Archive for December, 2018

Reading Ramblings – January 6, 2018

December 30, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6, 2018

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Context: The celebration of Epiphany is an ancient church practice that is first reliably mentioned by Clement of Alexandria who died in 215 AD. Early celebrations are pegged in early January, either January 6 or 10. As with many traditions, these celebrations were not universally acknowledged or celebrated, but began in particular places and gradually gained traction throughout Christendom as ecclesiastical hierarchy became more established and could share such practices to larger areas. It is traditionally celebrated in conjunction with baptismal themes, and with Christmas forms a two-part emphasis. Christmas emphasizes that the divine became human – was actually born as Jesus of Nazareth at a particular time and place and to a particular couple with all of the attendant specifics and details that Matthew and Luke provide us. Epiphany celebrates the reality that the man Jesus of Nazareth is also the divine and eternal Son of God. The word epiphany itself is Greek and refers to a sudden realization or revelation, when something very important becomes suddenly clear. In this case, what becomes clear is the divinity of Jesus.

Isaiah 60:1-6 This passage is likely chosen for the emphasis on light in the early verses. As St. John proclaims Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:1-5), light is also the means by which we can see clearly. The first two verses describe the reality of the birth of the Son of God, the entry of divinity incarnate into the dark realm of creation that Satan has lorded over since the Fall in Genesis 3. What we could not do for ourselves – create or sustain light – God does for us in his presence. This light will not simply be for the people of God, but will draw others to itself as well. Jesus comes as a Jew in the first century, yet his presence has and continues to drawn people from all of history and geography to him in faith. For God’s people who have suffered much, the arrival of this light is good news in terms of reconciliation, healing, and restoration. For much of the last 2500 years God’s people have been scattered to far corners of the earth, but this arriving light will bring them back together in joy and blessing. Those who have been beggars are suddenly wealthy and rich with the blessings of God manifest in material fashion. This blessing comes as the peoples of the world are drawn to the light of God’s presence among his people, and bring gifts to honor him. Note the mention of gold and frankincense that are later associated with the magi in Jesus’ early childhood (not at the manger!). We would say that this prophecy has come partially true already, and many would see it even more fulfilled since the establishment of a new nation of Israel in 1948. However I believe that the bulk of this prophecy remains yet to be fulfilled. It is fulfilled additionally in terms of the Church, to which people from all over flock in faith. But it remains to be finally and completely fulfilled in the return of Jesus, the theme that takes up the end of the liturgical church year next November.

Psalm 72:1-15 – This psalm was likely utilized for (or composed for) the inauguration of a king in Jerusalem. The psalm is designed to be general, applicable for any king, and grounded in the fundamental understanding that the king’s primary responsibility is to ensure justice and righteousness to the people. If the king can do this, all is well. If the king can’t – and what king can undertake such monumental tasks perfectly? – then problems will result. These aren’t optional responsibilities – they are the foundation of the very kingdom itself and the king can’t ignore them to focus on other things. If he can do these things he will be a blessing to his people and deserves to reign long and prosperously, free from the threat of foreign foes. It is good, right, and proper that people should pray for such a king. His success and longevity will mean their own safety and longevity as well. Of course because such a king is not humanly possible, this psalm also serves a prophetic role, pointing the congregation to look forward to the perfect king to come who can establish perfect justice and righteousness not for the span of just a few years or even decades but rather for all eternity. Such a king must be more than merely human, he must ultimately be God incarnate.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The God-Man Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, is not simply the redeemer and deliverer of the Hebrews, those who trace their lineage to Abraham. Rather, He comes to redeem all humanity, to graft in others to the tree established with the root of Abraham (Romans 11:11-24). His dominion is to extend to all of creation and all are invited to dwell in his rule. But though this is implied in God the Father’s original promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the concept had become a bit distorted over time. St. Paul indicates that God the Holy Spirit is now re-establishing that clarity in a way He hadn’t done in previous centuries. There is no greater secret spiritual knowledge to gain than what God the Holy Spirit himself reveals – God the Father’s desire to reconcile all peoples through the sacrifice of his Son. This was God the Father’s plan from the beginning, and having thus fulfilled it through the perfect obedience and sacrificial death of God the Son, Jesus, we can be confident that we have every benefit and blessing that God the Father intended to give us. Nothing is withheld!

