Joy (3rd Week in Advent)

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How wonderful it is that we laugh because our bodies cannot contain the joy.

Imagine that.

And think of how much nonsense is blown away by one good belly laugh. Steve Brown said,  “You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.” 

And, another famous quote of his reads: “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”

And the third week of Advent, to which we now come, has the theme of joy. These themes indicate the gifts of God to the world in Christ:  Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Hope that does not disappoint;

Peace, but not as the world gives it;

Joy unspeakable and full of glory;

And love, perfect love that casts out fear.

Let me give you a definition of “joy.” “Joy is an evidence of the presence of God in your life.” If God is in your life, if you are filled with the Spirit of God, then this fruit of the Spirit will be obvious in your life.

Now don’t mistake happiness for joy. It’s easy to do that. The Bible mentions “joy” or “rejoicing” 330 times. But it only mentions “happiness” 26 times. Happiness depends upon what happens to you. So if all the circumstances are right, then you can be happy. But joy comes from inside.

And it is inside ourselves where we must daily choose joy.

But many are robbed of joy for various reasons. Some are unable to accept the forgiveness of God and thus cannot accept themselves. They look back over their lives with all its faults and failures and cannot really believe that God can truly clean up all that mess.

Secretly, they don’t feel welcome in God’s house. They think: “If people knew what I was really like, they would reject me.”

And so unresolved guilt robs them of joy.

The irony is that God knows all about us and has already acted on our behalf. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Our joy is not a facile escapism but a deep consciousness that we are loved, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

If that’s you, then you need to find your way, like David did in Psalm 51, to the point of praying: “Restore to me the joy of my salvation.”

It ‘s a prayer God delights in answering.

Some others are robbed of their joy through a wounded ego. They seem continually offended, and (almost) seeking reasons to be offended!

It’s true: People say the wrong things. Our feelings are hurt. We feel unloved, unneeded and left to one side.

And the consequence is that we have no joy at all in our fellowship together; only more and more reasons for a smoldering resentment where joy can never flourish.

What’s the problem? It’s a “critical spirit.” Lori Hatcher suggested that there are three poisonous roots that support this behavior:

  1. Thanklessness. Instead of being grateful for every gift, action, or kind word, the critical spirit weighs everything against an imagined standard of unattainable perfection and gripes and grumbles when it falls short. It complains about what it doesn’t have instead of appreciating what it does.
  2. Selfishness. Critical spirits reside in people who expect and demand to be served. They believe their needs should be met first, their wants attended to quickly, and their preferences honored.
  3. Insecurity. Critical spirits build themselves up by tearing others down. Pointing out others’ failures, errors, and flaws, makes them feel smug, smart, and superior.

If any of this describes you, then receive joy as a Christmas present!  In every single conversation, learn from the Holy Spirit how to build up and not tear down; how to commend and not criticize; how to be grateful and not to gripe.

One more thing: many people lose their joy because of the “stuff” that comes into their lives. Things don’t go smoothly. Circumstances trip you up and the problems gather around like unpaid bills.

Or perhaps unpaid bills are the problems themselves!

But how can you be chirpy when things go wrong?

It’s like saying: “How can you be brave when you’re scared?” The answer is that the only time you can be brave is when you’re scared.

And the only time you can be truly joyful is when it seems you have no reason to be so! (From a worldly way of thinking, that is).

It’s not the circumstances that shape you; it’s your perspective that shapes the circumstance. Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” (Heb 12:2). Titus 1:15 explains this powerful principle: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.”

But for today, choose joy. Decide to be happy. Make the choice to trust God with every circumstance that comes your way.

As Jesus put it, in John 15:11: “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”

Lord, I desire that your joy might remain in me – it sounds so good! And help me to imagine what it is like to have a fullness of joy.

I bring to you the things I have done wrong and I accept your forgiveness for my failure. Restore to me the joy of my salvation, Lord, that I might rise to praise you, and live that life of scandalous freedom that Steve talked about!

Lord, I’m fed up of being nitpicking and judgmental. Sweep it all away and teach me to relax in the joy of your fellowship, so that in every circumstance I can learn to be content, and full of joy in you.

