Sunday, December 31, 2023

King of All the Years

So we've come to the day that marks the close of another year. The old year – well, I can't decide if it went slowly or quickly – but it's run its allotted measure of three hundred and sixty-five days down to the wire now. Fourteen hours from now, at the stroke of midnight, the old year is relegated to the history books, and a new year is unfolded, its pages seemingly blank before us, ready for us to write on it our solemn determinations and drives. And this time of transition is often a poignant one, as we think back over the year, not just isolated days or weeks, but as a whole – “to look back on the way that is past, and forward on that which remains.”1 In the face of the prospect of an unsullied canvas for the coming year, it's not uncommon for this to be a day we take for self-reflection – the proverbial 'good, hard look in the mirror.'

The Bible, of course, affords a fair amount of fodder for such a scrutiny. We know it does at an individual level. “Woe to those who call evil 'good' and good 'evil'! … Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine!” (Isaiah 5:20-22). “They swear falsely..., they have made their faces harder than rock, they refuse to repent” (Jeremiah 5:2-3). “A merchant in whose hands are false balances – he loves to oppress” (Hosea 12:7). “Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek” (Jeremiah 5:27). “Their works are works of iniquity..., their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity..., the way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths” (Isaiah 59:6-8). “When pride comes, then comes disgrace” (Proverbs 11:2). So “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear; for... your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness” (Isaiah 59:2-3).

But the Bible also holds up a mirror at a societal level. “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages” (Jeremiah 22:13). “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves” (Isaiah 1:23), “truth has stumbled in the public squares” (Isaiah 59:14), “woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees and the writers who keep writing oppression..., to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2). It denounces those who “take interest and profit..., dishonest gain” (Ezekiel 22:13). “Wicked rulers... frame injustice by statute” (Psalm 94:20), and “if a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked” (Proverbs 29:12).

If that's the mirror held up, not to put too fine a point on it, but you probably wouldn't have to go too far to find decent illustrations in the last decade of government charging interest on loans, of failure to give promised benefits to those who serve, of laws passed and verdicts rendered with no substantial connection to justice, of politicians who can fairly be called 'rebels' and 'companions of thieves,' of powerbrokers building themselves a good reputation by hidden or even open unrighteousness, of rulers so craving falsehoods that they surround themselves with corruption, of true ideas being excluded from the public square, and so on, and so on.

I'm not going to belabor those thoughts or cite examples; I'm not in the pulpit to be a pundit. But I will note that a poll earlier this month found that majorities of the American public would prefer that the front-runners of our major political parties not be running, and that two-thirds of Americans have a pessimistic outlook on the state of our political life.2 Most of us, when we reflect on our national health, don't like what the mirror shows back.

Certainly we imagine that to be a stark contrast to the early days of our nation, when one state senate president, painting in the rosiest colors to urge Americans to “prize our political condition,” celebrated that “no man can be deprived of his life, liberty or property but by the operation of laws freely, fairly, and by common consent previously enacted,” and that “religious freedom, banished from almost every corner of the globe, has fixed her standard among us, and kindly invites the distressed from all quarters to repair hither.”3

And yet two years earlier, one American newspaper backed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison accused the government of introducing a “many-headed monster of power... and instrument of oppression” aiming to “pervert the judgment of the people of America” into accepting “those fiats of Congress which attempt to declare right to be wrong or black to be white.”4 On the other hand, their opponents warned that if the other side had its way, there'd follow “tragic scenes of devastation, bloodshed, and horror,”5 attributing to their political adversaries “a mental depravity that rejoices in human misery.”6 Meanwhile, American ears weren't sheltered from the ears of preachers denouncing how “thousands of... our equals by nature are dragged from their native lands, loaded with irons, crowded into floating prisons..., exposed to sale, and bought, and made to submit to severest toil, and tortured at the pleasure of their cruel masters” – all endorsed by American law.7

Those decidedly uncheery judgments all, by the way, were penned during the Washington Administration; and barely were we into the Adams Administration than we read orators decrying “those lying newspapers, lying pamphlets, lying letters, and lying conversations with which the country has been filled..., vipers in our bosom, vultures preying on our bowels.”8 Perhaps aiming the mirror backward through time is little comfort after all.

Nor, if we go further back still, do things on the earthly scene get much better. Take, for instance, a king by the name of Herod. Half-Edomite and half-Arab, yet descended from converts to Judaism, he began his political career with a bold tough-on-crime move, executing bandits without trial, and then implying he'd massacre the whole Jewish court if they tried to try him. He was known to execute not just criminals but their families. He eventually turned his bloodlust toward his own family, driven by raging jealousies and maddening headaches to decree death to brothers-in-law, wives, and sons by the handful. He ruled a surveillance state, sending secret police to ferret out his critics; he demanded absolute loyalty; he had no qualms about torture. He bracketed his convictions, funding God's temple and idol temples from the same purse, all while presenting himself as a champion of Jewish rights. He aspired to be seen as a new Solomon, as a Psalm 72 kind of king.9

But, as we read in the Gospel, so terrified was he of news that a child had just been “born king of the Jews,” rather than having the role appointed by Rome like Herod did, that he sent soldiers traipsing the four miles from his fortress to Bethlehem, with orders to deliver a death penalty to all the infant boys in the village. Joseph and Mary had escaped already with Jesus, but perhaps up to twenty little ones left behind became the first martyrs for Christ (Matthew 2:16). This past week, many different groups of Christians all marked a feast day honoring these 'holy innocents.' Around that same time, Herod – by then old, sick, and greedy – had peaceful protesters burned alive. And finally, knowing how unpopular he was, he had his soldiers round up the most popular Jewish leaders, ordering them to be killed when Herod died, all just so that people wouldn't throw parties when they heard Herod had kicked the bucket. One Jewish writer looked back on Herod and said: “He was a man who was cruel to all alike, and one who easily gave in to anger and was contemptuous of justice.”10

Nothing could be farther from the psalm we read this morning, which gives deep testimony for a people's longing for leadership that looks nothing like Herod, that inspires more than the politics we still see all around us. They're looking for a leader who will “judge your people with righteousness” (Psalm 72:2), who will make decisions based on God's own truth, setting God's people at liberty to pursue their Father's business in the public square. That's the opposite of unequal measures, foolish counsel, framing injustice by statute. They're looking for a leader who will “defend the cause of the poor of the people” (Psalm 72:4) and “judge [God's] poor with justice” (Psalm 72:2), one whose leadership will rule out exploitation, wage theft, other social injustices. They're looking for a leader who will “give deliverance to the children” (Psalm 72:4), one whose reign cherishes the tenderness of young life, refusing to let it be aborted or abused, mutilated or miseducated. They're looking for a leader who will “crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4), whose power maintains security against evil, not turning a blind eye to crime. They're looking for a leader whose reign elevates human dignity and the enjoyment of life, one who leads “like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72:6) – a life-promoting, life-refreshing presence. Under him, “the mountains bear prosperity for the people” (Psalm 72:3), chasing away poverty and moral degradation and all else that threatens human health.

