Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nebuchadnezzar's Nightmare is Our Dream Come True

Daniel came into great favor with Nebuchadnezzar, King of the Babylonian empire, by interpreting a dream. With the growing anti-Christian environment we are currently experiencing, there is much we can learn from Daniel, God's man operating in a hostile and dangerous world. There is a vital lesson hidden away within this dream that is meaningful for us today.

In King Neb's dream, recorded in Daniel 2:31-45, he sees an enormous statue, like a giant idol. The statue has a golden head, silver chest and arms with a bronze stomach and thighs. Below the knees the legs are constructed of iron with feet made of both iron and clay, like pottery. It is important to know what they represent.

1. The Golden Head
The head represents the Babylonian empire and Nebuchadnezzar himself. He was meant to realize that all Kings are expected to rule according to God's laws and ways. But like all other earthly rulers, he would become arrogant and corrupt. 

2. The Silver Chest and Arms
These represent the Medo-Persian empire which would follow Babylon. The arrogance of the Babylonian kings to persist in their pagan ways and refuse to honor only the one true God would ultimately lead to their downfall. (It would be Cyrus, King of this New empire, who would allow the Jews to return home from their exile in Babylon)

3. The Bronze Stomach and Thighs
The Greek Empire which followed after the Medo-Persian empire is represented by the bronze portion of the statue. 

4. The Iron Legs with Feet of Iron and Clay
This is the Roman Empire which overtook the Greek Empire. The Iron represents the power, strength and might of Rome. The clay represents God's people who lived inside of the empire, but were distinct and separate from it.

What Does This Mean For Us?
Because of the clay, this giant idol will not be able to stand for ever. The clay is the greatest weakness of the idol. One day it WILL fall. While the clay represented the Jews, dispersed throughout the Roman empire, this is a prophetic picture of what God's people look like now, spread throughout the world. We don't mix in. We are in the world and we are from the world, but John 17:14 teaches that we are no longer of this world. We are different. Today, more than at any time in my life, Christians are separated from all that the world values, or at least we should be. All of the kingdoms of this world are idols. The giant idol in this dream is a representation of the dominion of darkness. Every earthly kingdom ultimately becomes corrupted, but there is an inherent weakness in that dominion, insuring that it cannot stand forever.

In the dream, there is a rock which falls without anyone pushing it, crushing the giant idol into pieces. The stone grew into a great mountain filling the whole earth. That rock is Jesus. The mountain is the Holy Mountain of God, representing HIS Kingdom. Isaiah 9:7 tells us that His kingdom will never stop growing and will never end. The rock that grows into a mountain is a picture of the Kingdom of God which is built on our rock, our chief cornerstone, Jesus.

Right now, we are like clay. In order to extract us from the world, we will have to be broken away from it's iron grip. He is the potter and we are the clay, we must be willing to be broken so that we can be remade into a great and beautiful Kingdom which will never fall.

Fortified cities were often built on mountains for protection and positions of strength that are easy to defend. Psalm 18:2 says this about our God:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

The mountain of God is a stronghold, a place of safety, shelter and strength. We can always come to God for those things.

Ultimately, all evil will be destroyed and God's Kingdom will cover the earth. Daniel completes his interpretation for King Neb by telling him that this dream is a prophecy and that it is certain, guaranteed. These events will come to pass. And that is good news. Friends, Jesus is our rock. He is building us into his Holy city on a mountain, Jerusalem. Like Daniel, we may face trials and difficult times, but when Jesus comes back, those difficult times will end and His Mountain, His Kingdom, will fill the whole earth, just as Isaiah 11:9 promises us:

They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jesus Confronts Religious Leaders Who Take Advantage

The story of the widow's 2 mites is one of the saddest stories in Scripture. But the problem started centuries before. For all the great things he did, Nehemiah made one big mistake that grew and worsened over time. He forgot the widows. While he served as governor over Judah, he re-established the tithe to provide food for the priests during their times of service and for the upkeep of the temple. Tithing was good, but it was never for the upkeep of the temple, which was meant to be provided through freewill offerings. True, the tithe was to provide food for priests during their annual weeks of service in Jerusalem, but it was mainly to provide food for widows, fatherless children and foreigners living among them. In an effort to correct what he had perceived as a sin, Ezra caused many men to commit an even worse sin by divorcing their foreign wives and orphaning their children. Both men turned their backs on groups of foreigners who had chosen to live among them and worship the one true God. They made no mention of providing for widows, orphans or sojourners and even ruined the lives of some of these people. They missed the whole point of tithing.

