Advent, Christian living, Jesus

The Peace of Divine Purpose (Advent 2022)

Matthew 1:18-21; Matthew 2:1-15; 2 Timothy 1:7; Hebrews 2:17-18

Paul told his young assistant Timothy that God’s Spirit does not make us timid.  Instead, it emboldens us to live a life of love and self-discipline.  Paul wrote this from prison awaiting execution.  Clearly, there is a peace about living in God’s will, even when the way is unclear or involves suffering.

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In the Christmas story, we find many people who discovered peace in the midst of suffering and confusing situations because they placed their faith in God.  They believed he had a plan and trusted him to guide them through the darkness into light.  Mary had an unplanned pregnancy.  Joseph was confused how his girl could cheat on him and what to do about it.  The magi thought they knew where God was taking them, yet they ended up in the wrong city!  They almost became political pawns in the process.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus found themselves on the run from authorities.  Eventually, they became political refugees living as immigrants in Egypt, wondering when they could return home.  They had to live in a culture not their own, learn a new language that was foreign to them.  Many they encountered day after day probably hated them because of their foreignness! 

This was just in the first few years of Jesus’ life!  No wonder the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made like us.  He was human in every way.  He understands our needs because he has suffered as we have.  Jesus came into our Egypt, our captivity, our exile.  He did not break sins’ shackles from the comfort of heaven.  He was “born into shit and straw” (to quote the ever-colorful Bono from U2).  This helpless babe had to trust not only his heavenly Father, but also his parents to protect him and love him.  Jesus suffered as we suffer.  He was tempted as we are tempted.  Through it all, he trusted his Father’s plan and walked in accordance with the Spirit of God.  This is what made him the Prince of Peace.  This is how he was able to save us from our sins.

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Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Surrender and Be Ready! (Advent Week 4)

Tim Allen was in two rather different Christmas stories. (Both characters, interestingly include the names of Protestant Reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin.) Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause learns from an elf that–through a series of unplanned events–he now must become the new Santa Claus. He is told he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before reporting for duty to the North Pole. The film centers on Scott’s process of coming to terms with the responsibility that has been thrust upon him. Ultimately, he surrenders to the call and embraces it. On the other hand, Luther Krank in Christmas with the Kranks spends the majority of the movie resisting cultural expectations of the Christmas season and enduring the gossip and scorn of his neighbors because of his choices. The experience of these characters relate in different ways to the story of Mary we find in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38. In that story, she is called to surrender to a life that will ultimately result in rumors, gossip, and misunderstandings alongside unlimited love, wonder, and grace.

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The first thing the text teaches us is that we must surrender to God’s presence (vv. 26-30). While God is always present, there are times he is present and calls to us in a special way. A dramatic example of this is the sudden appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin pledged in marriage to Joseph. While modern Western women typically get married in their mid- to late-twenties, Mary likely was in her early teens (12-15 years old, if she was the typical first century Jewish girl). Gabriel greeted this teen as “highly favored one!” and told her, “the Lord is with you!” The young girl was greatly troubled by the words, filled with questions about what the greeting could mean. The words–not the appearance of the angel!—created these doubts and concerns. Perhaps the fact the angel wasn’t the source of her concern shows a steely resilience in this girl that would be important for the mother of the Messiah (vv 28-29). Her reaction certainly was different from that of the old priest Zechariah in the preceding story. He was “gripped with fear” upon the sight of this same angel . . . even before the angel had a chance to speak a word to him (1:11-12).

The angel comforted both of them with the words, “Do not be afraid!” because Zechariah’s prayers have been heard and Mary had found favor with God–like others before her, such as Noah (Gen 6:8), Abraham (Gen 18:3-5), and Moses (Exod 33:12-13). In the presence of God, we may feel fear or find comfort, but there is always an element of danger. It is like being in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. If we are in the bare elements, the raw energy and power of the storm can be a fearful if not deadly experience. From the safety of our home, however, that same raw power fills us not with fear but with awe at the beauty of the lightening show and the roar of the thunder. In the same way, those who are in God’s grace (the Greek word translated here as “favor”) are safe within the dangerous presence of the living God. Mary surrenders to God’s presence. Do we?

A second thing we see in the story is that we should surrender to God’s power (vv. 31-35). The virgin is told she will have a child and must name him Jesus. The pattern of the announcement (conceive/give birth/call the son) is the same pattern found in the sign of the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz (7:14), “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The birth of Jesus is the promise that God is with us (the meaning of the word Immanuel). But there is an earlier story that also uses this same announcement pattern, a story about another strong woman placed in a precarious position yet told to surrender to God (Gen 16:11). Hagar is visited by an angel to tell her that she has conceived and will give birth to a son, Ishmael (which means “God hears”). The birth of Jesus means that God has heard the suffering of his people and so he has sent a Savior to liberate us. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, was not the ultimate child through whom God’s promises to Abraham would flow. That would be Isaac. Though Judaism was a blessing, it was not the ultimate blessing. That blessing would come through the birth of Jesus, Abraham’s seed through whom all nations would be blessed.

The promise of the son to be born to Mary was not like the promise of the son to be born to Zechariah. The angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist would be “great in the eyes of the Lord” (1:15) but Mary is told that Jesus will be “great” (v 32). That is, John’s greatness was dependent upon God’s perspective but Jesus’ greatness was inherent to who he was. Another difference between these births is that John from birth was not to have wine or fermented drink but Jesus had no restrictions placed on him. He was holy (v 35) and did not need to maintain his righteousness (1:6) through any specific actions.

Luke tells us that Mary was pledged to Joseph, a son of David. The Romans (and Jews) understood adoption to be a legal avenue to ascend to the throne. Augustus Caesar was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, as Tiberius Caesar was the adopted son of Augustus, yet all three ruled the Roman Empire. Jesus would have a legitimate claim to the throne as an adopted son of Joseph. To make sure the reader understands that Mary’s son was the Son of David to inherit the throne of his father David (v 32), however, Luke shapes the words of vv 26-27 (“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.”) with faint echoes of 1 Samuel 16:1 (“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘. . . I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem for I have chosen one of his sons to be king'”–that king being David).

Yet before David’s throne is mentioned (v 32) or the title Son of God was bestowed upon Jesus (v 35), the angel first clarifies Jesus’ title, calling him, “Son of the Most High.” This Jewish circumlocution for Son of God is interesting to find in Luke (given his predominantly Gentile audience), which may indicate the Jewish origins of this announcement story. But more significant for Luke’s use in this passage is that it explains the “type” of Son of God Jesus would be. Augustus and Tiberius were both called “Son of God” when Caesars, because the Romans had declared their predecessor (upon his death) to have become divine. Jesus, however, was not Son of God as a mere human accolade or on account of the deification of a human (whether David or a Caesar). Jesus was Son of the Most High–YHWH. He was the Son of the God of all creation.