Over the recent Advent season, we had the opportunity to reflect on Jesus as the promised Son of David who's come to inherit the Throne of David. And from the very beginnings, Christians have read this psalm as being about him, about Jesus Christ.11 We recognize that, while all leaders ought to live up to those standards, yet the only safe bet in that is King Jesus; although we don't yet experience his governance on earth directly, yet this is the way he rules his people. What's more, this psalm sketches us a beautiful picture of the rule of Jesus. “For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper” (Psalm 72:12). He's responsive to the prayers of the helpless, those who cast themselves entirely on his grace. “He has pity on the weak and needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:13). He's full of compassion and salvation for those who admit their need of him; his mercy is given to the measure of our hunger and thirst for it. “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:14). Jesus is a Savior who redeems us from sin's oppression and who prizes our lifeblood, who cares for us individually, who knows each one by name, who desires to engage each citizen of his kingdom person-to-person. Now that's a king!

Jesus is the kind of king we've needed! Jesus is the king we cannot, should not, bear to be without! In another psalm, the psalmist prayed to God: “Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations! May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him” (Psalm 61:6-7). And here in this psalm, we have that answered: this kind of king will reign “while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations” (Psalm 72:5). That's a bold statement – an absolute absurdity if we tried to apply it to anybody who isn't Jesus. I mean, think about it: how many empires, dynasties, rulers of the past have the sun and moon watched come and go? Every one! How many of those rulers can say their reign only partly overlapped with the rule of sun and moon in the sky? Not any! When the first human first looked up to heaven, there the sun was already burning bright, there the moon was already orbiting the earth. But the moon has never watched a night when this king wasn't king, and the sun has never once outshined his throne.

His is the kingdom of which it's written: “It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44). For Christ “will reign... forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). “To him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14), “and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (Daniel 7:27).

Jesus is the king of history. Jesus was king when Rome fell, he was king on the eve of the Arab conquests, he was king before the birth of Charlemagne, he was king before tribes became the nations we know, he was king before Europe met a New World, he was king while the ink on the US Constitution was drying. Jesus was king during the Black Death and the slave trade and the Great Depression and the Holocaust; he was king during the Industrial Revolution and the Wright Brothers' flight and the splitting of the atom, king when Dr. King dreamed his dream, when Apollo 11 went up and the Berlin Wall came down, when the Internet made its first connection. He's king over more than microscope or telescope sees, more than any channel or station or paper can report.

All of history is Christ's domain. All of history passes beneath his scepter. All of history gathers at his bar of judgment. What we call a thousand years ago, the medieval past, to Jesus it might as well have been yesterday (Psalm 90:4). To him, the difference between our national founding and this moment might as well be hours whizzing by, hardly the massive gulf it seems to us. To judge Jesus by the standards of the latest fad would be ridiculous; he came before and outlasts any political arrangement, any movement, any development. And yet, through all this history, he's responsive to the prayers of the helpless, compassionate to those in need, caring individually for the flesh and blood behind every name that was never written down.

We've come to the end of another year – a year we date in reference to Jesus' reign: the Year of Our Lord 2023. In the past year, COVID-19 officially ceased to be a pandemic, which has hopefully relieved and cheered you. Yet the world weathered deadly cyclones and earthquakes and wildfires – perhaps that frightened or alarmed you. Beside a banking crisis, shootings, and bombings, we saw the Russian war in Ukraine continue unabated, and new atrocities inflicted first in Israel by Hamas and then in the Gaza Strip by Israel. We've witnessed sobering atrocities in Nigeria and other places around the world, and maybe that's distressed you and weighed on you. But as we look over this past year, whatever it brought to us, one thing we can confidently say is that Jesus was King there. Not all the war and weather makes a difference in that; it only shows how much earth yet needs to be conformed to his kingdom, how much nature and nation yet rage against the LORD's Anointed (Psalm 2:1-2). This year, for the first time ever, the human population topped eight billion of us on earth at once – and yet each one is known by name to King Jesus, is treasured and cherished and prized and heard by King Jesus.

Tomorrow starts, as we said, a fresh year – God help us. The good news, the prophets mention, is that if any “turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live … None of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him” (Ezekiel 33:14-16). “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean … Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17). “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love! Break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12). That'd be a fine New Year's resolution, if ever I heard one.

Whatever we choose, I don't know what the next year will be like – for me, for you, for our country, for our world – for I'm “neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet” (Amos 7:14). But I do know that, in 2024 and beyond, the sun will never shine on a day when Jesus will not be king. The moon will never look on Jesus' faithfulness faltering. For sooner would humanity go extinct, sooner would the moon crumble to dust, sooner would the sun go supernova, sooner would the universe freeze in silent death, than would God annul his covenant by which Jesus is King eternally. King Jesus is here to stay, and if the collapse of the cosmos can't interrupt his reign, then neither can all the petty machinations of lesser lords. It'd be easier for a flea to conquer the Milky Way than for anything Herod or his johnny-come-lately apes do to unravel the kingdom of Christ.

Because Jesus is King of All the Years. “He changes times and seasons, he removes kings and sets up kings, he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2:21). As the hymn goes: “Crown him the Lord of Years! The Potentate of Time, – Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime!”12 Beyond our ability to imagine, he has full power over time, over history, over the present and the future; he has command of creation, he has dominion over the course of human affairs, and all the bloodiness of all the Herods and all the tears of all the tragedies are steered toward his ends and answered in his time. He meets the hopes and fears of all the years, for not a year has ever come or ever will that doesn't bend the knee to Christ the King.

So in 2024, may we find blessing in him, enjoying all the graces that this King of All the Years has to offer us – for he who makes worlds and rules time, “the source of our life, our food, our kingdom, our peace,”13 what can he not give to bless his people? And in 2024, “may all nations call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17), all nations – ours included – be prayed for and evangelized and discipled until they rule by his rule. In 2024, may we bless the Father through him, may we live a God-centered life in Jesus' kingdom (Psalm 72:18). As we reflect on 2023, as we take that good, hard look in the mirror, nothing less is our standard and our goal – and when we find ourselves helpless and needy in the face of it, then above all will our King hear us. And so, as we seek this King's bounty in 2024, “may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and amen” (Psalm 72:19).

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Tonight's the Night!

We began this Advent by looking back on one of the most important people in the Bible: a boy named David, who grew – by God's grace – to be a king. If you were with us then, you heard how God took this black sheep of a family in a little town called Bethlehem and raised him up to be the shepherd of a holy nation. Along the way, by grace he toppled giants, by grace he outlasted persecutors, by grace he conquered Jerusalem, fended off enemies, and became a blessing on his throne. We heard, too, how God made a special covenant with him: “I will raise up your seed after you... He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him..., but my steadfast love will not depart from him... And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-16). After that, “the LORD gave victory to David wherever he went..., and David administered justice and equity to all his people..., and David's sons were priests” (2 Samuel 8:14-18). There we last left the tale of David, on that happy note. What a great ending!

But... it wasn't. Pride crept into David's heart. His army went forth while he stayed safe and sound in his palace. Idleness there led to lust, greed, theft, adultery, murder (2 Samuel 11). Chastised and rebuked, he repented and was forgiven his guilt, but he'd labor lifelong under the deadly consequences of his deeds (2 Samuel 12). From that moment on, his family began to spin out of control. David's son Amnon made a shameful assault on David's daughter Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22). David's son Absalom murdered David's son Amnon and fled (2 Samuel 13:23-39). Absalom, welcomed home, then betrayed and dethroned David (2 Samuel 14-17), a tragedy that ended only in the death of this traitorous son of David (2 Samuel 18), sending David into a horrifying spiral of grief (2 Samuel 19). In this instability, Sheba of Benjamin rose up and lured all the tribes but Judah into renouncing David; and in the chaos of civil war, one of David's nephews murdered another (2 Samuel 20).

