Revelation 12: 1-12

December 24, 2009

Revelation 12: 1-12

Here’s a sort of wacky, unexpected way to end our Advent series.  I bet you weren’t expecting a dragon.

This passage, like yesterday’s, is written by the apostle John.  I have to admit that I’m not 100% sure of this, but I think Revelation 12 is John’s rock opera version of the whole story we’ve been reading the past three weeks.  Just like in Genesis 3, there’s a woman, a child, and a serpent–but the serpent has grown to monstrous proportions.  It’s a huge, multi-headed dragon that knocks stars out of the sky with a flick of its tail.  Just like Herod, this dragon is trying to kill the newborn child; the child is snatched away again to safety, not in Egypt but in heaven.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how big and scary this serpent has become.  He’s not strong enough.  He’s not just stomped in the head by the child; he’s hurled from heaven by the child and his angel army.  Just like Archelaus followed Herod, this dragon, though hurled from heaven, still can do some damage for a while on the earth and the sea.  But it’s just the death throes; soon the child will take up his strong, but gentle, and just and fair reign.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

John 1: 1-14

December 23, 2009

John 1: 1-14

Today’s passage is the apostle John’s version of the Advent and Christmas stories.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading Matthew and Luke’s stories about angelic visitations, miraculous births, virgin births, and custom stars.  Now that I read John, those stories seem downright prosaic.  Can we safely say that John is something of a mystic?

We find a pretty amazing offer in this passage: each of us can have our own miraculous birth.  Just like Jesus, we can be children of God, not as a family right, not out of some carefully laid plan of our own or our parents, but by the power and the gift of God. Sounds nice, but I have to admit that this concept of being a child of God can sometimes feel a little nebulous to me.  The best way I can get a grasp on it is through the idea of family resemblance.  John is saying here that people will say of us, ‘You’re a chip off the old block,’ or, ‘You really take after your mother.’  But the parent we’re a chip off of is God.  Just like God, we can bring peace and grace and truth and light into any situation.

I find myself responding like Mary: ‘But tell me, how will this be?’  It seems a bit far-fetched, seeing who I am, in myself, right now.

I think God’s answer is the same as the angel’s: ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’

God, I do pray that by your Holy Spirit, you’ll make me more like you.

Luke 2: 39-52

December 22, 2009

Luke 2: 39-52

This is the only story we have of Jesus as a child, and I can see how it would be a memorable for his parents.  On the way home from the big city, it took them a full day to realize that Jesus wasn’t among the gaggle of cousins and neighbor-children that were traveling in their caravan–that had to have been a pretty painful ‘I thought he was with you’ moment.  They spent another day traveling back to Jerusalem, and apparently another full day searching for him.  What exactly did the twelve year old Jesus do for those three days?  Where did he sleep?  How did he eat?  Was he frantically looking for them?  Was he cold?  Had he been abducted?

I wonder if it was more of a relief or an exasperation for Mary and Joseph to find Jesus well, safe, and completely oblivious to any sort of crisis.  Is it okay to call the Son of God precocious?  It certainly sounds precocious when this twelve-year-old boy says to his worried parents, ‘Oh, I thought you knew I had some business to do here.’  But then again, what this whole passage shows us is that Jesus is no ordinary twelve-year-old.  Everyone who interacts with him is amazed and astonished.  To all appearances, he’s a lost, little boy.  But he’s actually fully in charge.  This reminds me of a couple of our earlier passages:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9: 6).

And

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11: 6).

Matt 2: 19-23

December 21, 2009

Matthew 2: 19-23

Today’s passage reminds me of our Isaiah 40: 6-11 post:

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.

King Herod was truly awful, but he couldn’t continue his reign of terror forever.  His son Archelaus is just as bad in many ways, but he has less room to operate; his kingdom is only about a quarter of the size of Herod’s.  In this passage, evil certainly hasn’t been completely stamped out, but it is being shortened, and cornered, edged out.  It’s getting smaller and less significant.

We’ve seen even worse things since Herod and Archelaus were around.  But one thing stands true: none of those things have lasted forever; they eventually wither and fade away.  Pray with me for a shorter and shorter lifespan of evil, and for God’s promises to fully blossom and to last forever.

