Archive for December, 2010

I didn’t see anything prepped or about to publish, so I thought I would share this.

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Have a happy New Year’s Eve and Day.

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A blog I enjoy reading is called “The Rabbit Room.” I subscribe to the feed and don’t always read the entire post but the other day they put up this quote by C.S. Lewis which caught my eye.

…only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.

My oldest daughter has recently been introduced to Lewis through Narnia. We have begun to read the stories and her ability to make the connections between the story and the Story amaze me. Lewis was  a brilliant writer and I appreciate much of what he has to say. Although I had never read this quote before I rather enjoy it and agree with it.

The quote and post can be found here.

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I’m reading some really good books right now. I think I like them because they irritate me and I get all worked up when I read them. One, especially, is driving me nuts. It’s a book by Steven Furtick called Sun Stand Still and it is an especially unpleasant read–for the most part.

Another book, Whole Life Transformation, by Keith Meyer comes off at times as way too autobiographical and winy, but I’m starting to open up to it a bit more the deeper I get into it.

As I was reading, I came across a rather lengthy quote that I thought you (the readers) might appreciate. The quote is from a man I have never heard of who lived a really, really long time ago.  I have no context other than what Meyer gives, so the quote is sort of threadbare as far as it goes.

One of the most persistent mistakes of Christian men has been to postpone social regeneration to a future era to be inaugurated by the return of Christ…It is true that any regeneration of society can come only through the act of God and the presence of Christ; but God is now acting, and Christ is now here. To assert that means not less faith, but more. It is true that any regeneration of society is dogged by perpetual relapses and doomed forever to fall short of its aim. But the same is true of our personal efforts to live a Christ-like life; it is true, also of every local church, and of the history of the church at large. Whatever argument would demand the postponement of social regeneration to a future era will equally demand the postponement of personal holiness to a future life. (Meyer’s emphasis; quote from Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century, ed Paul B Raushenbush, p 283. Meyer quotes him on page 50 of Whole Life Transformation.)

Well, I have to be honest with you when I say: that sounds right to me. What do you think? Is there a correlation between personal holiness and social regeneration? Do you think Rauschenbusch was on to something when he wrote that more than a century ago?

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“God’s anger is not limited to the Old Testament. Even Jesus got angry, furious, and enraged” [Mark 3:5 is cited as a reference for Jesus' anger, fury, and rage.]–Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, 258

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Introduction

We have a tradition here at Prophets, Priests, and Poets of writing what we call a group post at special times during the year. We have traditionally reserved these posts for such days as Valentine’s Day and Halloween and Election Day and Boxing Day, but this year we decided to do one at Christmas. Maybe I should leave the humor to Brendt.

What we have here at PPP is a collection of writers who are loved by Jesus and who love Jesus and His Scripture–both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. We find comfort and joy and hope and blessing in God’s Word and believe, sometimes differently, that there is coming a day when God will put the world to rights. We are among the millions, perhaps billions, of the hopeful who, combined, sing a chorus of praise to God with every stroke we make of a pen.

In his collection of sermons called Secrets in the Dark Frederick Buechner has a sermon he simply calls ‘The Birth.’ This sermon is a colloquy of three shorter sermons, each spoken by a ‘famous’ person from the birth narratives of Jesus found in Luke and Matthew. First we meet an innkeeper. Then we meet a Wise Man. Finally, a Shepherd speaks to us. It is the Wise Man’s words I am mostly interested in for he speaks a word that I hope defines what this group post is meant to represent.

“‘And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?’” (13)

Ask yourself this terrible question as you read this colloquy from us. We base our thoughts on the words of (mostly) the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah. Be blessed this Christmas in Christ.

Isaiah 8: Jerry

My focus is on chapter 8, but chapter 8 actually reaches backward and begins in what we call chapter 7: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” is where it begins (Isaiah 7:14). But if we press the issue a little more, we see it actually begins thus, “When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Peka son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it” (Isaiah 7:1). We see the Ahaz concerned with the water systems, making alliances with foreign kings, and refusing God’s provision of a sign in the face of an imminent threat, so God will give Ahaz a sign anyhow: God with us. God will ‘come down’ among his people, he will suffer with them, he will be with them.

Then, later, the very king Ahaz had decided to trust is the very king who would bring about the downfall of Judah and carry them off to exile. The land of milk and honey would become a land of thistles and thorns. At that time, the only cry that can be made will be, “Immanuel!” Still, God with us; God with them.

