Sunday, December 26, 2021

Let All the Welkin Ring!

Merry Christmas! Today's the second of those famed twelve days of Christmas, so we still get to say that. Next Sunday we can too, if we want. I hope you all had a pleasant first day of Christmas. I know I did, by and large. Last night, as perhaps the start of a new yearly tradition, my wife, mom, and I watched one of the classics of Christmas cinema together: It's a Wonderful Life. Came out in 1946, and yet, though I knew plenty about it, I'd never actually seen it until last night. Now, I'm curious, show of hands: how many of you here this morning have seen It's a Wonderful Life? What a movie. I just wish, though, that they'd given a little bit more screen time to the character of Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class. He, you see, was sent down from the heavens as George Bailey's guardian angel in the hour of need. And for all that you wouldn't want to get your theology from a Frank Capra movie, there's one point at which Clarence rings quite true to life.

And that's that, for all of Christian history, the Church has believed that there are guardian angels – not deceased men trying to earn wings, but immortal heavenly beings assigned by God to our help. And the Church believed it because she unpacked it from the Bible. The psalmist, after all, celebrates that God “will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). The author of Hebrews describes angels being “sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). In Acts, a young woman mistakes Peter for his angel,” the one assigned to him (Acts 12:15). And Jesus himself implied that the “little ones” all have guardian angels, for “in heaven, their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). And as the Christians of the first centuries studied these scriptures, they marveled that “the worth of souls is so great that, from birth, each one has an angel assigned to him for his protection,”1 “an angel that accompanies him, acting like a kind of... shepherd,”2 “to help in the life of each person,”3 so that “there is present to each one of us, even to the least who are in the church of God, a good angel, an angel of the Lord, who guides, warns, and governs – who, for the sake of correcting our actions and imploring mercy, daily sees the face of the Father who is in heaven.”4 And thus, as Jesus said, your guardian angel is among those who rejoice greatly over your repentance whenever you turn toward God (Luke 15:10).

What's more, the Church has also always believed that angels are in some way fellow-members of the church, and that when the church gathers to worship God, angels are worshipping God alongside us. After all, when the Apostle Paul demands that churches behave themselves appropriately in worship, he explains himself by simply saying, “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10).5 And more directly, the author of Hebrews announces, in our worship, we've joined “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22). All of which suggests that the names on our membership roll, however we clean it, can never tell the true story of our membership. And why not? Because of the angels! Invisible to us, there's no way to count just how many angels are on hand to assist and share in the worship we're offering God today.6 But they may well be in the majority here.

So let's do something a little different this morning. We mortal members hear, what, fifty, fifty-one sermons a year directed at us, while the angels listen in? This morning, if you'll indulge it, I say we swap places for a bit. Feel free, by all means, to listen in – but the rest of this sermon, all but the end, goes out to the angels.

So, to the angels of this church, greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! You've certainly known about him a lot longer than we have, haven't you? For you knew him before ever he took on the name 'Jesus.' “In the beginning,” I've read, “was the Word – and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). From all eternity, the Word was all that God was, and was with God the Father in his heart. But then God spoke, and time began. And in that first instant of time, the Word from within the Father's heart was, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). And suddenly, there was light – and suddenly, there were you. It took the Word no time to give you being. He willed, and you obeyed and existed. You came forth fully formed, and in that instant, already you knew God, loved God, were inclined toward him as your natural good.

But then came a second instant – separated from the first by perhaps no more time than one of my heartbeats to the next. God spoke to you in his Eternal Word. This Word proposed to you a destiny beyond your nature, the outline of a plan for all things, a prospect for your role therein. The Word invited your free and open embrace of it. But some of your brothers refused. They rejected a destiny beyond nature that would take humility to receive it. So those angels, as it's written, “did not stay within their own domain, but left their proper dwelling” (Jude 1:6). But you remained. You were faithful. Humbling yourselves, you decided once and for all for God. And by that same Eternal Word, the Father's grace confirmed you in love, forever unable to fall, and forever destined you for glory as you were blessed in beholding his face.

After that, you surrounded God, rank on rank of the heavenly host – seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels7 – and you all sang for joy as God spoke things into being in heaven and on earth (Job 38:7). Didn't you “offer praise before him on account of all his works” in creation?8 You even watched with wonder as he breathed the breath of life into mud and moved it to be man. Angels, I've no doubt you wandered through the Paradise of God, watching the primeval parents of all our kith and kin. But did it surprise you, did it dismay you, when your fallen brother used the serpent and lured us to make the same prideful choice as him – to spurn grace and chase ruin? For then were we expelled from paradise, and some of your loftiest brethren, of the order of cherubim, stationed as guards to ward us away from the tree of life.

Yet the sorrow of our fall, though pitting us so often against you, was no end to your mission for our ungrateful brood. For surely God revealed to you then, if not before, his plan to save the prodigal earthlings lost from the garden. And for that, he called on you. He declared you as “ministering spirits sent out to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). And I wonder – though there must be billions of angels beyond our comprehension – just how each of you present with us today has been serving through the ages. Patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob met angels (Genesis 18; 32:1) – were any of you among them? We hear over and over that it was through angels that God delivered the Law to Moses (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2) – were you there on the mountain, were you the thick cloud, did you see? When Elisha prayed his fearful servant's eyes be opened, and he beheld the hills suddenly “full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17), was that you? Or when Daniel testified God had “sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths” (Daniel 6:22), did one of you do that? Moses, David, the prophets – were you there, involved?

Whether you did or didn't, between those scenes and besides your missions here and there, first and foremost you've always remained fixed on God the Holy Trinity, the source and summit of all your love and life. What do you do more than worship? Nothing! Don't you say, again and again, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8)? Don't you chant, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11)? “The cherubim fall before him and bless him. As they arise, the quiet voice of God is heard, followed by a tumult of joyous praise” – your praise!9 “They tell of his royal splendor as they truly know it, and exalt his glory in all the heavens of his rule. They sing wonderful psalms according to their insight throughout the highest heaven, and declare the surpassing glory of the King of divinities in the stations of their habitation.”10 Isn't that what you've been doing since time immemorial: worshipping like priests in heaven to “present to the Lord a pleasing aroma” where “praises of God are offered eternally”?11 And in all this, as the “bread of angels,” the Eternal Word was your constant sustenance (Psalm 78:25).

But then it happened. You'd been helping God to shepherd all the peoples in the world as they labored under sin and temptation. You'd been eager to know more of God's plan, the things not even angels can see apart from revelation. But did it take you by surprise? Were any of you here lurking unseen in the streets of Nazareth, eavesdropping as your brother Gabriel spoke to Mary? And when Mary gave her beautiful yes, her humble and queenly yes, were your fiery eyes able to see the infinite Word stretch down to meet her? Or, as some thought in early years, did the Word disguise himself as one like yourselves and so slip past you in stealth?12 I suppose it wasn't so, and that you saw the moment the Word came. Did any of you here watch in perplexity as this Word – the Word that spoke you into being, the Word that spoke your grace, the Word that spoke your glory, the Word you've heeded in ardent love long before we were – suddenly seized on our human nature, joining it to his divine person? Did you watch the Word create a human soul, not for yet another of your wards, but for himself? And through the next nine months, did you marvel to notice the Word knitting himself in Mary's womb a body of heavy matter, of flesh, blood, and bone? What was it to you angels as the heart of God beat soft and small?

For we're told, and we can believe it, that human nature is ranked naturally lower, in the great chain of being, than seraph or cherub, archangel, or even the lowliest angel in your ranks, on account (among other things) of our susceptibility to death (Hebrews 2:7). And so, in some profound way, the Word by which you live and move and have your being suddenly lowered himself beneath you, even as his divinity remained above you. “Jesus himself, the transcendent Cause of [you] beings which live beyond the world, came to take on human form, without in any way changing his own essential nature.”13 Immortal as God, he was mortal as man. Infinite as God, he was finite as man – and not merely as man, but at first as a single cell, beyond the power of our eyes unaided to see. Then over days and weeks the cells multiplied – a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus he became, taking form in accordance with this human soul heretofore unknown fused to the Word always known by you.

I know, angels, how it's written that the apostles and evangelists were privileged to announce “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:22). For “not all the mysteries are open to you.”14 But you itch to know and see, to love and sing. Yet you cannot taste for yourselves what it's like to have God literally become what you are, with the intent of infusing your natures with divinity itself. So how shocking was it to witness this done for us?

