Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Family Tree

This is the one tree that I can touch. In one sense this may be the least beautiful tree, but in another sense it is the most beautiful. Many of its ornaments come with a story; many of them have dates on them. A number of the ornaments were given to us, some were hand painted by the person giving them, some were made in Sunday school or youth group.

Every year as Vickie and I trim this tree we reminisce about the years and the people it represents. There's an ornament given to us by a young boy  years ago who will graduate from college next year. Two ornaments painted by a dear friend now living in Florida. Another ornament given by a woman who had a dream to stage Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in our church - the ornament has a painting of Joesph's coat.

We have a Cocker Spaniel  ornament, that's our Chris Ann ornament; she's been gone for a long time and is now waiting in Narnia for us. Then there is a Border Collie ornament, that's our Mitzi ornament, she is also in Narnia - hopefully she's not quite as temperamental these days. We need to find a Darby ornament, that would be a Shepherd-Lab mix; Darby knew both Chris Ann and Mitz, and she knew Lina too; she never met Lilly. Darby is in Narnia.

Yes, the theme trees are certainly pretty, even beautiful, and I do appreciate them. But the family tree...well it actually has a theme too, a theme of relationships. From the first Christmas that Vickie and I shared, to our beloved puppies, to our treasured friends. Sacred relationships are the ornaments of life; a primary relationship with Jesus Christ and treasured relationships with others are what is meant to be the source and substance and adornment of life. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Porch Tree

For lack of a better description, I'm calling this The Porch Tree. It's on the back porch, doesn't have any lights, and doesn't require water.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Christmas Carol

I love A Christmas Carol. I love the redemption and reconciliation in it. I think I could watch the endings of every production and never tire.

A particular favorite of mine is An American Christmas Carol, starring…you’ll never guess…Henry Winkler, a.k.a The Fonz. It is available on DVD and I recommend it; and again, I love the redemption and reconciliation element and Winkler’s performance brings me joy and a bit of sweet understated humor as the Scrooge character awakens to what is important in life.

In terms of recent traditional versions, the one in which Patrick Stewart plays Scrooge is at the top of my list.

Scrooge learns among other things that, “he who dies with the most toys doesn’t actually win”. I love the hope that Scrooge gives to the Cratchit family and his reconciliation with his nephew and the nephew’s wife. Who can we give hope to today? Are there reconciliations that need to occur in our lives?

Of course the themes of redemption and reconciliation find their true fulfillment in Christ; A Christmas Carol can be a bridge to share the Gospel.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflections on Advent - XIX

The Jews, the Greeks, and now the Romans. While Alexander the Great set the stage for Bethlehem by disseminating the Greek culture and language, when Alexander died his Empire; if such a short-lived entity can be called an Empire; disintegrated into warring factions. The lands of Judea and Galilee were in the vortex of one military and political upheaval after another, sometimes of their own making, sometimes not.

The Mediterranean sea was infested by pirates, the roads were beset by robbers, and large and small kingdoms were in conflict throughout Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself were scenes of sacrilege, desecration, and killing. Perhaps the word that best describes the period of time between Alexander and Roman rule for the people of Judea and Galilee is uncertainty. The same can be said for the broader region.

What good is the Covenant perpetuated by the Jews, what good is the language transmitted by the Greeks, if one cannot safely traverse the seas and roads of the world to use the language to proclaim the Covenant that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ? The Jews and the Greeks need the Romans to set the stage for Bethlehem, for Golgotha, for Easter, and for Pentecost.

What irony that the power that provides stability for the proclamation of the Gospel is also the power that crucifies Christ and that persecutes His followers. What irony that Paul will use his Roman citizenship to travel to the place where he will eventually be executed. What irony that in apparent defeat Christ, Paul, and the Church achieve ultimate victory; this is a theme of John’s Revelation.

And so the Romans come to Asia Minor, they come to Syria and Judea, they come to Egypt, they quell the Mediterranean pirates, they build roads that can be seen today, they institute law and order; in short, they provide security for travel, security for the messengers of the Gospel.

Another irony is that this government of law and order would declare Christianity, a religion of peace, illegal. It would perceive Christianity a threat to its cohesion for Christians would not worship Caesar as a god – anymore than Christians today should worship any person or entity, including a governmental entity. Once again, this is a theme of John’s Revelation. Those who truly represented the least threat to Rome were considered to be one of the greatest threats to Rome; but perhaps the Emperor’s were right, just as perhaps Herod was right; there can be only one King of the Jews just as there can be only one King of kings and Lord of lords, and He who wears both crowns was born in Bethlehem.