Over the centuries, the priesthood became corrupted, especially those living in Jerusalem. Many religious leaders of Jesus' day lived lavish lifestyles, clothed with expensive garments, eating scrumptious feasts and being treated like high society celebrities. Herod had monetized religion and created a system of earning great profit from the temple. In addition to collecting tithes and inflating the price of sacrifices, people were required to pay temple taxes. Most of us are familiar with Jesus driving all those conducting commerce out of the temple and turning the tables on the whole system. On another occasion he openly called out the religious leaders for their corruption, showing who they were hurting:

While all the people were listening, he said to his disciples, Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, who love respectful greetings in the market places, the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widow's houses and say long prayers just for show.  These will receive harsher judgement. He looked up and saw the rich dropping their offerings into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow dropping in two tiny coins (mites). Truly I tell you, he said: This poor widow has put in more than all of them. For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on. As some were talking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said: These things that you see--the day will come when not one stone will be left on another that will not be thrown down. (Luke 20:45-21:6)

The Title was created FOR widows, not FROM widows. It was established for the purpose of providing food for widows, but this woman's money was being used to make the temple more extravagant and to fund lifestyles of the rich and famous religious leaders. Her actions were honorable and full of faith. But these men were taking money from the very people they were supposed to be using their resources to minister to and provide for. James 1:27 tells us:

Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The words look after, or visit in some translations, means to look out for. It means to seek out people in need of help, to keep a watchful eye to notice people in need. We shouldn't just sit back and wait for them to come to us asking for help. We should go to them. We should always be on the lookout for anyone who is struggling so that we can offer assistance. This verse calls for an eagerness to help and serve. 

Jesus' disciples learned from the lesson He taught in the temple that day. In Acts 6, we learn that the very first ministers ever appointed included Stephen and six others, faithful men whose purpose and function was to make sure that the widows were served fairly and faithfully in the daily distributions of food. Diakonos, the word we get our word deacon or minister from, actually describes the service of waiting tables. In our day of super-wealthy celebrity Christian figures, we need to be cautious and Biblical in who we choose to follow. 1 Corinthians 9:14 tells us that The Lord has prescribed that those who preach the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel. It is proper to support our Pastors and take very good care of them. But Jesus said that those who take advantage will be harshly judged. Real leaders serve others, not themselves.

So, How Can We Help?
I am grateful for faithful churches that serve their communities through food banks, counseling, pregnancy programs, clothing closets and support. We can all help through our giving and support of these programs. But free babysitting and fixing problems around the house for a widow or single mother can be just as important. I know many wonderful Christian people who have adopted--that is true and undefiled religion right there. Jesus led into this teaching by talking about loving our neighbor as ourselves. One way we show our love of God is by showing how we love others with our time, talents, money and through meaningful, supportive, caring relationships. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Good Report For The New Year

I would like to start the New Year with a praise report. Last summer I wrote a series of articles about worship in which I shared my concerns about some popular trends in church music production. I expressed my distress over the widespread use of various types of enhancement tracks and audio stems to make our singers and instrumentalists sound better or to compensate for a lack of preparation or time. Little did I know that we were only weeks away from getting a new worship pastor who would take us in a direction that is totally counter cultural. I realize now that God was preparing my heart, and hopefully using my writing to begin preparing the hearts of others. In no way do I mean to disparage any of the wonderful and godly church musicians and leaders I have had the privilege to work with, nor do I wish to take anything away from the wonderful Christmas services I have been a part of through the years. I, myself, spent years not understanding what a special privilege it is to select, prepare and present a Christmas concert or program. But mature Christians can learn and grow together from our shared experiences and in that Spirit, Philippians 4:8 tells us that if there is anything true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, worthy of praise or of GOOD REPORT then we should dwell on these things. We should think on them and live our lives with the encouragement that comes from them. So Here is my good report. 

This Christmas at NRH Baptist Church, for our program "Let Their Be Light," we used ZERO enhancements. There were no audio stems, no recorded tracks of professional instrumentalists or vocalists, no canned choir or orchestra, nothing pre-recorded, no sound effects. EVERYTHING heard in that program was performed live. And I believe that God truly blessed us. Here are some ways that we were blessed:

1. Musical Growth
It has been my experience that when enhancements are being used, rehearsals lose their sense of purpose and urgency. Trouble spots are let go and the ensemble does not receive the full benefits of preparing. The first time our instrumental ensemble rehearsed our Christmas music together with the choir, I was astonished at the level of musical growth and the quality of sound production in the choir. They have always been good, but they had improved so much in just a few short months that I was, quite frankly, amazed. Likewise, the instrumental ensemble rehearsed with more of a sense of urgency and attention to detail. We are all better musicians for the experience.

2. Saved Rehearsal Time
We eliminated so much frustration and wasted rehearsal time trying to coordinate our performance with tracks and figuring them out that we were able to use that time to work out musical trouble spots, and important musical moments. 

3. Musical Nuance
There is not, nor will there ever be found on this earth, a replacement for a good conductor. When you aren't trying to play along with a track, there is time to develop musical subtlety and nuance. At important tempo changes, song endings and meaningful moments, our drummer cut out the metronome clicking in our ears so that our skillful conductor could work his magic, and it was wonderful. With the time we saved in rehearsal we were able to focus our attention on dynamics and musicality. Without tracks to worry about, our director was free to create meaningful musical moments and to take charge of the performance to ensure that it went smoothly. Each time we presented the program, it became more beautiful and nuanced. We were able to express more emotion to better portray the meaning of the text. 

