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.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Bethlehem Devotion: Sermon on 2 Samuel 23:13-17

Nearly thirty-two hundred years ago, the longships sailed quietly into an obscure branch of the Nile Delta and dropped anchor, planning how best they'd conquer this land of Egypt. Aboard the high decks, Peleset warriors – their bristle-brush headdresses waving under the Egyptian sun – were eager to strategize. Having sailed from their island home between Greece and Turkey, they'd pillaged and plundered their way as pirates down the east Mediterranean coast, and now this would be their greatest prize. And surprise had always been on their side. But what the Peleset and their pirate allies hadn't counted on that day was the tactical genius of the pharaoh. No sooner had the Peleset rolled up their sails than suddenly the Egyptian rowboats, small and swift and sleek, surrounded them. The Peleset were ready for close-quarters combat, with their swords and spears; but the Egyptians came with archers, slingers, javelin-throwers, and grappling hooks. The Peleset scarcely had time to grab their large round shields to protect themselves before the volley of Egyptian arrows filled the air – many were killed in moments. Only when the Egyptian ships got closer could the Peleset fight back. But Egyptian grappling hooks, sunk into the wood of their longships, slowly overturned most of the Peleset vessels, capsizing them. And only a few escaped. Their side of the story would remain untold.

Decisively deterred from their dreams of plundering Egypt or settling there, the survivors contented themselves with sailing up the south coast of Canaan, to rendezvous with what was left of their land-invasion counterparts who'd tried and failed to barge into Egypt that way. The Peleset instead landed on the shore and invaded a few Canaanite cities – Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza. And a few generations later, they spread also to other Canaanite towns further inland, like Ekron and Gath. Generations went by. The Peleset intermarried with the locals, and often had to jockey for power with the other rising power in the land, the less technologically sophisticated band of invaders they heard were called Israelites. And for their part, where the Egyptians had known the other group as the Peleset, we today pronounce it 'Philistines.'

The Philistines, those former pirates whose failure in Egypt forced them to settle for Canaan as a consolation prize, may have been fierce invaders, but they were neither brutish nor uncultured. They loved art and the finer things. They decorated their pots with birds and boats, fish and spirals. They carved the prows of their ships into birds. They were more technologically advanced than the Israelites. They buried perfumes with their dead. Being perhaps related in some way to the ancient Greeks, the Philistines were a deeply cultured, sophisticated people, who no doubt looked down on the hill-dwelling Israelites as essentially hillbillies. But the Israelites had their own standards. Over the years, they watched as the Philistines intermarried with the Canaanites and mingled their old pagan ways with the local pagan ways. Their diet feasted on pigs and dogs. They buried stillborn infants in the floors of their homes. By the standards of the teachings that God gave to Israel, these Philistines were uncircumcised, unclean, unwelcome; and all their high culture is only “gilded toys of dust.”

A few generations after the descendants of those pirates settled in Gath, one of the marriages between Canaanite and Philistine bore fruit in the birth of a son, a large son – who knows how large he was born. And while likely his parents pronounced his name something like 'Walyat,' we today know him as Goliath. Goliath grew up as a worshipper of the Philistine goddesses and gods, he grew up enjoying art, he maybe had a hometown job when the army wasn't on the move. But just look at him: he was born for war. And he got his share of experience in it. But one day, when perhaps Goliath was in his twenties, he could scarcely have dreamed what was going on in an Israelite village over twenty miles away. In Bethlehem, unbeknownst to Goliath as much as to Saul, an elderly prophet of the God Goliath scorned was pouring oil all over the head of a Jewish shepherd boy. Goliath, oblivious as he stomped through the streets of Gath, had no clue what it meant when, to fulfill the anointing, Israel's God gave that Bethlehem boy a new heart, and the Spirit of the Almighty rushed upon that boy to make him a man of praise and power, wisdom and warfare. But that's precisely where we left off last week.

A couple years later, Goliath would finally meet that young Bethlehem man. And Goliath would scorn him as nothing more than a pipsqueak, an unworthy champion to face down, a victim to feed to the birds and beasts. And by all the gods he knew, Goliath cursed at this scrawny shepherd. Goliath, like his smaller ancestors who fought the Egyptians with sword and spear and javelin, had forgotten his forefathers' hard-won lesson about the importance of not underestimating projectile weaponry – but more importantly, Goliath – in his service to dead idols and an unclean culture – had neglected the hard-won lesson his parents' neighbors had gotten from Samson: don't mess with an Israelite on whom Yahweh's Spirit rests! And soon Goliath, forehead crushed in by a stone, fell prostrate to the earth, where his own sword could be unsheathed by that Bethlehemite and used to silence the Philistine giant's proud boasts (1 Samuel 17).

