Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: King vs. King

It's the part of the Christmas story no one ever talks about. Everybody loves the angels. Everybody loves the shepherds. Everybody loves the happy family 'round the manger. People even like the wise men. But nobody likes the king and his soldiers. I've never seen a Christmas card with butchery on the front of it. But our unease and discomfort doesn't stop Herod from barking his orders. It doesn't stop the weary soldiers from marching the four miles from his Herodium to David's sleepy hometown. It doesn't stop them from barging through the gates and smashing down the doors. It doesn't stop them from roughing up the locals as they hunt, house to house, for any toddler and infant boys, and putting them to the sword. Bethlehem wasn't a large town – there can't have been more than twenty. But from Bethlehem, the soldiers spread to all the neighboring villages, repeating the same. I wonder if, in the year after they saw the angels, any of the shepherds and their wives welcomed a son into their home. I wonder if any of them were bereaved in the belated aftermath of the heavenly song. But peace on earth was never popular with tyrants like Herod.

No, the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly anyone's favorite scene in the Christmas story. But there it is. And Herod is hardly anyone's favorite character, nor should he be. But there he is. Over the past six weeks, we've met seemingly all the cast of Christmas – we've given our listening ear to the stories of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the prophets, the wise men. But now we meet the one we're not sure we want to meet. How many of us really know much about Herod, after all? Why did Herod do what he did? What's his story?

Once upon a time, things were not looking good for the Jewish people. They were under the thumb of a Syrian king, who tried to ban Judaism and force the Jews to worship false gods. He even desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig to the Greek god Zeus in it. A band of brothers, sons of the priest Mattathias, led a rebellion, gained independence, and purified the temple – that's what Hanukkah celebrates. One of those brothers, Simon, was appointed not only high priest but also the Jewish leader. In 135 BC, Simon was assassinated, and his son John Hyrcanus stepped up. In the coming decades, John raised an army to conquer several small territories nearby – including Idumea. Idumea was home to the Edomites, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau from long ago. John forced them to convert and become Jews.

During the reign of John's son Alexander Jonathan, an Idumean named Antipater rose to become the governor of his home province. Antipater was a clever man – he exploited tension between Alexander's sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. In 63 BC, when a Roman general named Pompey took over the area, he confirmed Hyrcanus as high priest – but not as king. Instead, he appointed the ingratiating Antipater as a local civil authority for Judea. Sixteen years later, when Pompey went to war against his former friend Julius Caesar, Antipater switched sides, came to Caesar's rescue with three thousand men, and was rewarded handsomely. Antipater was able to appoint two of his own sons as governors – a son named Phasael became governor of Jerusalem, and for a governor of Galilee, Antipater picked his other son: Herod.

Herod was about twenty-six years old at the time, and he was a young man with a hard disposition and a quick temper. A band of robbers was harassing the area, so Herod had them apprehended and put to death without so much as a trial. The Sanhedrin, the council that enforced Jewish law, summoned Herod to be put on trial himself. He showed up armed with soldiers, hinting that any verdict against him would lead to a massacre. He then left the city, and only his father and brother could stem his temper from waging war on the high priest Hyrcanus.

Herod was about my age when his father Antipater died. Julius Caesar had been assassinated just a year before, and Mark Antony was seeing the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and running the show. When Hyrcanus was ousted by his own nephew Antigonus, Herod traveled to Rome, and thanks to some well-placed bribes to Mark Antony and the Senate, bought the title of “King of the Jews.” Herod came home and waged war for three years against Antigonus. During those three years, he banished his own wife Doris, and his son Antipater, so that he could marry Hyrcanus' granddaughter, a gorgeous princess named Mariamne. Around 37 BC, Herod and some Roman help recaptured Jerusalem. Soon the holy city understood why Herod was feared – he kept executing former rebels and demanding more and more treasure to line his pockets.

His new bride had a teenage brother named Aristobulus, a handsome young man who became high priest; but less than a year after his appointment, Herod was so afraid that Mark Antony would like him better and make him king, that Herod arranged for Aristobulus to 'accidentally' drown in a shallow swimming pool. Mariamne soon learned that her beauty made Herod insane with jealousy – whenever he went away, he left orders that she be killed if he died, so that no one could have her after him.

Four years after Aristobulus' death, Roman power struggles left Antony and Cleopatra dead and Julius Caesar's nephew Octavian on the throne as the Emperor Augustus. After gaining his favor, Herod was free to continue ruling in his usual way. The next year, he accused his wife's grandfather Hyrcanus of treason for allegedly bribing the Arabian governor – and had Hyrcanus executed. The year after that, in a fit of jealous rage, Herod ordered his own wife's execution. After her death, he became inflamed with a distemper, with sharp headaches driving him mad. His wife's mother Alexandra, Hyrcanus' daughter, declared Herod mentally unfit to rule and tried proclaiming herself queen; it didn't exactly help her life expectancy.

The next year, Herod had his sister's husband Kostobar executed as well, along with some others. It was around this time that he started spending big bucks on building projects, including Roman-style theaters in Jerusalem and sponsoring athletic games that included nude wrestling. Some local Jews were not happy, and tried to spark a revolt. But Herod's spy uncovered them, and they were tortured to death. When his spy was killed, Herod tracked down the killers and executed them – and their whole families.

In a bid to regain popularity, Herod curried favor with the people by feeding them during the famine of 25 BC. Around that time, he appointed Simon Boethus as high priest so he could marry the man's daughter – also named Mariamne. Herod rebuilt Samaria, founded the port city of Caesarea, and went on a marrying spree that included a Samaritan woman, a number of others, and even a couple of his nieces – he ended up with nine wives in all.

Herod ruled with a heavy hand, commissioning a secret police to put the whole land under surveillance and harshly punish any critics of his rule. Herod demanded that all people take an oath of loyalty to his government. But to establish his Jewish credentials, around the year 20 BC he commissioned his most daring building project: to expand the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem and make the temple more impressive than ever. And during his travels out of the country, he positioned himself as a defender of the freedoms of Jewish communities everywhere.

All this was expensive, and reportedly he tried to replenish his resources by actually robbing the tombs of David and Solomon. Around that time, family intrigue started spinning out of control in his home, with relatives all jockeying for power. By this time well into his sixties, Herod was becoming increasingly self-conscious about his age, reportedly dying his hair to look younger, and he descended ever deeper into paranoia. In 7 BC, after years of suspicions about their scheming, he had two of his own sons put to death. The next year, he began persecuting a Jewish movement that refused to pledge their loyalties to Rome and had the gall to prophesy the coming end of his reign. That movement was a sect known as the Pharisees.