At this point, Mary asks a very reasonable question: “How is this possible? I have known no man.” Her question is not one of doubt or rejection. It is simply one of confusion. Her question is not like that of Zechariah in the preceding story. When he hears the angel’s announcement that he and Elizabeth will have a child, he asks, “How can you be certain?” But then this foolish question is followed by a wisdom borne from years of marriage, for he says “I am old” but then says my wife is “well along in years.” (In other words, she’s had her 39th birthday many times over, but he doesn’t call her old!) The response to his doubt was, “Dude! I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I just told you. Why are you doubting!?” (1:18-19). This rebuke was followed by a temporary curse so that Zechariah cannot speak until John’s birth. But Mary doesn’t doubt. Instead, she demonstrates faith seeking understanding.

Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you” (v 35). This same phrase is later used by Jesus in a promise to empower his disciples as his witnesses (Acts 1:8). In a poetic restatement of the same idea, the angel says, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The imagery is twofold. First, it invokes the image of the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic deep at the start of creation (Gen 1:2). Jesus’ birth is the genesis of a new work of God, the start of the New Creation. Second, the language draws our thoughts to the presence of God overshadowing the tabernacle, the meeting place of heaven and earth (Exod 40:35). The child to be conceived will be a new and final temple, the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9). So Jesus will fulfill God’s promise to David that David’s seed would reign forever (v 33) and build God’s temple (2 Sam 7:13).

Because God is all-powerful, you do not need to fear his calling if his presence is with you. God fills Christians with his Holy Spirit. He has given believers the same power that miraculously conceived a child in the womb of a virgin. What is God calling you to do in the coming year? Will you surrender to his power, as Mary did?

Finally, the text reveals our need to surrender to God’s perspective (vv. 36-38). Too often, we look at ourselves and our flaws and do not see the potential which God sees. We do not see the possibilities that the power of God opens up for those who live in the presence of God. From Mary’s perspective, the future is unclear because “I have known no man.” From Zechariah’s perspective, a child is impossible because he knows that he and Elizabeth are too old. Each fails to see that God was with them, that his grace (that is, his favor) was on them. They needed to reframe their stories from the viewpoint of God.

To help Mary see her situation from a new perspective and demonstrate God’s power, Gabriel told her Elizabeth, her relative said to be infertile, was in her sixth month (v 36). The woman everyone in town gossiped about, who must be accursed of God because she couldn’t conceive. Why, if Elizabeth had lived in the American South, the community would have said one to another, “Bless her heart!” But now something had changed. She was the talk of the town in a radically new way. The gossip had turned to wonder and praise. Sorrow now became joy. How was this possible? Because “no word from God will ever fail,” Gabriel said (v 37). This is the same phrase (in the Greek translation) used about Sarah’s conception (Gen 18:14). Isaac was the child of promise born to Abraham and Sarah in their advanced years. Abraham is told God’s covenant would pass through Isaac and not the “natural born” son, Ishmael. So Jesus was the ultimate child of the promise through whom, as the seed of Abraham, “all nations would be blessed” (Gen 18:18).

As we reach verse 38, we find the clearest statement of Mary’s surrender. “I am the Lord’s servant” (literally “slave”). Mary submitted herself to God’s presence and power because she now saw things from a new perspective. She surrendered to God and to his plan. When we hear her say, “May it be done according to your word,” we often imagine a demure young woman meekly acquiescing to the angel. But, as N.T. Wright once noted, it is probable half the women in first century Israel hoped they would be the mother of the Messiah. Everyone was convinced he was coming soon. Perhaps we should hear the response as an eager exclamation much more in keeping with the strong will she seemed to possess. “Bring it on! Let it be me!”

Why this young girl? We are not told that Mary received this calling because she observed the Torah blamelessly, as Zechariah and Elizabeth did (1:6). Their son John was the climax of the old covenant, but not its fulfillment. Their Torah observance was a blessing, but there was coming an even greater blessing, a new covenant of righteousness based on faith in Jesus. In Mary’s story, we catch a glimpse of this life of surrender and faith. Luke presents Mary as a paragon of faith. Like a female Abraham, she received a call from God and stepped out in faith, not knowing where the journey might lead. Unlike Moses, she did not question God’s calling (Exod 3:11, 13; 4: 1, 10, 13) but accepted it like a Daughter of David. David raised no objection nor question when God sent Samuel to anoint David with oil to be king (1 Sam 16:2, 13). Similarly, when God sent Gabriel to announce to Mary the overshadowing of the Spirit and coming of Messiah, she accepted the call.

Certainly Mary (like Abraham) did not understand all that her calling entailed. Without question, she was the object of gossip, slander, and speculation about the source of her conception. She likely had tense relations with her in-laws under whose house (or at least in whose village) she resided after marrying Joseph. (The loss of family honor within the community would have been part of the impetus for Joseph’s contemplation of divorce, Matt 1:19.) Governmental bureaucracy and red tape required her to travel many a mile while 9 months pregnant just to complete a census. Then persecution forced her to become a political refugee and spend years in a foreign land, learning a new language and navigating unusual customs. More than likely Joseph struggled in Egypt to find a job due to prejudice against immigrants and the faced constant insecurity because they didn’t have a family or clan to protect them. And all this before she probably turned 18!

Are you ready to surrender to God’s presence and discover the Jesus we celebrate at Christmas? Are you prepared to surrender to God’s power and live as a witness for Christ through the power of his Spirit? Will you surrender to God’s perspective, trusting that he sees the potential you do not, that his power and presence will be with you to fulfill whatever calling he places on your life? Do you see yourself as God’s servant? Christmas is coming! Surrender and be ready!

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“Surrender and Be Ready!” (Luke 1:26-38)

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Confess and Be Ready! (Advent Week 3)

As Christmas approaches, followers of Jesus should be ready and willing to confess the love of God in Christ. We should be like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas. When asked if anyone knew what Christmas was all about, Linus confesses that he does and gives a witness to those gathered by telling them the story of Jesus’ birth. The third Sunday advent gospel reading looks at John the Baptist in John 1:6-8, 19-28. By looking at this story, Christians can see how we should be confessors of our belief that Jesus is Lord.