Amen.

 

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Herod’s Dilemma

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“When Herod 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.’” (Matthew 2:4-6)

I often wondered about the line in “O little town of Bethlehem” that reads “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” At first glance it seems quite puzzling. Hopes and fears? Surely, good news is good news, right?

The passage above reminds us that what is good news to some is the worst of bad news to others.

The scene of the passage is that moment when Herod receives the Magi, asks them what they’re doing. Having heard about the coming of the Messiah, he retires to another room and consults his own experts. And as they speak about the coming King, Herod begins to scheme…

The reason for the reaction was simply that Herod the King was hearing about another king and he didn’t like it. Herod himself was not Jewish. He was a Roman appointee, given the title “King of the Jews.” The king that was to be born was of David’s bloodline.

And so what was a hope to the Magi (and possibly to those experts too), was a fear to Herod. The Real was coming, and suddenly there was no place for a Pretender. In John 10:8, Jesus said, “All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.”

But now, Herod  hears of “a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

The Messiah was the True shepherd of Israel. And the word that Jesus would bring was: Accept no substitutes. Herod would have instinctively understood that point.

I wonder if the Magi noticed the reaction, or if they were too wrapped up in their own studies to spot Herod’s dilemma. It came to them later, of course, but…

Incidentally, I find it fascinating that the first people to go looking for the Messiah was this group of foreign intellectuals. There’s a place in the Christmas narrative for the simple trust of Mary, the considered obedience of Joseph, and the rough worship of shepherds;  but don’t forget the patient study of geeks.

Well, what happens next to the various players is another story. Right now I’m just contemplating that phrase “hopes and fears.” It seems to me to be there in Simeon’s prophecy too.

This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:34-35)

Simeon’s “blessing” of Joseph and Mary doesn’t sound entirely encouraging! He prophesies that that the coming of Jesus will create a dividing line, a decision point.

What is a hope to one is a fear to another.

Some, such as those in power in authority, will fall and others, who are poor and forgotten, will rise.

And Herod, it seems, was hearing the prophecy too, albeit in a different way.

In this way, Jesus would serve as a sign to the people of Israel. Signs were always for the purpose of revealing the truth of the words of a prophet. Simeon, by declaring the sign, is indicating that his prophecies will come true, and the sign will prove it. The sign in this case is that though the Messiah has come to Israel, He will be “spoken against.” This serves not only to validate Simeon’s words, but also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. God’s concern has always been for the condition of the heart, and how the people respond to Jesus reveals what is in their hearts.

Mary also is given some hard words. Though up until now, in Luke’s gospel, she has been considered blessed, she now learns that with the blessing comes great pain. Simeon says to Mary that “a sword will pierce through your own soul too.”  It’s a foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus, and the terrible pain it would cause Mary.

Lord Jesus, I see that in choosing you each day, I am choosing the Cross. I want to know you  in the “fellowship of your suffering” like Mary did,  that I might “fall” to my self and “rise” to you.

For, as Herod realized, there can be only one king on the throne. And if I look to you to be my King then I can no longer rule the roost of my own life.

And every day, I want to choose aright, to choose you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Royalty of Jesus

Britain's Queen Elizabeth's crown is carried through the Norman Porch of the Palace of Westminster after the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014 in London, England. REUTERS/POOL/Oli Scarff

“Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
(Isaiah 9:6, 7)

From the ancient context of Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming Messiah, the Bible’s idea of kingship is nothing to do with celebrity and self-importance, but do with the joining together of privilege with responsibility.

And the royalty of Jesus must be understood in the same way. The King stoops to wash feet.

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (John 13:12-15)

I recall that scene in C.S.Lewis’s  Prince Caspian: “Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan. ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’ I – I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian. ‘I am only a child.’ Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been proof that you were not.”

The child of Isaiah’s prophecy is described as a prince, with the mantle of authority upon him: “The government will be upon His shoulder ” and his name will be called ‘Prince of Peace’. “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom” because He will “establish it with judgment and justice.”

How many rulers establish their kingdom with peace, judgment and justice?

