From today’s reading of Matthew 3, Mark 1 and Luke 3

“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – John the Baptist, quoted in Matthew 3:9

One reason, I think, that Jesus stirred up so much angst and astonishment among the elites and the “haves” of his day – and still does, because this is still his day – is because he is the supreme foundation kicker-out-from-underer (Hey, it’s past 2am. You shouldn’t expect lucid writing here).

“We have Abraham as our father!” is just one of many spiritual safety nets that the leaders of his time had setup. It basically was shorthand for “I’m in”. John the Baptist was sent to prepare the people, so he dismantles the Abraham patrimony argument, kind of as a primer for everyone, anticipating the much greater dismantlings to come from Jesus. Jesus was so good at destruction of this sort that John wasn’t worthy to change the oil in Jesus’ sledgehammer.

Jesus dismantled the fence laws that had been erected to keep everyone from breaking the real laws. He dismantled notions of self-righteousness, the proto-prosperity gospel that prompted questions such as “What caused this man to be born blind? Was it his sin or his parents’ sin?” Jesus caused rocks to fall from hands that had flung many, and could make other hands urgently reach for rocks to throw at him. He shook up the demonic world that had grown fat, lazy and used to long, comfortable stays in their hosts. He turned over tables in the temple that had seen a comfortable, brisk business through the years, and broke all the first century Emily Post etiquette rules about letting prostitutes near oneself when dining with the upper crust. He saved the best wine for last.

Jesus wasn’t interested in loud declarations of one’s exalted station and dignified silence when some undignified rejoicing and worship were called for.

For those who chose to be deaf and blind to what he was about, the stones would do just fine.

“And he shall be their peace”

From today’s reading of Matthew 2 and Luke 2:39-52

Matthew 2 is not a peaceful chapter. It describes the paranoia of King Herod “the great”, the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt, and the subsequent slaughter of the youngest children of Bethlehem.

This record of the early life of Jesus already begins to demonstrate the strife and murderous foolishness that attends those who are “kings” in this life when the King of kings has come to claim ownership. The great bringing low of the mighty and raising up of the humble has already begun. Strongholds will be cast down.

But not without a fight.

Matthew records the fulfillment of a prophecy from Micah 5, by quoting this portion of it:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” – Matthew 2:6

I took a look at the fuller context of the quoted passage, which is below:

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.
-Micah 5:1-5

Little Bethlehem, humble, somewhat of a backwater. From you has come this One we call Jesus, ancient of days, the great Shepherd, majestic to the ends of the earth, who has become our peace.

All the Herods of this world can rage and scheme and murder, but they will not prevail. Their evil, though devastating in their moment, is temporary. “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” They will wage war to no avail; the Prince of peace has come, humble and born in humility, born of humble parents in a humble town, King of kings, Shepherd of his flock to the ends of the earth, mighty to save.

Simeon’s blessing

From today’s reading of Matthew 1 and Luke 2:1-38

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
– Luke 2:25-35

A long time ago the gentle old pastor teaching my New Testament class said that he figured Simeon was just a kindly old man who said this to all of the glowing young mothers with babies who came into the temple. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples”.

It doesn’t really read that way, does it? I think that it’s easy to forget the situation Mary, Joseph, Simeon and the rest of the people of Israel were in at this time. They were oppressed and living in a much harsher world than most of us know. They were groaning for redemption.

I love this prophetic word spoken to Mary and Joseph by Simeon: “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel”. Simeon is speaking in the Spirit, and he continues the theme of these very early parts of the gospel: light has dawned! The sun of righteousness is rising! This is not just light for Israel, but a revelation to the Gentiles as well.

Jesus has been born, the One who is the Light and who casts down and exalts.

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

This, by the way, would demolish my gentle old NT professor’s idea that Simeon was just a sweet old guy who liked encouraging young mothers.

Jesus came to bring the fall and the rising of many. As you have probably noticed, those who are already high don’t like being brought low and therefore Jesus, who had already willingly brought himself lower than we can imagine, for our sakes, was going to be violently opposed; Mary was destined for great heartbreak. This isn’t a Hallmark message.

And yet hope and glory permeates Simeon’s message to Mary and Joseph. The Rescuer has come. The day is dawning. Jesus is here!

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

– Matthew 1:21

Malachi and the Women of Luke 1

From today’s reading of Luke 1, John 1:1-14

In reading Luke 1 this time around, I noticed a few things that I’m not sure I had picked up on before (and isn’t that often the way things go when reading the Word. Always alive, always fresh).

Luke 1 is book-ended with the flavor of the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi. But the main focus of the chapter is the women. These valiant women, the aged Elizabeth and the young – probably very young – Mary. The Lord gives them a voice while the men in their life are for the most part silent. This is our God, giving voice to the voiceless, strengthening weak hands and feeble hopes, casting down the proud and lifting up the humble, bringing fertility to the barren and removing her reproach.

The chapter starts with the angel Gabriel visiting the priest Zechariah in the temple and describing to him the career of his son, a son who Zechariah thought would never exist.

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. – Luke 1:16, 17

Surely Zechariah knew what Holy Writ the angel was referring to. In the very last chapter of the book of Malachi, the last book in our Old Testament canon, God says “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”  – Malachi 4:5-6.

Except there is no “lest I come and and strike”. There will not be utter destruction, at least not yet. Yet the Lord is certainly coming, very soon, and has need of a faithful herald to prepare for him a people.

Zechariah asks what seem, to me, to be some reasonable questions, and is immediately struck mute. He doesn’t get to talk for nine months or even have a say in the naming of his son. But somehow I think he’s OK with this. Elizabeth his wife, who he loves, has been barren her whole life. She is no longer young, and hope probably has faded when it comes to having children. But this problem is small for God. The Lord has need of a faithful herald. In a moment, the Lord removes Elizabeth’s reproach among the people and makes their lifelong dream come true.

I don’t think God needed to do this. Elizabeth didn’t need to be the one to bear John the Baptist. God could have chosen a more practically equipped vessel. But God loves bringing streams in the desert, water out of rocks, much bread out of little bread. He gets a kick out of it. It’s what He is about.

Gabriel, who seems to get many of the best assignments, also gives Mary the good news that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear a son, and speaks to her this breathtaking promise:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:30-33

Much of the rest of the chapter is devoted to these two women exulting together over this promise and what the Lord has done for them, and will do through them, and will do through their sons. Elizabeth, who Gabriel cheerfully describes as “she who was called barren” is all smiles and shouts of joy and blessings when she meets Mary. And Mary, this young lady, shows her valiant heart as she speaks of her warrior God:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
Luke 1:51-53

The Lord Jesus came to cast down and to lift up. But He began by casting himself down. The deep dive of humility undertaken by Jesus is breathtaking. He willingly brought himself down from his own mighty throne and took on a very humble estate, patiently waiting for his own exaltation as he accomplished the mission his Father had given him.

Zechariah finally gets his own voice back when John is born. I think being forced to be quiet for so long had gotten Zechariah to thinking over what the angel had told him. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gave full voice to this Malachian blessing to John:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79

It kind of hearkens back to this, doesn’t it?

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.” – Malachi 4:2-3

The sunrise shall visit us from on high, the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings!

The apostle John later wrote of these things, this way.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:6-14

John wrote about a light that rose on the people in darkness, and births that were not man’s idea but God’s, and belief.

John wrote about seeing Jesus, and in that glimpse seeing all of our dreams come true.