A Reality Check (Hebrews 10:1-4)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we silly people confuse the sign for the real deal. It’s important to distinguish between the two. We discern the difference all the time when it comes to more mundane affairs.

People generally know that looking at a movie poster is not watching the actual film; that wearing a string of cheap pearls is only mimicking the real and expensive ones; or that sitting in a doctor’s waiting room isn’t the same thing as being in the appointment.

However, when it comes to our religion, we seem to blur the lines between sign and substance. Praying a “sinners prayer” or making a profession of faith isn’t the same as growing, maturing, following, and living a committed Christianity.

Knowing some Christian lingo and/or going with the flow of cultural Christianity doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ’s words and ways are being followed.

And today’s New Testament lesson is a reminder, and not a guilt trip, that the law points to the actual substance of religious life – and is not life itself.

The laws surrounding the old system of animal sacrifice were never meant to be an end in itself. It pointed forward to the real deal and was, therefore, completely inadequate to bring deliverance from sin, death, and hell to anyone.

The very fact that sacrifices needed to be repeated year and after year demonstrated that they were ineffectual in saving a person. Rather, those sacrifices were designed to cause the worshiper to long for a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – to anticipate that the sin issue would be settled once and for all.

The only thing the sacrifices did was remind people they were sinners in need of a savior. Just as a slap on the hand is grossly inadequate for handling a murderer, so offering an animal was never going to do the trick in taking care of divine justice.

And besides, God has never been pleased with a bunch of sacrifices anyway. So, what is God really pleased with? The Lord is pleased with a heart devoted to obedience and fealty to Jesus Christ; God cares about inner attitudes and dispositions of the spirit which are inclined toward righteousness, holiness, mercy, humility, and justice for all.

Sacrifices, in and of themselves, have no power; they are like a toothless lion who couldn’t bite into you if he tried. The way to set things right is through the once for all mighty sacrifice of the Son – an offering to end all offerings.

God doesn’t want a checklist of daily sacrifices, any more than a spouse only wants supper on the table at night, or a paycheck every month. It’s nice but falls short of the full scope of marital interactions and relations. A marriage built on law won’t stand. It needs real flesh and blood relationship, complete with a devoted heart, sincere attitudes, and loving words and actions.

Since Christ has ably and permanently taken care of the sin issue, what sort of impact ought that to have on the Christian’s life? What kind of people are we to be?

To begin listing things to do is to go back to law and fail to grasp the gospel. And that’s where many churches and believers get tripped up and miss the grace of God altogether. Observing rules of cultural Christian activities or holding to some accepted Christian norms isn’t going to cut it.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

Jesus described the sort of people who go beyond ritual regulations and rules to embrace the true spirit and end of the law:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of competing or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:3-10, MSG)

That describes folk who have embraced faith as the fulfillment of law. It’s a summary of the law’s intended purpose and end.

So, let’s worship Christ; and not some caricature of him. Maybe carefully reading through the entire book of Hebrews in one sitting will help.

Blessed God, purify your people by your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people with the light of your good news. Bring wandering souls to an awareness and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works for the sake of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Epiphany of the Lord (Matthew 2:1-12)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (New International Version)

The light exists; it’s there. But not everyone likes it.

While many celebrate the light, such as Christians on the day of Epiphany, others wrap themselves in the cloak of darkness. There are various responses to Jesus as the Light of the World; not all of them are the same.

King Herod responds with anger

Herod was distressed with the news of a potential King of the Jews being born; he saw this as a threat to his rule. Herod, ever the narcissistic person who always sought to wipe out any threat to his throne, went over the top in seeking destroy Jesus. 

At the time of Christ’s birth, Herod had been the reigning king for about 30 years. During that time, his paranoia about losing power led him to kill his wife and three of his own sons because he saw them as threats to his authority. Herod feigned a desire to worship Christ, but this was really a sinister façade in order to get rid of Jesus by any means possible.

Jerusalem responds with anxiety

The people of Jerusalem felt that Jesus was going to upset the status quo. He was, for them, a threat to their security; any change within the system might cause Herod to take it out on them (which he had done before). 

Although the people were looking for a deliverer, they did not want things to shake up too much and arouse the Romans to abuse them.

