Showing posts with label Lectionary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lectionary. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Lifter of Our Shame

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Many people came to hear Jesus teach. Among them were the “tax collectors and sinners,” considered alike to be low-lifes and shameful. But they were welcomed by Jesus — and the Pharisees and teachers of the Law did not like it one bit. “Look who this Jesus is keeping company with,” they grumbled. They were out to shame him, too.

Jesus answered them with three stories. First, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:4-7). Then, the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). But it is the third parable that really laid it out for them, the Parable of the Lost Son, a.k.a., the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

A father had two sons. The younger son came and asked for his share of his father’s estate. He cared more for his father’s wealth than he did for his father, and it was as if he wished his father were dead. He behaved very terribly, shaming not only himself but his father as well.

But the father loved both his sons nonetheless and divided the estate between them, giving each their share. And though it broke his heart, he let his younger son go his own way — what else could the father do? So the younger son gathered up all he had been given and went off to a distant country, far away from home. He wanted nothing more to do with his father or his family.

There in the alien land of his self-imposed exile, the young man wasted his wealth, indulging himself in a life that only tore apart his soul even more. Eventually, he had nothing, and to make matters worse, a hard famine came. The son became so desperate that he took what was considered a very vile work form or work, and especially degrading for him as a Jew: feeding swine. Yet he would gladly have eaten the unappetizing, barely digestible pods they ate — he was that hungry — but there was no one who would give him even that.

That would have been a suitable ending to the story for the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. “Disgraceful Young Man Gets What He Deserves,” would have been the caption. But Jesus was not yet finished and there was an unexpected turn-around to the tale (seems like Jesus was always doing that):
When he [the younger son] came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)
The younger son had come to a realization, not only about how low he had sunk or how much better the life was that he had left behind, but about how reprehensibly he had behaved. However, he did not run from his shame nor did he wallow in it, but he owned it and, repenting, returned to his father. He prepared the confession he would offer: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” He had no hope for restored sonship, only that he might be allowed to stay and serve as a slave in his father’s house.

The Pharisees would have, perhaps, been appeased by that. But that was not yet the end of the story. See now what happened when the son neared home.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)
Here was an amazing thing: Even while the son was a long way off, his father saw him. That was because the father never gave up watching for, even longing for, the return of his son. And when he finally saw him off in the distance that day, his heart was full of love and yearning and deep sympathy for what his son was going through.

He ran out to meet his son. This was another amazing thing, because it was quite undignified for a man of his age and position. But he simply did not care. He loved his son too much for that. He finally reached him and with great joy he threw his arms around him and covered him with kisses.
The young man began his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He was scarcely able to get it out, and did not even reach the part about being nothing more than a hired hand, before his father shouted out to his servants:
“Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:22-24)
The father did not heap any shame on his son — he lifted it off him. He did not receive him as a servant, which was the most the young man had hoped for, but fully as a son. Here was unexpected grace and undeserved mercy. In fact, what was deserved or undeserved was not even on the father’s mind, only on the son’s. All the father cared about was that his son had been dead and was alive again, that he had been lost but now was found.

Happy ending? Probably not so much to the Pharisees, for this is exactly the sort of thing they criticized Jesus about: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” But there was still a little bit of the story left to tell, and the part the Pharisees most needed to hear.

Up until now, the parable was about the younger son and the father. But remember the other son, the older brother. When he heard the noise of celebration and found out it was because his younger brother had returned, he was quite angry, not only with his brother but even more with his father. His father went out and pleaded with him to come and rejoice, but the older brother would not receive it:
“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)
The father had lifted all shame off his younger son but the older one wanted to heap it back on. “This son of yours,” he called him, distancing himself not only from his younger brother but also from his father. But the father would have none of it.
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32)
The father would not heap shame back onto his younger son, and he would not tolerate any distance between the older son and the younger. He treated them both fully as sons: “This brother of yours.”

The younger son had returned home realizing his shame and his helplessness, and was joyfully welcomed by his father. The older son acted shamefully, too, by the hardness of his heart, and was just as helpless as the younger, though he did not realize it. Yet he, too, was received with just as much love by the father, though he did not believe it and so took no joy from it.

Jesus welcomes publicans and sinners, for that is the heart of the Father, who has loved us all along and is always watching for our return. He does not heap shame on any who turn and come home to him, for they have already realized their shame and helplessness. But he removes their shame, lifting that terrible burden off their weary souls and receiving them not as slaves but as sons and daughters.

