Do Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly

Malachi 3; Amos 5; Micah 6-7; Philippians 3

There’s an old song that keeps playing in my head today. The words I recall are these:

This world is not my home; I'm just a-passin' through.
 My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
 The angels beckon me from heaven's open door.
 And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. 

The events of the last several weeks that culminated in the events of January 6, 2021 just confirm to me that I don’t belong to this world. I knew there would be a time when many people calling themselves “Christians” would turn away from the gospel of Jesus and the love of God; evidently that time is now. I am horrified by the events at the US Capitol on Wednesday. Ironically, Wednesday was also Epiphany, a day set aside by liturgical traditions to remember the Magi and to ponder the baptism of Jesus by John. It was at the baptism that John introduced Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:19-34). Epiphany, a sudden illumination of something. Epiphany, the recognition of Jesus as fully God and fully man. The wonder of the Incarnation, now a man beginning his public ministry. How far the Church has fallen from the wonder of God’s mercy and grace for us. How devastating is that fall!

The Church in the US and much of the West is broken. It has been broken by teachers and pastors who sought recognition and fame. It has been broken by church attendees who stay for the music, but leave as soon as the teaching gets serious. Cultural Christianity (churchianity) focuses on blessings instead of trials and boasting instead of truth. The Church in the US, for the most part, has moved away from worshipping the righteous and holy God who created all things and holds all things together, replacing the Father with a national identity and the human leaders they elect.

28 Tweets About Trump's Rioters In The Capitol Building
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images Retrieved from Buzzfeed

Whether or not people believe that the 2016 or 2020 elections resulted in fraudulent officials is irrelevant. The kind of violence exhibited on January 6 was illegal, seditious, and wrong on every level. Those who hung up the name of Jesus in the process defiled his holy name. Amos wrote that God’s people must seek good, and not evil, especially when they live in a country that thrives on the titillation of wickedness. “Hate evil and love good,” he wrote. “Establish justice in the gate.” Amos goes on to describe how the Lord looks upon self-indulgent and proud people who claim they have “rights” because of their affiliation with God. The Lord abhors that pride. Amos spoke for the Lord saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen.” Displays of nationalism and religiosity do not honor the Lord. He is not the God of the United States of America. He is the Lord of ALL creation. To honor the Lord means His followers pursue justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s righteousness, not self-righteousness. The actions of people on January 6 revealed the utter wickedness that dwells within all people. They pursued a path that would vindicate their self-righteousness and the false gospel of nationalism. They put a political figure in the place of the Lord.

Nations rise and nations fall. Institutions are built up and torn down. There will come a day when the US will fall, just as every empire has fallen. But the people of God are not to be part of that destruction. We are to seek peace. We are to pray for the welfare of where we live (Jeremiah 29:4-14), not listening to those who seek to deceive. God is abundantly clear about what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord. None of the humility, kindness, nor justice were on display by the people who called themselves Christians while they broke into the Capitol, wreaking havoc in their violence. Make no mistake, these people were not acting in the will of God and God was not glorified. In fact, Malachi wrote that people like those who use the name of Jesus and the idea of Christian the way they did on January 6 weary the Lord with their words. They say that doing evil is doing good and that God is too slow in enacting justice. These claims illustrate just how self-serving these people are. They worship a nation, a Constitution, and institution, not the Living Lord.

The Lord will refine His Church. The pandemic has revealed those who used church as a social gathering place by closing the physical doors. The ugliness of the campaigns of 2020 revealed just how deep the corruption of ethical behavior has become. The riots of summer 2020 demonstrated the inadequacy of church teaching, especially with the notion of the prosperity gospel or the social gospel that infiltrated many churches. The refining has begun. The heat has been turned up, and unless there is general repentance and lamentation of the Church’s failure to teach the Word to the people, things will continue to get more difficult. All the dross must be burned away in order for those of us who seek Jesus first to fully reflect Him in all that we do and say.

In the end, however, this world, this country, this national institution is just a place of passing as we journey to our eternal home. For those who fear the Lord, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing. We will look to the Lord, waiting for the God of our salvation. He hears us. He is our light. His love is steadfast.