Israel's champion, teenage David from Bethlehem, who (unbeknownst to Goliath) was the Lord's anointed, went on to have a sterling career as a military commander. He entered into a deep friendship with an older war hero, King Saul's son Jonathan, and married Jonathan's sister, the princess Michal. David likewise fought many courageous battles against the Philistine armies and earned widespread popular renown in Israel – to the point it made the disturbed king deeply jealous. Saul's opposition ultimately descended to a murderous rage against his own general, and even Prince Jonathan's attempts to reason with his father came to nothing (1 Samuel 18-20). David had little choice but to go on the run. He first went to the priestly town Nob where Eli's great-grandson Ahimelech was high priest, and David, as God's anointed, was allowed to eat the holy bread from God's presence to sustain him on his mission. But when he asked if there were any sword available, he was told that there was just one for him: Goliath's sword, the one David had once wielded to sever the giant's head, had been stored there as a relic of victory (1 Samuel 21:1-9). From there, David ran away – ran away to a most unlikely place to go, when you're carrying Goliath's sword: namely, to Goliath's hometown! But naturally, the town's king Achish didn't receive him favorably, so David escaped by making himself seem like a harmless lunatic and was sent away (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

And from there, we're told, “David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam,” a place midway between Gath and Bethlehem. “And when his brothers and all his father's house heard it,” that David was there and a fugitive from King Saul, “they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them, and there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Samuel 22:1-2). All the disenfranchised, all the beaten-down and exasperated, all those hungry and passionate for change and fed up with the status quo – people like that who lived in the area, they went to David as their leader, joining him at the cave of Adullam.

And it may be during those days that today's story happens, although perhaps it took place later just after David had been recognized as king. But the appendix to the book of Samuel tells us a bonus story about a time when David was in the cave of Adullam, hunkered down with his supporters there. And while there, he gets some horrible news – perhaps from his parents and siblings, as they come to him. And the horrible news is this: not only have the Philistines invaded Judah, but the Philistines – Goliath's people, the descendants of the pirates – have seized control of, and are in a military occupation of, the little town of Bethlehem! Yes, we have a tale of when David was “at the cave of Adullam, when a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim..., and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem” (2 Samuel 23:13-14). And if this story does happen while David's on the run from Saul, I'm sure quite a few of those disenfranchised and discontented hundreds were fleeing the Philistines in Bethlehem, and going to the best Philistine-fighter they knew.

Think of David, receiving the first report that the Philistines are in Bethlehem. And think of what that must feel like to David. Now, when I was a boy, I moved houses from time to time, lived in my share of places, and yet I can still recall with affection some of my childhood homes. In my head, I can still walk through the rooms and see the table, I can hear the hustle and bustle of family life, I can run in the yards and smell the flowers. Maybe some of you can remember where you grew up. Perhaps it was a house up on the mountain. Perhaps it was a farm in the open spaces. Perhaps it was a simple house your dad built. But maybe some of your memories still bring you some joy. And the same was true for David. As a youthful man, he can still close his eyes and see Bethlehem through the eyes of a child. He remembers the layout of his parents' house, he remembers the texture of the wool of the sheep, he remembers the smells of the field and the taste of meals shared with friends. David's childhood home surely still holds a special place in his heart.

But now that childhood is being retroactively ruined. Pillaged. Plundered. Pirated. Because the Philistines are tearing through it. The Philistines are in Bethlehem, chasing David's old neighbors away. The Philistines are in Bethlehem, moving into the room where Jesse's wife once rocked David's cradle. The Philistines are there, feasting on the lambs born to the sheep that young David made to lie down in green pastures. The Philistines are there, dirtying and staining all that David could recall. They're redecorating the place. They're defiling it.

And in the middle of everything, with his heart made heavy and the discontent of others no source of levity, you can't blame David for catching and riding the wave of nostalgia. Because this is the dry season of the year, and it brings back memories of the harvests in his youth, helping his dad and brothers gather in the grain, working up a sweat, and then getting to quench his hot thirst with a cup of cool water that his mom hauled up from the community well tucked inside the town gate. To us today, it'd be maybe like remembering summers long past and thirsting for the flavor of Grandma's homemade lemonade. Because some things will always bring back childhood, familiarity, simpler times, when you first formed your tastes. And whatever delicacies you come to later enjoy, there's something about the flavors you grew up with, those distinctive qualities that open and widen the gates of memory – and that will always be a taste to long for.

So with David in a situation like that, heartbroken over the unclean Philistine occupation of his boyhood home, and left longing for simpler times, it's pretty understandable that David might muse out loud about just how refreshing it'd be to taste that same water one more time from that well. David doesn't mean to say anything that anybody might take action on. He isn't addressing anybody in particular. He's lost in thought. He's at the other end of memory lane. He's wistfully talking to himself. He's daydreaming with his voice. He's lamenting the war between idyllic nostalgia and a grimmer present reality. And out of that, his lips let loose the words, “Oh, who will give me a drink of the water from the well of Bethlehem by the gate!” (2 Samuel 23:15).