Jesus has lifted our shame and carried it to the cross. By that shameful death, he put shame itself to death, for he is pure and righteous, and shame had no right to him. There is, then, no shame so deep that the love of God is not deeper still, pouring itself out, even on a cross, for our sake.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Forgiver of Our Sins

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the LORD does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.
(Psalm 32:1-2)
David, psalm writer and shepherd king, well understood the joy of sins being lifted. You can hear his great relief in Psalm 32. At first, he had kept silent about his sin, afraid to admit it to the Lord, or even to himself. His silence before God was a deceit in his spirit. But God, who knows all hearts, was not in the dark about it. David was only fooling himself, and it did him no good but only increased his distress.
When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your
    hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
(Psalm 32:3-4)
David was bearing the shame of his sin and it wore him out. But then he finally came to his senses and brought it out before the Lord — and he made a wonderful discovery.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.”
    And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:5)
God did not hold his transgressions against him; God forgave him, as he was willing to do all along. It was David’s own silence that held him back from experiencing it. But when he confessed his sin to the Lord, he laid hold of God’s ready forgiveness.

It was not only the joy of God’s forgiveness that David was withholding from himself but also the confidence of God’s help. A heart that is hiding its guilt from God is not a heart that is ready to trust him. But in confessing his sin to the Lord, David was then able to trust God to also deliver him from the trouble that surrounded him. And he turned his experience into an exhortation to all the faithful, the subtext of which could be put this way: “Don’t be a fool like I was. Trust the Lord with all your heart, for he is faithful.”
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the LORD’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!
(Psalm 32:6-7,10-11)
It is cause for hoots and shouts and songs of how God has rescued us, for lightheartedness over the burden he has lifted from us, for whirling and twirling with joy that God has forgiven us. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we come to know this great joy. His cross is not only the divine demonstration of God’s love and forgiveness but also the means by which he delivers us from the power of sin, the devil and even death itself.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Remover of Our Reproach
Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day. (Joshua 5:9)
Egypt had enslaved the children of Israel for many generations, but God sent his deliverer, Moses, to bring them out. Pharaoh reluctantly agreed to let them go but then changed his mind and chased after them. When his army had them backed up to the Rea Sea with nowhere to go, God parted the waters for the children of Israel to go safely across. Pharaoh’s army tried to follow but were drowned by the returning waters.

Israel’s deliverance, though, was not yet complete. There was still the wilderness to cross before they reached the promised land, and what should have been an eleven-day trek turned into forty years of wandering because they were not willing to cross over into the land of promise. They were fearful of the “giants” they heard were there and were unwilling to trust God to safely lead them in.

They wanted to turn back, for Egypt was still in their hearts and bondage still had a strong hold on their minds. “Better we should die in the wilderness,” they said. And so they did. God gave them up to their desire. Forty years in the desert was not his idea. He would gladly have led them into the land if only they had been willing. But they were not. So they wandered, a natural result of their faithlessness. Even so, God was faithful, providing for their needs all along the way.

But now their self-imposed exile was over. That entire generation had died off and a new one had arisen that knew neither Egypt nor bondage. God brought them on into the promised land, and the reproach of Egypt was finally rolled away.

Sometimes the reproach on us is the accusations, the condemnations, the abuse put on us by others. Sometimes it is our own faithless choices and behaviors. Sometimes it is the shame we feel about our failures, our weaknesses — our helplessness. These easily become bondages from which we must be delivered.

But the good news of the gospel is that, in Jesus Christ, God has removed all our reproach. Christ has broken the power of sin, the power of death, the power of the accuser. His cross is the victory and his resurrection is the proof. The “reproach of Egypt” has been rolled away from us as surely as the stone was rolled away from the empty tomb on resurrection morning.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Way of the Secret, Open Heart
Rend your heart and not your garments. (Joel 2:13)
“Rend your heart,” says Joel, “not your garments.” Rending, or tearing open, the garment was a way to demonstrate grief or repentance. In practice, it would be either a true sign of an inward disposition or, as it often was, merely an outward display, an empty show — and God had had enough of that from his people. In Isaiah, the Lord voiced his complaint: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13). This was a chronic condition with them, and once again, in Joel, it was time for a change in their inward disposition — a true repentance.