In chapter 8, then, we hear of the rising tide of opposition: mighty floodwaters would rise against Judah and it was the Lord’s doing. The prophet laments, “It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, Immanuel!” Yet there is hope: “God is with us” (8:10). “Devise your plans”, shouts the prophet to the enemies of Judah, they will now stand! God is with us.”

The sign of Immanuel was given in the face or rank unbelief—it was no kingly piety that prevented Ahaz from asking for the sign: It was unbelief. It was his way of saying, “Uh, that’s OK Lord, I have the king of Assyria. It’s all good.” The sign of Immanuel was also given in the face of imminent disaster—a rising tide of persecution and devastation to the people and land of God. Your Land, Immanuel; God with us.

The sign was ironic: a brave king facing national devastation receives a sign he did not want in the form of a child. The sign was devastating: a God who loved his people and the land would watch as his people and land were swept away by pagans who neither feared God nor cared about people. Yet the sign was hopeful: when all was said and done, ‘God with us’ was the cry of God’s people (8:10). “Nothing devised against Immanuel’s people can succeed” (J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 94). The sign lingered in the memory of the Jewish people…God with us….

Then, one day, along came an angel who said: “This is the one who is Immanuel” and he pointed to Jesus who would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:23). So Matthew and the angel take Isaiah’s words and say to anyone reading and/or listening: Jesus is God with us.  All that Isaiah had said was about God, Matthew and the angel say is about Jesus. But that’s not the best part of it at all!

By the time we read through all of Matthew’s chapters and eavesdrop on private conversations and watch from a safe distance as Jesus does things that cause many great consternation and others great joy, he says this to his disciples, some of whom were doubting (much like Ahaz did): “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and 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” (Matthew 28:17-20).

There in the midst of failing faith, in the midst of a turned upside down worldview, in the midst of death and resurrection—there, surrounded by those who were at the same time hopeful and hopeless—there in the midst of uncertainty and relief, Jesus too says: I am Immanuel; I am God with you. Of all the ‘I am’ statements Jesus ever made, this one is especially poignant. All those promises Isaiah’s God made to his people, Jesus says he is the fulfillment of. So go ahead and let the world scheme, let the nations rejoice, “nothing devised against Immanuel’s people can succeed.” God remembered his promises to Judah and brought them forward to us.

So where are you? Broken? Bruised? Beaten? Faithless? Uncertain? Upside down? Doubting? Facing a flood of adversaries? “O Come, o come, Immanuel!” What else can you say? Jesus is the realization of Isaiah’s words, the fulfillment of the sign in the most complete sense, and the only hope we have when faced with a crisis of any proportion. And, the best part? This is not mere Christmas hope!

He. Is. With. Us. Always.

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Isaiah 9: Christian

For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.

Isaiah 9:6-7

Isaiah has quite a few passages we love to quote at Christmas time.  It’s filled with prophecy that announces the coming of Israel’s salvation.  It also has some key verses that we can connect to the birth of Jesus – “For a child is born to us.”  Of course, we don’t go digging around trying to make every prophecy a prediction about Christ.  We have Matthew’s testimony about how Jesus fulfilled certain prophecies.  But the major themes found in Isaiah, even if we only take the prophetic passages that speak about Jesus, don’t focus on the birth of Jesus.  The focus is on the actions of the one who will be born.

Things will be different when he comes.  His presence will be a shining light in a land of deep darkness (Isaiah 9:1-5).  Life will be better under his rule.  It all sounds too good to be true.  It sounds like the perfect place to live.  And it never ends.  There won’t be some other country that overthrows the new King.  His government won’t collapse because of financial instability, citizen unrest and upheaval, or a military coup.  Peace is it’s defining characteristic.

The really amazing thing is that the Jewish people looked forward to the fulfillment of these prophecies.  They had hope that one day, God would send His anointed one to rule as their King, to protect and defend them, to provide for them, to bless them.  I think that’s amazing not because they had hope, but because they were looking toward the future that we are now living.  Our King, not a baby Jesus, but the Lord Jesus Christ, reigns in glory with fairness and justice.  His people, who are aliens in this world, live in his peace.

Before Him there was darkness.  Before Him there was sin and evil.  Before Him there was oppression.  Before Him there was cruelty.  Before Him there was the grave.  Before him there was death for all eternity.  Before, I did not know Him.

Things are different now.  With Him there is light.   With Him there is righteousness.  With Him there is justice.  With Him there is mercy.  With Him there is resurrection.  With Him there is life for all eternity.  The King has come.  Praise the King!

Jeremiah 31: Tim

Consider these two verses:

The priests will enjoy abundance,
and my people will feast on my good gifts.
I, the LORD, have spoken!”