Herod grew older and sicker. He divorced the high priest's daughter and removed him from office. In 5 BC, again paranoid about being overthrown, he had his eldest son Antipater put on trial and thrown in prison, and changed his will. The next year, a pair of leading Pharisees urged a crowd to tear down a pair of golden eagles that Herod had placed in front of the temple. Herod had the perpetrators all burned alive. But Herod's sickness grew stronger – he had a burning fever, constantly hungry and in pain throughout his body, developed gangrene, sprung a leak. On his deathbed, he knew he was an unpopular king, and so he gave the orders for all the prominent Jewish leaders to be brought to Jericho and shut up in the hippodrome there. Herod gave orders that, as soon as he died, soldiers were to massacre everyone the Jews loved, so that the day he died would be a day of sadness and not celebration for the people. His final act was to have his imprisoned son Antipater put to death. Herod himself died five days later, thankfully without the carnage he'd intended.

Herod's career was full of political maneuvering and lofty building projects, including work not just on God's temple but the erection of temples to pagan gods like Apollo. He postured as a defender of Jewish rights abroad but had no qualms about repression at home that would have done the Soviets proud. His appetites for gold and for women ran away with him, and his impulsive temper and ever-expanding paranoia led to unspeakable bursts of violence during the years of his rule – though Herod probably would have just prided himself for being tough on crime and acting in political self-defense.

During those last fever-ridden years of his life, perhaps a year or two after he had two of his own sons put to death and maybe at or shortly before the time he was putting his heir Antipater on trial, a diplomatic mission from the Parthian Empire arrived, with astrologers saying they'd seen portents indicating that a real King of the Jews was on the scene now – someone who would rule by birthright, and not simply by bribing his way into it as Herod did. With Herod constantly paranoid about being replaced even by his own children, it's no wonder we read that “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). All Jerusalem was getting used to the consequences of Herod feeling troubled!

Knowing the story of Herod's life, it's hardly out of character for him to try manipulating the wise men into finding this troublesome new rival for him. Herod never intended to “come and worship him” like he said (Matthew 2:8). If there's one talent Herod perfected since the days he was governor of Galilee, it was lying to conceal his real intentions. And when the wise men foil his plot, it's hardly out of character for Herod to be “furious” and to order the slaughter of any possible candidates (Matthew 2:16). This was the sort of thing Herod did all the time, really – from a worldly point of view, this one little act of cruelty was small potatoes.

Nothing Matthew tells us about Herod is out of character. Anyone who remembered the Herod years would nod sadly along with everything Matthew reports. Of course Herod would try trickery. Of course Herod would be upset when it failed. Of course Herod, ever crafty but ever impulsive, would be thrown into a paranoid tizzy by the thought of anyone else becoming king in his place. So the Massacre of the Innocents is hardly unexpected. It's just the sort of thing tyrants past their prime do: lash out petulantly in their perpetual insecurity. Of course the so-called “King of the Jews” would become like the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and of course a new Joseph would have to flee to Egypt to protect his son from the new Pharaoh in Judea. The exodus story gets turned on its head. To have a man like Herod wearing a crown and commanding armies is a dangerous thing.

And yet the world is full of Herods whom we gladly crown. There are so many things we tend to exalt as kings in our lives. You see it in the political arena, of course. We've had our share of presidents, legislators, and judges who seem to live by Herod's code. But in our lives, there are things we crown – ideas, ideals, goals, forces, people, desires. And it plays out just as well as the Herodian administration of the first century BC. What happens when we crown a Herod in our lives? Herod spirals out of control – constantly demanding more from us, more from other people, constantly demanding that everything and everyone be subjected to and controlled by it, always consuming and abusing, until finally the things that are most tender and precious to God become broken and harmed.

In America today, we treasure our independence, our individual right to be a law unto ourselves, to abolish the restrictions telling us what we can and can't do. We cherish our freedom to be masters of our own fate and our own bodies. And what do we see? That freedom spirals out of control until it reaches the clinic, where the Massacre of the Innocent Children happens all over again. That's Herod right there. But we're the ones who crowned him in the first place; what did we expect? Or, again, we treasure our passions, our feelings of love and desire; we have to follow our hearts, we say, and do whatever they pine for. We've crowned the little Herod in each of us. So it's no surprise when a string of broken homes stands in his wake, and when we learn not to trust each other anymore. That's Herod right there. We crowned him; what did we expect? Or try this: we treasure our sense of honor and standing – maybe in the town, maybe in the home, maybe in the church – and so we let our thirst for respect and status run rampant over those around us. We become protective of our sense of who we are, and step by step we become willing to put others down, even tear the church down, for the sake of it. You've no doubt seen things like that happen. That's Herod right there. What did we expect when we crowned him?

Examples could be multiplied 'til Monday morning. But so often, in our lives, we crown Herod as king – any created reality we choose to feed and heed, anything we allow to rule us – including ourselves – that runs the risk of consuming and abusing what really matters. It can be a hobby. It can be a relationship. It can be a value or an ideal. It can be a family member. It can be a behavioral dynamic. It can be a desire, a passion, an agenda, an idea. It can be some aspect of yourself. It can be something that, without a crown, might lead a fine life. But put a crown on its head, and you can expect nothing less than a repeat of the story of Herod – and sooner or later, something innocent will be sacrificed in its name.

But Herod isn't the only king in this story. That's actually rather the point. Herod was the so-called “king of the Jews” – a title bought from foreign oppressors for cold hard cash – but there's someone else in the cast of the Christmas story who is born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). And he isn't just in the cast; he's the star of the show. Herod has one way of being king, but this child born in Bethlehem has another. Herod is old, sickly, and insecure. But this king is both ancient and newborn – ancient in his divinity, infant in his humanity. He has no insecurity in him. Herod's rule is full of political schemes, constantly lying and distorting reality to manipulate others. But this other king, this Jesus, never manipulates and never lies; he just is the Truth (John 14:6).

Herod built so much during his reign. I'm sure many people were glad for it. In fact, a lot of the things people go over to the Holy Land to see as tourists, are the things Herod built. Herod built a lot. In fact, he built too much. He tried to build both God's temple and demon temples. He tried to honor God's law while promoting blasphemy. He tried to play both sides. But this king born in Bethlehem builds only one thing: “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). And the church he built is so much more beautiful than the temples and theaters and fortresses of Herod, and we don't have to travel far away to see it in action.

Herod married many women. He was an abusive and controlling husband. He exploited his wives as pawns; he craved their beauty as an object; he wanted to keep them under lock and key; he wielded death and danger as a weapon even in his own home. He was the opposite of all a man should be. Herod collected wives like trophies, and his jealousies raged between passionate desire and bitter hatred. But this king born in Bethlehem cherishes a single Bride: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her … without spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). He has eyes for no other. He leads by gentle love, not an iron fist.

