Advent thoughts: December 23

“Behold, your King is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9—read Zechariah 9:9-12).

When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, he was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. Of course, God did not create a checklist through Moses and the prophets and then begin figuring out how to accomplish all that he had said. God created time. God exists outside of time. God experiences all times at a glance. When Moses and the prophets spoke the Word of the Lord, their messages were already accomplished in the sight of God. The Holy Spirit reported the plan of salvation to Moses and the prophets as if it had already been accomplished in time. Therefore, they wrote in the past and present tenses about events that were still centuries in the future.

The donkey is a humble creature, a beast of burden. Having a king ride a donkey in a parade is equivalent to seeing an important leader today riding a bicycle in a parade. The humility of Jesus is reflected in his choice of a donkey, yet Jesus also exercised the royal privilege of riding an animal that had never been ridden before.

The prophet calls the King righteous. Jesus is perfectly righteous. He lived a pure and sinless life, never once breaking any of God’s commands. He loved his Father fully and trusted his Father completely. He loved the people around him and helped them in their needs. Jesus never used his power as the Son of God for his own benefit. In righteousness, he used his divine power to help others: to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to calm storms, to cast out demons, and even to raise the dead. We view perfect love as we read about all the miracles Jesus worked to help others, and as we realize that he refused to use any of that power to help himself.

Jesus also has salvation. He rescues people in trouble. His healings and other miracles were part of his rescue mission, but they only paved the way for his greatest act of service. Jesus could fix anything that goes wrong with the body: eyes, ears, legs, and even minds. But his goal was to strike at the root of the problem—to overcome evil at his source. Therefore, Jesus took on the guilt for the sins of the world and carried them to the cross. He paid in full the penalty for all the sins of history. In the process, he defeated sin and evil, and in the end, he defeated death itself.

The full results of that victory will be experienced when Jesus is seen on the Day of the Lord. All the dead will be raised on that Day, and all will stand before his throne of Judgment. Every eye will see him, and every ear will hear his voice. No one will be blind or deaf. On that Day, the King will welcome into his kingdom all those who trust his promises. Those who looked elsewhere for salvation will be left standing in the darkness, outside the celebration of his kingdom.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” The price Jesus paid to redeem us is more than sufficient. We will not always be prisoners of sin and evil and death. Because of the price Jesus paid, we will celebrate his victory with him in his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 14

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1—read Isaiah 11:1-10).

Jesse was the father of David, who became king of Israel. David was promised that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. But Isaiah foresaw a time that Jerusalem would be conquered and the king, the descendant of David would be made a captive in Babylon. Seventy years later the king’s grandson Zerubbabel would return to Jerusalem, not a king but a subject of the Persian Empire. For centuries the Promised Land would belong to other governments. The royal family would be a stump, the remnant of a tree that had been chopped down and removed.

Sometimes a new shoot comes from the living roots of a stump. Left to grow, that shoot can become another tree. Isaiah promised this for David’s family: when the time was right, a branch would grow from David’s family, and that branch would be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David, the promise that his descendant would rule an eternal kingdom.

Jesus is that branch. He was born in Bethlehem so he could inherit the kingdom of David. He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene—a name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “branch.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sevenfold Spirit described by Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. All these qualities Jesus possesses, and he is the King who judges with righteousness as Isaiah also described.

Isaiah proceeds to picture the Kingdom of peace ruled by Jesus. Once predator and prey, now animals become friends and dwell together. Nothing in all creation is harmful; everything is at peace with everything else. This perfect peace, this Shalom, is the gift of Jesus. The new creation that begins on the Day of the Lord will be marked by that Shalom. From that time on, there will be no danger. Nothing will be poisonous; we will have no allergies. Fleas and ticks and mosquitoes will not annoy us, and we will finally learn God’s intention in creating these creatures in the first place. The balance of bacteria in us and on us and around us will be perfect; no germs or viruses will sicken us, but even the tiniest living creatures will act for our benefit.

