Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nativity Story: The One We've Been Waiting For

It's been six months since Zechariah returned home from Jerusalem, stunned speechless by the angel's rebuke. Once again, the great and glorious Gabriel is given a task that takes him away from the throne room of heaven. Gabriel isn't sent to a massive city like Jerusalem and the temple. He isn't sent to a priest with decades of experience and wisdom. He's sent to a little village called Nazareth, out in the backwoods of Galilee (Luke 1:26). 

Nazareth hasn't been there so long – it's a recent settlement, maybe a generation old at most. It makes White Horse look like a thriving metropolis – there are maybe a couple hundred people in Nazareth, kids included. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody helped everybody. A sweet little peasant village, surrounded by a cluster of little farms and a place to press grapes. But in the outside world, if anybody's heard the name of Nazareth, they must be a rural news junkie.

But that's where God sends Gabriel. Isn't that just like God – sending his messengers down into the nooks and crannies of our world, reaching the places overlooked by those of worldly importance? The great and glorious Gabriel appears suddenly in Nazareth to a teenage girl named Mary, a relative of Zechariah's wife Elizabeth (Luke 1:27). Maybe Mary's parents were among the first settlers of Nazareth, brought there as youngsters themselves; maybe Mary's mother was born in Hebron; maybe Elizabeth has fond memories of watching her grow up in her earliest years. But here's Mary, young by our standards but marrying age by theirs: she's engaged to a fellow named Joseph, who likely resettled there from Bethlehem, or else his parents did.

Who is this Mary? She drops into the story with scarcely an explanation. Zechariah was a priest from a long line of priests; Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They seemed small-town enough – but now God wants us to know about a teen girl in a small village, readying herself for marriage to a young local craftsman. 

Have you ever spent time in a poor village? I remember a few years ago, when I was in Kenya, visiting a little village called Mwimutoni up on the mountain ridge, overlooking the Rift Valley – just over five miles from the Rift Valley Academy, as the crow flies. Many houses were built of sticks and mud, at best. Goats roamed the walkways; chickens were cooped up in the homes. The gaggle of local children – mostly orphans, thanks to the AIDS epidemic – played soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and rubber bands or else rolled a tire around with a stick. One of the churches shut all the windows during prayer to keep the devil at bay. It was vastly bigger than first-century Nazareth – their elementary school alone had a higher population. And I remember meeting a girl there, the daughter of one Pastor Elijah; she might have been a year or two older than Mary. They may well have been a lot alike.

From a human perspective, at this point Mary is a nobody – noteworthy in Luke's text only because she hasn't messed around and is looking to marry a man from a decent family. But to hear Gabriel speak to her, you'd think she's the queen of the world: “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28). Gabriel sees her as a new Hannah – a woman truly “favored with grace,” destined to give miraculous birth to a man of God. 

Now, when Gabriel appeared to the priest Zechariah, the priest was filled with immense fear. Gabriel appears to this teenager, and she's simply got some questions (Luke 1:29). Have you ever noticed that? Mary is pretty much one of the only people in the Bible who doesn't nearly drop dead when an angel shows up. Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, but he didn't really have to (Luke 1:30). She's apprehensive, but not afraid. For all her youth, for all her domestic life, for all her obscurity, her strength of character comes through in this moment.

Gabriel wants Mary to know that she's going to have a son – and we know what Gabriel tells her to name him (Luke 1:31). This kid will be someone great, as God counts greatness. In fact, he's going to be God's own Son – called “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). This isn't where the boy's life will begin; it's already been going on from eternity past, in relationship to God his Father. 

And the Lord God – Israel's God, David's God, Mary's God – will install the boy on the throne of the Davidic dynasty, and this kingdom has no expiration date (Luke 1:33). That's a tall order! To a young girl living under the heavy hand of Roman occupation and Herod's meddling, Gabriel promises that she'll give birth to a special son who will be king – because the kingdom of God is coming, and there's a new David who'll run it!

Mary is no Zechariah. Remember, Zechariah's question, faced with Gabriel's prophecy about John, was, “How can I know?” Zechariah's reaction to the angel's words was disbelief – he wanted added confirmation of news so spectacular. Mary's question is, “How can this be?” She isn't acting in disbelief – she doesn't ask for added confirmation, just added information (Luke 1:34). She wants some clarification on the mechanics here, so that there's no misunderstanding. Is Gabriel just talking about her first son with Joseph? What does he mean? 

He explains that this child will be holy, will be God's Son – Joseph has no role to play in that. The Holy Spirit will come upon her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her (Luke 1:35). In the Old Testament, there are a handful of characters of whom it gets said that the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the LORD “came upon” them. By my count, four of those are warriors. Warriors like Othniel, Jephthah, and David get the Spirit of God coming upon them for miracle-working power to win victories and lead deliverance (Judges 3:10; 11:29; 1 Samuel 16:13). The rest are prophets. Prophets like Balaam, Azariah, and Jahaziel get the Spirit of God coming upon them to fill them with the truth-unveiling Word of God (Numbers 24:2; 2 Chronicles 15:1; 20:14). 

Mary will be both a warrior and a prophet: God's power will flood through her and accomplish miraculous feats, and the Word of God won't just be on her lips but in her womb, taking on human nature from her flesh and blood. It's impossible by every measure of the natural order of things. But “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Mary could pull a Moses and complain about how ill-suited she is to the task at hand. Mary could pull a Jonah and say she just doesn't like this job and she'd prefer another. Mary could pull an Elijah and mope about how it all seems so pointless. Mary has reasons to fuss. She has an idea of how badly this all might turn out. If she consents to God's plan, how is she going to explain what's happened to Joseph? How could he ever understand? He'll surely never marry her now. And her parents may well disown her. Her friends will talk behind her back. The whole village will know in a matter of seconds. She'll be an outcast – “that woman.” She's got her whole life ahead of her. Can't she just ask the angel to come back in twenty or thirty years, once she's settled in, lived a while? 

That's something we might ask. But Mary just calls herself the servant of the Lord and invites God to fulfill his plan for her life (Luke 1:38). We could learn a lot from Mary. We could learn that God's plan trumps all our silly excuses, and even all the best reasons we wouldn't call excuses. We could learn how to count the cost and then make a deliberate decision to follow the cross-bearer.

Mary somehow gets permission to travel to Hebron in Judea to go visit her relatives for a while – not just a day, not a week, but three months. Cousin Elizabeth, now a prophet, pronounces God's blessing on Mary and the unborn child already taking shape inside her. This unborn baby, tender and small, Elizabeth worships and reveres already as Lord – and Mary is no longer just “little cousin,” Mary is “the Lord's mother” (Luke 1:42-43). Even her own unborn son John recognizes gentle Mary's little child and gets all excited. 

Filled with the Spirit, Mary celebrates in her famous song, like Hannah's song before her. Mary's God is a God who isn't content to sit on the sidelines; Mary's God gets involved. Mary's God is holy, set apart, pure – Mary's God makes Mary holy and makes this unborn presence in her holy. Mary's God is merciful from one generation to the next, always faithful to his promises and going the extra mile to show kindness to his people. The generations each prayed for the mercy of a deliverer, a new Moses, a new David; and Mary carries within her the fulfillment of her God's mercy. Mary's God does justice by turning the world upside-down, now just the same as in Hannah's day: he brings down the strong and raises up the lowly, he feeds the hungry and sends away the self-satisfied rich with zilch (Luke 1:46-55). 

Mary and Elizabeth must talk for all those three months, sharing thoughts on what God is doing for them, why God has chosen them; and then Mary has to go home, probably before Elizabeth gives birth (Luke 1:56-57). Her family needs her. Joseph misses her.

Luke's story skips ahead by months – gliding right past how a visibly pregnant Mary shocked her tight-knit village community; how Joseph wrestled with his natural anger and yet, in the thick of it, mimicked God's mercy, wanting to spare her from public shame or prosecution; how God sent Joseph dreams to persuade him that Mary hadn't betrayed him, that he could still be with the woman he'd chosen to marry. Joseph stayed. An entire sermon could be preached about Joseph's strength of character. But, like Mary, Joseph chooses to embrace the stigma and the shame, opts to ignore the painful whispers of the neighbors, of his brothers and friends – so that Mary won't have to go it alone.

The year of engagement is almost over. Mary's well into her third trimester when the order comes down that Caesar wants to play around with his people some more. The Roman emperor commands everyone to go back to the family hometown. Caesar Augustus tells the world to jump; the only question they're allowed is, “How high?” He wants to register everyone for another tax census (Luke 2:1-3). Like Cain, Caesar is all about what he can own and possess and acquire. Like his petty underling Herod, Caesar is about grasping onto power and money with both fists and clenching them tight for life. In the face of a Cain-and-Abel world, Caesar and Herod are scared to death of their mortality, the possibility that they can be brought to nothing, that they can lose what they have, that they could be dethroned, that they might be forgotten someday. That, and not God's Seth-like grace, rules their lives. We see the same thing all around us today.