Jesus may have accepted the crowd’s plaudits in John 12:15: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” And He did answer Pilate: “You say correctly that I am a king For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world….” (John 18:37)

There was, however, a little more to say about what royalty was. “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Jesus challenged how the disciples perceived authority and greatness in the most memorable of terms:

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them would be considered the greatest. So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.… “ (Luke 22:24-26)

Here is kingship – but not worldly kingship. It’s royalty that serves.

The really astonishing thing here is not only that Jesus accepted both privilege and responsibility, but that He passed it on to us. Peter announced both privilege and responsibility:

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

And Matthew finished his Gospel on the same note of derivative authority:  ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

I’ve been reading a book called  “The Supernatural Ways of Royalty: Discovering Your Rights and Privileges of Being a Son or Daughter of God” by Kris Vallotton and Bill Johnson. Here’s a clip:

“Princes and princesses are commissioned to see the people they lead reach their full potential in God. That means that the greatest compliment we can ever have is when the people we are leading become greater than us. If we believe that we are leading because we are the most qualified, then we will subconsciously work to undermine other people’s advancements.”

So, first, to be called into the “royalty” of Jesus means to  be called into his sphere of service, to take up the bucket and towel, and not to “lord it” over other people.

But there’s more. It’s worth looking at the book just to do the “Prince and Pauper” test at the end.

It reminded me that, second, to be called into the royalty of Jesus is to think royally! 

We must learn to embrace our identities as sons and daughters of God; to realize that we are heirs to Jesus’ reward and have been given authority to issue decrees in the Kingdom and to do God’s business on the earth like Jesus did.  This is reminder is especially important for those of us who grew up in religious communities where we were trained to think of ourselves more like God’s slaves than God’s sons.

“So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.” (Romans 8:15-16)

We are heirs of God’s glory! Third, to be called into Christ’s royalty is to inherit.

 God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy.  None of us get to heaven by our merit.  Neither do we receive victory, blessings, love or sonship by merit.  We would all fall short of deserving anything.  Instead, we are invited to freely receive the fruit of Christ’s merit.  Because Christ is our brother, Romans 8 tells us we get to receive everything He has, like heirs and heiresses; like royalty.

How is that fair?  It’s not fair, it’s grace!  God’s riches at Christ’s expense.

God’s definition of fair sometimes differs from ours.  (Look at that crazy parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 for an example of that!)

God desires that we receive with gratitude and live out our privilege with joy and humility. There’s nothing here of self importance, of striving for approval – just the pleasure of knowing that our Father gives us all we need.

We work and do our best, sure, but our main task is to make good choices as they come to us, and to follow the path laid before us with peace and not anxiety.

Walk today in the encouragement of Psalm 1. Blessed is the one who chooses God:

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.”

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The Set Time (ADVENT)

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“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

The fascinating thing about this verse is that it’s Paul’s total contribution to Christmas. Isn’t that interesting? Other than this snippet, Paul makes no reference to Christmas in his letters at all. So, quite clearly the first generation of Christians (Paul is writing in the early fifties) didn’t celebrate it.

In fact, there’s no reference for centuries. In 336 A.D., the Western Church chose December 25 to celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. In English, this day was known as “Christ’s Mass” which became “Christmas.” The Eastern Church chose January 6. The day was named Epiphany, meaning “appearance.” Eventually the period from December 25 to January 6 became known as the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Most of what we call “Christmas” stems from Hollywood advertising campaigns in the late 1930s plus a few of Charles Dickens’ cheesier fantasies.

Consumerism and guilt-trips.

But there is a vitally important kernel of truth that the early church did pass on! This is it! So don’t “Bah Humbug” too quick. Paul refers to three essential ingredients that make Christmas important. Let’s go beneath the icing:

  • The season is God’s GO. It’s the time of His sending. And He sends so that we can be sent…
  • The sender is God. Christmas is God’s YES. Someone said “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up his dream for the world.”
  • The son is God’s BEST. Christmas declares it as a metaphor for how He wants us to be before Him. “God sent his Son…that we might receive …sonship.”