With Israel reunited at great cost, David's son Adonijah proclaimed himself the next new king, so David had to have his son Solomon anointed quickly to ensure his succession (1 Kings 1). With his dying words, David gave Solomon two instructions: Walk with God, and settle my old scores – which Solomon did, executing his half-brother Adonijah and his cousin Joab (1 Kings 2). But yet “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3). Blessed with wisdom, this son of David made Israel great among the nations, so that people “ate and drank and were happy,” and “Judah and Israel lived in safety..., every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:20-25).

In peace, Solomon built God a temple, which he inaugurated by rehearsing the covenant with David: “Now the LORD has fulfilled his promise that he made! For I have risen in the place of David my father, and I sit on the throne of Israel (as the LORD promised), and I have built the house for the name of the LORD God of Israel. … Now therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed which you have spoken to your servant David my father” (1 Kings 8:20-26). After a week of feasting under the son of David's blessing, on the eighth day people “went to their homes joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the LORD had shown to David his servant and to Israel his people” (1 Kings 8:66). God promised Solomon that “if you'll walk before me as David your father walked..., then I'll establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father..., but if you turn aside from following me, you or your children..., then I will cut off Israel from the land that I've given them..., and this house will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kings 9:4-8). What a darkest of nights that'd be!

Step by step, Solomon let success steal his heart away “after other gods..., so Solomon... did not wholly follow the LORD as David his father had done” (1 Kings 11:4-6). There'd been so many hopes; now there were so many fears. At his death, Solomon was followed by Rehoboam, grandson of David, a foolish man who yearned to flex his harshness (1 Kings 12:1-5). He provoked Israel 'til they disowned his throne: “What portion do we have in David? … To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” (1 Kings 12:16). “So Israel has been in rebellion against the House of David to this day. … There was none that followed the House of David but the tribe of Judah only” (1 Kings 12:19-20). God declared: “I will afflict the seed of David because of this, but not forever” (1 Kings 11:39). So Judah could only look in hope toward the last night of affliction.

Rehoboam died, passing the throne to one of his 28 sons, Abijah, who warned the Israelite secessionists not to “withstand the Kingdom of the LORD in the hand of the sons of David” (2 Chronicles 13:8). Yet Abijah's “heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father was; nevertheless, for David's sake, the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him” (1 Kings 15:3-4). That was his son Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as his father David had done” (1 Kings 15:11), like purging idolatry and welcoming many from the northern tribes back into communion, forging with them a new covenant to together seek the LORD (2 Chronicles 15:8-15). Yet late in his days, his courage failed, and he used bribery rather than faith to fend off Israelite aggression (1 Kings 15:16-24).

Asa's son Jehoshaphat found peace with Israel's king Ahab (1 Kings 22:44), and he “walked in the earlier ways of his father David” (2 Chronicles 17:3), sponsoring the Levites to take teaching tours through the land (2 Chronicles 17:7-9). But Jehoram, Jehoshaphat's son, began his reign by putting his own brothers, fellow sons of David, to death (2 Chronicles 21:4). Jehoram “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, yet the LORD was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David his servant, since he promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever” (2 Kings 8:18-19). In the end, Jehoram “departed with no one's regret” into that silent night of the tomb (2 Chronicles 21:12-20). Only one of Jehoram's sons had survived: Ahaziah, who was led astray by marrying a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Ahaziah's wicked widow “arose and destroyed all the royal family” except one infant boy hidden away in the temple. That boy, Jehoash, was acclaimed king at age 7 by guards armed with David's shields and swords (2 Kings 8-11). “And Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all his days” (2 Kings 12:2), repairing the temple but lastly succumbing to betrayal, fear, and assassins.

His son Amaziah “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, yet not like David his father” (2 Kings 14:3). Under him, the northerners of Israel raided even the sacred temple of God, and Amaziah also fell victim to assassins (2 Kings 14:11-20). He was followed by his son Uzziah, who, after decades of goodness, then trespassed on priestly privileges and was stricken by God with leprosy, forcing him to abdicate the throne (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). His son Jotham, who took over, returned to “what was right in the eyes of the LORD and built the upper gate (2 Kings 15:34-35). Meanwhile, as northern Israel, cut off from David's heirs, slid further into corruption, God warned them through Hosea that “the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince,” but afterward they “shall return and seek the LORD their God and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days” (Hosea 3:4-5).

Outraged, Israel allied with Damascus to harass Judah and depose Jotham (2 Kings 15:37). His son Ahaz was terrified. Ask any sign you need to set your heart at peace, Isaiah said; but when Ahaz declined, Isaiah announced those beautiful words: “Hear then, O House of David!... The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:11-14). And later, as Ahaz's anxiety plunged him deeper in cowardice and corruption to the point of burning his own son alive (2 Kings 16:3), Isaiah praised God for impending deliverance: “The yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian, for every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the Throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4-7). But when would that be?

Ahaz passed from the worldly scene, but not before making his son Hezekiah his co-king and watching together as northern Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, just as Isaiah had promised. Hezekiah, like his father David, “trusted in the LORD... so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah..., for he held fast to the LORD... and the LORD was with him: wherever he went out, he prospered” (2 Kings 18:5-7). Holding the Assyrians at bay, he became terminally ill but, for David's sake, God showed by a shadow-shortening sign that he'd heal him at the temple on the third day (2 Kings 19-20). “He who has no money, come, buy and eat! … I will make with you an everlasting covenant: my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isaiah 55:1-3).

Alas, his son Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD..., and he burned his son as an offering” (1 Kings 21:2-6) – another innocent son of David, put to a fiery demise. Chastened in the end, Manasseh “humbled himself greatly..., and commanded Judah to serve the LORD,” and God “was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea” (2 Chronicles 33:12-16). But his son Amon “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, as his father Manasseh had done” (2 Kings 21:20). Assassinated in a palace coup, the people raised up Amon's little son Josiah in his place (2 Kings 21:23-24). Could he be the son of David they'd been looking for?

Ruling rightly, Josiah “walked in all the way of David his father,” and tried to reform Judah by the newly rediscovered Law (2 Kings 22-23). Only by truly embracing this Law could Jerusalem continue to have “kings and princes who sit on the Throne of David” (Jeremiah 17:25). But Josiah ended in tragedy, shot by Egyptians at Armageddon, for God had decided that Judah was too far gone to be saved except by a night of judgment (2 Kings 23:26-30). Josiah's son Jehoahaz lasted mere months; Egyptians carried him away and replaced him with Jehoiakim, who had a heart only “for dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jeremiah 22:17). Once he'd burned God's word, he was a dead-end: “He shall have none to sit on the Throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to... the frost by night” (Jeremiah 36:30).