Nine months went by, watching in wonder. But then came the night, the fateful night when the Word of God would reveal his tiny human face to the world. And more than any other mystery you might unfold, given leave, I want to know about that night – that night when the heavenly liturgy of worship was on earthly display, and the veil was torn away in a field outside that little town of Bethlehem, otherwise so still and silent. To be sure, I don't know, O angels of ours here, whether you were in Nazareth at the annunciation. Perhaps you were in heaven, attending nothing but God in his realm. Or perhaps you were elsewhere in our world, on assignment of one sort or another. But then came that night. I read in the Gospel that “a multitude of heavenly host” then appeared. What percentage of angels were there? Was it only a fraction, with you here having been left out? But I turn to another page and read, “When [God] brings his Firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him!'” (Hebrews 1:6). All? All! Every angel in existence, crowding densely to chant the gospel song, “that famous song of jubilation!”15

So you were there, weren't you, angels? Each of you – my guardian angel, his, hers – you were on the scene the silent and holy night when Christ was born! What did it look like for you, I want to know? With blazing vision, did you see the Word-made-Flesh brought into the open, pressed forth from virgin womb to violent world in the presence of ox and donkey? Did you stand at attention as the umbilical cord was cut, and could you already see the chains of death and hell severed with the stroke? Did you hear God's cry as air filled his infant human lungs – and did it sound to you like a shout of revelation? Did you appreciate the miracle to end all miracles, and how this was the salvation of a shattered creation? Because it was. It was. So what was the joy within your light, O holy winds, as you beheld the dawn in the midnight hour? How excited were you by the unfolding of all you'd yearned for, and to enter the next phase of a mission long as time had run?

Then you went to the shepherds, who not so far away were “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). But why did you go to the shepherds, angels? Were they in the same field where that boy David once grazed his father's sheep when he was a shepherd like them? Did you go because they were so like David? Did you go because they were the poor and downtrodden, the outcast and overworked? Or did you go because they were so still and quiet, purifying and refining their souls? When you went, what were they doing as you invisibly drew near? Were they idling away the hours in talk of family struggles and bills? Did they talk of their hopes and fears? Were they bored and in silence? Or were they watching and praying?

Then one of your brother angels made himself visible, wrapped up in the Lord's own glory carried with you. So I've read that these lonely shepherds were utterly terrified by the sight (Luke 2:9)! What was the look on their faces, angels? You saw them in that moment – you know! It's no second-hand story to you; it's a memory undimmed by the march of time. When the shepherds saw the light all around, how fast did their hearts beat? How near were they to passing out?

You were there, watching, listening, as your brother angel reassured them – told them not to fear, said it was “good news of great joy” he'd come to deliver, a message handed down by the Father through the ranks and now revealed to the unkempt and uncredited. But not for them alone. It was a reason for all humans, high or low or in between, to rejoice in a new-found dignity and deliverance (Luke 2:10). It was for such as these shepherds, your fellow said, and for all of the human race, that in David's city had just been born a Savior who was the long-awaited Messiah, and more than that, was heaven's Lord (Luke 2:11). They knew, these shepherds did, that Rome called it 'good news,' 'gospel,' when the emperor's birthday came around, for Caesar claimed to be the savior and lord who brought a new age of peace to the earth. But what Caesar apes, Christ brings. This day, not the birthday of Augustus, was the true good news. Yet the shepherds would find their true Emperor, not in an inaccessible palace or a far-off land, but back in town, in their neighborhood, on their street. They'd find their Hope wrapped up and dressed in the same way the shepherds' parents had once wrapped and dressed them, and how they'd since wrapped up their own sons and own daughters. They'd find him in a feed-trough for the livestock of peasants and paupers (Luke 2:12). When your brother angel told them that, what did it mean to them? Did their eyes grow wide as they heard tell of Messiah? Did their mouths gape in awe at their salvation?

Then, suddenly, you tore the veil away. You let them see you – not just one angel, but all of you. You filled the welkin – the clouds, the air, the heavens – on every side. Your voices rang out and shook the earth by your exuberance. Unseen by them, unheard by them, you'd already been at worship, already been offering your liturgy of praise to the Father of spirits. But now these shepherds were witnesses to it. Your song went forth, the song you'd been singing all along, the triumph of the skies (Luke 2:13).

Glory to God in the highest!” you sang (Luke 2:14a). To God be all the credit, to God be all the praise, to God be all importance, to God be all the starry-eyed wonder of those with stars for eyes. You'd once sung songs inspired by creation, you sang as witnesses to judgment, you were awed into outpoured praise day and night by the holiness, holiness, holiness of your Lord. But now, caught up in the denouement of the drama of the divine dawn, you sang all the higher, all the clearer, all the greater. With all the gusto of a supernova, you belted out your Gloria that no gravity could pull down short of highest heaven. Handing the call one to the next up your column of light, your chant compounded its way from Bethlehem's fields to the Holy of Holies above.

And on earth, peace among people with whom God is pleased!” (Luke 2:14b). Who finds peace in the Savior? All the earth can, if they live toward God's pleasure like a flower bending to unfold its petals to the sunlight. Is that what you were saying? That if we live toward God's pleasure as the Messiah lives to please his Father, then we'll find the peace Rome couldn't give, no power can give, not even you can give? For if we follow the Word toward the lowest of the low, if we humble ourselves to graze like ox and donkey from the grace in our manger, if we become his little hands and his little feet in the world, then even on earth, the peace that counts – the peace with you, the peace with God – is already for us, for we stand in God's favor and relay it outward in good will. And from that favor and good will and peace, we glorify God alongside you, returning to life “glorifying and praising God for all we've heard and seen” and tasted and found (Luke 2:20).

I wonder, angels, how long the veil was down. I wonder how long the shepherds were privy to your liturgy of worship, how long they heard your ceaseless hymn of joy, how long they lifted up their sheep-bitten hands toward their God and yours, with all their fear banished and all their dullness quenched by the unconquerable light defying the night. But eventually, you left them to take their next step, from sight to faith. You “went away from them into heaven” (Luke 2:15), restitching (as you went) the veil between earthly sense and spiritual substance. You declared joyfully before the Father's face in heaven what you'd said and done, and you glorified him. For you knew your song had become the shepherds' song, and would become the church's song. Down through the years, you've shepherded the shepherds, you've assisted and strengthened people just like them – just like us – not with an eye to earning anything, but simply to please the God you will to love.

And now, here we all are – angel and human together, invisible and visible side by side, with our attentions aimed toward the same Holy Flame on high. We humans gathered here now were not there that night – but you angels were. And it's as real to you now as it was then, for you do not forget. Could you help it, then, be real again to us? Would you remind us here why it's such glad tidings? Would you help us taste peace on earth? You evangelized the shepherds then – evangelize us too, because you can't spell 'evangelize' without 'angel.' Whisper good thoughts to our minds, angels. Stir up our slothful hearts, angels. Tell us of the King of Glory!

But now I turn again from you, angels, to you, fellow sons of Adam, daughters of Eve. You see, our friends the angels need no Savior. “It is not angels that he helps,” Scripture announces to us (Hebrews 2:16). But he came to help us. God helps us, God saves us, by his Word becoming one of us, in our own flesh, sharing our softness and weakness, our fragility and our helplessness.

So here we are again to hear again – to hear the gospel begin, to catch the strains of angel song ringing the welkin – and the song is meant for us to catch. We're here to join our earthly worship to the heavenly liturgy that's been going on and has no end. We begin there in the field, approaching the manger, where angels watch in wonder. But it will continue in solemn awe around the cross. For in Jesus our Savior, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and, through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). And we're here to face the awesome wonder that our risen Savior – fully God but also now fully human – has been exalted, as our brother, “with angels, principalities, and powers,” even seraphim and cherubim, “having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). Our nature is on the throne. In Christ, we have “tasted... the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). And not even the mightiest angel has power enough “to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). That's assurance that, if we persevere in faith, then in the resurrection to come, we who believe will be, as Jesus himself promised us, “equal to angels, and sons of God” (Luke 20:36).

We could never be lifted so high, had God the Word, God the Son, not lowered himself so low, into our dirt and grime. This is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his holy ones” (Colossians 1:26), “so that, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the powers and principalities in heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Worthy is the Word-made-Flesh, worthy is our Emmanuel, worthy is our Savior who is Christ the Lord, “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12)! With this mystery, let the welkin ring and ring and ring! For, from this very hour at Bethlehem, he's given a more than wonderful life to us all. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Scrolling by the Fireside: A Sermon on Jeremiah 36

It's early December, and Gemariah stands in the palace, watching King Jehoiakim warm himself in front of a fire pot. Gemariah is awfully nervous – nervous because of what he and the other members of the royal cabinet have had to bring to the intemperate thirty-year-old king. Closest to Jehoiakim stands the royal envoy Jehudi, grasping the scroll in his hands – the one-of-a-kind scroll at the heart of the whole uproar. He begins to read.