4. Comradery
Working together with a sense of purpose and mission is the best team building exercise I know. It is important for a group like a band or choir to feel a sense of accomplishment. Enhancements always make me feel guilty and ashamed and throw a wet blanket on the experience, but working together with other believers to present an authentic offering of worship is a great feeling. There was a noticeable improvement in the dynamics and friendliness of the worship department from the bonding that occurred throughout our months of preparation. Work is a good and God-ordained institution. Ephesians 4:2-3 teach us to be humble, patient, and gentle as we bear with one another in love and to carry on being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Working together with integrity is one way to do this. 

5. Musical Excellence
Everything is bigger in Texas. It was quite an extraordinary risk to take, with a Texas congregation and their Texas sized expectations, to go cold turkey, throw away the crutches and cut all enhancements. The result was that we sounded tremendously better.

Technical Note: It is difficult to tune instruments to a track because they are altered and often full of effects which are sometimes pitched, but non-musical. Tracks are also mean tuned and good instrumentalists and vocalists use just intonation. (For example, we slightly raise the 7th scale degree in melodic lines because it is the leading tone). Intonation is always much tighter when we rely on either the natural abilities of the human ear, good training or both. There is give and take with the rhythm section of course. But what it boils down to is that our human ears are more sensitive and capable of making subtle adjustments that a computer cannot and a programmed track will not. Chords can be more carefully balanced and adjustments can be made to fit the natural acoustics of the hall or venue. 

The choir was so much easier to hear without all of the tracks muddying up the soundscape. A sound system can only handle so much and like soundwaves cancel each other out--so recordings can actually cover up the sound of a live choir. Every part of the performance was cleaner, better balanced and inherently more beautiful. It was better prepared, better performed and more enjoyable without the tracks.

6. JOY
It was so much more fun, less stressful and genuinely a pleasure to present this worship offering

7. Blessing
There was no Santa, no Frosty, no Rudolph, no Olaf or any other fictional characters in our church Christmas production. This was another big risk with an audience in an area that is accustomed to big celebrations that include both secular and sacred (worldly and religious) entertainment and traditions. But it was well-received. The standing ovation began before the last piece was even concluded and I truly felt in that moment that it was more of an affirmation of the content in the message than of anything else. It felt more like a hearty Amen than an applause. The most special moment was when the children and youth choirs sang 2 songs that were the center point of the evening, Beautiful Savior and We Have a Savior. In a culture that trends to assign children to sing secular songs from Christmas cartoons, there is nothing more precious than children singing all about Jesus. It was wonderful for choirs of all ages to join their voices and sing part of the program together. It was a heart warming and special evening.

8. The Good News
Because we didn't use tracks and relied on our conductor, we were able to perform the program outdoors at NRH city hall for a few hundred people gathered to hear the Gospel message. The performance went off without a hitch, even without a metronome click or any helps. I have never felt more confident or excited about presenting the good news of Jesus. I would have felt silly singing about Santa, but there was nothing awkward about playing for Jesus. It was such an honor and I was overjoyed and glad to be there. The message was clear and beautiful on a rare cold Texas evening and no one left early. The gathered crowd stayed until the end and received the message with enthusiasm. It was one of my all time favorite Christmas performances. Though, at this point, I should call it what it really was: A Worship Event. 

Here are the links to some of the other articles in this series that I mentioned above. The 1st is an article on the ethics of using tracks and enhancements. Tracks are ok to practice with and fine to use as necessary accompaniment. Tracks should not be used to deceive, only to assist. What is ok and what is not? The 2nd is on the use of secular Christmas music and characters in church. What is appropriate and what is not?:

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Characters of Christmas

May the day never come when we get tired of hearing the story of the birth of Jesus, because it is the story of our salvation. It is the most fascinating, intricately woven tale ever told and I feel like it is taken too much for granted. Think about it, 6 angel visits, warnings in dreams, a moving star, prophetic utterances, spontaneously composed songs, an angelic choir filling the night sky, the fulfillment of at least 9 specific Old Testament prophecies including a virgin birth. This is the greatest story ever told. We should tell it well...and reverently. Luke writes his historical account to "a friend of God." There is so much wonderful depth of knowledge that a first century reader would have, so many wonderful images this text would have brought to life for them. Today, I offer my humble attempt to help you envision these events the same way its original audience did. Here is the story, found in Luke Chapters 1-2 and Matthew Chapter 1-2. I will narrate the story in sequence, using both accounts. I recommend reading the verses before each section of my commentary and explanation. 