The word “season” is vital in the purposes of God. “When the set time had fully come” suggests a delicate precision, an orchestration of events. You just “know” when the time is right.

I remember an art teacher helping us to “know when to stop” in the application of paint to a canvas.

So how had the “set time fully come“?

Oh, in a hundred ways. David Jeremiah’s book Why The Nativity? marshals the evidence:

What was it about the vast Roman Empire that was so ideal for the coming of Christ?

The Romans themselves were part of the answer. For the first time in history, the Mediterranean world—the cradle of civilization—was unified. Alexander the Great, a Greek, had been the first to bridge so many nations, but the Romans had built a foundation that would last longer. They had constructed the famous Roman roads (“All roads lead to Rome”) that would allow messengers to travel safely with news and ideas, as Paul and the first missionaries would do. Ships, too, had come of age. Egypt and Italy, Syria and Spain—so many nations shared the “highway” that the Mediterranean Sea had become. Here was yet another means for the message of Christ to spread far and wide.

There was also the Pax Romana—the “Roman peace” that endured from 27 BC until AD 180. Jesus was born in the same generation in which it began, and it meant a relatively calm environment for the lower regions of Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Egypt, and northern Africa. In a city such as Jerusalem, for example, the Jews were allowed to preserve their own faith and customs. The Romans were permissive about religions as long as there wasn’t any trouble and the Jews paid a punitive tax—fiscus Judaicus.

Stability and relative tolerance opened the world to the spread of a new idea; roads and shipping lanes made it happen quickly and efficiently. But there was another key factor: language.

The Romans had taken efficient control of much of the known world, but they were still overshadowed by their Greek predecessors in one respect: For many years, people almost everywhere continued to speak Greek. Hellenic Greek happened to be one of the most beautiful and articulate tongues the world has known. It seemed custom built for the ideas that distinguished Christian life and thought. Would the world have learned Hebrew in order to consider the claims of Christ? It’s hard to imagine. But the shared language, Greek, made it possible for Paul and others to travel to many countries and tell people the good news of the gospel without cumbersome translation.

We consider all these factors, and still we are left with an unlikelihood. After all, many other ideas were present in the world of the first century. All of them had Roman roads and peace at their disposal, along with the Greek language. But no other idea was capable of toppling the greatest empire in the history of humanity.

Consider this: An obscure teacher from a small town in a ruined country changed the world – after his death. On the Friday of his execution, his followers largely abandoned him. Yet within a generation, he was worshiped in many foreign countries. Within three centuries, his faith was the official doctrine of the empire. And today, 2.1 billion men, women, and children follow that same teacher who was put to death as a criminal.”

Truly, it was the perfect moment in history.

And if the time was right on a macro-scale of world politics, it  was also right on a micro-scale in its human and Jewish context. Jesus was “born of a woman , born under the law.” In these bald terms, Paul says precisely what was necessary, and he tells us something vital about incarnation: that it means restriction. God “emptied himself.” “God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”It means first a physical restriction (“born of a woman“) and second a social restriction (“born under law“).

It’s like a pattern of ever decreasing circles, until you arrive at the centre, where Jesus is.

And what for? Paul is explicit. God narrowed himself down into one precise prison cell, so that we might be freed from the law, and eventually freed from the restraints of a sinful humanity.

It’s that parabola. He comes down so that we can go up. C.S. Lewis put it with characteristic brevity: “God became man so that might become a son of God.” 

This verse reminds us how.

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“Who can endure the day of his coming?” (ADVENT)

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“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” (Malachi 3:1-3)

This is a theme not associated in the popular mind with Christmas!

Nevertheless, Advent is, of course, preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ’s first coming as a baby, but also for Christ’s second coming, in power and glory. We live between the two.

Isn’t it amazing that we (we Christians!)  face the coming of Christ so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the “Day of the Lord”? We have insulated ourselves by such an emphasis on the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the least shiver of fear that God is coming. We’ve become so blasé about the whole message, since we’ve carefully abstracted the “Happy Christmas” side of things and forgotten the point: that the God of the world draws near.