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The first thing we find in the life of John is our mission as a confessor. In verse 6, we are told that John was a man sent (apostellō) from God. Apostellō is the verb form of the Greek noun we often transliterate into English as Apostle. For John to be “apostellō-ed” meant that he had a mission to fulfill. He had authority from God to speak on his behalf, but he also had a responsibility to represent God well to those he encountered. Later in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus prays to the Father, “As you sent [apostellō] me into the world, I have sent [apostellō] them into the world” (17:18). Just as the first disciples were sent as Apostles, ones sent with Jesus’ authority on a mission to proclaim and confess the good news, so are we who follow him today have that same mission. We are to confess Christ to the world, and we are responsible for how we represent him.

The second thing we learn from John is our role as a confessor. John is described with two Greek words in his role as a confessor. John “confessed” (v. 20), which translates the Greek word homologeō (literally, “one word”). We are to have the same word about Jesus, to speak with one voice the he has become king and reigns over us, sitting at the right hand of the Father. This “one voice” doesn’t mean we collude our stories or that we are intolerant to differences of perspective or opinion. What it means is that our primary concern should be this one testimony that Jesus is Lord. Homologeō was also used as a “concession” of the reality of defeat or loss of an argument. It was even used to admit guilt to the charges brought against you in a trial. In the latter part of our reading, John is on trial and he confessed openly and freely who he was not and who Jesus is.

The other word used for John was “witness” (martyria) or “to testify” in its verb form (martyreō). The noun or verb appears four times in the verses we are considering and seven total times in John 1. The concept of “witness” was significant in the Gospel of John (appearing over seventy times), and the character of John the Baptist is the first individual in the text to demonstrate this concept. To witness is to give testimony before a judge or to affirm that which you have seen, heard, and experienced (which sounds very much like the opening to the letter of 1 John). In the Fourth Gospel, John is not really John “the Baptist” as he is in the other three gospels. The focus is not on his activity as a baptizer or his leader of a Kingdom of God movement. Instead, John is presented as John “the Witness.” John is the one who testifies to Jesus almost every time he opens his mouth. Even the focus of his baptism is not for repentance but merely a method to reveal the coming Messiah (1:31).

Unlike John, the priests and Levites are not witnesses nor confessors. They appear in the story as judges. They are inquisitors coming to investigate what is happening out in the wilderness. “Who are you? Why do you baptize?” Their goal was to figure out which box to check in regard to John. What type of person was he? How can we label and define him so that we can objectify and categorize him? They did not want to truly interact with John as a person or understand the complexities of his life situation. They had preconceived ideas about the Davidic Messiah, the returning Elijah, and the Mosaic Prophet. These were well developed eschatological categories in their day that they thought they understood well. Their goal was to collect information for their superiors, evaluating whether John did or did not fit the box he claimed for himself.

In the passage, John the Witness speaks of the Messiah even as he is interrogated by the priests and Levites. “Among you stands one you do not know” (v. 26). Perhaps Jesus was there that day. What if the priests and Levites were so focused on their questioning of John that they weren’t able to recognize the Messiah standing there in their midst? We are certainly told that Jesus was in the area, for he is present the two days following (vv. 29, 36). If so, John spoke in a veiled witness, but he was a witness nonetheless. It reminds me of a saying by Wallace Davis, former president of Wayland Baptist University: “Always tell the truth, but don’t always be telling it!” Part of the role of a confessor is to use wisdom and discretion about our audience and to speak as the situation demands.

We must make a conscious decision. Will we be investigators or proclaimers? Our mission is not to judge but to testify. We are called not to evaluate against our preconceived checklists. We are to confess what we have heard and seen and experienced. Throughout, we have an Advocate who gives us the wisdom and power to fulfill our role as confessor. The Spirit of truth will testify about Jesus even as we testify (Jn 15:26-27) and will empower us to be witnesses throughout the earth (Acts 1:8). Are you a witness in your portion of the earth?

A third lesson from John is our attitude as a confessor. First, let’s look at the attitude of the priests and Levites. They came to judge and evaluate John. Their attitude was that they occupied a lofty position. They looked down on John as well as those poor souls who came out to listen to him and to be baptized by him. They asked questions of John and expected–no, demanded–answers. They spoke from a position of power but were in a hurry to return to their own superiors looking down on them and awaiting their report. So they ask repeatedly, “Who are you?” Give us an answer! What authority do you have to baptize?” (vv. 22, 24)

John the Witness, however, had the attitude of a servant. His actions and words were from a position of humility. His attitude was one of stooping down to serve the people coming out to the wilderness. He looked up to God for his help and support. He considered himself beneath the Messiah in importance. We are told that he freely confessed and held nothing back, “I am not the Messiah!” Then they asked him, are you Elijah? Perhaps John paused, looked down at the camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist (clothing intentionally imitating Elijah). Maybe he was confused that they didn’t get the symbolism. “No . . . . ?” he may have tentatively responded (hoping they would catch the irony). More likely, he said no because he knew their intentions were to entrap him.

John’s humility and servant nature was reflected in his statement that he was not even worthy to loosen the Messiah’s sandals. In Rabbinic literature, rabbis were able to demand almost any action from their disciples. One area that was forbidden, however, were any acts that required the touching of feet. John, however, says he isn’t even worthy to voluntarily stoop down to touch the feet of the Messiah (v. 27). This is all the more significant for the reader when we later see Jesus stoop down to wash the feet of his disciples as one of his final acts, commanding them to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:3-17). True leadership is not about power but about service. John later talks about Jesus surpassing him (1:30) and we see him witness over and over about Jesus until eventually his disciples begin to leave him in order to follow Jesus instead (1:29-37).

One other lesson about our attitude as a confessor can be found in the opening verses (vv. 6-8). John was a witness to the light. We also are witnesses to the light. When the light comes, many will flee back to the darkness because the light reveals all. If we will be witnesses of Jesus, witnesses who stand in his light, we must be ready for our flaws to show, for our sins to be evident (Jn 3:19-21). For, as Paul learned, when we are weak then we are strong, for Jesus shines through the cracks created by our flaws (2 Cor 12:9-10).

The final thing we learn from John is our message as a confessor. John the Witness is not a fiery preacher in the Fourth Gospel. When he opens his mouth, one of two things tend to happen: 1) he quotes the Bible (v. 23) or 2) he talks about Jesus (vv. 26-27). John was not into self-aggrandizement or flashy words just to look impressive. No doubt the priests and Levites emphasized themselves as they interrogated him, probably wearing their fineries in order to be seen by all. John was from the priestly class himself. He could have easily chosen to live in Jerusalem with a nice lifestyle and the service (if not the respect) of many. Instead, he chose to live in the wilderness as an ascetic in service to God.