This new creation will have no sin and no death. All people will live together in harmony with God and with one another. Many of our current occupations will not be needed. We will not need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or therapists. We will not need police officers, lawyers, judges, or prison guards. We will not need pastors, because everyone will have direct and continuous access to the Lord.

Yet there still will be occupations and callings. Some will tend the plants and others the animals; others will work in art or in technology of various kinds. People will prepare food for others to eat. People will honor God and serve each other in a variety of ways. Probably the things you most enjoy doing now, those things that absorb your attention so much that you lose track of the time, these are the things you will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

All this is guaranteed to us by the root and branch of Jesse, by Jesus the King who rules eternally. He was once mocked as King of the Jews, given a crown twisted out of thorns, a reed for his scepter, and a purple robe that was just a scrap of spare fabric. But this mocked and abused King is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings his people into a new creation to live with him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

PS: When I got home, I found that a circuit breaker had tripped, interrupting power to the modem, computer, and a few other outlets. I turned it back on, but it tripped again, with a popping noise in the dining room. It appears that rain water has gotten into the wall of the house and is interfering with the electricity. We are leaving that circuit off for the time being and will have it examined next week. Meanwhile, I have an extension cord crossing the room to bring power to the computer and modem.

Advent thoughts: December 4

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17—read Numbers 24:15-19).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star. From the appearance of that star, they knew that a king had been born in Israel. The wise men came to worship him and to offer him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Why would wise men associate the appearance of a star with the birth of a king in Israel? And why would they wish to worship such a king? The answer appears to lie in the prophecy of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 24. Balaam was a prophet of the true God, even though he was not an Israelite. He was not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even though God had chosen that family to be a holy nation, God’s grace was not exclusively for that one family or that one nation. There were always believers among the other nations of the world, even kings and prophets who honored the true God. Balaam was one of those prophets.

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God directed them around the countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, because those nations were kindred to the Israelites. However, Balak king of Moab feared the Israelites and their might. Therefore, he tried to hire Balaam, prophet of the true God, to curse the Israelites.

Balaam did not curse them; instead, he blessed the Israelites. Three times he blessed them. The third time the blessing turned to prophecy, and Balaam spoke of the blessing for the entire world that would come from Abraham’s family while they lived in the Promised Land. Balaam spoke of the coming King as a star and as a scepter. These words were preserved by Moses in the book of Numbers. They quite likely were written and remembered in other places as well.

Therefore, when Jesus was born, wise men were led by a star to come and honor him. These wise men, or Magi, were scholars, advisors to a government. They could be compared to Cabinet officers in the American government. The first group called Magi arose in the Persian Empire, but Egyptian kings and Babylonian kings had also had advisors. Their job was to know as much as could be known about everything: history, languages, literature, religions, science, and any other subject that might influence or affect the government they served. If anyone outside of Israel would have known Balaam’s prophecy, it would be a group of Magi.

From where did they come? Some say Babylon, and some say Persia. There is a significant clue, though, in the gifts they brought. Since ancient times, when representatives of different governments have met, they have exchanged products of their homeland with one another. Presidents still do this today. Only one place in the world produces gold and frankincense and myrrh in any abundance. That place is Arabia.

This would not be the last time that a group of Arabs caused consternation to the government in Jerusalem. That was not their intention, though. They came to honor a King. And the gifts they brought, products of Arabia, were also highly symbolic of the nature of that King. Gold recognized his kingship. Frankincense recognized that he is also a Priest, for incense is used in the worship of God. Myrrh recognized that he would be not only Priest but also Sacrifice. In fact, when Jesus was buried after offering the sacrifice that defeated his enemies, his burial was accomplished with strips of linen, with aloes, and with myrrh.

