Reading Ramblings – December 29, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 29, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-14; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 2:13-23

Context: Mercy and grace. Undeserved. Not as a reward but a gift. That is the theme that runs through the readings for this Sunday. The gift of the Christ-child was certainly neither deserved nor earned, neither before or after his arrival. The history of humanity is one long litany of failure, of sinful brokenness and cruelty and outrage against God, other, and self. Only in God do we find faithfulness that is breathtaking. We worship the baby in the manger because He alone of all human beings deserves such worship, because He alone of all human beings is not merely human, but divine.

Isaiah 63:7-14 – Mercy and grace follow judgment. The gift of forgiveness from God requires both that He judge sin for what it is, and that we acknowledge sin as what it is, seeking forgiveness from it. So we always look forward to that mercy and grace, regardless of what we find ourselves in the midst of at the moment. Like Job, we may not understand the Lord’s ways but we can declare his goodness, knowing his final Word to us is made flesh in Jesus the Christ, a word of hope and life and restoration through forgiveness. Weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). The Incarnate Son of God in the manger is the first faint hues of light on the edge of the horizon, heralding the coming day and the joy of the Lord that is ours in faith and trust.

Psalm 111 – This psalm does a beautiful job of giving God proper credit, something we often fail to do. We are trained to see the world as a system of cause and effect, natural consequences, impersonal laws. But the psalmist sees everything as it is – the direct and ongoing work of God, for which God is to be praised. For which He is to be given thanks. His power sustains all things and his Word remains the foundation of the cosmos. We may probe creation until our Lord returns and never plumb the depths of it fully nor surmount the heights. All we discover and learn should lead us not to glory in our intelligence or ingenuity, but to give glory to the Creator of all things, including us. Moreover, God is more than just the sustainer of a now-broken creation, He is the one who provides salvation and redemption (v.9), a miracle of such proportions it seems ludicrous to so many, and yet so easily taken for granted by the faithful. This psalm is a beautiful meditation launching point for our lives.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Paul touches on the profound mysteries of God made flesh, the Son of God entering into creation to become one with humanity so that He might redeem us. In so doing, the Christ replaces the Law. Not that the Law disappears or has no value or purpose still – it is the fiber of which creation and we are woven. But the Law could only do so much and was only intended to do so much. To watch over us until the Christ could deliver us. The Law acted as our guardian, so that we were obedient to it because otherwise we would have been lost to such depths we can’t even imagine. But now that the Christ has come, we are delivered from mere obedience, as a servant would obey a master, and made sons and daughters of God. The redemption of Jesus – which the psalmist just proclaimed nearly 1000 years earlier – frees us from the punitive aspects of the Law, so that we might live the Law by choice rather than necessity, out of thanks and joy rather than fear and loathing. We have been given the ability to see the Law for what it is and who it is from, and to know we will one day be perfectly attuned to that Law in every thought, word and deed. We are heirs to the kingdom of heaven where the Law will be restored perfectly and we will once again be perfectly obedient. God chose to accomplish this in the most unexpected of ways, from the inside out, so the requirements of the Law could be fulfilled in the Christ, and then extended to you and I in faith. The justice of God is maintained, but his mercy prevails in those who trust his gift to us in the Word made flesh.

Matthew 2:13-23 – What would we be without the Law? It isn’t difficult to imagine. We can flip through the newspaper or review history to see what people have resorted to by flouting the Law or presuming to be exempt from it. For this reason God alone is to be praised, as the psalmist exhorted us, because all others have fallen short of the deliverance or redemption they might have set out to provide. Words and promises are cheap but very expensive and ultimately impossible to fulfill. It is not in the creature to exceed his nature, and we, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot put ourselves or one another back together again. Cycle after cycle, ruler after ruler, empire after empire, program after program – all promising deliverance if we will only turn a blind eye to the Law for a few uncomfortable lifetimes. All in ruin, all drenched in blood.

Such promises fall short of delivering the good they depict, but they rarely fail to deliver the brutality that inevitably results when the Law is set aside. So Herod sets aside Thou Shalt Not Murder and dozens of babies and toddlers die. Families ripped apart in horror and grief, never to be the same in this life. We can’t hear the echoes of their screams of rage and loss, but we hear that same rage and loss in countless places around the world today as the Law continues to be pushed aside in the name of progress or whatever other term is thrown around. People continue to demand exemption from the Law, and therefore people suffer under the loss of the Law. Loneliness where relationship was to be preserved. Filth where holiness was to be preserved. Exhaustion where rest was to be preserved. Anarchy where order was to be preserved. Death where life was to be preserved. Betrayal where fidelity was to be preserved. Loss where property was to be preserved. Distrust where integrity was to be preserved. Gnawing, insatiable hunger where contentment was to be preserved.

Children are the closest we can imagine to being free of this lawlessness, the closest thing to innocent we can imagine, though of course they aren’t really innocent. A lack of agency is not a sign of purity, and dependency never displaces the self-centeredness that is the black rot that fills our hearts. We call this account the massacre of the innocents, but the real massacre of innocence occurred in Genesis 3, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve into disobedience and death. In Christ we are promised a certain peace in our own mortality, but we look forward to the ultimate restoration of order and perfection and innocence.

If we cry for these children we should cry for those around us today. If we spend our outrage on these long dead we shortchange the living. The Law of God cannot be circumvented or superseded, and we must be always watchful of our own hearts and the words of others when a claim to the contrary is made. Those children in Matthew 3 are dead. But so are their parents and siblings who weren’t murdered, and so are the soldiers who followed orders and the king who gave them. Only the King who gave himself freely over into death still lives, and in his life alone is both the fulfillment of the Law and the promise of eternal deliverance from Satan and all those who would insist along with him that the Law is evil and wrong.

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