Reflections on Advent - XVIII

In the 4th Century B.C. Alexander the Great conquered a significant portion of the Mediterranean and Asian world, extending to Egypt (in Africa), Afghanistan, and northern India. Greek culture had already spread westward into Italy, Sicily, and elsewhere along the western Mediterranean coast.

The uninformed contemporary person may think of these far-off times as remote, and may think of communication and travel as limited. The fact is that until the invention of the steam engine and later the railroad that people traveled much the same way in Alexander’s time as they did during our American Revolution. Had Alexander colonized our Atlantic coast  there would have been little time differential in sending a message from Boston to Charleston in 1300 B.C. as opposed to 1776 A.D.

I write this to say that with Alexander’s conquests came the spread of the Greek language, the language in which the Gospel would initially be primarily communicated, the language in which the New Testament would be written. Greek was not only the language of statesmen and scholars, it was also the language of commerce. Much as English is the language of air traffic control, Greek was the language of bills of lading, contracts, invoices, and correspondence. The Greek language was an ancient internet just waiting for the Good News that God had come to earth to bring mankind back to Himself.

It reminds me of when, as a young man, I lived in New York City. While there were ethnic enclaves in which you heard the language of the home countries spoken, the people in those enclaves also spoke English.

Another result of the spread of Greek culture in the east was the Hellenization of many Jews.  Many Jews learned not only Greek, but also Greek culture, including the Greek classics. This set the stage for men like Paul the Apostle to use Greek culture and classical learning when communicating the Gospel; see Acts Chapter 17 for a look at Paul doing this in Athens.

Next post we’ll look briefly at the role the Romans played in setting the stage for the birth of Jesus Christ.       

The Garden Tree

This is the most difficult tree to photograph (at least for an amateur like me) because the lights are blue and the night photos come out dark. Most all of these photos are taken in the daytime.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reflections on Advent - XVII

In Post XVI we saw that the birth of Jesus Christ is rooted in history. Continuing to explore that; consider the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans.

The Jews represented the Covenant People, through the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob God transmitted His promises and through this line Messiah/Christ was born. God’s Word was preserved through the Jews from generation to generation. Because the Jews were a people of The Book, they took great care to transmit The Book; the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th Century bore witness to the accuracy of Jewish textual transmission.

Geographically the Jews had lived around 1,400 years in Canaan/Israel/Palestine. This area was along a major international trading route, both land and sea, and was also part of the route that armies took when marching to and from Africa, the Middle East, the East, and Asia Minor.  This economic and military travel exposed many people groups to the Jews and, we may assume, exposed them in some degree to the strange God the Jews worshipped as the one and only God. Perhaps the very idea of monotheism was enough, in and of itself, to invite attention.

In addition to the above, in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries B.C. a significant number of the people of Israel and the people of Judah were deported from their own land. In the case of Israel we have little information about their dispersal; in the instance of Judah we know that they were deported to Babylon for 70 years, after which a number returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. We also know, in the case of Judah, that some of the Jews escaped to Egypt. 

By the First Century A.D., when Jesus Christ is born, Jews are found throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as to the east. There are at least three characteristics of First Century Jews when they are found outside their homeland;

  • They gather together in community for worship.
  • The have The Book and they read it in their gatherings.
  • There are Gentiles (non-Jews) who are attracted to the God of the Jews and who gather with the Jews to hear The Book read and interpreted. These Gentiles are known as “God fearers”.

In the First Century; through the Jews the promises of God are preserved; through the Jews the Messiah/Christ is born; through the Jews the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Europe are exposed to the true and living God; and gatherings of Jews provide natural preaching stations for the Gospel to be proclaimed to both Jew and Gentile, they provide regional launching pads for the Gospel.

In the next post we’ll look at the Greeks and Romans.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Crystal Tree

Reflections on Advent – XVI

In the days of Caesar Augustus a decree went out…this was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1).

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod [a son of Herod the Great, king when Jesus was born] being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…(Luke 3:1 – 2)

The first quotation from Luke relates to the birth of Jesus Christ; the second quotation relates to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus Christ. Roughly 30 years separate these two historical events; Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…(Luke 3:23)

Jesus Christ was born in time and space, His birth is a fact of history; the location of His birth is a fact, the time of His birth is a fact, the time when His ministry began is a fact, His death and resurrection are facts, as are His ascension and His many-faceted coming again.