Zechariah & Elizabeth...and Gabriel (read: Luke 1:1-25, 57-80)
Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving God by burning incense in the temple, in the Holy Place. On the left there was a lampstand with 7 lamps, representing the Holy Spirit of God. To the right, there was a table with the Bread of the Presence. On it were set out bread and wine, representing communion and fellowship with God. At the head of the room was the altar of incense. The fragrant smoke rising from the altar represents the prayers of the people rising up before God. God hears our prayers, and they are like a pleasing and good smelling aroma to Him. Behind this altar was the veil, a curtain that divided the room, beyond the veil, in the 1st temple, there had once been the Ark of the Covenant, representing the very presence of God, but in this rebuilt temple, it was no longer there. Once a year, the high priest would have gone behind the curtain into the most Holy Place to meet with God, but the high priests at that time were Sadducees who did not believe in angels, miracles or an after life. They were purely political and used the priesthood for personal gain. God did not send a messenger to one of them. He sent it to a humble and faithful priest. As Zechariah was burning the incense, the multitude of the people were gathered outside, praying. At this moment, after 400 years of silence, God answered. He sent His messenger, the angel Gabriel, to tell Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a child and that child would fulfill the prophecy that Elijah would return to prepare the people's hearts for the coming of Messiah Jesus. His son John would have the spirit and power of Elijah, the Holy Spirit. In the same way that John was to go ahead of Jesus to prepare the people's hearts, those of us who are Christians know that Jesus is coming again and we have that same Spirit within us so that we can tell people about Jesus and encourage them to prepare their hearts for His return. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God. This does not mean that they were perfect and sinless, but it does mean that they honored God, had faith in Him and carefully followed the law to atone for their sins. It is interesting to me that Zechariah immediately sinned by doubting the words of the angel, but God showed grace and continued with His plans, though Zechariah would remain silent throughout the pregnancy, opening his mouth only when he truly believed and prophesying over his newborn son. Elizabeth showed great faith and rejoiced that God had given her this child, she felt grateful that He had chosen her. She kept herself hidden for 5 months. In the 6th month, Gabriel was sent to be God's messenger again.

Mary (read Luke 1:26-38)
Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph. A betrothal is not the same as an engagement in our society. A prospective groom would go to visit a father and his daughter. He would lay out the terms of a marriage covenant (like a contract or marriage license), explaining how he would provide for her and making promises. The hopeful young man would pour 3 cups of wine and drink from one of them. If the proposal was acceptable to the girl's father, he would drink the cup. If the young virgin girl chose to accept his proposal and become his wife, she would drink from the cup. He would then leave her with presents to remember him fondly by and then leave with one last promise that would go something like this: "I am going now to prepare a place for us to live. Once it is ready, I promise to come back for you and to bring you to our new home so we can be together." Sound familiar? This is the same type of covenant Jesus has made with His bride, the church. From that day forward, the young couple would be considered legally married, though the marriage was yet to be consummated. There would not be a formal ceremony in a synagogue with a Rabbi pronouncing them husband and wife while the groom breaks a glass and everyone shouts "La Chayim." Once their dwelling place was finished, the groom would simply come for the bride one evening and whisk her away to the marriage bed for 7 days.

Each night, Mary would have gone to bed, wearing clean white linen, anointed with oil, hair brushed and with her lamp filled with oil and ready to light the way, hoping this would be the night when the love of her life, Joseph arrived to take her home. THEN, a marriage feast would have been planned for them and all of their relatives would come and celebrate for a further 7 days. But those plans were interrupted. The angel Gabriel showed up and told her she was highly favored with God and would be the mother of our Lord. Mary's response was truly remarkable. She said "I am the Lord's servant, May it be done to me according to your word"  The word servant, (bondservant or maidservant in some translations) means that she was a WILLING servant of God. Mary gave her whole-hearted consent to be part of God's plan. 

Joseph (Matthew 1:18-19)
Joseph was a special man. When he found out that Mary was pregnant, he might have initially doubted the truth, but he still acted with compassion and mercy. Legally, he could have publicly divorced Mary and possibly even had her stoned. But he chose to put her away quietly. Some translations say send her away  or divorce her. He made a plan which would have prevented him from being married himself and gave up all of his own legal rights. It seems like he may have sent her to her country cousins to have the baby. The Bible says that she went there in haste. The important thing is that he protected Mary and the life she had conceived in her womb and began to think over these things. He didn't yet know that Mary had done no wrong, even still, he chose to show grace.

Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
Mary hurried to her cousin Elizabeth's home in the hill country of Judah. Elizabeth and Mary exchanged encouraging greetings full of hope and faith. John, who would later be called, "the Baptist," jumped in Elizabeth's womb when he heard Mary's voice. Notice the affirmation that life begins at conception? These women believed every word the angel had spoken and they sang and prophesied over each other. This is how believers are supposed to greet one another and rejoice together. Mary's song of praise provides a sermon in itself, which I will save for a later date. But I do want to draw attention to the fact that she realizes this is the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. She declared that God is her Savior and speaks as if Jesus had already conquered his enemies, proclaiming the victory of the cross before Jesus was even born. After about 3 months, just before John was born, Mary returned home. Seems a little strange that she would stay so long and then leave before seeing the baby....

Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:18-25)
An angel appeared to Joseph, telling him it was ok to take Mary as his wife and affirming the good news that she was indeed with child by the Holy Spirit. He explains the prophecy from Isaiah that A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel. Emmanuel means "God with Us." Jesus would be fully God and fully man. God was reaching out to us, desiring a relationship with us. Joseph immediately took Mary to be his wife. We do not know for sure if she fled to the hill country and then he learned of her pregnancy, or if he sent her there and then retrieved her after the visit from the angel. What we do know is that he brought her into his home to live as husband and wife, but did not lie with her until after Jesus was born. He believed the angel and honored the prophecy. Since Mary was only a few months pregnant at the time and not showing in loose fitting, modest ancient clothing and because of Joseph's discretion, there was no scandal. She was his wife and it was his legal right to bring her into the marriage bed as was assumed. They departed from their home in Nazareth before Mary gave birth and years later, when they returned, everyone assumed that Jesus was Joseph's son--John 6:2, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3)

Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7)
Bethlehem, which means house of bread, was the ancestral home of Joseph's family--clear back to Boaz and Ruth. In those days, I think it would have been a great insult for a Jew to charge another Jew money for a place to stay. When they arrived, some translations say there was no room for them in the inn, others read: there was no guest room available for them. If there was a local inn, it would certainly have been full, but this was much worse, every home in the town was filled with visitors, or they would have been welcomed into the home of one of their relatives. They might have found shelter in a barn or stable out back, but in that day, the people lived in 2 story stone structures. They often slept upstairs, used the rooftops like a front porch and cooked and worked on the bottom floor. The few animals the family owned were sometimes stabled for the night on the first floor. What we do know is that they slept in the place where the animals slept, or stable. When Joseph and Mary arrived, as husband and wife, they were probably welcomed as family and received as warmly as possible with what meager accommodations were available. Animals would have been valuable to a family and kept in a clean, safe place. Mary wrapped Jesus in soft cloths and laid him in a feed trough because there was no other bed available. If you have ever spent time in a barn, it can be pretty peaceful. Animals down for the night are quiet. It wouldn't have been appropriate to deliver the baby in a room where many people were crowded and trying to sleep, but a clean, safe stable, while very humble, would have afforded more privacy than the other options. I am sure that midwives were called. Mary and Joseph were not outcasts, but closely related family from the tribe of Judah. 

The Shepherds and the Angel Choir (Luke 2:8-20)
Shepherds are used throughout Scripture as an example of how God's men are to shepherd, or pastor His people. Think of the 23rd Psalm. The Shepherds in the fields between Bethlehem and Jerusalem had an incredibly important job. They watched over the lambs that would be used for the Passover and the sacrifices in the temple. Since the lambs had to be spotless, or without blemish, they had to guard and protect them carefully. They led them to safe pastures, protected them from predators like wolves, lions and bears. Shepherds of smaller flocks would often sleep at the entrance to a sheepfold, as the door, so that no predators could get in. The Shepherds of these enormous flocks basically lived out in the fields with the sheep, or at least slept out there while they were on duty. 

The most notable aspect of the angel's visit to the shepherds is that they proclaimed a message of peace on earth, good will toward men. They didn't bring warnings, fear, or threats of punishment under the law. They  proclaimed good news of great joy that will be for all people. They declared grace. God had come in peace. They declared that the Messiah had come, Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. They filled the sky with God's praises and brought a joyful message to the Shepherds. The Shepherds had been entrusted with the Passover and sacrificial lambs, now they would be entrusted with the Good News about Jesus, the Lamb of God...And they told everyone they encountered. 

Jesus (Luke 2:21)
8 days after he was born, Jesus was circumcised. and given his name, Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew and Aramaic. This was probably performed by a priest in Bethlehem. The name means Yahweh Saves. Yahweh is the personal name of God. We have a personal God who is invested in our lives and cares about us. He is a God who saves and rescues us from sin. 

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38)
30 days after Jesus was born, Mary's days of purification were completed. This means that she would no longer be considered "unclean" because her body had time to heal after giving birth. They took Jesus to the temple to present and dedicate him to the Lord in accordance with the law and gave an offering.

That very day, the Holy Spirit had led a man name Simeon to come to the temple. God had promised him that he would live to see the promised Messiah, the Savior of his people. He praised God in a song declaring that Jesus would be a light, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. It is remarkable that God had made him the promise and he was guided by the Holy Spirit, when the perception is that God had been silent for 400 years.

They also encountered a prophetess, Anna who was so excited that she spoke to everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. This means that she told the good news to the faithful Jews of the city. Some might have understood that they were being saved from their sins as we have read, but many would mistakenly think this meant they were being freed from Roman rule. 

The Wise Men...and Herod
Anna shared the good news with the faithful Jews who were waiting, eagerly anticipating the arrival of their Messiah. The wise men brought the news to those who were less eager. Since all of Jerusalem was thrown into an uproar at the news, I believe it only makes since that it was the very same night of the temple visit, that the wise men showed up bringing the news to Herod. While this is "Good News" to most people, to Herod and the Sadducees, this is the worst news ever. Herod was the darling of Rome. He had built Caesarea as a tribute to Caesar and port city so that Roman nobles arriving by boat would see Roman columns and enjoy a hippodrome, theater and luxury accomodations. Inland, he had built a lavish palace in Jericho, a vacation getaway/stronghold at Herodium and in Jerusalem, he dramatically increased the size of the temple mount and monotized religion. They were living high on the hog with the most extravagant clothing, rich food and lives of privilege as Roman pawns. News of the King of the Jews  being brought by a caravan of foreign emissaries, to the current occupant of the throne, was not good news to them at all.

