Hebrews 8:1-13 – Deliverance through a Manger

God Is With Us, by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese, 2006

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. Therefore, Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact, the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
    after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
    and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (NIV)

Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Day is almost here. The Messiah is coming. I genuinely believe that Jesus is the mid-point of history; everything for all time hinges upon Christ’s incarnation. The most cataclysmic event in the history of the world is a birth. The hopes of humanity are focused, of all things, in a stinky old feeding trough for animals – a manger.

Yes, Christians put a lot of focus on the cross and resurrection. Yet, the incarnation was the signature event of God’s breaking into this world. The inconceivable was conceived. God became human. Nothing would ever be the same again….

Nativity by African artist Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, 2001

Jesus is our great high priest, the nexus between heaven and earth. All else are only mere shadows of the real Savior. Christ is the hinge upon which our own personal lives turn. The old system of law fades and gives way to the person for whom it all pointed. For the law, as important as it was, has never been able to save. In Christ there is a new covenant established by grace, taking care of the sin issue once for all.

Through the Christ child, all other means of deliverance have become obsolete. No matter how much he washed his hands, Pilate could not wash away his guilt. Despite all our efforts to hide or undo our shame, it will not go away. It is through Jesus that all guilt and shame have been banished. Human iniquity is taken away. All that we have done and left undone is forgiven – our sin is purged forever.

A new age has dawned. A new era has been inaugurated. The miracle of the Nativity explodes with continuing effect throughout history. Its continuing effects can still be felt, two-thousand years later. Nothing will ever undo the power of love and grace which was unleashed in the little town of Bethlehem.

Here is a clear and confident declaration to any and all in despondency or despair, no matter the reasons why: We may feel crushed, dejected, confused, or broken because of this past year’s events; but our salvation depends not on our mood or the constant changing of circumstances. Christ has offered himself once for all. The work is finished. Our faithful high priest is even now interceding for you and me in heaven.

Our faith is grounded not in our pedigree, our position, or our ability to produce but forever in what Christ has done in becoming human on our behalf. See the manger where he lies. Know that salvation is before us. Believe the promise of God.

May this eternal truth be always on our hearts:
That the God who breathed this world into being
Placed stars into the heavens
And designed a butterfly’s wing
Is the God who entrusted his life
to the care of ordinary people
became vulnerable that we might know
how strong is the power of Love
A mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp
A mystery so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Matthew 24:15-31 – Being Prepared

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

“If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time.

“So, if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

“Immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (NIV)

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States. The summers can be brutally hot and humid. The winters can be incredibly frigid and full of snow. Having lived in various university towns and worked with many college students, every Fall there is always at least one international student, or a student from the American Deep South, that has never experienced a Midwest winter and snow. I could tell them repeatedly of the need for a sturdy winter coat before the snow flies. Yet, having never known sub-freezing, let alone sub-zero, temperatures it is difficult to imagine such cold when the weather is warm. At the coming of winter, I, or someone else, had to help ensure they had a suitable coat.  Even then, they usually shake all winter and never take their scarves off.

It might be difficult to imagine, because none of us have yet experienced it, that someday Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Therefore, Jesus told his disciples about using discernment concerning a change of environment around them. Although it may seem improbable now, a time is coming which will be loaded with cosmic and cataclysmic changes. Sometimes, even for myself who has lived through many hard winters, it is incredible to know that the landscape as it is right now will be completely different.

The sky and the earth as we know it now will pass away; yet Christ’s words will endure for all time. If we are attentive and alert, we will be ready. We will have a warm winter parka on hand. And, for now, it means taking off the old clothes of fear, insecurity, hopelessness, and hate, and putting on the new clothes of righteousness, peace, and love in the Holy Spirit. Winter is nearly here. There is a chill in the air.

God Almighty, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. The signs of brokenness and divisions, oppression and abuse, poverty and loneliness, are everywhere present in the world. So, we cry out from the depths of our being, “O come, O come, Immanuel. Bring us comfort. Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light.” Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.

Luke 17:11-19 – Give Thanks

Ten Lepers Healed by American artist Brian Kershisnik

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (NIV)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits thanks – yet from only one. Perhaps this is because they stood at a distance. After all, it is connection which causes gratitude to arise within us. So, maybe we ought to consider what the nature of our connections are, especially on this Thanksgiving Day. 

Food, football, and family have become the annual trifecta of the American Thanksgiving Day. I confess that I liberally indulge in all three. I am not here to bash on the fact that Thanksgiving has become almost a day of secular worship around an unholy trinity. That is because I believe underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative that we know why we are celebrating the day: To give thanks for our abundant blessings. It seems even those who do not readily acknowledge the Divine intuitively know there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves which makes all good things occur.

Celebrations are a spiritual activity. God invented parties. When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16).  The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings. Gratitude was commanded, expected, and was an important dimension of Old Testament worship:

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2, NRSV)

Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple. The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever. (Psalm 100:4-5, CEV)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1, NLT)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer thanksgiving. A Samaritan, considered by many of the time as the lowliest of the low, a “half-breed,” was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with intense gratitude.  While the other nine went about their lives free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus. 

Indeed, sometimes we must be reminded to give thanks and show gratitude for the ways God has provided for us. It is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate for us what genuine thanksgiving looks like.

The people of God are to always remember what they possess in Christ:

So, live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. (Colossians 2:6-7, CEB)

Never stop praying. Be ready for anything by praying and being thankful. (Colossians 4:2, ERV)

Everything God made is good, and nothing should be refused if it is accepted with thanks. (1 Timothy 4:4, NCV)

God and giving thanks are to go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Since God created everything, and since Jesus has brought healing to us through the cross, every juicy morsel of goodness we have is to be received with the full cognizance that God is behind it all.

Our lives need to be punctuated with times of celebration, praise, giving thanks, and even (virtual) blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. Conversely, a joyous and raucous group of healed believers chatting incessantly with thanksgiving of God’s goodness are winsome and peculiar (in a good way and not in the strange way of your weird uncle who wants the turkey neck to gnaw on).

It seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because they have been forgiven; know the presence of God; are provided for; are confident in the fact they are protected; and, experience the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Yes, eat to your heart’s content and have a belly full of cornbread stuffing. But remember to give thanks – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation.  Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape you and I. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise, worship, and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness can change the world.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.