Bible, Christian living, Jesus

Reflections on a Donkey, Crying Stones, and Jesus’ Tears

A Rebuke of Culture Wars and Religious Nationalism

Each year, Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, Jesus’ so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  The gospels do depict the crowds celebrating triumphantly, but what if Jesus himself was rebuking his own followers? What if he did not agree with their hopes for the Messiah? What do Jesus’ actions and words really say in Luke 19:28-44, if we have ears to hear?

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A Donkey

Jesus excited his disciples’ imagination by taking the route of Joshua toward Jerusalem (crossing the Jordan into Jericho).  Then he sent two disciples on a secret mission. Was this not the same number of spies Joshua sent to prepare the Conquest? Maybe they were scouting out Jerusalem’s defenses! Instead, they return with a donkey. Readers have wondered how Jesus knew this donkey would be tied up. Some think the owner has great faith to surrender his animal to unknown people simply because, “the Lord needs it!” Yet it is far more likely Jesus pre-arranged this with the owner.  He would tie up his donkey on this day and recognize Jesus’ men if they used the correct passphrase. Perhaps this is why John abbreviates the entire story: “Jesus found a young donkey.” John and Matthew quote this event as a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, but they do not mean it was a series of divine coincidences. Jesus intentional acted out this prophecy as a proclamation he was Messiah, and what he understood this to mean.

Many Jews believed Zech 9:9 was part of a prophecy that Messiah would bring peace for the Jews through a war against the nations.  Their response to Jesus riding a donkey fits this common Jewish hope.  People threw cloaks down before Jesus’ path, just like Jehu’s men when Elisha anointed him to become King of Israel.  Interestingly, there was already a King of Israel! Jehu became Messiah to assassinate King Joram. People also waved palm branches and threw them down before Jesus, just as Jews did a century earlier during the Maccabean Revolt. Simon was greeted by cheering crowds and palm branches after his army liberated Jerusalem from Syrian occupation and cleansed the temple. Finally, Matthew, Mark, and John tell us the crowds shouted out Hosanna! Save us! The people had nationalistic dreams Jesus would successfully lead a rebellion against the Romans.

Crying Stones

Luke makes it clear this is how the Pharisees interpreted these events since they tell Jesus to quiet his disciples. No doubt they were eyeing the Roman soldiers standing watch on Jerusalem’s walls, fearing they might become agitated and move to put down this apparent protest movement calling for rebellion. Instead of quieting his disciples, however, Jesus replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Perhaps Jesus’ disciples thought he was referencing Habakkuk 2:10, where the stones of the walls would cry out against the injustices they bore witness to within the city. After all, Luke emphasizes the crowd is descending into the Kidron Valley.  Across the valley, they could all see the massive stones of Jerusalem’s walls.

Jesus’ Tears

Then, Jesus wept as he looked across at Jerusalem. He mourned that the people did not grasp the true meaning of peace. He wept because his people’s desire to defeat the cultural intrusion of Rome through physical force would result in the loss of all the institutions they held dear. He shed tears because his beloved people loved the power and glory of Jerusalem, the temple, and the land of Israel. They hoped Jesus was the strong man they needed to make Israel great once again through a violent expulsion of the Romans.

The Rebuke of a Prophetic Act

Jesus, however, had a very different vision for the Kingdom and his role as Messiah. Riding a donkey was not a message of conquest. The “triumphal entry” surrounding him was just Satan’s latest temptation to lure Jesus to desire the very power structures he had rejected since the voice from heaven told him his role as Messiah was to be a suffering servant.  Jesus intentionally acted out Zechariah 9:9 rather than some other messianic prophecy precisely because of his rejection of Messiah as conquering king. Zechariah was the only Israelite prophet who emphasized another aside from the king who was also anointed with oil—the chief priest. Jesus riding a donkey was pointing us to reflect on the entire book of Zechariah.  Zechariah 4 speaks of two trees pouring out oil into a single lampstand.  They are called two Messiahs (king and priest). Zechariah 6 then orders a crown to be placed on the chief priest, who will rule from his throne and bring “harmony between the two” (king and priest). Zechariah shifts the focus from the king to the priest.  Jesus proclaimed himself to be a priest-king.  He would serve his people’s spiritual needs rather than rule with might to enforce his people’s desire for power and prestige. John understood Jesus to be priest-king.  John has Jesus quote Zech 6:13 (rebuild the temple) as justification for cleansing the temple (John 2:19) and Pilate quote Zech 6:12 (here is the man) as he presents Jesus before the crowd in purple robe and crown of thorns (John 19:7).