That’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing on Advent in 1928: “We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.”

It’s scary first!

Perhaps we have to feel that scariness before we can understand the kindness. God is coming into the very midst of evil, to judge the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, and comes to us with grace and love.

It is fitting to think about this today, as we move through the season of Advent. God is coming. God is coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but God is also coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.

So how do we respond? I remember a children’s story on this, which began: “Imagine if the Queen were visiting your house. Excitement, pride, mixed up with nervousness and trepidation.”

No, no: let’s try a different picture: imagine if a head social worker was visiting your house and if you failed to pass muster, he had the right to take your children away. Do you see the difference? We can exclude the nervousness factor in the first picture and concentrate on the excitement and pride, but in the second? Any reasonable person should feel at least some fear. Am I really up to the mark? Will I pass inspection?

“Who can endure day of his coming?”

According to the Law of a Holy God, no one. But the Good News is that that’s not where the Bible leaves us.  Here’s Spurgeon:

“The cry of the Christian religion is the gentle word, “Come.” The Jewish law harshly said, “Go, take heed unto thy steps as to the path in which thou shalt walk. Break the commandments, and thou shalt perish; keep them, and thou shalt live.” The law was a dispensation of terror, which drove men before it as with a scourge; the gospel draws with bands of love. Jesus is the good Shepherd going before His sheep, bidding them follow Him, and ever leading them onwards with the sweet word, “Come.” The law repels, the gospel attracts. The law shows the distance which there is between God and man; the gospel bridges that awful chasm, and brings the sinner across it. 

From the first moment of your spiritual life until you are ushered into glory, the language of Christ to you will be, “Come, come unto me.” As a mother puts out her finger to her little child and woos it to walk by saying, “Come,” even so does Jesus. He will always be ahead of you, bidding you follow Him as the soldier follows his captain. He will always go before you to pave your way, and clear your path, and you shall hear His animating voice calling you after Him all through life; while in the solemn hour of death, His sweet words with which He shall usher you into the heavenly world shall be—”Come, ye blessed of my Father.”

Nay, further, this is not only Christ’s cry to you, but, if you be a believer, this is your cry to Christ—”Come! come!” You will be longing for His second advent; you will be saying, “Come quickly, even so come Lord Jesus.” You will be panting for nearer and closer communion with Him. As His voice to you is “Come,” your response to Him will be, “Come, Lord, and abide with me. Come, and occupy alone the throne of my heart; reign there without a rival, and consecrate me entirely to Thy service.” 

Clip from Ken & Val’s book This Hope we Have

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Broken, but Blessed

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I live between two opposite addresses:  between that of the worm and that of the eagle. I have this soaring eagle-confidence because I know my Saviour lives and that his grace is sufficient for me, that he is all I need!, and yet I daily experience this grinding worm-contrition that must acknowledge my own sin and failures.

What a strange mixture of polar opposites.

Micah expresses something of it (7: 7-9):   “I will watch for the Lord; I will wait confidently for God, who will save me. My God will hear me. Our enemies have no reason to gloat over us. We have fallen, but we will rise again. We are in darkness now, but the Lord will give us light. We have sinned against the Lord, so now we must endure his anger for a while. But in the end he will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.

I have sinned against God! And I cannot defend myself or in any way lessen my guilt. And consequently, I will “bear the indignation of the Lord”. He is right to be angry with me. I have sinned against the Lord of glory, and I am ashamed. But then look at the next two lines of verse 9: “. . . He will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.” There’s confidence there too—”God will plead my cause. God will execute judgment for me.” I have sinned against him, and so I am broken beneath his holy indignation. But this very God—this very same angry God—will soon plead my cause, he will take my side and vindicate me, and so I am bold in his grace.

Broken under his indignation, bold in his grace.

What is so remarkable and helpful about this verse is that it keeps these two things so close together. Many of us feel that we can’t live this way—keeping these two things so close together. If we think of God as angry with us, we collapse in despair. If we think of God as gracious to us, then we feel there is no place for brokenness and remorse. And so today we tend to separate what the Bible keeps together.