Joseph was a Bethlehemite – a member of the historic royal family. To locals, Bethlehem wasn't Bethlehem; it was “the City of David.” Everyone knew who David was – and they couldn't be prouder. As a descendant of the town's brightest son, Joseph was always welcome anywhere in Bethlehem, welcome to stay with anyone (Luke 2:4). He brought his fiancée Mary with him – under law of that time, they were just about as good as married, and he wouldn't want to be totally absent from her (Luke 2:5). 

Luke doesn't actually tell us how long they were there before the birth – maybe a couple days. They weren't staying at a commercial inn. A better translation is that there was no space in the guest room of somebody's house – maybe Joseph's cousin's place, or maybe an old friend, or maybe a hospitable stranger. So Joseph and Mary packed like sardines into the common room with everyone else. In a village house like you'd find in Bethlehem, the area near the door was a few steps lower than the rest of the room, because that's where the livestock would stay overnight to ensure they didn't get stolen. And at the edge of the floor before it drops off, there were a pair of stone feed-troughs for the oxen to reach. 

When the time came, the men vacated the premises so the women could help Mary – and when all was done, she rested her baby boy in the feed-trough and put him to bed there (Luke 2:6-7). It's not the image that's been passed down in Christmas carols, maybe. But it's what Luke is saying.

The scene shifts to the fields next. It's the middle of the night, and a band of shepherds are keeping an eye on their flock under the shadow of the tower Migdal Eder, the biblical Tower of the Flock that Jacob passed after burying his wife Rachel (cf. Genesis 35:21). The area's livestock were candidates for being sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The shepherds have a theoretically important but practically thankless job – and one can imagine that the night shift with the sheep, in the stillness of the fields, gets lonely and boring, even on a nice night. 

The shepherds are caught up in their usual routine. They know they get no respect from city folk, out babysitting sheep like that. Maybe this shepherd here sometimes wonders if he's living up to his full potential. Maybe that shepherd over there asks himself if this is all there is to life. Maybe a third shepherd is struggling to stay awake. And maybe the shepherd on that hill is worried about scrounging up enough money to pay his taxes, when he already has five mouths to feed on a shepherd's wages. The usual routine of worry in the night.

Their silent night is about to get very, very unboring. In a flash, they aren't alone: an angel of the Lord looms in front of them, standing there in their vision. Midnight's darkness blanches and flees from the glory of the Lord that shines and engulfs them. They're terrified, scared out of their wits – as I'd be, in their shoes. The angel – maybe Gabriel yet again? – reassures them he's there with good news – with a gospel – that offers great joy to all people. The joy isn't just for some few people. It isn't just for people who are naturally “religious,” to whom going to synagogue and obeying the Torah comes naturally and easily. It isn't just for people who are “worthy” – for kings and priests and Pharisees, for the big shots or the industrious. Nor is it just for people who are “outcast” – not only for the shepherds, not only for peasants, not only for the worst of the worst.

So often, we think that the gospel is limited in scope. Maybe we think that the gospel isn't for us because we just aren't the “religious type” – we don't especially like going to church, we don't find that prayer or Bible reading comes easily. God never promises it'd come easy – but he did say that the gospel is for you. It may make demands on you, but it makes them on you, not just your “naturally 'religious'” neighbor. 

Or maybe we think the gospel isn't for us because we aren't “worthy” – we've done bad things and we doubt that God wants to forgive us, or we're just so small and ordinary and we doubt that God really pays much attention to what happens to us. If you've sinned, if you feel ashamed, if you feel small and insignificant – the gospel is for you. 

Or maybe we're in the other boat: we think the gospel isn't for us because we aren't “that bad” – we may have lied that one time, or we may have walked past a homeless guy and forgotten about it, but come on, it isn't like we're an addict or a convicted felon. That's who really needs the gospel, right? Surely not us – but if you think of yourself as “not that bad,” then you're in denial of the reality of sin. The gospel is for you every bit as much as for Saul of Tarsus, every bit as much as for every converted gang leader or redeemed miscreant in history.

The angel tells the shepherds what the good news is. Over in the City of David, a Savior has been born. Not just born – born to them. A Savior – we domesticate that word so easily. We've packaged it up neatly as one of those special “religious” words. But a savior is someone who saves, who rescues. We have a problem, and a savior comes riding in like a hero and snatches us out of our predicament. He swoops in and scoops us up at the last second, knocks us out of the way of the freight train barreling down on us.  

That is a savior. And he's who the shepherds need – a savior from their monotony, a savior from their outcast life, a savior from their sin and their estrangement from God and from their neighbors. And we need a savior every bit as much as they did. We continually get tied down in trouble. We enmesh ourselves in sin, in rebellious alternatives to the kind of well-balanced life that God wants for us; we alienate ourselves from God, from one another, from the world in which we live. 

We need a savior. And the good news is that on the day the angel came at midnight, that Savior showed up! And he's not just any savior. He's the Lord Messiah – the Promised One, the One we've been waiting for. All the prophets were looking forward to him. He's the answer to Israel's plight. He's the answer to every country's trouble. He's the answer to the problems of every life – he's an answer for Mary, he's an answer for Joseph, for Caesar, for Herod, for shepherds and sages and for you and me.

When the shepherds hear the word “Messiah,” can you imagine how relieved they must be? From the time they were little boys, learning in Bethlehem the old, old stories, sitting in the synagogue every sabbath to hear the prophets read, taking pride in living at David's city – well, they grew up yearning for the Messiah, the final Anointed King who would set the people free, who would turn back the clock to a better time, and go beyond even that. Maybe as youngsters, they argued as they walked down the street whether the Messiah would be born in their lifetime – maybe it was some grown-up they knew, or maybe one of their friends, or maybe it'd be another hundred or thousand years. And now he's here – and they're supposed to go look for him? Why on earth would the Messiah's parents even want to see them? Isn't he in a huge palace behind some locked gate, with a 24/7 security detail? How are shepherds supposed to slip past the bouncers? Isn't this just another set-up for failure – to be turned away? 

That's why the angel adds that he'll be wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger: the Messiah isn't in a big mansion, he isn't in a palace, he isn't on the seventh floor of some massive castle, surrounded by elegant purple curtains and gold finery. When they get there, he'll be in a village house like theirs; Mary did with him what their own wives maybe did with their own babies. The Messiah isn't from an elite caste, isn't separated from them by class or culture. The Messiah is like them. His mom won't turn them away.

So, after a performance by heaven's official army band, proclaiming glory and peace, the shepherds decide to dare and go pay a visit to this newborn Messiah. Hearing about him isn't enough. Talking about him isn't enough. They want to see him, see him with their own eyes. There's no time to delay! There's no time to argue about it! The shepherds “went with haste” to go into Bethlehem – did they abandon the flocks, or did one of them draw the short straw and stay behind? – and in a small town home to just three hundred people, it doesn't take long for the local shepherds to find the right house. 

They call at the door, somebody opens, they crowd in among the animals – and there, just below eye level, resting in the manger, is the child. Having been told what the meaning was, now they're ready to see him. But they had to be told first – they wouldn't have gone unless they already knew what was so important here, what the event meant. Now it's their turn to amaze, with stories of angels and glory and prophecies galore. 

And when the shepherds leave, they go away changed. This wasn't an ordinary night. They go away “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They heard about the Messiah, they saw the Messiah, they encountered him for themselves as one person to another, and their lives will never be the same. May it also be with us!

Eight days pass. Still in Bethlehem. The time comes for the child to become a full-fledged son of Israel, to be subjected to the Law of Moses and the covenant with Abraham. At his circumcision, it's time to name the child, the Messiah. And what will be his name? The same name that Gabriel told Mary before the child was even conceived. The name is “Jesus.” It sounds majestic and tender to us. We forget that in Galilee and Judea, “Jesus” was one of the most common names a boy could have. Gabriel's message must have sounded to Mary something like, “And behold, thou shalt bear a son, and he shall be great, he shall be the Messiah, he shall be the Son of God, and because he is so very special, thou shalt assuredly call him by the very special name: 'Bob'!”

But it doesn't matter how common the name was. What matters is what the name means – because in this child, it will take on its full meaning. The name 'Yehoshua' means: “Yahweh is salvation.” And isn't that the honest truth? In Jesus, Yahweh – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Moses; the God of Hannah and Samuel – is present on earth, his autobiography being transcribed not in ink and parchment but in the messiness of human flesh and blood – and he's here to come to our rescue, showing strength and, above all, mercy (Luke 1:50-51). 

In Jesus, the powerful God descended from his throne to lift up lowly sinners like us. In Jesus, the Rich One emptied himself to sate our hunger with lavishly good grace (Luke 1:52-53). In Jesus, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14) to drown out the sins and chaos of a world gone wrong.