Herod was paranoid, and he craved power, he clutched after power, and he resorted freely to brutal violence to keep it; one early Jewish historian called him “a stranger to humanity” because of his animalistic cruelty. As a result, many lives were lost, freely sacrificed to Herod's ambitions, his appetites, or simply the unrestrained impulses of his hot temper. Herod lived by the sword; he ruled with repression and violence. But this king born in Bethlehem never did any violence. He lived gently, he pursued justice with the word of God and not with swords, and in the end he offered himself up to be sacrificed by the violent for the sake of others, to bring an end to violence. The prophets saw long ago that “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). No one could credibly say that about King Herod. But no one could credibly deny it about King Jesus.

We see, over and over again, what happens when we give the crown to Herod. And yet we keep doing it. We resist the real rule of a real alternative. We keep crowning a succession of Herods, and the results are hardly unexpected. But perhaps it's time to cast all these crowns at the feet of another king – this one called Jesus. What would your life look like if you withheld crowns from all your Herods and gave them to Jesus instead? Which king will you crown? Which king will you imitate? “Choose you this day...” (Joshua 24:15).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Cast of Christmas: Sages

They gazed, I have to imagine, with intense curiosity toward the night sky, captivated by what they saw. This was no ordinary night. The constellations, the planets, the heavenly bodies were all in line to speak mysteries to them. Beneath the velvet heavens, a fire worshipfully crackled and spat before their feet. Normally, the Magi would be torn between the two: the truth defended and revealed by fire, or the potent influence of the skies. But tonight there was no contest. The Magi served in the Parthian court, a class of advisors, diplomats, even priests. They were, oftentimes, astrologers; they were, at times, arcane occultists. Some in the west called them magicians, conjurers. But this band of Magi saw themselves as scholars – researchers of the heavens and the earth, deep thinkers, meditating on the lore of the past and the shadowy shimmerings of the future, using all their ritual and intellectual skill, their wisdom and their studies, to quest after the secrets beneath water and flame, the script of spirits in the skies. They longed to serve truth rather than deception. And they were loyal to the rulers of Persia, and served in the king's court, as their distant grandfathers had served King Darius long ago, in the days of a troublesome rival 'wise man' called Daniel.

But their minds that night were not fixed on trivia of history, but on the sign in the sky. To astrologers like the Magi, it was a message as clear as a book. A king was born in the west, a great king, a king worthy of respect and honor, a fitting recipient of a diplomatic mission to whatever palace housed the young one. But the sign in the sky said nothing about Rome; it indicated the land of the Jews, the kinsmen of that Daniel. The Magi recalled that the fathers and their fathers' fathers had seen signs in the fire, telling them of the birth of a perilous king, a conqueror out of Greece named Alexander – and they had been right. That was a bold sign.

But looking at the sky that night... this band of Magi couldn't help but wonder... Newly born, and already with the proof of kingship? Could this king be the final king, the one spoken of in the texts they'd studied? Could this be the One Who Brings Benefit? The one promised to come and raise the dead, promised to come defeat the armies of evil, promised to come burn wickedness from the earth in a trial by fire, promised to make the world wonderful at last? Could this king be the Savior written of in the books?

After thorough deliberations, after investigating all other possible meanings, the Magi confirmed their hope. In the morning, when the court assembled, they surely brought their petition before Farhad, shah of shahs, a cruel man and yet a weak king, debased before Rome on account of his scheming Italian wife. Nonetheless, he gave them their desired commission: a diplomatic mission, with riches from the court treasury, toward the province of the Jews in the land of the Romans, to seek out this king. Perhaps this newborn king would answer their questions. Perhaps this newborn king would teach them some valuable wisdom. Perhaps this newborn king would bring them benefit after all, and show them how to be “redeemed from their mortality.” And so, thanking the Wise Lord, they assembled a caravan and embarked toward where this 'star' steered them. Surely by this, they thought, the Wise Lord would make them wise.

And aren't we all looking for the same thing? To be made wise, and know our way around this world? To have our questions answered? To see evil defeated and justice vindicated? To be relieved from death and redeemed from mortality? To see the world made pure and beautiful, and to enjoy that benefit and salvation ourselves? The Magi were many things, and it isn't surprising our Bible translations these days often refer to them as 'wise men' – after all, they were scholars from the east, devoted to truth and the service of a God whom they knew as the 'Wise Lord.' Throughout the centuries before and after their day, there have been many 'wise men' looking for real understanding, trying to unravel the universe or stand in awe of its bare-faced mysteries – the likes of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zoroaster, Buddha, Nagarjuna, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Camus, and vastly more. Many of them left behind records of their thoughts and reflections as they tried to love wisdom – and there are some valuable books there.

We may not write the books of wise men, but we ask the same questions that have animated those philosophers: What's the world like, deep down at the bottom? How does it work? What am I, and what am I for? How do we know those things? How much do we know, and how much can we know? What is truth, anyway? Are these things, these ideas, going anywhere? In light of all that, how should we be living? Some of us have more personal questions, questions about how to balance our desires, how to find health amid the chaos, how to face the confusion and the noise. In the end, we want to know: How do we find, and how do we get to, what it's all about? How do we answer the questions, and how do we reach what we're looking for? And I'd like to suggest this morning that following in the footsteps of this band of Magi might be helpful to us after all.

First, the Magi followed the star. When they reached Jerusalem, they said, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). For the Magi, this 'star' was a sign in the sky. It was God acting in nature to speak their language. Theirs was a flawed idiom; astrology was, and is, a load of bunk, a big bushel of road apples. The Magi were pagans – but God stooped to speak in a way these pagans could understand, with a sign. They merely took note of what they could already discern with what they already knew and understood. For us, the evident signs God leaves us might include cosmic wonder, purposive order, moral obligation, and human dignity.1 They might include the canvas painted at a sunset or the intricacy of a flower on a spring morning; might include the clear hand of Providence in history; might include the unshakeable call toward something greater, something truer, something more just and right; might include the many forms and specks of truth in what we already accept and admit even before we've met the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth. But the Magi learned that what Daniel taught was true, that there is a God in heaven who “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who understand” (Daniel 2:21). God placed his sign in the sky for the Magi, so that those who studied could understand its meaning; God has placed his many signs throughout the world, pointing us the same place, for every star “proclaims the work of his hands,” every star “pours forth speech” and “reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Second, the Magi learned that the star didn't tell them the whole story. It sent them, first, to Jerusalem; but once there, they had assumed they would find this newborn king, the one who, unlike the Roman appointee Herod, had been born king of the Jews,” in a palace there. They had no inkling of elsewhere, 'til Herod asked the priests and scribes to fill in the blanks from the special revelation of God through his prophets, pointing toward the Judean town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6). The star was a valuable sign to pagans on a quest for wisdom, but it couldn't get them the full way. God's signs in nature, God's impressions on our reasoning powers, all our many ideas and speculations, our experiments of trial and error, our thoughts and reflections – they may well get us part way, but there's further to go. We need God to explain in scripture what we're missing. The stars may proclaim God's handiwork and reveal knowledge, but “the law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making the simple wise” (Psalm 19:7). And that's the next step.