If I begin a story with the words, Once upon a time, the hearer or reader immediately knows that I am likely going to share a fictional account. However, if I begin a story with words such as, During World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, Winston Churchill Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin Premier of the Soviet Union, the hearer or reader assumes that I’m about to share an historical account.

Luke begins his Gospel with these words, Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

This is not an Once upon a time introduction. It is a clear statement that the account which follows is true, has been researched, has been recorded from eyewitness accounts, and that it can be relied upon.

Why then are Christians reticent about sharing the story of Jesus Christ? Why are they apologetic about the most astounding event in the history of the world? Why are they reluctant to actually follow the One who the Gospel is all about?

One of the great historical facts that supports the historical dating that Luke and his Gospel-writing colleagues provide us is the collective life of the men and women who followed Jesus Christ. Their lives bear suffering testimony that Jesus Christ was born, lived, was crucified and rose from the dead. Their lives also bear witness that on the Day of Pentecost the promised Holy Spirit came to indwell those who believe in Him. Furthermore, the character of their lives testifies to the truth of the Gospel, that men and women can find forgiveness, peace, love, and joy – and that they can experience a love so deep and powerful that they gladly give their lives for Christ and others, even to death. Their lives testify that women and men can be at peace in relationship with God through Jesus Christ rather than engaging in a perpetual search for cleansing and enlightenment.

The birth of Jesus Christ is fact; the Gospel is fact; and yet the professing church tends to treat it as fiction, as functional fiction. The proof? A proof that the early Christians treated it as fact is that they told others. Who have we told this Christmas season?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reflections on Advent - XV

In Genesis Chapter 12 God tells Abraham that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through Abraham. Christ is the fulfillment of that promise, which is part of the significance of Matthew’s genealogy; Jesus Christ is the son of David, the son of Abraham.

If the wise men were not Jews, as I am inclined to think, then their coming to worship Jesus is a picture and foretaste of peoples across the earth worshiping Him and being blessed by Him. Consider the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all peoples…” The Gospel begins with the nations coming to Christ in microcosm, it concludes with Christ in His people going to the nations in macrocosm.

There is a telescopic track of prophetic fulfillment in the Nativity accounts; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and King David; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that element of those promises which includes all the peoples of the earth. God fulfills His promises in the lineage of Abraham and David that He might bless all the peoples of the earth. The fulfillment of God’s promises within a specific family is the portal of the fulfillment of God’s promises to all families.

A Jewish caterpillar completes the weaving of a cocoon with the final prophet Malachi and emerges some 450 years later as a butterfly incorporating all the peoples of the earth. The New Testament is clear that whereas there was once Jew and Gentile that now, in Christ, there is only to be Christ in His Body. (See Ephesians Chapters 2 & 3).

Consider the words of Simeon in Luke 2:29 – 32: Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

In John’s Gospel Christ is presented in Chapter One as the Creator of the world, the light of the world, the one who brings all those who believe in Him into the family of God, and the Lamb who takes away not simply the sin of Israel, but the sin of the world.  All of that, and more, in John Chapter One. Matthew, Luke and John tell us that the Gospel has Jewish roots that branch out and incorporate all the family trees of the earth. And while Mark does not give us a Nativity account, the beginning of his Gospel is also rooted in the prophetic Word; As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…

The final movements of all four Gospels contain the idea of Christ in His people going to all the peoples of the earth. All four Gospels begin with Jewish roots; they end with all the peoples of the earth. The New Testament epistles and Revelation are clear that we are now one people in Christ.

But are we?     

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kitchen Christmas Tree

This is the Kitchen Christmas Tree. In case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m not permitted to touch these trees. Well, there is one tree I can help put up, the Family Tree, but other than that this is all Vickie’s project. This is a good thing for me and a safe thing for Vickie because you really don’t want me touching fragile things.

Reflections on Advent - XIV

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things… Matthew 1:19 – 20a.

We don’t know what the conversation was like; we don’t know what Mary said to Joseph about the visit by the angel Gabriel (Luke Chapter One) and we don’t know when Mary said whatever she said. We don’t know how Joseph responded. Of course we can imagine, we can put ourselves in their places, we can have some sense of the feelings, the emotions, the fears, the questions, the hurt; but we don’t really know.

I think that the description of Joseph considering the situation, considering what Mary said to him, her explanation of her pregnancy; I think his consideration of her character, of everything he knew about her, placed him in a conundrum. On the one hand, how was he to think about the idea of a virgin becoming pregnant; on the other hand everything he knew about Mary told him that she was not a liar, that she was righteous, that she feared and served the true and living God.

