Sunday, January 12, 2020

Salvation by Quietness: Sermon on Isaiah 30

A warm July day in Paris. The race begins. Runner 451 is twenty-two years old. Before the 400-meter dash, while so many of his competitors hyped themselves up, he felt at peace. He'd made a name for himself – and taken his share of flak – for a principled stance against running on Sundays. But this was a Friday. So as he ran and ran, he fixed his eyes, not on a competitor, not even on the finish line, but on the heavens above. He pushed and sprinted the whole length of the dash in 47.6 seconds. And with a quiet confidence, he felt the ribbon break across his chest – he'd won the gold. He'd set a record. He took a deep breath. And within a minute, as his competitors panted and moaned, he felt cool and collected again. His accomplishment was great. His place of peace was greater. Eric Liddell was the kind of man Isaiah might have liked to meet.

It's hard for us to imagine just how unnerving it was to Judah's leadership and population when the Assyrians invaded. We live, after all, in a big and powerful country which George Washington himself called a “rising empire” – we have our share of fears, but feeling small and powerless in the face of something that dwarfs us is seldom an American experience. Judah was a small country, faced down by a massive empire that ground up little nations by habit – just two decades earlier, Judah had been flooded with Israelite refugees fleeing from the Assyrian annihilation of that northern neighbor. And now the Assyrians were threatening the very existence of Judah, too. And for Hezekiah's advisors, it was all too much. There was only one other great world power that might be able to stand against the Assyrians – and that was Egypt. So the royal advisors sent diplomats to make a hasty trip to Egypt, in hopes of getting support – surely the Egyptians wouldn't want the Assyrians this close to their borders. The idea was that, through the effort of Judean diplomatic wiles and Egyptian military force, Hezekiah's kingdom could find salvation.

But as Isaiah makes clear, God wasn't thrilled with their decision to turn to Egypt. “Ah, stubborn children, who carry out a plan – but not mine! – and who weave a web – but not of my Spirit! – that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt” (Isaiah 30:1-2). In fact, Egypt was nowhere near capable of fending off the Assyrians. All of Egypt had recently been taken over by a foreign dynasty from Sudan, and although these new Nubian pharaohs were fascinated with restoring Egypt's heritage, they just weren't going to be up to the role Judah wanted them to play. It was no use. “Egypt's help is worthless and empty” (Isaiah 30:7), God announces. Egypt would “bring neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace” (Isaiah 30:5).

In fact, what God uses Isaiah to point out to Judah is that it's precisely their continued attempts to solve their own problem, their efforts to invest so much energy into the endeavor, that would dig them into ever-deeper holes, thus frittering away whatever resiliency and resources they yet retained. “Therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth or to dip up water out of the cistern” (Isaiah 30:13-14). All of Judah's activity was like thrashing around in quicksand. Their energetic efforts were making things so much worse than they ever needed to be.

So what God tells them is to stop. Stop moving. Stop thrashing. Stop trying. Stop working so hard. Stop all these programs and initiatives. Cancel them. Fall back. Retreat. Just hold still and let God work. God gives them a reminder of who he is: “the Lord Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.” And then God reminds Judah of a message he'd apparently already given to them. Evidently, they'd ignored their prophet when he spoke these words before – they'd been too busy to listen, too consumed with activity to listen, too proud of themselves and their potential to listen – so now he repeats himself. And the message is this: “In returning and rest, you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Oh, there's the key! Isaiah tells them, “Yahweh waits to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). God is waiting! He waits to rescue them. He waits to protect them. He waits to accomplish for them. What's he waiting for? Just this – they have to return. That means both the diplomats being recalled from Egypt, and it means a general atmosphere of repentance, of confessing that they've sinned against God, of admitting their pride, of humbling themselves. And God is waiting for them to rest and be quiet – for them to quit their frenzy of activity, for them to just hold still – an action that I'm sure to them seems like a recipe for death. Which is why they need to trust, to be confident in God. God isn't looking here to reward the hard workers. Just the opposite. God is looking for them to call it quits! God is looking for them to throw in the towel! God wants them to settle down and admit that all this energy isn't getting them where they need to be. They've been running up the down escalator for too long. They've been struggling too much against this quicksand. They've worn themselves out. It's time to admit that they've not just been idolizing idols, they've also been idolizing their energy, their activity. They need to stop. They need to realize that all this energy and drive and initiative isn't what matters, isn't what's able to rescue them. They need to hold still, calm down, take five, and trust God to do everything that matters.

We're told that the first time Judah's leaders heard this message, they just flat-out rejected or ignored it. “For thus said the Lord..., but you were unwilling, and you said, 'No! We will flee upon horses..., we will ride upon swift steeds'” (Isaiah 30:15-16). They heard God's call to return and rest, to be quiet and trust, and they said that wasn't for them. No, they were going to get stronger, get faster! They were going to crank up the tempo, they were going to pick up the pace! They were going to show what they were made of, they were going to be achievers, they were going to set goals and accomplish them. Isaiah warns that their very efforts would become their downfall – that, in all this striving, they were planting the seeds of their decimation. They want to go fast on horses? Then they will – in the opposite direction. They want to get faster, faster? Then their pursuers will pick up the pace even more. “A thousand shall flee at the threat of one! At the threat of five you shall flee, 'til you're left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill” (Isaiah 30:17). Their undoing.

Just as Isaiah's preaching informed them, the Egyptians were no help... but, when Judah's leadership finally paid attention, when they at last listened to and heeded Isaiah's words, when they put them into practice by stopping the activity, cancelling the programs, returning and resting – well, then what happened? God broke the Assyrian onslaught. “The Angel of Yahweh went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians … then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh” (Isaiah 37:36-37). And Judah could then restfully recover: “The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of Yahweh, when he strikes with his rod” (Isaiah 30:31). “A people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more” (Isaiah 30:19). “And he will give rain for the seed which you sow in the ground, and bread, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. In that day your livestock will graze in large pastures, and the oxen and the donkeys that work the ground will eat seasoned fodder winnowed with shovel and fork. And on every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water in the day of great slaughter when the towers fall. And the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold as the light of seven days, in the day when Yahweh binds up the brokenness of his people and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isaiah 30:23-26). This deliverance would point to the ultimate one. All they need to do is be quiet.

And so it is with our souls. Not only are we prone to think we need to earn our way through life, but we can be tempted to apply the same logic to eternity. We're suspicious of a free lunch – no such thing, after all. And so we're tempted to ask what we have to do, what we have to achieve, to earn our way to heaven, to merit a place in the new creation. Do we have to climb the tall mountain? Do we have to swim the far sea? Do we have to go forth on a grand quest? Do we have to do twenty heroic deeds a day? What is it that will earn our way there, what will present us as worthy? We want to get a leg up on others – to be able to look at them and say that we qualify. We want that sort of upward mobility, that kind of promotion.

But if anyone knows how we can get there, it's God, and what he says is so different from what we may imagine – he says that it's precisely by faith that we can be saved! It's through a quiet trust, a restful repose, a stillness that turns focus back to God. Only in this way, and not by the achievements of our hands, can eternal hope be unleashed. For just as Judah against Assyria, so can all our schemes and all our efforts accomplish nothing to defeat the enemy of our souls. The only hope is to surrender to God. This yields the field to him, and he can accomplish more while we're resting than we can in the perspiration of our sternest struggle. God tells us by his prophet Paul that salvation is precisely for someone “who does not work, but believes” – restfully trusts – “in the One who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). We are saved by grace, and “if it is by grace, then it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). And this salvation is then “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). In our search for salvation, we will stumble if we chase it “as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:32). The great preacher C. H. Spurgeon said it this way when he preached on today's passage:

In order to be saved, you have simply to come to Jesus and to rest on him! Can you not do that? If you cannot, I will tell you why. It is not because you are too weak, but because you are too strong! It is strength that keeps a man from resting! It is weariness that makes him recline. The more faint and feeble he is, the more readily does he lean upon another. It is your strength that will destroy you – it is your supposed goodness that will ruin you – it is your own works that will be your destruction! Come now, and lean wholly and alone upon that almighty Savior whose heart was pierced for you, and then it shall be well with you!