Matthew 2:1-12 – Baptism is one common theme of Epiphany, the other is the wise men who come to give honor to the young King of the Jews. They recognize Jesus for who He is as they interpret the stars. When Herod presses his Hebrew scholars, they refer to Micah 5:2 for the location, but what about the star? What prompts the magi to journey to Judea based on a star? There are two places that could be construed as prophetic in regards to a star and a king. The first is Numbers 24:17, part of the prophecy of Balaam. The second place is Tobit 13:11-15. Tobit is not considered canonical by most Protestant Christians but was made canonical by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546 in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was deemed canonical in the Eastern church as early as the 4th century. However the Jewish people never recognized this or the other Apocryphal writings as canonical for the Tanakh, which is why most Protestants don’t accept them. Based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Tobit is believed to have been written in the 2nd century BC.

Either of these writings could be what prompted the wise men (astrologers, magicians, court counselors, etc.) to ponder the meaning of a mysterious star in relationship to Judea. However this does not seem to have been the expectation of Jewish scholars, since they don’t appear either to have noticed the star or considered it in any way significant. The arrival of the magi causes quite a stir in Jerusalem, or was it merely Herod’s consternation that troubled the population?

None of this matter to the magi. They wish to worship the king, and they follow the star to the place where Jesus and his family live. Not the manger, as we typically think (and nativity sets like to portray). It is likely that they visit Jesus and his family in Nazareth. Luke 2 tells us that after fulfilling all the obligations of the Law, takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth. This would have taken a couple of months at the most. From Nazareth they likely flee Herod’s vengeance as Matthew 2:14-15 describes. Although it is tempting to interpret Matthew 2 so that the Holy Family moves to Nazareth only after returning from Egypt, we know this isn’t the case because Luke 2:4 indicates that Joseph (as well as Mary, as per Luke 1:26-27) are from Nazareth.

Reading Ramblings – December 30, 2018

December 23, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018

Texts: Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15; Psalm 111; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Yes, it’s still Christmas! Merry Christmas! That whole 12 days of Christmas thing? It’s referring to the liturgical season of Christmas, which starts on Christmas Day and runs through January 5. So we continue to enjoy the Christmas songs long after the discounted Christmas items at the stores have disappeared. The readings today center on connections between the Old Testament and the New, between the Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ incarnate. God demands remembrance and acknowledgment of his deliverance of his people from Egypt. The Egyptians had sought to kill off the Israelite baby boys, but God reverses this and puts to death all the firstborn of Egypt, sparing his own people through the Passover covenant. Now, literally as the Israelites are leaving, God is instructing Moses as to how this remembrance will occur – through the dedication of all firstborn males to God. God now sends his only-begotten Son into creation to redeem all of humanity, to dedicate himself to all of us. And born into creation, under the Law, Jesus is redeemed as per God’s commands to Moses 1500 years earlier by Mary and Joseph. The Law is fulfilled, and in time, Jesus will fulfill the rest of the Law as well in order to offer his perfect and sinless life in exchange for our sinful one through his death and resurrection and our baptismal faith.

Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15 – God does not ask for human sacrifice. The slaying of the Egyptian firstborn was not a sacrifice but a sign of his power and authority over all life. We tend to assume as materialists and naturalists that each of us is entitled to a life on our terms and to our specified length. But God alone knows the number of our days, and the Creator that caused us to enter into existence is the Creator who knows when our mortal life will end. The Israelites are commanded to remember this through a ritual buying-back or redemption of all first-born males. This ritual is still enacted today among faithful Jewish people, though it is tradition for the rabbi to return the silver coins that are handed over in exchange for the child. This is one of the Old Testament commands that Christians deem as no longer binding after the incarnation of the Son of God, but we would do well to remember God’s absolute sovereignty over all creation not just in abstract notions but in very deeply personal ones.

Psalm 111 – I like that this psalm clearly articulates one of the proper places and ways praise to God should be made – in community, with others who are praising him as well! We praise him for his great works – and the implication is that these works extend beyond our purely personal identification of them in our lives to include creation itself and his continued sustenance and care of that creation. Moreover, God is reliable. What He tells us is good and does not change. It can be trusted – unlike much of what we tell ourselves and one another. And, He has redeemed his people. In the psalm this might be associated with the Exodus from Egypt and the delivery of his people to the promised land. But now we can see that ultimately redemption comes through the Son of God made man, who destroys our greatest enemies of sin, death, and Satan, rather than simply delivering us from a temporal power or policy. As we realize this, the praise and study of God and his Word should naturally take over a substantial part of our attention. Praise of the one who is faithful and study of his Word for wisdom and guidance are the only means by which we can make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Colossians 3:12-17 – That God would give to us such a gift – what do we have a right to withhold from others? Especially from brothers and sisters in Christ? Our forgiveness in Christ should naturally express itself in patience and forgiveness with others. Paul keeps Christ at the center of all these admonitions. These are not simply personal qualities we should strive to create in ourselves – they are gifts that are given to us specifically because we are in Christ. As such we need to make Christ the center of our lives more and more, dwelling on his Word and taking it to heart – literally – so that it changes our hearts and minds. More than this, we need to gather with other Christians to celebrate what we have received together. The Christian faith is naturally communal since we are made communal creatures. Only together are our gifts expressed best, guided and strengthened as needed so that we can continue to give God the Father the thanks and glory.