And here's where the action really begins. Three young men happened to be close enough to David at the time to overhear his wistful remark. And they're filled with love for David. They adore David. David is their hero, David is their inspiration, David is their driving flame. Since younger years, they grew up on stories of David and the tens of thousands of hated Philistines he and his soldiers killed. They grew up on tales of great exploits and knew they wanted to be just like David when they grew up. And now that they're here and with him – well, they wouldn't have come down to Adullam if not for David, and now that they see his face and hear his voice, they're a bit star-struck. These are three bold men who, if this happens while David's on the run, intend to earn a place in David's personal guard when he becomes king one day. So their heartfelt longing is to please David, to impress David, to satisfy David. And you know how, especially in the lead-up to this time of year, if you hear somebody you love mention offhandedly something they like, you might make a mental note to get that for them as a Christmas present, so that you can really surprise and impress them? Well, as it were, these three bold men decide it's time to go shopping for their hero. Because their yearning to please and impress David with a wonderful surprise, their longing to bring joy to David's heart and make David truly happy and satisfied, has for these men become an all-consuming desire. And now they plan to show their commitment in action.

So what do these three mighty men do? They hear that David's heart is set on desiring one gift, and it is not an easy gift to get. You can get it one place, and one place only: the gate to Bethlehem. So off they march. And that's no easy feat for their feet: Adullam is closer to Gath than to Bethlehem, and actually if they're coming all the way from Adullam to Bethlehem, that could be almost a fifteen-mile hike! It's undoubtedly an entire day's journey for them to get there, and if David mused about Bethlehem's well-water while thirsty under the hot noonday sun of an autumn day, perhaps the soldiers reach Bethlehem in the night. But to get there, “the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines.” They had to fight their way through some guards, and no doubt inflicted a few casualties, maybe on some Philistine soldiers who grew up next door to Goliath. These bold men led a three-man charge through the camp and onto the Philistine garrison – they crossed the line, they exposed themselves to enemy fire, as it were.

And then, having slipped through, they “drew water out of the well that was in the gate.” They pressed into a confined space to do their work. Now, how long does it take to draw water out of a well like that? This is no sophisticated modern well, and it certainly isn't as simple as turning on the faucet and watching the water just gush effortlessly out. They have to take off the well's lid, they have to lower a pot down on a rope, they have to wait until it reaches the water and fills, then they can haul it back up. Only then are they ready to return. So we read that the three mighty men “carried it” away from Bethlehem, back through the Philistine lines, so that only two had their hands free to fight off any further Philistine danger. And then, throughout the night and into the morning and afternoon, they no doubt took turns carrying the bulky pot on their shoulders, as they marched the miles back to where they'd last overheard David's wistful wish (2 Samuel 23:16).

This was a laborious thing. It was not a simple trip. It took a real investment of effort, of hard work, to make this gift happen. But they did it for love – the love of their hero, God's anointed. It was an immense labor of love. And it was definitely a dangerous mission. Any one of them, all three of them, could easily have gotten themselves killed. They could have ended the day with their blood on the tip of a Philistine spear. They could have gotten cornered by Philistine swordsmen. The aggression in Philistine eyes could have been their last sight on earth. They put their lives on the line for that gift – all to bring back water and a story.

So these three men come to David and insinuate themselves into his attention. And David looks at them, tired and worn out and sweaty, with a jug on one's shoulder, which they hand over to David as they explain what had happened and why. They tell him they'd overheard him the other day, talking about how much he missed the taste of water from Bethlehem's well – so despite the Philistines, they'd gone to get some. “And here's your gift, David. We hope it tastes even better than you remember it! Go ahead and take a drink.”

How must David feel? He's deeply awed and shocked – impressed with the boldness of their exploits, their ability to disregard fear for the sake of their mission, their willingness to put life and limb on the line when it's called for. David's humbled by the depth of their devotion to him – perhaps it's almost a bit awkward to be such a hero in their eyes. But the one thought that horrifies David is that this chain of devotion should terminate merely at him, and not extend to a higher link than a hometown hero and earthly king. So I wonder if the three mighty men understood what it meant as David took the jug they handed him, and then instead of lifting it to his lips as they expected, he overturned it and watched it drizzle out into the dust. Were they offended? Were they hurt? Were they dismayed? How much did it shock them that David “would not drink of it” (2 Samuel 23:16)? But instead he poured it out – “poured it out to Yahweh and said, 'Far be it from me, O Yahweh, that I should do this! Isn't this the blood of the men who went, jeopardizing their lives?'” (2 Samuel 23:17).

In saying that, David pointed back to the pages of God's Law, the times in Leviticus where an animal would be sacrificed and its blood would be poured out at the base of the altar (Leviticus 4:7). It was the act that any and every Israelite hunter was supposed to mimic: whenever they caught any game, they were told, “Whoever takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth, for the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Leviticus 17:13-14). And the same priestly libation would be imitated by every Israelite butcher in the towns and villages, even in the little town of Bethlehem whenever any of Jesse's sheep were butchered: “You may butcher and eat meat in any of your towns, as much as you desire..., only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:15-16). God told them to revere the blood of any creature as being the substance of its very life, a gift from God, and so sacred to God that it could not be treated like a mere object to be consumed: the life had to be offered back to God as a thing too precious for mortal lips.