And that song? It has an interesting story that I’ll share another day. For now, enjoy one of the first recordings of it by the composer, Jessie May Hill:

This World is Not my Home. Jessie May Hill (December, 1927)
Philippians 3:  17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

My word for 2021

Habakkuk 1-3

Wait. Not exactly the word I expected for 2021, but that’s the one that stuck. Some people might say it was a word from the Lord, but I won’t be so bold as to claim to hear God in such specific terms. Still, this is the word that came to mind over and over as I pondered my focus for 2021. Two passages of scripture also circled in my head: sections from Habakkuk 2 and Jeremiah 33.

I read Habakkuk back in January, well before 2020 turned the world upside down. At that point, I considered his cry of “How long” from a theoretical perspective on the evil and injustice of humans. I could not have foreseen that “how long” would be the cry of so many people across the globe. Habakkuk prophesied in an evil age, one in which violence, poverty, devastation, and strife ruled, while the Law was ignored and justice never upheld. The Lord told him, ” Watch! Be horrified! Be frightened speechless! For I am accomplishing a work in your days — you would not believe it even if you were told!” (Habakkuk 1:5). Jeremiah heard the same word: “Call to me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). Those unbelievable “great and mighty things” included the total destruction of Judah at the hands of the Chaldeans because the sins of God’s people had reached a point of utter wickedness. Zephaniah also preached against the rebellious and defiled people who refused to obey the Lord and did “violence to the Law” (Zephaniah 3). Even before 2020, there were people crying out to God, “how long?” How long will bitterness and injustice rule even in our churches? How long will people flout God’s command to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength while loving each other? (Matthew 22:35-40). I wrote in my journal on January 17, 2020:

How long? The question of the ages, it would seem. Evil still runs rampant in the world. War, slavery, and violence are as much a part of this time as in any other…the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. Pay attention. To say God works in mysterious ways is an understatement. However, He know what is happening, and He will judge the wicked even if we don’t. However, because His ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8-9), how He works may not make sense to our limited minds. Here [Habakkuk 1], God uses the Chaldeans, who were know for witchcraft, astrology, and worship of Marduk to punish the wicked in Israel and Judah…How long? Until the people repent and a leader comes forth to honor God.

And here we are, nearly a year later. The world has suffered a deadly pandemic, drought, horrific natural disasters in the forms of fire, earthquake, and flood, economic catastrophes, and human suffering on a massive scale. The US has endured riots, protests, division, hatred, contentiousness, and violence, not to mention an election that pleased nobody. The economy suffered as businesses either shuttered or pivoted to “contactless” commerce. People argued over wearing masks of all things: protection or liberty. Physical distancing drove families. Work and school and church moved to online platforms. (Oh, to have bought stock in Zoom back in February.) Hugs and handshakes became elbow bumps. The virus that upended everything created chaos by its sheer inconsistency: most people recovered quickly, but some endured long term effects, and many died. Will a vaccine help? Maybe. Hopefully. But the damage to the psyche of the world is done.

And yet, after all these things, we still wait for the return of the good times. Back to “normal.” When we can attend church services and have school in classrooms and travel freely. But if we just return to the way things were, what have we learned? Have we made changes in justice? Are we better, kinder people? Do the good guys in white hats come out ahead? I submit, we have not made changes and we are not better people. The white hats are more than fifty shades of gray. And, with Habakkuk we might ask, why do the wicked seem to prevail, even after all the events of 2020? Evidently, there’s still a lesson to be learned.

I spent a fair amount of time in 2020 studying the minor prophets and considering the “day of the Lord.” Joel wrote that “the day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it?” (Joel 2). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that the day would come like a “thief in the night” but before that time, people would be talking about world peace and security (1 Thessalonians 5). After 2020, not much is certain, but no one is claiming this as a time of peace and security. I think the Lord does have a word for us, the same word he gave to Habakkuk: “Write down the vision…so that one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hurries toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it delays, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay long” (Habakkuk 2:2-3). This year has been a foreshadowing of what is to come. Jesus called times like these the “beginnings of the birth pains” (Matthew 24). Habakkuk saw that things were going to get far worse before they got better; we must understand the same thing.