In other words, return to the God who makes himself available in Jesus Christ. This Savior's heart was pierced for you. The accomplishments of his righteous life, the sufferings of his cross, the victories of his resurrection, the fruit of his ministry – they're more than enough. Trust Jesus. Quiet yourself to hear him. Humble yourself in his presence. Lean on him. Rest in him. Abide with him. Trying to earn your keep, you'll never attain, you'll just trip up your soul; but leaning on the everlasting arms of Jesus, you're supported by perfect strength. And if you'll still yourself, he whispers his love and mercy to you in the eye of the storm.

As the church, we should know all of this. We should understand that works-righteousness is a peril – that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest we should find room for boasting. But we're addicted to that boasting. And so even when we admit that works-righteousness is no measure of heavenly salvation, sometimes we wrongly think that we can make works-righteousness into the church's earthly salvation! And this especially is a pitfall of our evangelical subculture. Because for us low-church evangelicals, we've absorbed the American ethos of the corporate world, the can-do spirit of the pioneers and industrialists. We all want to be entrepreneurs – and we shape our churches accordingly. We want to do bigger. We want to do more. We're all about doing everything with passion, about doing everything with fire. We're all about being busy for God. Last year, a prominent Christian leader warned that “the evangelical movement in particular has made an idol of being busy for God, to the point that God himself has been increasingly eclipsed from our hearts and minds...”

As a consequence of that idolatry, we in the church are inclined to value people according to their contributions. In particular, we value people according to what works they do, what passion they exude, what level of energy they exhibit and lend. A passionate person is worthwhile; a calm and measured worker is less treasured. That's the mentality in many churches. The risk of this is that we put so much emphasis on what a person can do that we neglect who they are. We measure people by their skills over their sanctity, their contribution over their character, their heat more than their heart. It's not a new problem. But it is a skewed priority. Because God did not say that our strength was found in energy and passion. He said our strength would be in quietness and trust. And when the church forgets that in how we live together, then we will trust in our works – our programs, our initiatives – for 'salvation' from our decline. The church will collectively live by works-righteousness, turning away from the living God. All because we were so fixated on passion and activity that we missed true strength.

And much the same applies to our individual lives, whether in the church or out of the church. We are tempted to value ourselves by what we can outwardly do in the world. It's a common temptation – I know I feel it all the time, tempted to measure the value of a day by what I achieved, what tangible results I can show for it, what I can claim as accomplishments to justify myself. We take our value in what we do, day by day. And for a while, we maybe think we can live like that. But we can't. We can't live sustainably by tying our value to productivity. This bad habit is especially crippling as we age. For as we age, we find that our strength of body and mind will start failing. Our energy dries up. Our stamina lags. We can't put our thoughts together as clearly. We can't lift all the things we once did, or labor with the precision we used to. And if we've been building up a habit of tying our value to productivity, then as aging degrades certain abilities we used to use to produce, we'll struggle to see ourselves as retaining our value. If we see our worth as what we do, then once we can't do what we used to, we may wrestle with a waning sense of self-worth.

But your worth is not in what you can do! Your worth is not in how much energy you have. Frenzy and activity are unrelated, in the eyes of God, to your worth. They are unrelated to your importance. They are unrelated to your fruitfulness. Because the fruit of the Spirit has nothing to do with outward achievements. Passion is not a fruit of the Spirit! But patience is. Peace is. Goodness and gentleness are. The fruit of the Spirit is grown in your character, grown from your soul; not grown with your hands or your intellect. True strength is a quiet trust in the God we meet in Jesus Christ. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path is not to go be mighty, the path is not to speed up, the path is not to buy and sell. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path and key is just resting faithfully in the Lord.

Consider again the story of Eric Liddell. A record-making Olympic champion. Speed personified. But he lived for something else. As the son of Scottish missionaries who worked in China, he later returned to China as a missionary himself. He worked patiently and faithfully. And in 1943, when the Japanese invasion reached his mission station, he and his fellow missionaries, with others, were all thrown into an internment camp. Liddell spent his time playing chess, preaching, exuding joy. Even when he was malnourished. Even when he was confined. Even when he was ill. You see, it turned out that he had a brain tumor. Inoperable. It sapped many of his outward abilities. By February 1945, he certainly wasn't showing off his speed any more. But that was okay. He used his last strength to scribble, on paper, as best as his failing brain could recall, some lyrics from his favorite hymn, the hymn he'd often sung as he'd zipped around the country roads of China. And that hymn was “Be Still, My Soul.” For all the speed of his legs, for all the athletic efficiency of his body at its peak, he quested after stillness where it counted. And so when he became confined and sick, when he neared the doors of death, he knew that his fruitfulness had never been in his energy and accomplishments. God may have been pleased to watch him run, but God was much more pleased to watch him rest in Jesus, trust in Jesus, become quiet and still in the arms of Jesus. And that – not the musculature of his legs or the passion of his preaching – was his authentic strength. And the quiet quality of his soul, rather than the outcome of some race, is what makes him significant today, certainly significant in the eyes of God. So may it be for us.

Whether in this life or the next, whether individually or as a church, let's remember to simply abide. Jesus calls himself the Vine and tells us that we're his branches (John 15:5). A branch from a vine doesn't have to labor and struggle in order for the grapes to grow. All the branch has to do is stay connected to the vine, and receptive to the life and nourishment that flows from the vine into it. As branches of Jesus, our fruitfulness is never a product of our energy, never an accomplishment of our activity. Fruit is the product of non-resistant abiding – an enduring connection to Jesus that refuses to resist his Spirit's work in our hearts, all while submitting to the pruning work of those the Father hires. For as our vices are pruned away and a trellis of good formation is set for our healthy and directed growth, we can be healthy and fruitful branches. But that fruit is not grown in what we accomplish, but in who we become. The fruit God cares about most is not our work but our character.

So the hope of the church, the hope of the individual, is not to get energized. It's to get deep. It's to deeply abide, deeply connect to Christ. It's to be pruned and guided, yet let him produce the life that, through us, will yield the fruit. It's to be quiet and be still, yielding the field to him. And that's not something our programs can do. It's a matter of formation by the word of God, by song, by sacrament, by devotion and meditation. These are things that encourage us, not to spend and expend, but to quietly be open and be changed. We put ourselves through so much trouble, when the one necessary thing is quiet trust, a return to rest. What we need to relearn is that “the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him; it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25-26). For “in returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Returning. Rest. Quietness. Trust. May they be ours, that salvation and strength follow. May we all soon be able to pray with the psalmist: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I don't occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother – like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:1-3). Amen.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

City of Appointed Feasts: Homily on Isaiah 33

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said to his disciples as he sat on the Mount of Olives, “do not be alarmed” (Mark 13:7). Words that we, in our day, need to hear! Many of the writers of our Bible knew what it was like to live in the grip of real war. Take Isaiah, for instance. Isaiah did not lead a sheltered life. During the days of Isaiah's ministry, the powerful and vicious Assyrian Empire invaded poor little Judah and wrought devastation in the land. They not only wiped villages off the map, they also ripped forty-six walled cities to pieces. As they dismantled the whole kingdom brick by brick, and as their murderous violence tortured the elect people, the king tried a last-ditch effort – he sent his ambassadors with a massive bribe. And Assyria took it. But the Assyrians didn't leave. They continued with their plans to destroy Jerusalem and execute King Hezekiah. As Isaiah describes it, “covenants are broken” (Isaiah 33:8c). And as the ambassadors returned to tell the king, they realized how pointless it all was. “The envoys of peace weep bitterly” (Isaiah 33:7b). In the wake of all this rampage, Judah's society was breaking down – “the highways lie waste, the traveler ceases” (Isaiah 33:8a-b). They realized there was no military option for resistance: “Their heroes cry in the streets” (Isaiah 33:7a). And so now, they realize, their situation is, by any human calculation whatsoever, a hopeless one. “The land mourns and languishes” (Isaiah 33:9a). War is an ugly and ignoble demon.