This reminds me of Peter and Susan and Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Peter and Susan could not believe that Lucy had actually gone through the wardrobe into another land. Finally they went to the Professor for counsel. What were they to think of Lucy and her claim? The Professor asked them to consider Lucy’s character. Had she ever lied? Was she deceitful? Was she trustworthy? Was she faithful? The Professor’s point was that if Lucy had always been truthful and trustworthy then it was likely she was still truthful and trustworthy no matter how outlandish her claim. I think Joseph may well have been engaged in the Professor’s logic regarding Mary.

Note that Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame. I think that even if Joseph thought that Mary had been unfaithful that he would have been unwilling to put her to shame, for such was the character of the man who was chosen to be the  earthly father of the Son of God. This was not a clear-cut case, there were things here to be considered. And in the midst of Joseph’s consideration an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream.

Now why didn’t the angel come to Joseph months before? Why didn’t an angel appear to Joseph simultaneously as Gabriel was appearing to Mary? Wouldn’t that have perhaps avoided angst, heartache, hurt, and questioning? Wouldn’t it have saved Joseph the soul-searching? Wouldn’t it have enabled Joseph to avoid his own character check, as well as his own gut check on Mary’s character? Wouldn’t an angelic visitation early on have smoothed the relational way for Joseph and Mary? Wouldn’t it have reduced the relational risk?

Well, I really don’t know the “whys” of my questions. I don’t understand the timing of these things. What I do know is that whatever happened above and beyond what we actually know from the Biblical text brought Joseph to the place where he was considering these things, and to the place where he could see and hear an angel of the Lord.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reflections on Advent – XIII

Joseph and Mary, and Zechariah and Elizabeth must have been remarkable people. We know they weren’t perfect, we know they weren’t sinless, for they, as we, were children of Adam. We don’t know a lot about them for the Gospel is about Jesus Christ and not them, and we do them an injustice when we engage in speculation that is not tethered to the Scripture. Of these four people, only Mary is with us at the Crucifixion, only Mary is with us in the Upper Room. Since Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years when their son John was born they likely died before he began his ministry of heralding the Messiah. And Joseph?

In John 6:42, well into the ministry of Jesus we read that it was said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” The people speaking these words may have known Joseph, but once we leave the Nativity accounts we can’t say that we know him, at least not directly from the text.

In Luke’s Nativity account Mary receives billing above Joseph. She is a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, Luke 1:27. Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem to comply with the Roman census, Luke 2:4. The shepherds find Mary and Joseph and the baby, Luke 2:16. “His [Jesus’] father and mother marvel at what was said about Him,” [by Simeon in Jerusalem]. Yes, Joseph is in Luke’s account, but Mary is closer to center stage.

But in Matthew the genealogy concludes with, “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” The genealogy is Joseph’s genealogy, a kingly genealogy; Joseph is descended from the King David, the Covenant King, the King to whom Yahweh bestowed eternal and Messianic promises. Royalty flows through the veins of the carpenter (see Matthew 13:55 for reference to Joseph being a carpenter). We ought not to mistake a man’s trade or vocation for his identity; many a king has had the nature of a swine, and many a carpenter has had the nature of a king. There are royal garbage collectors and there are garbage executives; God looks on the heart, a good thing to be reminded of during Advent.

Trees – The Victorian Tree

This is the Victorian Tree. I don’t know if it is modeled on Queen Victoria or what; maybe this is the way she dressed before Prince Albert died; if I’m not mistaken she wore black after his death…and she kept wearing it.

If you’re expecting a story about me wearing something Victorian that is similar to my Shoe Tree story you’re going to be disappointed; I’ve never worn anything Victorian as far as I know.

I’m tempted to write some heavy observations about the Victorian Era but I think I’ll give you a break because I don’t know that many folks would be interested in it. I will say that if you’ve never explored Victoria and Albert’s marriage that it’s worth the time. Their son, Prince Edward, had a pretty restricted childhood and didn’t become King until well along in life; I wonder if Prince Charles will ever know what it’s like to sit on the throne?

I’m really fighting the temptation to write about the 19th Century, maybe I’ll head over to my Mind on Fire blog and give it a try soon.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Trees – The Shoe Tree

This is the Shoe Tree, the first of seven trees that I’ll post. If you’re a guy you probably won’t find your favorite shoe on this tree. I imagine Imelda Marcos would have liked this tree. I’ve never been into shoes. Oh I’ll admit that when my brother Bill and I got our first pair of Keds tennis shoes/sneakers that we went out back and ran to see if we’d go faster, needless to say we didn’t break the sound barrier.