All the Bible's nativity stories point to this one. He's the One we've been waiting for all along. He isn't like Cain, grasping at every last straw; nor is he like Caesar or Herod. That's not what kingship means to the Messiah. Kingship means humility; kingship means sacrifice; kingship means generosity and surrender. To be the Messiah is to step down and throw aside the glory to embrace shepherds, peasants, sinners. Where Abel's nativity was a cry of lament over the transitory nature of the world – everything dies, everything goes away, everything is dull and pointless – this Nativity heralds something that doesn't fade with the passing of time, a kingdom and a King who have no end. This Nativity is appointed by God, like Seth's.

Maybe you're here this morning, and as you think about the baby in the manger, you realize that you've known where God wanted you and what he wants you to do, and unlike Mary, your answer hasn't been, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). 

Or maybe you realize that you've heard the gospel, you've heard the news, you've heard about Jesus... but unlike the shepherds, you've never gone into Bethlehem to see Jesus, to meet him, to encounter him yourself and find out that the saving promise of God has come true for you

Maybe you've heard that Jesus is a Savior but haven't prayed for him to rescue you. Or maybe you think you met him once, maybe you try to visit Bethlehem once or twice a year, but in between you've forgotten the love and grace in the baby's eyes. 

Maybe as you live your life, you realize that you don't experience rest from the curse of the ground like Noah, you don't find the truth of the promises of God like Isaac, you aren't set free from bondage like Moses to be free indeed, you haven't looked to Jesus and seen for yourself that God has been listening to your prayers and has sent you an answer like Samuel. But that rest, that promise, that freedom, that answer – it's all there in the manger, all there in Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior born for you and for me. 

This Christmas – and make no mistake, Christmas is a season, not a day, and it's still going strong – don't leave here without meeting Jesus and finding good reason to return home glorifying and praising God for all that you've heard and seen... just as it had been told you (cf. Luke 2:20). He's the One we've been waiting for. Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nativity Stories: Priest and Prophet, Redux

In this season of Advent, we've been reviewing the messages of the Bible's many nativity stories: Cain, Abel, Seth – the grace of God is the only way out of the vicious cycle of a fallen world; Noah, Isaac, Moses – God will give rest, God will promise, God will deliver; and Samuel – God will hear our persistent, heartfelt prayers. And down through the years we come – past David, past Solomon, past prophets and kings aplenty, through the exile to the return under Zerubbabel and Ezra and Nehemiah, and through centuries of divine silence. 

And the people watched. And the people waited. The Old Testament scriptures left off, because the voice of prophecy grew still. Tyrants like Antiochus Epiphanes rose. The Maccabees – sons of the priest Mattathias – fought him off, cleansed the temple, instituted the celebration of Hanukkah, and then founded the Hasmonean line of priest-kings like Simon Maccabeus' son John Hyrcanus, who forced the Idumean descendants of Esau to convert to the Jewish faith. 

The Hasmonean rule ended when John's great-grandson Antigonus was defeated by an Idumean named Herod, whose dad had been friends with Antigonus' betrayed brother; and so Herod the Idumean took his place as king of the Jews.

A few decades into this Herod's reign, Luke introduces us to a certain couple: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Both were descended from Aaron, the first high priest of Israel, just as the corrupt Hasmoneans were. But unlike the Hasmoneans, Zechariah and Elizabeth aren't corrupt. In fact, both of them – not just one or the other, but both of them – were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6), just like Saul the Pharisee, perhaps just a little boy at this time or yet unborn, later would be (Philippians 3:16). 

But like him, even Zechariah and Elizabeth would need a Savior. No matter how good we think we are, we still need salvation. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived their lives in a town in the Judean hills (Luke 1:39) – probably Hebron, which was one of the six ancient Cities of Refuge owned by the tribe of Levi, to which those who killed intentionally or accidentally could come to seek safety (Joshua 21:13). But, living among fellow priests and Levites, these two were old and childless (Luke 1:7).

Now, Luke drops us into the action on a day that seemed like any other. What makes it so important is that it's about fifteen months before the manger. Among the Jewish priests, there were twenty-four divisions established by King David long ago – twenty-four priestly houses – and each had a shift during the course of a year to provide the priests who'd staff the temple (1 Chronicles 24:7-19). Zechariah belonged to the eighth division, the House of Abijah (Luke 1:5; cf. 1 Chronicles 24:10). 

Now, within each house, there were far more priests than tasks, so the rabbis tell us that, because of priests shoving each other off ramps in the temple in a dangerous race to the job they wanted, a system had been set up to lend order. There were four lots cast – picking, first, one priest to clear ashes from the altar; second, thirteen priests to slaughter the sacrificial animal; third, one priest to offer incense; and fourth, one priest to offer the animal's limbs on the altar (m. Yoma 2).

The system mandated that the incense offering had to be made by a priest who'd never served that way before, and that fit Zechariah perfectly. He'd never had a chance to do it, all the years of his life. But now, in his old age, he finally had the chance (Luke 1:8-9). When he was a young priest in his twenties, maybe he daydreamed about finally entering the temple sanctuary. But he waited. His thirties – waited. Forties – waited. Fifties, sixties – waited. And here he is – in his seventies, eighties, maybe nineties – and his name finally comes up. This is his long-awaited calling! This is why he's a priest!

So there he stands, maybe trembling on the first day of his service. It's morning, time for the first of the two daily sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-42). The Court of Israel is thronged with worshippers eagerly watching as the lamb is slain and divided into pieces. The pungent stench of death fills the air, stinging the nostrils of the crowd – a reminder of the costly nature of their sinful ways. But the crowd has gathered, and they're praying their hearts out (Luke 1:10). They need to communicate with God! It's about more than blood and loss; they need a relationship with him, they need to hear and be heard! 

And that's what the incense offering is for: the aroma arises to heaven, the sweetness of their prayers blotting out the stench of death. And as the people watch and wait, the priest will emerge and convey God's answer by blessing them. That's how it's done. That's how it works. The incense offering carries a promise from God, recorded in the Law: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God” (Exodus 29:45).

That's what Zechariah has come to do. Inside the temple, he stands at the southern side of the incense altar, surveying its shining gold plating, staring down between the four horns to the smoldering coals (cf. Exodus 30:1-9). A pile of incense, specially formulated by one Jewish family for this purpose and no other, rests in his age-knotted hands, cupped above the altar. Everything inside is peaceful, quiet – the way it's meant to be. Zechariah moves to drop the incense – and he isn't all that moves. Suddenly, a man stands at his right hand, appearing out of thin air (Luke 1:11)! The man stands at the east side of the altar, between Zechariah and the door; the man faces the veil that marks off the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant stands, hidden.

Needless to say, this stranger startles Zechariah – nearly gives him a heart attack (Luke 1:12)! Luke admits from the outset that this is no man; this is an angel of the Lord. In fact, as we'll soon learn, he's Gabriel, one of the highest-ranking angels in heaven, and he's come with a special purpose. I imagine Zechariah screams, or else is sputtering in disbelief. Gabriel tells him not to be afraid. Gabriel represents God's unexpected interruption of the 'normal' course of the ritual. Why does that come as such a surprise to Zechariah? Maybe Zechariah was too much like us: doing holy things in a holy place but never once expecting God to do anything – least of all to deviate from the script.

Gabriel tells Zechariah, “Don't be afraid” (Luke 1:13). Gabriel being there means that all this praying hasn't gone unnoticed. The crowd outside, praying under their breaths or chanting prayers aloud – they've been heard. Isn't that the whole point of the ritual? Before the incense column even hit the ceiling, God was listening. Zechariah's prayers from his youth, when he still hoped he'd have children someday – God heard them. Decades flew by, Zechariah barely remembers those days on his knees as a newlywed, but those prayers reached God just the same. 

And the prayers of all Jewish history, no, all human history – all this time, we've been asking God to do something about the waywardness of the world. And we pray and we pray, and nothing seems to change, and we wonder if God's tuning us out – and Gabriel's here in the temple to let Zechariah know that God has heard it all! And Zechariah's going to have a son, the son he'd asked for years ago, and that son is the assurance that, no matter the wait, God hears his people's prayers.

Zechariah finds it too good to be true. He's been tutored in the Bible; he's familiar with the story of Abraham asking dumb and doubtful questions; Zechariah should know better. But he asks what will happen to let him know that this is going to take place – as if a personal visit from Gabriel weren't enough (Luke 1:18)! 

Now, I don't know the tone in Gabriel's voice when he answers. I may be reading more irritation into the reply than was actually there. But I imagine Gabriel's response sounding something like this: “Excuse me? Excuse me? Hey, buddy, look at this name tag: 'Gabriel.' I have a full-time job, and it involves being face-to-face with the Majesty on High at all times, in perfect communion and bliss. I got sent away from the glory of God's immediate presence to run this little errand, and this is how you act? Doubting me? Fine, I'm going back home. You want an extra sign? How about you close that cynical mouth of yours – there's a sign for you! I'm outta here....” (cf. Luke 1:19-20).