Whenever we get caught up in maintaining the status quo, out of fear, then we have no room in the inn for Mary and Joseph. 

Always trying to keep people happy and not upset them is a tenuous way to live. Such an agenda will typically result in missing Jesus when he shows up. That’s because we’re not really looking for him to start with. 

For example, if our task as parents is to just keep our kids out of trouble, they’re going to miss Jesus; and if they find him, it will be in spite of us and not because of us. Yet, if our truest desire for them is to know Christ, then our prayers, our words, and our actions will reflect the ethics of God’s kingdom.

Religious leaders respond with apathy

The chief priests and teachers of the law had all the right answers; and responded to Herod’s questions with the correct information.

The sad part is that the guys who knew the most about Scripture, who actually had a handle on God’s law, were simply satisfied with that knowledge and nothing more. They seemed  unconcerned with getting off their butts and getting on their knees to worship the Son of God.

If we know the truth, we must act on it. Jesus wants people to worship in spirit and in truth. He wants more than a mere recognition; Jesus desires us.

The Magi respond with adoration

The Three Wise Men by He Qi

The Wise men, or Magi, were Gentiles and pagan astrologers (not kings). They devoted themselves to studying the stars and discerning what was happening. Because of this, they were often advisors and counselors to kings.

Some may find it scandalous that God used such persons, but that’s okay. The Lord typically uses the folks we believe are (or should be) unusable. Turns out it is the people such as the Magi that demonstrate their devotion and adoration through actual worship and giving of costly gifts.

Epiphany

Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany. Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany of the Lord helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people of the world.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearance” – which is exactly what happened with the Magi in visiting Jesus. The season of Epiphany has a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

With Epiphany’s light, we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people, who seem far from God, with the gift of Jesus. 

God grants life for all kinds of people – no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, class, or background. It’s a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of people.

Grace

Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people. 

Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive. Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control. But embracing grace leads to the humility of seeing the image of God in people quite different from us. 

Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to wear away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry. (Acts 10-11:18)

Grace topples barriers and clears away unnecessary distinctions between others. Our appropriate response to such a grace is to glorify God for this marvelous and amazing work.

Light

A light was provided to lead the Magi to Jesus. Apart from God’s gracious intervention, they would have remained in darkness. 

This old broken world is enveloped in spiritual darkness. All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life. Christ brings that light to those unable to see. And Jesus, in his teaching ministry, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ. Then, they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives could be in the gracious and benevolent rule and reign of God. 

In this season of Epiphany, let us journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing, walk with him in his gracious ministry to people; and keep watch with him so that our own light does not grow dim.

Merciful God of life and light, you have gifted the Church through the goodness of your grace to be your hands; to do your work; to be your voice; to share your words; and to bring healing for broken lives. You have graciously gifted your people with the blessings of your Spirit, the power to transform lives and make all things new.

Now may our hearts receive, our mouths proclaim, our hands prepare for compassionate service so that the love we have will overflow into the hearts of others. May they receive your grace, your renewing Spirit, and your love, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-23)

Nazareth Village, Israel

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. (New International Version)

Jesus is the New Exodus

Joseph was told to take Jesus to Egypt. He obeyed the Lord and assumed the role of protecting the child Jesus, unlike King Herod’s demented attempt to murder Jesus. Whereas Herod sought only his own personal agenda, Jesus identified with the people of God and sought their best interests.

Just as God brought the Israelites out of Egypt through a great deliverance, so God brought up Jesus, the Great Deliverer, out of Egypt as the unique Son of God. Jesus is God’s divine Son, and so is the rightful Ruler in God’s kingdom.

In Christianity, Jesus is the special God Man who secures salvation for us. God preserved Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath; God protected Jesus from Herod’s wrath.

Flight to Egypt by He Qi

God’s kindness and loyalty preserves us from the wrath of the devil who seeks to keep as many people as possible in the realm of darkness. 

Our hope is in the Lord, specifically, in Jesus who has conquered the devil; and he did it by first establishing a beachhead on this earth through his incarnation as the Son of God.

Just as Hosea’s prophecy was an appeal to turn from other gods to the true and living God of mercy and grace, so Matthew calls us to turn from idolatry, from anything that would displace Jesus as the rightful Ruler of our lives.