Finally, as Isaiah has been encouraging their leadership for ages, they turn to God. They've been disabused that they can fight their way out, pay their way out, think their way out, talk their way out, charm their way out. All those false hopes have fallen to pieces. And so they cry out, at last, to God, once their backs are to the wall, their feet are to the fire. They yell, “O Yahweh, be gracious to us! We wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble” (Isaiah 33:2). And God hears them. God hears their prayer. God hears their cry. And now that everything is most hopeless, God will be their hope. Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted,” God proclaims (Isaiah 33:10). He denounces the Assyrian king: “Your breath is a fire that will consume you, and the peoples will be burned to lime, like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire” (Isaiah 33:11-12). His message for those in Judah – sinners who now quake with fear (Isaiah 33:14) – is that the only way to be freed from that fear is to live well. Someone who lives according to God's vision for life – “he who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest they hold a bribe and who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil” (Isaiah 33:15) – well, a person like that “will dwell on the heights,” and have “the fortress of rocks” for a defense. And, God says, “his bread will be given to him” (Isaiah 33:16) as he beholds “the King in his beauty,” that is, the serene majesty of God (Isaiah 33:17).

So there is hope, when God delivers! There is hope, when God saves! All God is asking is for people to react accordingly – he wants his act of salvation to create a person who can dwell on the heights, eat his bread, and see him in his beauty. And a person who tastes that bread and sees that King will develop a distaste for sin and darkness, and a hunger and thirst for righteousness.

But this work of deliverance God promises isn't just for individuals. It's for a city. As God rises up, he pledges to rise up for Zion, a hill; he promises to rise up for Jerusalem, a city. “Your eyes will see Jerusalem, an untroubled habitation, an immovable tent whose stakes will never be plucked up, nor will any of its cords be broken” (Isaiah 33:20b-c). This tent will not be broken down. This tent will not be damaged. This tent will remain to fulfill its purpose. It will remain “Zion, the city of our appointed feasts” (Isaiah 33:20a). And that's a hard phrase to translate – qiryat mo'adenu. The word Isaiah uses for 'appointed feasts' here means, more or less, something that's scheduled, something that's decided and fixed by agreement. It's used in Leviticus 23 over and over again for Israel's holidays, insofar as they were occasions that God had scheduled onto their calendar. And when the tabernacle was called the ohel mo'ed, 'tent of meeting,' this is the word they're using – the tabernacle was the appointed place to meet God. And when God through Isaiah says Jerusalem will be an immovable tent and a city of our appointments, he's using tabernacle and holiday language – the whole place must become a Tent of Meeting, with people keeping the appointments he's scheduled with them.

In the face of Jerusalem's hopelessness during the darkest time, God's promise is to rise up and accomplish the salvation they've been praying for. And God rises up to save so that there will be a community where people can and must keep their festive appointments with him, according to his schedule. That's important to God! It's important to God that people keep their appointments with him, the appointments he schedules. That's what he will save Jerusalem for. And not only that, he himself will be a protected paradise for his people to dwell in – “there, Yahweh in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor majestic ship can pass” (Isaiah 33:21). He will be our protected place in the midst of war, so we together can be the rescued people who keep the appointments he sets. That's his promise to Hezekiah's Jerusalem.

But just as things were humanly hopeless in the face of war, so things were humanly hopeless in the face of the greater threat: the sin infecting our hearts, the sin terrorizing us from the inside, the sin that gives rise to wars in the first place. Time and again, God demonstrated to us the impossibility of our handling it ourselves. His law was a mirror exposing our incapacity. He patiently watched us rebel time and again, under every conceivable environmental condition. We could not cure ourselves. And so then God rose up: “Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted” (Isaiah 33:10) – “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). God rose up to be exalted... on the cross. And when he was lifted up on the cross, “the people who dwell there,” there at the cross where God is lifted up to save, “will be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24b). For there at the cross on a hill far away – there are the heights where we are called to dwell.

But we are not saved to be mere disconnected individuals. Like old Jerusalem in the days of Isaiah, so we in our day are saved for a purpose. We are saved to gather as “the city of our appointed feasts” (Isaiah 33:20a) – saved to gather according to God's call, saved to agree with God at his fixed time. So often, the way we talk doesn't reflect that. We talk about 'coming to church' as if it's a choice we make, a decision we initiate, one we can as easily make or not make. And because we talk and think that way, we measure 'church' by what we get out of it. It becomes one more option in a consumer culture, one more way to consume goods and services; and if we aren't satisfied, well, we'll engage in the usual consumerist marketplace behavior – file complaints, seek a competing provider, or just stay home. And even if we aren't dissatisfied, we'll decide that it really doesn't matter that much, depending on what there is to do around the house or what other opportunities are available or how sluggish we are to roll out of bed that day. Because 'church,' to us, is a choice we can make or not make.

But not to God! Because God calls us to gather. He has fixed the time, scheduled the appointment. And God expects us to keep those appointments with him. And how frequently we stand God up! But when he calls us to worship, it's not a negotiation. It's an appointment, engraved on our calendars with nails and thorns. We are not here this morning because we chose to be here. We are here because we answered a call today. We are here to keep an appointment between us and the saving God. In a world torn by wars and rumors of wars, a world so frequently mismanaged, the Lord is meeting us here to be our Judge, our Lawgiver, and our King (Isaiah 33:22) – to be for us a place of broad rivers and streams (Isaiah 33:21). The Lord is here to show us his beauty and to give us bread to satisfy our deepest hungers and wine to quench our deepest thirsts. We are here in this spiritual tent of meeting because Jesus saves, saves to the uttermost, and here your Savior scheduled to meet you!

From the warring world, we've been called out to worship, to gather here together, to keep the appointed feast. We have been summoned to meet God. And you will, if you look to him and trust him for dear life. Because in this place, on this day, he is meeting you here. He is meeting you at the table where he will give you beautiful food, if you only have eyes to see what's really happening. Thank you for keeping the appointment today. This is the city of our appointed feasts. We approach the Lord Jesus, our saving God, our risen King. But that is a tremendous thing. If your heart is not at peace with the Body of Christ and with its Head, then this meeting is too much for you right now – “Who among us can dwell with the Consuming Fire?” (Isaiah 33:14). To eat or drink this meal wrongly, Paul says, is to “eat and drink judgment” on yourself (1 Corinthians 11:29). Examine yourself. But if your heart is now made ready by faith and repentance, then, sharing in the sacrifice with “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4) as we look forward to the fullness, let us celebrate the appointed feast!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Bethlehem Salvation: A Christmas Message

One final groan. One final push. One first breath. One first cry, piercing the stillness of a holy silent night. An umbilical cord, the free flow of blood between maiden mom and God Incarnate, snipped and tied. Exhaustion. But in a moment, the sweat and tears are forgotten as, wrapped tightly in the nearest cloths, the Holy Infant rests first in his mother's adoring arms before the feed-trough. The room is crowded – the women rest from their aid, the livestock lighten their lowing. And in those moments, Bethlehem stands at attention, stands in awe, stands in hospitable greeting of its newborn King... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Joseph and Mary have had their journeys in life, measured in years or decades, to prepare them for this moment and what it means. But Bethlehem has had a longer journey, measured in centuries. We've followed that road through the Advent season. From Bethlehem's birth as a Canaanite city, we saw its conversion when Canaanite idolatry gave way to the true faith, as it welcomed the children of Israel who buried his wife on the road leading to Bethlehem. Bethlehem came to treasure these new people and the faith they brought, sought to nurture them, and whenever anyone left town, Bethlehem longed to see them come home, to be redeemed and restored. First there was Jonathan the descendant of Moses, striking out to trade his heritage for a fortune – his departure from Bethlehem set in motion the eventual ruin of a kingdom. Then there was a nameless woman, concubine of a Levite – she left, she came, she left sadly again, and Bethlehem was helpless as her tale ended not in redemption but in gruesome woe that sparked a civil war. And then there was that famine family, Elimelech and his Naomi and their sons. But though the men died in a foreign land, Bethlehem saw Naomi come back to stay, bringing a girl named Ruth. And when Ruth moved in, Bethlehem was thrilled to see them find redemption through Boaz, and the birth of a son Obed. A few more generations, and Bethlehem was in awe when the first prophet came to visit – Samuel, come to sacrifice to the Lord, come to celebrate. But Bethlehem had little inkling at first what Samuel meant to celebrate. Bethlehem was in awe when Samuel unplugged a horn and poured oil all over the youth David, whispering that he would become the anointed king of God's people. And Bethlehem felt the rush as the Spirit of the Almighty rushed down on David, whirling through Bethlehem's streets.