I’m not sure the last time I actually purchased a pair of shoes; the fact is that Vickie buys them and I wear them. Why I remember than once she brought home two left shoes, seems the salesperson got them confused in the box or something like that. Anyway, I didn’t know any better so I wore them a few times trying to make the best of things. Then one day I was walking down Grace Street in Richmond and saw a guy who was walking kind of funny; as I pondered his unusual walk it dawned on me that we had something in common, I was walking the same way.

Well the closer we got to each other the more we stared at each other’s feet until we stopped toe to toe, all eyes on the shoes. “Hey Bud,” he said, “I think we’ve got a mutual problem. Seems our wives both shop at Big Al’s Shoes for Men and seems they both dealt with the same salesman.”

“I’d say you’re right,” I replied. “I guess the good news is that they bought us the same style of shoe.”

“Yep, no doubt about it. You a size ten?”

“Sure am,” I said in relief.

So he gave me a right shoe and I gave him a left shoe and we went on our ways; though it did take me a few days to recover my normal gait.

Reflections on Advent – XII

Next year Christmas will be on a Sunday. The last time it was on a Sunday some major churches in the United States closed for the day; a Jewish friend of ours asked, “What’s going on? Some Christian churches are closed for one of the two holiest days of your year.” What could we say?

Let’s see, as I recall some of them closed so people could be with their families; then others closed so they could save money since they knew that they’d have sparse attendance. Why would they have sparse attendance? Because it was Christmas! Now that’s great isn’t it? That’s rich! Stupid me, thinking that Christmas is about Jesus. To really display my stupidity, I thought Christmas was particularly about Jesus in the church, especially that segment of the church that professes a high view of Scripture and a love for Jesus; but the churches I’m writing about are churches who profess a high view of Scripture and a love for Jesus…the good news? My wife loves me even though I’m dumb and dumber.

In Matthew Chapter Two we see echoes of the Book of Exodus. We have a Pharaoh in the person of Herod; young boys are being murdered; Egypt plays a role, though it is reversed role. In Exodus Moses leaves Egypt and then returns to Egypt in order to deliver his people from Egypt; in Matthew Jesus’ family goes to Egypt for refuge, then returns from Egypt to Israel in order that Jesus might deliver His people from their sins. In Exodus God appears first in a burning bush, then on a mountain, then in the Tabernacle; in Matthew and the New Testament God appears first as a baby, grows to manhood, is executed and rises from the dead, and then appears in His people (His enduring and eternal Tabernacle).

Now the above would seem to give us warrant to gather as His people on Christmas; even when it inconveniently falls on a Sunday.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on Advent – XI

I can’t seem to get away from the wise men. The image of them falling down and worshipping Jesus stays with me. That is the same language used in Revelation 5:14 when praise and adoration is directed to the Lamb; …and the elders fell down and worshipped. So in Matthew Chapter Two we have the newborn Lamb worshipped and in Revelation Chapter Five we have the Lamb that was slain and who conquered death worshipped.

In Revelation Chapter 12 we see the dragon waiting for the woman clothed with the sun to give birth that the dragon might destroy her male child. Certainly King Herod is the earthly manifestation of the dragon at the birth of Christ; even as Pilate and another Herod are the dragon’s manifestations during Holy Week. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.

As Revelation Chapter 12 describes, the birth of Jesus Christ results in heightened warfare between the dragon and the offspring of the woman; between Satan and the followers of Jesus Christ. As Simeon says in Luke Chapter 2 concerning Jesus, Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed… The birth of Christ not only means hope; it also means opposition, it means judgment – for the Light of the world has come into darkness and men love darkness better than light.

The wise men fell down just as the elders in the throne room of Revelation Chapter Five fell down because the child they found was, and is, the Judge of the earth, the Creator of all that is, the Redeemer of mankind, God of very God.

Jesus teaches that we must become as children to enter His Kingdom of Light and Life; He became a child to enter our kingdom of death and darkness.

Would you, would you really…worship a child? What child is this?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reflections on Advent – X

My friend Brucie said concerning the wise men, Wise men typically worship wisdom, these men worshipped a man. He went on to say, Some people think that the wise men were Jews of the Diaspora, if so, consider what it meant for them to worship a man – Jews did not worship men.

Well, as I wrote yesterday, I don’t know who the wise men were, but whether they were Jews or Afghans or Indians or Chinese; wise men don’t worship men but they do worship God.