That's how I would've delivered Gabriel's lines, at least. (Might say more about me than Gabriel!) And just like that, Gabriel's gone. Meanwhile, the crowds outside are watching the temple with bated breath (Luke 1:21). Maybe they see the incense going up. They know what comes next. This isn't their first tamid service. They're waiting for Zechariah to come out and bless them, as a sign that God heard them. But he's taking a long time. Did he slip and fall? Does he need medical attention? Did he forget what he's supposed to be doing? Is God angry? 

Oh, look, there's Zechariah! The crowd waits expectantly for a blessing – but the priest can't talk. He's gesturing. Something happened in there, he saw something – and they don't know what. What's going on? What does it mean? But Zechariah's faithlessness stood in the way of them hearing the answer to their prayers. He has no blessing to give. The masses must hold their breath a while longer (Luke 1:22).

As Zechariah finishes his work, morning and evening – I guess a substitute wasn't allowed, so there he is, the voiceless priest, going back into the temple day and night, probably looking apprehensively over his shoulder to see if Gabriel's hiding somewhere – he must be thinking about what Gabriel said to him. How could he not? Gabriel told him that, like Abraham, he'll have a child in his old age. And not just any child. This child is going to be filled with the Holy Spirit, even in utero (Luke 1:15)! 

In just a few months time at the most, within Elizabeth's womb will rest a fetal prophet – an unborn person, living in person-to-person relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. It cuts against everything elite American culture wants you to believe about the unborn. Even as an unborn child, this child will be able to recognize an embryonic God in the womb of his mom's kinswoman Mary – but more on that next Sunday.

In answer to this special grace, the child will be called to live a special lifestyle – the same one to which Samuel was called from his birth. No wine, no strong drink, no participation in the usual course of daily pleasures. He's set apart for a special kind of holy self-denial, because he has a job to do. He'll be someone great – maybe not as the world counts greatness, but more importantly, as God counts greatness. 

And with that greatness, this child will grow up to prepare the people for the Lord who is coming – he'll rebuild Israel to the Lord's specifications, he'll restore them to what they once were, so that they're ready for the Lord to arrive on the public scene (Luke 1:17). “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). 

He's not great because of any attributes or characteristics he has in himself. He's great because he points. Even in medieval art, he's usually shown pointing. He does what the whole Old Testament does: points to the Messiah who's coming. This child is great because he sums up the whole Old Testament in himself. You want to know what the Old Testament is all about? Just watch this kid – you'll see. He's a one-man Old Testament, which is why he's later called the greatest man of all who ever were born of woman (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28).

Zechariah doesn't know all that yet. But he has a sense that Gabriel's words must be important. So he packs his bags and goes back home to Hebron after his week away, he sees his wife – she expects to hear his voice call at the door, but he can't (Luke 1:23). Can you imagine Elizabeth trying to make sense of her husband's sudden muteness? But somehow, he manages to explain it all to her. He's got time. 

And the prophecy begins to come true. Elizabeth – older than most, but not nearly as old as Zechariah – is pregnant soon enough. For five months, she stays inside the house, doesn't mingle with the other women of the town (Luke 1:24-25). Welcomes a very special visitor in the sixth month, gets clarity that God is doing something very big (Luke 1:26-56). And after three months of Mary's visit, a son is born (Luke 1:57).

All her neighbors knew that something incredible was happening. God was “magnifying his mercy” to Elizabeth – going out of his way to show special compassion to her in big ways (Luke 1:58). There she is, cradling her newborn son – the son she never thought she'd have. And the time has come for the next big step, his circumcision, the deadline when the child needs to be publicly named as a distinct person, a son of Israel. Elizabeth's neighbors are here, Elizabeth's family – sisters, nephews, nieces – all show up. They want to follow tradition. A man's firstborn son carries his name – that's just how it's done. At the very least, he needs a family name. It's tradition! Tradition means naming the boy “Zechariah, Jr.” (Luke 1:59).

There's nothing wrong with tradition. Tradition is important. But tradition doesn't trump transcendence. When God is doing a new thing, tradition's meant to bow its head and step aside. Elizabeth insists on the name Zechariah somehow must've explained to her earlier (Luke 1:60). That name was John, meaning “Yahweh is gracious” – because this name means that God's grace is intruding into a new way on the human scene, interrupting the normal course of tradition, just like Gabriel interrupted Zechariah's ritual. 

The neighbors and family don't know that (Luke 1:61). Maybe they worry that Elizabeth is trying to take advantage of her husband's unfortunate condition to get her own way. They implore him to do something – note that they gesture to him, meaning he was probably deaf as well as mute – and he mimes his desire to write (Luke 1:62-63). They give him some slate, and they expect to see a message like, “Stop her!” Here's the pivotal moment: will Zechariah side with Gabriel and Elizabeth, or against them? Will Zechariah belatedly believe what the angel prophesied, or not? Is Zechariah, in his old age, capable of accepting something new?

He slowly flips his tablet around, so that all gathered can see what he scrawled: “His name... is John” (Luke 1:63). And in that instant, in the very act of public faithfulness and obedience to God's word through Gabriel, Zechariah's ears pop open, his tongue comes untied, his voice-box comes unstuck – and I like to think that in the first second, every word he'd tried to say for those months, starting with the priestly blessing, came rushing out all at once (Luke 1:64). The prayers are heard! The prayers are answered! An old dog has learned new tricks! And as soon as the way is clear, Zechariah can't help but praise God in a way that terrifies all those married to the mundane, the neighbors and relatives addicted to the average (Luke 1:65-66).

Before his ordeal, Zechariah could talk. His words were priestly speech. But now, on the other side of the crucible of silence, Zechariah ascends from priestly speech to prophetic speech. He's intoxicated with God! He sings a song, prays a prayer, because the Holy Spirit that fills his newborn son (Luke 1:15), that recently filled his wife (Luke 1:41), now fills him as well – a whole family awash with the indwelling God (Luke 1:67)! 

Like baby, like proud papa – he's a prophet, and he's going to bless the Lord God of Israel for taking action. This child really is great, and that's not just paternal pride. As the ultimate Old Testament “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76), this baby is a sign that salvation is near: the Lord is looking graciously on his people with redemption on his mind (Luke 1:68). The Messiah is on his way (Luke 1:69)! The ancient prophets were right (Luke 1:70)!

That's why John will bring such “joy and gladness,” and why many rejoiced at his birth (Luke 1:14). “Joy and gladness” – not words we often associate with the harsh and wild prophetic ministry of John, living in the desert, eating locusts and honey (Matthew 3:3-4). But his harshness yields joy, because it mows down everything that disfigures. People are glad to see him, because he cleans them, restores them, sets them free for something new to be built (Luke 3:7-14). He releases them from the baggage of their past so that they can welcome with open arms the greater grace to come. 

Real joy doesn't come from “doing our own thing.” It isn't found in an empty quest for self-fulfillment on self-chosen terms. Joy isn't in the gratification of pleasures – which is something you'd never find in John's life. Real joy means “turning to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17). Real joy comes through the message John will share.

John's birth is a prophetic sign that the world stands poised on the cusp of the Most Magnified Mercy. The untrammeled mercy of God is moving from promise to fulfillment before our very eyes here – that's what John means (Luke 1:72-73, 78). John is a sign that the dim moonlight of the Law is giving way to the blazing dawn of the incense-altar promise – the promise that God would dwell among the Israelites. John means that God will dwell among the Israelites – in Israelite skin – soon enough (cf. John 1:14), so that we can serve God fearlessly “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). 

The promises are about to come true. John is the downpayment. John is Advent in human form! With our sins forgiven in the wake of the repentance that John's baptism will bring (Luke 1:77; cf. 3:3), we can walk in this new dawning light and find real “salvation from our enemies,” the enemies of sin and death, by going to the new City of Refuge – and it isn't Hebron (Luke 1:78-79). I imagine John's infant hand stretching out to gesture... pointing toward the horn of salvation from the house of David (cf. Luke 1:69), about to poke through the surface of Bethlehem. Let's point with him.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Prophet and Priest

Now we're three Sundays deep in Advent, an Advent where we've been hearing how the Bible's nativity stories highlight the importance of the Nativity Story we're waiting for. The nativity of Cain and Abel reminds us that the natural bent of our heart in a fallen world is greedily grab for all we can get, but that nothing around us lasts. The nativity of Seth reminds us that the only way out is for God to appoint new life, a new creation, by his grace. 

The nativity of Noah reminds us that God in his grace wants to give us rest from our weary labor on the cursed ground. The nativity of Isaac reminds us that, although we're prone to mock what God offers us, faith in the Son of Promise has the power to turn our sour skepticism into light joy that lets us soar on eagle's wings. The nativity of Moses reminds us that, in a fallen world dominated by tyrants who thirst to maintain control at all costs, even the tyrannies of our own desires, God has plans to deliver us – not through mighty armies, but through the power of faithful nativity, birth snatching victory out of the jaws of death. 