Bethlehem cheered through the years for its hometown son. Even when David moved away. Even when many people moved away, chased by the invaders, the pirates, the people of Goliath. But then Bethlehem saw the daring act, the quest of three men to break through the enemy lines in the valley and come to Bethlehem's well to get water for their chief, and carry it back to him. Braving their lives, they poured their souls into that water, made it a living sacrifice. And Bethlehem learned, by watching it, what love looks like, what devotion truly is. In time, the Philistines left. David conquered nearby Jerusalem, just six miles away, and made it his capital there. His family fell into turmoil – he had to flee his own son Absalom's rebellion. And Bethlehem was sad. But David returned, and Bethlehem was glad! And David rewarded his host-in-exile Barzillai by giving his son Chimham some of David's family lands in the pastures of Bethlehem.

Down through the years, Bethlehem watched as David's sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, and so on reigned in Jerusalem. Some were happy times. But in most, Bethlehem grappled with disappointment. These sons of David ruled badly. They flirted with the darkness. The voice of God came, and they disobeyed. During the time of Hezekiah, the days when the Assyrian king Sennacherib invaded and devastated the land, bringing much ruin to Bethlehem and the other villages in the land, a prophet from a destroyed village stood up and proclaimed hope in God's name, hope by a strong king who'd hail from David's roots:

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops! Siege is laid against us – with a rod, they strike Israel on the cheek. But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah: from you shall come forth for me One who is to be Ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd the flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:1-5a)

A promise! A promise! Bethlehem has heard a promise! And through the coming centuries, that promise was to sustain Bethlehem's own hopes, help Bethlehem weather the discouraging ruin of the Davidic kings. Oh, some would yet do well – Hezekiah's great-grandson Josiah, for instance – but most would still disappoint. At last, his sons one by one failed, until his son Zedekiah lost the kingdom. Bethlehem watched in horror from the horizon at the smoke of the burning temple. And when a chance to find a new peace came, Bethlehem lamented when yet once more son of David, that zealous captain Ishmael, assassinated Judah's governor. Were it not for that promise, were it not for that hope, Bethlehem would by this point regret the day of David's birth.

Brokenhearted but carrying a promise, Bethlehem watched as a ragtag remnant encamped at Geruth Chimham for days, deliberating on where to go and what to do. Should they stay and risk a chance of Babylon's fourth and final wrath? Or should they reverse the exodus and seek shelter in Egypt? Just as the prophet Samuel had once walked Bethlehem's streets and fields, now so too did the prophet Jeremiah, and he delivered the word of the Lord, telling the people to stand firm. Bethlehem waited with bated breath for their decision. Would they finally listen, as they'd promised they would? No. No, Bethlehem's heart fell as the people rejected God's word and rejected the authority of the man God had appointed to minister to them. They ran away. Bethlehem sadly saw them go. And for decades, life mustered on as best as it could, in a desolated land.

But then came the day. Exile was over. Only a portion came back – many stayed in Babylon and its lands – but now there was a new chance to build, with Yehud as a Persian province. And the descendants of David were given authority to govern, at least at first. Zerubbabel, with support from the priest Joshua and prophets like Haggai and Zechariah, rebuilt the temple – Bethlehem could almost see its gleam. Zerubbabel died, and his son-in-law Elnathan became governor, and then other men would follow. The descendants of David had no especial authority or influence in the province. So they went about ordinary lives, as best as they could. And some of Zerubbabel's family, from the royal line, thought it time to go back to their roots. And Bethlehem saw them walk through its gates. And Bethlehem welcomed them home. Bethlehem knew this was the way, the hope of the promise (cf. Matthew 2:5-6).

Years came, and years went. Some of David's descendants stayed. Others moved around. Sometimes Judah had a measure of independence, and sometimes not. But through all the changing shifts of politics, through all the ups and downs of history, Bethlehem clung to the promise. To outsiders, it was still Bethlehem, 'house of bread.' But to those who lived there, Bethlehem boasted another name: 'City of David' (cf. Luke 2:4).

And one day, Bethlehem heard, there was going to be a census. And because of the census, people would have to return to their places of origin. Some newer residents went on a trip, away from town. Other hometown sons came home to Bethlehem, with their families. How little did Bethlehem expect anything special. Bethlehem was excited, sure – for what amounted to a David family reunion, all the moved-away descendants of David's lineage and house. Those who still lived in town opened their guest rooms for their moved-away cousins as they returned. With so many needing to return for the census, guest rooms filled up quickly. Space was taken. And so when one more hometown son came back to Bethlehem, he found the guest room full. But for he and his wife, space was found in the lower part of the house, by the door, the place where the animals would be brought in at night to share their heat and to be protected. To us, the equivalent might be the garage. But space was found – not in the guest room, but with the family livestock.

This hometown son was Joseph, whose parents had gone as settlers to found the Galilean village of Nazareth. And with him he'd brought his new bride Mary, nine months pregnant. Did their hosts have any questions about how long they'd been married? Was there any awkward math? Or was all that set aside? Little did they know that the Holy Spirit who'd rushed upon David in Bethlehem had overshadowed this teenage woman, that she might conceive a Holy Son with no man's involvement at all. But even so, could Bethlehem have even dreamed that, with this census-induced family reunion, God had arrived personally in its midst? For make no mistake: the fetus carried by Mary, nine months developed, was fully human but not merely human. The instant of conception was not the beginning of this child's life – it stretched into eternity past, to 'before' the first moment of time and space. For the child in Mary's womb, the child at the other end of her umbilical cord, is the Deity.

And while they were there” – sometime during those days – “the days came for [Mary] to give birth” (Luke 2:6). One evening, Mary's water broke. She went into labor. The men stepped out of the house into the night air, running to fetch the village midwife. And the work began – the pains, inherited by Mary from Eve, were all that stood between her and the joy. Around her, what women were there gathered in support and assistance, to ensure that mother and child both survived the ordeal. Had Bethlehem by now discerned what was going on – what a miracle was taking shape? Did Bethlehem realize that God himself, the Eternal Word of the Father, was being born, the Lord of Lords coming forth in human vesture, in flesh and bone and blood?

There's the head. And with one last anguished push, Mary's work is done. Midwife cuts the cord. Cleans and wraps the crying Creator. The women welcome the men back in. In that cramped space, trampled down with old hay, as the animals watch, Joseph kneels next to Mary as she cradles this Son. All around them, Bethlehem is transfixed. God breathes deep in Bethlehem's air. Outside town, in the outlying fields where once David tended his father's flock, a flash of the Father's glory surrounds the armies of heaven as they appear (Luke 2:9-10, 13). And by the time Mary, in order to rest, has tucked her newborn Son snugly into the feed-trough as any peasant mother might, the shepherds – awestruck, dazed, and determined – are racing through the night streets, asking where the midwife has been. And they find the house. They come to the door. They see Mary. They see Joseph next to her (Luke 2:15-16). And they see, in that feed-trough, the One the angels announced: a Savior, a Rescuer, the Lord Messiah come to deliver not from Roman oppression as they'd always thought, but from the deeper oppression of the darkness within, their own sins (Luke 2:11-12; cf. Matthew 1:21). And the shepherds could hardly believe it – a house just like theirs, the house of one of their neighbors, was the house where the Deliverer came. Not a grand palace. Not a royal manor. Not a wealthy gated community. But there, in a home like theirs, with a familiar face, dressed like one of their own babies, is the Savior-King. There is the good news, promising great joy for every faction, great joy for every nation (Luke 2:10).

When they tell their story, does Bethlehem get it now? Does Bethlehem realize what a privilege of privileges is for it, given to it? Does Bethlehem see God's plan unfolding? Does Bethlehem itself come and worship Christ the newborn King? Does Bethlehem recognize this sign of peace on earth, this mercy mild, the hope of God and sinners finally reconciled? Can Bethlehem see the Godhead veiled in flesh? Does Bethlehem understand that in its manger rests the Incarnate Deity? And does Bethlehem bask in the light of the Sun of Righteousness, risen from womb to earth with healing in his wings?