But where Israelite priests and hunters and butchers poured out blood like water, now David pours out water like blood! Because he sees a deeper meaning in God's rules, he reads the wisdom between the lines, he catches the vision that motivates it. If the life of a sheep or deer or bird is so sacred that mortal lips can't touch it, how much more to be cherished is human life in the sight of God. Life can never be reduced to a commodity. Life can never be bartered and sold. The blood of life is too lofty a gift to commodified and passed from soldier to hero as a mere thing. And this water from the well of Bethlehem, by the time it reaches David's hands, has become infused with the lives that were gambled over it. The water is no mere physical object right now: It carries, subsumes, is indelibly marked by every live possibility, every potent potentiality, that was invested in its procurement. Had they slaved over an oven, the cake that emerges would be indelibly marked by the costs of that slavery. Had they insisted they'd put their blood, sweat, and tears into a project, whatever they built would be indelibly marked by that blood, that sweat, those tears. And now, because they had gambled their lives so lavishly and with such incredible risk, their exploit has been so daring and so incredible that, even though they survived to make it back, it constitutes a living sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1) – of which this jug of Bethlehem water is the substance.

Because they put their lives into it, their gift of water to David became inseparable from offering themselves to him as a living sacrifice. And for all David's heroic merits, he saw how wrong it would be for him to hoard the living sacrifice of another for his own consumption. Far be it from David to slake his thirst on human life! Far be it from David to taste the well-water that, by being infused with the wager of life and death, had become morally and spiritually equivalent to blood! And so David takes the earthen vessel from their hands, filled with water materially indistinguishable in its chemical composition and mineral content from the water he grew up drinking in his Bethlehem childhood; and David pours it out to Yahweh, pours it out to his God. David does not condemn the three men. He does not chastise or castigate them. He does not rebuff or rebuke them. He does not indicate they did anything wrong. No, they did something bold, something brave, something beautiful. It's a good gift – so good that it's bigger than David, it has to rise higher. David has to undertake a holy regifting. Having received a living sacrifice into his hands, David subdues his own thirsty desire and crucifies his nostalgia and gives the gift up to the One truly worthy of it, and of whom this drink itself is – through daring love – made wonderfully worthy!

And so the tale ends, with Bethlehem still (though only temporarily) under Philistine occupation. But David's heavy heart has been turned to heavenly things, as a gift brewed up in Bethlehem and sanctified by the journey is poured out for the refreshment of God's thirst to see human love grow great and warm. These three soldiers, with matchless daring, offered their service and their gift to their king and hero and leader – a leader who would and could pass that devotion along to God, a gift jointly from him and them.

And Bethlehem is the place at the heart of it all – the beleaguered place of trial and test, where commitments are proven as to how far they'll go. Bethlehem is the place where the measure of love and devotion is marked. At Bethlehem, three unnamed soldiers displayed such incredible devotion toward God's anointed king that the gift won through their devotion, the gift infused with their very lives, could be turned over to God as a sacrifice. All these things point forward to “great David's greater Son,” who would be born in Bethlehem, who knows how many steps away from that very same well – perhaps the well whose water Mary would drink to hydrate herself as she groaned in labor pains to bring her own Maker into the world in our flesh and our blood. It could surely only be the water from this well that would first hydrate the cells in Mary's body that would create the milk that the infant Jesus – God's Anointed King – would drink there in Bethlehem.

One day, like David, Jesus would have his own bold mighty men – men like Paul, for instance, who described his adventurous exploits of living by faith as like being “poured out as a drink-offering” for King Jesus (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), just as David's mighty men's living sacrifice was poured out to God. But unlike David, Jesus' great longing is not for a village childhood gone by, but for the bright hope of the earth renewed from sin's plunder and death's piracy, earth turned to Eden, and the hope of walking with us in the garden in a trust unbroken. And it is to spread the good news that Jesus' good longing will satisfy all of ours – yes, to live in this gospel is how Paul poured himself out as a drink-offering and offered himself up as a living sacrifice.