In the years since Moses led his people, Joshua led them into the Promised Land and subdued it; but then came the days of the judges. Some of the most perplexing heroes of the Old Testament come from those days of troubled times – men and women strong and mighty, who led and guided the tribes of Israel. They were troubled times, because “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). And on the heels of those days, the Bible introduces us now to a certain man named Elkanah, “God owns him.” 

Elkanah isn't from a powerful family. He's a Levite, but from an obscure branch of that family tree (1 Chronicles 6:27). Elkanah doesn't come from an important city. He doesn't live in Jerusalem, he doesn't live in Jericho, he doesn't live in Bethel. He lives in Ramathaim, a small and obscure village up in the hill country of the Ephraimites. It doesn't get more backwoods than Elkanah. 

And did he do any great feats in the course of his life? Was he a general in the army? Was he a great prophet of the Lord? No – in fact, when one of the books of the Bible begins with him, it's not immediately obvious why anyone is meant to care. He's a small-town Levite, a servant of God with no land of his own, living as salt and light in his tiny village.

But Elkanah has two wives to support. The first one is named Hannah, the second one is Peninnah. And Hannah has a problem: she's childless, a big social problem for a woman in the ancient world. That may have been the whole reason why Elkanah married Peninnah: to give him children (1 Samuel 1:2). And the Bible tells us that this disparity in nativities – plenty through Peninnah, none through Hannah – was the occasion for a lot of family discord. 

Year in and year out, Peninnah would go out of her way to make Hannah feel worse and worse about her situation. Penninah would “provoke her severely” over it, persistently reducing Hannah to tears, even in times of feasting (1 Samuel 1:6-7). In days of celebration, the annual feast at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3; cf. Judges 21:19), Hannah's holiday cheer was perpetually ruined by the pain of her loss, made worse by the constant cruel reminders of her rival for her husband's affections.

I think all of us can more or less relate to Hannah, in a way. We may not all have the same condition she had. Many (though not all) of us have children. But we're living in a Cain-and-Abel world all around us, a world where things don't function the way they're meant to, a world where blessings come and go like a breath in the wind. And living in that kind of world hurts. None of us are perfectly healthy. All of us carry some kind of injury, some sort of pain. Each and every one of us is wounded. Maybe in our youth, we didn't get adequate love and care from one or both of our parents. Maybe we never quite felt good enough, always felt a sense of insecurity in some area of our life. Maybe there's something we longed to achieve and never did, or maybe we made a mistake we haven't forgotten and live with a sense of regret. Or maybe something or someone was taken from us, and we live in sorrow and suffering because we feel that hole, that ache, that nothing else can really fill. 

And what's worse, with the holiday season upon us, that sense of woundedness gets more and more apparent – the absence is clearer, or our inward doubts and questions are louder, or we have to face a relative with a tendency to poke us in that sore spot. Truth be told, Christmas isn't always a joyous time for everyone; and the fact that the rest of us seem to be in unabated bliss only makes the especially wounded among us feel even more isolated and alone. It's easy to forget that others are wounded too, just in different ways. But Hannah knows how you feel. Every year, her holiday was ruined when Peninnah played with her pain of loss, her insecurities, her feelings of failure.

Hannah was in a familiar position: she couldn't understand why things had turned out this way, why she couldn't have the life that everyone else seemed to have. Hadn't the Law said that if Israel obeyed God's commandments, then one of his blessings would make them “the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock” (Deuteronomy 7:14). 

Israel wasn't obedient – but she was, so why was she suffering? And her name meant “Favored with Grace” – but she didn't feel favored. She felt excluded, abandoned, and forgotten in all the hustle and bustle of the holidays and of ordinary life. Sure, her husband Elkanah tried to console her – he loved her dearly, he was more fair to her than most men in his culture; he tried to balance her loss by making sure she was treated fairly and included in the family celebration. But still she wept. Still she couldn't eat. Still she couldn't enjoy the holiday dinner (1 Samuel 1:4-8).

It would have been easy for Hannah to just give up and wallow in despair. Maybe for a while, that's exactly what she did. It would have been easy for Hannah to withdraw – maybe run away, maybe stay home when the family went to Shiloh. It would have been easy for Hannah to get angry and lash out, become bitter and full of hate – maybe make sure Peninnah has what looks like an accident a week before the family vacation. But that's not what Hannah does. 

Hannah's instinct this holiday season is to pray. I doubt this was the first time in all her years that she'd prayed about her situation. She likely prayed day after day – and saw no results. But Hannah was persistent in prayer. With tears flowing from her face, she prayed that the LORD would see her affliction – would look at her and behold a woman in the same condition as the Hebrews in slavery to Pharaoh, and that the LORD would be the Exodus God to her

She didn't demand that God do something. She didn't try to threaten him, nor did she draw a line in the sand or give him an ultimatum. She consistently described herself as God's “servant.” She knew she was talking to the Master, and her prayer reflects that humility. She asked for a specific result – a son – and she described how she planned to follow up on God's blessing: she would raise the boy as a lifelong Nazirite, dedicated to God's service in an extraordinary way. This wasn't a bribe, wasn't an attempt to barter with God: “You give me this, I'll give you that.” Hannah isn't trying to strike a deal. She's making a specific request and committing in advance to a specific way to show her gratitude and use God's blessing to bless others (1 Samuel 1:9-11).

Now, the priest at Shiloh is an older man named Eli – not the best example of a priest, but at least not as awful as his sons. He's watching this strange woman pray, watching her ask God for something – but she's praying silently, and her lips are moving (1 Samuel 1:12-13). Eli misunderstands: he's not a perceptive fellow, doesn't have much discernment. Like the mocking crowds at Pentecost, he can't tell the difference between devotion and drunkenness, between prayer and alcoholism (cf. Acts 2:13). On the one hand, it's a bit easy to understand: after all, everyone was feasting, and you know how some people get embarrassingly tipsy at some holiday parties. Eli makes a snap judgment without all the facts. He's so quick to rebuke sin that he doesn't bother investigating. “Judge first, ask questions never” is Eli's motto (1 Samuel 1:14). Hannah has to correct this leading priest (1 Samuel 1:15-16).

Was Eli mortified by his mistake? Maybe – the Bible doesn't tell us how he felt, what expression came over his face. But it tells us that he blessed her to receive her heart's desire from God and sent her away in peace (1 Samuel 1:17). And when she went her way, she ate, she drank, she was happy. God hadn't answered her prayer yet, but with Eli's blessing, she had faith to believe God was going to do exactly that. Hannah's faith gave her joy in advance! That's another thing that makes Hannah such a great model of prayer: her faith to believe before she receives, all because she sees an indication that God's going to act. Hannah's filled with joyful anticipation of what God will do (1 Samuel 1:18).

What kind of a God did Hannah believe in? Her later thanksgiving song spells it out for us. She believes in a God who is really holy – “there is no Holy One like the LORD” – a God who can't be reduced or restricted to the commonplace, a God who demands that we rise above the muck and the mire of a Cain-and-Abel world and all our baser urges and impulses, a special God who loves it when people act like they're his and his alone. 

This God isn't like others: he has no peers, no equals; and what's more, this God is sturdy, reliable, consistent: “There is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2). He's a God who knows what we don't – “the LORD is a God of knowledge” – and that means that all Peninnah's taunts are sure to backfire, all her proud talk and arrogance, because Peninnah doesn't know how things will play out. She might think she does. Peninnah judges on what she sees. Hannah trusts in a God who is the unseen factor that outweighs all Peninnah can see.

Most importantly, Hannah trusts in a God who is sovereign, a God who has control of all things in this out-of-control world: “The LORD brings death and brings to life; he brings down to the grave and he raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1 Samuel 2:6-7). The idea of God being really sovereign can be an uncomfortable one for a lot of us. Calvinists like our Presbyterian friends around the corner talk about God as sovereign more than we're prone to. But while they might stretch the notion beyond where it's meant to go, still it's the biblical truth, and we needn't be allergic to it. Hannah's God is an active God who has a handle on things. Nothing happens that catches him by surprise. Whether we're weak or strong, barren or fertile, poor or rich, low or high, dead or alive – God holds that in his hand.

That's important to Hannah because her God is the Judge – “by him, actions are weighed … the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:3, 10). And he judges by turning the world upside-down. That's what Hannah has been looking for. She was barren – she wants God to turn that upside-down. Some are hungry, but God will turn that upside-down and make them “fat with spoil” (1 Samuel 2:5). Those in poverty may wallow in the ash heap, the garbage dump, in the filthy back alleys, but God will turn that upside-down and “make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” He owns the pillars of the earth on which the whole world sits, and he can sure turn 'em topsy-turvy (1 Samuel 2:8)! Amen?

