, and he stayed in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.

The old priest Zacharias is filled with the Holy Spirit in today’s readings and begins to prophesy. When he does, repeats a pattern that we found in Mary’s song of praise the other day. As it was in that section, (1.46-56), our author, Luke, has preserved the praise in poetic verse. In his poetic prophecy, Zacharias uses aorist active indicative tense in his verbs—indicating an action that has already been accomplished, but whose effects are ongoing (just like Mary did). And just as in Mary’s song, Zacharias speaks of some future events as though they have already taken place: “He has come (ἑπεσκεψατο, 1.68) and accomplished (ἑποιησεν, 1.68) redemption for His people”, and “He has raised (ἡγειρεν, 1.69) up a horn of salvation for us”. When Zacharias is speaking (circa 4 B.C.), none of these things appears to be anywhere near being true where Israel is concerned. She is under the thumb of Caesar Augustus as a Roman province. Her land is defiled with Roman legions keeping the fabled Jewish nationalism in check. Later, as we’ll find in Christ’s ministry, she is under a sort of double-oppression: her scribes and Pharisees have elevated the Law to the status of their God. If anyone seems to be “sitting in darkness” (1.79), it seems to be Israel. How can Zacharias say this?

It’s simple: because God told him, and Zacharias believed Him. It’s a theme that’s as old as Mankind: Zacharias even references the original promise to Abraham (1.73-74) as the origin of the promise that’s coming true with the advent of the Messiah. So even though he must live in the dark oppressive times of 1st century Judea, Zacharias is overjoyed to see God fulfilling His promise in His own inimitable way. He’s read the end of the book, and he knows Who wins—and this is the chapter where He redeems the creation that fell in Eden. Note that Zacharias even uses Gabriel’s own language in prophesying to his son: “And you, child: you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1.76). Flip back to 1.17 and read Gabriel’s words, and you’ll see that the entire incident has made Zacharias even more of a true believer than he started out. He is overwhelmed with the conviction of this unimpeachable truth:

What is happening in my house and the house of my relatives is the coming of God—He is now in the process of bringing redemption to His people and salvation from our enemies so that we may serve Him in righteousness and holiness without fear.

You don’t have to be Secretary of State to surmise that Israel is not living in complete salvation from her enemies (either in 4 B.C.  or A.D. 2013): this is Zacharias rejoicing over what’s coming, as though it’s already there. And when he turns his prophecy toward his son, he speaks of the broader promise of God toward not just Israel but all Man: “you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (1.76-77). John the Baptist is going to prepare the way of the coming Messiah by introducing His people to the concept of forgiveness of their sins. Think of how revolutionary this would have been to the heavy-regulatory environment in which these folks lived. And this forgiveness will be accomplished by something far more stupendous in power than the blood of an innocent lamb from the Levitican law: this forgiveness will be accomplished by the “profound mercy of our God” (διασπλαγχναἑλεουςΘεουἡμων, 1.78). The One originally offended by Man’s choice to sin in Eden—and cause Creation to fall—will Himself “accomplish the redemption” (ἐποιησενλυτρωσιν, 1.68) of Man. He will be a great Sunrise from heaven that lights up Man’s world, and shines on those sitting in darkness.

And that’s the good news—the gospel—in its first nutshell: Man sits in darkness and shadow of death, but God Almighty has acted. He has intervened in the history of Man to accomplish redemption—and this is the light that vanquishes our darkness.

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of unbelievers for friends. I hear them go out of their ways to defile the sacredness of Christmas as a sort of rebellion against what they think is superstitious Christianity. I see their Facebook posts wishing me a “happy Solstice” and displaying pictures and memes that ridicule the “Christmas spirit.” And underneath the callousness, the sarcasm, the cynicism, and the vitriol is something deeply saddening to the heart of God: people sitting in darkness. These people—my friends—are sitting in darkness. They live and move in the shadow of death. They don’t really have hope—in this life or the one to come. They are the statistics about which you read each year around this time: the people who are depressed every time the holidays come around. And just as God brought the “already/not yet” salvation to Israel with the Incarnation of the Christ child, He has brought salvation to Man. He has brought a great light to shine in the lives of these friends of mine—a great light that is given by His profound mercy.

They’re stumbling in the backyard in the darkness. The light is there; their whole world could change and be flooded with the light of the Great Promise that came true on Christmas.

It’s been installed and wired, and only needs for someone to flip the switch.