What would we dare at Bethlehem? Dare we to break the lines? Dare we throw caution to the wind for Jesus? Dare we devote to King Jesus all our thoughts and words and doings, all our days and all our hours? Dare our hands perform his bidding and our feet run in his ways? Dare our eyes see Jesus only and our lips speak forth his praise? Dare we really invest our lives in the gift, give ourselves to him as a living sacrifice which he can himself pour out to his Father, just as he already poured out his lifeblood to his Father to cover and to cleanse us who trust him? For long has this world been under occupation, and Jesus has broken through the camp and overrun the lines of the garrison. He risked, he bled, he poured out his all – and his all is infinite. If we would have Jesus as our Hero, what would we dare to bring him the gift he desires, sanctified by the journey? How much does our devotion dare for the King? How much do we love a heroic Savior? Enough to regift all you've been given to him? This week, church, in a world still pillaged, let us learn to dare a Bethlehem devotion, and dare it all for Jesus... all for Jesus!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Bethlehem Election: Sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!” And in the fields around that little town of Bethlehem, a shepherd wandered with his sheep, as he looked up at the evening stars, first coming out into the open, peeking down through the firmament, silently going by. This shepherd with the sheep – did he ever imagine those skies opening? Did he wonder what it would be like, for the bright stars of heaven to come down to him, to meet him face to face? Did this Bethlehem shepherd have an inkling of that? Yet this Bethlehem shepherd would see no such thing. For I speak of no Christmas shepherd watching his flocks by night. The Bethlehem shepherd of whom I speak waits for no angels to come sing to him; no, in the lonely night under the stars, he makes up his own songs to sing of the goodness of God. And as David sings for his sheep about his Lord, the Everlasting Light, he has no idea yet that Bethlehem's own dark streets will one night be illumined by heaven's brilliance.

As we're trying to remember this Advent, every character in the Christmas story has a history, a backstory, an origin tale, a narrative, a journey they took from wherever they began and which led them onward, onward to Christmas. This Advent season, we're focused in on just one character: Bethlehem itself. So we started Sunday last with Bethlehem's origins as an old, old Canaanite town, before even the time of Abraham; we watched the tribes of Israel finally inherit the promised land and displace the earlier locals as a means of God's judgment; and through Bethlehem's eyes, we watched the Bethlehem Trilogy, a series of three stories about the disasters that ensued when people left Bethlehem where they belonged; but we saw the redemption that happened when Naomi returned to Bethlehem to stay there, and brought a Moabite girl named Ruth along with her. When Bethlehem saw Naomi again, when Bethlehem met Ruth for the first time, that was when Boaz of Bethlehem stepped on the scene to be their redeemer. And this Boaz and this Ruth had a baby they would name Obed. It's with him, with Obed born in Bethlehem at the close of the Bethlehem Trilogy, that we pick up where we left off.

You see, Obed would likely have been born during the years when, elsewhere in Israel, a man named Samson was busy marauding against the Philistines. And by the time Obed was born in Bethlehem, a teenager named Samuel would already have been living at Shiloh under the guidance of the high priest Eli – though Shiloh would soon be no more. As Obed grew, he would have been rather young when a little boy was born in the tribe of Benjamin, a boy named Saul; and, seven or twelve years later, Samson would've brought the house down in Gaza – literally. But Bethlehem watched Obed grow, and as Boaz and Ruth aged and died, Obed took a wife and began raising his family – including a son with a curious name, maybe a foreign name: Yishay, 'Jesse.'

It was during his time that people started to get tired of all the judges. It was unnerving, to be ungoverned until God chose someone to rise up and defend them. They wanted a king like the other nations. And so they began to complain to Samuel, their old Levite judge and roving prophet. A king could fight more effectively. A king could build and accumulate power. Samuel pointed out that that was just the problem; but the people wanted what they wanted, and although God said it was a rejection of him, he would give them what they wanted. Yet to keep the experiment under control, they'd have to get a king from the least-trusted tribe: Benjamin, with which all the other tribes had once fought a civil war – “the least of the tribes of Israel” (1 Samuel 9:21).

So Samuel met just the man: tall, handsome, born to money, seemingly conscientious – and his name was Saul ben Kish (1 Samuel 9-10). Samuel then took a flask of oil and poured it over Saul's head and kissed him – he anointed Saul as the prince of Israel, the one who was handpicked by God to become this king (1 Samuel 10:1). And as soon as Saul was anointed, “God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9), transforming him into a new person (1 Samuel 10:6); and then “the Spirit of God rushed upon him” (1 Samuel 10:10). That's what the anointing was for. After that, Samuel called the tribes to join him at Mizpah – and no doubt Jesse traveled from Bethlehem to go there and see the prophet. But at Mizpah, everyone saw God's choice of Saul and hailed him as king (1 Samuel 10:17-25) – though it wasn't until his first military victory against the Ammonites, in which Saul was God's instrument of 'salvation' (1 Samuel 11:13), that he was formally invested as king at Gilgal – maybe Jesse was watching there, too (1 Samuel 11:15). If so, he would've seen the storm Samuel summoned to underscore his farewell speech as Israel's leader (1 Samuel 12).

By this time, Jesse would have married a nice girl from Bethlehem or a nearby village, and they would have begun to have children – first Eliab, then Abinadab, then Shammah, and on down through sons and daughters. But Saul was already king when Jesse and his wife had their last boy, a little one they called their 'beloved': David. During the years Jesse was raising his kids, he would've heard news come to the village now and again of King Saul's mighty exploits against the Philistines (1 Samuel 13-14) and Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). “When Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought all his enemies on every side: against Moab, against the Ammonites, against Edom, against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines; wherever he turned, he routed them, and he did valiantly and struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them” (1 Samuel 14:47-48).