Or did those first glimmers awareness come the next morning? Because surely, if even one of those shepherds in the nearby fields was a Bethlehem resident, you can imagine he'd come home the next morning from his night's work and tell his family. And you'd best believe their neighbors would hear a tale of angels in the fields and the birth of the Messiah. And in short order, all of Bethlehem might know. Joseph and Mary would be the talk of the town. Everyone would stop by to catch a glimpse of this baby. Everyone wondering, “Could it be true? Could Messiah ben David be born at last in royal David's city? Is this time, this family reunion of the sons of David, not the perfect time for the Son of David to be born? But can it really be?” Perhaps they came, believing. Or perhaps few put much stock in shepherd stories. But we do.

If the shepherds failed to convince, I wonder if Joseph and Mary – when they took this infant Messiah for the purification ceremony in Jerusalem at the temple – brought back any word of the prophecies of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38). I wonder if the people of Bethlehem heard. But back to Bethlehem they went. They began to settle in, settle down. But if somehow none of these things caught Bethlehem's attention, perhaps a troupe of foreign diplomats, bearing valuable stores of gold and frankincense and myrrh, on a mission from Persia to express congratulations on the birth of a promised king – well, maybe that will shock people awake, make them realize something of what's happened! For foreign diplomats hardly show up in the village every day. And they aren't exactly inconspicuous. One wonders what sort of local disturbance ensued. There could be no more denying it – not by anybody in town – that there was a King among them (Matthew 2:8-11).

For all these weeks and months, Bethlehem was in wonder of the miracle. God inhaled Bethlehem's air, and as he exhaled, Bethlehem was filled with molecules that had been in the lungs of the Eternal. Mary drank water from the well of Bethlehem, the very well visited by David's mighty men, and that water went into the milk that the Lord drank. It was from Bethlehem's own local resources that the swaddling clothes had been woven. And as Bethlehem became more and more alert to the Incarnation, Bethlehem could look back on its own old story and see how it all led up to this. Here was born a Redeemer greater than Boaz, a Redeemer who could unwind all the tangled stories of the past. Here was born the Anointed One, not just the Son of David but his Lord. Here was born the One who would one day pour out his blood like water – this was the One to whom David offered Bethlehem's water poured out as though blood, a living sacrifice. And here was born the very Word of God whom Johanan and the remnant decided against when Jeremiah spoke in his name. But in spite of all that sordid past, the Word had decided – a decision made public in Bethlehem – to be for us anyway. Great joy!

Here was born the Light who came as the Life of all people (John 1:4). “The True Light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9). And “he came to his own,” his own creation, his own people (John 1:11). The Light had come. “The Light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). And although the darkness would not be able to overcome it... that wasn't going to stop the darkness from trying. Ever since that night in Bethlehem, the night of the Savior's first breath, the darkness has been madly raging – impotently but painfully – against the Everlasting Light (Revelation 12:11-17). Not long after the diplomats and their entourage withdrew, Joseph had a dream – a dream that he was to follow the same path as rebellious Johanan and the remnant. But this time it was the direction of obedience, not disobedience. And obediently, Joseph obeyed – in the dead of the night, he woke Mary, and they carried the Holy Infant and the magi's gifts, and they set off on the long journey to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). They escaped just in time before Herod's soldiers came to Bethlehem. And as they butchered, Bethlehem – grief-stricken by the lash of darkness – understood why the Holy Family left. God seemed to disappear over the horizon. Many tears were shed (Matthew 2:16-18).

Time passed. Even after Herod died, heaven advised Joseph against going to Bethlehem again – he was to turn to Nazareth and raise the Messiah there (Matthew 2:19-23). So Bethlehem saw him no more. Instead, Bethlehem's residents wept over the cruelty of the infants stolen by Herodian violence. Parents had new children – none could replace the lost, but life could begin again, albeit under a long shadow. A new generation came, and an old one left. Some from Bethlehem no doubt went to see this new preacher – John, baptizing at the Jordan River. And perhaps a few from Bethlehem were there when Jesus was baptized. But Jesus did not follow them back to Bethlehem. His ministry was carried out up north in Galilee. We aren't told that he ever went back to Bethlehem. Maybe some from Bethlehem were in the “great multitude of people from all Judea” who heard him preach and saw him heal (Luke 6:17). And surely Bethlehem saw and felt the darkness over the land when, just a two-hour walk away, Jesus was nailed to a cross – fulfilling his promised destiny to save his people from their sins. For it was just a two-hour hike from Bethlehem that Jesus died, a two-hour hike from Bethlehem that Jesus rose in victory – the Sun of Righteousness, risen from death with healing in his wings!

And then he rose to heaven. The news began to spread. Was anyone from Bethlehem in the crowd on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, not just on one shepherd boy but on the whole church? As the apostles ministered first in Judea, did any of them come to announce the good news in Bethlehem – that the very Baby once born there had become the Firstborn from the Dead, had proven himself to be the Resurrection and the Life? Did the children and grandchildren of the shepherds hear this word of God sealing their family tales with the certitude of the gospel? How many in Bethlehem became followers of this Bethlehem-born Messiah? How many Bethlehemite hearts presented themselves a living sacrifice to a life-giving Savior, crucified and risen?

As for Bethlehem, the decades passed. It watched the Romans destroy the temple – a replay of Babylon all over again. It watched rebellion after rebellion. Emperors built pagan shrines in Bethlehem to spite the name of the Savior. But the good tidings of great joy slowly, steadily caught the world by storm, until one day emperors would tear down the pagan shrines and extol the name of Jesus Christ. Churches would be built, destroyed, and built again. The winds of the world would change, the complicated and tragic dance of a fallen world wrestling with its redemption. Bethlehem would see the shadow of an Arabian path twist the land. Bethlehem would witness the treacherous violence of the Crusaders. Amidst its worship, Bethlehem would dance in darkness.

One Christmas day, Bethlehem would be the place where the Crusader knight Baldwin would be crowned king of Jerusalem. By then, the unity of Christ's seamless garment – the Church – had been ripped in two, and Bethlehem would have to live through the years with the bickering and squabbling of riotous Latin and Greek Christians. Bethlehem would be handed back and forth between ruling powers, and under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the town was crippled, and many inhabitants left. Even today, Bethlehem lives under the shadow of the darkness. The city is closed in by a wall. Homes are bulldozed. The Church of the Navitity has been made a political pawn and placed under siege. Every year, tight security controls block many local Christians from going to Bethlehem on Christmas to worship their Savior. Residents even now describe a place demoralized, with high unemployment, a broken economy, and a town whose main gift left by tourists consists of piles of their garbage. Some in Bethlehem describe their general feeling as one of suffocation.

The darkness rages against the Light. And though the darkness cannot overcome, the darkness can hurt – hurt like Herod's soldiers hurt, hurt like conquest and division hurt. Over two thousand years since good news of great joy filled its streets, those streets of Bethlehem still cry out. Because freedom is not yet complete. Joy is not yet full. Salvation is still unfolding. Peace on earth has begun in Christ, but is not yet fully implemented. The darkness has been beaten by the Light, but the darkness is still loath to admit it. So the darkness rages on, even after the victory of the Savior. And Bethlehem knows these things. Bethlehem knows that the darkness still rages against the light. Bethlehem knows that the darkness may come from corners we don't expect. And Bethlehem sees how the darkness may suddenly surge, may abruptly obscure our view of the heavens. The house of bread is no stranger to our hunger for a day without want. Bethlehem is not surprised any longer when there are shadows over Christmas. But Bethlehem learns to grieve with hope. Bethlehem defies the dark with a memory – a memory of when the brightness of the future cried out from a feed-trough, a memory of God on earth in our skin and our blood. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In spite of all the dark's raging, in spite of all the dark's shadow, in spite of all the grief and all the pain that still goes on, nevertheless the Savior has already been born, and the darkness can do nothing to rewind the times. Salvation has appeared, and salvation will roll on until the world has been rescued from every dark – the darkness in our hearts, and the darkness over the land!