Gemariah can't help, as he watches and listens, to recall a similar (but much less unnerving) scene he'd heard of from eighteen years before, when he was a much younger man and when his father Shaphan was still alive and a key member of King Josiah's administration. Shaphan, then the secretary of state, was the first man on scene when the high priest Hilkiah, serving back then, uncovered a lost treasure in the Temple during repairs. It had been an ancient scroll, the Book of the Law, filled with holy Moses' dying sermons to the people of Israel. The find was revolutionary – a whole God-given program for a compassionate society. Gemariah remembered how, as Shaphan told their family over dinner that night, Shaphan had read the whole scroll to King Josiah in one long sitting; how profoundly it had affected the king, who'd ripped his royal robes. “Great is the wrath of the LORD that's kindled against us, since our fathers haven't obeyed the words of this book!” Josiah had shouted. And so Josiah had commissioned a team – including Gemariah's dad and big brother Ahikam, plus the high priest and a few other officials like Achbor – to go talk to the prophetess Huldah about it. Through her, the LORD had told them – Gemariah's dad heard this firsthand – that while Judah was still in danger, Josiah would be blessed for his attitude toward the scroll. Disaster was delayed. But the clock was ticking (2 Kings 22).

Fast forward, then, twelve years, Josiah's time of striving mightily to reform the nation, purify its worship, and “establish the words of the Law that were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the House of the LORD (2 Kings 23:24). Those twelve years were all the young king had had. Five years and four months ago, Josiah – not yet in his fortieth year of age – sallied forth into battle at Megiddo, trying to cut off an Egyptian advance through the land to join their Assyrian allies. Spying King Josiah at Megiddo, the pharaoh targeted him. Josiah was killed (2 Kings 23:28-29). The king's servants rushed his body and chariot back from the battlefield to Jerusalem with sorrowful news. Scarcely was the funeral over than a rising tide of popular outrage shouted for Josiah's likeable younger son Shallum, 23 years old, to be installed on the throne of David. Shallum was anointed and crowned, taking a new name as king: 'Jehoahaz' (2 Kings 23:30-31).

Alas, Shallum – Jehoahaz – didn't have much of his father's heart (2 Kings 23:32). Not that it mattered much: in three months, the Egyptians stepped in. Under the pretext of a diplomatic conference, Pharaoh invited Jehoahaz north to their camp at Riblah in the land of Hamath, about 240 miles from Jerusalem. There, they took the king prisoner, stripped him of office, and ultimately led him captive back to Egypt when all was done (2 Kings 23:33-34; cf. Ezekiel 19:4). Having deposed Jehoahaz, the pharaoh – Josiah's killer – handpicked Shallum's elder half-brother Eliakim, age 25, and forced Judah to crown him as their king instead. Eliakim was pliable, eager to make a deal, willing to accept Egypt's gospel of submission. And like Shallum, Eliakim took a new name as king: 'Jehoiakim.' From one angle, his claim to the throne made sense. He was the older son of Josiah, he had seniority over Shallum all along. But his wheeling and dealing came at a price. Egypt wanted paid for selling him the throne of David. So that winter, Jehoahaz hiked taxes substantially, collecting silver and gold to send to Egypt, reversing the plunder of the days of the exodus (2 Kings 23:35). It was a time of discontent, and certainly there were those hoping that Jehoahaz might somehow escape Egyptian exile and retake his throne.

'Twas amidst all this, Gemariah recalled, that one day at the temple, a priest stood and made a scene. Though in his early forties, the priest had been prophesying since Josiah's days. His name was Jeremiah, and he caused quite a stir when he barged into the temple court and started shouting. “Listen to what the LORD says!” he preached. “If you won't listen to me, to walk in my Law that I've set before you, and listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send you urgently though you haven't listened, then I'll make this house like Shiloh and I'll make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth!” (Jeremiah 26:1-6). Gemariah was chilled to hear it. Shiloh was a defunct shrine in Israel, overseen by Jeremiah's ancestor Eli, which had come to ruin. This prophet threatened Jerusalem and its Temple with the same dire destruction unless they heard him.

Well, the priests and temple prophets were furious – they filed charges, they wanted Jeremiah dead. The common people were deeply offended, too, at what smelled to them like unpatriotic sacrilege. In the face of the mob, it was Gemariah's big brother Ahikam who took Jeremiah under his personal protection. Their family had somewhat known Jeremiah for years. They knew he was sincere, suspected he might be the real deal. Never married, but harassed, abandoned, prone to tears, wearing a conflicted heart on his sleeve... nobody'd choose the life Jeremiah led unless under conviction. Either he was mad in the mind or mad for the LORD. This time, Gemariah had to admit: Under Jehoahaz and now Jehoiakim, their country was on track for ruin. So was it a matter of mere mortal mismanagement? Or was it, as Jeremiah said, a case of sin and divine wrath, fermented over generations into a lethal brew? Gemariah was beginning to believe (Jeremiah 26:7-19, 24).

So Jeremiah they helped. But when another prophet, Uriah, started echoing Jeremiah's message, well, the sons of Shaphan had enough on their plate in keeping one prophet from peril. With no cover, Uriah caught wind he was a wanted man, and fled to Egypt – a fool thing to do, given Jehoiakim's alliance. They were most happy to extradite. Jehoiakim sent Gemariah's colleague Elnathan – Achbor's son – to fetch Uriah. Dutifully Elnathan went, but was horrified, on bringing Uriah back, to find himself complicit in the summary execution of a man of God. Jehoiakim was a prophet-killer (Jeremiah 26:20-24).

The next few years were mainly uneventful, but last summer everything started to unravel. News came that the Egyptians went north to help their Assyrian allies take a stand against an upstart power, Babylon, at Carchemish on the banks of the Euphrates. And for Egypt and Assyria, the Battle of Carchemish was a disaster. It was just a few months into Jehoiakim's fourth full year as king, and his backers were humiliated. Soon, the Babylonian commander-in-chief, crown prince Nebuchadnezzar, was rumored to be on his way. But a month later, they got word of King Nabopolassar's death in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar hastened back to ensure no scheming sibling could keep him from the throne. Then, last winter, King Nebuchadnezzar led his army back down, pressing all Judah's neighbors to forget Egypt's allures and bow the knee to him instead. He went home in January, and all Judah – Jehoiakim especially – breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. The Babylonians came back six months ago. They campaigned all summer and fall, waging war into Philistia. As November closed, news reached Jerusalem that one of the Philistine city-states, Ashkelon, was reduced to rubble and ash, and their king and his people taken prisoner. It was a warning to other Egyptian vassals like Judah: Submit or suffer.1

So as December began, things were tense in Jerusalem. The Babylonians were still near. Nebuchadnezzar, with Ashkelon's ex-king Agga chained in his camp, was daring anyone else to refuse him. No wonder all the people crowded to the temple to fast and weep and throw themselves on God's mercy. But Jehoiakim and many in the administration saw no need to interrupt business for a little thing like salvation. There were meetings to be had, after all. So King Jehoiakim sat in his winter apartment while his cabinet met in Secretary of State Elishama's office. Gemariah was there, and so were Elishama, Delaiah, Zedekiah, Elnathan, Jehudi, and other top brass. So, since Gemariah didn't need his own office in the chambers around the temple's upper court that day, he thought little of loaning it out on request to a connected young scribe named Baruch (Jeremiah 36:9-10, 12).

A few hours into the cabinet meeting, Gemariah heard footsteps hot and fast down the hallway. And in burst his son Micaiah, whom he'd assigned to keep security in his temple office. Panting, tripping his tongue, Micaiah spilled out descriptions of a scroll Baruch had brought, using the office's elevated window to declaim its words to everybody in earshot of the temple courts. It was a shocking message, fearsome and subversive, painful and woeful, which seemed both religiously relevant and also tied to the national security interest. So, Micaiah said, he knew he had to report it to his dad and the other officials.

The cabinet was all a-titter. Without delay, they sent Jehudi – their fastest runner – to the temple to get Baruch and summon him for an interview (or interrogation). Gemariah was relieved when Baruch showed up, scroll in hand. But they had questions. Where'd Baruch get the scroll? Baruch said he'd written it out himself, filled it with prophetic oracles from Jeremiah. It had been an exhausting project, but God promised Baruch's life would be spared although disaster was coming for all flesh. So, he said, he'd persisted in writing out the fearful scroll. The cabinet members asked Baruch to sit and read it to them. They wanted – no, needed – to hear these words for themselves, unfiltered and unabridged (Jeremiah 36:13-15; 45:1-5).

But what words! Sheet after sheet Baruch unrolled, reading down column after column. All of it was cutting, sharp and deep. But then was the final oracle, the last note stitched at the end of the scroll: “For 23 years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah ben Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I've spoken persistently to you, but you haven't listened.... Therefore, thus saith the LORD of Hosts: Because you haven't obeyed my words, behold, I'll send for all the tribes of the north... and for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant, and I'll bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all these surrounding nations. I'll devote them to destruction and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. I'll banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:1-11).

By the time Baruch rolled up the scroll, just about all the blood had drained from Gemariah's face. It couldn't be real. If this were really from Jeremiah, all of it, then it had to be authentic, but that couldn't be, so surely it was a forgery! So he asked, pressed Baruch. But under fiercest questioning, Baruch insisted he'd sat face-to-face with Jeremiah, taking down dictation, word-for-word, all last year, with the latest notes added this year, and that Jeremiah had given strict instruction to keep the scroll safe until the next spontaneous day of fasting would be called, and then to read it to all Judah. And that's just what Baruch had done (Jeremiah 36:15-18).

