Sunday, December 28, 2014

Biblical Truth

Biblical Truth
Matthew 2:1-18
Luke 2:22-38

            Yes, I know it’s a lot of Scripture.  It’s good for you—better even than spinach.  Reading these passages back-to-back will help you better understand the events after Jesus’ birth.
            In seminary we were warned not to “harmonize” the gospels—that is, to ty to fit them together to make one composite account.  People do this in order to—they hope—get a better picture of the life of Jesus Christ.  The gospels are not like a court trial, where different witnesses describe the same series of events from different viewpoints.  The gospels were written at different times, using different sources, for widely different audiences, and by people who had not witnessed the events—evidence that wouldn’t be admitted in any courtroom in this country.
            We must accept the gospels for what they are:  different accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, recounted orally for years and finally written down by people who decided they would be better preserved if there was a hard copy.  That’s why it’s important to read all four gospels, and to read them not for comparison, or a composite account, but to view—from four different sources—a complete picture of who Jesus was and how he lived.
            Today’s passages are a good case in point.  What happened after Jesus was born?  Matthew mentions wise men and a flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  Luke says nothing about either.  Luke, on the other hand, recounts a visit to the temple in Jerusalem, which Matthew omits.  Is it possible to piece together an accurate picture from these two widely different accounts?
            As a matter of fact, it is.  This is one place where it is possible to blend the two stories into one harmonious whole.  Let’s see how that might work.  Understanding Mosaic law helps.
            Firstborn males, whether human or animal, were to be consecrated to God (Exodus 13:2, 12).  Male children were to be redeemed with the sacrifice of a lamb, if possible, or with two turtledoves or pigeons if the family couldn’t afford a lamb. 
            Thirty-three days after the firstborn male child was born he was to be presented at the Temple.  This was for his consecration and his mother’s purification.  When Luke says, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses…,” this is what he was talking about.  Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus traveled to Jerusalem.
            Is that possible?  Yes, it is.  Bethlehem is approximately 5.5 miles from Jerusalem.  Even traveling as they would have (Joseph walking and Mary and the baby riding a donkey) it would have been an easy journey.  At the most they would have spent one night in the road.
            The wise men would have arrived in Bethlehem no less than a year after the birth.  We know this from two places in Matthew’s account.  First, the family had moved from the stable to a house (Matthew 2:11).  Matthew is quite clear on this point.  Second, Herod’s orders were to kill all male children in the region around Bethlehem two years and younger according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men! (Matthew 2:16).  By the time he realized he had been tricked, somewhere between one and two years had passed.
            So it’s entirely possible that, approximately a month after Jesus’ birth, the family traveled to Jerusalem and back, and then moved into a house.  This is where the wise men visited them, making our usual pictures of the manger scene incorrect.  By the time Herod found out he had been fooled, the wise men were on their way back home by an alternate route, and Jesus and his family were safely out of Herod’s reach, either in Egypt or on their way.  The pieces fit. 

Just don’t try to do this with the rest of the gospel stories.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas
1 John 3:1-3
Most of us know John 3:16 by heart—but just to remind you:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 
Many Christmas carols speak about God’s love.  It’s easy to sing those carols.  It’s easy to quote Scripture.  It’s easy to do all the surface stuff that makes us look good, that makes us look like we’re “religious” (whatever that means)—easy to do the things that make other people respond positively to us.  But how deep does our belief really go?  Beauty may be only skin deep, but it’s possible for religion to be even shallower.
            When we talk about love coming down at Christmas, what do we mean?  What kind of love are we talking about?  What does that love do for us?  What does that love do to us?  Does it make a difference in our lives?  If so, how does Christmas love change us?
            I think Paul’s place in Christian history would have been secured if he had done nothing more than written 1 Corinthian 13—the “Love Chapter.”  Often used at weddings, where it can have real significance for a couple about to pledge their lives to each other, these verses accurately describe Christmas love.  Paul says:
            Love is patient and kind;
            Love does not envy or boast;
            Love is not arrogant or rude;
            Love does not insist on its own way;
            Love is not irritable or resentful;
            Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth;
            Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
            Paul wrote these words to a congregation that was tearing itself apart.  The members of the First Church of Corinth were squabbling over nit-picky little things—much like our congregations today.  Paul wanted them to stop fighting over nonessentials and love each other, just as God had loved all of them enough to sacrifice God’s Son for them. This is the difference Christmas love should make in our lives.
            Jesus Christ was born so that by his life, death and resurrection he might save the world.  Those of us tasked with spreading this good news don’t seem to be doing a very effective job of getting Jesus’ message across to the world.  Why haven’t we made a difference with the gospel?
 We haven’t made a difference because we’re too busy arguing over who has the right doctrines, and who says the right words in prayer, and who has the right formula for successful worship.  Just like that Corinthian congregation in the first century, we get so hung up on nonessentials that we lose sight of the objective of Christmas love. 
Look again at Paul’s “love list.”  When we speak about our faith, are we patient and kind with others?  Do we boast that we know the true Christian way?  Are we arrogant or rude in how we spread the gospel?  Do we insist that our interpretation is the right one and all those others are false?  Are we irritable about the way other churches worship or believe differently from us, or resentful that they seem to draw bigger crowds than we do?
“Love came down at Christmas,” the hymn says; “Love all lovely, love divine.”  Another Advent hymn begins, “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy from heaven to earth come down.”