Jesus brought us out of exile

King Herod massacred innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation, and the satanic agenda was set in place.

However, nothing can thwart the fulfillment of God’s promises – including Satan, whose most powerful weapon, death, has now lost its sting because of Jesus.

Just as the prophet Jeremiah spoke hope to the people that exile will not be forever, so Matthew speaks the fulfillment of that hope. The incarnation is here. Jesus has arrived. Salvation has come in the form of a child. He is the Deliverer, the Savior. Christ brings us from captivity into the promises of God.

Jesus came to save the littlest, the lowly, the least, the lost, the lonely, and the last. God demonstrated the commitment to deliver such persons through a humble existence in a backwater town called Nazareth.

Jesus is the new Moses

Joseph is, again, unexpectedly visited by an angel with instructions concerning Jesus. Herod, after all his sinister shenanigans, finally dies. The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, described Herod’s death: 

He had a terrible craving to scratch himself, his bowels were ulcerated, and his privates were full of gangrene and worms. At Jericho he assembled the men of distinction from all parts of the nation and ordered them shut inside the hippodrome. He told his sister, Salome, that as soon as he died, all these men were to be killed, so that there would be grief throughout the country at his death rather than joy. (Paul Maier, Josephus: The Essential Works, 252)

The contrast between King Herod and King Jesus could not be any more pronounced; Jesus said in a clear demonstration of his humility and grace at his death:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24, NIV)

With Herod dead, it was safe to return to Israel. Matthew links Jesus to the exodus and deliverance of the Israelites as the new Moses. Just as Moses was by God to go back to Egypt because all the men who wanted to kill him were dead (Exodus 4:19) so Jesus is also told to return from Egypt because he will save the people from their sins.

Everything in Holy Scripture points to Jesus, in one way or another, on purpose, as the center from which all things hinge and revolve. 

Christ the Deliverer, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

At the beginning of this New Year, in the middle of Christmastide, it is good to remember the incarnation of Jesus to help set the tone for the entire year.

Christ came to us so that he might set apart a holy people, dedicated to doing his will, and living according to the ethics of God’s kingdom. 

God doesn’t determine who is a good follow through the metrics of perfect attendance to church services, but in how we interact with people while we are there, and how we live our lives when we are outside the four walls of a church building. 

God has found us, and the purpose of our existence is to know God and enjoy the Lord forever.

Jesus of Nazareth

Nazareth was an obscure village, not a likely place for a king to settle down and live. Yet, this is in line with what the prophet said would occur:

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:1-2, NIV)

The choice of settling in Nazareth underlines that the gospel is not only for particular people, not just for Jews, the wealthy, or the influential; the gospel is for everyone, especially for the lost, the least, and the lowly. 

Describing Christ as “Jesus of Nazareth” means we are expressing an important theological truth that God is with us, that the Lord identifies with us, that the universal Sovereign of all is concerned for the common person, the poor, needy, and powerless among humanity.

The settling in Nazareth also underscores that Jesus is a different kind of king – he rules over God’s kingdom as a servant leader, using his power to dispense grace. Christ shares that power by giving it away, and together with the Father, gives the Holy Spirit. 

Unlike earthly political kings who demanded outward allegiance, Jesus gains followers through touching the heart by means of grace and love. Christ doesn’t coerce and cajole but serves others. He is patient, not wanting any to perish but all to come to eternal life.

Jesus is the culmination and climax of history. Hope is not found in electing the right politicians or having the right boss at a workplace; hope is not in attending church services and doing all the acceptable Christian activities.

Rather, hope resides in the child Jesus who was born to die so that we might live. We aren’t saved by the right people in the right positions, or in doing the right things, or having the right ideas – because Jesus is the Savior; he is our hope.

Almighty Lord God, give us true faith, and make that faith grow in us day by day. Also give us hope and love, so that we may serve our neighbors according to your will; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Christ Candle of Light (John 1:1-5)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 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. (New International Version)

Merry Christmas!

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward humanity! Today we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation – the unfathomable miracle of God becoming human – all for us and for our salvation.