The Savior has come. The Savior will come again. Even now, in his earthly corporate body the Church, this Savior walks the streets of Bethlehem, as he walks the aisles and sits in the pews of this church. And in the face of all the grief that darkness can inflict, all the obscurity that darkness can muster, Bethlehem clings to the age-old promise, and longs for the day when the Savior, in a risen body, will walk her streets again, radiant in his beauty. And the darkness will find no more place. Only then will Bethlehem's voyage be done. Only then will Bethlehem, and every place, reach its destiny. Only then will Bethlehem's cup of salvation run over. Only then will there at last be, in the truest sense of the words, peace on earth. But the Savior's day will come. Rescue, already begun but with more to come, will bear its abundant fruit. And that is good news, a cause for great joy.

As we wrestle the darkness and gaze toward the Light, we know that we are covered with wounds. We may be scarred and weighed down. We may be divided, like the bickering in Bethlehem's streets. We may be hurting, like the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem. We may be passed back and forth between worldly powers, bounced around by an uncaring world. We may feel hemmed in and suffocated. And yet there is a Savior. There is a Light. And it's precisely in the darkness – the dark streets of Bethlehem, the dark streets of our lives, the dark alleys of our hearts – that the Light has come to shine. And so, even scarred and even wounded, we will still defy the dark. We will still stand for the ultimate victory of the unconquerable Light. We will still cry out for the Savior we already know, “born that we no more may die.” We will still speak good news on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere. We will still travel again and again to the salvation God sent down to us. And however dark seem the shadows, we still defiantly echo back the song: “Joy, joy, joy! Joy, joy, joy!” Go tell it!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Galatian Christmas: Christmas Eve Homily 2019

We're maybe not used to asking Paul to tell us the story of Christmas. Luke? Every year. Matthew? Sure, now and again. John? Perhaps, if we're in that mood. The prophets, even, if we have ears to hear! But Paul? What Christmas does Paul know? Sit down this evening with the apostle, in the stillness of a holy night, and how will he tell you the story?

Paul might begin after where we last left off: With God's promise to Abraham, of blessing for all nations because one man believed God and had it credited in his account as the sum-total of a righteous life (Galatians 3:8-9). One day, he reads already, there will be just one road to the blessed life, one road – (one Way) – that leads to fullness and happiness and completeness. And that road is called Faith. But the world would need training for the journey. And so the Lord fixed the time, the time for the one road to blessing to open. And that 'fullness of time' would only come when the world would at last grow up. Have you ever thought it like that?

When Paul looks around at the world of his day, and certainly when he looks back at the long centuries before, that's the one thing he sees above all: the world needs to grow up. He speaks for everyone when he says, “We were children” (Galatians 4:3). That was true for his people, the chosen Israelites. After the promise was given to Abraham, the law was given through Moses. “Before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our pedagogue...” (Galatians 3:23-24). “A pedagogue? What's a pedagogue?” A pedagogue, in Paul's world, was a household slave who escorted a child to school and protected him from predators and bad influences along the way. That's how Paul sees what the Old Testament law was for the Israelites: a protective escort. And Paul also compares the law to “guardians and managers” who watch over an orphan's estate until he gets old enough to inherit (Galatians 4:2). Those people are all good and valuable, for their time! But the problem is, in the Roman world, a child before maturity had a social standing just the same as any slave: “the heir, as long as he's a child, is no different from a slave” (Galatians 4:1). And the only way to get freedom is to grow up – to get out from under the pedagogue, out from under the guardian, the manager. Living by the law, being tied back to it – that's captivity, slavery.

When Paul looks out on the rest of the world, he sees the same kind of story. Other nations didn't have God's law to protect them, but they had “the elements of the world” – spiritual powers, divisions of time, cultural customs, ways of putting the world together – that were no better and no more freedom-giving. Other nations, “when we were children, were enslaved to the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3), to “days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:10). All those ways of putting the world together, all the combinations of the social and material building blocks... In the end, these raw elements' wild lawlessness infantilized the nations – their belief in the elements led them to act like slaves to them (Galatians 4:8). Those under the law, those under the elements, were imprisoned in perpetual immaturity. So if nothing changes, the child is caught in arrested development – never owning anything, never knowing what real freedom is like, never accomplishing the purpose of birth, and certainly never gaining a victory over “the sins of... youth” (Psalm 25:7).

But Paul announces good news to you like this: Something has changed – the world can at last grow up! Why? Because “the fullness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4) – the moment chosen by the Father from eternity past for the great growth-spurt of grace.

How did the fullness of time roll around? With a single cell – a 23-chromosome-pair, mitochondria-packed human cell fused to the entirety of all that makes God 'God,' a zygote in the womb of a girl from Nazareth – a cell that, over the next nine months, divided and differentiated until, late one night in Bethlehem, surrounded by a family's livestock, a baby was born into the aromatic air. And in that whole process, from the first spark of the first cell through the nine months 'til that first Bethlehem breath and the severing of the umbilical cord, the eternal Son of God – older than matter and electromagnetism – pressed himself into our world as one of us. The eternal Son of God, descending to the gravity of this earth, joining his divinity to human nature, literally infantilized himself. And so, at the climax of that nine months, he was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).  But what could that mean, to be 'born under the law'?

In other words, he traded heavenly light for human infancy. He exchanged divine freedom for human servitude, for human law-subjection and law-obedience. His celestial 'above-ness' flipped upside-down into the 'underneath-ness' of a child. (For any child is 'under' many regulations and rules and regimes.) Yes, the One-Above-All was “born under the law,” his own law of his own decree. Why trade the Grand 'Above' for our 'under'? All with one crucial intent. All so the old promises made to Adam and Abraham could find their Yes, “for all the promises of God find their 'Yes!' in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20; cf. Galatians 3:16-18). All so, working from our place on the underside, he could pierce a way through to the heights, to “redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5)! All so we could be redeemed from the sins of our youth, could be set free from the prison of our self-made cribs, could move from our worn-out pacifiers into the bright vistas of pure peace. For gaining his perfect life 'under the law,' a life he would one day pour out for us and on us, is the only way we might graduate to the beauties above the law, beyond the sums of the elements.

That's why, when he writes Galatians, Paul is so deeply disturbed about the idea of people trying to go back, go back to any other arrangement, go back to a life before Jesus, go back to retrieve the crib bars of the law and the pacifiers of the elements, go back to the infancy we've aged out of – “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:9). Because we don't have to be there any more! Not a one of us does. Those years are done!  Faith is here now! The promise has arrived! Chains are broken! Inheritance begins! “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue” (Galatians 3:25). You don't have to be under a pedagogue, under a guardian, under a manager; you are released to come into what's greater and richer. Adoption into the fullness has come, the Spirit has been poured out, advancement is greenlit, because there was a Baby bigger than all the world. In a mystery beyond comprehension, God infantilized himself for us. It all happened as the law prophesied! It took place as the elements of the world sang and shouted! And that, that right there, is the mystery of Christmas.

Which leaves us one great question: How can we be part of the mystery of Christmas? Paul tells us that too, as he tells the story. Paul says that in his ministry – and as a pastor, I know what he means – he can himself feel Mary's labor pangs! Paul feels Mary's very own labor pangs. But where Mary labored to form Jesus for the manger, Paul labors to form Jesus for your heart“I'm again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19), conceived to be the grace that appeared so precious that hour you first believed.

For only once this has happened – only once Christ is conceived in you, formed in you, born in you – can you begin to then “go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1), grow to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), “that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12).

Because that's the goal: the Son of God infantilized himself, that he might make you mature beyond the law, mature beyond the elements, mature beyond the chains, mature for an inheritance nothing else can give! If you don't know that, you don't know why we're celebrating tonight. I hope you won't leave through those doors until you know, know for sure. But if you do know that, then tonight is the brightest joy, the joy that opens a puddle to an ocean, a seed to a forest, a breath to a hurricane, a whisper to a symphony! Because tonight, as we look back, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem” us to a joy that dwarfs galaxies. The Word is made flesh! The Lord is born! But is he yet born, is he yet formed, in you? By faith, receive this good news; by faith, embrace this beautiful mystery; by faith, become this true family; by faith, be set right and ready for something so much bigger! In Jesus' name: Amen!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bethlehem Decision: Sermon on Jeremiah 40-44

Fire. Fire in the palace of the king. He would never use it again – a month ago, Zedekiah son of Josiah had been captured on the plains of Jericho, then blinded and taken away in captivity. Fire. Fire in the temple of their God. They didn't seem to listen to his prophet Jeremiah anyway. Fire in all their houses. Fire in the city. Nabu-zer-iddin, titled 'chief cook' but serving as captain of the bodyguard of the king of Babylon, had come to cook Jerusalem. On a hot July day, he had come to burn it all down. It went up in flame. As for those who'd lived there, Nabu-zer-iddin sent most of them to the processing station, to be deported to work in Babylon and its nearer lands. But he would have to leave some of the poorest residents behind to tend the land here in Babylon's newest province: Judah. The handiwork of burning and smoke.