Why? Why the suffering? Why the certainty of eventual destruction? Because humans are desperately wicked by nature. Because, until people see themselves as they truly are, they will not see their desperate need for a Savior. We are stubborn, we humans. We want to be the masters of our souls, but we cannot be holy. And the Lord will do whatever it takes to make us see that, without Jesus, our souls are doomed. C.S. Lewis put it well when he said that God shouts to us in our pain (Lewis 1940, 2001). Joel foresaw a time when God will light up the sky with fire while turning the moon into blood. At the same time, young people will have visions and the old will dream of God’s wrath, judgement, and salvation (Joel 2). There will come a time when everyone will choose for themselves: worship the self or call on the Lord. Moderation, fence-sitting, cultural “churchianity”- these will be abolished and the lines of demarcation will be clearly drawn.

God has not destined us for that wrath. He sent Jesus, the Incarnation of Himself, for our salvation. When we call on His name, we are eternally His, no matter what happens on this earth (1 Thessalonians 5; Romans 5). The question we must address today is the same one Habakkuk faced: how do we respond to the certainty of hard times ahead?

With joy. We choose joy in the God of our salvation. We choose joy because He made a way of escape; these light and momentary struggles are nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed to us on that day (Romans 8). And for now, we wait in anticipation.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Additional reference

Lewis, C.S. (2001) The problem of pain. Harper. Original publication 1940.

The Coming King

Who is the King of Glory?

Titus 2:11-14; Mark 13; Psalm 24; Psalm 96

Christmas day Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.

– Martin Luther

On this side of heaven, the conjoined deity and humanity of Christ is impossible for finite human minds to understand. It was too much for Jesus’s siblings and his hometown (Mark 6), and they knew him.  It was too much for the disciples who abandoned him, even though they had been his closest companions for three years (Mark 14). After his resurrection, some people began to understand, albeit imperfectly (Acts). Throughout history, people have tried to comprehend the unity of the God-head made manifest in a human baby as he grew, like any other boy, into adulthood. The best scholars just admit, as Luther did, that the humanity of God is beyond our ability to understand.

Why did he come? Why was it important for the Creator of all things to take on flesh, to become one of us? Because God promised he would be our salvation. Vance Pitman, in his 2020 Christmas Eve service, offered a succinct explanation here. Erick Erickson dug a little deeper into the prophecies on his Christmas radio show, which should appear on his podcast in the next few days. Most simply, Jesus came for us.

For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people for His own possession, eager to do good works.

Titus 2:11-14

So, what’s next? This first Advent for our salvation and reconciliation with the Creator is part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Jesus, Himself, told the rest of the story in Mark 13. The prophets spoke of the Messiah coming, not as savior, but as judge and King of Glory. This second coming, for which we now prepare, will be beyond our wildest imaginings. “Who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty…the LORD of Hosts, He is the King of glory” (Psalm 24).  Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus tries to capture that day. On that day, Jesus will descend from heaven with a blast of the shofar, and the whole world will see His glory. There will be no mistaking Him for anyone but who He is. The first coming of Jesus was for our salvation. The second will be for His justice and glory. And we who have believed at His first coming will join the “great multitude, that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9-17). 

Now and forever, we gather in awe and wonder at the inexplicable love the Father has lavished on us. He came, wrapped His deity in our humanity so that He could fulfill the law and the prophets for us. He came as the suffering servant, the One who bore the consequences of sin for everyone, regardless of whether we choose to submit to His sacrifice on our behalf. He defeated death, returning His followers so they could see Him in His fullness. He ascended to heaven, where He sat down as the King and High Priest. FOR us. We have reconciliation with God because of Him. And reconciliation becomes rejoicing when Jesus comes again to rule. 

Psalm 96

King of the Earth

Sing a new song to the Lord;

sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Sing to Yahweh, praise His name;

proclaim His salvation from day to day.

Declare His glory among the nations,

His wonderful works among all peoples.

For the Lord is great and is highly praised;

He is feared above all gods.

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,

but the Lord made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before Him;

strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of His name;

bring an offering and enter His courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness;

tremble before Him, all the earth.

Say among the nations: “The Lord reigns.

The world is firmly established; it cannot be shaken.

He judges the peoples fairly.”

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;

let the sea and all that fills it resound.

Let the fields and everything in them exult.

Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy

before the Lord, for He is coming—

for He is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness

and the peoples with His faithfulness.