His 18-year-old son Jehoiachin took his place (2 Kings 24:6-9). Now God was fed up with these sons of David. “As I live, declares the LORD, though you were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off” (Jeremiah 22:24). After just 97 days on the throne, Jehoiachin was taken prisoner to Babylon, a cold and lonely night (2 Kings 24:10-16). His uncle Zedekiah, then “the king who sits on the Throne of David,” Jeremiah judged as rotten fruit whom God would throw away in disgust (Jeremiah 29:16-19). In the end, Zedekiah saw his sons slain before he was blinded and bound for Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). Through these centuries, what do we see, if not so many wasted sons of David – brutalized and burned, corrupted and condemned?

But through it all, Jeremiah found a message of hope: “I will gather the remnant of my flock..., and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed … Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he'll be called: The-LORD-is-Our-Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:3-6). Even in the prophet's darkest hour, he heard the promise: “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the House of Israel. … If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night..., then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken so he won't have a son to reign on his throne. … As the host of heaven can't be numbered..., so will I multiply the seed of David my servant” (Jeremiah 33:20-22). In that day, a people redeemed from captivity “shall serve the LORD their God and David their king” (Jeremiah 30:9). And from his night-black prison, Jeremiah surely wondered: But when?

Away in Babylon's hinterlands, the exiled priest Ezekiel heard the promise also: “I will rescue my flock..., and I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them” (Ezekiel 34:23-24); “and they shall no longer be two nations. … I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. … David my servant shall be their prince forever. … Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forever” (Ezekiel 37:22-28). But when?

After decades, Jehoiachin was honored in Babylon, a sign of hope (2 Kings 25:27-30). But he died without seeing home again (Jeremiah 22:27). His seven sons grew up wondering if there was any hope, since Jeremiah had preached of their father: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the Throne of David and ruling again in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:30). But when Persia conquered Babylon, they released the Jews and made Zerubbabel – a twentieth-generation son of David – their governor. Prophets assured Zerubbabel he was chosen for great things, undoing the curse on his grandfather Jehoiachin (Haggai 2:23). He'd see the new temple to completion, not by might or by power but by God's Holy Spirit (Zechariah 4:6-8). “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he. … His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth!” (Zechariah 9:9-10).

But Zerubbabel wasn't the son of David who brought salvation. When he died, this local governorship of the Persian province of Yehud passed first to his son-in-law Elnathan and then to a series of men, including Nehemiah, with nary a word of descent from David. And yet Zechariah foresaw a coming day when “the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the House of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them” (Zechariah 12:8). Did Zerubbabel and Zechariah alike wonder, “But when will these things be?”

Through dark centuries, faithful Jews never forgot the promises to David. When a priestly family threw off the Greek yoke (huzzah!) and set themselves up as kings (uh-oh...), other Jews lamented that they'd “despoiled the Throne of David with arrogant shouting.”1 In the days of Roman dominion, Jews continued to wait for “the shoot of David who will arise at the end of days.”2 They prayed, over and over again, for God to “raise up... the son of David to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.”3 A king “free from sin,”4 with words “purer than the finest gold,”5 a king “faithfully and righteously shepherding the Lord's flock,”6 so that “all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah,”7 the “Messiah of Righteousness, the Shoot of David”8 – when, when, when?

Not long at all. Because, to meet the struggling hopes and haunting fears of all those many long, long years, God answered those prayers. He scooped up all the words of the prophets, and he sent his Eternal Word to take on Davidic flesh-and-blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary of the House of David, legally betrothed to Joseph son of David. And there, in the little hometown of David, the Promised Son of David waits to be born – the Lord Messiah, the Savior who brings immense joy (Luke 2:10-11). But when, when? When does the Word-made-Flesh tabernacle among us? When does mercy immortal invade the earth? When, when? I tell you now: Tonight's the night!

Tonight's the night David's fears and tears are washed away. Tonight's the night Solomon's wealth of wisdom is surpassed. Tonight's the night Rehoboam's division is rewoven into unity. Tonight's the night Abijah's Heir holds in hand the Kingdom of God, the night Asa's Son comes to bring prodigals home, the night heralds greater than Jehoshaphat's enlighten the land. Tonight a New Joash evades the butcher's blade, leprous Uzziah's perfect Son heals with a touch, and Jotham's Scion opens the gate of heaven on earth. Tonight's the night Ahaz's Sign casts out the oppressor's power, and Life stretches farther than faithful Hezekiah's shadow. Tonight's the night Forgiveness is born to burn off all Manasseh's mountainous sins, and Josiah's Strength shatters the idols dead.

Tonight's the night Jehoiachin's Son sets captivity free, Zerubbabel's Seed builds a higher temple, the Lord's Lamp burns bright in the darkness that can't comprehend it. Tonight's the night for raising up a Righteous Branch, a single Shepherd of Salvation to gaze up from the manger at the sheep he feeds. Tonight's the night from which the Lord's steadfast love is wedded inseparably to man. For “as keepers of deposits, all the kings of the House of David handed down and passed on the throne and diadem of the Son of David..., the Lord of Everything.”9 Tonight's the night of awestruck shepherds and of herald angels all ablaze. Tonight's the night earth exults and heaven hollers, when truth trumpets and beauty blossoms, when goodness glories and mercy marvels: “Behold the Son of David who glorified and crowned the House of David!”10 Now is the House of David indeed like God, because God has become David's Son as well as his Lord (Zechariah 12:8; Luke 20:44).

So tomorrow, under the newborn eyes of the Son of David who is the true Son of God, let us eat and drink and be merry, each under our own vine and our own tree. Let us come to his goodness in this latter part of the year, at this holiday of holiness, and retell these words purer than finest gold, these great glad tidings of gospel joy. For tonight, oh, tonight is that night – and tomorrow is that day of God's good will that knows no end. Amen! Amen, and may it be to you the very merriest Christmas!

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Throne of His Father David: An Advent Sermon

Alright, there's a question I have for all of you: How many of you have ever, in all your lives, seen a Christmas movie called Home Alone? Well, for the rest of you, it came out a third of a century ago, so I don't think I have to worry about too many spoilers. I bet you mostly remember the meat of the plot, but I want to focus your minds on the opening scenes. The McCallister family is getting ready to leave their massive home in suburban Chicago for a Christmas family vacation all the way to Paris. And there are a lot of kids running to and fro. You've got Buzz and Jeff, you've got Megan and Linnie, to say nothing of the seven cousins roaming the house.

But then there's the runt of the family, the target of Buzz's frequent bullying and the disdainful taunts of all the rest: Kevin McCallister, age 8. Completely dismissed, even by his parents. In Kevin's perception, he “always gets treated like scum.” He's the afterthought child at best, constantly angling for that last scrap of real attention. After a family altercation, his mother banishes him to the attic. And in the frantic chaos of the next morning's late start, and an inflated miscount of the children, it's little wonder that his distinct personhood is so neglected as to be unnoticed in its absence – and his family flies away without him.

They didn't have this movie, or any movie, three thousand or so years ago, but there's a boy back then who I think might have liked it, or at least gotten the premise. He was a youngest child, with two sisters and seven big brothers. Like Buzz to Kevin, the oldest brother Eliab looked down on this littlest brother as a pest. This littlest brother was the afterthought child of the family. Shorter than the others, barely acknowledged or respected, he was accustomed to being left out of things. The day a prophet came to town and invited their family to an exclusive party, their dad made sure that all of them were there, Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah and Nethanel and Raddai and Ozem and the other one, and probably the girls Zeruiah and Abigail too – except he didn't bother inviting the littlest kid. Who would want him? He can have leftovers, or eat bread and water. So dad left the pipsqueak out, put him to work while the rest of the family hobnobbed with a real mover-and-shaker over a steak dinner. Can there really be any doubt that this kid's heart would go out to that Kevin on the screen?