Whenever he talked about himself and Jesus, Jesus was always the superior. John, on confessing who he was, quoted Isaiah and said he was a voice in the wilderness (v. 23). Earlier, Jesus had been identified as the Word (1:1, 14). A voice is not the primary thing you focus on when someone speaks. You focus on the words that are communicated. The content, not the mode of delivery, is of primary importance. This Word is said to be the Light to which John bore witness (vv. 7-8). Later, Jesus called John “a lamp” (Jn 5:35). Lamps carry the light (or bear witness to the light) but they themselves are not the light itself. Even John’s free confession, “I am not the Messiah” is deemphasizing himself in respect to Jesus in this gospel. In Greek, John says, “egō ouk eimi” (“I am not,” v. 20). Nine or more times through the gospel, Jesus says, “I am,” which to a Jew was the equivalent of calling yourself God (Exod 3:14). (For instance, one time when Jesus says this, the Jews pick up stones to stone him, thinking he was equating himself with God, Jn 8:57-59.)

Three times to the priests and Levites, John denied himself (I am not, no). Three times in chapter 1, John testifies to Jesus as the Messiah (one among you, 1:26; Lamb of God, the one who surpasses me, he on whom the Spirit came down, God’s Chosen One, 1:29-34; Lamb of God, 1:36). By the third confession, some of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus (1:37). Still later, when John’s disciples complain that Jesus’ movement is getting bigger than John’s, John says, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:26, 30).

Ultimately, there are two types of people. Which one will you be? There are the confessors and witnesses, those who testify to what they have seen and heard and experienced about Jesus the Messiah. Then there are the inquisitors and investigators, those who promote themselves while judging others and placing them into boxes as a means of control. It is sort of like two characters from popular Christmas movies. Buddy the Elf is a confessor. He tells everyone that Walter is his father. He also testifies to what he has seen and experienced about Santa. He is selfless in his testimony about these others. Then there is Ralph from A Christmas Story. He is a self-promoter. He wants a Red Ryder more than anything for Christmas. He tells everyone about it. He judges their motives when they tell him he’ll shot his eye out. In the end, everything is all about Ralph.

During Christmas and throughout the year, let Christ shine through your life. Don’t allow your words and actions to obscure the light of Jesus through self-centeredness actions or discussion of things you care about but do not bring honor to Christ. Do not spend your time judging others from a position of superiority or preconceived ideas. Find out who they are and how you can help them better understand Jesus. As Christians, we are called to live out our mission to witness and confess Jesus the Messiah in a spirit of humility and service. Christmas is coming. We need to confess and be ready!

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“Confess and Be Ready!” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Repent and Be Ready! (Advent Week 2)

For the second week of Advent, the liturgy of the gospel readings focus on John the Baptist, while the other readings focus on peace. In Mark 1:1-8, we are immediately confronted with the proclamation of the good news. We find peace in the good news of Jesus coming. We also find peace in repentance and confession of our sins. Finally, we find peace through new life in Christ. So, in this second entry in the “Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready!” Series, we will look at the need to repent to be ready.

Have you ever received a Christmas present you were not excited about? (Look at the picture of the little girl at the top of this blog!) You might be sad because it wasn’t something you thought it would be. You might be confused when you see it, not sure why you received it or even what it is. You might even be angry about the gift (like this clip of Annie Banks receiving a blender from her fiance in Father of the Bride)! When I was a child, my parents would always prep me for Christmas and birthdays. Smile and act happy. Don’t embarrass the giver but show and express thankfulness. My wife and I gave the same talk to our sons. In fact, Lucy still gives me “the talk.” She wants me to attempt to be ebullient since I am rather Stoic. While disappointment in gift giving is perhaps a silly example, it demonstrates the reality we all make mistakes and need to repent.

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The first emphasis of the text is that the good news has come (vv. 1-3). The word “good news” (or, in older English “gospel”) translates the word euangelion. This term is important to Mark, who uses it seven times in his text, even in the first three words! If, as we assume, Mark’s audience was Roman, they would have been familiar with this type of an introduction. Caesar was frequently referred to as “Son of God.” Messengers of Caesar would often announce the “good news” of Rome or of Caesar (e.g., when a region was conquered or a new Caesar came to power) and usually the focus of this good news was peace and prosperity. But the peace of Rome was brutal. Rebels were executed by crucifixion and soldiers were a constant presence in order to ensure the “peace.” Caesar’s prosperity was good for Caesar and Rome, as well as the rich and powerful in Israel, but it was a costly “prosperity” for those who had to pay high taxes or for the poor who had to work even harder to earn their daily bread.

While Mark used imagery the Romans would understand, the background for “the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1) was not the same as the good news of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of God. It was based in the Old Testament. The second part of the book of Isaiah speaks of a better “good news.” Isaiah says God will come to rule and shepherd his people (40:9-11) and that God’s salvation will bring joy to his people and will be evidenced by all the nations (52:7-10). The good news will be a time of the LORD’s favor, bringing hope to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, release for those in chains or prisons, and comfort to mourners (61:1-3). The hope of the Jews was that God would empower the Messiah to conquer their enemies; end the exile and restore the lost tribes so that all of Israel could be a light to the nations; establish a kingdom that would never end and restore the temple to bear rightly YHWH’s name; and reconcile heaven and earth under the reign of God as king (with Messiah as his representative).

This is why the early Christians would not proclaim, “Caesar is Lord” or burn incense to his image to show Roman loyalty. The proclaimed the good news that “Jesus is Lord!” In Christ, God came down in human form and experienced the worst of our suffering, even death. God, however, raised Jesus to life, triumphant over sin, the grave, and death itself–our true enemies. In Jesus, heaven and earth were reconciled. Christians become his body, his temple bearing his name to the world. Christians are called to be the light of the world and to end the exile for all the nations (the “lost” tribes of Adam, not just the lost tribes of Jacob), for the kingdom of the Messiah consists of “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9).