By the time of Christ, the Pharisees had perfected their sanctimony. The Lord Jesus spoke out against this in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly in regard to the practice of charity, prayer and fasting:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him …

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)
Alms, prayer and fasting are all very good things, but the Pharisees had become something of a play-actors guild with them. Jesus called them hypocrites, from the Greek word hypokrites, a term for stage-players and other pretenders. His criticism was that they were putting on masks and playing parts that did not match who they really were in their hearts. Everything became a show, to be seen by others. Their alms, prayer and fasting were for the applause of men. This praise was what they were angling for — and that would be all they would receive. Jesus’ sad refrain about them was, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” God was not impressed with them, for though God does indeed care about our actions, he is more concerned with the heart from which those actions spring: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

The Lord Jesus calls us to a different way, a way that is not about us, a way of humility. It is at once both a quiet, secret way, yet the way of an open heart. It is the way of Jesus, who did not come to please himself but to please the Father. Not to be served but to serve and to pour out his life for our sake. Paul exhorts us to this same mindfulness:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
There was a hiddenness in the way Christ came into the world. Though he was God’s Anointed King, and fully divine as well as fully human, he was not born in the sanctity of a temple or the luxury of a palace but in the simplicity of a stable. He did not grow to maturity in a royal court but in the obscurity of a little village and the home of a humble carpenter.

There was also a hiddenness in his ministry, which was often unannounced. Many times, the crowds even had to track him down. Sometimes the disciples, too, had to search for him. He spent much time, in the late evening or early morning hours, off by himself in a quiet place, praying. His death on the cross was not glorious but shameful in the eyes of the world, designed to humiliate him and his followers.

He did not come to exalt himself but to empty himself — yet he did not lose anything of his divinity by doing so. Rather, in taking the nature of a servant, he revealed to us the very nature of God, who is love. In him, then, is exemplified the second refrain from those passages in the Sermon on the Mount: “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Understand, Christ did not humble himself in order to be exalted. His humility and servanthood is itself exaltation. His love and the giving of himself is the glory. For he has never ceased to be human, never ceased to be servant, never ceased pouring himself out for us. In a word, he has never ceased to be love. That is the “secret” way that gives light to the whole world, and Jesus calls us to himself that we might learn him and the way of the secret, open heart.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Return to Me with All Your Heart
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand — a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. (Joel 2:1-2)
We do not know much about the prophet Joel or the occasion of his writing. He speaks of devastations that are past and also of great devastation to come, which he calls “the day of the LORD.” He speaks of locusts as armies and armies as locusts. In chapter 2, he describes a time of terrible judgment, when God allows the violent ways of man to come to fruition. Whatever the judgment is that he foretells, however, it is not the end nor is all finally lost. There is a word of hope from the Lord, an opportunity for repentance, for turning again to God.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing — grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:12-17)
Joel twice says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion.” The first time was to sound the alarm, but now there is a different purpose: to declare a holy fast and call a sacred assembly. Everyone is to come, from the very young to the very old, and even the bride and groom are called back from their honeymoon — it is a deeply serious matter. It is to be the preoccupation of the priests to weep between portico and alter, an area accessible to priests alone, to cry out for the mercy of the Lord, for him to deliver his people from destruction and the reproach of the nations.

Even now — whatever you have done, or are going through, or will face ahead — even now is the time to repent, to return to the Lord. Not in outward show or empty ritual, but with all your heart. Tears and ashes mean nothing without the heart. They do no good but are merely a deception. And God, who knows all hearts, is not the least bit fooled.

God is full of grace and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love. That it is what he is in his very nature. Those who are hard in heart are senseless of it. But if we allow our hearts to be open, even to be broken before him, we will experience the love and grace he has towards us. Indeed, it is divine love and grace that breaks open our hearts to receive him. And if we are willing to bring our brokenness for the sake of his love, we shall be healed by that same love.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Glory of Christ Changes Us
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. But whenever he entered the LORD’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. (Exodus 34:29-35)
The blue jeans I wear are the Walmart special, called “Faded Glory.” I don’t like to wear new jeans that are deep blue, so a brand that comes pre-faded works just fine for me. But the truth is that all blue jeans will eventually fade in the wash, with very little of the original “glory” left in the end.

Moses had a fading glory. It was fresh when he first came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Law. His face was radiant then, so full of light and glory that the people were intimidated by it, afraid to come near. But when Moses finished speaking to them, he covered his face with a veil. There were apparently several cycles of this: Moses spoke with the Lord and his face became radiant, then he spoke to the people with his face unveiled, then he covered it up again. The apostle Paul understood the reason for this: the glory faded away because it was but a shadow that would one day give way to the reality of what it represented, and to a glory that endures.
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12-18)
The “hope” Paul has in mind here is the expectation of the enduring glory of the new covenant mediated through Jesus Christ. The old covenant, mediated through Moses, was glorious but transitory. The Law cannot change us; it can only point out our need for change. It cannot give us life; it can only point out our deadness. It cannot create righteousness in us; it can only condemn us for our unrighteousness. It cannot redeem us — but it can and does point us to Jesus our Redeemer.