Luke 2:22-40 – The perfect fulfillment of the Law by Jesus begins when He is just a tiny baby, as his parents fulfill the obligation given to them by God in Exodus 13 to redeem Mary’s first-born son, as well as make the necessary offerings for her ritual purification after giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-8). Jesus does not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). In doing so He sets us free from the power of the Law to condemn our sinfulness, since in faith our sinfulness is exchanged for his perfection. His fulfillment of the Law – rather than an attempt to exempt himself from it – makes his obedience truly perfect and thus fully efficacious in our redemption.

Mary and Joseph are parents of a newborn. Although they received angelic visitations and dreams, they are still amazed at what others say about this little child. Who is this little one? What does it mean that “He will be great and will be Called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32)? They have not discerned this yet. But they remain faithful to what they are supposed to do, their lives guided and structured by the Law and the covenant of Moses regardless of what this little child may one day do. Likewise Simeon is faithful to the Holy Spirit’s leading and receives the fulfillment of what the Holy Spirit promised him- that he would see the Messiah.

Likewise we should look to God’s Law not as a burden but as a gift. No longer condemned in our sins but redeemed and forgiven through baptism into the death and resurrection of the Son of God, the Law remains as a guide, the baseline upon which we base our lives and how we interpret the world. We are not to be confused by the relativism that increasingly bogs down our society and culture, calling good evil and evil good one day, then reversing itself the next. The Law of God is a sure guide for our lives.


December 23, 2018

A humorous little imagining regarding how to utilize virtual reality (VR) as an alternative to Christian worship.  Think that this is outrageous?  Don’t.  I have no doubt somebody will try this.  I also don’t presume it will be very popular.  I don’t think people who are not willing to go to church in the first place will be willing to spend time on this instead.  Although perhaps those who prefer watching religious networks rather than going to church might.  Hmmm…

People  have been trying to integrate technology and church for years.  When I was nearly done with seminary, there was a pitch from someone putting together an online Christian community (including worship) so that non-Christians could peer into the lives and experiences of Christians.  Predictably, it wasn’t very successful.  Meaning, not at all successful and short-lived.  Others continue to try and figure out how to do this.  The logic is flawless – meet tech-obsessed and isolated people where they like to hang out – online.  But traditionally, something gets lost in the translation.  While technology can augment our human connections and interactions, it can’t replace them.  Attempts to do so inevitably fail, and people become more isolated, not less.

I don’t fault people for trying, but I don’t predict it will ever be very successful.  Even if it is attractive on many levels.  What would you add or eliminate from your Sunday worship if you could just press a button or wave your hand?  Now, why should you not have the option to do that?


Demon Run

December 21, 2018

I don’t know why it is, but I received another call today from someone wanting help with evil spirits.  The man on the phone was apparently going through the phone book, calling churches and asking if there was anyone there who could come out and help him with some evil spirits.

I began with asking questions.  He described a visual and aural experience, small bluish spherical things that flew through his window and into his apartment, moving to various places.  The heater vent.  The bathroom.  The closet.  Back to the heater vent.  Out the window again and then back in again.

The voices talked amongst themselves as well as to him.  They wanted to stay.  They wanted him to leave.  He told them he wouldn’t.

I asked if he felt any sense of threat or danger from these entities, and he said he didn’t.  He described multiple occurrences of both the visual and aural experiences over the course of a day or so.  They caused him no trouble at night and he was able to sleep fine.

He claimed to be a Christian, but acknowledged he hadn’t been to church in over a decade.  He was an artist, and basically just quit going.  Not through a lack of faith or belief necessarily, but, you know.  Life.

I asked him about drug and alcohol usage, and he claims that he was not under the influence of anything when these events started happening.  He indicated that he took blood pressure medication but nothing else.  He claimed no history of mental illness.

I presume that what he described was real.  It would be easy to just shrug it off, to claim that he really was under the influence, or that there was some other matter at play but that doesn’t seem necessary.  So I talked to him about what I thought his best course of action would be.