It's been over four hundred years now since the little town of Bethlehem, just a few miles away, saw a shepherd boy named David be anointed by the elderly prophet Samuel to become Israel's future. It's been centuries since David's mighty men saw Bethlehem under Philistine occupation and crossed enemy lines to bring their chieftain water from his hometown well. Bethlehem had watched, a quiet city proud of her hometown son, as the throne in Jerusalem was occupied by a long sequence of kings down through the years; even when the nation was cleaved in twain by a civil war, Bethlehem watched David's line as the kings sat on David's throne: Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and lastly that ill-fated puppet Zedekiah. Not all ruled well – most did not. Bethlehem observed their glory but mostly grieved their disgrace. And as the kings persistently disregarded the authority of God's prophets, at last this judgment fell. Babylon had come. Babylon had come twice. Babylon had come now this third time and passed a more grievous sentence.

When the Babylonian army filled the land and put Jerusalem under siege, when the Babylonians breached the city walls, when the Babylonians devastated Zedekiah's forces on the Jericho's plains, numerous captains of the army and their men hid in the hills, preserving their lives. Such was the story of a captain named Johanan, and also the regal Ishmael, a descendant of David and some manner of cousin to Zedekiah. But others also found ways to outlast the siege. One noble family had served Judah's final kings for generations without compromise. Shaphan had been a secretary and financial officer to King Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-10), and he'd had three sons: Gemariah, Elasah, and Ahikam – all three of whom supported and aided the prophet Jeremiah. Ahikam stopped the mob from putting Jeremiah to death (Jeremiah 26:24). Gemariah tried, unsuccessfully, to stop Jehoiakim from burning Jeremiah's writings (Jeremiah 36:25). And when the Babylonians had first come and taken people to exile, Elasah carried Jeremiah's letter to their lost countrymen (Jeremiah 29:3). By the July day when the city went up in flame, Ahikam's son Gedaliah was serving as a sensible and moderate administrator there. Many officials were taken away or slain. But Gedaliah, for his good sense, was not.

No, Nabu-zer-iddin and the other Babylonian leaders could see that they needed a native leader to tend matters in their new province, if people were to be left to tend the land. Gedaliah seemed the best man for the job. And so it was Gedaliah whom the Babylonians appointed as governor, to rule from Mizpah where Samuel had once ministered. Many refugees of Judah returned, and the captains came out of hiding, to gather to Gedaliah as he strove to rebuild a community from the broken burnt pieces, a community that could survive and even thrive even under the heel of Babylon (Jeremiah 40:7-12). When Nabu-zer-iddin gave Jeremiah a choice of where to go and what to do, he chose to live under the protection of his old friend Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:1-6).

All was well. Months or maybe a couple years passed – we can't say for sure. But a harvest time approached, and things looked good. Only a rumor began to spread. It became a common report among the military leaders that the princely Captain Ishmael, yearning to strike out at the Babylonians as well as collaborating Jews, had fallen under the influence of the rebellious Ammonites and had a nefarious scheme to assassinate Governor Gedaliah (Jeremiah 40:13-14). Captain Johanan approached the governor, explained to him the report, urged him to let Johanan take action. But Gedaliah was a good man – so good as to fall into error on the other side, the side of naive big-heartedness. He would hear no such bad news about a man he'd known as long as Ishmael (Jeremiah 40:15-16). And so one autumn day it happened, as they shared dinner together as equals in the house from which Gedaliah governed. There around the table, as Gedaliah entrusted Ishmael and his lieutenants, they rose up as one, quick as a flash, and rebelled against Gedaliah's hospitality, and ended his life (Jeremiah 41:1-2). Then they went through the house, killing Gedaliah's administrators; they went out to the small garrison of the Babylonian soldiers left behind, and they put them to death, too; and as for the others who lived in the Mizpah community under Gedaliah's protection, Ishmael took them hostage – even some of his cousins, the former king's own daughters, as well as Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 41:3-10).

Ishmael had done his deed – once again, like all the bad kings, a wayward descendant of David was leading the people deeper into trouble, defying the will of God. And Ishmael's purpose now was to take his hostages with him into a foreign land, the territory of the Ammonites, and hide there. But in time, Captain Johanan heard that Ishmael was on the move with hostages. So Johanan bravely chased Ishmael down, and fought a battle to free those in captivity. Ishmael and a few of his lieutenants did escape to their Ammonite refuge, but the hostages were saved thanks to Johanan and the other captains (Jeremiah 41:11-16). A thrilling victory.

But it presented Johanan now with a complication. What Ishmael had done was a profoundly destabilizing act – and as much as they hadn't shared in it, Johanan feared the Babylonians might not make distinctions. All they would see is that Judah had rebelled and killed Babylon's appointed governor as well as her native soldiers, and they might come and exact vengeance by devastating the land further. Last time they had burned Jerusalem – how severe would be their wrath on a fourth visit? Johanan and the other captains, having experience resisting the Babylonians in vain, saw there was no way for their meager forces to withstand it. The only prudent tactical decision would be withdrawal – withdrawal from the land itself (Jeremiah 41:18). So they agreed on a plan to save themselves and the former hostages. But it would involve fleeing into a self-imposed exile, not in Babylon but in Babylon's rival power Egypt. And so the only path to hope, Johanan thought, was in reversing the exodus of their ancestors. Yet as they began to move, many of the rescued hostages were unsure. God had brought their people up out of Egypt; how could they make their own decision to return there? God had promised this very land to Abraham; how could they just desert it, throw away his gift? And so, to settle the question and calm the protests, the military figures grudgingly paused the group's movements at a waystation along the road.

But where they stopped matters – where they stopped matters very much. For centuries earlier, King David had been on the run from his usurping son Absalom, and David and his allies had fled to a place called Mahanaim, where they'd found great hospitality from an elderly Gileadite man named Barzillai (2 Samuel 17:27-29). And when Absalom's rebellion at last collapsed, Barzillai personally came to escort David across the Jordan River and back into his kingdom (2 Samuel 19:31-32). David was thankful – very thankful. He wanted to do great and wonderful things for Barzillai – wanted even to join him to the royal household, have him come live in Jerusalem with him (2 Samuel 19:33). But Barzillai pointed out how old he was, and how little his gesture of support had been (2 Samuel 19:34-36). Barzillai asked to go back home. But, he said, if David wanted to repay Barzillai's kindness, he could do it by favoring Barzillai's son Chimham (2 Samuel 19:37-38). And so as the old man went home to Mahanaim with David's blessing, Chimham went with David (2 Samuel 19:39-40). And evidently, David and his son Solomon would eventually reward Chimham with a portion of what may have been David's own family lands outside Bethlehem (cf. 1 Kings 2:7), land on which Chimham set up a geruth, an inn or caravansary for foreign travelers to rest at on their way to and from Jerusalem. For that's exactly where now, centuries later, Johanan's gaggle of frightened people stop to regroup: at this ancient inn near Bethlehem. “They went and stayed at Geruth Chimham near Bethlehem, intending to go to Egypt” (Jeremiah 41:17).

There at the inn by Bethlehem, the people themselves were indecisive. But they knew they had a choice before them, a choice to be made, a choice on which all was to be wagered: Stay there in the land and wait to see the fallout, or run belatedly back to the land of their former slavery. The military leaders were certain what to do. Only one avenue made sense to their pragmatic minds. Only one road led to self-preservation, and that was the road to Egypt. It had to be done. But it would be simpler to do it if the people fell in line. So there at the inn by Bethlehem, Johanan and the captains solicited the help of a figure who'd been silent for much of the tale: the prophet Jeremiah. The captains led the people to turn to Jeremiah and ask him to pray to his God – note, they call him Jeremiah's God, not theirs – to show them what to do (Jeremiah 42:1-3).