Romans were used to the idea that a significant person would have omens or oracles accompanying their birth or announcing their reign, so it is natural for Mark to immediately (vv 2-3) refer to Old Testament prophecies in his introduction of the good news of Jesus the Messiah. While Mark tells us he quotes “Isaiah the prophet,” he actually includes a citation from Malachi (or even a blending of Malachi/Exodus, as we shall see). Isaiah is quoted in verse 3 (Isa 40:3). When Messiah comes, the broader context of Isaiah 40 promises that he will comfort the afflicted (Isa 40:1-2 and 40:9-11). Verse 2 appears to be a blend of Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1, if you realize that the “messenger” (“angel” in Exodus) who goes “ahead of you” is the same word (angelos) in Greek. When Messiah comes, Mark’s reference to Exodus indicates Messiah will guard the path of his people in order to bring them to the place God has prepared for them. The Malachi passage primarily focuses on the messenger announcing the coming of the Lord (i.e., the Messiah) to his temple. But the context includes a warning, that when Messiah comes, it will be a bitter day for sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, employers who deny their workers an honest wage, oppressors of the marginalized (namely, widows and orphans), and those who deny justice to the foreigners living among them (Mal 3:2-5).

Malachi’s warning leads us to the second emphasis of the text. The good news demands repentance and confession of our sins (vv 4-5). John the Baptist (or John the Baptizer) is introduced immediately as the one who will prepare the way for the Lord (Mal) and as the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for “him” (Isa though the “him” in that text is God!). John is presented as the coming of Elijah, who would call the people to repentance before the coming of Messiah (Mal 4:5-6). John is out in the wilderness or desert, not only because of the words of Isaiah, but because in the Old Testament the wilderness was the place where God met his people, revealed himself to his people, and saved his people. Even when the prophets threatened judgment on the people, it was often in terms of turning their cities into a wasteland–both as an act of judgment but also as a promise that they might be restored through another wilderness experience. This is seen, for example, in Hosea 2:14-16, where God says he will “allure” Israel into the wilderness to woo her back as a pure wife.

Mark clearly exaggerates when he says, “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (1:5). Though exaggerated, it is still accurate that John was extremely popular. John remained a populist hero even after his death (Mk 11:29-33) and decades later his followers appear in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). The imagery of people leaving the city and its wider region to go into the wilderness in order to pass through the waters (be baptized in the Jordan) was intended to make the reader think about the Exodus story. John’s preaching and baptism was an invitation to join a movement out of bondage and exile, to join a new kingdom. The people were entering the wilderness in order to meet God and to recommit themselves to his service in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God.

They went to John and confessed their sins. In a Twelve Step program (such as Alcoholics Anonymous), the first step is to admit you have a problem. This is why at meetings, you introduce yourself, “My name is John. I’m an alcoholic.” The point is not to humiliate you but to get you to confess reality. In Mark, confession is connected to repentance. In Greek, the word is metanoia, which means to “change your mind.” The alcoholic is working to see reality in a new way. Instead of alcohol being a savior or an escape, it is seeing it as the enemy that imprisons. The first step of AA states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” The call to confess our sins as framed by John (and Mark) in the use of Old Testament references above is not just to confess “personal” sins. It is also to confess “corporate” or societal sins. We have to confess the sins occurring in our culture which we may not have engaged in, but to which we often turn a blind eye. We must confess these and ask how we can right these injustices within our society. It is then that we find forgiveness (aphesis), the release from bondage, pardon, or remission of our penalty.

The baptism of John did not accomplish this repentance or forgiveness, but it was a signifier and affirmation of repentance and forgiveness. John’s baptism went beyond the self-baptism required of a proselyte converting to Judaism. They had no requirement to confess their sins. They instead were to be instructed in the law before baptism and then pledge to follow the law afterwards. John went beyond this by essentially saying to his audience, “It isn’t enough to be Jewish. You have to repent and join my kingdom movement.” (Matthew and Luke record sermons of John that make this emphasis explicit, but it is still implied here.) John was preparing people for the arrival of Messiah. When Messiah appeared, he would establish the Kingdom of God.

The third thing we find is that the good news is the promise of a changed life (vv. 6-8). John himself symbolized this changed life. He left community to live in the wilderness. He changed traditional clothing for camel’s hair and a leather belt (the clothing of Elijah in 2Ki 1:8), rejecting the luxuriant clothing and conveniences of his priestly caste to intentionally identify with the poor and lowly. He gave up a normal diet in order to eat locusts (symbolic of judgment and repentance) and wild honey (symbolic of forgiveness and blessing). So his new diet was another proclamation of his message that all are under judgment unless they repent, but those who do will find forgiveness and blessing in the coming kingdom.

John’s message was not about himself nor was Mark’s focus on John for John’s sake. Mark doesn’t provide us examples of John’s fiery sermons that we find in Matthew and Luke. Instead, John’s message is about the coming Messiah and how unworthy John is even to be a servant to this future powerful one. Thus, John’s message was about humility and service. He was an example of humility and he served God until his service revealed and made way for the Messiah. To deemphasize his own water baptism in comparison to the coming Messiah, John emphasized Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit, an image in many Old Testament prophecies. Joel 2:28-29 is but one example, which Peter saw fulfilled in the events of Pentecost.

So John demonstrated that the good news changes lives. John spoke of the Spirit coming upon the individual, empowering this change of life. John called the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent and change their ways in order to experience new life. A closer look at the opening of Mark’s gospel reveals that it says, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1; emphasis mine). The story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is only the beginning of the good news. After his death and resurrection, the good news continues to be active, changing lives and empowering us to extend the good news to the lives of others.

In conclusion, we need to repent and be ready, like the characters in some of our most memorable Christmas stories–Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey. Both men repented in their stories. Ebenezer asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!” He repents of his miserly ways and uncaring attitude for the plight of those less fortunate than he. George had a life full of regrets for what he saw as lost opportunities–times he did what was right and put the needs of the disadvantaged ahead of his own. But after seeing what life would have been like if he had not lived, George returned to the bridge where he had contemplated suicide and pleaded, “Help me, Clarence! Get me back to my wife and kids!” Both men’s lives are changed in the end. Scrooge buys a goose for Bob Cratchit, gives a large donation to the charity he had previously rebuked, and pledges to cover Tiny Tim’s medical bills. Bailey runs through the town seeing it with new eyes. He even yells, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan,” at the business he had seen as the center of his misery all these years. He then returns home, ready to be arrested for fraud but thankful to be reconciled with his family once more.

It is easy for us to see the repentance and change in Scrooge, but harder to admit it in Bailey, who we see as a good man. But Bailey needed to repent and change just as much as Scrooge . . . and as much as you and I. So this Advent season, discover the good news of the kingdom of peace that has come through the Prince of Peace. Discover the good news of peace through confession and repentance of sins. And discover the good news of the abiding peace made possible through a changed life made possible by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. This Advent season, repent and be ready! Christmas is coming.