And if God is ready and willing to turn the world on its head, put it all upside-down, that means that God's sovereignty isn't a resignation to fate. It doesn't weaken prayer; it empowers prayer! If God's in charge of it, he can change it! The Author of the Universe may edit as he sees fit! If God's in charge of life and death, then he can turn death to life! If God's in charge of high and low, then he can raise me up when I'm down! If God's in charge of barrenness and fertility, then he can give Hannah a son at last! That's the kind of God Hannah knows and loves – a God who might just flip her pain and sorrow into something new, a God who might hold her the wrong way up so her tear-stained frown curves into a joyful smile.

So Hannah eats, she drinks, she worships, and they go back to Ramah, and there the LORD remembered her (1 Samuel 1:19). She wasn't the forgotten one. She isn't neglected by God. She never was. She was always on his mind – just like you, just like me. And in time, Hannah brings her first bouncing baby boy onto the world's stage. God has been faithful to what she asked. That's how Hannah explains his name: “I have asked him from the LORD (1 Samuel 1:20). To hear just that, and her later pledge to entrust him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:28), you'd expect his name to be Saul, whose name means “asked” – it's very clever foreshadowing. 

But his name isn't Saul. His name is Samuel – “heard by God.” Earlier, when Hannah prayed, “her voice was not heard” – by Eli (1 Samuel 1:13). Hannah asked, but her voice wasn't heard. Her voice wasn't heard, but her heart was heard by the God who “looks on the heart,” and listens to it, too (1 Samuel 16:7). Her silent prayer made no sound waves propagate through the atmosphere to reach Eli's mortal ears. But the immortal God hears at zero Hertz just as well as on any other frequency, so long as our heart is on the wavelength of God's will. Because Hannah asked in faith, therefore God heard. Throughout the Bible, God is a God who hears – once his people ask!

Too often, we don't bother asking. We say, “I'll pray for you,” and we don't. Or we think, “Wouldn't it be nice if...” this or that, but we neglect to take it to the Lord. “Ask, and ye shall receive” – Hannah really believed that (John 16:24)! Do we? Of course, it isn't unconditional. We receive only when we “ask in prayer with faith” (Matthew 21:22). A prayer without faith falls to the dirt and never flies away to God's presence. If we have no trust in him, it's no surprise if we don't receive. 

We receive also only when we ask for something good for us – if we ask God for rocks and snakes instead of bread and fish, God is too good to curse us in our foolishness (Matthew 7:9-10). We receive only when we ask for something that's in God's will – even Jesus was denied his petition for a solution that didn't involve drinking the cup of God's wrath on the cross (cf. Luke 22:42). But even so, God may go beyond what we ask for and give us something better: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). 

We receive when we “obey his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22). And we receive when God knows we've asked in faith for something good that he wills, and that we'll be faithful with it. God knew that Hannah would be faithful to her promise – and she was. As soon as little Samuel was weaned, she took him to Shiloh, brought him to Eli, and because God had granted what she asked, so she dedicated him to God and left him there with Eli at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:24-28).

Every year after that, Eli blessed Elkanah and Hannah and prayed that God would reward them (1 Samuel 2:20). And God did, giving Hannah three more sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21). Her faithfulness led to more nativities. Samuel himself went on to have at least two sons, Joel and Abijah; and Joel's son Heman, one of the chief song-leaders in Solomon's Temple, wasn't just a great seer like his grandfather Samuel, but he also wrote Psalm 88 and even had seventeen children of his own. God was gracious: when Hannah asked in faith, when Eli blessed in faith, God heard faithfully and was gracious beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

We're here this morning to worship Hannah's God – holy, sturdy, attentive, sovereign, gracious, faithful. His gifts didn't stop with Samuel. Hannah's bouncing baby boy wasn't the be-all and end-all of God's work in the world. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, we read that priests and prophets like Samuel had faith to ask the LORD to send a greater gift, the gift of ultimate redemption. They waited and waited, year in and year out, as other nations mocked them like Peninnah mocked Hannah: “As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:10). “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:3). But “why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:2-3). And in Bethlehem, it pleased our God to step down from the heavens into a manger – because God had heard what his people asked. They asked for salvation. He gave them himself as Mary's child.

We live between the advents of the Lord's Anointed – we've already seen his first coming in the manger, and we're waiting for “the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13) again with thousands of angels – and in this time, we have advantages in prayer that Hannah never had. We have a clearer picture of salvation-history: we know what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know where history is going, we know where we are in the unfolding of God's story better than Hannah could have known where she was. We pray in greater light than she prayed. 

What's more, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens: Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14), and this Heavenly High Priest is enthroned at God's right hand, in his very presence, and “always lives to make intercession” for “those who approach God through him” (Hebrews 7:25). High Priest Jesus is always praying for us, speaking right to the Father's face in the throne room of all creation, with no distance between them! 

And if that weren't enough, even though we don't know how to pray the way we should, God's very own Spirit dwells in our lives and “intercedes” – prays for us – “with sighs too deep from words” but which are perfectly understood by God; and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). Hannah never had that! But we do. What's stopping us from praying prayers she could have never dreamed?

In the season of Advent that's now upon us, we remember those centuries and centuries when God's people, prophets, and priests cried out to heaven for their Redeemer to come – and then God heard, and Jesus came. Advent commemorates centuries of asking. That's what Advent is all about: a focused season of asking in faith, as we await the Christmas Gift that comes from the Father's side – the strengthened King, the exalted Messiah (1 Samuel 2:10). As we review the nativity stories that lead up to the Nativity Story that shows us how God heard his people, what better way to spend Advent than in asking?

We worship Hannah's God – or at least, Hannah's God is the God we meet in Jesus Christ, and whoever sees him has beheld the Father through him (John 14:9). If we really believe in that God, then we know that he is all the hope we ever need or could ever want. There's no decrease that the sovereign God of Hannah can't turn into an increase. There's no weakness that the sovereign God of Hannah can't turn into power. There's no hunger that the Giver of Samuel and of Jesus can't fulfill. Bring all your woundedness and all your needs to him.

As a church, we know that we have needs. What's more, we know that the community around us has needs. I'm not just talking about things like Uncle Fred's flu or Aunt Cathy's colonoscopy. I mean that we are here in this time and place for a reason: to reach our appointed field with Jesus, to reap a harvest in his name, to see the community be transformed by the kingdom of heaven come to earth. That is why we are here. If we aren't seeking that, then we're just taking up real estate and sucking our thumbs each Sunday morning. 

No, that can't be all we're about. We have to be seeking God's kingdom first and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We have to be faithful to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment – to love God and love our neighbors so radically that we'll train every nation in the life-changing art of Jesus-imitation and teach them everything he's taught us. But “it's not by strength that one prevails” (1 Samuel 2:9). Victory in our mission requires a movement of God – expected faithfully, implored faithfully, answered faithfully!

This Advent season, if we will dare to have faith, if we are ready to sign on to God's agenda, if we we'll pray heartfelt prayers, if we approach God humbly as his sons and daughters in Christ, if we'll pray with specifics, if we'll pray for God's kingdom come and God's will be done, if we'll pray persistently for days or months or years with unrelenting holy patience, if we seek to bless others and not just to profit ourselves, if we're obedient to his commandments and faithful to follow through and be good stewards of what he gives us – then what are we waiting for? If we'll pray as Hannah prayed, with the Spirit that overshadowed Mary dwelling in our hearts and in our life together, then let us pray for the sovereign God of Hannah, the God of Nativity and of Resurrection, to turn our church and our community upside-down and make them abundantly alive!

O LORD of Hosts, God of Israel, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, hear the voice of your sons and daughters in their afflictions. We groan, yearning for the redemption of the world by your Son's return; and we groan for your continued work in our hearts, in our lives, in our relationships, in our assembly, and in our neighborhoods and world. Remember us, and do not forget your children! Our hearts exult in you, the God who conquers death with limitless life. Send down the Spirit of your Son, and set us on fire. Let us lead the souls of many to you. Where our prayers are feeble, make them strong, and give us wisdom to pray rightly. Make us salt and light in our day and in our place. Let the gospel you thunder from heaven be found always on our lips. Give us kingdom health, and we will set everything we have before you, specially dedicated to loving you and loving our neighbors. If our hearts shy away from obeying you, give us new and faithful hearts! Make our hearts desire what you desire, and then give us the desire of your heart and ours – your kingdom and your righteousness. Make us a church devoted to being the demonstration of Jesus Christ, present in the world around us, and to discipling Lancaster and Chester Counties in the good news of your salvation. Our strength can't make us prevail; only your grace does that. But we vow a vow of faithfulness to you. Hold us to it, turn us upside-down, and hear this prayer we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Heir and the Foundling

We're in Advent two Sundays deep now, as we reflect on what the Bible's nativity stories tell us about what the Nativity Story is so important. Last Sunday, remember, we talked about the nativity of Cain and Abel – Cain, whose name suggests greedy ownership and desire, and Abel, whose name suggests impermanence: everything is fog – and looking out there this morning, that may be the literal truth! 