And yet, long before that, early in Saul's kingship, Samuel had warned him that – because Saul overstepped his bounds and offered a sacrifice – Saul would be a one-off: “Your kingdom shall not continue – Yahweh has sought out a man after his own heart, and Yahweh has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what Yahweh commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14). And now, Saul again would disobey. He refused to follow God's instruction to place all the Amalekite plunder under the ban; he chose to spare the king and the best livestock for his own purposes, and yet when Samuel confronted him, he blamed the people who lived under his authority (1 Samuel 15:1-21). Samuel then declared Saul deposed as king in God's sight, saying that God was tearing the kingdom out of Saul's hands and would give it to “a neighbor of yours who is better than you” (1 Samuel 15:23-28). There would be no dynasty of Saul intertwined with the future of Israel.

Jesse would never have heard of these harsh confrontations in the halls of power. He was just concerned to raise his crops and animals in his little town of Bethlehem. Until one day, things changed. God had spoken to Samuel at Ramah, telling him to quit crying over Saul and instead get to work (1 Samuel 16:1). God instructed Samuel to walk the ten miles to Bethlehem and go find a man there named Jesse, one of whose sons God would choose as Saul's eventual replacement. And when Samuel protested to God that Saul's character had changed and that if his spies caught wind of Samuel's trip, Saul might try killing Samuel, God gave Samuel a cover story: going to celebrate a sacrificial feast in Bethlehem – which Samuel would indeed do (1 Samuel 16:2-3).

Bethlehem had never seen a prophet before – not that we know about. During all this history leading up to this time, individuals from Bethlehem may have gone outside to go witness great things, but Bethlehem itself, there anchored to the earth, had never welcomed a prophet. But now it would, and the elders were plenty nervous over it – they may have just felt unnerved by how great and famous Samuel was compared to their own social standing, or they may have worried that Samuel was coming to discipline them over something – but they came out to the city gate to receive Samuel, and they trembled and questioned why he'd come (1 Samuel 16:4). The prophet had to assure them he'd come in peace: “I have come to sacrifice to Yahweh. Consecrate yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice” (1 Samuel 16:5). They had to wash and become ritually pure and morally upright (Leviticus 11:44; 20:7), just as the Israelites in the desert had to before God gave them quail to eat when they complained (Numbers 11:18), and just as they had to do before entering the promised land (Joshua 3:5).

But we read that Samuel himself carried out the consecration of one family – Jesse's family. We aren't told if he did this for each family in the village, to keep up appearances – (there can't have been that many families in Bethlehem to begin with) – or if Samuel already was openly singling Jesse out. But there were Jesse and his sons, in a private meeting with this great elderly prophet, the most famous man in the nation – and so Samuel “consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice” (1 Samuel 16:5). But at this consecration, Samuel told Jesse – in front of his sons – about his real reason for coming: that he was to pour oil over the head of one of those sons, anointing him at God's command for some significant purpose. Somewhere in Bethlehem or in a nearby field, likely standing on the same family land once owned by Boaz, Samuel spoke those words.

And can you imagine? Nothing like this had ever happened in Bethlehem! Bethlehem is a quiet town, a simple town, just a little town, a country village. Surely Bethlehem couldn't be a town destined for greatness. No one had ever dreamed that Bethlehem would ever be a city of political significance. And yet here was Samuel – Levite, judge, prophet – coming there to perform the unthinkable and subversive act of selecting a young man singled out by none other than the God who made the heavens and the earth. What interest could God take in choosing a Bethlehem boy? How must Jesse feel about all this? Or his sons, standing with him, when they hear that one of them is God's choice for something special? And if Bethlehem itself, the village, the place, could think and feel, how would Bethlehem think of this, how would Bethlehem feel to hear that one of her hometown sons was God's chosen?

Well, as Samuel reviews Jesse's family, he finds himself very impressed by the eldest son Eliab. Eliab has a real gravitas to him – he looks regal, looks like what today we'd call presidential – he's tall – he reminds Samuel a bit of Saul – and it's a commanding look. So Samuel thinks that Eliab must certainly be God's choice. After all, how could someone look so much like a leader and not be a leader? How could somebody stand so strong and not be the obvious choice? He's the one Samuel would choose, and Samuel assumes that God thinks like him (1 Samuel 16:6). But God reminds Samuel that maybe Samuel's thoughts are not God's thoughts, and maybe the prophet's ways still – after decades and decades of spiritual leadership – are not God's ways: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For Yahweh sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And Eliab's heart was not a heart that would make him a man after God's heart. Eliab did not meet God's criteria, and so, just as God rejected Saul from kingship, God rejected Bethlehem's junior Saul from kingship. The same was true of the next eldest son Abinadab, and then the third son Shammah, and all the others (1 Samuel 16:8-10).