Matthew 2: 13-18

December 20, 2009

Matthew 2: 13-18

In the Jeremiah 23 entry, and a couple of others, we noted that one of the big jobs of the Messiah would be to take over the government.  Earthly kings had shown again and again that they couldn’t be trusted to lead well or fairly or justly; so God was coming to put the whole business of government under new management.  That’s very good news for most of us, but bad news for a few: namely, those unjust, unfair, or ineffective current governors.

I think it’s fair to say that Herod is one of those bad governors the Old Testament prophets hand in mind.  He seems to have an inkling that his time is coming to an end, but he’s not going to go down without a fight.  It’s hard to know what to say about the staggeringly cruel and horrific action he’s willing to take to preserve his own power.  I don’t know whether it makes it better or worse to know that this slaughter of Bethlehem’s children is actually entirely in character for Herod: he became king by marrying a princess and then assassinating her entire family, and eventually the princess herself; and he executed several of his own sons who either plotted against him or were framed for doing so.  Mass murder is practically workaday policy for Herod.

For understandable reasons, this episode is often edited out of the Christmas story.  A fadeout after the third king puts the frankincense at the feet of the smiling baby makes for such a good ending.  But the truth is that the child in the manger isn’t really the end of the story; it’s just the beginning of the end, as they say.  Sure, there are angels, and shepherds, and good-hearted foreigners, and faithful old men and women celebrating the arrival of a good, new king.  But there are also bad, old kings who are digging in their heels; and there’s a lot of costly fighting ahead to finally dislodge that old regime.

Matthew 2: 1-12

December 19, 2009

Matthew 2: 1-12

Today’s passage is, of course, the inspiration for the classic carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’  You may notice, from a careful reading of the passage, that the Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., uses a little poetic license in his carol.  We have no idea, for instance, how many of these ‘kings’ there were.  There were three gifts, but–who knows?–there could have been duplicates, or some of the guys could have gone in together on a gift; these are fairly big ticket items, after all.

Also, they’re not kings at all.  They’re astrologers.

I think Rev. Hopkins calls these astrologers ‘kings’ in order to more strongly connect them with a series of Old Testament prophecies that speak of other nations streaming to the coming Lord to honor him and seek his wisdom.  This visit from the foreign astrologers is clearly something of a down payment on a fulfillment of those prophecies.  These impressive astrologers even get the gifts right:

Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . .

And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD (Isaiah 60: 3, 6)

Sheba, by the way, is probably in Arabia, which may be where these Magi are from; they could also be from Persia, or Babylonia.

One thing that sticks out to me about this passage is how eager God is to communicate.  In general, the Bible tells us that God frowns on astrology.  But God really wants these people to know the good news that the long-awaited king has come.  And these people speak astrology.  So, God breaks his own rule, and speaks to them in astrology.

The other thing I notice is the strong contrast between these foreign astrologers  and the Jewish religious experts.  The Magi don’t even quite know what they’re looking for, all they have to go on is a star, and eventually they have to stop and ask directions; but they travel a long distance to see this exciting new thing God is doing.  The religious experts in Jerusalem have been expecting the Messiah for hundreds of years.  They know exactly where to find him.  And he’s only six miles away.  Yet, they can’t even be bothered to go and check it out.

I guess knowledge and familiarity can be a dangerous thing.  God preserve me from such jadedness–or forgive me and heal me from the ways I’m already jaded.

Luke 2: 21-38

December 18, 2009

Luke 2: 21-38

I’m by no means an old man, but I’ve lived long enough now  to notice that it’s really hard to tell what will stay the same forever and what will drastically change just around the corner.  When I was born, NASA had less computing power than I am currently carrying in my pocket–and yet, traveling by rocket pack remains a distant prospect.  On a political level, none of us would have dreamed in 1980 that the Berlin Wall would be torn down and apartheid dismantled just a few short years in the future; but peace in the Middle East seems at least as far away as ever.

Simeon and Anna both hoped for and believed in God doing something in their lifetime that people had been waiting 700 years to see.  It took a while (if I’m doing my math right, Anna is over 100 years old), but it happened.  What are one or two big changes for the better you’d like to see happen in our world?  Ask God to give you the gift he gave Simeon and Anna, of seeing those things happen in your own lifetime.

Luke 2: 8-20

December 17, 2009

Luke 2: 8-20

In this passage, even God seems to be panting a bit with excitement.  He simply has to tell someone the exciting news that the thing he’s been preparing for so long is now happening.  God may have chosen the shepherds simply because they’re awake in the middle of the night–like running into Store 24 to talk to the clerk because, well, you know that he’ll be there and you really need to talk to someone.