Can you seriously see yourself prostrate before a baby, an infant, a toddler? What must these men have seen and known to have done so? How their eyes must have penetrated the mysteries of the ages, the counsels of the eternals.

Does their query in Jerusalem, Where is He who is born King of the Jews? betray an innocence, a naiveté? A purity? Were they puzzled that the religious leaders had not already gone to worship the King? Did they discern the wicked deceitfulness of Herod? (Perhaps the fact that they were unfamiliar with Micah’s prophecy concerning Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem argues against them being Jewish.)

The Gospels begin with the worship of Jesus; they conclude with the worship of Jesus (see Luke 24:52). Let there be no mistake about this; the Gospels proclaim that Jesus is God; Jesus proclaimed that He is God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit; and so while during Advent it is fitting that we celebrate the birth of Christ; such celebration ought to wrapped in worship, motivated by worship, and proclaimed through worship.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reflections on Advent – IX

Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…Matthew 2:1

Who were these guys? I don’t have a clue in terms of their homeland or ethnicity. They show up and they depart; kind of a guest appearance you might say. We don’t even know how many there were; not really.

Perhaps the gold, frankincense, and myrrh were house warming gifts? “Jesus, welcome to your new home, a tabernacle of flesh, a human body; here are some gifts that might help you and your parents out.”

These wise men, whoever they were, were looking for the One born King of the Jews. The wise men, whoever they were, were seeking Jesus to worship Him; and when they found Him they fell down and worshipped Him. They were on their faces, prostrate before Jesus Christ; after which they opened their treasures and presented gifts to Him. First they gave themselves; then they gave their possessions.

Of course Jesus was likely no longer in Bethlehem by the time the wise men arrived, and Jesus was not the newborn that the shepherds found, so I think we can be assured that the wise men didn’t ooh and aah over baby Jesus, or even infant Jesus, or even toddler Jesus; no, the wise men worshipped Jesus.

Worship is what is called for when we encounter the Christ of Christmas; I’m not sure that oohs and aahs are in order; but worship, yes, I think worship is the telling factor – are we looking at a baby, an infant, a toddler; or do we see the living God?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Reflections on Advent – VIII

The story of Advent is the story of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. In Hebrews Chapter Two the writer focuses on Christ partaking of flesh and blood on the one hand, and on the other hand of our sharing His Divine life so that we can say: For He who sanctifies [makes men and women clean and holy and dedicated to God] and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers [and sisters]

Jesus spends the evening before His betrayal (John Chapters 13 – 17) speaking to us about our union with the Trinity, and with each other, through Him. On the Day of Pentecost (Acts Chapter Two) the Holy Spirit comes to live within those who have believed in Jesus Christ; thus perpetuating the Advent of Christ in Bethlehem; incarnating Jesus Christ in His Body.

So the designation Immanuel that we have in Matthew 1:23 begins on Christmas but continues through the ages; for Christ has not only come to be with His people, He has come to live in His people. Now the thing is that we don’t believe that, not most of us anyway. We might say that Jesus lives within our hearts, and that’s nice as far as it goes but it doesn't go far enough, it doesn’t encompass the Gospel and the teaching of the Epistles. The Gospels teach us that the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are taking up residence within us; that is a bit more than God living sentimentally in my heart; when God came into the Tabernacle of Moses something happened; when He moved into the Temple of Solomon something happened; and when the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon were subsumed into the Living Tabernacle on the Day of Pentecost and God came to live and breathe within His people something happened; it was a bit more than the affections of the heart, it was a bit more than sentimentality – God and man had become one in Christ; as Paul terms it in Colossians; Christ in you, the hope of glory. There is a change in nature, a change in constitution, a change in citizenship, a change in identity when God tabernacles in men.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections on Advent - VII

It’s the time of year when so-called experts will appear on television and radio giving their opinions on the birth of Jesus Christ, of course few, if any, of these experts will disclose their biases regarding the supernatural – little does the viewing and listening public know that many Biblical “scholars” have a strong anti-supernatural bias; little wonder the scholars question the virgin birth (more properly the virgin conception) of Jesus Christ. After all, if you don’t believe the supernatural is possible then you will hardly find evidence for the virgin birth.

Sad to say many pastors also dismiss the virgin birth; sadder to say many of them aren’t honest with their parishioners about their beliefs, or lack thereof. I guess job security is the issue, and why trouble the great unwashed masses with reasoning beyond their capacity? Now if you ask me why someone who doesn’t believe the Bible would want to be a pastor, I really can’t answer that; you might go find one of those horses and ask it directly, there are a number of them around.