Now, by this point, Samuel must be feeling pretty confused. He knew God sent him to go anoint one of Jesse's sons. He brings them together. By process of elimination, the unnamed one Samuel got to last, he surely had to think was guaranteed to be the one. And yet God said no again. The process of elimination had caught them all – and Samuel was in a quandary. So he had to ask whether Jesse had any other sons. And the answer was yes, there was one – a punier one – relegated to shepherding duty in the outlying fields (1 Samuel 16:11).

Think of the implications of that. When Jesse gathered his sons together, he had no idea Samuel had a special plan. Jesse was just gathering his sons to meet the prophet, get consecrated for a holy purpose, and go enjoy a village-wide meal after the sacrifice. And Jesse thought, “Well, I'll make sure all my sons are there – except for the youngest, except for my David, the one I say is my 'beloved' son.” It's like the fairytale when Cinderella gets left behind to clean while the stepsisters attend the royal ball! David gets left in the fields to work while everybody else gets to meet the prophet, while everybody else gets to go to the party, while everybody else gets to enjoy a nice hot meal – and what, is David supposed to get cold leftovers for supper that night, or won't he even get that? Jesse didn't even think it was important to make sure David got to be at the sacrifice. Jesse didn't think it was important that David would meet the prophet. Think of the favoritism implied in that statement, for Jesse to take sure care with every other child and yet assign this one, the baby of the family, to miss out on the most tremendously significant events in village history. Which of you, if President Kennedy had come to town in 1962, would have picked and chosen which of your kids got to go see him and which would miss out? And if President Kennedy had wanted dinner with your family, which of you would have disinvited one of your kids from going to the party? But that's exactly what Jesse has done with David. David has been utterly overlooked, forgotten, excluded. And it's only a direct order from the prophet that convinces anybody to remember David (1 Samuel 16:11). David is, in a later biblical phrase, a “stone that the builders rejected” (Psalm 118:22).

Well, Jesse sends a messenger – likely one of the sons who's already been turned down for this anointing – and this son, perhaps a bit surly over the rejection, plods out to the field and finds David, the shepherd boy. David isn't more than twelve or thirteen, maybe fourteen at a stretch, but not likely. It's only a year or so, if even that, that David's been considered old enough to be out with the sheep by himself at all. And you can hear the other son muttering, “Come on, David, the sheep'll still be here – Dad wants you now.” So David comes in, back to the village, back to Bethlehem proper. When Samuel sees this youngest son, the boy “was reddish-brown and was beautiful of eyes and good of looks.” That description was the way one old clay tablet from the Middle East described the look of a happy king. And God whispers into Samuel's heart: “Get up on your feet and get to work – this here's the one I mean. This boy is the one I've chosen – out of all Israel, every single man in the entire country, every man in the full lineage of Jacob down through the centuries to this point in time, this boy is my choice. I choose him. I elect him. Arise, anoint him, for this is he” (1 Samuel 16:12).

So that's exactly what happens. Surrounded by the older brothers and Papa Jesse, Samuel takes a fa hollowed-out horn of an animal, which has been filled with probably olive oil, and pours it over this boy's head, as it runs through his hair and down his face, as it covers him and smears him from head on down, as it drips and makes him sticky. “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers.” And we're to recall the anointing of Saul years earlier, and how God gave him another heart and transformed him into a new person, and then allowed the Holy Spirit to come upon Saul, the substance of which the anointing oil was a shadow, the reality which the oil signified – and that's what happens to David. God changes him, in that moment. “And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). That's the first time the Bible actually uses his name – up until this, he's just 'the youngest,' left unnamed. Only now, with the Spirit of God rushing on him, billowing around him, is he revealed as David – as the one to whom God says, “My beloved!”

It's with the Spirit of God touching him and changing him, while the sticky oil still drips down his cheeks and makes his hair a gloppy mess, that young David follows his dad and his brothers and the elderly prophet as they walk through the village to the scene of sacrifice. Samuel offers the sacrifice – and I wonder what it was? Was it a lamb? And if it was – who brought it? Was it perhaps one of the very sheep from Jesse's flock, one of the sheep David had been tending in the fields? We can only guess.

But together they ate, and unless David found time to wash himself off before they got there, everybody in the village could see that David was greasy with the oil of the anointing. If they did, how much explanation were they given? Did they realize that the whole party – this entire sacrifice, this community-wide festivity – was in David's honor, as God's elect, his anointed one? For the Spirit of God had rushed upon David, and when one of Saul's servants – perhaps a spy tracking down Samuel's footsteps – later goes to the fields of Bethlehem and sees David once again keeping watch over the flocks as before, that messenger reports back to Saul about not some scrawny boy, but “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, a man of good presence, and Yahweh is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18) – this is the David able, through the Spirit's presence, to strike down lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-37). This David is new. Because Yahweh, the LORD God, is indeed with David – he has chosen David, elected David, put his Spirit on David, transformed David into a new David, right there in Bethlehem's midst. Of all this, Bethlehem is a witness and participant! Up until that point, David had been a total outsider from the backwoods, a boy unrecognized. But now David is God's chosen man – and with him, Bethlehem was God's chosen place, home of the anointed one, the place in Israel where the Spirit is at work.