Balaam is remembered largely for the fact that his donkey once spoke to him (Numbers 22:28-30). Far more important is that he foretold the star that would signal the birth of a King. That King would be honored by foreigners even though he was rejected by his own people. From this we see the growth of the Church which contains people from every nation, language, tribe, and culture, all honoring the same Savior and citizens of the same Kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

Christ in Genesis: the Lion of the Tribe of Judah

Before he died, Jacob gathered his sons and prophesied about their future. Beginning with the oldest, he worked his way through each son, speaking of what would happen to their families. His longest blessing was reserved for Judah, the son through whom the messianic promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be fulfilled.

Jacob began by saying that Judah’s brothers would praise him and that his father’s sons would bow down before him. At this time, such statements would have been more appropriate to describe Joseph, who was running Egypt and was using his authority to take care of his family. When the children of Israel returned to the Promised Land and defeated the Canaanites, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (descended from Joseph) dominated northern Israel while the tribe of Judah dominated in the south. The first king, Saul, came from the tribe of Benjamin, but the most successful dynasty of Israel was that of David, who came from the tribe of Judah.

Jacob spoke of that dynasty and of the messianic King who would come from David’s family. “Judah is a lion’s cub,” Jacob said. “From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Revelation 5:5 associates Jesus with this verse, saying, “Behold: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Satan is also called a lion in the Bible, though he is more often connected with a serpent, the form he chose to use to deceive Eve. Yet Jesus is also represented by a serpent in Numbers 21, as Jesus himself affirms in John 3:14-15.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes,” Jacob said. Commentaries on Genesis devote pages to deciphering the identity of Shiloh. A city of this name was built and for a time was home to the Tabernacle, but the city was probably named for the promise, rather than the promise predicting the city. “Shiloh” appears related to “Shalom,” which means peace, and some interpreters have suggested that the promise was fulfilled with Solomon, the son of David. Yet the best interpretation of this verse is that Shiloh is another name for the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Solomon was only another picture of Jesus, but Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. When Roman authority placed Herod, the Idumean, over the Jews, then it was time for the true King of the Jews to be born.

“To him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.” All these images are fulfilled in Jesus. He rode a colt, the foal of a donkey, into Jerusalem. He declared to his followers, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.” He shed his blood on the cross to rescue sinners, but a few hours earlier he held a cup of wine in his hands and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Before he died, his own clothing was taken away by the soldiers; but through his death, Jesus has clothed his people in his righteousness. As Adam and Eve were clothed by God, and as Jacob was accepted by Isaac because of Esau’s clothing, and as the brothers of Joseph brought the blood-stained robe of Joseph to their father, so we are clothed in Christ, washed clean in his blood, and made acceptable to our Father.

By his prophecy, Jacob prepared his family for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of David, the Prince of Peace, the Redeemer of the world. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, set to rule all nations under his scepter and to bring peace to the entire world.

Christ in Genesis: Melchizedek

In Genesis 14, Abraham leads a commando unit to rescue Lot and the other citizens of Sodom after they have been seized in a raid led by four kings from the east. Abraham’s mission is successful, and afterward Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God most high. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything. The identity of Melchizedek is a puzzle. He is mentioned in Psalm 110 and plays a prominent role in the letter to the Hebrews, where Jesus is declared to be a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Some people have suggested that Melchizedek is Jesus, the same Jesus who spoke with Abraham on many occasions and even ate at the tent of Abraham. Another suggestion is that Melchizedek is Shem, the son of Noah, who lived 502 years beyond the flood. (This is an interesting suggestion, as Methuselah, according to the book of Genesis, was born early enough to have known Abraham and lived long enough to know Noah and his sons. Now Shem was born early enough to have known Methuselah and lived long enough to known Abraham.) Both these suggestions overlook an important truth: Abraham and his family were not the only people on earth who believed in God. Although the promise of salvation was being carried out through the family of Abraham, other people also believed that promise and were saved through the future work of Jesus. As a priest of God, Melchizedek taught and served some of those people.