In reading the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus it is clear that the men who recorded His birth were recording a supernatural event – what we term the virgin birth.

Matthew tells us that before Mary and Joseph came together in sexual union that Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Then Matthew writes that the angel who appeared to Joseph told him, …do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Then, to put the icing on the cake, just to make sure no one missed the point, Matthew writes, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. (Immanuel means God with us).

Luke gives us the account of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce the conception of Jesus within her, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
Understandably Mary wonders about this and asks, How will this be, since I am a virgin? Sensible young woman that Mary.

Gabriel responds, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.

And so God becomes man, but not man as we know man (humanity), God becomes a perfect man, living a perfect life, that he might die as a perfect sacrifice and rise from the dead; bringing a new creation into existence; a race of women and men who trace their lineage no longer from Adam, but rather from Christ.

If we are left to ourselves without God coming to us through a virgin, then we have no hope; for all that we can produce is heartache and despair, we cannot overcome our DNA of sin and rebellion.

God partook of man’s flesh; that man might partake of God’s Spirit. God came into intimate relationship with man; that man might come into intimate relationship with God.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reflections on Advent – V

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1

What do you see when you look at Matthew 1:1 – 17? A list of names? Nameless names? Nameless names in the sense that the names mean nothing? Names without faces, names without stories? Is this passage analogous to walking through a graveyard and reading unfamiliar names? Perhaps if Matthew 1:1-17 had some interesting tombstones the journey would not be quite so boring?

I’ve never heard this passage read on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Have you? I’ve never seen people rushing to be the first at the lectern to read, Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers….

Perhaps the fact that we’ve not heard this passage read at Christmas is an indictment on our Biblical illiteracy? Perhaps the fact that we don’t celebrate this passage also calls into question our profession that we have a high view of Scripture? After all, if we really have a high view of Scripture why would we not read what is, after all, the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel? Why would we not read this passage at Christmas if we are a people who know the Bible and hold the Bible in high esteem – for again, this is the beginning of the Matthew’s Gospel; but it is not only the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is the first page of the New Testament.

These verses are a record of a perfect God working through an imperfect people; of an imperfect people fulfilling the perfect Word of God. Some of these people are not simply imperfect, some of them are downright wicked, and some are people who are usually decent doing some pretty evil and deplorable things. Through it all, God preserves His promise for the blessing of all peoples of the earth through His Son Jesus Christ.

Of course to know these people, to see the tapestry that Matthew weaves, we must know the Old Testament, we must know Genesis and Exodus and Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Jeremiah; to touch and feel the texture of this genealogy we must have first walked the corridors of Genesis through Malachi – otherwise these are but nameless names.

There are treasures among these names, lessons to be learned, tears to be wept, songs to be sung, pathos to be felt, joy to be shared. Among these names are promises both fulfilled and broken, friendship sustained, treachery in all its wickedness, remorse, arrogance, humility and repentance. Have I mentioned murder and adultery? Have I mentioned tender love?

The Bible is raw and uncensored; but it is raw and uncensored not in a gratuitous sense, but rather in a descriptive sense – the Scriptures will not aid and abet us in hiding from our true condition, a practice which many churches seem intent on propagating with cheap grace and a cotton-candy Gospel.

Many of the men and women in this genealogy knew what God’s grace and mercy are because they knew what sin is; they knew who they were apart from a relationship with God. As Jesus teaches, He who is forgiven much loves much. They couldn’t afford to put on their Sunday best and pretend to be something they weren’t – they had real sin to deal with and they needed real forgiveness.

These first seventeen verses in Matthew are an epic in and of themselves – but alas an epic experienced by few –most see simply a list of names.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflections on Advent – VI

Have you ever counted the generations in Matthew Chapter One? Verse 18 tells us that there are three sets of fourteen generations – what do you think?

The names of three women appear in Matthew’s genealogy and a fourth woman is alluded to, by the wife of Uriah. Considering the way women were viewed in most places in the First Century, including Galilee and Judea, as well as in the Greco-Roman world, this is unusual. Is Matthew putting the reader on notice that this is not your typical genealogy? Is he giving us a hint that a new creation is on its way? I wonder if he paused writing when he came to the first woman, Tamar? Why not first mention Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, women essentially beyond reproach? Why include Rahab? – she wasn’t an Israelite. And Ruth…well she wasn’t a biological daughter of Israel either – so why not at least include Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, why not include these three women who form the foundation of the people of Israel?