The Adoration of the Living Word Made Flesh

December 24

Luke 2:1-21Matthew 2:1-12Hebrews 1; Colossians 1:15-19; Isaiah 7; Psalm 98

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Incarnation

The more I think about the incarnation, the more questions I have. Is it possible to have enough awe and wonder to truly adore Jesus? The shepherds knew a little about the prophecies, and they reacted to the angels in all their magnificence by immediately seeking out the newborn. Then they proclaimed the news to everyone, loudly, with exuberance and joy. The magi knew the messages written in the stars, and they prepared gifts fit for a king. They traveled (no one knows exactly how far or for how long), and presented the child with the most precious of royal gifts, each with specific meanings: gold for his royalty, frankincense for his perfect reflection of the Father, and myrrh for his ultimate sacrifice. The King, the Divine Creator, and the Mortal Perfection, given for us.

O, come let us adore him! Yes, let us stop long enough to consider the galaxies and the prophecies to see the reality of the Singularity that is Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. And He is THE singularity, for in him, time and space converge and become infinite. He is the radiance of God’s glory, the icon of the Triune God, before all things, the Beginning and the End. He is the reconciler, redeemer, savior. 

And he is a squalling, dirty baby who needs to be fed, burped, and changed. He is a clumsy toddler, learning to use words to communicate while climbing with great determination anything taller than he. He is a child, curious about everything, learning from his father, but knowing his Father better than anyone. He is an adolescent, already wise in the way of the Lord and the meaning of the Scriptures. He is a teenager, acne prone, wispy bearded, and smelly. He is a young man, laughing off questions about finding a good wife, practicing his trade, helping his mother with younger brothers and sisters. For 30 years, Jesus lived a normal human life. He had preferred foods, favorite colors, activities that brought him joy. He dealt with peers and their envy or their teasing. His feelings were hurt when he was left out of boyish games. He had innocent crushes on girls. In all ways, he was one of us. 

It is by far the most amazing miracle in the whole Bible – far more amazing than the resurrection and more amazing than the creation of the universe. The fact that the infinite, omnipotent, eternal Son of God could become man and join Himself to a human nature forever, so that infinite God became one person with finite man, will remain for eternity the most profound miracle and the most profound mystery in all the universe.

– Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology

There is no way to capture the paradox of wholly God and wholly man. There is no adoration great enough for those of us who see him. We have no adequate gifts to bring. All we can do is what Mary did, treasure the things revealed to us, pondering them in our hearts, knowing that his birth was only the beginning of his salvation. The shadow of the cross was already there, awaiting the time when Jesus would offer, once for all, the atoning sacrifice for our sin. Also present, and still not yet, is Jesus’ second coming, when he comes in glory to judge the world with righteousness and all the people with equity.


Let all mortal flesh keep silence

Paraphraser: Gerard Moultrie (1864)
Tune: PICARDY
Communion Liturgy
Published in 155 hymnals

Scripture References:
st. 1 = Hab. 2:20,Zech. 2:13
st. 2 = Rev. 19:16,Luke 22:19-20
st. 3 = Matt. 16:27
st.4 = Isa. 6:2-3

1. Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly mind ed,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
our full homage to demand.

2. King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of all, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
Christ will give to all the faithful,
his own self for heavenly food.

3. Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its van guard on the way,
as the Light of Light, descending
from the realms of endless day,
comes the powers of hell to vanquish
as the darkness clears away.

4. At his feet the six-winged Seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye
veil their faces to the Presence
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
‘Hallelujah, hallelujah,
hallelujah, Lord most high.’

Evidence suggests that the Greek text of “Let All Mortal Flesh” may date back to the fifth century. The present text is from the Liturgy of St. James, a Syrian rite thought to have been written by St. James the Less, first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is based on a prayer chanted by the priest when the bread and wine are brought to the table of the Lord.

The text expresses awe at Christ’s coming (st. 1) and the mystery of our perception of Christ in the body and blood (st. 2). With images from Isaiah 6 and Revelation 5, it portrays the glory of Christ (sung to by angels) and his victory over sin (st. 3-4). Although it has eucharistic emphasis, the text pictures the nativity of Christ in a majestic manner and in a much larger context than just his birth in Bethlehem. We are drawn into the awe and mystery with our own alleluias.”