Gemariah knew – he hated knowing, but he knew – that the king had to be told. The implications for national policy, to say nothing of Jehoiakim's soul, were immense. But after the Uriah incident, the cabinet knew it was essential for Jeremiah to make himself scarce. Even Baruch would be better off incommunicado for a while. Even the cabinet members didn't want to know where to find Jeremiah and Baruch (Jeremiah 36:19). Baruch handed over the scroll at their request, and left to go find Jeremiah and hide. The officials filed the scroll there in Elishama's office, safe and secure, while they marched the palace halls to the winter apartment. There was King Jehoiakim, warming himself by his fire pot. He was surprised to see them, since no meeting was on the agenda. But the monarch's face fell as Gemariah told him what had happened. When they finished, there was awkward silence. Then, in a soft but sharp voice, the king looked Jehudi in the eye and said, “Run for the scroll and bring it here. Stand by me and read every word.” And off Jehudi went (Jeremiah 36:20-21).

There was no defying the king. It had to be done. Gemariah, for his part, was a believer. He suspected others in the cabinet were unsure but thought Jeremiah's message deserved archiving and to be taken under advisement – and still others would make up their mind in accordance with whatever the king thought. Jehudi returned with scroll in hand. Standing inches from the king, he began to read. It was the second time Gemariah heard these words verbatim. Were they only the opinions of a man? Or were these indeed the words of the LORD, words to be revered like the scrolls of the Law given through Moses? Gemariah watched in a cold sweat as the king, his face hard as stone, reached out, grabbed a scribe's knife, and sliced the first sheet of papyrus off the scroll at its seam. Jehudi had finished reading the columns on that page, and Jehoiakim saw no more need for them. In silent contempt, he balled up the sheet and threw it in the fire pot at his feet (Jeremiah 36:21-23).

Gemariah cried out, dismayed, begging the king not to do it. So did Delaiah and Elnathan. But Jehoiakim's eye of hate burned into theirs, and without saying a word, he gestured for Jehudi to keep reading. Another three columns, another slash of the knife, another sheet of papyrus on the coals, curling up in smoke and ash, fueling the king's warmth on a cold day. Jehoiakim was nothing like his father, Gemariah thought. When Josiah heard the scroll of Moses, he tore his garments in reverent fear. But when Jehoiakim hears the scroll of a prophet, he tears not his garments but the scroll. Josiah believed the LORD's words, while Jehoiakim judges them. One by one, the papyrus vanished, and with it the written warning of Babylon's threat. That, most especially, did King Jehoiakim hurl into the flame. Jehoiakim and his attendants were the last in Judah to hear, but now that they'd heard, they showed no fear, no concern, only unbelief and offense. Jehoiakim sent three attendants to go hunt down Baruch and Jeremiah. Now, all the prophecies were ash, and Jehoiakim seemed to believe that, by cutting and burning the scroll, he'd made the LORD's words null and void (Jeremiah 36:24-26).

Gemariah, with a heavy heart, wondering if it could be true, goes about his day. Perhaps, leaving the king's winter apartment, he plods through the cold air to the temple courts, to pray to the LORD for Jeremiah and Baruch's safety. We aren't told what he does. We are told that the LORD answered that prayer if he made it. Not the most extensive police search can find the prophet or his scribe. And in their refuge, the LORD speaks to Jeremiah again, bidding him have Baruch take a second scroll and Jeremiah to dictate all those words afresh, leaving nothing out. But now, more will be added, starting with a direct address from God to Jehoiakim, in essence saying this: You just wasted your last chance (Jeremiah 36:26-32).

Sure enough, that's what comes to pass. Maybe Gemariah lived to see it. Jehoiakim begrudgingly submitted to Babylon for three years, but the moment he saw a sign of weakness, he put his hope in Egypt rising again, and so rebelled. Terrible move. Jehoiakim met his disgraceful end. His son Jeconiah ruled no longer than Jehoahaz – and then, just as the pharaoh put Jehoiakim on the throne, so Nebuchadnezzar put Jehoiakim's little half-brother Mattaniah on the throne as 'Zedekiah.' But Zedekiah didn't learn the lesson either. Before long, all that was done to the scroll was done to Jerusalem. The prophetic word could not be overturned or turned away.

And that's one of the lessons we might draw from this history, to our spiritual benefit. Down through the years, every prophet spoke of a Savior to come. Jeremiah would have read the scroll of Isaiah, how a virgin from the house of David would miraculously conceive and give birth (Isaiah 7:14). Jeremiah read, too, the scroll of Micah, how Israel's true Ruler would come from little Bethlehem, David's hometown roots (Micah 5:2). And to his expanded scroll, Jeremiah would eventually add a promise of exile's end and that there'd be a righteous branch on David's tree – one nothing like Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, or Zedekiah. No, this new branch would reign as king with wisdom and justice, would be salvation for all Judah (Jeremiah 23:1-8). And in his days, God would renew the covenant, restore their fortunes, give them a new song (Jeremiah 30-31). And six centuries after Jehoiakim first burned the scroll, these words, too, came to pass. All this, Jehoiakim's knife and flame would not stop. As we near our celebration of Christmas, the long-awaited birth of the One foretold by Jeremiah and other prophets, let us rejoice, rejoice, that no ruler in frozen rage could ever efface the promises of the Almighty, whether his warnings to the wayward or his hope in the winter dark.

In looking back on this truth, some early Christians even saw in the story itself a promise of what was to come!2 In the words of the LORD being spoken by Jeremiah, they saw an image of the Word being eternally spoken by the Father before all creation. In the words from Jeremiah's mouth being written down by Baruch on papyrus and so made visible, they saw an image of the Word from the Father's mouth being 'written down' by the Holy Spirit on human flesh and human blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and so made visible when Christ was born. In the scroll being read out by Baruch in the temple to all Judah and Jerusalem, they saw an image of the ministry of Christ: the Spirit read Jesus to all Judah and Jerusalem as he preached and did miracles and loved. But then the scroll was summoned before a bitter king, Jehoiakim, and here they saw an image of Jesus' trials before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. And in the scroll being cut and burnt, they saw an advance image of the crucifixion, when human rage killed the Word-made-flesh. But the story cannot be completed without words being written again on a scroll, a scroll longer and greater than before; and in this, they saw, and we might see, an image of the Word resurrected to glory as if rising from the ashes of death. There, there is the gospel!

There is a third lesson. In this wintry story, the scroll of God's words takes center-stage in the action. Clearly, it's meant to be cherished as a treasure, the physical expression of God's own words. And when the king lashes out against it, he commits a gravely serious sin.3 What he does to the scroll will be the fate of his city, and he himself will be thrown as each sheet was thrown. Refusing to repent, Jehoiakim sealed his doom. But others would imitate him. In February 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian commanded that churches be leveled to the ground and the scriptures destroyed by fire.4 To that end, they made a concerted effort to wipe out the words of God. But when the persecution passed, a council met and ordered that any church leader proven to have handed the “holy scriptures” over to the authorities had to be removed from office.5 For the Bible is more than valuable treasure. Scripture is holy, physically holy, and each and every true copy deserves reverence.

And so, in time, volumes of the Scriptures came to be lavished with artistry and richness. They were designed to impress, they were revered as holy items as much as the altar. By the 1500s, listen to the way one witness, Erasmus, says the Book of the Gospels was treated in churches: “The text in use is beautifully decorated with gold and ivory and precious stones. It is scrupulously preserved among the sacred treasures, and not laid down or taken in hand without signs of reverence.... It is sanctified by perfuming with frankincense and oil of myrrh, with balsam and with spices.... The book is carried round, held in deep reverence close to the bosom, that every man may show his adoration with a kiss, until at length it is reverently replaced among the sacred treasures.”6 Picture it! But today, the Bible is a consumer object of mass production. Each of us has unprecedented access to the words – but how do we treat the scrolls of prophets and apostles when they're bound up for us, however they're printed? Do we act like it's an ordinary book? Do we throw it around, toss it to the floor, shelve it with the rest, leave it in tatters? Or is there a sign we know what a treasure we have – the words that make holy?

But our witness Erasmus had more to say. He said it was clearly good for the Scriptures physically to be treated like that. But, he asked, “what purpose is served by a text adorned with ivory and silver and gold, with silk and precious stones, if our way of life is defiled with the taint of vices that are execrated by [it]?... Of what use is it to press a volume close to our heart, if that heart is far removed from what the volume teaches and if what it condemns is sovereign in the heart? What does the fragrance of all this incense signify if its teaching smells stale to us while our way of life stinks to the grave?”7 In other words, what does outward reverence for the Bible amount to – needful as it is – if you don't inwardly love the LORD's words enough to live by them?