But that’s it: they are brought together! The two addresses, so to speak, are brought home into one.  When we sin, we must accept the indignation of God and not deny it or hide ourselves from it. But not only that: when we sin, let’s be bold and believe that this very God will plead our cause and vindicate us in justice—brokenness and boldness.

The context is that of a nation facing imminent invasion from without, from the destructive force of Assyria, but the prophet is saying that the real enemy is within, from the sin of the people, “God’s people.” And so God sent Micah to call the people to repent and to warn them of coming judgment.

What is the nature of this sinful behaviour? It sounds strangely familiar. In 2:1–2 he says, Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.

In 6:11–12 he cries out for God against dishonesty in business: Shall I acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights? Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.

 But it’s not just the businessmen and women that are corrupt. The religious leaders are phoney and driven by the love of money. Look at 3:5: Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths.

In other words they preach for hire—they say what the rich people in the congregation want to hear so the building gets built faster. It was an evil day. Micah had the unpopular job of warning people that the corruption in business and commerce and religion and politics was going to bring terrible judgment from God if there was no repentance: Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you shall go forth from the city and dwell in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. (4:10)

How do they respond? First answer this: how do WE respond? We face the same judgement. Why is the divorce rate as high in the church as it is in the world? Why do the vast majority of Christians never introduce anyone to Christ? Why are our churches loaded with people who want a part-time, convenient, weekend Christian experience and who show no serious interest in spiritual growth? Why do pastors have to twist people’s arms to give, to serve, to get involved in the work of the ministry? Why are church splits so common? Why are so many professing Christians barren, empty, hurting, confused, and in spiritual bondage? Why is the world so utterly disinterested in what we have to offer?

So when you contemplate Micah’s situation, think of your own! We are sinners and the church is in great need of repentance and reform and cleansing. Micah shows two kinds of response to his preaching. Both are based on grace, but one is right and the other is wrong.

First, let’s look at the wrong one—the wrong way to depend on grace in the face of Micah’s exposure of our sin. Look at 3:11. Micah speaks to the judges and the priests and the prophets of Jerusalem: Its heads give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for hire, its prophets divine for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil shall come upon us.” This is the response of False Security. They think they are ok: “We are secure because the Lord is in the midst of us! There is his temple! There is the Ark of the Covenant—the covenant! We are the covenant people! We have Abraham as our father (Matthew 3:9). We are leaning on the Lord! Leaning on the everlasting arms of grace! We have a God of grace! Turn your preaching of judgment to the nations, Micah, not to us. Look at 2:6. What do they say to Micah? “Do not preach”—thus they preach—”one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.” Here is one way to lean on grace. And if we do, it will kill us. It is a false security.

Have you read of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian? He was hanged on April 9, 1945, by a special order of Himmler at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. He wrote a little book called THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. What Bonhoeffer attacks in his first essay in this book is this response to Micah’s preaching. He calls it “cheap grace.” Listen and see if this doesn’t ring true to Scripture and nail the problem of these people.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. (p. 45)

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (p. 47)

Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness . . . Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of grace—for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace. (p. 47)

The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. (p. 55)

Cheap grace was rampant in Micah’s day. It was rampant in Bonhoeffer’s day in Germany. (“We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ” [p. 57].)

And it is rampant today. And it is the wrong way to lean on grace. And if the church doesn’t change, there will be judgment—there was in Israel. The church is sterile and it needs to reproduce.

That other way is that worm meets eagle approach! In Micah 7:7–9 Israel has learned to respond the right way to the preaching of sin and judgment. Four steps:

1. Unshakable Solidarity with God: v 7, “My God will hear me.” This is what happens when a person turns from depending on self and begins to depend on God.

2. Acceptance of Indignation When We Sin: We don’t minimize its ugliness. v9: “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.”

3. Confidence in the Grace of God: I am confident that the very God who is indignant at my sin, is also my saviour. He pleads my cause v9. “He will defend us and right the wrongs that have been done to us. He will bring us out to the light; we will live to see him save us.” Another translation puts is thus: “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy! When I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me . . . He will bring me forth to the light; I shall see his deliverance.”