What difference is this love making in our lives?  How has being in touch with Christmas love changed us?  How do we stack up against Paul’s list of love’s characteristics?  Christmas is getting close.  We’d better start loving.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Prophetic Duty

Our Prophetic Duty
Isaiah 40:1-11
            We tend to think of prophets as old men with long grey beards and absolutely no sense of humor—right?  On the other hand, when was the last time you actually saw a prophet?  But if you did see one, that’s probably what you’d expect.
            The clearest picture we have of a biblical prophet is of John the Baptist.  Matthew tells us he wore some sort of garment made of camel’s hair and a leather belt.  We can be pretty sure it wasn’t like the camel’s hair sport coats or topcoats we find today in elegant men’s wear stores; and the belt was probably closer to a leather thong than something you’d buy in one of those places.  Matthew says he ate locusts and wild honey—certainly not the kind of diet we’d go for.  We can imagine the rest of his appearance wasn’t any less wild, living as he did in rough conditions by the riverside.
            Perhaps this picture of John the Baptist has colored our image of all other prophets, but I rather doubt it.  I would guess the ancient Hebrew prophets didn’t care much about how they looked.  They had been given a message to deliver, and that message came straight from God.  Their only concern was to make sure they obeyed God’s commands.  I suspect they didn’t take much time to make sure their wardrobe was up to date, or their hair was neatly cut and coiffed.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.
            If this description of a prophet’s appearance is accurate, then Isaiah was no exception.  Let’s assume that when he appeared in public he attracted attention.  People looked at him with awe (if not reverence), and were inclined to listen to him if only because of the shock value.  Did his appearance have any effect on how his message was received?
 One thing we know for sure about Isaiah:  he was an excellent poet.  So much of his writing is in verse form.  It’s one of the reasons I love to read him.  Today’s passage is no exception.  We’re not hearing Isaiah’s voice here, but God’s, and God is speaking not to Isaiah but to members of the heavenly council.  These other-worldly beings have been called together by YHWH, the Lord of hosts and the Holy One of Israel.  He gives them instructions.
            “Comfort my people.  Speak kindly to them.  Tell them conditions are going to be better from now on.  Their iniquity is pardoned, and their sins forgiven.”
            One of the members of the council cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Smooth out the path.  Repair the road.  Don’t leave any rough spots.  Straighten it so the King’s passage—and the way of God’s people—will be easy.”
            Another voice tells Zion to shout out the good news.  God is returning to Jerusalem.  YHWH will once again dwell in the Holy City.  The voice says, “Behold your God.”  God comes with the strength of a warrior and the gentleness of a shepherd.  This combination of strength and compassion may be confusing to those who don’t know God, but to those who follow Christ it’s perfectly understandable.
            I believe Isaiah’s message was meant to describe more than the Israelites’ return from exile.  I believe it was delivered for the ages, and that includes us.  We are expected to prepare the way for those who need to return to God.  God expects us to make the way easy for them, not to throw obstacles in their path.  God expects us to say, “Behold your God.”  We are to prepare the way, then show the way through the words we speak and the way we live. 

            And here’s the best part:  we don’t have to dress outlandishly or eat weird things.  All we have to do is be ourselves—redeemed followers of Christ.  God’s prophets.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

People Look East

People, Look East
Jeremiah 23:5-6
            Many of the newer hymnals contain the Advent hymn, People, Look East.  The words were written by Eleanor Farjeon, who is better known for the hymn Morning Has Broken.  The first verse of her Advent hymn says,
                                People, look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year.
                        Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.
                        People, look east and sing today:  Love, the Guest, is on the way.

            The second verse tells us to nourish the seed which has been planted because, “Love, the Rose, is on the way.”  In the third verse the stars are asked to light the sky, for, “Love, the Star, is on the way.”  Finally, the angels are told to announce the birth of this wondrous Child, since, “Love the Lord, is on the way.”
            For centuries the prophets had been promising the arrival of a Messiah, someone who would save Israel.  It was natural for people to misread the prophetic texts and expect a military leader, one who would restore Israel to the status it had experienced under the reigns of David and Solomon.  Those were glory days indeed, when conquests and treaties enlarged the tiny kingdom—heady stuff for such a small nation to be able to play such a large part in the affairs of the region.  Who wouldn’t want to return to such a past?
            It’s no wonder that most of Israel—including most of the leaders of the nation—missed the coming of Jesus.  Who could imagine that God intended the Chosen One to live out a seemingly ordinary life, moving through all the stages of humanity from birth, through maturation, to adulthood, to an early death?  That couldn’t possibly be the path the Savior of the nation would follow!
            I believe God delights in surprising us.  How many of us have prayed for patience only to be confronted with every slow driver in town just when we need to get somewhere in a hurry?  How often has God fulfilled our prayer requests in ways we could never imagine?  How frequently do we fail to see the future that God is leading us into?
            Jeremiah prophesied during the Babylonian exile.  He spoke out against the wicked, wrong-headed leadership of his country.  He tried to speak truth to power when power didn’t want to hear truth.  For his troubles he was mocked and imprisoned.  Still, he persisted.  He had been given a message from God, and he was going to deliver it no matter what happened to him.
            “Behold, the days are coming,” he said, speaking the word of the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch.”  The tree of Jesse, which had produced David and Solomon, had been cut off and become a dead stump.  The line of Davidic kings had ended.  There was no one left to sit on the throne of David, no descendant who could be considered to be of royal blood.  Who, then, might this “righteous Branch” be?
            “He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land….And this is the name by which he will be called:  ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
            If the people, from the leaders on down, had listened carefully to Jeremiah, they would have heard the repeated use of the word, “righteousness.”  Jeremiah did not promise a king who would make Israel and Judah powerhouses in the Middle Eastern political scene.  He foretold a different future for Israel.  The stump might seem to be dead, but a shoot would spring from it, revitalizing Israel and bringing salvation to her people and all the nations of the world.

            In a sense, Israel might be excused for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah.  He wasn’t what they expected.  We know too much to be allowed to make that mistake.