Third, the Magi – unlike Herod's priests and scribes – actually took action. The scribes knew where to find the Messiah, but they didn't go to him. But the Magi put on their boots and their hats and headed out the door. The search for wisdom didn't begin and end in their armchairs back in Persia, or their laboratories, their studies, their fire temples or homes. They weren't content to just know about where to go; they had to actually go there. So they followed the star to Judea, and they set out to follow the prophecy to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9a). If we want to find the answers to our questions, the solutions to our problems, we have to do the same: we have to be actively responsive to God's signs and God's scriptures. And note that, after setting out for Bethlehem, the star didn't abandon them; now, equipped with special revelation, the star takes on a new meaning and leads them six miles south, to the very house where Mary and Joseph are living (Matthew 2:9b), letting them share the same “great joy” once announced by living stars to a band of perplexed shepherds some time earlier.

Fourth, by taking action on both the sign and the scripture, the Magi are blessed to encounter and recognize the Wisdom of God. They had gone in search of a newborn king. But they found, no mere king, but Christ. And we read that “Christ Jesus … became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), because Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). When God's Wisdom personally cries out in the Book of Proverbs, talking about predating the depths and the mountains and the hills, the one speaking is Christ, the Wisdom of God. And the Magi meet him. They recognize who he is: that the God who gives wisdom to the wise had become, not just a God in heaven, but a God on earth, a God in Bethlehem. So they worship (Matthew 2:11a). They find in him a confirmation of everything true, everything good, everything beautiful in what they had already learned in their studies and their lives; but they discover in him a world larger, stranger, brighter than they ever dreamed. All because they entered the House of Wisdom, and found “a Savior, who is Christ the [Wise] Lord” (Luke 2:11), the Wisdom of God made flesh (John 1:14). And they no longer encounter wisdom as a distant and impersonal thing in the pages of books, nor as a mystic force underlying the elements, nor as a far-off divinity; they meet Wisdom face-to-face, in flesh and blood, at the climax of their quest. So do we, as we take our questions and problems on a quest that inevitably leads us to meet the Wisdom of God in Christ.

Fifth, “opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11b). The Magi came as a diplomatic mission, with treasures to bring – which all proved so small, one should think, in the light of Wisdom. But they offered it anyway, not just a tribute to a king, but submerging the best they had, the best they could give, into the life of Wisdom. They took their treasure, and they devoted it to Wisdom.

Having done that, sixth, “they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). Not only did they take a new route, but they went as new Magi, new wise men, new people, new lives. Having encountered Wisdom and placed all their gifts into him, things could never be the same again. They had met the Sufficient Reason, the First Cause, the Unity, the Supreme Good... the Way, the Truth, the Life. They had held hands with the Answer; they had brushed the Solution's hair; they had kissed the feet of the Logic of God, by whom and for whom all things exist, and by whom the world is being made wonderful, though the new creation be born in labor pains (cf. Romans 8:21-25).

In tracing the same path as these ancient 'wise men,' in acting on the signs and scriptures that point us here, we have the opportunity to encounter the Wisdom of God in person. And we bring him our gifts – gifts, not today of gold or frankincense or myrrh, but of the product of grain and grapes. But the gifts we render to Wisdom, to Christ, he renders back to us, transformed, into something else, something higher and more transcendent than all the stars, something more mysterious than all puzzles but more reassuring than all resolutions.

At this table, he offers us a taste of redemption from mortality, into the Best Truth of a world made wonderful. And Wisdom has built this house and cries out, “Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:5-6). Whatever your questions, whatever your problems, whatever your opinions and your reflections, come to the cradle, come to the table today; you need follow no distant omen or encrypted clue to get here, for there is no more uncertainty about where to get wisdom, where to find Christ. He is here. He is here. Let us have communion with Christ, the Wisdom of God. He is here.

1 - See C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (Oxford University, 2012).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Prophets

In reflecting on the story of Christmas, we're just so fond of focusing on figures who fit nicely into our nativity scenes: Joseph, Mary, shepherds, angels, wise men, assorted livestock. But behind the scenes and off-stage lurk others no less important to the full picture. Throughout the centuries and even millennia before that Bethlehem dawn, God sent a number of people we call prophets – human spokesmen given the privilege of eavesdropping on the heavenly counsel taken by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then relaying urgent messages to the rest of us just in the nick of time.

So the prophet Abram heard that God would bring life from his good-as-dead body (Hebrews 11:12), and was reckoned righteous for having faith in a God of Resurrection (Genesis 15:6). He heard that, through the work of this Resurrection God, kings and nations would come from him (Genesis 17:5-6), centering on one Offspring who would inherit the covenant loyalty of the LORD (Genesis 17:7; cf. Galatians 3:16). Just you wait...

The prophet Moses heard that God would someday appoint a new Prophet from the people of Israel, a Prophet coming with a covenant like Moses did (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), when the LORD would circumcise his peoples' wayward hearts to love his justice and mercy (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6); and this Prophet-to-come would be one the LORD would hold all people accountable to believe (Deuteronomy 18:19). Just you wait...

Many years passed. Prophets like Samuel anointed kings like David, who himself was inspired to prophesy in his Psalms. Prophets like Elijah and Elisha worked great wonders in the land. The prophet Amos heard about judgment on Judah and Israel alike (Amos 2:4-8); he spoke of God trying to shake his people awake (Amos 4:6-13), calling them to seek him and live (Amos 5:4) – and after judgment passes through, God promised to raise up “the booth of David” and turn their land into a paradise forever (Amos 9:11-15). Just you wait...

