Saturday, January 30, 2016

Amazed and Furious
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)
Jeremiah was called of the Lord to be a prophet while yet a young man — “too young,” he protested. Being a prophet is a tricky undertaking, a dangerous occupation with many opportunities to be heavy with fear and in dire need of escape. But the Lord promised, “I am with you and will rescue you.”

The outstretched hand of God touched Jeremiah’s reluctant lips, and now the message that came from Jeremiah’s mouth would be God’s own words, full of divine power and authority. Jeremiah would need that because Jeremiah’s message would not be a welcome one. Neither kings nor kingdoms take kindly to being uprooted, torn down, destroyed or overthrown. But there was much wickedness in the land and many hearts that needed to be changed before God could rebuild and plant again, for God cannot bless anything that does not come from him, that does not originate from his love.

Now jump forward several hundred years. It is a Sabbath and Jesus is standing at the lectern of the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. The text is Isaiah 61, about the year of divine favor on the people of Israel, and the day of vengeance on their oppressors. Jesus reads it, leaving off the part about the vengeance, then sits down to teach.
He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:21-22)
There is an ambiguity here. Although the NIV says “all spoke well of him,” the underlying Greek text speaks simply of bearing witness, which could be either for or against Jesus. The people were “amazed,” which, again, could be taken in a positive or negative way. It was the “gracious words” Jesus spoke that was at the center of their reaction.

We should think they would have been glad for the graciousness of Jesus’ message, but it was the part he left out that was the object of their disquiet. They were glad to hear about the year of God’s favor on Israel, but they also wanted to hear about the day of God’s vengeance on the Gentiles. And Jesus did not go there. His words left God’s grace open to the Gentiles as well as towards Israel.

So the crowd began to question. “Who is this? Isn’t he the son of Joseph? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? By what authority does he speak this way?” They would use their imagined familiarity with Jesus against him, to discount his words. But Jesus knew exactly what they were up to.
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:23-27)
Did they need to see miracles before they would accept this hometown son as a true prophet of God? That is not how true prophets work, and that is not how Jesus works. Faith does not come by seeing miracles but by hearing the word of God. The people of Nazareth were not ready to receive Jesus’ words, so they were not ready to believe his miracles.

The reason Jesus’ message was so gracious and open-ended was because God had often showed his mercy to Gentiles. In Elijah’s day, Israel was a faithless generation, unwilling to receive the word of the Lord. When famine came, it was only a pagan widow of Sidon who believed the prophet and received a miraculous provision. The story was much the same in the time of Elisha, and it was only Naaman, a Syrian general, who believed the prophet and was cleansed of leprosy.

These examples would have had a hard bite in Nazareth because Sidon and Syria were especially loathed by the Jews. Yet God showed mercy on these despised ones because they were willing to trust him. The real question, however, was whether the people of Nazareth were willing to trust God even if he intended to be gracious towards the pagans. The answer quickly appeared.
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)
The people were seething. They did not want to hear of a God who would show mercy on their enemies, and they would have no part with a prophet who would teach such things — away with him. The soil of their hearts was hard and unyielding, not good ground for the seed of the kingdom, not yet ready for the building and planting Messiah came to do. So Jesus went on his way, passing quietly through the crowd, whether by miraculous disappearance or the power of his presence. Either way, God was with him and rescued him.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Christ is the Meaning of the Sun
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
    like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
    and makes its circuit to the other;
    nothing is deprived of its warmth.
(Psalm 19:4-6)
The theme of Psalm 19 is the revelation of Christ in the heavens and in the “law” (or “instruction”) of the Lord. For Christ is the creator of the cosmos, and all the Law and Prophets, which is to say all the Old Testament scriptures, are about him.

God has “pitched a tent for the sun.” Through Christ, he has created the heavens and the skies that surround the earth, and indeed, all that is. Christ is the Sun. The sun portrays him before our eyes. Just as the sun is always present in the sky, so Christ is always present in the world. For all things are created in him, through him and for him, and are sustained by him. The psalm writer describes the sun as a bridegroom coming out of his marriage chamber and as a mighty champion who gladly runs the course for his people.

Christ is the Bridegroom, lavishing his love upon his people and preparing them as his holy bride. The bride is the Church, “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). This is, Paul says, a profound mystery.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
Christ is also the Champion for his people, pouring himself out willingly for our sake so that, through him, we are more than conquerors. And there is nothing that can separate us from this great love.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:31-37)
As the sun traces its path across the sky from east to west, giving its light and heat to all the earth, so also Christ rules over the world and gives light to all, penetrating every corner of darkness. This is the testimony of the New Testament: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Christ is the true light, and the meaning of the sun. The sun is but one means by which his light is made present in the world. It is an icon of his glory. Christ is the reality, the light that was from before the beginning, and the light that will remain when all things come to their fulfillment in him. As Isaiah the prophet said, so also John the Revelator:
The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. (Isaiah 60:19-20)

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp ... There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 21:23; 22:5)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Christ is the Meaning of the Cosmos

Star. Photo by Tom Hall
The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
(Psalm 19:1-4)
The whole cosmos bears witness. The depths of space describe the glory of God. The skies demonstrate his workmanship. Every day they speak to us, every night they bring revelation. But here is a paradox: They have no speech, no sound, no word — yet they have a voice that is heard everywhere and a language understood all over the world.