As I scan this genealogy I can’t help but think of the forgiveness of God. Even the best of these folks were flawed; not just flawed, even the best of these folks started out in life as sinners alienated from God. That’s why they could sing and write about forgiveness, that’s why they could talk about mercy – they knew where they had come from and by God’s grace they had some idea of where they were going. The writer of the New Testament letter of Hebrews tells us that they were looking for a city, looking for an enduring country – they were on pilgrimage.

Now you would think that if Matthew wanted to put the best possible face on Jesus Christ that he’d tidy up this genealogy. Why point out that David’s son Solomon was by the wife of Uriah? And note that Solomon was conceived and born after David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, after Bathsheba had become David’s wife. Why this designation, the wife of Uriah? What’s wrong with a little spin? Or if not spin, at least there is no reason for full disclosure.

Why raise the specter of Tamar and Judah? Surely that could have been omitted – no need to raise questions.

But I’ll tell you, this gives me hope. God was faithful to all of us in His mercy and grace to these generations, and it gives me hope that in the midst of my frailty and downright sin that He will be merciful and gracious to me too. These are not people wearing their Sunday best, these are not people saying and doing the right things because they are the right things to do and say; these are people living life – and they are not always living it the way God designed it to be lived – but He is still with them in His mercy and grace…and yes…to those who continue to reject Him…well…they get their way – they wanted their own way, they got their own way.

I supposed had I observed all of this over the generations I would have thought, “There is no way God is going to pull this off.” But the fact is that God did pull it off – He was born in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago – and He never had any doubts about it; not then, not now. Yes, I get encouraged when I view this tapestry of Matthew 1:1 – 18.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reflections on Advent – IV

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew 1:1

Each of the Four Gospels begins differently. Matthew begins with the above statement. Mark begins:

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…

Luke starts with:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also…

Then we have John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Four different beginnings, one focal point – Jesus Christ.

Matthew begins by pointing us to the genealogy of Jesus; He is from the kingly line of David; He is a descendant of Abraham – He represents the fulfillment of prophecies given to both of these men.

Mark points us to Isaiah the prophet heralding the coming of Christ and directing our attention to prophetic words bursting upon the scene in the persons of John the Baptist and Jesus. Mark begins his Gospel in an action tempo and never lets up.

Luke begins like the methodical physician he is; he’s done his research, conducted his observations, and now is writing his treatise.

John…well John will be John…and John doesn’t begin with a genealogy, nor with an echo from the prophets, nor with the assurance that he’s done his homework – John begins before history, John begins before the prophets, John begins before the genealogies – John begins at the beginning – John begins at Genesis – John begins before time and space, in the deep fathoms of eternity past…The Word was God.

What do we do with this fourfold claim at the beginning of the Gospels?

  1. God made promises to David and Abraham; Christ fulfilled (and is fulfilling) them.
  2. God spoke through prophets of old; Christ fulfilled (and is fulfilling) those prophecies.
  3. The life of Jesus Christ is an historical fact, verifiable in time and space; His birth, death, resurrection, and ascension are verifiable – there were eyewitnesses to these events.
  4. Christ is God; He is Creator God; one with the Father and the Holy Spirit – and He became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).
The question is always the same, Who is Jesus Christ? A lunatic? A liar? The Son of God, the Savior of the World? Those are the only three options – as has been said, He didn’t intend to leave us with any others.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflections on Advent – III

As I wrote in the first posting on Advent, Advent was not a word I grew up with, which is a little strange since we went to a moderately liturgical Presbyterian church. Perhaps the fact that we attended church sporadically accounts for the absence of the word Advent in my early vocabulary, for surely the minister must have used the word.

Since my early Christian years (this is after I actually came into a relationship with Jesus) were in non-liturgical churches “Advent” continued to be a stranger to my vocabulary. Advent and Lent were not “seasons” of the church year, though Christmas and Easter were certainly focal “points” of the year. But then came my first position as an interim pastor, with Clifftondale Congregational Church, in Saugus, MA. Clifftondale was a liturgical church, and while my first actual pastorate would be with two churches in Becket, MA. that also valued tradition, neither would be as liturgical as Clifftondale.

It so happened that Vickie and I arrived at Clifftondale a few weeks before Advent, thus enabling me to observe the planning and preparation that preceded the season. I dutifully prepared what would be my first Advent series of sermons, and I think that they may still be my best sermon work in that area.  Since then, with I think one exception, I’ve structured my church planning and sermon preparation around the seasons of Christ’s birth and resurrection – they make for firm pillars in not only the life of the local church, but also in the lives of families and individual followers of Jesus Christ.

How are you intentional about this Advent season?