He called presuming that somebody could come out and just take care of the problem – drive the evil spirits off.  But I told him that demons aren’t  the same thing as termites.  You don’t just call up an exorcist like you do a pest  control company.  It isn’t a matter of spiritually tenting your home and then the  problem is gone – at least  for any predictable amount of time.  Hollywood and popular imagination has done a good job of assuming that evil spirits work like this.  Misreading the Bible can leave one with that impression as well.  Jesus casts out demons with authority but then again, He’s the Son of God.  While his followers are said to cast out demons their track record is decidedly more spotty.  Jesus himself in Matthew 12:43-45 indicates that evil spirits can return.

So I talked with him about going back to church.  A Roman Catholic one since that would be most familiar to him, though I also invited him to come to our worship as well.  But that he needed to start bringing himself back into line with his perceived identity as a follower of Christ.  To begin to be and do the things that Christians do – worship, pray, sing, read Scripture.  Doing this would transform him, and in transforming him would also transform his environment from one that was neutral at best into one that was filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence.  The evil spirits would leave in time because it would no longer be a comfortable place to be, filled as it would be with God’s presence and Word.

I talked for a while. He listened, and claimed to understand.  Whether he did or not I can’t tell.  I could have gone out and visited his apartment and prayed over it.  Perhaps that would have helped.  Well, perhaps it would have driven away the evil spirits for a time.  But the more important issue was not the evil spirits but this man and his relationship to his creator and redeemer.  I pray he takes my advice, and the changes that come about far exceed removing voices and visions and bring him more  firmly into the arms of his Savior, a comfort that will sustain him in all times and all situations.


December 20, 2018

Today I had the opportunity to do  something I didn’t really know I wanted to do.  It’s not the sort of thing you think about very often.  I had the opportunity to witness the naturalization ceremony for 3,357 new US citizens.  It was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and there were easily three times that number of guests on hand as well.

While advance information on what to expect was scant, we arrived nearly two hours before the ceremony actually started – one hour ahead of when my friend was instructed to be there.  A small group of us made the unpleasant drive down, excited for her but unsure what to expect.

The ceremony began with instructions in English and Spanish, followed by a video montage of various immigrants.  Over 18 million people have become citizens over the last 100 years through immigration.  There weren’t pictures of all of them, thankfully, but it was a nice enough way to begin.

The ceremony itself consisted of a brief district court session provided over by a judge.  The US Government motioned for the judge to approve the citizenship of the 3,357 people present, as they had each successfully completed all but the final necessary step for  citizenship.  The final step, the judge then informed them, was to take the citizenship oath.  All of the applicants repeated, en masse, a brief oath administered by the judge.  The oath led them to renounce their allegiances to other countries or authorities, indicated their acceptance of and willingness to follow the laws of the United States, and called on them to defend their new homeland from enemies foreign or domestic if asked to do so.

The judge gave a few brief personal remarks then, encouraging them to continue their education in learning about America, and to be constructive and productive citizens.  Another government official offered words of welcome also, and introduced three specific applicants who, although not officially citizens, had already served in the American armed forces.  There was a brief video welcome  from President Trump, followed by another patriotic music and video montage.  There was much applause and more than a few tears amidst the many, many smiles.

Of course, being America, the lobby was filled with vendors, as was the patio outside the convention center.  Food vendors selling hot dogs and sausages, fruit wedges and churros.  Inside the vendors sold nice covers for the naturalization certificate, or patriotic teddy bears and small flags to wave.  One sign insisted New US Citizens Need Flowers.  I took pictures for several different family groups celebrating the exciting day.  Over 100 different countries were represented in those 3,357 applicants.  Mexico, the Philippines, China, El Salvadore and South Korea had the highest number of applicants in this particular session.


It was a beautiful thing to witness.  To read the papers or watch the news or scan the Internet, you’d think our country was nothing but a terrible place full of terrible people, whether you define terrible in conservative or progressive terms.  Nothing but disparaging comments about how we are failing in this regard or that, how we are disintegrating from this ideology or that, how we are mere shadows of our glorious selves – and those selves weren’t that glorious to begin with.

But I was reminded today that while there is some truth in all of that, there is also the truth that does not get promoted nearly so much.  The truth that despite our faults and flaws, we remain a beacon to much of the rest of the world.  That we offer opportunities and possibilities that people in other places can only dream of.  And dream  they do.  It was a reminder that there is much worth appreciating and celebrating here.  And much worth fighting for.  But that the only way to do what needs to be done is by working together, rather than trying to force each other to do what we are so very positive is right.