The Fall puts us in a Cain-and-Abel world, where the more we see the world falling apart, the more desperately we try to grab onto achievements and possessions and build something that can't last. Our fragile existence makes us all the more sinfully bent on setting ourselves up as gods. The only way out is suggested by Seth, whose name reminds us that God has to appoint a solution for us to receive humbly as a gift, as pure unearned grace.

Well, Seth went on to have a son, Enosh – just a man, the name suggests, another step in humility – and on down through the generations until the tenth. Seth's descendant Lamech, weary from the continually mounting curse, has a baby boy of his own, and he names him “Noah.” He explains, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and the toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). The name “Noah” comes from the same ultimate root as the word for 'rest' – it means something like a sigh of relief, like the one you'd make after coming in from a hard day's labor and finally getting to plop down into your comfiest chair with no more chores in sight until after the weekend.

Lamech had a touch of prophecy, and with the land filling with violence, with the curse just getting worse and worse and worse, Lamech knows that this Cain-and-Abel world is too out of control. Earth needs a break, and so does the human race. We aren't made for constant labor, perpetual suffering. In the midst of it all, we yearn for that sigh of relief. Sometimes our workaholic culture forgets that. In America, we're all about the “toil of our hands,” and we judge people, generations, and even nations on whether we think they'll be as unrelenting as we are. Work is good, but work becomes an idol and a demon when we don't get relief.

And we especially need relief from the war-torn world around us, don't we? Every day, the 24-hour news cycle brings us another report of multiple victims, another story of a rifle or a bomb in the hands of men and women who just want to destroy – maybe out of ideas full of hate, maybe out of a mind and soul that reject the care they need. Every night, I open up the newspaper, and there it is. Maybe every day you turn on the news channel, and there it is. It gets to be part of the daily routine, and it wears you down. Your neck aches from shaking your head in perplexity: “Why do people do this? What's wrong with the world?” Lamech knows how you feel – it was the same in his day.

But Lamech also knows what it's like to hold a baby, his little boy, and think, “Because you're here, there's going to be a better world. God will give us rest.” It must have been scary – to bring yet another baby into a world falling apart around him. But Lamech did, and Lamech had “other sons and daughters,” and his boy grew up and had three boys of his own (Genesis 5:30-32). On account of Noah and his blamelessness in his generation and his preaching that “condemned the world” (Hebrews 11:7), God did give rest to the earth – the Flood washed it clean of the constant fighting, the warring, and gave Adam's family a chance to start fresh. And, pleased with Noah's sacrifice of praise, the LORD said, “I will never again curse the ground because of mankind” (Genesis 8:21). That's relief – promised at the nativity of Noah.

As we hop, skip, and jump through the generations, coming into the world in nativities all their own, we meet the father of the faithful, Abraham. We've talked before about how Genesis tells the story of his faith-journey, his path to be cured by God from his imperfect faith until he finally got it just right. But that quest is also his search for a child to carry out his legacy. For years and years, he watched his brothers have children, and his cousins have children, and his neighbors have children – and he had none. I'm sure Abram and his wife tried the very best they could. But no children ever came. Maybe Sarai never conceived. Maybe they got their hopes up, only to have them dashed in a series of miscarriages. Abram's deepest longing, and probably Sarai's too, is to have a child of their own, a baby of their own flesh and blood to hold and raise.

So after Abram rescues Lot from the clutches of marauders, God speaks to Abram in a vision and says that Abram really ought to be rewarded for all this. And what do you think Abram says? “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is my heir” (Genesis 15:2-3). 

Abram knows, or thinks he knows, what God's plan has been – for his legacy to be folded into Eliezer's, to see Eliezer inherit all he's got. Abram's had a hand in raising Eliezer from infancy, but Eliezer isn't his child. God answers Abram: “This man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). In fact, Abraham's own family will be vast, immense, dotting the earth like the stars dot the starry blackness overhead (Genesis 15:5). 

It sounds beyond belief. But that's exactly what Abram does: he believes God, he trusts God to bring the nativity he yearns for – and in that moment, that trust makes Abram a righteous friend of God (Genesis 15:6).

I imagine Abram was eager to watch God do this miracle. So he and Sarai try again, even in their old age, to have a child. And... they don't. I wonder how many years this goes on before Sarai gives up. I can't imagine very well what Sarai must have been thinking at this point – her husband's been so very excited about what God told him, but that vision didn't say anything about her, did it? She decides that she must be the problem; she feels she's the one to blame, that she's holding Abram back. So she makes a choice. Her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar, will be a surrogate for her (Genesis 16:2). That must be what God meant by his promise, and if God seems silent, even absent, then they'll just have to get creative in helping God along.

And so Ishmael is conceived and later born, when Abram's eighty-six and Sarai's just lagging a decade behind (Genesis 16:15-16). Sarai isn't happy, but at least the burden of God's promise – the wondering, the waiting – isn't hanging over her head anymore. Or so she thinks. 

Thirteen years pass before Abram hears from God again, at least as far as Genesis tells us. Thirteen years as Ishmael grows up into a young teenager, as Sarai watches her husband dote on the son she feels isn't really hers. And then God shows up. God wants to strike a deal, put the terms in writing. Again with the offspring, even many nations. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah, and “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her, … and she shall give rise to nations” (Genesis 17:16).

Knowing his reputation, you'd think Abraham would jump for joy. You'd imagine that Abraham would bow humbly and say, “Thy will be done!” But the Bible paints a realistic picture. When God first showed up before Abram's very eyes, “Abram fell on his face” in obedient worship (Genesis 17:3). He got up to listen to what God had to say. He's staring into the eyes of the One he serves, the Maker of heaven and earth. 

And as soon as Abraham hears this news, he falls on his face again – not because he feels overcome with the urge to worship, though. He falls on his face because he's doubled over in laughter (Genesis 17:17). He thinks God's turned into a stand-up comic! Abraham's about to leave double-digit ages behind; Sarah's turning ninety. God's got to be pulling his leg... right? Abraham wants to settle, asks God to just bless Ishmael (Genesis 17:18). “God, if you'll just rubber-stamp what I've already done, we'll call it even; I can settle for that.” God says no, he means it (Genesis 17:19).

It's easy to judge Abraham here. To read about it in black-and-white lettering, it's obvious what's wrong with his reaction. You don't laugh in God's face! Hasn't Abraham even heard of having faith? But before we judge, think about it: Isn't that our reaction a lot more than we'd care to admit? How often do we scoff, even mock, what God turns out in retrospect to have been trying to tell us all along? 

I know the first time God suggested to me that I should be a pastor, I didn't react any differently than Abraham did here. I laughed it off, came up with a list of ways I could serve God better that would play more readily to my strengths, and marched headlong for years in that direction. I was so busy raising my own Ishmael that I seldom paused to even consider the possibility that God had something else in mind, something he'd already told me but which I'd ignored. I bet, if you think hard enough, you might remember a time you scoffed at what God seemed to be saying – maybe a path he wanted you to take, or maybe clearly sound advice he offered you through a friend, or maybe something in the Bible that just seems too shocking or too good to be true. It's easy to judge Abraham, but we're works in progress, just like him.

God corrects him, God gives him the specifics, God says he'll visit again later (Genesis 17:19-22). Time passes. God visits Abraham again in the shade of the oaks. God repeats himself: “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Sarah's been eavesdropping from the tent, and she does what her husband did earlier: she laughs to herself (Genesis 18:12). It's a silly thing she hears, this idea that she'll have children. Might as well tell her she'll grow antlers at the first snowfall! Sarah's faith is no stronger than Abraham's was before. She's no Mother Mary. 

But God calls her out on it. Why did she laugh? What's so funny? “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14). Where's the joke? Do they think God's bitten off more than he can chew? Have they forgotten who they're dealing with? So the both of them swallow their incredulity and believe in a God who can bring new life out of what seems as good as dead (Hebrews 11:11-12) – they finally believe that the LORD is the God of resurrection. And that's been his point all along.

The year goes by – Abraham blunders again – but even so, “he is a prophet” (Genesis 20:7). And “the LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised” (Genesis 21:1). Right on schedule, she gives birth to a son, and Abraham passes along the very name that God had told him in advance. “Isaac” – “he laughs.” Here's the son you've always wanted, Abraham. Raise him – he's the promise of God. But every time you call his name, remember that the both of you laughed.

And yet... and yet Sarah gets something else from this. She says, “God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). That's no scoffing laughter. That's a different kind of laughter, a laughter of joy and delight at a story that's just too good – and yet all true. That's the laughter of celebration. The nativity of Isaac, a miracle of God, is a reminder that even in the midst of our faithlessness, God is merciful beyond imagination. He magnifies mercy, he spreads joy and cheer. God does what we deem absurd, what we refuse to believe could be done, because God is such a fierce lover of life. That's the mysterious way he moves. And when we hear what God has done, we laugh – not out of disbelief, but out of a faith that grins.