 

Luke 1: 57-66

Oh, yeah, you’re Philip’s boy. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that in my childhood. Growing up in a small Texas town, everybody knew my dad, and his dad. The family name was known. They may or may not have known my first name, but when they heard that last name they immediately associated me with my father and my grandfather. My dad was careful to teach us boys the importance of that name: how we were stuck with it, and how he and his dad had worked hard to make sure they could give us a good name. The name should be synonymous, they explained, with honesty and hard work. They were proud of their name, and wanted to motivate us to live up to it—and to keep it good for our own sons one day. Our name went before us and said something about not just who we were, but what sort of people we came from. It was part of our identity, and part of our destiny. A name can do all of that.

 

57Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had extended His mercy toward her and they rejoiced with her. 59And it happened on the eighth day that they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him after the name of his father, Zacharias. 60And his mother answered and said, “No, but he will be called John.”  61And they said to her, “No one from your relatives is called by that name.” 62And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 64And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65And fear came on all those living there, and all these things were spoken about in the whole hill country of Judea. 66And all who heard them kept them in mind, saying in their hearts, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

It had been a bit over nine months since Gabriel had spoken with Elizabeth and Zacharias. They had had plenty of time to rethink the situation; to bring this strange birth into a perspective that would be more easily explained and grasped than “something supernatural.” I’ve often read the story of Zacharias and wondered what he did so wrong as to deserve being struck dumb by the angel. After all, which of us wouldn’t have a couple of questions in response to what the angel told him? But it appears that the dumbness served a much greater purpose than just a sign to Zacharias: it became a powerful sign to his neighbors. After all, they had not heard him say a word for months. They had come to fulfill the obligations of the Law where the baby was concerned, and they were prepared to christen the child after his father’s name, which was the unquestioned custom of the time. This is significant, since the child’s entire purpose on the earth is to continue the father’s life, so to speak. He is the living validation of the parents, and his name will reflect his origins: Oh, you’re Zacharias’ boy. I am the son of Zacharias.

But his mother speaks up first. Again, Luke shows us something no other gospel shows: attention to the faith of the woman. She corrects the neighbors, and Zacharias follows. The crowd tries to brush past Elizabeth and get the husband to pull rank on her, but he goes along with the strange request for a name that is foreign to their family. Both parents are in agreement: they will name this child based on the word of the Lord, not their tried-and-true custom. In a sense, the boy WAS foreign; he was a miracle, and he was connected to something much greater than a simple family name. The boy’s very existence is connected to the word of the Lord, and their act of obedience to God echoes Hannah’s yielding of her son to Eli after praying for God to end her own barrenness (1 Sa 1). They took God at His word, and then they did an even more startling thing: they acted on it.

The text doesn’t give us much detail about the social pressures of naming the child, but we can understand that Elizabeth and Zacharias were essentially going against Man’s custom in order to be obedient to God’s word. You and I are in the same boat each day; some of the time, it’s so subtle as to not register with our consciousness. But being obedient to His word—which we hear by reading HIs word and being in community with His body, the Church—will immediately set you apart as foreign. Like John, you will be Someone Else’s kid.

Do people know me as a “guy who believes”? Do they assume that I’m religious because they saw “Dallas Theological Seminary” on my Facebook page or associate me with the “Church On The Hill devotional”? Or is my daily faith walk enough to make people quite convinced that I’m Someone Else’s son? Do people associate me with the Family to whom I belong? Just as John was the physical evidence of a supernatural God Who was acting in the lives of men, do people see me as evidence of a supernatural God intervening in their lives?

If they don’t, perhaps I’m not wearing my Family name well.

 

Luke 1:46-56

Sometimes Christians feel outnumbered. Our scientists assure us that there is no God; among the bestselling books on the New York Times Bestseller list last year were several tomes by prominent atheists. The highest-rated popular comics skewer Christians at every juncture, and our own President has sneered with contempt at Christians who take their faith seriously enough to be horrified at the murders of 45 million innocent babies. Cities are sued for hanging banners that wish its residents a “Merry Christmas,” and school Christmas programs are carefully scrubbed of any mention of the birth of the Savior. When Mary remarks, in today’s readings, that “all generations will consider me blessed,” it’s difficult to see where this generation considers her blessed; rather, she is the punch line to a thousand off-color jokes by a milieu of impertinent scoffers. Everything seems to be directly backwards from what it ought to be—but, then again, it has always been so.

 

46And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47And my spirit is extremely joyful to God my Savior,

48Since He has looked with care upon the humble state of His servant,

For behold, from now on all generations will consider me blessed.

49Because He Who is mighty has done great things for me,

                And holy is His name.