When we turn to the Lord Jesus, the veil that covers our heart is removed so that we understand the Scriptures through the lens of who Christ is and what he has done. He is the reality of which the Law could only ever be a shadow, and what was veiled in the Law is now made clear in him. So the glory of the Law was never meant to endure but faded with the coming of Christ, to whom it was always pointing.

The Law of Moses was written on tablets of stone, but what we need is the Spirit of the Lord, who comes to write God’s law on our hearts. Indeed, he gives us a new heart and puts his own Spirit within us (see Ezekiel 36:25-27). Where that happens — as it does when we turn to the Lord Jesus in faith — there is true freedom, for the Spirit of the Lord transforms us.

Christ dwells in us by the Holy Spirit and when we contemplate him, we are contemplating who we truly are in him and who he is in us — and we become what we behold. It is as if we were looking into a mirror and the image that appears there changes our own appearance. In the Transfiguration, the glory of Christ appeared visibly, revealing his divinity in the form of his humanity. Likewise, as we look to Christ, we are changed by the splendor of his radiance, transformed into the image of him who is the perfect image of God, revealing with ever-increasing glory who God always meant for us to be.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

We Shall See Him as He Is

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:28-31)
The Transfiguration of Christ is found in Matthew and Mark as well as here in Luke. In all three, the sequence of events leading up to it is the same: Peter receives the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus foretells his impending death, then speaks to his disciples about the need to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. This is followed by the statement that some standing there would not die before they saw “the kingdom of God” (Luke), “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew), “that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark). About eight days later, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to the mountain to pray. The Transfiguration, then, is a very powerful revelation of the kingdom of God and the glory of Christ the King.

Jesus was deep in prayer when his face and clothes became radiant with light. Moses and Elijah appeared suddenly, also full of glory and splendor. Moses was the great Law-giver and Elijah the great prophet of the Old Testament. They were conversing with Jesus about his “departure,” which would soon be accomplished at Jerusalem. They had both had unusual departures themselves: Moses was buried by God and nobody ever found the grave, and Elijah did not see death but was translated to heaven in a “chariot of fire” in the middle of a whirlwind.

The word Luke chose for “departure” is significant. It is the Greek word exodus, a very evocative term, being the Greek title for the second book of the Old Testament. The book of Exodus was about how God led the children of Israel out of Egypt through Moses.

The exodus Jesus was about to fulfill was his death on the cross but also his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to his throne at the right hand of the Father. It was not a departure through death but a departure from death, for his death became the death of death itself. By his death, we also are set free from death, and from the one who holds the power of death. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The exodus Jesus accomplished became our own “deliverance from Egypt,” for in him we are crucified, made alive again and seated in the heavenlies at the right hand of the Father (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-6).
Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.) While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.

A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. (Luke 9:32-36)
Peter, James and John had been asleep — it was often Jesus’ way to go off and pray in the night or early morning hours — but now they were fully awake, though understanding very little of what they were witnessing. They had missed much of it and by now Moses and Elijah were leaving. Peter, being the earnest and impulsive man that he was, wanted to build three dwelling places: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He did not understand what he was saying — so he went ahead and said it.

At that moment, a cloud came over them and Peter left off what he was saying, terrified as it enveloped him and the other two. The voice of the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” It was not Moses or Elijah but Jesus alone who is the Son and whom the Father anointed as Messiah. Moses and Elijah — the Law and the Prophets — were always about him, and in him they find their fulfillment. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Christ is God’s final and complete word. He is the one we are to listen to, and in him we will understand the meaning of Moses and Elijah.

But now let’s consider the transfiguration itself, for Christ is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). The transfiguration was not a transformation of who Jesus was but a revelation of who Jesus is, a manifestation of his divinity in the form of his humanity. It was his divine glory being revealed for what it is.

In the beginning, man was created in the image of God, to be like God and to bear his glory. However, Paul reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We have each turned away from God and broken the connection — fellowship with God, each other, the rest of creation, and even our own selves. But God became one of us, joining himself to us in order to reconcile us back to himself, that humankind might bear the divine glory for which we were originally created. That we might, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “participate in the divine nature.”