These people are good reminders that it can be done.  It requires hard work and perseverance, but also listening and caring and a focus on the end result.  I hope these new citizens will help  in the process, and continue to liven this melting pot with their gifts and abilities, their perspectives and experiences.

Welcome to America.  Your new homeland.


St. John Wang Yi Zinzendorf the Baptist

December 17, 2018

Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.  ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This mantra has been stuck in my head for over a year now.  While there is some doubt as to whether the words were ever written or spoken by Zinzendorf in exactly this format, the spirit of them is definitely attributed to him.  In a world that seeks immortality through works and words and the acclaim of others, the Bible calls us to obedience to the God who created us, redeemed us, and alone can grant us immortality not simply in the memories of others but in flesh and blood and spirit.

Faithful obedience is not often glamorous.  Not often memorable.  Not often noteworthy.  It’s the decision to get up in the morning and do what needs to be done.  Laundry.  Cooking.  Earning a living.  Faithfulness to those around us.  Restraint.  Hardly laudable qualities in a modern culture that calls after fame and glory in 120 (or 280) character tweets or 4-second vines.

This past Sunday we considered Jesus’ words to John the Baptist – blessed is the one who is not offended by me.  John the Baptist is remembered 2000 years after his untimely death.  He remained faithful to the one who created him, the one who would redeem him.  Whether that faithfulness changed the world around him was not to be John’s concern, any more than whether or not he would ever be freed from prison.

Persecution is hardly new, and it isn’t something that I think we should seek out.  But if we attempt to be faithful, persecution is apt to find us in one way or another.  John the Baptist found this out.  Jesus knew this.  Pastor Wang Yi now lives with this reality.  While we don’t have any words known to be written personally by John the Baptist, I like to think that perhaps he might have said something similar to Pastor Wang Yi.

I pray that if I find myself in a similar situation my words will be very similar, seeking not to be remembered – so very, very, very, very few of us are, even for a short time! – but to be faithful.

Reading Ramblings – December 23, 2018

December 16, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 23, 2018

Texts: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Context: The big day is nearly here, and the Advent readings at long last turn their full attention to the details preceding our Lord’s birth. This birth was not something new, something that had not been hinted at. The prophet Micah directly prophesies that a great leader will arise from this very humble town. But more details are not provided, so that Mary is stunned to find that she will play an important role in the fulfillment of God’s promises, something she is obediently resigned to even though she can scarcely understand it. Yet over time, as the reality of the situation grows, she comes to see God’s gracious and powerful hand at work through her body, and gives true thanks and praise to the one who blesses his people not just for a time, but forever.

Micah 5:2-5a – Micah is the sixth of the Hebrew minor prophets, from the town of Moresheth (1:1) in the hill country to the south and west of Jerusalem. He is a contemporary of Isaiah, also ministering in Jerusalem in the second half of the 8th century BC, during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Similar to Isaiah he preaches against the leadership of Jerusalem, joining in Isaiah’s prophesies not of God’s continued blessing, but of destruction to come because of the sins of God’s people. Chapter 5 includes a prophecy now understood to refer to the Messiah, who would come out of the town of Bethlehem rather than one of the great cities. This leader will rule God’s people, and reference is made to the Gentiles (5:3b) who will be brought under him as well. Security and peace will result from his presence. These are all promises that have been fulfilled in part and will receive final fulfillment on the day of our Lord’s return. So it is that Christmas and the birth of the Christ-child must also be held in tandem with the Last Day as the complete fulfillment of divine promises to Eve, Noah, Abraham, David, and you and I.

Psalm 80:1-7 – The imagery of a shepherd is common throughout prophetic references and descriptions of the Lord’s anointed servant and son, the promised Messiah. So it is hardly a surprise that Jesus will use this language to describe himself and his work (John 10). If He is the shepherd, then we are the sheep in need of saving, who are in angst thinking that our shepherd is absent and we are left to fend for ourselves. In his presence is where we find the peace and comfort of knowing that all is well and no danger will befall us. This psalm is also candid in admitting that the shepherd’s temporary absence is due to the sinful willfulness of the sheep. Yet there is hope that the shepherd will not turn away forever, but will restore safety and joy to his sheep.

Hebrews 10:5-10 – Paul continues his demonstration that the work of Jesus as the Messiah was foreshadowed in the Israelite and Jewish practices under the Mosaic covenant. But what was accomplished only partially and imperfectly under that covenant is completed perfectly in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. The sacrificial laws were useful but limited – they could only absolve partially and imperfectly, having to be repeated regularly as they were not intended for the complete absolution of sin once and for all. That work is accomplished in Jesus.