The Magi are rightly called Wise Men, because they sought out Jesus. They were highly educated, being well versed in the subjects of their day which would have included mathematics/numerology, astronomy, political science and more. Being skilled in astronomy, the men had noticed a new star in the sky and followed it, pulling right into Jerusalem and going directly to the palace to pay homage to the new King. They probably assumed that the child was Herod's own offspring. These men had come to curry favor and secure future good relations. The Bible says that they came from the East which means that they were not Egyptian wise men from the south, nor were they Assyrian wise men from the north. They were from the East, Babylon or Persia, modern day Iraq and Iran.

This was not the first appearance of the magi, or wise men, in the Bible. Daniel encountered them, received the same education as them, and became their chief. Because of the Holy Spirit, Daniel and his 3 friends (Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, known to the Babylonians as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) were found to be 10 times wiser than these scholars. Their successors would almost certainly have been familiar with the Biblical prophecies about the Messiah, with the royal decree that the God of the Jews was to be revered throughout the empire and that the period of time prophesied until the Messiah would come had been completed. These men were well capable of plotting the movements of the stars and their attention would certainly have been drawn by a new star appearing over Israel. There was a famous school with 3 levels of learning in ancient Babylon. The term Magi gives strong indication that these men had studied there or in a similar situation. Persia and Babylon, modern day Iraq and Iran, are East of Israel as I mentioned before. This is where many Jews had been exiled to and this is the reference to wise men coming from the East. The city of Hillah, built over the site of ancient Babylon is 542 miles due East of Jerusalem. It would take a fit person about 3 weeks to walk. We also encounter such wise men in the historical book of Esther which took place in Susa, about 228 miles further East. If the magi began making preparations for their prophesied journey by camel caravan after the night of Jesus birth, we would expect them to arrive in Bethlehem about 30 days later. After seeing the star, they traveled toward the area it had appeared, arriving in Jerusalem, just 7 miles away from the place of Jesus' birth. They were elated when they left Herod to see the star in the sky, but it was in motion. The only explanation I can think of for the star moving and leading them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is that Jesus was probably in Jerusalem at the temple that very day. I believe the reason the star was moving is that when Mary and Joseph took Jesus back to Bethlehem, the star followed overhead. The wise men were able to follow the star as Scripture says it led them directly to Jesus, settling over the house where He was. 

They worshipped Him and presented Him with gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They honored Him as a mighty King. The angels visit to the shepherds taught us about the grace of God. The visit from the wise men reminds us that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and while he CHOSE to come humbly, as a savior, offering peace, He is, at the same time, the most lethal child ever born and will one day return bringing justice upon his enemies.  

The magi were warned in a dream about Herod's scheme and altered their route home to avoid him. Even though they told him precisely when the star appeared, Herod flew into a mad rage and ordered every child from birth all the way to 2 years old in and around Bethlehem to be murdered. History tells us that 11 precious children died by the order of this power hungry lunatic. After the visit of the wise men, the star is not mentioned again and since Herod was not able to use it to find Jesus, we can conclude that the phenomena probably disappeared. 

Joseph's Family (Luke 2:39-40, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)
Joseph was warned in a dream by an angel and fled in the middle of the night, narrowly escaping Herod's wrath and taking his family safely to Egypt, where I'm sure the gold from the wise men came in handy. Once Herod was dead, an angel from the Lord told Joseph it was safe to come back, so He, Jesus and Mary returned home to Nazareth. With their return to their own town of Nazareth, every prophecy about the birth of Jesus had been miraculously fulfilled, including the one that He would be called a Nazarene. Luke ends his account of the events surrounding Jesus birth with these words:

The boy grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom and God's grace was on Him. 

From Zechariah's angelic encounter we learn that God answers prayer. From Mary's conversation with Gabriel we learn how to be a willing servant and cooperate with God. From Joseph's actions we learn how to consider others as more important than ourselves, how to show compassion and grace. From Mary and Elizabeth we learn how to encourage one another in our faith. From the angels visit to the shepherds we learn that God is coming peacefully to offer salvation to all. From the visit of the wise men we learn that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and is worthy of our reverence and worship. Most importantly, we learn that Jesus is both God and man, human and divine, a personal God who desires a relationship with us. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017


Imagine you were lured away from the safety of your parent's home by the promises of a good-looking, smooth talking charmer, only to end up being kidnapped. What if your parents never wanted you  in the first place and abandoned you as an infant, but instead of being rescued by a benevolent family, you were picked up by dishonorable men who raised you with no education, giving you just enough food and shelter to survive until you were old enough to sell for a profit. Maybe your own father, who was supposed to love and protect you, sold you instead to a creditor to pay off his debts? Perhaps your husband fell on the battlefield and you were brutalized and violated by enemy soldiers. Now you find yourself on the auction block, stripped naked, humiliated, treated as less than a human being while men wave money and the auctioneer sells you off to the highest bidder.

As you are led away, you walk toward your hapless future, trying to avoid the leering gaze of the gathered crowd as they stare at your nakedness. You know your fate. There are no jobs for unmarried women in your culture. Without a family, you were doomed from the beginning. There is no one looking out for you. All marriages are arranged in your society and without a father around to arrange a marriage for you, your prospects are hopeless. You cannot own land or earn a living in your country. You have been sold. You will be a prostitute. Your life will be endless suffering and misery as you are used for the pleasure of men who care nothing for you.