In the transfiguration of Christ, we see what God has always intended for humanity — to conform us to the image of Christ, transforming us as we allow him to renew our minds. He is at work in us not only empowering us with the ability to do what pleases him but also creating in us the desire to do so.

As Christ was revealed in his transfiguration that day on the mountain, that is how we, too, shall one day see him — and we shall be like him, for the revelation of Christ transforms us. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Even now, “the darkness is fading and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Christ is the Meaning of the Law

Earlier in Psalm 19, we saw Christ as the meaning of the stars and also wonderfully portrayed by the sun. As we continue in this psalm, we discover that Christ is the meaning of the Law of Moses, which is to say, we understand the Law through him. All the Law and Prophets, he said, are about him. In the Sermon on the Mount he made it very clear that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. He is the perfect revelation of God’s purpose in them. If we want to know what they are about, or ever were, we have only to look to the Lord Jesus.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
    giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
    giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
    enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
    and all of them are righteous.
(Psalm 19:7-9)
Christ is God’s ultimate word to the world, the perfect expression of God’s being. He is the Good Shepherd who “refreshes” or “converts” (KJV) our souls, turning us back to the path of what is right and true and loving. His teaching is a sure and trustworthy foundation upon which the wise may build their house. His ways are straight and true and lead us to joy. He is the very radiance of God’s glory, giving us light by which we may see God. He is the personification of pure love and awe toward God, doing only what pleases the Father. His law is summed up in this commandment: Love one another.
They are more precious than gold,
    than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
    than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:10-11)
There is nothing in this world that can satisfy our desires like Christ — indeed, none can satisfy us except Christ, who made us and gave himself for our sake. And there is nothing sweeter in life than to know him. He shows us the paths and the pitfalls so that we may come to know the blessing and peace of God in this life and in the ages to come.
But who can discern their own errors?
    Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
    may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
    innocent of great transgression.
(Psalm 19:12-13)
Through the cross of Christ, divine forgiveness has been revealed and the power of sin broken. God’s purpose is to conform us to the image and likeness of Christ, transforming us by the power of the Holy Spirit and the renewing of our minds by Christ. In this way he delivers us from the faults and inclinations of which are we are unware as well as the sins we know all too well.

As the writer brings this psalm to an end, so I close echoing the same prayer: May these words and this meditation be pleasing in your sight, Lord Jesus, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Christ is Revealed in the Temple
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
In the book of Malachi, the Lord speaks of two messengers who would come. The first is “my messenger.” This is John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the second messenger. The second is “the messenger of the covenant,” who is Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. He would come suddenly into his temple and those who were seeking him would see him. He would be a refiner’s fire to purify his people like silver or gold, turning them once again to the Lord.

In the Gospel, we learn that Christ was revealed in the temple in an unexpected way. This important event is known as the Presentation of the Lord and is celebrated every February 2nd, forty days after Christmas. The story is recorded in Luke 2.
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)
Joseph and Mary came to perform what was required by the Law of Moses. They would consecrate Jesus to the Lord, just as all parents of firstborn sons would do. For that occasion, they would sacrifice a pair of doves, one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. It was all perfectly according to custom — except that what happened next was quite out of the ordinary.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. (Luke 2:22-27)
Simeon had long waited for the Christ to be revealed and the consolation of Israel to begin. In fact, the Lord had promised him that he would witness it before he departed this life. Now that time had suddenly come upon him and, being led by the Holy Spirit, he immediately recognized Jesus for who he was.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. (Luke 2:27-33)
Joseph and Mary had not expected to hear such wonderful words of revelation that day concerning their son, and coming from the lips of a stranger. Nor were they prepared for what Simeon said next.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Jesus would be the dividing line in Israel between those who would fall and those who would rise. There would be those who rejected him and those who repented and received him. There would be a sign of contradiction, the cross. There would be those who would crucify him and those who would take up their crosses and follow him. How they responded to him, whether in faith or unbelief, would reveal their hearts. Jesus would be, in the words of Malachi, a “refiner’s fire,” cleansing his people and reconciling them to the Father.

But there were also words for Mary, concerning her own soul, that she would be pierced as she witnessed the rejection and suffering her son. It would be a very deep sorrow. They were somber words but necessary for the great rejoicing that would follow as God’s salvation was made known to the nations. The author of Hebrews understood both the necessity of all this suffering as well as the resulting joy, and so the following passage is also read on this day:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

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.

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).