4. Hope of Deliverance: v 7. “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. When you sin, you bear the indignation of the Lord in brokenness, and that in this brokenness you boldly believe that this very God will plead your cause, and that you look to him and wait for him with this confidence: “My God will hear me.”

 

Can you call God your God this morning?

Is there an unshakable solidarity between you and him?

This is not inherited. It is chosen by an act of forsaking all other gods

and swearing allegiance to the one true God, the Father of Jesus Christ.

“Choose today whom you shall serve.”

Let him break you. Let him bless you. Let him make you strong.

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ADVENT: The Sign of the Child

Image result for baby on board

Sometimes we misconstrue the role of the Old Testament prophets, seeing them as (mere) predictors of the future. Though there is a strong predictive element, it is better to see them as forth-tellers, rather than fore-tellers.

They “told forth” the word of God as it was spoken to them by God in response to the issues of the day. They filled their minds and hearts with an experiential knowledge of the character of God, and then responded, as it were, on God’s behalf, to the things that were happening.

And because God’s character is constant, the word He speaks keeps applying! God does not compromise with sin, nor does He change His opinion or blur the boundaries between good and evil.

No matter how much we might do so.

Someone once described the work of the Old Testament prophets to me as that of artists painting a mountain range: no matter how accurate the outline, it’s impossible to gauge the distance between the peaks until you travel among them yourself. So the prophets trumpeted forth God’s word (in the present), outlining the consequences (in the future) but did not provide a timescale or calendar of events. They were more concerned with identifying the principle of how and why God acted.

But there was one thing for sure: God was going to act decisively to deliver His people. And the word “Messiah” means “Rescuer.” It was a key theme dominating the work of the prophets. How will God do it?

Isaiah tells the story of his own calling into God’s service in Isaiah 6. It’s a remarkable vision of the holiness of God and the unholiness of man. Isaiah expresses his own unworthiness to speak on God’s behalf, but God replies (in the vision) by taking a live coal from the altar and touching his mouth. Henceforth, Isaiah’s mouth was sanctified for service.

So what did he say?

He said a great deal, and the large book of the Bible that bears his name scans God’s dealings with His people through a succession of kings and at least a score of years. But for now, as we think of Advent, let’s think of those early prophecies from Isa 7-12.

Before you read any more, grab a Bible and speed-read  those chapters, marking down every reference to a son or a child.

Finished?

You will have found at least half a dozen.

  1. Shear Jashub” is referred to as “your son” in Isa 7:3.
  2. A virgin will conceive” the child to be called “Emmanuel” in Isa 7:14.
  3. Isaiah’s second son is to be called “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz ” (Isa 8:1-4).
  4. In Isa 8:17-18, the prophetic meaning of these names is given.
  5. In Isa 9, there’s a long passage beginning “A child is born.

There are several other references too, but these are the main ones. If this is a picture or indicator of the role and function of the coming Messiah, then what are we told? What can we draw from these scattered references?

First, we note the significance of Jerusalem (“the city of the great king”) and the line of David. These form something of the parameters of God’s moving in history.

Second, we have to see the significance of the birth of a child to a virgin. Of course, as is well known, the Hebrew word “virgin” can just mean “young woman” and, as one commentator put it: “Its immediate use here refers to Isaiah’s young wife and her new-born son (Isa 8:1-4)” and the immediate political situation.

Matthew 1:23 speaks of a further fulfillment, however, and the sign is not of a time-period (Isa 7:15,16) but of a miraculous birth.

Third, the coming of this child is going to change the world. This is the clear word of the Isa 9 passage. There is an emphasis on government, security and peace which go oddly with the idea of a child.

Fourth, without over-simplifying it too much, the prophetic names of Isaiah’s sons provide the meaning of the life of the Messiah. Shear Jashub means  “A remnant will return” and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz means “Your enemies will soon be destroyed.” The first speaks of mercy, and the second of judgement.

The cross is where God’s judgement and His mercy meet.

But for now, we are travelling on the Advent journey, baby on board, waiting for God to do the unexpected! 

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