The name of that littlest brother, those three thousand plus years ago, was – and I'm sure you've guessed this by now – David. Think about what his childhood must have been like. He was born a number of years into the reign of his people's first king, Saul the Tall, a handsome but humble man, the son of a prosperous farmer, a man originally more accustomed to operating a plow than to commanding nations. Saul had been picked from the least trusted tribe, Benjamin, and its most hated city, Gibeah, in case this experiment in having a king went awry. But it hadn't, and so David was born in a small town, Bethlehem, less than ten miles south of Saul's town Gibeah. Between Bethlehem and Gibeah there lay a city on a hilltop, the Jebusite walled town of Jerusalem.

By the time David was a young teenager, he was small and forgotten, but scrappy and brave, with experience taking out bears and lions with his shepherd's sling so as to save his father's lambs; he was musically gifted, a useful talent for entertaining himself in the fields; he was well-spoken, not that anyone was accustomed to listening to what he had to say; and, though he'd never have presumed it of himself, his heart was pleasing to his God, reminding God of what a human heart ought to be like. And so one day, out in the field with the flock, a messenger comes – maybe a neighbor, maybe a cousin – to tell him his dad Jesse is calling for him. He hurries back to town, only to find himself at the party from which he'd been excluded. And there stands the prophet Samuel, and the delectable beef, and the dejected looks on the faces of seven brothers who, unbeknownst to David, have just heard Samuel tell their father that the LORD doesn't choose them (1 Samuel 16:6-10).

But now David is here, and to his and everyone's surprise, as he's introduced to this legendary judge, priest, and prophet, the prophet pulls out a ram's horn from his cloak, uncorks it, and drizzles fragrantly spiced oil all over David's head, while David's brothers stand around and watch their little brother receive an enigmatic honor. We've jumped to the end of Home Alone, where the older brothers and sisters warmly greet Kevin, tell him that they missed him, that they're glad to see him. Here David's brothers, and perhaps also his sisters, are in awe as the prophet anoints the boy, setting him apart for... something. Samuel doesn't explain. We have the benefit of hindsight that, as the psalmist says, God “chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance” (Psalm 78:70-71). The former 'black sheep' of the family, the lonely shepherd boy sent to toil, the afterthought child, is now, in a way deeper than the rest can see, at the center of Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11-13).

Somehow, David gets recommended to King Saul as a worthy musician and armor-bearer, a service he can come on occasion to provide. In this next story, he's a fairly passive character, a teen boy who does whatever other people ask him to, again so small and forgettable that as the story unfolds, King Saul will ask repeatedly who he is and where he's from, as if they've never met before. That includes the day in the Valley of Elah when this boy David, running family errands, is the lone one ridiculous enough to pick a one-on-one fight with the hulking Philistine champion Goliath, striking Goliath down like a mere beast through speed, savvy, and skill blessed by God (1 Samuel 17). In the next years, David grows in popularity, the stuff of folk songs and legends. But Saul's on-and-off darkness grows, a spirit of murderous envy gnawing viciously on the king's soul as David ceases, bit by bit, to be a nobody (1 Samuel 18-21). The path there is long and painful, but by the end of his twenties David is an outcast from court, a people's champion for the depressed and oppressed, the malcontents of all Israel who are bitter and burned-out, astonished to find themselves with any hope left in their hearts to pin on this general whom Saul has deemed an enemy of the state (1 Samuel 22:1-2). Yet through it all, David refuses to harm King Saul, even when he has every opportunity to reach out and take what he growingly senses should be his by divine right (1 Samuel 24, 26).

Eventually, without David raising a hand in violence, Saul's own foolishness leads to his doom – taking David's dearest friend, Saul's son Prince Jonathan, with him (1 Samuel 31). Now fast-forward through years of civil war. David has already settled his family in a town in Judah's hill country called Hebron. That wasn't David's decision; it was God's direction. Hebron's got a long history behind it. Father Abraham's tomb wasn't far away (Genesis 23:19; 25:8-10). When Israel invaded the land, Hebron's suburban villages were assigned to Caleb of Judah, one of the only faithful scouts under Moses, but Hebron itself was also given to Israel's priests as a city under their special protection (Joshua 14:13-15; 21:13). Now, with the civil war ended once there was no one left alive from Saul's house to contest what God was manifestly doing, messengers from all the tribes have come to Hebron.

David, by this point in his later thirties, meets these messengers. Their mindset is to put aside the feud that divides tribe from tribe. They accept David, of the tribe of Judah, as being of the same bone-and-flesh kinship as themselves who come from the other tribes (2 Samuel 5:1). They remember and recount David's past military heroism that was for the good of the whole nation. They confess they now see he's the man whom God himself has chosen to be Israel's good shepherd and prince (2 Samuel 5:2). When they receive a fair hearing, the elders come, and accept the terms of David's covenant, a treaty to end the war. The elders recognize him as their leader, accept a position under his authority (2 Samuel 5:3). And then they anoint him there in Hebron. Once more, for the third time now, that fragrantly spiced oil pours over David's head, dripping down his bearded cheeks; he inhales slowly through his nostrils, taking in the aroma of election. The elders accept him, not just as the king of his own tribe as he had already been (2 Samuel 2:4), but as the king of an Israel united as one nation under God and, now, under God's anointed shepherd (2 Samuel 5:3). What Samuel had signified over two decades earlier in anointing a boy, now that very sign was fulfilled by the third anointing of the man.

With all Israel behind him, it was time for David to go forth with God. Nestled in their midst remained this outpost of foreigners, the unconquered Jebusites persisting for centuries in Jerusalem. Experience had deceived them into thinking they were untouchable, and boastfully they dismissed David as a puny man, so contemptible even disabled Jebusites could hold him off. Until David and his men infiltrated Jerusalem through its water system, and he claimed a new capital for Israel: the upper stronghold Zion, City of David (2 Samuel 5:6-9).

And David became greater and greater” – things were only looking up for David. But what was it that made a shepherd boy, an afterthought child, into a king and conqueror? “For the LORD, the God of Hosts, was with him” (2 Samuel 5:10). Israel's God, the LORD, the One who arranges heavenly beings into ranks like an army, was David's unseen backer, whose invisible power could be detected in its effects. And when David began to make international ties and receive gifts so that he could construct a new palace of cedar and stone (2 Samuel 5:11), then David himself “knew that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:12). Not for David alone, but for the people, the flock.

David became greater and greater. His ample family was set to continue its patterns of growth (2 Samuel 5:13-16). David won a great victory over the Philistines in the Battle of Baal-perizim (2 Samuel 5:17-21). David won yet another great victory over the Philistines in the Battle of the Valley of Rephaim (2 Samuel 5:22-25). It was time. Now that Israel was unified, with a new capital city untainted by a fractious history of division, King David didn't want to live apart from God. He wanted God to be his next-door neighbor. Or, to be more precise, he wanted the Ark of the Covenant, that holy relic that belongs to God's heavenly throne, a relic which mustn't be seen unveiled or touched, on pain of death. When David had been merely king of one tribe, it wouldn't have been right to fetch the ark. The ark was awaiting unity. It belonged in a city for the whole nation. It belonged in Jerusalem. So David pitched a tent in the stronghold Zion. “The LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place” (Psalm 132:13). And David's heart burned to give the LORD the LORD's desire.