They speak to us about God. Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). More precisely, they speak to us about Christ. That is how Paul understands this psalm when he quotes from it in Romans 10:18. The revelation of Christ begins in the cosmos.

All the Law and the Prophets are about Jesus, and that is how the New Testament writers and the early Church understood the Old Testament. So creation speaks to us of Christ, for it is he who is the creator of all: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). “In him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).

The heavens and the earth always bear a fresh testimony to Christ, for he is not only the creator of all things, he is ever sustaining them. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).

The testimony of the heavens does not reduce down to data points or arguments for the apologist’s toolkit. The cosmos is always speaking to us about Christ. More than that, it is always revealing the glory of God through Christ, always presenting him before our eyes and our understanding, always manifesting his presence throughout all creation by his sustaining power. Christ is the meaning of the cosmos.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Today This is Fulfilled in Your Hearing

At the end of the Babylonian exile, Ezra and Nehemiah were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city. When the walls were completed, the exiles began returning, though still under foreign dominion. After they settled in, they came together and had one request of Ezra.
All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law ...

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. The Levites ... instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
Ezra was called the “teacher of the Law.” He and the Levites read to the people from the book of the Law, instructing them, making the meaning clear to them so that they could understand what was being read. This tradition endured for centuries and eventually developed into the Rabbinic form of Judaism.

Now let’s jump ahead about 500 years. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist with water and by God the Father with the Holy Spirit. Then he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days where he was tested by the devil. Then this:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)
Here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, which speaks in terms of the Jubilee God prescribed in Leviticus 25. Jubilee was to be celebrated every 50th year, a year to “proclaim liberty” and restoration. It was a time for release from the bondage of debt, for bond-servants to be set free, for homes and lands to be returned to their original heirs. It was good news for the poor … except that there is no indication that Israel ever actually kept the commandment and practiced Jubilee.

Isaiah prophesied to a people who had not yet gone into Babylonian exile, but the prophesy in chapter 61 was about how God would bring them out, set them at liberty and restore them to their land. It was the promise of Jubilee. Yet hundreds of years later, the Jews were back in Judea. However, they still were not a free people but under foreign rule, a part of the Roman Empire.

But now Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit and taught in the synagogues. In Nazareth, he stands and reads this passage from Isaiah, then he sits down to teach on its meaning. He speaks about it a most startling way: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

He was announcing that the time of God’s true Jubilee had finally come. More than that, he was saying that it is fulfilled in him. That he is the one whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit. That he is the one God sent to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. That he is the one God sent to set the oppressed free. That it was he whom God sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, he was saying that he is Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed King. This is the message of the gospel, and in this announcement, Jesus was laying out the charter of his ministry. This scripture was being fulfilled in their hearing — they were witnessing it.

Jesus is the ultimate teacher of the Law. All the Law and the Prophets are about him, and in him they all find their fulfillment. He is there in Leviticus 25, in the commandment to observe Jubilee. And he is there in Isaiah 61, in God’s promise of the greater Jubilee. Indeed, he is God’s Jubilee, for the kingdom of God has come into the world and Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all. In him and through his cross, God is making all things new.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Gospel According to John the Baptist

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)
This is how John the Baptist preached the gospel, or at least how Luke summarized his preaching of the gospel. It is all about the Messiah, the Christ, and there are two main points to his message. First, while John baptized the repentant with water, Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

In Ezekiel, the Lord had promised that he would sprinkle his people with clean water, cleanse them from all their impurities, give them a new heart and put his own Spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:25-27). At Pentecost, the promise of the Father was fulfilled and the Church received this baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon each of them as “tongues of fire.”

This fire of the Spirit burns with the love of God, for the God whom the Scriptures call a “consuming fire” is also the God who is love. His love is a refining fire that burns away the dross so that the gold may shine brightly. In this sense it is a judgment, separating what is good from what is evil. So also, the baptism of divine fire refines us, burning away what is worthless so that the light and life of Christ may shine brightly within.

The second point of John’s message flows from the first: There was to be a winnowing, a judgment that would separate the wheat from the chaff. Messiah would gather the wheat into the barn and the chaff he would burn up. As the Holy Spirit is doing in us, so Christ is also doing in the world. The fire of God’s love through Christ burns away what is evil and worthless so that what is good and fruitful may be safely gathered into his own.