Which brings us to the final lesson. Paul goes beyond Jeremiah's scroll to speak of “a letter from Christ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). For was it not God's promise through Jeremiah himself that “I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33)? The scroll is not merely outside us. The scroll is within. And as one early Christian named Jerome advised, “Rend not the letter written on your heart as the profane king cut with his penknife that which was delivered to him by Baruch!”8 In other words, be a Josiah, not a Jehoiakim. Don't slice up or mangle what God in Christ has written in you in his good news. Don't cut it out, don't throw it away, don't reject it in your life. Cherish it, respond to it, read it over and over without tiring of the gospel you've learned.

But do see in Jehoiakim one thing to imitate, of a sort. He cast the scroll into the flame to destroy it. With this letter of Christ, don't destroy it, but do use it as an inexhaustible fuel for living. When the word of God reaches your heart, as I hope it has found a home there today, lift your heart heavenward in expectation that the Spirit will come down and light the flame. And as the inward scroll of the LORD's words burns but isn't consumed, take from it the warmth of your life in the bleak onset of wintry days – warmth against the bitter winds of grief, against the chill of doubt, against the ice of sin. Yes, as we approach the shortest day of the year, as darkness hangs heavy, as temperatures plummet and weather teases but freezes, reflect on the words of the LORD. Take heart in the gospel, portrayed in advance, and the unstoppable promises of God by his prophets. Hear and heed the letter of Christ written in you, enlarged and enlarged in the preaching and teaching of the church. Cherish it and take warmth from it. And this winter, as you sit by the fireside – or, in modern days, with your thermostat adjusted accordingly – see what else you can read or hear as the scroll of the LORD's words is unrolled by Christ to you. Amen.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Consecration of the Shepherd

It was a chilly day as Jonathan and Judah walked through where the gates should've been into the temple courts. For years they'd known this area like the back of their hand. But this... this was not it as they'd ever known it. For the first time they saw the damage done. Cracks in the pavement were filled with tall weeds poking where they didn't belong. The priests' chambers ringing the court had been just demolished. The ruins of the gates were still charred and ashen. Stones were knocked out of place. And the altar... well, the altar of burnt offering was stained, hidden under a hideous fraud. Nothing could have dismayed Jonathan more than that sight – and he had seen the horrors of war and death. But to him, this was worse. It broke his heart. Tears welled up in his eyes. As they carved their way down his face, he grabbed his shirt and ripped it. Wailing, he fell to his knees, grabbed a handful of ashes and smeared it over his moistened face and hair, and just dropped to the stones and sobbed to God. And he wasn't alone in his cries of lamentation.1

Jonathan and his four big brothers had grown up here in Jerusalem. And it had seemed that they'd grown up in the temple itself. Their dad Mattathiah was one of the many, many priests who gave his life to God by serving in the holy temple – a calling which each of the brothers, in coming of age, had one by one been entering upon.2 But it had been a somewhat frustrating experience. They'd had ring-side seats, as it were, to the corruption of the very institution they were joining. For Judea, their people's land, was under the thumb of a foreign power to the north, the Seleucid Empire, ruled by Greeks out of Syria. Filthy pagans, Mattathiah had thought. But this Greek king had enough power to bully mortal men around. Mattathiah had somewhat admired the high priest a few years back, a man named Onias. But the pagan king, with just an order, stripped the holy high priest of his office. Why? Because Onias' little brother Joshua, who'd changed his name to Jason, had bribed the king to buy the office for himself, and had promised to help lead Jerusalem to be like a Greek city. So with bribery and betrayal, Jason was made acting high priest of Israel at a pagan hand. And with that authority, the traitorous Jason built an arena for nude wrestling, and led Jews to try to erase the sign of God's covenant with them.3

Jonathan remembered how utterly disgusted his father had been, to see Jason grab the high priesthood, to see that gymnasium built, to watch as so many of God's people were swept up in an obsession with all things Greek. It got to the point even many of Mattathiah's fellow priests seemed bored with their holy work. While praying or sacrificing, all they did was think about running off to play sports.4 The corruption was growing. Of course, many of the faithful weren't happy about all this. A few, like Mattathiah, spoke out, calling for repentance and resistance. But most just complied – go along to get along, don't rock the boat, keep quiet, be a silent majority.5 “And great wrath from the LORD will be upon the sons of Israel because they have left the covenant and have turned aside from his words..., because they have made themselves like the Gentiles.”6

Three years had passed of Jonathan's youth, and some of his older brothers had entered the priesthood, when word came that Jason was out, deposed, thrown by the wayside. He'd sent more bribes to the king by the hand of a man named Menelaus, and Menelaus used it to bribe the king to make him high priest instead – what a perversion!7 And if Jason was bad, Menelaus was worse. Even more than Jason, Menelaus was bent on helping to 'modernize' Jewish life – to get with the time, to join the 'sophisticated' Greek world. Not only that, but soon Onias – the last good high priest – stood up in a public square and denounced Menelaus for actually selling off holy furnishings stolen from the temple for personal profit. And not long after that, Onias turned up dead.8 It didn't take a genius to put two and two together there. But after that, Jason – avenging family honor – brought a small army to attack Jerusalem. His own people! Yet there was bloodshed in the streets. Jonathan remembered huddling with his other youngest brother, trying to stay out of the way.

The Greek king, Antiochus, caught wind of all this at just the worst moment, when he was already sore over a failed invasion of Egypt. King Antiochus flew into a rage. He sent soldiers to the temple, and they robbed it of everything that was left – all the gold and silver items, the lampstand, the table, even the woven curtains they tore out.9 It was a terrifying and upsetting time. Then the king issued edicts. All peoples under his rule would live like Greeks, like it or not. So he banned possession of God's word as a crime.10 He banned circumcision, the covenant of God. He banned remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy. All this forbade he on pain of death.11 And he ordered that every city should offer sacrifice, not to God, but to the demons of the nations. And the king appointed inspectors to visit each city and verify that they did it.12

Finally, one cold December day – even colder in spirit than in body – King Antiochus desecrated the temple of God. He banned the daily sacrifices by which the Jews worshipped God.13 Gentiles paraded in the temple courts, entertaining themselves raunchily by fornicating in sacred places.14 The king covered the altar of burnt offering with a pagan altar built over it, and on it he sacrificed an unclean beast, a pig, for his god Zeus, whom he said must be the god worshipped at this temple from then on. Jonathan was glad neither he nor his family were there to actually witness the swine blood run down around the altar – the abomination of desolation.15 For by this time, Mattathiah had decided it was time to evacuate the city. They'd fled to an out-of-the-way village called Modi'in, hoping to be safe.16 But when an inspector came to Modi'in, and one of the villagers was preparing to sacrifice, Mattathiah couldn't stand it. He was zealous for the Law, zealous for God, and unwilling to see God defied any longer. Mattathiah leapt forward with a knife and ended the would-be sacrificer – and then killed the king's official, too.17 And Mattathiah yelled for anyone else fed up with paganism to follow him.

Jonathan remembered running with his dad and brothers and neighbors into the desert and the hills. It was only a minority who followed them – but they didn't care. “The people who knew their God stood firm and took action” (Daniel 11:32). They began to fight back.18 They started staging ambushes here and there, sneaking into villages by night, capturing strategic positions, and generally just giving pagans and traitors something to fear.19 But Mattathiah was old, and within a few months of having sparked the revolt, he was on his deathbed,20 urging his sons with his last breath to “pay back the Gentiles what they deserve.”21 He asked Jonathan's middle brother Judah, the fiercest of them, to take over for him. Judah was a true warrior-priest, a gifted tactician, a real lion like his namesake.22 Judah trusted his brothers as his top commanders, and as they recruited from the villages and towns, they were ready to take the fight to the pagan military. First, they caught the enemy army in a valley late one afternoon, sealing them off on all sides and then slinging stones like hundreds of Davids. They wiped out the contingent they'd pinned down. Suddenly they had volunteers from villages all around.23

When Antiochus sent a bigger army the next year, Judah managed to catch their general in a frontal assault and pick him off first. The shock to enemy morale was so severe, they surged backward in retreat, atop themselves back down a narrow mountain pass. As the pagans tripped over themselves, Judah, his brothers, and their allies gave chase and won the victory.24 Later that year, when a massive enemy army of twenty thousand was camped at Emmaus, the brothers managed to dispatch it cleverly, and gain control of nearly all Judea except for the holy city itself.25 The next year, Antiochus' regent Lysias personally marched twenty-four thousand soldiers south into Judea. It was the final showdown, and Jonathan was in charge of fifteen hundred men under him. By God's help, though they were all outnumbered more than two to one, they pulled off another victory, as the enemy panicked and fled.26 And there at Hebron, Lysias got the bad news: the tyrant Antiochus was dead, and as Lysias was guardian of his young son, Lysias needed to hurry back to Antioch or else risk losing the empire.27

Now was the opportune time. The tyrant was dead. They had breathing room. Now, now Judah led a march on Jerusalem.28 And that's how they found themselves weeping in the temple courts. They dispatched fighting men to hold the enemy soldiers from the garrison at bay, while Jonathan and Judah lifted themselves up off the stone and got to work.29 What was defiled had to be purified. What was profaned had to be consecrated. And what was terminated had to be inaugurated.30 So the priests set to work. To purify the temple courts, they ripped out weeds, scrubbed away graffiti and the stains of unspeakable things, and began patching up the broken walls.31 To consecrate it again, they tore down the old altar of burnt offering, stashing away the stones in storage because nobody but a prophet could explain how to restore it. Instead, they hauled in new uncut stones and assembled a replacement altar from scratch, and they prayed and anointed it.32 So too, priestly craftsmen began building and anointing replacements for the stolen furniture. What they made was a makeshift rush job, hardly the artistry God was due, but they'd have to make do in the moment. That night, then, they hung new curtains, lit up the lampstand with clean oil, set out fresh-baked shewbread on a new table, and burned incense on the cleansed incense altar.33 They worked tirelessly all day to get things ready.