“Repent and Be Ready!” (Mark 1:1-8)

Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready Series

Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Watch and Be Ready! (Advent Week 1)

Advent is the time before Christmas when Christians prepare themselves for the coming of Christmas, the coming of Christ. The first week of the advent season focuses on hope. Traditionally, this first week focuses on the second coming of Christ. Christians today wait for the coming of Christ just as Jews in the years before Jesus (and many still today) waited for the coming of the Messiah.

Watch and be ready certainly described how my sisters and I approached the coming of Christmas. Each year we sought to stay awake until Christmas. We kept our eyes open for the coming of Santa. We watched and looked for the signs. One sign that we “saw” each Christmas Eve was the red light of Rudolph’s nose guiding Santa’s sleigh. I would point this light out to my youngest sister through the window where we waited, knowing full well that every other night that same red light was a radio tower! But Christmas was different. We watched for the signs. We waited for Santa. We sought to be ready at all times. Those are the ideas we find in Mark 13:24-37.

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There is an emphasis in the text to observe the signs. Verses 24-25 contain the most dramatic of the signs–the sun darkening, the moon not giving light, the stars shaken and falling from the sky. While some take these images literally, others view them as symbolic expressions shared by the Old Testament prophets for the dramatic turn of events that will occur in the Day of YHWH. When we hear on the news or read online that an election was a “tidal wave of change” or that a new poll reveals a “seismic shift” of opinion or that someone’s death has “rocked the world,” we do not think there were literally tsunamis or earthquakes. Perhaps the same was true for the ancients. The imagery was indicative of great change that would occur. Peter (2:28-29; cf. Acts 2:16) and Paul (2:32; cf. Rom 10:13) both quote from Joel and say that his words have come true in Jesus, yet these fulfilled prophecies are tied to statements about the sun going dark and the moon turning to blood (2:30-31).

Verse 28 says you know it is almost summer when the fig tree leafs out. We wouldn’t know that in West Texas but in Israel, where almost all trees are evergreens, the fig tree becomes a default seasonal marker. Jesus said it was bad to see signs for seasons and weather, “but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3). So Christians should be interested in knowing the times, but we should not be preoccupied with interpretation of the signs themselves or plotting precise dates for the return of Christ.

One reason we should be careful is that the signs mentioned in the passage (and the rest of Mark 13) are different foci. Some are clearly about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. (For instance, Jesus’ reference to “this generation” in verse 30 and that it is “near” and “at the door” seem to point to the temple destruction by the Romans.) Some may be about the very end of the age (perhaps the stars falling or the angels gathering the elect in verse 27). Several could be one or the other. It is sort of like the dinging sound your car makes. Sometimes it is easy to identify the reason for the warning–say, your seatbelt is not fastened or you have left the lights on and opened the car door. Other times, however, it is easy to see the sign but difficult to interpret its meaning. The most notorious is the “check engine” light. That could mean anything! A clear reason to not rely too heavily on precise dating is that Jesus says not even he as the earthly Messiah knew when the end would be (v. 32).

In Matthew 2, the wise men were able to read the signs (the star), so they knew the essential issue (Messiah was born) but they didn’t understand where they should go (they ended up in Jerusalem. The priests and scribes, however, knew the ins and outs of the prophets (they quickly told Herod the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem) but they couldn’t see the signs. Not a single one of them is said to have traveled the 6 miles to Bethlehem to see if the magi were correct. The magi might have missed by 6 miles, but they were nearer the Kingdom of God despite their (probably) Gentile status.

A second thing we must do is keep our eyes on the Son. While we may not fully understand the signs, we can recognize the direction they point . . . and they always point toward the Son. Verse 34 emphasizes the need to keep watch for the master’s return. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to keep our eyes on the Jesus, because he is the “pioneer” of our faith, as he has walked the path before us, and he is the “perfecter” of our faith, as the one who lived and died in a way that was pleasing to his Father. Hebrews tells us that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus doesn’t mention sitting at the right hand in this passage, but he does tell his followers that some will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in power and glory (an allusion to Dan 7:13-14). This could be his resurrection and exaltation. It could an allusion to the fulfillment of his prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction. It could be a reference to his return. But what is clear is that our eyes should be on him. Similarly, the Son of Man is said to send his angels to gather his elect. Is this a reference to the end of time where his angels harvest the resurrected and living? Or (since the Greek word translated “angels” in other places means “messengers”), is this an allusion to the Great Commission of Jesus’ disciples going to all the nations to create a new community, the true Israel?

What is clear is that we need to keep our eyes at all times on Jesus and trues him to sort those things out. Mary does this when the shepherds come to see the infant. We are told that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She reflected on who Jesus was and kept her eyes and her thoughts on him. If we have our eyes on Jesus, according to the author of Hebrews, we will notice that, “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and [so] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). One thing we see as we look at the one who walked the path before us and perfected that path is that he was humble. Our eyes should be on Jesus and not on politics. Our actions and words should be on humility, healing, and hope (except on occasion to the powerful elites–including the religious leaders!) rather than pushing our power and our views on others.

Not only should our eyes be on the Son, but our ears should be on his words. Jesus makes an outlandish claim about his words in verse 31! “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” To a Jew, such a statement is blasphemous. Genesis 1 tells us that heaven and earth came to be because of the words of God. God spoke creation into existence. But Jesus says his words will outlast God’s! This is blasphemous if Jesus is a mere mortal. If he is divine as well as human, however, then he can make such a claim. In John’s gospel, when many are abandoning Jesus, Jesus asks the twelve if they will also abandon him. Simon Peter said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). We must always keep our eyes on Jesus and our ears on his words.

Finally, we must watch and be ready. In the mini-parable found in verse 34, Jesus tells us that when the master departed for his trip, he gave each of his servants an assigned task. Are you doing your assigned task? We are told to be alert and on guard, that is, we are to be ready at any moment for the return of Christ. Every community should have a fire station. They are wonderful to have near you (you get a discount on your homeowner’s insurance). Firefighters put out fires. They help respond to medical emergencies. Everyone in the community understands that part of their job is to wash their trucks, attend fire safety courses, and other non-firefighting tasks. No one begrudges them eating meals together on their long shifts or fellowshipping with one another during down time. But the community would rise up in protest if they found out the firefighters were ignoring fire alarms because they just put a meal in the oven. The community would not forgive them for delaying a response to a multiple car collision because they needed to finish washing the trucks. But too often, Christians focus on fellowship, Bible studies, and upkeep and improvement of their church property rather than the truly important lifesaving and life-giving activities in their communities and among their family.