Moultrie, Gerard, M.A., son of the Rev. John Moultrie, was born at Rugby Rectory, Sept. 16, 1829, and educated at Rugby and Exeter College, Oxford (B.A. 1851, M.A. 1856). Taking Holy Orders, he became Third Master and Chaplain in Shrewsbury School; Chaplain to the Dowager Marchioness of Londonderry, 1855-59; curate of Brightwaltham, 1859; and of Brinfield, Berks, 1860; Chaplain of the Donative of Barrow Gurney, Bristol, 1864: Vicar of Southleigh, 1869, and Warden of St. James’s College, Southleigh,1873. He died April 25, 1885. 

Pathway to Peace

John 1; Isaiah 9:6; Ephesians 2:14-18; 1 John 4:9-11; Romans 5-6; Titus 3: 5-7; Hebrews 11:1-12:2; Luke 2:22-38

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. As we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever, Amen.

For God so loved the world. John 3:16.
Original watercolor by Sherilee. Remix by Stephanie Loomis

In the beginning was the Word. All things were made by him. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Sin had come into the world through one man, Adam, and the death the results from sin became part of human nature, severing the relationship with God that leads to peace. But God made a way. A child would be born for us. A Son would be given to us. And he would be named Prince of Peace.  And He, Himself is our peace. Wholly God and wholly human, he reconciled us to God, preaching peace while enduring the consequences of our sin in our place. Through Jesus we have access in the Spirit to the Father, not by our acts of righteousness, but according to the mercy and grace of God.

a remix of verses from John, 1 John, Romans, Isaiah, Ephesians, and Titus

Peace between people is impossible until we have peace with God. The Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us paves our only path to peace with God and with each other. The Law could not reconcile us; the Law could only illustrate how hopelessly broken we are. In Jesus, we are reconciled to the Father and in that relationship we dwell in peace. Simeon and Anna both saw the infant Jesus and knew that the promise of the Messiah was with them. Simeon held the baby and prayed, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, You now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles , and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The Son was given, the child born, and He would be our peace. We can live in peace with others because God has made a way of peace for us. The Prince of Peace rules our hearts and minds and souls in love. 

Peace comes in confidence and assurance in things unseen; this world is not our home. By faith we join with those who have gone before us, and they are now the witnesses to our lives as we pursue peace among people. We look to Jesus as we purposefully disentangle from the sin that persists as long as we live. We look beyond this life, as Simeon did, to an unshakeable kingdom. Our faith is not in people or governments or education or influence; our faith is in Jesus. His love is perfected in us both now and into eternity. The promise of salvation is fulfilled in the Incarnation. Our peace rests in the fulness of His grace upon grace.

The Joy of the Beginning

December 13

Matthew 1; Psalm 145; Isaiah 7; Luke 1

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight. With the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Often pink, the third candle represents Mary in many Orthodox traditions. Other traditions call it the candle for Joy. Either symbol works; Mary’s joy expressed in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) sets the standard for how we should respond to God’s working in our lives, even when we don’t fully understand His ways.

The prophets were clear about the signs of Messiah’s Incarnation, including that a virgin from the lineage of David would conceive a son and call him Emmanuel. Seven hundred years later, angels began to visit those who would play key roles in how God would become man and make joy possible for us.

The first angel appeared to Zechariah (Luke 1). Of the three visitations in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Zechariah should have been the least surprised by his celestial visitor, yet he was rendered speechless, literally. Zechariah had been a priest for decades. He was actually at the altar, probably the most religious place he could be. He knew the prophecies better than most people, but when saw the angel, he didn’t immediately rejoice that the prophecies were about to be fulfilled. Instead, he was troubled and questioned the angel’s words. How could he and his wife, Elizabeth, conceive a child in their old age? It was impossible. Even when the angel revealed that he was Gabriel, the archangel who spoke to the prophet Daniel, all Zechariah could do was stand there, mute in disbelief. 