50And His mercy is upon generation after generation,

                toward those who fear Him.

51He has done mighty deeds with His arm,

                And has scattered the arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts.

52He has taken down rulers from thrones,

                And has lifted up the humble.

53He has filled the hungry with good things,

                And has sent the rich away empty-handed.

54He has helped Israel His child,

                In remembrance of His mercy.

55Just as He has spoken to our fathers,

                To Abraham and his descendants forever.”

56And Mary stayed with her about three months, then returned to her home.

Mary’s famous song of praise didn’t occur in a vacuum. She was a citizen of Judea, the most troublesome of all Roman provinces. She was surely familiar with the barbaric practice of crucifixion, in which the authorities nailed criminals to a wooden cross and let them asphyxiate to death in full view of the populace. She knew about high taxes. She knew about unjust authoritarianism. As a Jewish girl, was part of a racial group that was routinely mocked and mistreated by not just the Romans but all other groups in the empire.

Nor was only her incidental existence fraught with trouble: she was an unwed pregnant teenager who had been promised in marriage to a man from the lineage of David. For her to turn up pregnant was extraordinarily dangerous: not only would she have been ostracized, but she would have been considered guilty of adultery, which was punishable by death. She had the unenviable task of either explaining to her people what God had told her, or sitting in silence and trusting that the One Who had given her this good news would also protect her. There were plenty of reasons for Mary to be concerned for her well-being—not just at this moment, but for the rest of her life.

But in the midst of this personal, political, and cultural drama, the young girl sings a song of praise. The song itself, like Hebrew poetry in the Wisdom tradition, is stacked with parallelisms and observations. In it, she juxtaposes the seemingly opposite images of her humble state and her eternal status of “blessed” (1.48), the Mighty One helping the humble (1.52) and scattering the arrogant (1.51), and the hungry against the rich (1.53). When she says the Lord “has looked with care” (1.48), “has done great things” (1.49), “has done mighty deeds,” “has scattered “(1.51), “has taken down” and “has lifted up “ (1.52), “has filled the hungry” and “has sent the rich away empty-handed” (1.53), she is using verbs that are all in the aorist active indicative tense. This means that these actions have already taken place, and their effects are still being felt at the present time. But it doesn’t take a historian to realize that, in 1st-century Judea, there were still hungry people. There were still people who had become rich at the expense of the innocent. There was still totalitarian injustice. The arrogant sat enthroned in Rome, while the humble were being crushed in Judea (and would eventually be decimated and scattered within the next 40 years). How can she speak of things that have not happened as though they have?

This is the “already-not yet” paradigm that is consistent throughout scripture. In speaking to Mary, God did indeed exalt the humble. This has ALREADY been done. In the last times, He will judge the arrogant with finality and the justice that is required. This is the NOT YET aspect. Mary was able to take stock of her present circumstances and see them as reflective of God’s almighty power—and was also able to see a little of the long-term ramifications of her present circumstance. She took God at His word that this baby would be the hope of Mankind and would have a kingdom of which there would be no end. Against all odds, and despite those around her, she believed—and acted on that belief. She didn’t see the final end results of God’s promise, but she knew He would bring it about.

Our times are no different, and demand a similar response. We watch with worry as our country dives off the fiscal cliff. We grit our teeth as we see properties devalue at an alarming rate. We watch in horror as young men who haven’t yet met this Christ child gun down innocent children in their kindergarten classrooms. In nondescript clinics across the country, the skulls of children in wombs are punctured and their remains vacuumed out and discarded like refuse. In Belgium, the population has decided the proper age to allow euthanasia for children. Where is His promise?

Christmas is when we are reminded of this promise. God has promised that He will redeem this broken creation. He has promised that this Messiah Whose birth we celebrate will return to set things right.  In the moment that the Word was made flesh, the enemy lost this battle for all time. His time is short, and he knows it. This Christ child—born in the most humble of circumstances to the most innocent and helpless of mothers in the most helpless of cultural groups in the most unforgiving of geographical locations—is the Mighty One who will scatter the arrogant in their hearts. Mary was right in her already-not yet observations: He has, and will, fill the hungry with good things. He has, and will, send those with their hands full away empty-handed. He has, and will, help His child Israel.

The truth is that Christians have always been outnumbered. There have always been more of the mockers than there have been of us. So let the scoffers scoff. They have always done so, and two millennia ago Mary had the right idea: This is a time of rejoicing. The Savior is born to us, and not only WILL he set things right (“not yet”), He is in the business of setting things right in the hearts of His people today (“already”) when we trust Him against all odds, like Mary.