The prophet Hosea heard about the LORD's deep grief at the unfaithfulness of his Bride, and his determination to woo her and wed her at last (Hosea 2:19-20). He recalled the days long before when the LORD adopted Israel as a son and led him up from Egypt with deep compassion (Hosea 11:1-4). But the people were long unfaithful, tempted by paganism and political pressure. After thundering judgment chapter after chapter, finally the LORD says, “My compassion grows warm and tender; I will not execute my burning anger” (Hosea 11:8-9). God contemplates, “Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Grave, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14). And so the prophet Hosea hears God's promise that one day all of God's countless people would be called “sons [and daughters] of the living God” (Hosea 1:10), gathered under a single Head to lead them (Hosea 1:11), who would be a faithful son of David (Hosea 3:5). Just you wait...

And then, how much the prophet Isaiah heard! He saw that, though proud nations like Assyria were God's axe (Isaiah 10:15, 34), sent to chop wayward Judah down to just a holy stump (Isaiah 6:13), out of this remnant stump would grow “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” a fruitful “Branch from his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), that is, a King anointed with God's Spirit to rule with eternal justice (Isaiah 11:2-5). Isaiah explains that this will be a sign for the whole royal family: that “the virgin will conceive and bear a son,” who will be proof that God is with his people after all (Isaiah 7:14). In those troubled times of deepest darkness and greatest gloom (Isaiah 8:22), this great light was to burst forth in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:2) with the birth of a holy King called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), to rule a kingdom with eternal justice (Isaiah 9:7).

This would fulfill the prophecy that “the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him” to “tend his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). This king would be the faithful remnant of the remnant of Israel, the Servant of the LORD, and so God calls him “my Servant, whom I uphold,” and he comes bearing God's Spirit (Isaiah 42:1). He would be anointed to “bring good news to the poor, … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1). This royal Servant would be sent “to bring back the preserved ones of Israel,” but also to be “a light for the nations,” so that “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

This royal Servant, Isaiah says, would “act wisely” (Isaiah 52:13), but nonetheless be “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), becoming “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7). He would “give [his] back to those who strike, and [his] cheeks to those who pull out the beard,” and wouldn't flinch from those who spit in his face (Isaiah 50:6), but in all this the royal Servant would “not cry aloud or lift up his voice” (Isaiah 42:2), for “like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). This was all so he will be, Isaiah foresees, “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), to “[bear] the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12) once “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). And so the royal Servant would be “cut off from the land of the living” and assigned a “grave with the wicked” (Isaiah 53:8-9), having “poured out his soul to death” (Isaiah 53:12). By this the LORD would “wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion” (Isaiah 4:4), and because of his atoning death, the LORD promises through Isaiah, “I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).

But the Servant would not be abandoned to this grave with the wicked or be “numbered with the transgressors” forever, but would later “prolong his days” and “see light and be satisfied” and receive “a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:10-12). Isaiah promises that this Servant or “Branch of the LORD would revive and be “beautiful and glorious” (Isaiah 4:2), living on to “reign in righteousness” (Isaiah 32:1). On his account, God would send messengers “to the coastlands far away that have not heard my fame or seen my glory, and they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). Through this royal Servant would come a new “everlasting covenant” of love (Isaiah 55:3), embracing even foreigners and outcasts (Isaiah 56:3-8), and a family would form around him, for Isaiah says, “He shall see his offspring” (Isaiah 53:10). This is why God tells his Servant, “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring” (Isaiah 44:3), who will be “saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation” (Isaiah 45:17). Just you wait...

In those years of Isaiah's ministry lived also the prophet Micah, who foresaw that an ancient ruler for Israel would emerge from “Bethlehem” (Micah 5:2), through whom God would “tread our iniquities underfoot” and “cast our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Through him, the LORD would gather the outcasts and the afflicted (Micah 4:6-7), and nations would come to seek the LORD and learn his ways of peace (Micah 4:2-3). This Ruler from Bethlehem would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,” and would be “great to the ends of the earth; and he will be their peace” (Micah 5:4-5). Just you wait...

The prophet Habakkuk, in an hour of distress, heard that when this time comes, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). The prophet Zephaniah, too, foresaw that all peoples would learn to “call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9), once the LORD himself would dwell in Jerusalem's midst as “a mighty one who will save” (Zephaniah 3:17), to “save the lame and gather the outcast and … change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19). And the prophet Joel, in the face of a destroying army, declared that once the LORD's Voice would be heard in Jerusalem someday (Joel 3:16), “a fountain shall come forth from the House of the LORD (Joel 3:18). God would grant plenty to his people (Joel 2:23-25), pouring down not just rain but his own Spirit (Joel 2:28-29), and “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Just you wait...

The prophet Jeremiah saw that, after the coming exile, the people would be brought back to seek and find their God (Jeremiah 29:11-14). Someday they would be ruled by a “Ruler [who] shall come out of their midst” (Jeremiah 30:21), when the LORD would “raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land; in his days Judah will be saved” (Jeremiah 23:5-6; cf. 33:15-16). In those days, the prophet saw, God will “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31), and would thus “forgive their iniquity” and “remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). The prophet awaited the day when “all nations shall gather … to the presence of the LORD (Jeremiah 3:17). Just you wait...

So too, the prophet Ezekiel heard that God would “rescue [his] flock” and “set up over them one shepherd,” a king from the line of David, who would “feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:22-23). Through him, God would make a “covenant of peace” with his people (Ezekiel 34:25; 37:26), reviving them to real life (Ezekiel 37:11-14), washing them “clean from all their uncleannesses,” replacing their resistant hearts with tender ones, and filling the people with his own Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). In this way, they would become “one nation in the land, … and one king shall be king over them all” (Ezekiel 37:22), namely, the Good Shepherd from the house of David (Ezekiel 37:24-25). Just you wait...

The prophet Daniel came to bear witness to a “God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Daniel 2:28) and who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Daniel 2:21). In visions he saw the great empires of history as metals like gold, silver, bronze, iron, even clay – but a holy Stone, carved by no human hand, would smash and replace them with a kingdom that would “stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). The prophet also saw the great empires of history as vicious inhuman beasts (Daniel 7:2-8), who would be tamed and replaced by a human figure, the “one like a son of man,” who would receive from God the right to rule that kingdom that stands forever (Daniel 7:13-14). And finally the prophet Daniel heard tell of an 'anointed prince,' the Messiah, who would come and “be cut off” at a very specific time (Daniel 9:26). Just you wait...