Six months after visiting Zechariah, Gabriel made another trek to earth, this time to visit a poor girl in a small, unimportant town. She knew the words of the prophets, but had no formal training in ministry. She was young, perhaps as young as 13, so she had no grand responsibilities. She was betrothed, and she had no illusions about her future as the wife of a laborer, forever insignificant. She, too, was troubled when Gabriel appeared, but her question, “How can this be?” was not out of disbelief, but rather a question of clarification. Her faith prompted her to trust the work of the Lord, as impossible as it seemed to be. She had to have known the trouble that would come of her position as a poor, unmarried, pregnant girl. She had to have wondered how her betrothed might respond. She knew the law well enough to know that she could be stoned for infidelity, even though she had not been unfaithful. Ridicule and shame would be the least of her concerns. But Mary did not dwell on the possibilities of future distress; she focused on the unchanging character of God. Unlike Zechariah, she believed the words of the heavenly messenger. 

Mary traveled to Judah to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth, a trip of about 100 miles. She had time to think during the journey of four or five days. While it is impossible to know exactly what she thought, she had to have pondered the prophecies of the coming Messiah in awe and wonder that the time had come at last and that she would play a role. Elizabeth corroborated Mary’s thoughts when she exclaimed that Mary was indeed the mother of the Lord. Mary’s heart overflowed with joy, saying, 

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. 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. He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Luke 1:46-55

I do wonder what Zechariah thought about this young cousin who understood the prophecies and the character of the Almighty better than he. In the three months Mary stayed in Judah, surely Zechariah watched and wondered how his life might have been different if he had responded to Gabriel with trusting confidence the way that Mary had.

The third angelic vision wasn’t in a temple or in broad daylight. This message came through a dream. Joseph, betrothed to Mary, was a good man. Matthew called him just, a man who knew and abided by the Law. Still, when Mary returned to Nazareth pregnant with a child that he knew was not his, he had to consider his choices. His reputation as a godly man was at stake, and how could it be that his Mary was carrying God in her womb? He struggled with the decision, and, to spare her life and shame, he resolved to quietly divorce her. Resolution is not a decision arrived at easily, and Joseph must have wept during his prayers about what to do. When he slept, he had a vivid dream. Gabriel again entered the story, telling Joseph that Mary was indeed the mother of the Messiah, and that he, Joseph, had been chosen to raise the child in the ways of the Lord. Why in a dream instead of a visitation? The Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps since Joseph was a godly man who prayed over the decision he had to make meant that a vision was all he would need. If his relationship with the Father was sufficient for him to be the caretaker and provider for the Messiah and His mother, perhaps he was in tune with the will of God already. What the scripture DOES tell us is that Joseph obeyed, without question. He married Mary, kept her pure so that Jesus would be born uncorrupted by human flesh, and named the baby, Jesus, just as the angel in the dream had instructed.

Three individual angelic visits. Three different responses. And ultimately, three reasons for joy. Zechariah’s penance was nine months of silence, but as soon as he wrote, “His name is John,” he was able to speak. His first words were words of joy that proclaimed the coming of the promised Redeemer. His praise resonated with the prophecies, the promises, and the mercy of God. Mary’s joy seemed to be part of her character as she acquiesced to the will of God. And Joseph, the one who so often gets overlooked in God’s salvation story, Joseph’s joy had to be complete when Mary delivered a perfect son according to the words of the angel in his vision. Neither Zechariah, Mary, nor Joseph could have imagined being center stage at the Incarnation. They did not understand how God would use an infant to bring salvation. They trusted, with confident expectation that, because they were in the middle of God’s will, He would work through them.

God is at work. God is with us. The people around us need Jesus more now than ever. If we fall into Zechariah’s worry about how God will work out His will through us, we may as well be mute. To respond with joy as Mary did to things we don’t understand is hard, but when we obey anyway, like Joseph, we will find joy.

We need to be prayerful. Joseph was not an academic, but he knew the Law, he trusted the Almighty, and his connection to God through prayer led him to obey the angel without a single question. Zechariah, the most educated of the three, questioned the angel in doubt. Mary questioned the angel for clarity. Joseph just got up and did as the angel commanded him. We need to be so in tune with the Lord that we see what He has for us to do and we act on it. The prayer above asks Jesus to help us turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. If the joy at the beginning of our Savior’s life is any indication, we can be confident that He will be at work in us until that work is complete (Philippians 1:6).