The beginning of the Apostle John’s Gospel is an astounding passage of Scripture. These are verses to slowly and worshipfully read through because it is a theologically rich, lovingly beautiful, and missionally sensitive piece of Holy Scripture. 

The high and holy God has chosen to come and reveal true divinity to us in the person of Jesus. We know God through Christ. We learn what God is like through Jesus. God graciously condescended to us, bent down to communicate in ways we can understand and discern, through the Lord Jesus. 

The God which Christians worship and serve is an over-the-top gracious and generous God. This is a God who has gone to incredible lengths in restoring lost humanity. Since God has bridged the great chasm between heaven and earth, we have hope, joy, peace, and faith. With God in the neighborhood, divine love becomes our motivation to reach out in compassionate service. People matter to God – so much so, that the Father sent the Son to be with us, our Emmanuel.

Jesus is the light of the world.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, NIV)

Jesus told his followers they are the light of the world.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV)

A simple observation: Neither Jesus nor his followers become light. They are light. So, what does that mean?

To be light means we take a particular posture toward the world. It means we have a unique role in how we are with one another and in society.

Sometimes it’s important to say what something is not before we talk about what it is. To be light means we are not:

  • The Judge. The incarnation of Jesus was not for the purpose of playing Sheriff in the Old West, riding into the town of this world and gunslinging the bad guys either out of town or into the cemetery. Just because the world shot the sheriff, does not mean they’re off the hook for not shooting the deputy. There is judgment coming. But neither you nor I are the judge. “Do not judge,” said Jesus, otherwise you will be judged. (Matthew 7:1-2)
  • Cave-Dwellers. Rabbit-hole Christians. Dorm toads. Or any other metaphor for separating oneself from society and hiding out. Cave-dwellers want to hide out and start little fires that will only warm themselves. A rabbit-hole Christian scurries from hole to hole trying to avoid the world. Dorm toads never leave the friendly confines of their apartment swamp.

“I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”

John 12:46, NIV

Rather than judging and hiding, people of the light are:

  • Encouragers. They speak constructive words of edification. Encouragers know there is a bit of light in everyone, so they see through the darkness to the good which can be enlightened and called forth in others. People who encourage have a glow about them which is attractive and winsome.
  • Aware. Being light causes one to see themselves in high definition. Both the image of God and the fallen nature of humanity is seen and held together. People of the light are aware of their identity. They are then able to act with humility, gentleness, and meekness. Since they know they are infinitely loved by God, this brings a great freedom to speak and act with confidence.
  • Believers. Faith begins with receiving grace. It then works its way from an internal truth to an outward expression. People of the light follow in the footsteps of their Lord Jesus. They love, lead, and linger in society as spiritual beings who help illumine the path.
  • Merciful. Since they were once in darkness themselves, people of the light set aside pre-meditated judgment and deal compassionately with those who are spiritually blind.
  • Pure. The light has its way of exposing impurities. People of the light squarely face their own reality and purposely seek purity in all their dealings with society.
  • Peacemakers. Being characterized by the light means we not only possess personal peace; we also make peace through creating and sustaining harmonious relations with others. The light enables us to be spiritual ombudsmen who carefully and effectively bring peace between warring factions.

Jesus is the light of the world. We are the light of the world. That means we do not hide but are present and involved in our families, neighborhoods, communities, local institutions, national affairs, and world problems. Being characterized as followers of Jesus causes a person and a faith community to be visible, to show the world who Jesus is, and what he is like.

The earliest followers of Jesus allowed their light to shine in the world through:

  • Taking in unwanted children, orphans, and babies left exposed to infanticide.
  • Ministry to the sick and dying during times of plague and disease, as well as visiting those in prison without families.
  • Help and kindness to the poor, foreigners, immigrant strangers, and widows, especially when no one else would.

Where light is present, no one needs to remain in darkness. Even a small flickering flame can illumine enough to make a way. And when many small flames come together, there is a great light for all to see.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6, NIV)

May the light of Christ, the living Word, dispel the darkness of our hearts so that we may walk as children of light and sing the praises of a merciful God throughout the world. Amen.

Almighty God, for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. You have given your one and only Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born on this day of the virgin Mary.

Help us, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may be a light for the nations, being daily renewed by your Holy Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.