The prophet Haggai promised that when the “Desire of Nations” would arrive, the LORD would glorify his new temple more than the one Solomon built (Haggai 2:7-9). The prophet Zechariah promised that the holy Servant of the LORD called “the Branch” (Zechariah 3:8) would be a royal priest who would build God's true temple (Zechariah 6:12-13), and through whom, God says, “I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9). This Branch was to be the King who comes in peace, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” into Jerusalem, “righteous and having salvation” (Zechariah 9:9). Though people would look on “him whom they have pierced” and “mourn for him” (Zechariah 12:10), this would be how “a fountain shall be opened … to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). This humble King would set prisoners free through “the blood of my covenant with you” (Zechariah 9:11), and would rule the earth forever (Zechariah 9:10). Only in this way would “many peoples and strong nations come to seek the LORD (Zechariah 8:22), when the kingdom of God at last arrives (Zechariah 14:9). And the prophet Malachi warned that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” to purify the people (Malachi 3:1-3); and when things seem too hot, “the Sun of Righteousness” would rise with healing in his wings for all who fear the LORD (Malachi 4:2). Just you wait...

Down through the centuries, the prophets kept hitting at so many of the same things. They saw the same things on the horizon, heard the whispers of God as he plotted it all out. And as the people inherited these promises over centuries, how many new years do you think began when they said, “This will be the year”? And then how many New Year's Eves rolled around, and they looked back and saw no messiah, no justice, no forgiveness, no glory? And so the elders reading the prophets' scrolls would tell the people, “Not yet, but someday. Oh, just you wait...” And so many did wait. In today's passage, we read of a man who was waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), and of many people who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38) – the very things of which the age-old prophets spoke.

Onto that scene walk two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna. (I sure wish either of them had left a book of scripture behind!) He was “righteous and devout,” being led by the Holy Spirit, and had received a promise that he wouldn't die until the saw the prophets' words coming true – until he saw the Lord's Messiah, the anointed King from the house of David, face-to-face (Luke 2:25-27). She was a woman of the tribe of Asher, a widow most all her life, who stayed on sacred ground to fast and pray by night and by day (Luke 2:36-37). The both of them were waiting... waiting for an answer. Fasting, praying for an answer.

But then, amidst the milling throng in the temple courts, they beheld a forty-day-old baby boy in the arms of a peasant couple – too poor to afford a lamb, but only bringing a pair of pigeons for Mary's atonement (Luke 2:24; cf. Leviticus 12:8). And in seeing “the child Jesus,” they knew that their wait was over. Simeon could say, “My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32). This was what the prophets had always said: a public salvation, a public display of God's strength, to open Gentile eyes and fulfill Israel's destiny and put everything back the way it ought to be. The key act of faith would forever now be in looking at this Jesus and seeing the light of God shining clear and strong.

When Simeon and Anna saw Jesus, they saw everything they'd been waiting for all their lives. It might take a bit more time to unfold, but it was all there, all there in him. How would you have reacted, if you had been there that day? If you had been able to take the infant Jesus in your arms? If you had looked into his face and known that the hopes and fears of all the years were met in him one cold Bethlehem night? Had seen in him that the story of your life had reached its great resolution, and the tension of years was coming undone, and now the plot had its point? How did Simeon and Anna react?

Simeon thanked God for “letting [his] servant,” Simeon, “depart in peace.” He thanked God for being faithful to his word, after so many years of waiting (Luke 2:29). He blessed Joseph and Mary, and prophesied about what all this would mean (Luke 2:34). Nothing would be as it had been. Nothing could stay hidden. This Messiah would unmask the reality behind everyone, would ferret out the human heart and put it on display, “so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). God had chosen this Child to be the standard, this Child to be the centerpiece, the cornerstone: either people would trip over him and fall, or people would build on his foundation and rise – and there would be plenty of both (Luke 2:34; cf. Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:7-8). His life would not be easy; he was a sign from God, just as the prophets said, but would be opposed and spurned, also as the prophets said (Luke 2:34).

And as for Anna, “coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Not only did she thank God for fulfilling his word and making good on his promises, but she went and found others who were waiting – who knew something was lacking in their lives, who knew that something was wrong with the way the world was – and she told them that she'd just seen the sign, this child Jesus, who would be the answer to all their waiting, too.

As we meander through the year, we wait for so much. We wait for consolation in our darkest gloom. We wait for a rescue from our addictions, for freedom from our slavery, for an end to the struggle with our vices and bad habits, our faults and our sins. We wait for peace in a war-torn world. We wait for unity in a divided society. We wait for reconciliation in the face of betrayal. We wait for a flicker of flame to melt and cheer the bleak midwinter. And how many times have we sighed, “Not yet, but someday”? And how many times have we felt anguish, and despaired, and murmured, “Not yet, and never”? How often have we asked what's the point? How often have we felt beleaguered, worn down, exhausted by the wait, bored with the monotony, pained by the need, ensnared by the tension, bursting with longing or bowed low with resignation?

But I leave you with this promise, as solid as all the prophets whose messages Simeon and Anna saw come true before their very eyes: In Jesus Christ, we no longer say, “Not yet, but someday.” In Jesus Christ, we say only two things. For some: “Not then, but now!” – “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). For others: “Not seen, but soon!” – for “by God's power [you] are being guarded through faith for a salvation [that's already] ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

And all those prophets who came before, who “searched and inquired carefully” into the things of God's Spirit – they “prophesied about the grace that was to be yours (1 Peter 1:10). They were in fact “serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). So don't lose heart: all that the prophets long foretold is true, has come true, is coming true, will come true: Not then, but now! Not seen, but soon! So let us, like Simeon and Anna and the prophets before them, announce these things in the good news for others who are waiting for something they know yet not what. Thanks be to God! Amen!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

An old man, wrapped tightly in his shúkà and carrying a long, gnarled staff, trod deliberately and lightly across the sparsely tufted savannah. He spied a herd of zebra in the distance, and, even closer, a smaller herd of white folks. I was in that second herd. I know I've made mention several times this Advent of people I met during my time in Kenya a few years ago, but indulge me briefly this once more. He was a Maasai tribesman and a shepherd, dressed in red, following and directing his flock of sheep. It's men like him whom I picture – young and old, clad in vivid colors or drab variations of brown and gray – when I think back to a scene over two thousand years ago. A dark night, cool and windy. A small band of Middle Eastern shepherds pulling their cloaks tightly around them. Hundreds of sheep all around them, grazing or dozing. The only noises – the muted bleating of sheep to sheep; the muted mutter of man to man; the not so muted chirping of insect life. All going about their nightly routine. What was it like for them?

We read that “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). These shepherds were, for lack of a better term, 'ordinary people,' if there is such a thing. They didn't have much in the way of prestige. Children didn't ooh and aah if these shepherds came to school for career day. Women and men didn't marvel at them on the street. Shepherding was considered a lowly and dirty profession – the sort where you might question if you really wanted to shake hands with one (especially if you didn't have a bottle of Purell on hand!). It wasn't a good way to get rich, out there tending the sheep. The shepherds had no 401(k), no stock options, no bloated bank account to speak of; they didn't have fabulous McMansions awaiting them back in Bethlehem, only puny shacks in the part of town where tourists put away their cameras. They weren't especially qualified for upper-crust ways of life: not prone to much reading, not prone to penning lengthy treatises, not equipped with degrees to wave around or connections to boast. Their lives had more excrement than excitement. They seldom came home with big stories.