Then came the morning. Rising early, ready to awaken the dawn, they inaugurated the new altar by sacrificing the morning lamb for the first time in three years, burning its body with heaven-sent fire from ancient fuel.34 And so worship resumed in the temple, on the three-year anniversary of the cold December day it was taken away.35 Once again, God was being glorified in his house. And oh, how they prayed! They prayed nothing like this would ever happen again.36 They prayed they would be faithful. They prostrated themselves in prayer on the stone, not in sadness but in relief this time. Levite musicians played harps and lyres, they clanged cymbals, they sang the old Hallel hymns from the Book of Psalms, and the people waved palm fronds to hail victory.37 For eight days they kept celebrating, trying to make up for lost time. Sacrifice after sacrifice, they feasted lavishly on meat and began redecorating.38 Then Judah stood up and made the announcement. By official decree as their commander in the enterprise, he ordered that these eight days should be celebrated each year by Jews everywhere, in honor of the temple lost and restored, the worship of God stopped and started.39 But what to call the new holiday? Some might call it the Purification of the Temple, or nickname it the Festival of Lights, or celebrate it as the Inauguration of the Altar. And in Hebrew, that word 'inauguration' is... 'Hanukkah.'40

Now, the war continued to rage on. Some Jews were still loyal to the pagan regime, and in time Lysias marched back with another army. In the middle of all this, some Jews began to write coded stories about what was going on, reflecting on the struggle with vivid imagery.41 To one Jewish writer, the pagans appeared as ravens and other birds and beasts, while the Jews were a flock of sheep.42 Judah Maccabee stood out as a ram with a strong horn, and those fighting alongside him also became rams.43 But most sheep didn't listen to their cry. Most sheep were blind and deaf, silent and passive in the face of predators.44 Some even became wild sheep who joined with the predators to fight the rams and their little lambs – these were the Jewish collaborators.45 But to this writer, God was the Lord of the Sheep, and the Lord of the Sheep at last heard the cries of his faithful rams and their lambs. So the Lord of the Sheep struck the earth and gave Judah a great sword to gain his victory.46

Down through the next two centuries, God's people kept celebrating Hanukkah, as they heard readings from Numbers 7 and the retelling of the story47 and as they meditated on the lampstand's light shining in the winter darkness, the holy flame burning bright.48 And one wintry Hanukkah two hundred years after Judah, Jonathan, and their brothers celebrated in the temple courts, we find Jesus at the same temple, sheltering in Solomon's portico from the bitter east wind,49 as Jesus, too, came to celebrate the holiday, the good works of Judah and his brothers, those great rams who brought Israel deliverance and consecration (John 10:22-23). For, as the author to the Hebrews put it, Judah Maccabee and his brothers were among those“of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:38), and so “became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” by their faith (Hebrews 11:34). So we shouldn't be surprised to see Jesus celebrating Hanukkah, when his Father's house was restored to working order. There he is, watching as the great lampstand of gold is lit amidst great cheers and songs. And can you hear as Jesus sings the psalms over again under his breath as he paces in the portico?

Then, some people accost Jesus in the portico, in the middle of the holiday. They want Jesus to come out and say it. Does he think he's the Messiah or not? For some are looking for a man like that – a Maccabee-style Messiah, a new Judah to finish the fight and cast out foreigners. They want a battle leader, a brilliant tactician, someone to strike the earth with a sword and restore the kingdom to Israel once and for all. So, they ask, is Jesus the Messiah they're expecting, or not (John 10:24)?

But what's Jesus to say? No straight answer will quite do! He is the Messiah, and he's a greater deliverer than Judah, but not at all in the way they're thinking. Judah was a faithful and skillful leader in his day, gathering and marshaling the rams of Israel as his troops. Jesus has a following, and he has divine strength to keep them all securely as even Judah couldn't (John 10:28-29), but they have no intention of living by the sword (Matthew 26:52). So to prove his point, Jesus points to the kinds of good works he does, works which testify exactly who Jesus is – God's true Son – and also how he uses that power (John 10:25). “I have shown you many good works from the Father,” he tells them (John 10:32). And what are Jesus' good works? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). These, Jesus hints, are greater acts of deliverance than anything Judah Maccabee performed – and this is how the kingdom will be restored, by ambushes of healing and hope, of love and liberation. Jesus tells them, too, that works like these are signs that Jesus has a unity with God that no high priest ever had – that Jesus and his Father are one, are the one Lord God of Israel (John 10:30).

Now the people talking to Jesus have a problem. They hear Jesus say that, and now they reveal what they think of him. They see him as a new Antiochus. They think Jesus is just like that sick tyrant: a mortal blasphemously claiming godhood, come to defile the temple with his teaching (John 10:33). They treat Jesus as if he's the abomination of desolation standing in their midst. And if they pick up stones to stone him, they don't think they're the heirs of the ancient grumblers against Moses; no, they think they're heirs of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, aiming to purge the house of God by violence by ending this Jesus once and for all (John 10:31).50

In the face of their unbelief, Jesus challenges them back. He's no Antiochus – just the opposite. He's more like Judah than anybody else in the portico. If the temple authorities are willing to honor the good works of Judah and his brothers, the warrior-priests who purified and consecrated the altar and lampstand and temple, then how much more should those same temple authorities be in awe of the divine works of Jesus, a higher priest who himself is consecrated as a new altar, a new lampstand, a new temple, by the Father with whom he's one God!51

On this festival of Hanukkah, Jesus has come to his Father's house to meet with just these people. And Jesus is the Lord of the Sheep – the same Lord of the Sheep who gave Judah victory two centuries ago. But by their inability to recognize him, the temple authorities and others who reject Jesus are only proving that they're wild sheep run astray, refusing to belong to Israel's flock at all. They're the ones jeopardizing Israel's heritage. They become – as the stones in their hands prove – more and more like ravens and wolves by the day. Their worldly mindset, blind to Jesus, is no different from the Greek-mania that swept Jerusalem two centuries before. And so they're deaf to Jesus' voice now (John 10:26). They're especially blind and deaf to his openness to the sheep he has waiting in other pens than theirs – for Jesus is determined that Jew and Gentile will become “one flock” in the love of God, and he will be their “one shepherd” (John 10:16).52 To this end, Jesus does aim to fight – but his fight will not be with sword or sling. His fight will be by laying down his life as the inaugural sacrifice on the altar of himself, and then taking up his life again of his own authoritative accord (John 10:17-18).

And now we come to today, nearly two thousand years later. We call today the fifth of December in the year of our Lord 2021. Our Jewish neighbors call today the first of Tevet in the year 5782. And today is the seventh of the eight days of Hanukkah, as of course you know if you've been reading the news. Our Jewish neighbors light the lamps on the lampstand, the menorah, in the public square and in their homes, and they remember the great and holy restoration that Judah and his brothers worked for God.53 But we know also that One even greater than Judah Maccabee has come as the Messiah, and is coming again to deliver us more fully still.

For us, Jesus is the Consecrated One of God. He's the Temple in which we worship – he is our sacred space, and the building around us is designed to symbolize him. Though the courts of his church on earth can be bedeviled by sin, yet he is our guarantee of purity, him and all our holy brothers and sisters gathered already into heaven. And not only has he purified us, but he consecrates us by his word of command, his call to live by love. So too, Jesus is the Lampstand by which we see the world, and which can never be extinguished, for the Holy Spirit is his oil. Burning bright against the winter darkness, this Lampstand is the Light of the World, and we shine ever and only from his light. And Jesus is the Altar on which we offer up his own Self-Sacrifice to the Father, accomplished once and for all but brought forward daily in our prayers and thanksgivings and especially when we lay out the shewbread of his holy face.