 

Luke 1.39-45

Sometimes at Christmas, I’ll get my wife an outfit to wear. It always comes in multiple parts, and I always wrap them separately as individual presents. She has a great deal of fun opening them and putting them all together. But how unfortunate would that outfit look if she only opened one of the presents, and then decided that she’d opened enough? This seems to be the approach we’ve taken in American evangelicalism when it comes to the topic of church. Christ has given us a gift of salvation and redemption, but He has also given us a gift of community—that many of us ignore.

 

39In those days, Mary got up and went into the hill country with haste to a city of Judah, 40and came into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41And it happened when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?  44For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped within my womb for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

You might note that there is another parallel with the Abraham story in today’s readings: Mary has taken God at His word. She believed Him. This is significant, inasmuch as we Enlightenment-influenced Christians frequently have set up a pseudo-God in our hearts Who doesn’t make outrageous promises (that way we don’t have to worry with the messiness of believing Him). God promised Abraham that he would become a father in his old age; moreover, He promised that that child would become a great nation. Abraham believed this. Later, when God tested the strength of that belief by commanding Abraham to give Isaac back to Him, Abraham had to have been sorely grieved and hurt and confused—but trusted that God had the correct plan, not he. We saw this paradigm repeated in the lives of Zacharias and Elizabeth a couple of days ago. And now today, we once again see that real faith is always defined by believing God against all odds. But there’s another element to real faith, other than taking God at His word in the quiet individual moment of testing.

We see that, hot on the heels of this private moment of communication between Mary and God, she makes haste for a city in Judah where her cousin lives. What a meeting that must have been in Zacharias’ house! Did Zacharias shuffle off somewhere to keep his sanity while the two pregnant women carried on? Or did he nod in emphatic approval at Mary’s faith? He knew better than most Who was behind all of this. Everyone in that house had believed that the Lord’s word would be fulfilled BEFORE it happened. They had taken God at His word. And they saw the great deliverance of the Lord to Man come about. And they were all together in that house. They were the Lord’s community. Any doubts Mary may have started to have, or worries she may have felt, were immediately alleviated in the confirming words of her fellow believer.

It’s easy to believe God in happy times. It’s not a big deal to reflect on God’s goodness toward us in times in which we have plenty of money and comfort. It’s more challenging to take God at His word during dark and troubling times. It’s difficult to look at the blatant reality in front of us and believe what God says. For many Christians, they never learn to even recognize the voice of God because they never spend any time in His Word or with His people or in His presence. Since these are the main ways God speaks to us, these Christians typically are disconnected from God’s voice. They just fail to believe it. Or, worse yet, they set up another god to believe—after all, they have refused to engage in communication with God on His terms, and are floating in a disconnected way from His community.

Hearing God involves community. Just as in the case of Mary and Elizabeth, we have not only experienced His word, but have been given access to His community, as well. It is misguided, infantile, and wrong to avoid this community. Remember that a person can talk himself into—and out of—anything when he is by himself. Theology wasn’t meant to be lived out by yourself as an individual, divorced from community. You were meant to be part of a thriving body of believers, confirming one another’s faith and edifying one another.

Our Western mindset has a dangerous streak of existentialist individualism in it. We are taught that our decision for Christ is an individual one, and that our relationship with Him is an individual one. While these things are true, there is much more to hearing and obeying God than the individual relating to Him. In fact, it is impossible to live out your theology in private, away from the community that He set up for your benefit. There is actually nothing scriptural about opening one of Christ’s gifts to you and refusing to open the others. Are you taking God at His word today? And are you sharing this experience with others in your life? If Mary needed Elizabeth and Zacharias in her hearing and obeying God’s word, what makes you any different? God has promised that He is present in the community of believers. Since we know this, church shouldn’t be something we do when we find the opportunity; church should be something that we can’t do without. It should be the opportunity we deliberately create. This is God’s community; it’s Christ’s body on earth today. Don’t avoid it; it’s an important part of your ability to hear and understand His voice in your life.

 

Luke 1.26-38

We Americans pride ourselves on our autonomy. We are the masters of our destiny. I control my life—where I work, where I live, where I bank, what track my career is on. It is a strange thing for us to use “servant” imagery to discuss our lives. It can be a real challenge for Western Christians to see themselves as simple vessels of God’s redemptive will. It’s a challenge for any time frame, but it must have been at least equally difficult for a certain young girl in today’s readings.