The good news of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus Christ comes to judge the world — with the consuming fire of his love. For as Paul said to the Athenian philosophers, God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed [Christ]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

God’s purpose in Christ is to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). So shall Christ make all things new, with the fire of the Holy Spirit and the love of God.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Wedding Glory at Cana

In the season of Epiphany, we remember how the glory of Christ was first revealed to the world. We think of the Star and of the pagan wise men who followed it to honor the new-born King of Israel. We celebrate the baptism of the Lord Jesus, not only for how he identified with us in our need for repentance but also for how the Trinity was revealed — the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and the voice of the Father commending his Beloved Son. Now let’s consider a third important moment, which took place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, at a wedding at Cana.
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
It is significant that the first miracle Jesus worked was at a wedding, not only because he was affirming the goodness of man and woman coming together in marriage but, more than that, because marriage reveals the intimate relationship between God and his people. We see this in the prophet Isaiah, where the Lord says to Israel:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:1-5)
Though Israel was deep in difficulty at the time because of her unfaithfulness, God promised he would not be silent but would rescue and restore her before the eyes of all the nations, and would give her a new name. No longer would she be called Deserted and Desolate but My Delight (Hephzibah) and Married (Beulah). In short, God would marry his people and rejoice over them just as a bridegroom delights in his bride. It is a profound relationship, that the Creator of all would claim a people for his own, to marry them and build a household and a heritage with them. Because God presents this relationship as marriage, every marriage then represents (re-presents) that divine relationship before our eyes.

Jesus attended the wedding at Cana with his mother, and a problem arose: the wine ran out. Wine was important to any feast, a symbol of great rejoicing. A wedding feast could last up to seven days — that’s a lot of wine! — and to run out midway would be a social disaster. Jesus’ mother brought the matter before him, but he answered, “Why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.”

To which hour was he referring — the hour for his glory to be revealed? Perhaps. And yet, his glory truly was revealed before the day was over, and it caused his disciples to have faith in him. But perhaps what he had in mind was the deeper truth to which the wedding pointed, the marriage of God and his people, and he was thinking of a wedding yet to come, in which he and his bride would be the central figures. This is the wedding John the Revelator described in a divine vision:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready ... I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Revelation 19:7, 21:2)
This bride is the Church, for whom Christ has given himself and whom he is preparing for himself. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Jesus followers at Ephesus, where he teaches husbands how to be toward their wives.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
This profound mystery can be experienced, in significant measure, in the loving, self-giving, intertwining nature of marriage and it is cause for great rejoicing and exuberant celebration. For in Christ, God takes us as his bride and receives us into his house where we may feast on the abundance of his glory and drink deeply from the wine of his love.
Your love, LORD, reaches to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
    your justice like the great deep.
    You, LORD, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.
Continue your love to those who know you,
    your righteousness to the upright in heart.
(Psalm 36:5-10)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

When You Pass Through the Waters

But now, this is what the LORD says —
  he who created you, Jacob,
  he who formed you, Israel.
When you pass through the waters,
  I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
  they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
  you will not be burned;
  the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD your God,
  the Holy One of Israel,
  your Savior.
(Isaiah 43:1-3)
God’s promise is that he would be with his people when they passed through the waters and the rivers and the fire. As he was with Noah, when he and his family passed safely through the deadly waters of the flood in a wooden, pitch-covered ark. As he was with Moses when Pharaoh had every infant male Hebrew cast into the Nile and drowned. Placed in a tar-coated papyrus basket by his mother, Moses passed safely through to new life.

God was with the children of Israel when they miraculously passed through the waters of the Red Sea, escaping bondage and death in Egypt, but Pharaoh’s army all drowned. God was with them again when they passed through the waters of the river Jordan, which miraculously parted for them to enter into the Promised Land.

As for fire, God was with the three young Hebrew males who were cast by Nebuchadnezzar into the blazing furnace. A fourth person, who was “like the Son of God,” stood with them in the flames, and they passed through unharmed.

Messiah is hidden in all these passages, and he it was, as the eternal Son of God, who was with his people in all those instances. Now as we come, in the season of Epiphany, to the celebration of the baptism of the Lord Jesus, we are presented again with water and fire. And we find John the Baptist preaching the gospel about the coming of Messiah:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)
The ministry of John was a messianic one, announcing the coming of the kingdom of God and preparing the way for God’s anointed King by means of baptism. There is no surprise, then, that many were wondering if John himself might be that Anointed One. But no, he explained, he only baptized with water, but the One to Come would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit indicated the time of Messiah, when God would cleanse his people with water and give them a new heart and a new spirit — God’s own Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Baptism with fire is the burning away of whatever does not belong, whatever does not come from God. For God is a “consuming fire.” But God is also love, so what his fire consumes must be for the sake of love, burning away everything that does not come from love. This is good news for all who belong to God, who hunger and thirst for what is good and right, who hunger for the love of God to be revealed throughout the world. But first we find that the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire comes to be baptized with water.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
The people who came to John for baptism came in repentance, for the baptism he preached was one of repentance. They were turning away from their sins, from their old life and their old ways — dying to themselves — that they might know the life of the age to come, the age of God’s Messiah King.