And:

But now this is what the LORD says:
“Do not weep any longer,
for I will reward you,” says the LORD.
“Your children will come back to you
from the distant land of the enemy.

Want to know what verse comes between these two? Its one you’ll recognize if you’re familiar with the Christmas story:

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

Those verses aren’t exactly peanut butter and chocolate. They’re more like chocolate milk and pickles at 3AM. Jeremiah 31.15 is quoted by Matthew, describing the massacre of the innocents. And it’s easy to let that verse sit there, a bitter edge to the Christmas story. But in the larger context of Jeremiah, and the Christmas story itself the bitterness lasts only awhile before God sets right what has been wrong. Jeremiah 31 is a prophetic utterance, not about bitterness, but about a savior who will restore the relationship between humanity and God.

The two major remembrances of the Church calendar are Christmas and Easter. One the birth of the savior signaling a light had begun cracking the darkness and the Resurrection the singular act that defeated death and sin.

The work of God is a work of joy that has washed away bitterness, even the bitterness of a people lost, and infants murdered.

Isaiah 32: Nathanael

“Behold, a king will reign in righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 32.1a ESV).

This prophecy is just one of many pointing toward the day when the promised Messiah would arrive and usher in His kingdom. The coming King would fulfill the covenant that God made to Abraham. And He would be a faithful mediator in a way that Moses could not be. He would be a blameless King in a way that David was unable to be.

This King will rule and reign in righteousness over a kingdom that has no borders. His kingdom cannot be overthrown. No coup can succeed against it. It subverts other kingdoms without taking them over. This kingdom is so far above earthly concepts of a kingdom that its King, when describing it, had to resort to parables that began with the phrase “The kingdom of God is like . . .” for there is no human language that can explain it and no human intellect that can comprehend it.

But the thing that jumps out the most about this prophecy in Isaiah is the second half of the verse. “. . . and princes will rule in justice” (Isaiah 32:1b). The children of this King, His royal heirs, will be known by how they rule. They will be fair. They will be just and virtuous. They will be honest. They will rule in direct correlation to their submission to their King. Once we surrender our lives to the Him, we realize that He calls us to a unique mission. We are to go forth and draw others to Him. External force cannot be exerted. Reconciliation, not domination, is the goal of this kingdom.

Isaiah goes on to describe the manner in which the children of this servant King will rule: “Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will give attention. The heart of the hasty will understand and know, and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak distinctly” (verses 2-4).

The method in which we rule will be directly affected by the influence and authority we allow the King to have in our lives. The degree to which we surrender to His reign will dictate the manner in which we rule. The King made it very clear in an analogy how much His children depend on Him. He said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.4-5 ESV).

Behold, a coming King will reign
And rule in righteousness
Whose advent was of old ordained
Before this world was formed and framed.
To liberate the oppressed.

His children will rule with justice,
Each prince and each princess;
They’ll be a healing hospice,
A peaceful place of solace,
To those lost and in distress.

Each will be like a safe haven
From the wind and storms,
To all who feel the sting of sin,
Every one be welcomed in
Where love restores and transforms.

Each will be like a refreshing spring
In the dry and barren desert,
From the scorched ground bubbling,
Causing the parched tongue to sing,
Quenching more than thirst.

They are the great Rock’s shadow
In a hot and weary land,
To the orphan and the widow,
To those overcome with sorrow.
They extend their King’s hand.

Then eyes will see, ears will hear,
Truth will be disclosed.
Emmanuel, God draws near,
Dispelling any doubt and fear
With the love songs He composed.

The fearful heart will understand
And know love’s sacrifice.
The stammering tongue will proclaim
In clear tones Messiah’s name,
The King of kings, Jesus Christ.

Our King is a suffering servant, not a dominant dictator. And so, as His princes and princesses, we must be willing to follow His example.

Isaiah 40: Chris

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

In this time of remembrance and recognition of the coming of our Messiah, one of the words that most comes to me is “Compassion”.

My oldest son and I were talking today as we were wrapping gifts, and we happened upon the topic of stories which could bring tears to our eyes. The written word is sometimes hard to infuse with the passion and weight it truly deserves. Even so, I told him of the one passage in Scripture which still brings tears to my eyes – with the first time being five years ago when I read it as part of my first time reading the Bible from cover to cover.

When the Old Testament comes to a close, even though the children of Israel have returned to Jerusalem and set the foundations of the Temple. But even so, their longing for a Messiah is a palpable, bottomless ache. The prophecy of Isaiah 40, which pointed to the return of Israel from Babylon, also held for them a deeper, more fulfilling promise.