Luke 1:39-56 – Many of us know the story of Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, many years older than Mary but now miraculously pregnant as well, six months along. I imagine that Mary’s visit is an attempt by her family to blunt the shock of her pregnancy out of wedlock, but perhaps it is Mary’s idea also to verify Gabriel’s message. If her relative Elizabeth really is pregnant, then she can trust that God is at work, even if she can’t understand why He’s involving her.

As such it seems to me only fitting that it is only after seeing Elizabeth, only after being convinced that Gabriel was not just a bad dream, only after verifying that it is God indeed who is mysteriously at work can Mary fully give praise to him. And what praise it is! The Magnificat (so named from the Latin of praised) is one of the premiere expressions of thanksgiving and praise to God, often compared with Moses’ song of praise after God delivers the Israelites from the Egyptians through the Red Sea ( Exodus 15).

What strikes me as a reader in this post-modern age where the self sits at the center of all things, is how unselfish Mary’s song is. She of course acknowledges that she herself is the one giving him praise (vs. 46-47), but she does so because God is her savior. And his salvation of her and all humanity puts her in a position of peculiar and unique honor as the theotokos, the Mother of God, so that all future generations will acknowledge her blessed role in God the Father’s redemptive work through the incarnate God the Son. This is a great thing that God accomplishes – not just that Mary should bear the Son of God, but that Mary bears the very means of her own salvation, the means by which she might call on God as her savior.

Then the remainder of the song focuses on God, not her (the first few verses are really focused primarily on God as well, but she involves herself also). She elaborates on the traits and attributes of God the Father – his holiness, his mercy, his strength, the way He dismantles the proud and arrogant and provides for the humble and poor, how He acts both at an individual level as well as a corporate level, on behalf of all the descendants of Abraham. All of these attributes will be at play in the deliverance of creation from the grip of Satan through sin and the Law. God’s holiness cannot allow evil to remain unjudged. God’s mercy will not permit his creation to struggle under Satan’s rule for long. God’s strength alone is capable of delivering us from Satan. God is committed to unseating the effects of sin – the abuses of power and privilege and money so often marveled at today but a consistent feature of human experience since the fall (consider Lamech’s bragging in Genesis 4:23-24!). All of this on behalf of all creation, even those elements of it that we ourselves scarcely consider or wish to think about. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked, nobody is too poor or too inconsequential to receive the saving grace of God the Father through the death and resurrection of the incarnate God the Son.

A beautiful song of praise from a bewildered young woman in a backwater town in an unsettled stretch of the Roman empire. A young woman who otherwise would be lost to history as so many, many others are. But her faithfulness and obedience leave us extolling her simple acceptance of God’s will, and her beautiful expression of praise to him.

Reading Ramblings – December 16, 2018

December 9, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Advent – December 16, 2018

Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 7:18-28

Context: More and more our focus turns away from the messenger and to the promised one. More the focus is one of joy to come rather than judgment. Those in Christ are apt to worry that his return will not be joyous because of the number of people who refuse his grace and mercy. As such, it is easy to lose track of the Bible’s unambiguous assertions that this will be a joyful day. We are not the first to worry about friends and loved ones who either apparently or certainly reject the notion of God completely, or the Christian God. But we must also trust the supreme righteousness and justice of God the Father. As such, nobody on that Day of Judgment will be able to say to God this wasn’t right. While we may not be able to imagine it, we should trust that on that day God’s people will rejoice that He has done all things marvelously!

Zephaniah 3:14-20 – Zephaniah ministers in the late 600’s BC, contemporaneous with Jeremiah, in the reign of King Josias of Judah (641-611 BC). These words are written to comfort God’s people. Although God will judge his people He will preserve a remnant to give him thanksgiving and praise. The judgments rendered will not stand forever but will be removed (v. 15). While in the near term this could easily be interpreted as the restoration of Jerusalem 100 years later, in the longer term this verse is fulfilled as Jesus utters It is finished from the cross. It is his death that is the final sacrifice for sin, so that no judgments remain outstanding against God’s people. Likewise, this points further still to the time of Jesus’ return, when the LORD (the Hebrew name for God) is in the midst of his people once again and as their king (v.15). When God is perfectly present with his people once again, what cause can their be for fear? There will be no fear of God because we do not stand under the judgment of the Law any longer. And there certainly can be no fear from any adversary, as God will defend his righteous people himself. The return of Jesus will be a glad and glorious day for God’s people and we should never forget this!