They were ordinary people, and they were doing an ordinary thing: staying awake, all bleary-eyed and chilly and maybe nursing a headache, while the sheep clomped and chomped and dozed beneath the stars. They were just doing their job: another day, another dollar. They weren't keeping a late-night prayer vigil in a monastery. They weren't out climbing mountains to track down an elusive guru. They weren't meditating to track down the elusive truth within. They weren't backpacking through the Alps, weren't swimming with the sharks, weren't engaged in great exploits. They weren't composing symphonies or deriving Schrödinger's equation. They weren't sailing a yacht or lounging by the pool or sunning themselves on a tropical beach. They weren't attending a business seminar or absorbed in the latest self-help book. They weren't saving lives in the operating room or perfecting their rhetoric before the court. They were just going about their daily routine – a mundane, often boring job, without much excitement or thrill, no fame and acclaim. It was life as usual, trapped in the cold, dark night with their preoccupations – what to eat, what to wear, how to earn, how to tend to their wives and kids, how to resolve the latest family drama or neighborhood dispute. Life as usual. Until it wasn't.

That's when “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). The only other time we read that verb in the New Testament, 'shone-around,' it's when Saul of Tarsus gets knocked on his keister on the Damascus Road. A sudden brightness splits the night on every side; it's like every blade of grass is the burning bush at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Every molecule of oxygen in the air suddenly glistens and sparkles. The very fabric of reality is transfigured before their eyes. And their whole world lurches in a direction they scarcely have the language to describe. In the Bible, we know, the word for 'glory' means for something to be heavy – to have significance and weight to it. The sun is glorious – not only does it glow with light and beauty, but it exerts a gravitational pull, causing the earth and other planets to orbit it. And we were meant to orbit God in an orderly fashion; to have God at the heart of our lives, with everything in the world, our worlds, arranged harmoniously around him. But long ago, we broke free; we float freely in the void of space, or find degenerate dwarf stars to orbit, petty idols. And none can bring the light and warmth we crave, nor can they keep us from colliding together or careening apart – so we have no lasting peace, and we need a Savior to ensnare us again with God's gravity for good.

That night, this lowly band of shepherds found themselves suddenly captured, not by the gravity of earth, but by the gravity of heaven – like being suddenly teleported spitting distance from a solar flare. No wonder they “feared a great fear” (Luke 2:9)! They were disoriented, disconcerted, discombobulated, as the whole world became alien to them, and they to it. And the invasion of a heavenly military regiment, “rank on rank the host of heaven,” certainly added to the reason for fear! But this invading army came, not to let loose a war cry, but to chant the terms of a peace treaty – offering “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10), that the Savior had finally arrived, the long-awaited Lord Messiah, freshly born that very day (Luke 2:11). The age-old puzzle of prophets had cracked open at last. And a strange mystery flew out.

If this were all the heavenly spokesangel said, it would be fantastic news. A new king had been born – the king to end all kings. There was dawn on the horizon. A new day was coming. Salvation, rescue, was on the way. That's good news. That's great joy. But it would affect the shepherds from afar. A king is concerned with war and diplomacy, with the intricacies of geopolitics, with grand strategy and domestic policy, with the honeyed syllables of Armani-clad lobbyists and the tightly guarded security of a gilded palace. What have shepherds to do with a king? When could a shepherd even see a king, save from a distance from the back of a crowd? When would a king take an interest in the troubles and travails of a ragtag crew of shepherds, who scarcely constitute a voting bloc or a force slated to sway public opinion? The birth of a new king, even a messiah, is a good thing – but a distant good thing. Nice to know about, but a newborn king is probably cordoned off by bars and bouncers in a stately manor, dressed already in purple silk and gold adornments. That's no place for shepherds.

Except... except the angel says more. He specifies that this is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people(Luke 2:10). He clarifies that this royal Messiah is born “unto you (Luke 2:11). And the angel tells them that “this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). That might be the most stunning thing the shepherds hear. A newborn king, the King of Kings – but he's not in a palace, a castle, an estate? He's got no security detail? No Secret Service ready to gun down intruders? There's no dress code and no waiting list? Because that's exactly what this means. If the baby is napping in a manger, it means he's in a peasant house – a house that looks exactly like the one each shepherd calls home. And if the baby is wrapped in swaddling cloths, it means he's dressed the exact same way each shepherd was dressed at that age, and dressed his kids when they were born.

It means that this Messiah isn't walled off. The shepherds, for all their humble station, wouldn't be cast aside as impure, too dirty and diseased to be close to the baby. The shepherds wouldn't be thrust out as unimportant, undeserving of the Messiah's time. The shepherds wouldn't be rejected as unworthy, unqualified, denied access to his presence. Because not only is the newborn King of Kings on the scene, but he's wrapped like a peasant tyke in a peasant house, and there might as well be a sign by the door saying “Shepherds Welcome.”

The shepherds may be ordinary. They may be poor. They may be weak and weary. They may be old and tired. They may carry a heart full of regret or the scars and wounds of a rough life. They may have a grating laugh or a drippy nose or their share of bad habits. But none of that is a barrier to this mystery, the face of God on an infant skull, the Word of God made flesh and blood with a full diaper. A Presence deeper than physics, an Energy older than time and space, a Mind wise enough to see body and soul in full detail, the world in all its dimensions laid bare. The Unbounded and Incomprehensible, expressed fully as a few pounds of muscle and bone and fat. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – snoozing tenderly and vulnerably in a feed trough, his heartbeat audible, his pulse palpable. Mystery of Mysteries – with shepherds welcome, along with all and sundry.

The angels sing their song, and then they about-face and march back to the stars and beyond (Luke 2:13-14). The brightness fades. The air returns to its customary crispness, the grass resumes its dull green, the heightened tension of earth confronted with heaven dissipates. The shepherds are, once again, standing in an ordinary field, wearing their ordinary clothes, surrounded by their ordinary sheep. But now they know something they can't unknow. And that knowledge confronts them with a choice. They have a decision to make. They can stay put. They can keep watching the sheep. They can persist in life as usual, now that the brightness has faded and all things look the way they always did. They can convince themselves it was all a dream, or be content with the theoretical awareness that somewhere out there is a Savior. They can write that down in their diaries and then go home, curl up in bed, and forget. They can take it for granted. They can hope it comes in as handy trivia on a game show someday. They can play catch with their kids, eat their wives' home cooking, and otherwise do the very same thing they would have done if that night had just stayed silent.