Bethlehem is the place God chose. And Bethlehem is a place where God chooses, a place where God elects. There in Bethlehem, on that day over three thousand years ago, God expressed his choice, not just of one king for one time, but his choice of an entire future for the nation that was to birth a future for the world. On that day, Bethlehem became the place where God elected David and a dynasty, in accordance with his eternal plans. And the election was pointed out and enacted by the anointing, which called down the Spirit onto David and into David's life, making David the kind of David who could become a king, the kind of king who'd one day “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). And the path to that destiny began that day – that day when Bethlehem became the kind of place where God's eternal plans can unfold, unroll, take shape – a place where God can elect a future.

And so, over a thousand years after that day, Bethlehem would become the place where God would express yet another choice. Bethlehem was where God elected for a New David to be born, a Child born as Son of David and Son of God – “he will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32). Just as David was chosen and elected by God in Bethlehem, so too would Jesus be – the one whom God his Father would call “my Son, my Chosen One” (Luke 9:35), “in the sight of God chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:4). For Jesus, as was foreshadowed in David, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22; cf. Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7)!

And we might extend the thought a little bit farther. In Bethlehem, by the birth of Jesus, God 'elected' that a new humanity, restored to dominion in the image of God, should take shape. God elected a Bethlehem Messiah to sum up a whole new humanity in himself, and a new humanity was defined as those who are embedded in this Bethlehem Messiah's life. Just as in Bethlehem God had chosen David, so in Bethlehem God chose Jesus – and chose us, elected us, in him! For this Jesus, more than heir to David, is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Revelation 17:14). For “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Being elected in Jesus' election, we become in this world those who Peter calls “elect exiles” (1 Peter 1:1), so “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10).

Bethlehem saw God elect David, and it was expressed through Samuel anointing David with oil, just as earlier he had anointed Saul with oil. And in both cases, the Holy Spirit came in answer to the anointing. What did that make them? It made them 'christs' – because the word 'Christos' in Greek, just like 'Messiah' in Hebrew, just means 'Anointed One.' David became a sort of 'christ' – a 'messiah' – on that day. But he only pointed forward to the one who was to come: Jesus, the Messiah, anointed directly with the Holy Spirit – for the New Testament tells us, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).

In imitation of him and through him, we who trust in Jesus, the Bethlehem Messiah, as our Savior-King we are also anointed and receive the Holy Spirit from heaven. For as Paul could say, God “establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us... and put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22); and John tells his churches, “You have been anointed by the Holy One” (1 John 2:20). It's true: you and I have been elected in Christ and anointed in Christ. That's what it means to be a Christian.

The word 'Christian' isn't a common one in the Bible – it actually only shows up three times. Because it was an outsider word, originally intended as an insult against Jesus-followers: “In Antioch, the disciples were first called 'Christians'” (Acts 11:26). In the second century, a leader of the church in Antioch, a man whose name was Theophilus, had an unbelieving friend who used to mock him as a 'Christian.' And do you know what Theophilus said back? He said this: “As for your ridiculing me when you call me a 'Christian,' you don't know what you're saying. … What's anointed is sweet and useful, not ridiculous. … Don't you want to be anointed with the oil of God? For we're actually called 'Christians' simply because we're anointed with the oil of God.” That's the reason we eventually adopted the word 'Christian' as our own – because in Jesus Christ, each of us is “anointed with the oil of God!” And from this line of thought, a practice soon developed where each and every new believer would first be anointed with oil to drive out any demons, and only then baptized, and then they'd be anointed with oil again after baptism as a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Good practice.

Yes, if you are truly a 'Christian,' what you're saying is that you have been elected in Jesus and anointed in Jesus – we have been chosen in Jesus, God's Anointed One, for tremendous purposes. Samuel, Saul, and David lived – all of them – in the days of the earthly kingdom of Israel, and yet we are told that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater” than any of them were (Matthew 11:11).

And that's what we see, as we look back at Bethlehem. For in Bethlehem, David was anointed as the man God had chosen. And this all pointed forward to God's election of Jesus, “the Lord's Anointed, great David's greater Son.” And God's election of Jesus entailed God's election of us, a people chosen and anointed in Christ. That is why we are Christians, and nothing less is Christian. To be Christian is to be elected by God in Christ and to be anointed by God in Christ, much as Bethlehem saw David elected and anointed. So in this season, turn your minds and thoughts to Bethlehem, the chosen country village where God chose a future that includes choosing you. Think on Bethlehem. Think on God's choosing and favoring and anointing David. And think, then, of that greater choice, that greater favor – when God chose to send Jesus to choose and favor and anoint you! What then shall we say, you elect people? What then shall we sing, you anointed ones? Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace toward God's chosen, on whom God's favorable anointing rests in Jesus Christ. Let us press on this season toward the Bethlehem election – the birth of our Anointed Savior-King, our Emmanuel. Amen!