Through incaution, the first attempt to move the ark the six miles from Kiriath-jearim ended in utter disaster (2 Samuel 6:1-10). Only three months later, after the ark had proven itself a blessing and not a curse to dwell with (2 Samuel 6:11-12), did David move past his fear and throw wide the gates. They resumed the right way, with true reverence and care. Every sixth step, before taking a seventh, the parade paused for a sacrifice to God, out in the open air (2 Samuel 6:13). It was the most festive day of David's life: a leaping priest-king of Jerusalem, a spiritual heir to Melchizedek, dancing barely dressed in his under-robes (2 Samuel 6:14-15); but despite the judgmental eyes of the proud, he was as fully “clothed in righteousness” as any of the priests that day, as a saint shouting for joy to his God (Psalm 132:9). Blowing a trumpet, offering sacrifices once the ark had been rested inside the tent David had pitched, David blessed the people and gave each man and woman freely a meal with dessert to take home and enjoy, treating not a one as an afterthought child (2 Samuel 6:17-19). The next tale will begin with the notice that “the king lived in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies” (2 Samuel 7:1). And so was fulfilled “what the LORD had sworn to him: to... set up the throne of David over Israel” (2 Samuel 3:10).

And why, maybe you might wonder, would we tell this story on the first Sunday of Advent? What has it to do with this season? But if you open the Gospel of Luke to its first pages, after some opening action up on Mount Zion, the scene shifts to the northern hinterlands, far beyond Gibeah and Ramah. For centuries, people have been crying out in prayer, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49). Now, at last, the angel Gabriel visits a young woman, the Virgin Mary, who is legally betrothed in Nazareth to “a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David” (Luke 1:27). Tradition has it that Mary herself was of David's line (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 11.2). What does Gabriel say first? “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) – just as we earlier heard “the LORD, the God of Hosts, was with [David]” (2 Samuel 5:10).

Later in David's reign, he came to wonder if he'd really “find favor in the eyes of the LORD (2 Samuel 15:25). So naturally, when Mary wonders (Luke 1:29), the angel assures her: “Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God!” (Luke 1:30). That's when Gabriel tells her: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). Just as the LORD's favor made David grow “greater and greater” (2 Samuel 5:10), so this child likewise “will be great,” says the angel (Luke 1:32).

For long ago, the LORD God had, by a special covenant with David, agreed to adopt David's rightful heir: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14). But in a supreme way beyond all expectation, this Jesus, heir to that covenant, will “be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). So it shouldn't surprise us that the angel concludes: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). For hadn't the LORD sworn to David “a sure oath from which he will not turn back: One of your fruit of the womb I will set on your throne” (Psalm 132:11), “you shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel” (1 Kings 8:25)?

Once God's Holy Spirit overshadows Mary (Luke 1:35), much as the same Spirit had rushed continually upon David from his first anointing (1 Samuel 16:13), the newly pregnant Mary goes on a journey to visit her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39-40), probably in the priest-owned city of Hebron where Israel first accepted David as king (2 Samuel 5:3). There, just as David had once fearfully asked “How can the Ark of the LORD come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9), so the Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to say in wonder: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my LORD should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). After singing how “from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), Mary leaves just before Elizabeth gives birth to John, whose father Zechariah blessed God for having “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69).

Months later, since Joseph is “of the house and lineage of David,” a census calls him back home “to the city of David which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4), the same where David's head first got oiled, where David first caught the Spirit to the consternation of his brethren. Taking Mary with him, there in Bethlehem she gives birth to the Messiah, the Anointed One, in a cramped peasant home (Luke 2:5-7). Meanwhile, there were shepherds in the fields outside town, keeping watch over their flocks in the same way the shepherd boy David once watched his father's flock in that same field. And to these shepherds in David's field, there came a splendor and a sound, an angel with a joy so fearsome as to burst the human heart with good news too big to fit inside it.

So many times in David's life, people told David their version of good news, and always it was a failure. The Amalekite man who took credit for Saul's death hurried to tell David (2 Samuel 1:1-10). “He thought he was bringing me good news,” David reflected (2 Samuel 4:10). But the boast disgusted David and broke his heart (2 Samuel 1:14-16). Saul's son Ishbosheth then waged that civil war against David over the kingdom, until Ishbosheth was betrayed and assassinated in his sleep by two of his very own men, members of his own tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 4:5-7). They expected to be rewarded for their 'good news' that they'd put an end to David's enemy, that vengeance had won the day (2 Samuel 4:8). How little they, holding Ishbosheth's head, understood David's heart (2 Samuel 4:11-12). Many years went by, and David's reign again was beset by civil war. His own son Absalom had risen up against him, driven him out of Jerusalem. Holed up at Mahanaim in deep regret, David sent forth his troops but ordered them to show mercy to his son (2 Samuel 18:5). Suddenly, David sees a running messenger, the high priest's son Ahimaaz. “He is a good man and comes with good news,” David hopes (2 Samuel 18:27). Ahimaaz claims not to have answers. He's followed by a Cushite, who professes to carry “good news for my lord the king” – Absalom, son of David, has been killed in disgrace by David's nephew Joab (2 Samuel 18:31-32). David weeps and wails like never before, wishing he could've given his own life to save his beloved but traitorous son (2 Samuel 18:34).

Three times, no one around David understood what good news really meant. They thought brutal betrayal and bloody vengeance were the stuff of which good news is made. Their 'good news' was a disappointment to David every time. But now comes a messenger more foreign than any Amalekite or Cushite, a messenger as foreign as heaven to earth – and this messenger knows what good news looks like. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Anointed One, the Lord!” (Luke 2:10-11). This good news was the One to whom would be given the throne of his father David, the One who would be the Shepherd of Israel and the Desire of the nations.

What was the throne of David, the rule of David, like? It was the priest-king joyously leading the procession. It was worship and blessing and a holy tent. It was a distribution of sustenance and sweetness to the people, a gift from a glad heart like the heart of God. That's what it had meant for David to have the throne. And Jesus, LORD and Anointed rolled into one, will rule like that from the throne of his father David. The kingdom of God and of David are one. Jesus is born, the Son of David whose heart isn't merely after God's own heart, but is God's own heart. He's born to give his own life to save his beloved but traitorous creation. He's “the Root and Descendant of David... who has the key of David” (Revelation 22:16; 3:7). He's born in Bethlehem to unlock the gates of life, to pitch the living tent of the church for worship, to bless his people in the holiest of names, to feed us the sustenance of the Spirit and the sweetness of God. He's born to be our good-news Savior. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:10). We're longing for King Jesus, the king in whom the throne of David is forever. That's the longing of Advent. Amen and amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Onward, Outward, Upward

What a journey we've had from the dawn of creation to here. Since June, we've traced the creative work of the eternal God as his Word spoke into being this realm of space and time, as he brooded over it by his Spirit, as he separated and combined it, gave it shape, and infused it with a dazzling litany of life. And as the last of that life, we met ourselves: human beings – on the one hand, crafted from the matter of earth, sharing an origin with all other animals; on the other hand, formed by a substantial spiritual soul with intellect and will, making us kin to God's angels. As the linchpin between visible and invisible creations, God placed us in a special environment and called us to special tasks. He settled us in a delightful garden in perfect innocence and called us to know him. He made this garden his sanctuary, and installed us there as his cultic images and as his priests, to minister to him in worship on behalf of the creation around us. He appointed us royalty, giving us charge over the earth and its creatures. And all our life and work is for the sake of worship and guardianship, of governance and provision. God made us quite the creature. He made us so that he can see himself in us.