Psalm 85 – This corporate prayer asks God to restore his favor to his people. This begins first off with a reference to God’s forgiveness to his people in the past. The language in the first three verses is sufficiently vague soas to be referenced to any number of Old Testament events. Perhaps a simple reference might be the book of Judges, which details a cycle of God withdrawing his protection and then extending it again. Verses 4-7 ask God to apply the same pattern of forgiveness and restoration to themselves. Surely God cannot be angry forever? Surely there is a limit to his wrath, a point at which it is spent? Surely wrath is not God’s natural attitude or disposition, and therefore He should return to his default disposition of love. Verses 8-9 express confidence that the Lord has spoken, is speaking, and will speak. He speaks in light of his Word, Scripture, which should be studiously obeyed by his people. The final verses of the psalm further express the confidence that God has heard this prayer and will respond to it appropriately – in faithful love and peace. God’s wrath will be turned away from his people – not because He wearies of punishing evil, but because ultimately evil has been defeated through his incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ.

Philippians 4:4-7 – Once again the major emphasis is on rejoicing. Our Lord will return – therefore how can we be worried or anxious about things? Are we in need? We lift up our needs to our heavenly Father who has already given us the greatest gift of all in his forgiveness. Are we elated? We give thanks to God from whom all good things come. This overarching understanding – that we are immortal creatures, forgiven for our rebelliousness and looking forward to the start of an eternity of joy and fellowship with God and one another – should anchor in us a peace. Not that we are stoic or unemotional, not that we don’t feel pain still as well as joy. But we do not allow ourselves to despair. There is hope! There is much to look forward to yet! God is coming! This peace is a gift from God, possible only through his forgiveness and grace, but it is also a peace that we must teach ourselves to focus on and interpret everything else in our lives through this reality of peace with God.

Luke 7:18-28 – Jesus’ answer to John’s questions is to demonstrate the blessings associated with the Servant of the Lord’s arrival and work from the prophet Isaiah. John’s disciples return to him to report that Jesus does the things the prophets said He would do. With one notable exception – He hasn’t released any prisoners, including John the Baptist himself. John no doubt is wondering why he sits in prison if he is indeed the promised messenger from Malachi. But Jesus’ demonstration is not simply for John’s benefit. It should be for the benefit of John’s disciples. The Apostle John reports in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist was actively directing his disciples towards Jesus (John 1:29-37) and fully expected that his disciples should do so (John 3:25-30). Yet these two – among others – had not left John the Baptist to follow Jesus. Jesus’ final words in verse 23 are somewhat enigmatic.  Certainly they can apply to John the Baptist himself, a direct address from Jesus not to give up hope just because John himself won’t personally experience directly the specific messianic blessing of being set free from prison.   But perhaps we should also take into consideration the situation the Apostle John paints in the third chapter of his Gospel. There, this is exactly what is happening – some of John the Baptist’s remaining disciples are jealous of Jesus, offended that his ministry is eclipsing John the Baptist’s. Jesus’ words as reported by Luke make more sense if they are directed towards these two people who have come from John the Baptist and will return to him with their report. Having done this, they should come to the same conclusion that John the Baptist should – that Jesus is indeed the one they have been waiting for, in which case they should all be following him instead of John the Baptist!

All are called to look to Jesus of Nazareth and determine whether indeed He is the one or not. Nobody can make this decision for us, nor can we provide faith to someone else. Each one who is confronted with the Gospel accounts must decide for themselves, and not take offense at the idea that Jesus is the promised Savior, or that they indeed need saving! The season of Advent calls all to come and see for themselves, and place their faith in the right person – the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.

Reading Ramblings – December 9, 2018

December 2, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Advent – December 9, 2018

Texts: Malachi 3:1-7b; Psalm 66:1-12; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-17

Context: The focus in Advent already begins to turn from the Last Days and the return of our Lord, to our Lord’s first arrival, highlighting John the Baptist as the messenger sent in advance of the Lord’s return. We consider John the Baptist as both prophet and forerunner of the Messiah, bridging the gap between the Old and New Testaments (Malachi 3:1. John fulfills a critical role, yet his role is secondary to the role that Jesus plays in God’s plan of redemption and salvation. John calls people to repentance, and this is the heart of Christian life, the continual repentance and acceptance of the grace of God, by which the Holy Spirit begins the transformation process, maturing us in the faith towards the day of our Lord’s return, when we will finally be perfect (Philippians 1). The Word of God Incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth saves us from our sins and delivers us to new life, while the Word of God that is preached and read continues the work of sanctification each day of our lives by the Holy Spirit’s power.