The Preparation for the Kingdom

December 6

The Preparation for the Kingdom

Isaiah 40; Isaiah 11-13; Matthew 1; Romans 8; 1 Peter 1

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, marn learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The word of God is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). It was written for our instruction, for without it, we are condemned in our human nature. To study the Word is a gift, for even angels long to look at the things God reveals to us as we read, annotate, and learn just how marvelous our salvation is. And not only our salvation, but also the promise of Jesus in his glory, made possible for us by his fulfilling the whole law (Matthew 5:17).

Our salvation does not release us from the consequences of our fallen nature yet (Romans 7), but we are no longer condemned by it (Romans 8). There is a day coming when Jesus will return to reign in full glory, but that day is not yet. The prophets are clear that there will be great suffering and a turning away from God throughout the whole world. We see a glimpse of it through the words of Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Hosea, and Malachi. The repeated destructions of Jerusalem and the scattering of God’s chosen people time after time as just a taste of the devastation yet to come.  That day will be unlike any other in intensity, terror, and woe ( Isaiah 2 & 13; Ezekiel; Joel 2; Malachi 4;  Matthew 24; 2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Peter 3). At the end of that day, however, JESUS appears, not as a baby, but in all his brilliance (Revelation 19).

This second week of Advent is an opportunity to ponder what it means to be redeemed and refined, protected from wrath by God’s power through faith that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1). The second candle represents the prophets who foretold both the Incarnation and the Glory of Jesus. Our natural inclination toward self-interest is inherited from our forebears, but we have been born again through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1; John 1). In this new life, we love earnestly, doing justly, showing mercy, and walking in a manner worthy of our calling. We view suffering as the Lord’s refining, not his punishment. We bury our eyes in the Word so that we clearly understand the purpose of the past, the peril of the present, and the promise of the future.

The Promise of Hope

November 29 

Isaiah 54-55

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son, Jesus Christ,, came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Historically, the first two weeks of Advent focus on the final coming of the Messiah in all his glory as he established his everlasting kingdom. The people of the first covenant, the direct descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, rebelled from and returned to their Creator over and over again. With every restoration to prosperity and influence, idolatry captured the nation within a generation or two. Each time, God allowed his people to be punished by conquering nations, enslavement, famine, pestilence, and disease.  Finally, God stopped rescuing his people for a time, saying, ” Behold my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place…this is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perish; it is cut off from their lips…” (Jeremiah 7).

Jeremiah cried out to the people, “Cut off your hair and cast it away; raise a lamentation on the bare heights, for the Lord has rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.” The total capitulation of God’s people to the cultures in which they lived ultimately cut them off from the Lord, Himself. There was no longer a balm in Gilead, and the people were scattered around the world (Jeremiah 8-9).

God’s righteousness and justice will always prevail over evil, but his love and mercy offers a promise of hope. Isaiah wrote, “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer (Isaiah 45). In God’s steadfast love, he promises to make a way of reconciliation for the storm-tossed people, and offers living waters to every thirsty one who comes to him (Isaiah 55, John 4).

God extended this hope to all people in the Incarnation; without the Incarnation there is no Resurrection. The first candle of Advent is the hope for all the nations: Jesus ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Isaiah 55; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 5). Every tribe. Every language. Every culture. The Incarnation is for everyone.

Looking toward Advent

Isaiah 55:8-9

From a time of thanksgiving to the wonder of the Incarnation, this time of year is set apart from the rest. It is an opportunity for introspection and reflection. What are the most important things?

If 2020 hasn’t done anything else for our benefit, it has given each of us ample time to sort through our hearts and minds along with our closets. We have had time to sort through the clutter of whatever it is that robs us of joy and peace. We might have learned how important and powerful community is. We had a chance to disentangle from commitments that filled our days but did not satisfy our spirits.

All the clearing out and cleaning up made space to deeply consider the mystery of our Creator. We can fully meditate on the universes He created and be humbled by His provision of a planet that perfectly meets our needs. That meditation should renew in us an attitude of stewardship so that our descendants can enjoy the vast beauty of our earthly home.

More significantly, we have a cleared out space in our heads and hearts to wonder in awe of God’s great love. His is a love that not only provides for our physical needs, but also for the needs of our eternal souls. The Incarnation: the Creator laying aside his divine power for a time, limiting Himself to the human form, with all its sorrows, sicknesses, and isolations. Why would the God who made us choose this path of humiliation? It is a good question to consider as Advent approaches.