Seeing that humanity was far too exciting to be left generic, God made two ways to be human: male and female, like so many of the other animals. Equal in dignity, complementary in giftedness, men and women are partners in all these incredible and astonishing purposes for which God placed us here and commissioned us. In this first marriage made in Paradise, the first husband and first wife lived in total transparency and radical self-giving. United under God's blessing, theirs was the blessed life. As we bring our journey with Genesis to a pause today before Advent, there are three more things to say about this blessed life.

First, the blessed life means that humanity is to go onward. We spoke last Sunday about how marriage is the proper home of human sexuality – and we all know, I think, where sexuality can lead. Even in the other animals that exist in two sexes like us, that dictates how they reproduce according to their kind. And so to us, as to the other animals, God has a few choice words to say on the topic. What are the first things God says to this first married couple as he blesses them? “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Be fruitful – be growing, be productive. Multiply – become large in number. Adam plus Eve is not supposed to equal only two forever.

Nor does it. In fact, that's where Eve gets her name. We later read: “The human called his wife's name 'Eve,' for she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). The Hebrew pronunciation of 'Eve' (awwāh) sounds like the Hebrew word for 'life' (ayyāh).1 Not long after that, we read that “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and gave birth” (Genesis 4:1). The first marriage had then become the first family. And although Genesis doesn't depict this actually happening until paradise is left behind in the rearview mirror, St. Augustine pointed out that “even if there had been no sin, the marriage of the first human beings, which was worthy of the delight of paradise, would have produced children to love.”2

The nature of marriage is such that it is open to life, open to the natural fruit of sexual union, open to becoming a family. Marriage is “an institution blessed by God for the reproduction of the human race.”3 Some thought that a desire for children was the only reason to get married, that any other motive was impure.4 Thankfully, others in the early church recognized that children were only one of the things worth cherishing in marriage.5 But all agreed that the union of husband and wife, on the one hand, and the procreation of children, on the other, are naturally related: the same action that seals the first is designed by God to lead naturally to the second, under the right conditions. It's no wonder that, up until just a hundred years ago, Christians were basically unanimous in officially opposing contraception.6 Openness to natural growth, to being fruitful and multiplying, to family, is part of what it means to validly form a marriage in the first place.7 St. Augustine said, if an openness to procreation is absent, “I do not see how we can call these marriages.”8 For marriage is, by definition, “a union between one man and one woman which is exclusive, permanent, and open to life,” so that agreeing to another kind of relationship is not the consent that births a marriage.9 And Paradise respected that reality: Adam and Eve knew their Edenic marriage was exclusive, permanent, and also open to life.

So, had we stayed in Eden, the human family would've grown generation by generation; and each new person would have been born into the same original righteousness and innocence that Adam and Eve enjoyed and kept whole as an inheritance for each.10 In Eden just like here, “children should be welcomed with love, brought up with kindness, given a religious education,” as St. Augustine put it.11 As the population grew and society became more complex through the division of labor, then as now parents would've taught their children “crafts which are agreeable and suitable to the fear of God.”12 As it was meant to be: a flourishing family before God.

And yet there was a widespread movement in the early church of men and women who said no to being fruitful and multiplying in the marriage-and-family way. Other apostles were married men, but Paul – like Jeremiah and John the Baptist before him – was not. Paul was celibate, “and to the unmarried and the widows, I say that it is good for them to remain as I am,” he advised (1 Corinthians 7:8), since an unmarried person has greater freedom for contemplating God and serving his kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:32). Just over a century later, we hear how “many of us, both men and women,” were “growing old unmarried in the hope of being united more closely with God.”13 “Celibacy and marriage have their distinctive services of the Lord,” they said,14 but in their eyes, celibacy was actually “the superior condition,” viewed as “better and holier” than marriage and children.15

If that strikes us as strange, well, it would've been just as strange to many of their Jewish neighbors, for whom the blessing had come to be read as a commandment: Thou shalt marry, thou shalt try to have kids. So what was it that freed the early Christians to think about the blessing a different way? A few renegades decided that it had been altogether “abolished” and “superseded.”16 The Church actually accepted the command, they just saw new ways to do it. For they'd heard the Lord tell them: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18). Just as “Be fruitful and multiply” was the Great Commission of the Old Covenant, this was its counterpart in the New. So now, they said, “since members of Christ to be God's people and citizens of the kingdom can be brought in from the whole human race,” there are many more ways for God's people to increase and multiply!17

And so we're told in Scripture that “the word of God continued to increase,” be fruitful, “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (Acts 6:7). Again and again, we hear that “the word of God is increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24), such that therefore the Church itself “multiplied” (Acts 9:31). The Apostle Paul tells how “the gospel... is bearing fruit and increasing... among you since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:5-6), and that's how even a celibate man like him “became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15), “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). Even if unmarried or widowed according to the flesh, we – like Paul – continue to be fruitful, to increase God's word, to multiply the Church, through evangelism and discipleship!18 In spreading the word of God to other people, in helping them to be converted by the Lord, in assisting them in internalizing the word of God so it can sprout and bear much fruit in the soil of their hearts – in these ways, we Christians increase and multiply as surely as by having families. You can be fruitful and multiply as profoundly as a spiritual father or mother to new disciples as by being a natural father or mother to children. And we share a sacred responsibility to let the word of God increase through us, to let the number of disciples multiply through us, so that the new humanity in Christ will go onward as surely as the old humanity in Adam.

A second lesson about the blessed life is that it means that humanity is to go not just onward but outward. The Garden of Eden was a wonderful home for Adam and Eve. But supposing they'd stayed welcome there, they would have been fruitful and multiplied till they started to crowd the garden. This garden God planted in Eden wasn't infinite; Genesis depicts it as a specific location, some amount of acreage, bounded on all sides by places that aren't the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). So what happens when the garden hits capacity?

Well, that raises some other questions. They were given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). That spurred one early Christian to ask: “How was Adam to rule over the fish of the sea unless he were to be in proximity to the sea? And how was he to rule over the birds that fly throughout every region unless his descendants were to dwell in every region? And how was Adam to rule over every beast of the earth unless his offspring were to inhabit the entire earth?” Or, we might add: how were Adam and Eve to eat “every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth” if they never go to where those plants are (Genesis 1:29)?