We need to be alert and on call at all times. Zechariah was on duty (Lk 1). He was in the temple offering incense to YHWH. He was not prepared, however, for the appearance of an angel beside the incense table. Nor was he ready for the startling news that Elizabeth would conceive and bear them a son in their old age. Because of t his, Zechariah was not allowed to speak until John’s birth. The shepherds, however, were attentive and on guard the night of Jesus birth (Lk 2). They were watching their flocks in the middle of the night. While they were not prepared for the angel’s appearance, they responded immediately in believe and wonder at the news of Messiah’s birth and ran to find the baby Jesus. They understood the true priorities and temporarily left the sheep to find the Good Shepherd and shared the news with others as they returned.

Not only are we warned to be on guard and to be ready for the master’s return. We are warned against him finding us asleep when he returns (v. 36). This reminds me of the Everly Brothers’ hit, “Wake Up, Little Susie.” While the melody is upbeat, the song recounts the horror and dread of a young couple who went to a Drive-In Theater and fell asleep watching a boring movie. They wake up several hours past their curfew and the song talks about what Susie’s parents will think as well as what rumors their friends might spread. The couple are never said to have done anything untoward, but falling asleep placed them in a compromising position! The Church needs to be careful not to fall asleep by focusing on the wrong things or just being lazy. This will give not only the Church and its members a bad reputation in the community. It will speak ill of Christ himself. Instead, we need to be busy with the tasks we have been assigned.

John tells us, “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). So this Advent, as we live in hope for the return of Christ and anticipate the coming of the Christmas season, we need to observe the signs, we need to keep our eyes on the Son, and we need to watch and be ready.

“Watch and Be Ready!” (Mark 13:24-37)

Christmas Is Coming. Be Ready! Series

Advent, Jesus, sermon

From Egypt with Love

Hosea 11:1-11. An advent sermon that never made it onto the block last Christmas. When Herod heard the Magi were seeking the newborn Messiah, his response was to kill the infant boys in the region of Bethlehem–just as Pharaoh killed the Hebrew boys in Israel’s past. Matthew tells us Jesus survived this slaughter because Joseph took the family to Egypt–just as Moses survived the slaughter of his day when “Egypt” took him in (through Pharaoh’s daughter). As the family returned, Matthew quoted Hosea 11:1 as a fulfilled prophecy of this event–even though it wasn’t a messianic text for Hosea. Rather, Hosea sought to remind the Israelites of their past. They were the firstborn son of God that Moses led out of slavery. Hosea then points out to them that their rebellion would soon result in a return to Egypt–to captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. Yet Hosea also held out hope for the future, that the people would return to the land.

Not only did Matthew quote Hosea 11:1 about Jesus’ return from Egypt, but he also quoted Jeremiah 31:15 (Rachel weeping for her children) to describe the slaughter of the innocents. (Again, not a messianic passage.) In Matthew’s view, however, these are not mere proof-texts sought in vain from the scriptures to prove Jesus was the messiah. Rather, they are a call for us to return to those texts and see them in terms of the hope each had. Hosea hoped for the eventual restoration of (the now “lost” ten tribes of) Israel. Jeremiah believed the everlasting love of God for the Hebrews (v. 3) would discipline the unruly calf (v. 18) who was yet his dear son (v. 20). Jeremiah also hoped for a time when a new covenant would be written on the hearts of God’s people (vv. 31-34).

Jesus entered our Egypt–coming into our Egyptian slavery, our wilderness exile–to call us out of Egypt and to bring us home to our Father. This emphasis on Jesus as the New Moses (innocents slaughtered; being called out of Egypt) ties into the genealogy Matthew presents at the start of his gospel. Matthew breaks the great history into 3 units of time separated by 4 persons/events: Abraham, David, Exile (the only non-person), and Messiah. Hinting at Moses almost immediately after this genealogy is a nod that he knows he left out a key individual from his list. The Exile, however, stands in some ways as a cypher for Moses. The people had never completely left exile. They still needed a liberator to free them from bondage. Thus, in reverse order, the Messiah was the beloved Son who would liberate his people and establish a new covenant (from the Exile to the Christ–Jesus, the True Moses). The beloved Son would build the temple of God and establish an everlasting Kingdom of God (David to the Exile–Jesus, the True Solomon). And finally, the beloved Son would be the one through whom God would bless all nations (Abraham to David–Jesus, the True Isaac). So the liberation isn’t just for the Jews. It isn’t even only for the lost tribes. The hope of liberation is for men and women of every tribe and language. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1)

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“From Egypt with Love” Hosea 11:1-11

From Egypt with Love Sermon link
From Egypt with Love
Advent, sermon

Joy Blossoms in the Desert

I haven’t posted sermons in a while.  This is going back to Advent season.  The birth of Jesus is like joy blossoming in the desert.  In the darkness of our sin and struggles, the light came to bring hope and joy.  Isaiah gives voice to this joyful coming as he describes the emergence of a garden in the desert (a return from exile to Eden?).  When we find ourselves in the desert, we can discover joy as we trust in God and walk in his ways, knowing he can transform the desert into a garden–though not always in ways we would expect.

“Joy Blossoms in the Desert” Isaiah 35:1-10 (click this link to open)

Joy Blossoms in the Desert


Advent, sermon

Peace on Earth

In Luke’s gospel, the angels proclaim, “Peace on earth!” at Jesus’ birth and the people proclaim, “Peace in the heavens!” at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the week prior to his death.  Micah describes a vision of peace when the mountain of God is raised up and all nations will stream to it, yet he places it immediately after a prophecy of the temple’s destruction.  Jesus, likewise, in John’s gospel predicts the raising of God’s temple (his body) if it is destroyed and says he will draw all people to himself when he is lifted up (on the cross).  The sermon looks at the hope of peace and the promise of God through the coming of the Christ.