Malachi 3:1-7b – Malachi mentions a messenger, but the main emphasis of the passage is on the one the messenger will announce and prepare the way for. This is the Lord, but the Hebrew is adonai, a more generic term that does not always indicate divinity, but here, based on the verses that follow, clearly does. In context with the previous two chapters of Malachi, this Lord is going to come to clean house, so to speak (v.2). He will purge the priesthood (sons of Levi, v.3) that have been the subject of God’s complaint. He comes to purify so that the offerings will once again be pleasing to God (v.4). This judgment will then extend beyond the priesthood to all those engaged in traditionally despicable acts of covenant unfaithfulness – practitioners of witchcraft and sexual immorality, those who lie about their neighbors in order to gain advantage over them in court, those who don’t pay their workers when they should, who are inhospitable to visitors and others dependent upon their protection and kindness – all of which are examples of people who have no fear or love of God. God has not changed his mind about what He expects from his people. The covenant requirements have not been done away with or replaced by anything else. God is not capricious and unfathomable, so that we might never trust his grace or mercy. We can put our hope and trust in him precisely because what He expects never changes. But God’s people have been consistent as well – consistently disobedient. Yet God still extends his offering of grace and mercy to those who will give up their rebellious ways to receive it.

Psalm 66:1-12 – A beautiful hymn of praise to the Creator of the Universe, unparalleled in power and majesty, and therefore the most worthy of our praise for all his wondrous actions from creation down through today. The psalmist recounts God’s care for his people in leading them out of slavery in Egypt and across the Red Sea in safety. Later, they crossed over the Jordan River again by God’s miraculous provision, to take possession of the Land promised to their ancestor, Abraham. God is the provider and protector of his people. In him they have confidence and hope for each day, knowing that nothing can separate them from his watchful eye. That watch both ensures their eternal well-being, and stands as a warning to any who would exalt themselves against either God or his people. This does not mean that God’s people will never suffer. God himself disciplines his people at times, but always with their end good in mind. And as God’s people have gone through times of trial, God has been with them and ultimately delivered them, all to his glory and praise.

Philippians 1:2-11 – Paul gives thanks for the church at Philippi, and their faithfulness in working to share the Gospel with and through Paul, likely through supporting his missionary journeys financially. But while Paul appreciates who they are now, he knows that who they will one day be is even more impressive and worthy of praise to God. By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, what has started as the life of faith in them will one day result in their perfection when Jesus returns. They have been steadfast in their support and encouragement of Paul, and he longs to be with them again. But more importantly they remain in his prayers. Who they are is commendable, but there is always room for growth, for learning, for maturation, for deeper responses of faith. He prays that their love will continue to grow in discernment and knowledge, so that they might know better and better how to love better and better. All of this in preparation for the day of the Lord’s return, when they will declared pure and righteous in Jesus Christ, all to the glory and praise of God the Father (rather than the Philippians, since who they are and what they will one day be is entirely the work of God, rather than their own).

Luke 3:1-17 – We skip over the birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel in order to deal with Malachi’s messenger, John the Baptist. Luke, who is not one of Jesus’ 12 disciples but rather has compiled the accounts of Jesus’ life (1:1-4) deals with the other major religious figure of Jesus’ day. It is possible that John the Baptist remains a person with a cultic following even after his death, and despite his repeated efforts to direct his disciples to Jesus. Given John’s explicit handling of the role and identity of John the Baptist in his Gospel, written many years after Luke’s, it is reasonable to think that Luke may be attempting to clarify the situation as well in his day. John the Baptist is the messenger, not the Lord’s coming servant. His purpose is preparatory. Note Luke’s detail – dates, names, and locations all accounted for. John the Baptist becomes a popular figure due to his prophetic message, but it’s hardly a message of comfort! He demands greater piety as well as repentance from his hearers, denying any the false comfort of thinking that somehow they are already adequately pleasing or obedient to God. This naturally leads to questions about John’s authority and he quickly deflects musings that he himself is the Messiah. He is the messenger, preparing the people of God for the arrival of their savior. John baptizes with water, but the one who follows him will baptize not only with water but with the very fire of the Holy Spirit of God, likely reference to Pentecost to come.

We also today should heed the Baptist’s message. Though our salvation is in Christ, our lives are a continual maturation in the faith by the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, which will lead to a growing purity and holiness of living. We are not to take sanctification lightly – it is a natural outgrowth of the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, and if we do not see the fruits of his work there should be cause to question the nature of our faith. Yet we are always to ground our faith not in our works of charity or our increasing love of neighbor, but only and always in the singular work of the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep, and takes it up again (John 10). We have no reason to boast except in Christ! We must emulate the Baptist by not appropriating for ourselves a glory that does not belong to us, but to the God who created, redeemed and sanctifies us.