In the ancient world, as a king expanded his empire, he would put up statues of himself in the most far-flung provinces. Just like when explorers plant flags in the name of this or that country, it was a way to stake a claim. It was how the king made his claim to dominion visible in that place, a reminder to all who saw his image that this was his territory under his watchful eye.19 The image of the king let you know who owned the land it was in. Well, each human being is God setting up his image somewhere, a visible reminder that it's God's territory under God's watchful eye (Genesis 1:26). God did not intend to stake a claim over just however many acres were in this garden. No sooner did he tell humans to “be fruitful and multiply” than he told them to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). God shows his ownership of earth “by multiplying his images over the earthly domain.”20 So human presence filling the earth is meant to be a good thing.21

But on the other hand, Adam is portrayed as a priest-king installed in the garden as a holy sanctuary. It's where his work belongs. How could he go abroad and leave it behind? And the solution to that puzzle comes when we know that in the ancient world, kings had a responsibility over temple construction and renovation. Even in ancient Assyria, sometimes they'd judge an existing temple “too small,” so the king would “greatly expand this temple beyond its previous extent.”22 But especially in Egypt during the time of Moses, temple complexes “underwent continuous expansion.”23 Many a new pharaoh, as a display of his royal service to his gods, “pushed the perimeter of [temple] walls and courtyards farther and farther into what had previously been secular space,” and in this way, “the area of the sacred was greatly extended.”24 That's how a king honored a god: by enlarging the temple space. So what would happen as they garden filled up with new generations of humans? “They were to extend the geographical boundaries of the garden until Eden covered the whole earth.”25

Picture it: pushing out the boundary markers of the garden, cultivating the newly included ground, planting the trees of holy Eden there, foot by foot. As the years pass, the garden gets longer and wider, more of the earth is claimed as part of this sanctuary. The area of the sacred would extend further out into the world as the human priest-kings subdued acre after acre in the name of life and peace, answering their call to “spread the holiness of the Holy Place to that which yet needed to be sanctified in the world beyond.”26 Whole territories would then be subdued and sanctified. Next, continents. At last, one day, there'd be no patch of dirt on earth that wasn't part of this garden that began in Eden. One worldwide community in highest harmony would fill the holy earth.

That's what Genesis suggests was meant to happen: for humans to “begin from Eden, work their way outward, and spread the blessings of Eden to all the earth.”27 Eden was to go global! Paradise was to expand! Adam and Eve and their children were to grow in practice the kingdom that was theirs by grace – the kingdom of God!

Here we are, though, and we don't live in a garden of trees and flowers and all these things. Neither did Israel. But, as we saw, God gave them back a taste of the garden when they built the tabernacle; he raised them up as his kingdom on earth, promising that if they were faithful in their land, he'd “enlarge your borders” (Exodus 34:34). The tabernacle took up just 675 square feet, inside a courtyard of over 11,000 square feet. In time, they expanded to Solomon's Temple, a building of 2,700 square feet inside a courtyard of 45,000 square feet. When they returned from exile, they built a Second Temple with a courtyard of over 70,000 square feet; and later, even King Herod more than doubled the area of the temple courts. That still didn't measure up to Ezekiel's dream, with temple courtyards covering over 765,000 square feet as the heart of a holy district of over a billion square feet, 40 1/3 square miles (Ezekiel 45:1). And Ezekiel's wildest vision pales next to John's glimpse of a temple-city covering over 53 trillion square feet, bigger than the Roman Empire (Revelation 21:16). Filling the earth!

But what does it mean? The Lord Jesus told his apostles to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Paul explains that “through us,” God “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). This – the realm of the gospel, of the kingdom, of the church – is the Garden of Eden planted anew. The prophet Daniel foresaw God's kingdom destined to grow and grow until at last it “filled the whole earth,” as the garden was always meant to (Daniel 2:35). The kingdom of God must be extended unended, the fragrance of Christ must cling to all things, all land must be a holy district.

But in a world of sin, we look out to a world that's not merely empty and waiting to be filled with godliness. “Their land is filled with idols,” said the prophet – allergic to the fragrance of Christ, the earthly powers resent the kingdom of God and desperately preserve the land for profanity (Isaiah 2:8). We'll meet resistance, spiritual warfare; we'll have to defend the garden against infiltrating idols inside as much as opposition outside. And as we expand this kingdom of God's peace and God's justice, God's grace and God's truth, God's beauty and God's goodness through all the ways we work and keep his creation, it's up to us to crowd out these idols by a better witness, by a humbler service, by a wiser path, by a more radical love.

We pray, we labor, we march in procession to expand the realm of “peace on earth and mercy mild,” where “God and sinners” are “reconciled,”28 where idols tremble and shatter before the Desire of Nations, where the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly are exalted (Luke 1:52-53), the poor are lifted to sit with princes (1 Samuel 2:8), where the deserts bloom like flowers (Isaiah 35:1). And “as grace extends to more and more people, it will increase thanksgiving to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).

Third – and I know we don't have long to tell it – the blessed life means that humanity is to go, not just onward, not just outward, but also upward. Eden is still a distinctly earthly life, sustained by fruits and veggies from the earth. Those in Paradise are, as one hymn puts it, “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.”29 God walks in the garden in the cool of the day, but he's not manifest to Adam and Eve constantly. They therefore don't know God fully as they are fully known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12). And Adam and Eve, as will become all too clear all too soon, are capable of falling. This life of Eden is a good life on earth, but it's not yet the perfection God plans for them. There's got to be something more, something beyond Eden, beyond even a paradise earth.

So what if things had continued as they ought to have? As St. Augustine puts it, the bliss of Eden “would have continued until, through the blessing that said 'Be fruitful and multiply,' the number of the predestined saints was completed; and then another and greater felicity would have been granted, which was granted to the most blessed angels.”30 Somehow, Adam and Eve and all their family would “all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52), “changed into a better state... by a blessed transformation.”31 Then they'd have “spiritual bodies,” totally animated and powered by God's own Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:44).32 Then, at last, the life of Eden would flow upward into that heavenly life beyond, a life more lively than any paradise man ever tasted on the earth.

At the start of this year, we spoke about the ultimate purpose for which we're made, which is to see God as he is – to behold the beauty of his infinite depths in such a way that we're completely and eternally fulfilled in it. It's to become happy with God's own happiness, to live with God's own life, to love with God's own love. And in being united to God, we'll be “transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18), until “we shall be like him” in ways we dare not dream (1 John 3:2).

That's what Adam and Eve were meant to gain, and it's what Eden alone couldn't give them. Adam and Eve, no less than ourselves, needed to set their minds on heavenly things above, rather than on the things of their earthly paradise (Colossians 3:2). And now, in Christ, human nature – the nature of Adam and Eve and you and me – is placed on heaven's throne, and God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). As one church, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15), in whom “the whole body... grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19). So we all – Adam and Eve and all God's people – “share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1), “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We're on a journey toward “a better country” than Eden, “that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). And there, in Christ, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). There, “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,” Adam, “we shall also bear the image of the Man of Heaven,” who is Jesus Christ the King, our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:49).

Thanks be to God! And so let's do what Adam and Eve should have from the start. Let's go onward in Christ, being fruitful and multiplying what belongs to him. Let's go outward for Christ, subduing the earth for the sake of his kingdom of love. Let's go upward to Christ, rising to a heavenly country. Until, at last, God will indeed be all in all, and heaven and paradise and all the new creation are filled with the perfect glory that knows no end! Hallelujah forever! Amen and amen!