Jesus is, furthermore, the Deliverer, who came not merely to fight off the oppression of man by man, as Judah did, but to lead us into battle against sin and death and hell itself. And even Judah Maccabee was in need of his deliverance. For Judah eventually fell in battle. So then did his little brother Eleazar. And their brother John also was captured and killed. By then, Jonathan had become leader of their rebellion, and gaining a victory, he was appointed governor and high priest. But a decade later, he'd fall into a trap, be taken prisoner, and at last executed by the pagan power. That would leave the second brother Simon as their last survivor. Succeeding Jonathan as high priest and governor, Simon would win full independence for Judea and become its new prince – only to then be assassinated by his own son-in-law. All five brothers, who took up the sword for God, did in the end die violent deaths. All of them descended to the realm of the dead. So all needed a deliverer.

And they got one. When Jesus died on the cross, he descended to the dead, smuggling God's presence into the belly of the grave. He came to be good news for death's captives. And when he rose from the dead and then ascended into heaven, he opened the gates to at last lead the faithful there – including Mattathiah, Simon, John, Judah, Eleazar, Jonathan, and all who with them stood for God in the great tribulation of those days. Jesus led them into his Father's presence, the Father whose house they restored. And in the reality of which the temple was always a shadow on earth, only then did Jesus give Judah and his brothers the gift of eternal life, “that apart from us they should not [have been] made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40).

For Jesus is, at last, Lord of the Sheep. Having stricken the earth with the rod of his cross, he bade our raven-black souls to feast on him and grow tame. All who hear his voice, no matter what they were before, become his sheep. And he shepherds us, too, toward eternal life, the same life he's given Judah (John 10:28). For all that Judah and his brothers fought for, Jesus more fully gained and gave. Judah fought for the circumcision of the flesh, and Jesus gives circumcision of the heart to all who are baptized into him. Judah fought to defend the Law, and Jesus upholds the Law while opening it and making it new. Judah fought for the sanctity of sabbath, and Jesus hands us a share of the heavenly sabbath on the earth. Judah fought for the altar in God's temple, and Jesus, as the inaugurated Altar, has set us free to give his Father a pure worship that can't be stopped and of which the grand festal sacrifices Judah offered were a bright but pale pointer.

And so, in the face of vicious vultures and snarling sheep, of the world's darkness and desolation, of brokenness and blasphemy, and in the bleak onset of winter, let us wave our branches too, as faithful ones did of old, and let us too sing his psalms with thanksgiving. Let us offer ourselves on the altar as living sacrifices, giving God all the glory through Jesus Christ, worshipping the Father in Spirit and in Truth and in endless Light, now and forever, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The First and Last Mountain

When I look back on it, climbing up Mount Kynthos wasn't so hard. It was twelve years ago. Mount Kynthos is the highest point on the Greek island of Delos, and from the top, next to an ancient pagan altar, you can look all around and see the Cyclades islands circling 'round. Come to think of it, mounting Mount Lykabettos wasn't so hard either. Athens is already pretty elevated, so it's still just a nice hill. Now, Diamond Hill – that's in Connemara National Park in Ireland, and that was a more formidable mountain my mother and I tackled together eleven years ago. It took a few hours to make our way to the top. The view was utterly spectacular – the beauty all around was immense. Alas, we both managed to injure an ankle on the way down, so we didn't escape the park until well after closing – it wouldn't be a climb I'd be eager to make again. But for me, the most challenging mountain climb I've faced was five years ago: a hike directly from the water line straight up a cliff to Simonopetra, a secluded monastery on Mount Athos, Greece's 'holy mountain.' Simonopetra sits high above sea level, and a narrow path zigzags back and forth across the cliff, relentlessly advancing upward, and certainly it made me wish I'd packed a great deal lighter! I thought for sure a few times that in exhaustion I might slip back over an edge and tumble into the Aegean Sea far below. But after a few hours of determined climbing, I saw the monastery gardens, then the gates, and at last stumbled into the guesthouse of a beautiful community of worshippers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that was absolutely worth the ascent.

I would submit to you that we can tell the story of the Bible – which is the story of all humanity, whether they know it or not – as a journey to seven mountains. We begin at the First Mountain. And that mountain is in Eden. Maybe you didn't think of a mountain there, but the prophet Ezekiel declares, “You were in Eden, the garden of God... You were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked” (Ezekiel 28:13-14).1 On this holy mountain of God, undying we lived in harmony and love and trust. Until we lost trust and broke faith – which starved love and shattered harmony. Then “unrighteousness was found in you,” says the prophet, and the Lord God “cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God” (Ezekiel 28:15-16). In dark rage, we fill the earth with violence. Then see God start anew, Noah striding down the slopes of Mount Ararat. Yet such was the pride still embedded in our hearts that at Babel we built a false mountain with our own hands, determined to reascend Eden's height and recapture paradise by force of craft and claw. Thus God scattered our foolish futility, apportioning us into many divided nations under the guardianship of his angels.

Then, out of this primeval mess, we enter more tangible history as God chooses one clan, one man, one Abram to carry grace forward. This Abram God will exalt like a high mountain of faith. But it takes a long journey. And that journey bears fruit for Abram, now Abraham, on the day he's summoned to a mountain. Now of ripe years, Abraham is called to bring his beloved son Isaac to the Second Mountain. And that mountain is Mount Moriah. Hiking the mountain's 2,520-foot height, strong Isaac carried a load of wood; his father Abraham carried a torch and a knife. No command hurt Abraham's heart more than the test to give him his dearest earthly love and only future hope – but since Isaac was God's promise of hope, Abraham was certain God would provide a solution (Hebrews 11:17-19). Isaac, for his part, was willing to die for the will of God, and willingly was laid on the altar. At the last moment, an angel brought a message staying Abraham's hand and praising their faith, for God had seen, and had provided a substitute for Isaac, a ram (Genesis 22:1-14).

Isaac the Beloved Son would have his own less-beloved son Jacob, renamed Israel, who would have many sons, who – living in Egypt – would grow into twelve great but oppressed tribes. Liberated by God through the God-blessed hand of Moses, through the desert they'd walk as a vast crowd to the base of the Third Mountain. And of course, if the First Mountain was Eden and the Second Mountain was Moriah, the Third Mountain must be Sinai. We remember how God came down on the top of Mount Sinai, and it burned like Eden's stones of fire, with “a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest” (Hebrews 12:18-19). Beneath its thunder, all quake in fear and trembling. These sons of Abraham stand at its foot, forbidden to even touch the mountain. Only Moses climbs the nearly 7,500 feet to the top; priests and elders can only go partway up into the cloud.

There at this Third Mountain, the tribes are forged into a single royal nation. At this Third Mountain, they are given God's Law as their constitution. And at this Third Mountain, just as a sacrifice celebrated a promise on Mount Moriah, so now here a sacrifice confirms the covenant between God and his people. At the base of the Third Mountain, on an altar surrounded by twelve stone pillars, Moses sacrifices oxen and shouts to Israel, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:4-8). Then, as they dwell beneath the burning mountain, they receive one further gift. They get the Tabernacle – it's God's portable sanctuary, a Sinai for the road, and in it is an ark, a box, that holds the stone tablets of the Law, on which are written God's ten covenant-terms, his ten commandments.

From there, this new nation marched, tabernacle and ark and all, to the land of promise in which Abraham had dwelt. And there, after many obstacles and setbacks through the coming centuries, at last they established a kingdom. The kingdom then was given to a ruler named David, with whom God made a royal covenant and adopted David as a son. David had much work to do to finish subduing the nations under God's nation. Part of that work, then, was to seize a Jebusite city called Jerusalem, and particularly to conquer its stronghold called Zion (2 Samuel 5:6-7). Here, we find our Fourth Mountain. For our Fourth Mountain is Mount Zion.

One day, after King David has governed wrongly, it's atop a nearby mountain that David sees a vision. He sees a destroying angel, standing at the mountaintop threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and the angel's hand is outstretched to sacrifice Jerusalem like it's Isaac. David rushes to buy the threshing floor, where he repeats Abraham's substitute-sacrifice, using oxen like Moses did; and the angel stays his hand (1 Chronicles 21:15-28). It's like Moriah all over again. In fact, the Bible later tells us that Araunah's threshing floor was Mount Moriah, the same place where Abraham's deepest act of faith happened.

Now, what happens next might surprise you. Years go by, and David leaves the throne to his son Solomon, who carries out his dad's dream of building God a temple. And where does Solomon build it? “Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of [Araunah] the Jebusite” (2 Chronicles 3:1). Yes, the Temple is built on the spot where Abraham's faith was put to the test. And when the Temple was finished, the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies of this new temple (1 Kings 8:1-6), going up the mountain with constant sacrifices (1 Kings 8:5). And what's inside the Ark of the Covenant? “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there” (1 Kings 8:9). Moses brought them down a mountain, and now they've gone back up a mountain. And they've gone into a sanctuary that's designed to look like a garden, with carved trees and plants, fruits and flowers, and even two great cherubim guarding the Ark of the Covenant. Then this Temple is a garden paradise, and so a new Eden; and it's the original place of sacrifice, being itself Moriah; and now it houses the Law, as a new Sinai.