Or they can do something about it. They can take action. They can break character. They can take a leave of absence from the field, from their customary and familiar turf, and go on a quest in pursuit of a mystery. They can accept the invitation implicit in the angel's words. They can go encounter the Incomprehensible. They can go see “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). They can go to meet the Mystery of Mysteries themselves – and let their aching fingers be grasped in a Savior's gentle grip.

These shepherds chose that option, to “go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15). What's more, “they went in haste” to answer the invitation (Luke 2:16). They made no excuses to delay their quest. They didn't complain of their frailty; they didn't cling to their sheep, their livelihood; they didn't turn up their noses or scrape the dirt; they didn't reason that surely the baby would still be there in the morning. Even in the coldest, darkest hours of night, they set worldly concerns aside and went in haste. They went right then. No excuses. They refused to procrastinate any longer. If only we'd do the same!

So they went to Bethlehem. They followed the trail of the village midwife, and the gossip of sleepy villagers who'd heard a woman grunt and groan in labor during the night, disrupting their sleep. And they found the place – they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:16-18). No doubt, when the shepherds spilled the beans, Mary explained to them her visit from Gabriel nine months earlier. No doubt, after that, Joseph made mention of his angelic dream, and the word he'd heard. Others were there, too. Maybe a couple nosy neighbors. Maybe a few of Joseph's nieces, cousins.

The point is, after the shepherds went off on their pursuit of a mystery, and after they encountered the Mystery, they shared fellowship with other Mystery-Meeters as well – with Mary, with Joseph, with neighbors and family and all sorts of admirers of this Holy Child. They testified, and were built up by the testimony of others, as they gathered around this central point: the feed trough acting as a makeshift bed for the King of the Ages. And all who were there were listening, gazing, admiring, celebrating their encounter with the Heart of Mystery.

From there, the shepherds went back out into the fields. But not to life as usual. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They went forth and resumed their work, took up the basic elements of their daily routine – but it was not like before. This time, they went forth with a new life, defined not by poverty but by mystery, glory, and praise. As they tended their flock through the dawn hours, their work was infused with a new song to sing. As they returned to their families, they cherished a light that no night could ever fully overshadow, nor any gloom wholly dampen. As they mingled with their neighbors, they had a story to tell. And through all the days of their lives, wherever they went, they knew they had peered behind the curtain, seen under the surface of the universe, gazed into the infinity of God, and were welcome guests of a Savior. They had encountered the Heart of Mystery and found a Hope that does not, will not, cannot disappoint (Romans 5:5). Their lives could never be what they were, could never be defined by all the trappings and tinsel, but by the mystery, glory, and praise that redirected their lives.

All well and good for the shepherds. “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Who among us can't identify with the shepherds out in those fields? We have plenty fields of our own – our territory, where we work or live or dwell, wherever we sit beneath the stars and toil. We've had cares aplenty – flocks to tend, families to feed. We've had seasons of languishing in the blackness of night, comforts torn away and exposed to the cold and cruel realities of existence in a fallen world. We have “dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2). And we look at ourselves, and we seem so ordinary, so poor, so defective, so unqualified and unworthy.

But then there came a day when everything lurched. It was unsettling. It was uncomfortable. It was surprising. But we “who walked in darkness” then glimpsed “a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). God “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Grace appeared. Maybe you couldn't identify it, couldn't see it for what it was. But then someone explained that it was good news – that even in the darkest night, there could be a great joy beyond yourself, because a Rescuer had come to earth to pull you back where you belong and put your fractured pieces back together.

And best of all, you heard, this same joy was every bit as accessible to you as to anybody else. You don't have to be the optimistic sort; you don't need to be an extrovert; it doesn't require a naturally religious temperament, if there even is such a thing. You don't have to be already clean, already pure, already straight and sober and sorted out and set. You don't have to get your act together first. You don't need to qualify yourself, to pass some test. You don't need to ace a quiz. You don't have to first establish your credentials as a good person. You don't have to be replete with resources. You don't have to be young, and you don't have to be old. You don't have to be rich, and you don't have to be poor. It doesn't matter if you're an adult or a child, a man or a woman, if you're black or white or any other hue of the human tapestry. How you vote, where you work, what you think and feel – none are prerequisites to go “see this thing that has happened” (Luke 2:15).

And each one of us had – each one of us still this very moment has – a choice to make, as the shepherds did. It isn't a foregone conclusion, to be taken for granted. We're free to hear the good news and go about life as usual. We're free to make excuses why we can't take part, why we can't show up, why it's all a great big humbug, why there'll always be another chance, why it's too unimportant to change our lives or too big for us to handle. You can do that. You can go home today and forget all about it. You can celebrate for a day or two and then let the swamp of routine suck you in, and the burdens of life weigh you down, and the dark of night close in. Your eyes will adjust to the gloom; your cloaks might shield you some from the wind. You can stay put in that field, if you prefer.

Or you can pursue a mystery. You can refuse to relent until you've met him yourself, this King of Kings. You can leave your excuses in the dirt and go place your hand in the Savior's grip. You can trust yourself to the Mind wiser than creation, and rest yourself in the Presence deeper than physics. You can gaze in admiration at the sight of the Unbounded God wrapped in our humble rags, breathing our air and breathing Heaven's Wind back into this earth. You, too, can encounter the Mystery of Mysteries, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. You can fellowship with others caught in God's gravity, testifying to what you've seen and heard – we're here to do just that every Sunday. And as you go back to the field, to your family, to the town, you can take a new life of mystery, glory, and praise with you, like the shepherds did.

Confess with your mouth” that this baby wrapped in peasant rags and resting in a Bethlehem manger is Christ the Lord, and “believe in your heart,” with all your heart, that not only was he born to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, but he grew up, taught wisdom, healed the broken, entered death for you and blew a God-shaped hole in the other side – just confess that, trust that, rely on that, gather around that, follow that, and “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). You'll be gripped by a Savior, caught with God's gravity, joined to reality's royal family, you'll mingle with saints – and you'll touch a Mystery of Mercy who will save you and change you in ways you never dreamed possible. Only in the Mystery's Mercy can there ever be peace on earth. I hope with all my heart that, like the shepherds, that choice is the one you make today and every day. Don't let this day, this night, pass you by without a new life. Go therefore in peace and awe-struck wonder, “glorifying and praising God” for all you've seen and heard (Luke 2:20). Go to spread a merry Christmas. Amen.