 

26Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin promised in marriage to a man named Joseph of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. 28And coming to her, he said, “Rejoice, you who are greatly blessed! The Lord is with you. 29But she was greatly confused at this statement, and wondered what sort of greeting this was. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in the womb, and will give birth to a son and will call His name Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father, David. 33And He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not known a man?” 35And the angel answered her and said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the holy child will be called the Son of God. 36And behold, Elizabeth your cousin has also conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37’For nothing will be impossible with God.’” 38And Mary said, “Behold the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me according to your word.” And the angel left from her.

 

Gabriel makes another appearance, and this is significant: he is typically the angel associated with revelation (Da 8.15-16; 9.21). He is bringing the most important revelation in the history of Mankind. As in other moments of divine revelation, Gabriel’s pronouncement to her deals not just with the present and immediate future, but also contains an eschatological reminder of the significance of her child. His prediction that the child would one day rule over Israel in a kingdom that is everlasting echoes the messianic prophecies that she would have heard in synagogue throughout her childhood. In a world in which evil is ever-present, it is worth the reminder that our fallen creation is groaning for its Redeemer to fix what is broken, and He has promised to do exactly that. He IS coming, and He’s going to set things right. I think it’s worth noting that Gabriel doesn’t miss a chance to point out the significance of this to Mary, who lived in a troubling time, as well. It is a reminder to me that I should also remind others of this promise, as well.

 

Mary must have been completely short-circuited by the angel’s pronouncement that she has found great favor with God (1.29). The original Greek construction contains a difficult participle (κεχαριτωμενη) that is best rendered “one who is greatly favored” or “greatly favored one.” The Latin Vulgate translated it “full of favor,” which carries an implication that she is the possessor of special favor. The Greek, however, does not have this implication, but rather paints a picture of a simple village girl through whom God decides to work His plan of redemption. She is, simply put, the recipient of God’s favor.

 

Of course, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that a pregnancy announcement would have troubled Mary even further—since she was a virgin. “How is this going to work?” is her simple and effective question (1.34). The answer is as mysterious as it is divine: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be overshadowed by the power of the Most High” (1.35). Whenever we see the “Holy Spirit” spoken of in the New Testament, we may be certain that this is the same YHWH we encounter in the Old Testament. Additionally, “most high” was a term used by many in first-century Judea as a means of avoiding speaking the name of God, which was culturally considered too holy to pronounce. The fact that Gabriel takes the time to utter this profoundly Trinitarian statement—that the Holy Spirit will be involved in a mighty work of the Most High God in the begetting of His Son—is significant. But it is this word “overshadowed” that is most interesting.  The word itself (ἐπισκιασει) is derived from a root that is used to refer to God’s glorious presence at work. It has a long history: Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) employed it in the literal sense of “be under a shadow” a few centuries before Luke is using it here. A few decades after Luke, the Greek historian Lucian uses it in Quomodo Historia Conscribenda in the same way. The scriptural uses, however, tend to much more specific to the divine: Ps 91.4 and Ex 40.34-35, for example use “overshadow” in the sense of the divine presence of God at work in a protecting sense. And Gabriel chooses exactly this word to describe to Mary what is about to happen. The Most High God will, in His unlimited power and His glorious presence (the Shekinah), bring about this great redemption of His creation through this sweet, innocent girl. What more profound expression of God’s love for Man could possibly be wrought? What greater evidence that the Most High God is pleased to be at work in the affairs of men than the Incarnation? His glory, His presence, His power brought about this pivotal moment in history.

 

Mary’s response? “Behold the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me according to your Word” (1.38). Considering the legal and cultural ramifications of this teenage girl showing up in her village pregnant while promised in marriage to a man who’s not the father of the child, this is a profound answer. This is a girl for whom the wrath of the Law and the weight of the village’s condemnation suddenly carry no weight—because she has met the messenger of God. Nothing else matters. All else pales in importance. Regardless of the cost to her societally, she is willing to submit to God’s will for her life.

 

What about you? As you go about your day, living out your theology in front of a world that has declared itself hostile to Christ, are you willing to risk alienation and wrath of your village for the sake of being humbly submitted to His will for you? We should say, with Mary, “I am nothing. I am just a humble servant who does what he’s told. May whatever You want to happen to me happen—in exactly the way You want it to.” It always costs something to follow His will for you. Mary came into contact with God’s word, and suddenly nothing else mattered. Can we say the same or ourselves? Or are we capable of closing our Bibles and shutting down our prayer lives and compartmentalizing our faiths so that they never actually touch the rest of our lives?