You are handed over to the man who has just purchased your life for money. Even if you weren't too weak and starved to run, there would be no where to go, no hope of escape. You are surprised when he takes the key and releases you from your shackles and chains. He clothes you with a clean robe and quickly whisks you away from the din of the crowd and city. When you pass the city gates, he gives you a drink, gently lifts your chin, looking into your eyes as he wipes away the tears and promises you that everything is going to be alright. You ride in quiet, stopping at a peaceful oasis about half a day's journey outside the city. He prepares a simple meal for you and after you have eaten your fill, he begins to talk.

He explains that He is part of a nation with different laws and a different God than all the other nations. His God has outlawed forced slavery. His God forbids prostitution. He assures you that you will never be used as a concubine and that no man will ever touch you without your consent. He explains that He has a special covenant with His God that provides protection for you. He let's you know that you will be working alongside his own daughters and his one and only wife in his household. You will eat the same food, sleep under the same tent and be provided with the same clothing that they are. He tells you that his son and heir, saw you in the caravan as you were being hauled off toward the slave auction. He goes on to say: My son had great compassion on you and asked if I would purchase you for Him with the dowry money we had saved up to arrange for his marriage. He's a good looking young man and kind. If the two of you get along, He would very much like to marry you, IF that is agreeable to you. We want you to be part of our family. He will never be allowed to divorce or abandon you. You will have the right to his marriage bed and can have as many children as you would like to surround you and care for you in your old age. You will always be part of our family even into your old age. You will always have plenty of food,  and your portion will never be reduced. You will be kept in good clothing and have an honored place in our family which can never be taken away. If something happens to my son and he dies, our family will care for you and one of our close relatives will even marry you if that is what you desire. Your children will be valued and viewed as equals and have an inheritance among our people for all generations. Your daughters and your grand-daughters and your great-grand-daughters will never be sold as prostitutes or mis-treated as you were. Your sons will have land and an inheritance and a future among our people and will never fall into debt slavery like the boys in other nations. All generations of your family will rise up and call you blessed because of the future you secured for them by accepting this marriage covenant here today. Take this cup of wine and drink from it if you are willing to accept this covenant and I will be a father to you and these promises will belong to you forever.

This young woman's purchaser turned out to be her Rescuer. He was her Redeemer, the one who sets things right. The price to purchase her out of slavery, has become the price of her redemption. He was her Savior. She wasn't purchased to be a slave, she was ransomed, rescued to become part of a family. What I have just written is an example of how the Old Covenant was meant to work. It is intended to demonstrate the mercy, compassion and care of God for those who have been walked all over and abused by this world. Every provision I detailed in that marriage covenant the Father offered is what the Bible teaches and required of Hebrew men. I just wanted to present it in a cohesive, easy to read manner. The only way they could legally purchase a woman from another nation off the auction block was to redeem and rescue her. God's law provided protection against human trafficking and provided hope and a way out for those trapped by it, and the death penalty for the traffickers. Rahab was a prostitute who was rescued out of Jericho when it fell. She was married into the tribe of Judah and her descendants were part of the nation of Israel. Her children did have an inheritance among God's people. Her son was Boaz, one of the most stand-up guys in the Bible. Her descendants also include King David and the entire line of Kings all the way to Jesus, Himself.

And that brings us to the point. While God, the Father, never abandoned us or sold us for money, ALL of us have been lured away from our heavenly Father by a smooth talking charmer called Satan. We have all ran away, gone astray. We have all been slaves to sin. But Jesus, God's only Son and heir, saw us in our humiliation, defeat and slavery. He paid the price, the ransom for our lives. He has already paid the price to redeem us from slavery and release us from the shackles and chains of sin. Those of us who have already accepted His covenant, collectively as the church, are his bride. Just like the man in this story, or just like Hosea who rescued a woman of prostitution and took her outside of the city to speak to her softly, proposing a new covenant of marriage, Jesus calls to us, in that still small voice through His Spirit, asking us to accept His covenant. Trust in Him. Ask for forgiveness for your sins. Accept the price of redemption He has already paid for you with His own life and choose to be part of His family. Just like Rahab, future generations of your family will be blessed because of your decision.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hanukkah Thoughts: A Lighted City On A Hill

Happy 1st day of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights!!! John 10:22 tells us "Then the Festival of Dedication took place in Jerusalem and it was winter. Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon's Colonnade." 

I can only imagine what Jerusalem must have looked like--the highest city for miles around, situated on a hill, with each window having a Menorah burning away in it at night. It must have been spectacular to see. Every time I see beautiful Christmas lights, I think of Hanukkah and I think of the beauty of this city on a hill. Jesus said: You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. The church, spiritually IS Jerusalem. We are meant to shine like lights in the windows, illuminating the darkness for miles around.