I think that God’s choice was a bit more intentional than that, though.  Maybe God put some thought into it, and decided, ‘You know who’d really appreciate what I’m about to do: a shepherd.’  As you may recall, one of the repeated images God uses in the prophets to describe this coming Lord/Savior/Messiah (‘Messiah’ is the blanket term that over time came to be used for this mysterious coming Lord; it basically means, ‘Commissioned One’) is that of a good shepherd (see Isaiah 40: 11 and Jeremiah 23: 1-6, for example).  These experts in what it takes to guide and protect and care for a flock could really understand and celebrate with God the fact that God has just hired a new, well-qualified shepherd for his own flock.

This particular night is the shepherds’ night to shine.  They have the unique privilege of partying with an angel choir the entrance of a new, divine shepherd into their ranks.  Maybe not all of us will get the chance to party with angels, or to be there when the infant Savior was born (that ship has sailed).  But I would like to think that each of us could have some–smaller, perhaps–occasion to ‘talk shop’ with God.  Maybe there’s something about each of our jobs that God can relate to.  Not necessarily that we’re doing God’s work at our jobs, but that we’re doing a kind of work that God ‘gets.’

Have any of you ever had that sense of collegiality with God, or gotten insight into God’s work through your own?

Luke 2: 1-7

December 16, 2009

Luke 2: 1-7

I think today’s passage includes what is sometimes called a ‘plot device.’  The Old Testament prophecies of the coming, divine king set up something of a puzzle: Isaiah 9 tells us that the coming king will come from Galilee, but Micah 5 tells us he comes from Bethlehem.  Are Isaiah and Micah talking about two different eternal kings?  That would seem a bit redundant.  But if it’s the same king, how does he come from both Bethlehem and Galilee?  Is it possible that one of these two biblical prophets was wrong?  Would Isaiah or Micah (the smart money was on him) have to be cut from the next edition of the Bible?  (I exaggerate here.  There’s no evidence that Micah or Isaiah was in danger of losing his canonical status, and certainly not that people were gambling on which one.  The point is this is quite a contradiction between the two; it must have made thing awkward at the prophet conventions [again, just kidding].)

Enter Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Palestine was included in the Roman region of Syria at the time), and his tax census.

According to the census rules, you paid your taxes where you owned property, not where you lived.  And apparently, Joseph owned property in his family’s ancestral home, Bethlehem, not in his current residence of Nazareth.  So, tax reform and a quirk in the census rules end up working it out just perfectly for both Isaiah and Micah to be right: Jesus is from Nazareth, but born in Bethlehem.

Do you think God knew 700 years earlier (when he was speaking to Isaiah and Micah) that he’d use taxes and an Italian governor to pull this little feat off?  Or is that a challenge he left himself to work out later?

How about you?  Have you ever had an ‘I can’t believe everything fell in place so neatly, just like God said it would’ moment?

Matthew 1: 18-25

December 15, 2009

Matthew 1: 18-25

I don’t imagine this is the wedding Joseph had in mind.  Of course, things aren’t at all as bad as they first appear.  At first, it looks like his fiancée has gotten pregnant by another man.  Joseph thinks he has been betrayed by the woman who was supposed to become his wife.  The wedding would have to be called off.  Public embarrassment, for her and for him, could be minimized, but not completely avoided.  And who knows where things would go from there?

Of course, Joseph learns that there’s more to the story (In a dream, by the way.  Joseph is a faithful man, to God and to Mary.  I think I’d need more than a dream to accept the idea that my fiancée’s pregnancy was divinely inspired).  Things aren’t as bad as they seem.  In fact, he gets to play a part in something quite wonderful.  But that doesn’t mean it’s normal or easy.

A pregnant fiancée.  A quick wedding.  A honeymoon delayed by several months.  The raised eyebrows and behind-the-back whispers of the neighbors.  This isn’t exactly a dream wedding.  And I bet Joseph has a sense that it’s just the beginning; the simple life with a wife, and two kids, and a dog, and a son to whom he could pass on the family business (or whatever the first century Palestinian equivalent would be) is just not in his future.

Joseph leaves normal behind, but he gets God–God in his family, and for the whole world.