They were passing through the waters of death. Yet into these waters stepped Messiah himself, not that he needed to repent himself, but to identify with his people in their repentance and death, and from that death bring life. He passed through the waters with them and in that way blessed them. But in his baptism, he also prefigured his death on the cross — a death for the sake of his people, and indeed, of all the world — and his resurrection from the dead. And now all who are baptized into him, Paul tells us, are baptized into his death, that we may know his resurrection life.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)
But let us go back to Isaiah’s prophecy for a moment. For there God, the Holy One of Israel, and their Savior who passes through the waters with them, promised to gather in all their children from the far reaches of the world.
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
  I will bring your children from the east
  and gather you from the west.
I will say to the north, “Give them up!”
  and to the south, “Do not hold them back.”
Bring my sons from afar
  and my daughters from the ends of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
  whom I created for my glory,
  whom I formed and made.
(Isaiah 43:5-7)
As we discover in the gospel, it is not only Israel that is being gathered back to God through Jesus the Messiah, all the nations of the world are being drawn to him by the shining of his light, to be grafted into the “olive tree,” the Israel of God.

By baptism, Jesus passed through the waters of death with us, that by baptism, we may pass through the waters with him to resurrection.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany: Light to the Nations

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip.

Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:1-6)
“Arise, shine,” Isaiah says to Jerusalem, “for your light has come.” In a world of darkness, light shines brightly. The Law and the Prophets, Jesus said, are about him. So the Church has, from the beginning, understood this light as Jesus himself.

John the Gospeler tells us of this Light, the Word who was in the beginning with God, and is God, and who became flesh and dwelt among us. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it ... The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:4-5, 9).

All the nations and kings of the world will come to this Light and see its brightness, Isaiah says. In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate how the Light of Christ first began to be revealed to the world, and how the world began to come to its brightness. The Magi who followed the light of the Star all the way to Bethlehem were the first from the nations to recognize Lord Jesus as God’s Messiah King (Matthew 2:1-12). They came, as Isaiah foretold, “bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.”

“Lift up your eyes and look about you,” Isaiah says, “All assemble and come to you”— sons and daughters from afar, gathered from among the nations. The mystery hidden here in Isaiah but revealed in the gospel is that these sons and daughters include the nations.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles — Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. (Ephesians 3:1-6)
Paul’s great glory and delight, then, was to shine this light to the nations, for God is gathering many sons and daughters to the new Jerusalem, to reveal the light of Christ not only to them but through them. This has always been God’s purpose, “that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:10-12).

Friday, January 1, 2016

A New Year with Eternity in Our Hearts
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
The Preacher of Wisdom offers us a musing that is appropriate for the turning of the year, about times and seasons and eternity. In the LXX, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the words offered for “time” and “season” are chronos and kairos. Chronos is time kept according to clocks and calendars. Kairos is the purposeful aspect of time, the pregnant moment that signals a significant shift in the world.

Time and purpose move ever forward, though by turns and not in the straight lines for which we often long. There is, “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,” and so on (verses 2-8). But what is the point of it all? “What do workers gain from their toil?” the Preacher asks. “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race” (verse 9). There is a travail and a humbling, but in his answer there is also a revelation and a yearning.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (verses 10-11)
God has made everything beautiful, but according to its “time.” Here, the LXX uses kairos. Everything comes to its own moment of fullness when its virtue and value are revealed, for God is always working his purpose and nothing is wasted in his plan, but is turned to beauty. Even the evil that occurs, he is able to redirect it toward his own good ends, to bestow “beauty instead of ashes” and “joy instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:3).

Everything is pressing us towards eternity, the age of the world to come. There is a fullness yet to be discovered, the depths of which we do not and cannot now understand, but God has set it in our hearts. This fullness toward which we are heading is found in Jesus Christ.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 21:1-6)
God has set this yearning in our hearts. Indeed, he has set Lord Jesus, the True Light who gives light to everyone in the world, in our hearts, and we are restless until we turn to him. For in him is eternal life, the life of the age to come. Yet his life is for us even now, in this present age, to be lived and experienced as we yield to the Holy Spirit. In Christ, “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Let us begin this new year, then, embracing eternity, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, in our hearts.