Not only was the donkey Jesus’ rebuke of violent revolution, but his statement that the stones would cry out was not about the stones of Jerusalem’s walls. As noted before, Luke emphasizes the crowd was going down the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley. This area, both then and now, was a vast Jewish graveyard. There were stones everywhere: in front of tombs as well as atop crypts. The stones themselves would not be crying out, Hosanna! Save us! Rather, it would be the dead behind those stones shouting out for Jesus to remember them when he came into his Kingdom. In Zechariah, there is a promise from God attached to the one who rides the donkey: “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit” (9:11). Jesus’ decision to be a priest-king, to sacrifice his life, would result in the salvation of those who were in the grave (the waterless pit) as well as those of us who have yet to die. This Prophet like Moses would not liberate the people from slavery to an occupying force.  His exodus would lead people out of the grave!  This Messiah had not come to defeat the Romans.  He would destroy the common enemy of all people (whether Jew or Roman): death itself.

Jesus wept because he knew many there that day rejoicing in his enactment of a messianic claim would ultimately reject his servant priest-king conception of what it meant to be Messiah. They would instead follow after various revolutionaries who rose up before and after him, until the Romans eventually had enough and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70.  As with this “triumphal entry,” Jesus’ whole life was a repudiation of power politics and cultural wars. Jesus foresaw the exaltation of religious nationalism as the destruction of his people . . . and he wept. When will American Christians put off the power dynamics of Cain and put on the servant righteousness of Jesus the Messiah?

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Reflections on a Donkey, Crying Stones, and Jesus’ Tears

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)

psalms, sermon

The Wisdom of Fear and Trembling

Woody Allen once said, “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans!” Psalm 2 tells us of the rage of nations excited about a regime change on Israel’s throne. Various people groups (inside and outside Israel) wanted to test the boundaries of what the new king might allow or to see if he was strong enough to maintain his rule. The plotting and scheming of these kings of the earth was no different than the tenants in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, who–upon seeing the son of the vineyard owner coming to collect rent for his father–assume the old man is dead and so proclaim, “Here’s the heir! Let’s kill him and the inheritance is ours!” Even today, we see riots and autonomous zones in some U.S. cities while others rage on social media about their various conspiracies and opinions about pandemic protocols.

Psalm 2 tells us these kings of the earth are a joke to the one on heaven’s throne. He scoffs at their plans (the way the wicked scoffed at the righteous in Psalm 1). Along with the rebuke of heaven, we are told of the appointment of heaven’s true earthly king on Zion’s hill. Since Psalm 2 was a coronation psalm, the new king was whoever was being newly installed into that office. Too often, we are like the raging kings, thinking we know what is best or even that “God is on our side” or that we know his plans.

Instead, we find the reign of the Son, the king who (according to 2 Samuel 7:13-14) is proclaimed to be Son of God. The book of Psalms was compiled after the collapse of the monarchy, so for the post-exilic Jews, the Son of Psalm 2 was the coming Messianic king who would bring the Kingdom of God. This is why it is so significant the voice at Jesus’ baptism proclaimed, “This is my Son . . .” the Son of God–the Messiah. It is also part of the reason Matthew concludes with this Son sending his disciples “to the nations” (not to punish them for their raging, but to make disciples of them and to teach them the ways of the true king. Rome (where Caesar was considered Son of God) eventually fell to this revolution not through violence or war, but through love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and mercy. Some Christians have been shocked by rioters spray-painting “crucify again” on a statue of Jesus. But they say this not because of the true Son as much as because of the Christians who have not modeled such love and sacrifice but instead have become enamored by power politics and hate speech on social media.

Finally, we find that this Messiah is a refuge for the broken. The kings are warned to be wise and to serve the Lord with fear and trembling. Jesus said as he neared Jerusalem that he longed to shelter the people under his wings, but they would not let him . . . and so he wept for Jerusalem. He knew their love of politics and supporting the meanest guy who “fought” for their side would result in Jerusalem’s destruction.

While the psalm is primarily about the kings of Israel and ultimately the Messiah, Jesus in the beatitudes said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called “Sons of God.” Paul likewise told us in the letter to the Romans that we are adopted as “Sons” and are “co-heirs” with Christ. So we find that the disciples actually pray Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-37. Yet they do not ask that they can break their enemies with rods of iron or smash them like pots. Instead, they pray for boldness of words and that God would stretch out his hand with miracles and healings. We are called to overthrow our enemies through loving proclamation and bold proclamation of Christ’s rule and the principles of the Kingdom. We should no longer sell out to political philosophies or idolize a particular political leader or demonize those who disagree with us. Instead, we should “kiss the son” and serve him with fear and trembling.

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Psalm 2 “The Wisdom of Fear and Trembling”