Jesus, Himself was present for this special festival celebrating the cleansing and rededication of the temple and it is specifically mentioned in Scripture. I have to believe there was a reason for it. Many Jews look at Judah Maccabee, "the Hammer," as a type of savior for taking control of Judea from the Seleucid empire and cleansing the temple. They expected the Messiah to be a warrior like this who would free them from Roman rule, but Jesus' said His Kingdom is not of this current world. He compared Himself to a humble Shepherd in this incidence. I think it no coincidence that in the passage from John 10, the only time this festival is mentioned in Holy Scripture, Jesus asserts that HE is the Messiah, HE is the ultimate and final Savior, and they rejected Him and picked up rocks to try to stone Him to death. The truth is, we are all very lucky that Jesus did not come as a warrior. There will come a day when He will return in all of His glory to utterly and completely destroy his enemies, but we were ALL once one of those enemies.  The message the angels brought to the Shepherds on the night Jesus was born was a mission statement for the type of Messiah He would be:

Do not be afraid, for behold, I proclaim to you GOOD news of great joy that will be for all people. Today, in the city of David, a savior is born who is Christ (Messiah) the Lord. This will be the sign for you: You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Suddenly their was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and on earth, Peace, GOOD will toward men. 

When God came to us in the form of a humble man, He chose to exercise grace. He had compassion on us and came offering salvation and to make us part of his heavenly kingdom. He did not come to save the Jews from Roman rule. He came to save all of us from our sins. He didn't come as they savior they wanted, He came as the savior we all needed. If you have never accepted God's grace and welcomed Jesus as your Savior, I would encourage you to make that decision.

The fact that this festival celebrates the rededication of the temple after it had been desecrated is significant to me. Antiochus IV Epiphanes had set up an alter to Zeus, sacrificed pigs in the temple and made the temple vessels filthy and unclean. When they took it back and cleansed the temple, there was only enough oil to light the sacred Menorah, a golden lampstand in the temple with 7 lamps, for one night, but it miraculously burned for 8 nights, giving them time to find more oil. This is why Jews now light the Menorah, though I do not understand why they light a 9 candle Menorah, instead of a 7  lamp Menorah. We, as Christians, are now God's Holy temple. He has cleansed us and rededicated us for His holy purposes. Now we are the vessels Jesus has made clean and fit for service. Have you been made clean?

Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. -2 Timothy 2:21 

The lampstand in the temple held 7 lamps like the one pictured below. The oil which keeps them lit up
represents the Holy Spirit. Our lights burn bright because He shines through us and is at work within us, with a never-ending supply of His Spirit. I like to think that part of our Christmas light tradition comes from Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. As we enter into this season, let us remember that we are meant to be the city on a hill. We are the lamps burning brightly with a supply of oil that never runs out. We are Jerusalem, the Teaching of Peace, the City of Peace, ruled by the Prince of Peace, Jesus. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Tree, The Branches, The Fruit

Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. -Isaiah 11:1

David was Jesse's son. Because of Israel's sins, the people were sent into exile and the line of Kings descended from David's family tree was cut off--this is the stump being spoken of. But in this passage, Isaiah promises that there is hope for restoration. Job had also prophesied this hope:

For there is hope for a tree, When it is cut down, that it will sprout again, And that its shoots will not cease. Though its roots grow old in the earth and it's stump dies in the dry soil, at the scent of water it will bud/flourish and put forth branches like a young plant -Job 14:7

Jesus, the Son of David, was the new tree that grew. He is the King of Kings. But here is the cool part. WE, as Christians are part of His family tree. The branch from his roots that will bear fruit is US. Jesus said:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. -John 15:5

Vine is a word for a young tree or shoot. Jesus did die and was put in the earth, Yet He rose again and Christians are the branches that are growing everywhere and cannot be stopped. When I was home for Thanksgiving I was looking at a couple of rapidly growing Peach trees at my parent's house. Those trees are absolutely covered with buds where new branches have started to form and then been pruned. The picture of the Church is like a fruit tree that cannot be stopped as it constantly sprouts new branches and each branch sprouts more young branches and all of them produce fruit. The family tree of God is an unstoppable and rapidly growing tree. When Job's prophecy said that it's shoots will not cease, this gives a picture of endless growth and promised flourishing of God's church and it demonstrates that the spread of His kingdom will be like a tree, endlessly sprouting new branches. Jesus has taken up David's throne and established it as His own. As Isaiah 9:7 tells us:

Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

One of the fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven is bringing others into the family tree by sharing the good news about Jesus:

1. He was born, like a new tree, from the remnant, or stump of the family of Jesse

2. He lived and walked among us producing fruit in the form of good works, teaching, miracles and making disciples

3. He died and was in the ground, like the stump from Job's prophecy

4. He Came Back to Life, like the tree from the prophecy.

5. He is growing the branches of His family tree, and Believers are those branches. 

6. Like a branch can be grafted onto a tree and become a part of it, anyone who believes can be grafted into Jesus' family tree and be part of the family of God.

7. The water that brings the stump back to life is like the Holy Spirit, who revives and refreshes our souls. God brings our souls to life on this earth and he will ultimately raise us from the dead into eternal life.

When Jesus said that we could do nothing apart from Him, to an unbeliever that is a threat, but to a Believer it is a Promise. He is always with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. Like the water that brings a stump back to life, when we have the living water of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, we will produce fruit in the form of good works, sharing our faith and living a godly life. We will also exhibit the fruits of this water, listed in Galatians 5:22

The Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control.  

I hope you are well watered and refreshed throughout this Advent Season as we celebrate the Birth of Jesus.