Over time, this Temple Mount – which rolls Eden, Moriah, and Sinai into one – takes on the name of Zion (cf. Psalm 20:2), “for the LORD has chosen Zion: he has desired it for his dwelling place” (Psalm 132:13). “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). When God dwelled on Sinai, the mountain could be approached but not touched, and so God could not be approached. But now that God dwells on Zion, his temple invites pilgrims to ascend – under conditions. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD, and who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart...” (Psalm 24:3-4). In this holy place, this Mount Zion, each of Israel's sacrifices will reappropriate Abraham and Isaac's faith,2 now empowered by the Law of Moses and focused through the royal covenant with David and Solomon, surrounded by an artificial Eden as if we're Adam and Eve all over again, every day. That is what the temple provided.

The trouble is, the temple on Mount Zion was created and corrupted, built and broken, not once but twice. This mountain simulated Eden and Moriah and Sinai, and even added something new, but it begged for fulfillment. Then, one day, to the second temple built atop Zion, a mother carried her baby boy, offering two doves as a purification-sacrifice in accordance with the Law – though in truth, they needed no purification. And there in that temple on Zion, an elderly prophet held the baby, and, tears streaming down his cheeks, he rejoiced that at last, Messiah son of David had been born: the long-awaited Savior was in his temple (Luke 2:22-32)!

This Savior would go up many hills and mountains in his ministry. On one, he'd sit and speak beatitudes. On another, he'd shine with light. But that ministry fed into his journey up the Fifth Mountain. We've seen Eden, seen Moriah, seen Sinai, seen Zion, but now the Fifth Mountain is Calvary. West of the Temple Mount, it's physically just a small hill, an outcropping of the extended Zion which overlooks the cemetery and garden that fill the old stone quarry. Physically, it's unremarkable, hardly a mountain at all. But spiritually, it's the greatest mountain around. For the Hand of the LORD has rested on Mount Calvary to trample down sin like straw in a dunghill (cf. Isaiah 25:10). There, the body of Jesus, a new and living temple, is lifted up on the cross. There, the LORD, reigning from the tree, decides the fate of strong nations far away, like us (cf. Micah 4:3). And as the LORD tastes death for us (cf. Isaiah 25:7-8; Hebrews 2:9), the mouth of the LORD of Hosts roars forth that it is finished (cf. Micah 4:4). And he offers us his “blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) from his sacrifice on the mountain as God's Beloved Son. Only in this way could he open paradise again (Luke 23:43).

Yes, go to Mount Calvary, because what was done in it far exceeds anything ever done in the temple on Zion. Here on Calvary, the Beloved Son is at last sacrificed as even Isaac ultimately wasn't. Here on Calvary, the Law is fulfilled and signed and nailed to the cross. Here on Calvary, a better blood sealed a greater covenant. Here on Calvary, the true Son of David at last welcomes the plague onto himself to avert it from God's people, the sheep who follow him (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:17). Here on Calvary, we find the basis for all the worship we carry forward. On Mount Calvary, from the broken body of Christ, behold the spring of salvation gush forth, “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Psalm 46:4).

It might seem that, as we climb Calvary as our the Fifth Mountain, there's nowhere else to go. But there is. For Jesus does not stay dead. He rises from death. He ascends into heaven from the Mount of Olives. And then he settles his disciples in Jerusalem, on the western Mount Zion, to wait. There, in the upper room of a large house as they gather and pray on the Feast of Shavuot (or 'Pentecost') that remembers Sinai's gift of the Law, suddenly tongues of heavenly fire appear – hot as Eden's stones, bright as Abraham's torch on Moriah, more joyous than Sinai's blaze was fearful – and these divided fiery tongues burn the Law into the hearts of the apostolic outcasts from the world. For was it not written, “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2), to “assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away” (Micah 4:6)? And so, rushing from the Upper Room to the Temple courts, they proclaim that the Spirit has been poured out as the prophets said, and that the crucified Jesus, the Messiah son of David, is the one who's ruling in heaven to do the pouring. Though geographically the apostles are preaching in the same place as the Second and Fourth Mountains, what God has done is new enough to call it a Sixth Mountain: the Mountain of the Pentecost.

And from that Mountain of the Pentecost, the renewed Zion, the disciples go forth with the Law – the Perfect Law of Love that's etched on their hearts – and they carry the gospel of the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And down through millennia, we've passed the torch, and we still pass it today as we call and gather the people of the earth. But where are we gathering to? Nowhere but the Last Mountain.

Before we approach, let's review. We first fell from Mount Eden, the mountain of paradise. We went up Mount Moriah, the mountain of sacrifice, with Abraham. Moses took us to Mount Sinai, the mountain of the Law – so that was the Third Mountain. Fourth, David appointed, and Solomon built, Zion as the holy mountain of God's dwelling, which recaptured something of Eden, Moriah, and Sinai all in one. But even that wasn't enough. We needed, fifth, Jesus' sacrifice on Zion's Calvary. And once he'd ascended, then, as a sixth part of our journey, we stood on Zion as the Mountain of the Pentecost to receive the Spirit and go forth to disciple the nations into the Law of Love, so we can gather them to the Seventh Mountain, the Last Mountain. And that Last Mountain is the Mountain of the LORD – the heavenly Mount Zion and New Eden. This mountain is a spiritual and heavenly reality, which we now approach in spirit but aim to enter bodily in the new creation.

It is this spiritual reality of which it's prophesied that “in the latter days..., the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of mountains..., and many nations shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD...'” (Micah 4:1-2), “and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore” (Micah 4:7). It's here that “on this mountain, the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine..., and he will swallow up on this mountain... death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8). It's this “great and high mountain” on which John, by the Holy Spirit, beholds “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). For “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Now that is a heavenly reality! Now that is a spiritual mountain! And that is how the author of Hebrews shows us what's really going on when we gather together to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). In spirit, we find the heavens open and ascend Mount Zion to celebrate the Lord's feast with angels and saints in the presence of our God and Savior. Every gathering of true worship, every Christian liturgy of the assembled people of God, is an ascent up the heavenly Zion, the Last Mountain – a foretaste of the hope now stored for us in heaven, to be revealed openly in the new creation. And our whole Christian life is the whole soul's climb up this Final Zion, diving upwards into the limitless life and light and love of the Lord. That is what it's all about, folks. That is what awaits us. And every time we are gathered in full worship, our spirits taste and see what's at the top, for we mingle with mighty angels and hold holiness in our hands. In the rest of life, we just aim to get entirely there, to that top of that Last Mountain – where we'll find also the First Mountain again, a paradise with God forever, in “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).

Friends, this is the last sermon in our series on the Ten Commandments. Those commandments were summed up in spirit in the one and only commandment given on the Mountain of Eden. Their proper ordering was established on Mount Moriah. Then the Ten Commandments were themselves the foundation of the Law given at Mount Sinai. Those Ten Commandments were likewise the heart of the temple on Mount Zion. It was our unfaithfulness to those commandments that required a new Moriah, the sacrifice of God's Beloved Son; and so he fulfilled the commandments by carrying wood up Mount Calvary to die for our sins in exile from the camp. Rising from the dead, the Beloved Son carried his sacrificial blood of the covenant into heaven to his Father the “Consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and in turn he poured out his flaming Spirit onto Zion to burn the Perfect Law of Love into our hearts, so that the Ten Commandments, in letter and in spirit, might never be far from us.

And so, as we're brought to the foot of Heavenly Zion by baptism, and as we spiritually ascend in our worship, we recommit ourselves each step of the way to living this Perfect Law of Love as we make our journey up the Last Mountain. For this is why God's commandments were given. From the first, it was to help us safely find and approach the Last Mountain. And they were given to help us climb, to press rightly and strongly on the upward way, for none but those of obedient hands and heart can “ascend the hill of the LORD (Psalm 24:3-4). So “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking..., him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25)!

But not only do they help us find and approach the Last Mountain, they show us life on its summit. For “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my Holy Mountain,” says the Most High (Isaiah 11:9). In fancier terms, the Ten Commandments are eschatological – they look to the last things, the end, the goal – and that's part of what Advent is for, reflecting on the last things. By grasping their spirit through faith and hope and love on the journey, we're preparing ourselves to dance atop the mountain with angels and saints, much as the climb up that cliff prepared me to walk with the monks of Simonopetra. We are preparing to be forever with Christ as his Living Temple, and so to become nothing but love as God is Love – to be forever blazing with his flame and yet unconsumed. For the Ten Commandments are written in just such fire. And they are steps to that longed-for dance. May the rhythm we've been learning in the Ten Commandments these last seven months serve us well as we continue our climb – and serve us well when we reach the mountaintop, there to become a New Jerusalem!