Jeremiah hears them and says he will pray to their God and report back – meaning, he'll gladly ask the question, but they'll have to reckon with the answer, whatever it is, even if it's one they don't like (Jeremiah 42:4). And the people – whom Jeremiah doesn't much believe – swear that they will. They accept their identity as God's people: “May Yahweh be a true and faithful witness against us if we don't act according to all the word with which Yahweh your God sends you to us. Whether it's good or bad, we will obey the voice of Yahweh our God to whom we're sending you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of Yahweh our God” (Jeremiah 42:5-6). They make a vow before God that they'll receive and obey God's word as it comes through the one whom they've agreed to send to God, the prophet whom God sent to them. They bind themselves to an oath to submit to the prophetic authority which Jeremiah will exercise. Whether they like what they hear or dislike what they hear, they admit that the only path forward has to be obeying what God says, as Jeremiah will relay it.

Jeremiah, for his part, takes this mission very seriously. So he spends days in prayer, seeking God. And for ten days, God seems to be quiet. Among the people, that's a cause for concern. Perhaps they wonder if God has abandoned them to their own devices. Perhaps they wonder if God wants them to make up their own mind and do things their way. Or perhaps they just figure that each day that passes is a day closer to word reaching the nearest Babylonian garrison about Gedaliah's death and the apparent revolt, and their nerves are getting the better of them. So the clock ticks. Each hour has them trembling. Each day tries the captains' patience. Yet “at the end of ten days, the word of Yahweh came to Jeremiah” – at last (Jeremiah 42:7)! The prophet summons the military leadership, as well as the rest of the people, to all hear the instruction he must proclaim, a word from God himself: “Do not fear the king of Babylon..., for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. But if you say, 'We will not remain in this land,' disobeying the voice of Yahweh your God and saying, 'No, we will go to the land of Egypt, where we won't see war or hear the sound of the trumpet or be hungry for bread, and we'll dwell there,' then hear the word of Yahweh, O remnant of Judah...: If you set your faces to Egypt and go to live there, then the sword you fear shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt...” (Jeremiah 42:11-16).

Now they've heard the word of God declared. The prophet of the Lord has spoken. It is not what the captains were hoping – even though it's a message of mercy and hope! God said to them, “If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you and not pluck you up” (Jeremiah 42:10) – which is the exact same promise God had given Jeremiah for the exiles taken to Babylon (Jeremiah 24:6)! And there at Geruth Chimham, there at the inn by Bethlehem, this remnant left behind is confronted by God's word of mercy and warning. And they have a choice to make. Gedaliah is gone. So what will govern them now?

Two candidates vie to govern their next actions, their decisive course of destiny. On the one hand, they might choose to trust God. They might choose to be governed by the word God spoken through the prophet. They might choose to turn back from their own plans and submit their actions to God's word and face their fears, standing firm (even if trembling) on the promise that God would build and plant them, not pull and pluck them. That's what God intends for them, what God wishes for them. He wants them to listen to the prophet he sent them. He wants them to hear his voice. He wants them to be governed by the word of God. But on the other hand, they could choose to reject the word of God. They could choose to be governed by their own agendas, by their fear and doubt and uncertainty. They could choose to be governed by their resentment of the rebuke they just received, and they could reject the authority of the prophet and the word he's spoken.

The ball's in their court, you might say. The choice is theirs, at Geruth Chimham. The choice is theirs, as they stand outside Bethlehem. Desolate Bethlehem watches them, wonders what they'll do. Bethlehem asks them, “Do you not know that God is trustworthy? Do you not know that God keeps his promises? Have you not paid attention down through the years, when God brought redemption to the woman who finally came back home to me where he wanted her? Did you not see what God did with a simple boy when his Spirit rushed down? Did you not hear David's surrender of all his desires when he poured out my water as the living sacrifice of his mighty men? Have you not seen how things go when your people trust God, and how pitiful they've been when you've turned aside to broken things? Hear the call of Bethlehem: Choose his word!”

Geruth Chimham is the place where they must choose: The word of God, or their own fear. The word of God, or their own doubt. The word of God, or their own pride. The word of God, or their own resentment. The word of God, or the words they speak. Just ten days earlier, their own word had confessed God as a “true and faithful witness” (Jeremiah 42:5). But at Geruth Chimham, they must choose whether to accept even their own earlier testimony, their own earlier promise to trust the prophetic promise of God. What will govern them?

Sadly, these people choose fear. No sooner has Jeremiah delivered God's message than, as he suspected, they start coming up with excuses to reject his authority. He's “telling a lie,” they protest (Jeremiah 43:2). He's been biased against them by his own scribe Baruch, they fabricate (Jeremiah 43:3a). He wants them to suffer, he wants to work against them, he wants them to be exiled or killed, he's working for Babylon (Jeremiah 43:3b). No excuse is too feeble to invoke, as they try to rationalize their hard hearts, their preference to be governed by fear and resentment, doubt and pride, instead of the word of God. There at Geruth Chimham, there at the inn by Bethlehem, they cast their lot. All Johanan's earlier exploits in rescuing the hostages – they counted for nothing after he rejected the prophet's authority and disregarded the word of God, much as Judah's kings had.

And so the group leaves, traveling away from Bethlehem. Johanan and the captains take the entire group – even Jeremiah and Baruch – away from Judah into the desert roads; and after a long march, “they came to the land of Egypt, for they didn't obey the voice of Yahweh” (Jeremiah 43:7), effectively unwinding God's commitments to their ancestors – they turned aside from living as his covenant people, they traced their way back to before Sinai, back to the place of slavery from which they'd come. And in the end, they would face a great cost. They should have heeded God's word and not their fears. But in Jeremiah's final word, when they've at last exposed themselves as having been unbelievers and idolaters all along, God tells Jeremiah and the people once again the consequence of their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt (Jeremiah 44:11-12, 27-28):

Behold, I will set my face against you for harm, to cut off all Judah. I will take the remnant of Judah who have set their faces to come to the land of Egypt to live, and they shall all be consumed. … Behold, I am watching over them for disaster and not for good.... and all the remnant of Judah, who came to the land of Egypt to live, shall know whose word will stand: mine or theirs.

Make no mistake: In this Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, the remnant of Judah found a grim ending. Their story does not end well, and it is entirely because they chose to be governed by fear, doubt, pride, and resentment instead of being governed by the word of God. At Geruth Chimham, the inn by Bethlehem, a decision was laid before them, and they decided it poorly. But we don't have to make the same choice they did. For we ourselves come to Geruth Chimham now and again. We likewise pause at the inn by Bethlehem and have choices to make – a choice, a decision, not unlike theirs. Which will govern the course we follow?

When you and I come to Geruth Chimham, we might hear God's promise and see it as smaller than the fear. We might collapse under the weight of our doubt. We might let pride and resentment turn us away. Yes, at Geruth Chimham, it is a live option for us to run away – to go in the opposite direction of Bethlehem, to flee when the word of God would bid us patiently wait and submit and listen. That is one possibility. It is the path that the remnant of Judah took, and which God said would make them an oath, a horror, a curse, and a taunt.

But on the other hand, we might choose to do differently than they did. When the word of God meets us there at the inn by Bethlehem, we might wait and submit and listen. We might stay there near Bethlehem, because the word of God is trustworthy and true. We might hear the prophet God sent, and receive this word as God's word, and stay. For what the remnant of Judah could not abide was this: One day, not far from Geruth Chimham where they stood, the Word of God would come forth and stand in human flesh. And when the Word of God “above all earthly powers” would be made flesh as Jesus Christ, we would know for a certainty that the promise is bigger than every fear and every doubt – the promise is more beautiful than all our prides and resentments are ugly. So this Christmas season, let us decide for the word of God! Let us wait at Bethlehem and welcome the Promise in whom the hopes and fears of all the years may be met and answered in just one night. Amen.