Hebrews 7 notes that Melchizedek is a picture of Jesus. His name means “king of righteousness,” and as king of Salem he is also “king of peace.” Like Jesus, Melchizedek is both a king and a priest. This was forbidden in Israel. King Saul was rejected by God because as king he offered sacrifices to God rather than waiting for Samuel to arrive. King Uzziah was punished, stricken with leprosy, because he burned incense to the Lord in the Temple, which was intended only for priests to do (II Chronicles 26:16-21). In Israel, no one but Jesus Christ was fit to serve as both priest and king.

All the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Jesus is the ultimate King, but every other king is a picture of Jesus. Even bad kings are bad pictures of Jesus. All the priests of Israel were pictures of Jesus, making offerings for the forgiveness of sins, representing the people to God and pleading for their forgiveness. Jesus is the ultimate Priest, offering himself as full payment for all the sins of history, pleading to his Father for our forgiveness. Even evil priests and ungodly sacrifices are bad pictures of Jesus. By combining these jobs, Melchizedek was a unique picture of Jesus. Only he and Jesus belong to the order which bears his name.

God in a box

When your family celebrates your birthday with you, do they get out the old pictures and look at you as a newborn baby, lying in a crib in the hospital with a knit cap on your head to keep you warm? Do you look at the same picture year after year? I thought not.

On Washington’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the colonial mansion? On Lincoln’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the log cabin in Kentucky? On King’s birthday do we talk about the baby born in Atlanta? Generally, when we celebrate the birth of a hero, we remember the entire life and career of that hero, not merely the circumstances of his or her birth.

What is it, then, about the manger scene that makes it central to every year’s Christmas celebrations? We see it on Christmas cards and in three-dimensional displays, we see it portrayed by children, we sing about it, and every single Christmas we hear again about Mary and Joseph and the manger because there was no room in the inn. Every year we hear about angels and shepherds and Bethlehem. Every year we bring out the baby pictures and remember Jesus at the time when he was born.

The prophets spoke of a King born in Bethlehem and of a virgin giving birth to Immanuel, but the prophets never mentioned the manger. The apostles wrote about Jesus, but they did not comment on the manger. Only Luke gives us the details of a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger—Matthew and Mark and John did not consider the manger worth mentioning.

The cynical part of my mind thinks that the manger is celebrated because it is our chance to put God in a box. No one feels threatened by a newborn baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The power of God and his judgment upon sin are conveniently missing from our Christmas pictures. On Good Friday and on Easter we see the cost of sin and the power of God. We are confronted by grace and mercy in a way that encourages us to confess our sins and to trust ourselves in the hands of our Savior. On Christmas, we can leave God in the manger, and we can credit ourselves with bringing gifts to him as the wise men did. We invite our Lord to “sleep in heavenly peace” while we go on celebrating his birth in a way that suits our sense of autonomy and control.

Yet that baby lying in the manger was still running the universe at the same time. That baby lying in the manger was invading a sinful world to confront and destroy evil and at the same time to rescue the victims of evil. That baby lying in a manger, relying on his mother for food and shelter and diaper changes, was almighty and all-knowing, present everywhere in the universe even while confined to a small human shape.

If Christmas is merely Jesus’ birthday, that is still no reason to skip over the rest of the life and career of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem long ago. He did not remain the Christ Child lying in a manger; his birth into this world means more than any other birth in human history. The point of Christmas is more than a birthday—it is the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is a reminder that the all-powerful eternal God became one of us, as human as we are, to battle our enemies and to defeat them, not with power but with sacrifice, because God is love.

Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. To underline the promise of that title, he was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” His first bed was a manger, the very place where sheep come to be fed. The manger is meaningful, not as a box to contain God, but as a humble place in this world where God promises to be found. The manger becomes a symbol of the other humble places where God is found—in his Word, the Holy Bible, and in the gathering of his people, the Holy Christian Church.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the people of God will gather to hear and to sing about the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. Beyond that manger lies a cross where the Shepherd will rescue his sheep, giving them peace and eternal life by his sacrifice. May your coming Christmas celebrations bring you, not only to the manger, but to the Shepherd and the King. J.