“Peace on Earth” Micah 4:1-5 (click this link to open)

Peace on Earth sermon

Advent, Jesus, sermon

Watching and Waiting (WBU Advent Chapel 2017)

Advent means “coming,” as in the coming of Jesus.  It is a time of waiting and anticipation.  Do you realize how hard it is to slow down and wait in our culture?  We’re a Netflix generation.  On Friday, Boom!  A whole season of some show drops.  Don’t lie to me—you binge watch the season in a weekend, don’t you?  You probably get impatient waiting 1 minute 30 seconds for a bag of popcorn that used to take 10 or more minutes to make.  We don’t really know how to wait, much less be alone.  Waiting for a friend?  Hop on Instagram or Snapchat someone else.  I’m not picking on you because you’re young.  It’s everyone in our culture.  I mean, my parents live in Southeast Texas.  They know it takes me around 10-11 hours to drive one way to visit them.  Yet my mother calls at least 3 times to find out where we are! . . . And she always sounds disappointed when she hears our progress!  (Only in Abilene?  I hoped you were closer to home by now!)  What did people do before cell phones when loved ones traveled?  Wait!  Anticipate!  Hope!  Pray!

Those words also describe Advent.  It is the time before Christmas where the Church has traditionally paused to remember the coming of Jesus.  It is a time of reflection; a time to imagine ourselves waiting with the Jews for the birth of the long awaited Messiah.  It is also a time to think about our own waiting, to anticipate and hope and pray for the return of Jesus, when he will bring the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.

For the Jews under Roman occupation, however, it wasn’t just waiting with hope.  It was longing for the current situation to end and a new, radically different and wonderful situation to start.  It’s like you feel right now.  You aren’t just looking forward to the holidays.  You are longing for classes to be over, for the weight of finals to be lifted—the days of term papers and projects and hardship and slavery to end!  I still remember the last final exam for my bachelor’s degree.  It was a music history course.  I distinctly remember walking out of the room and down the long hallway.  I sort of imagined a band would be out in the hall playing a triumphant march with maybe some confetti floating down from the ceiling!  The day of liberation was at hand!

That same anticipation you feel for getting past finals to the wondrous freedom of the holidays is similar to the hope and anticipation the Jews felt right before the coming of Jesus.  Their ancient prophets had promised a Messiah would come and bring in the Kingdom of God, yet they had been ruled over by Gentiles for the past six hundred years.  The only momentary break came about two centuries earlier, when Judas Maccabeus and his family led a revolt that resulted in a century of freedom.  But then the Romans arrived, ushering in a time of occupation yet again.  Surely, they asked with the prophet Habakkuk, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?” (1:2)  Not only were Roman soldiers an ever-present reality, but landowners grew rich at the expense of the poor workers; local rulers grew rich off taxes; and religious leaders sneered at the commoners who didn’t have the time to keep every law and precept because they were too busy trying to eke out a living.  Many hoped and prayed for a coming Messiah, a great king who would rise up to overthrow these wicked oppressors and establish the Kingdom of God with the Jewish nation at its very center.

This coming king—the Messiah—was expected to do two great things: defeat Israel’s enemies and restore true worship to the temple.  The great kings set these two agendas in Israel’s past.  David was the great warrior king who secured the nation from its enemies.  Solomon was the great temple builder.  The two rulers called “greatest” in the Old Testament book of Kings—Hezekiah and Josiah—also defeated Israel’s enemies and restored temple worship.

But something strange and different happened.  The Messiah’s coming wasn’t what the Jews had expected.  Jesus didn’t talk about defeating the Romans.  He told Gentiles they had “great faith” and Jews to pay taxes to Caesar.  He didn’t talk about restoring worship in the temple.  Instead, he acted out a curse on the temple and talked about its coming destruction.  This is part of the reason many Jews of his day didn’t accept him as Messiah and why Jews today don’t follow him.  “He came to his own, but his own rejected him.”  (John 1:11)  It was sort of like the anticipation I told you I felt when I turned in my last final.  The band wasn’t there.  No confetti cannons.  Not even a single party horn.  Just a long empty hall that I walked down . . . alone.

That strange and wonderfully different coming was sort of like my empty hall.  The Word who was with God and was God and through whom all things were made became flesh and dwelt among us.  Yet he lived a life of sorrows.  The legitimacy of his birth was questioned, since Mary was a virgin when she conceived.  Joseph, his earthly father, likely died while he was a teen, so he lived in a single parent home.  His family thought he was out of his mind to challenge the local officials as he did.  His disciples followed him but didn’t really understand his teachings.  The religious and political leaders persecuted him.

Eventually, he was arrested, abandoned, beaten, and put to death on a cross.  If Jesus wasn’t the Messiah the Jews wanted—one who would overthrow the Romans and oppressors and restore true temple worship—then he was worthless to them!  Yet his Father approved of the life he lived and so raised Jesus from the dead.  The First Letter to the Corinthians pictures him as a king reigning over us from heaven until he has defeated our greatest enemies: sin, death, and the grave.  The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus, through his ascension, has entered the true temple, the most holy place—heaven itself—to serve for all time as our high priest.  So Christ followers see that he did what Messiah was supposed to do—defeat our enemies and restore temple worship—but he did it in a way no one foresaw.

This Jesus, who ascended to heaven as both priest and king, will return again one day.  Advent is a time of waiting and watching.  Part of the advent hope is that Jesus will return and make the Lord’s Prayer a reality: That God’s Kingdom shall one day come, that God’s will shall be done on earth just as it currently is done in heaven.  When he comes, Jesus will raise all humans back to life and will serve as our judge.  This is what Christians wait for, long for, hope for during Advent—the coming of our priest, our king, our judge—as this video show.

Again, here is something unexpected.  There is one coming to judge our lives, yet this Judge is one who understands.  Our Lord isn’t a deity who sits way up on high, detached and distant from our pain and suffering.  Instead, Isaiah says, he is a man familiar with suffering.  The writer to the Hebrews tells us that

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. . . .  This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. (5:7-10; 7:1)

Our judge knows what it is to wait, for he learned obedience through it.  He knows our fears and understands our suffering and struggles.  Our king has defeated our greatest enemies—sin, death, and the grave—and offers eternal life through his own blood given as a holy sacrifice.  Not only has he entered heaven itself to serve as our Priest, but here on earth he has built a temple not made by human hands but crafted by the Spirit of God.  Each believer—whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female—is a stone in this one temple that Jesus is building and on which he himself is the cornerstone.

If you do not know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, my prayer for you this Advent is that you will come to know this man who is God.  You can come up after chapel and speak to me or grab a friend and ask them how to become a Christ follower.  While Advent is a time of waiting, don’t wait any longer to know the gift of God we celebrate this season.

Bow your heads as I read the words of Isaiah for our closing prayer:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!  As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (64:1-4)

Thank you, Father, that in Jesus you have acted in ways that we did not expect.  With anticipation and joy we wait for you to bring forth your Kingdom in all of its fullness.  In the name of your Messiah, Jesus, we pray.  Amen!