Too often, we've forgotten the art of holy laughter. That's one of the problems with the church today, I think. We forget to laugh with God. Sure, we listen quietly and respectfully as the word is preached. We sing sober-minded songs of praise. We take it all very seriously. But God made us to laugh! When Sarah said that, she was imagining her friends marveling at God's grace, delighting in telling about it over and over again, savoring it with gladness and exuberance. Laugh with God! Nothing is out of his reach. Laugh with God! He does what we'd call crazy so that we can share his joy. I think it was Chesterton who quipped that angels fly because they take themselves lightly. We could use some of that. The nativity of Isaac reminds us to loosen up and laugh in celebration of what God has done.

In time, Isaac grows up, has twin boys of his own. One swipes the other's birthright, wrestles with God, becomes father of the twelve tribes. And just as God promised, the time to inherit the land wasn't yet: “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years,” because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16). In due course of time, there arises a new pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) – a king who forgot all that Abraham's children, the people of faith, contributed to Egyptian society in their time. They didn't come to break Egypt down; they came to save Egypt and build it up, to be salt and light there.

That's what the faithful do, when they come bearing God's blessing for the nations. This pharaoh only has so much power because he's inherited, down through the generations, the effects of what Joseph did for his ancestors. But this pharaoh either hasn't heard or doesn't want to hear about Joseph. He looks at Joseph's people and doesn't see a blessing there. Pharaoh's government refuses to open itself to the faith-based influence of the Hebrews – only their purely secular contributions in the form of slave labor for the pharaoh's pet projects, to serve his ideas and his agenda. It's a familiar story, maybe.

Pharaoh looks at the Hebrews, and he feels threatened. He wouldn't have felt threatened by the little bunch of seventy people in Jacob's family a few centuries earlier (Exodus 1:5). But this pharaoh feels threatened now. The problem, as he sees it, is that these Hebrews did exactly what God had told Adam and Eve to do: they “were fruitful and multiplied” (Exodus 1:7; cf. Genesis 1:28). 

Pharaoh said that the problem had to be contained. And that problem was Hebrew nativity. Nativity is a constant threat in the eyes of worldly powers. It isn't a surprise that Pharaoh tried to find ways to limit it. When I read this story, I can't help but think about China's one-child policy, recently tweaked but not by much, and all of the awful heartbreak it's caused. To the Communist authorities in China, the nativity of their own people is a threat that has to be kept under strict control.

But China isn't alone. Sometimes, it's the nativity rates of certain groups that trouble those in power. In the first half of the twentieth century, the latest progressive cause was called eugenics, an attempt to breed a 'better' kind of society by filtering out the 'unfit', urging the best and brightest to have more 'children', and turning the country into a carefully manufactured utopia. 

It sounds insane to us now – we've seen how the eugenics experiment in Nazi Germany turned out. But before World War II, our own country – or thirty-two states of it, anyway – passed laws that allowed the state to sterilize undesirable people – the poor, immigrants, Native Americans, the disabled, criminals. California's aggressive program partly inspired Nazi Germany. The Supreme Court gave the okay to such laws in the case Buck v. Bell, infamously saying, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 

It's a dark park of our history, but even prominent ministers in the more 'progressive'-leaning denominations were enthusiastic to jump on the latest bandwagon. And, of course, one of the most famous advocates of eugenics was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who denounced the 'undesirable' people as “those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.” For Sanger, for Chief Justice Holmes, and for the Third Reich, the nativity of some groups was a threat to their vision of a better society – one shaped by the power of their ideas, their standards of health and purity.

Sometimes, it's the nativity rate of people in general that trouble those in power. Maybe you remember back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote an influential book called The Population Bomb, predicting that the world's population was out of control, and that unless we chose to limit growth, the overpopulation would lead to everyone starving in the next couple decades. Ignoring the evidence, he still insists he was right, even that he didn't go far enough. 

Fears about population control are still influential in the world, especially some parts of the environmental movement – including, at its most extreme, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group that wants us all to stop having children so that all humanity can die off and leave the planet a better place without us. For them and others, nativity in general is a threat to their vision of a healthy world. 

And lest Pharaoh and his ilk seem too foreign, we can't forget that in today's American culture, millions of people see nativity as something awful – a threat to our comfort and control over ourselves. We have entire industries devoted to maintaining our veto power over nativity, and many clinics where nativity is thwarted with barbaric tools in procedures we euphemistically call “abortions.

For Pharaoh and for many Americans past and present, nativity isn't a gift to be welcomed in the right context; it's a burden, a curse. But Pharaoh does have one thing right: nativity is powerful. Nativity disrupts, nativity upends, nativity changes things. Nativity can redirect the course of history, can sculpt a culture, can topple thrones. 

Pharaoh tries to resist Hebrew nativity with oppression. He wants to overwhelm the power of new life by outpacing it with death: throw the babies into the Nile to die, he says (Exodus 1:22). That's all Pharaoh can think of: cancel nativity with mortality. Many tyrants through history have found a role model in Pharaoh. But note that he only wants to kill the boys, the potential warriors. He isn't bothered by girls. He doesn't find them threatening. He fails to see women as formidable. Which is why it's all the more perfect that Pharaoh isn't outwitted by sages or soldiers, but by mothers and midwives, and even his own daughter's maternal instincts. Never let it be said that any woman is “just a woman.” That's what Pharaoh thought. And Pharaoh was wrong (Exodus 1:15-21).

And that brings us to another nativity story, set in the middle of a nativity war. This man and this woman both have Isaac's grandson Levi in big bold letters on their family tree. In secret, they have a son. In secret, they hide him for three months, defying Pharaoh's rules (Exodus 2:1-2; cf. Hebrews 11:23). To preserve his life, the fruit of nativity, they take him to the river where the baby boys were meant to be drowned. 

But before they plop him in the water, they put him in a waterproofed basket – the Hebrew word is the same as Noah's Ark. Yet again, safely in an ark, he goes to safety. Gets found by Pharaoh's daughter, taken in, raised by his own mother, and adopted and brought up as a child of the royal nursery alongside children of foreign kings and dignitaries. But the name he gets is “Moses” – maybe reflecting an Egyptian name, but also echoing in Hebrew the fact that his adoptive mother “drew him out” of the water as a foundling. A fitting name: he was drawn out of the water, and so God will use him one day to draw the Hebrews out of Egypt during the exodus. In a way, Pharaoh was right to be nervous over nativity. The nativity of Moses would be the eventual undoing of his slaveholding ways.

Noah's nativity offered rest, relief. But this is still a Cain-and-Abel world, at heart. The ground is cursed, and there are days when “the wickedness of mankind is great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5). The nativity of Noah does not restore the world. Isaac's nativity offered laughter; it was the catalyst that perfected Abraham's faith. But Isaac's birth can't promise that we'll always laugh. Isaac looks forward to something more. Moses' nativity offered deliverance – salvation from the Nile, salvation from Egypt, salvation from slavery. But still we grumble and long to go back. Still there are pharaohs a-plenty in this life.

What we need, and what Advent leads up to, is another Nativity. Not Cain, not Abel, not Seth; not Noah, not Isaac, not Moses. We need a baby born who can give us real relief from our sin-cursed toil – a baby who might invite all the weary and burdened to come find rest in him (Matthew 11:28), who could speak the words of God: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). We need a baby born who would be the true Ark-Builder, saving us through the water in the sealed-tight protection of his own life (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-22). We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Noah.

We need a baby born who can bless us with real faith, a resurrection-faith, who can be the proof that God brings life out of the grip of impossibility; a baby whose birth transmutes mockery into celebration, an infant who makes light-hearted angels sing “Joy to the World” by his arrival and gives us cause and capacity to join their heavenly laughter. We need a nativity that answers the longstanding promises of God, the true Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and who would gladly invite us into the promises with him, so if we belong to him, then we “are Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29), making us now “children of the promise like Isaac” (Galatians 4:28). We need a baby who will lead us, not to Mount Moriah and a knife in Abraham's trembling hand to offer God his own son, but who will lead us to Mount Calvary, where nails will pierce the hands of God's own Son as the provided sacrifice. We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Isaac.

We need a baby born who reveals to us a story – like Moses, an escape from a tyrant who sees nativity as a threat to be canceled by death. We need a baby whose nativity challenges the grips of all tyrannies, even the tyranny of our own vision for society and the world, the tyranny of our comfort and control; a baby whose birth means that we can adopt his vision and let him be in control; a baby whose birth means the reign of life, and life in abundance. We need a nativity that promises that we too can be drawn out of the Nile's twisting flow, out of the clutches of our former slavery to sin. We need a nativity that says that God has a Greater Exodus in store for us, a rescue from our plight through God's appointed grace. We need the Nativity of One-Greater-Than-Moses. That need is what Advent is all about. And thank God: in the Nativity of Jesus, we're given all we need. Hallelujah. Amen and amen.