And this deep yearning comes to the fore in the story of the Essene, Simeon, in the Temple:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

And I can see this man, whose patience had been lifelong, hoping for the comfort promised by God through his prophet, 700 years before.

Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may 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.”

And so it is, this old man, whose only heart’s desire is to see the Messiah, is given the privilege of blessing him at the time of his circumcision. He was able to hold the Creator of the universe in his hands and offer a blessing to Him and to his mother and adopted father.

The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “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.”

And it is in Simeon that we first feel the full weight of the joy at the coming of the Messiah, and the first contemporary glimpse at Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. And so it was, this Good News, came to us about 2010 years ago, and whose story we tell and cherish today.

And it brings us such great comfort and joy.

Isaiah 61: Phil

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor

It is after reading this passage from Isaiah that Jesus sat down and proclaimed that this Scripture was fulfilled in your hearing. There are some commentators who believe that the reason those listening had such a negative reaction to Jesus’ claiming this passage was fulfilled was not simply that He was claiming this passage was talking about Him, but, rather, Jesus stopped in the middle of a sentence. Of course, in Isaiah 61, verses 2 & 3 continue to say:

and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.

So, perhaps the reactions of those in Nazareth hearing this proclamation was not so different than what ours would be today. When we read Scriptures about God offering blessings, both physical and spiritual, there is a natural desire to claim those for ourselves – especially if we find our identity as His chosen people. It is human nature to hold on to and to grasp as much as we can for ourselves and those in our inner circle. As Christians, as members of a certain church, or as Americans (or any other nationality), we tend to see our tribe as more important than other tribes. So it’s not surprising that when Jesus neglected to mention the part of this passage that talks about God exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies that the Jews got upset.

But, the truth remains – Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This favor extends to all mankind, and it’s not any greater for one group over another. We are all favored. Republicans, Democrats, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists drug-addicts, perverts, pastors, drop-outs, atheists – none of these people are so far gone that they are beyond the reach of God’s love for them through Christ. The wonder of the incarnation is in the fact that despite our constant unfaithfulness, the Father remains faithful to us. It is a wondrous thing to ponder.

In closing, I quote John “Golden Mouth” Chrysostom from the first Christmas sermon ever preached from 386 AD.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Amen. Let us observe the feast!

Conclusion

Eugene Peterson wrote, “Too many of us spend far too much time with the editorial page and not nearly enough time with the prophetic vision. We get our interpretation of politics and economics and morals from journalists when we should be getting only information; the meaning of the world is most accurately given to us by God’s Word” (his emphasis; Run with the Horses, 54).

I’m glad we conducted this experiment this year, this slow march through the prophets. These ancient words enlighten our minds, stir up our hearts, animate our imaginations, and give energy to our hands and feet. We see God in the grand and in the mundane. We see God in poems and in sermons. We hear God roaring and we hear him weeping. We see him triumphing over his enemies and bending over his beloved. This is the God who came near! This is the God announced by the prophets and shown to us in Jesus. This is the God whom we serve and love, the God who serves and loves.

One of the disciples demanded of Jesus on the night of his betrayal, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” And Jesus responded, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

In other words, “I am enough for you.”

Our hope, in this post, is that you have heard from the prophets, listened for the voice of God, and  seen the Lord Jesus and that in so doing, you will have a renewed determination to be what you were born to be in and because of Jesus.

appendix A – better late than never: neil

since I did not get my assignment in on time, it must be added to the end. so, in that vein i’ll reference the very beginning of the story.

genesis 3:
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel. – god

at first glance this looks like nothing more than a promise that snakes and people will forever not get along. yet as history proved – it was the first prophetic utterance that would culminate in the Christ event. What is truly amazing is that nothing in this chapter took god by surprise. He, they, were ready to respond. Theologians have speculated as to how and why he created adam and eve knowing they would sin. Believers have debated the order of decrees and decisions – and will continue to do so.

what remains is this promise.
a promise repeated to a man named Abraham.
a promise repeated to a nation called Israel
a promise repeated to their most famous king named david
a promise repeated until fulfilled in jesus the christ.

And just as the candlelight spread in last evening late late service… the gospel has spread, and will spread, until his glory covers of earth as the waters cover the sea.

Merry Christmas from the writers of Prophets, Priests, and Poets.

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“Our life in Christ isn’t just about forgiveness of sins and the afterlife, but transformed relationships…” (from Whole Life Transformation).

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magiI’m frequently surprised at how easily people can miss the point of something, whether it’s a song, play, short statement, article/post, or a passage of Scripture.  We all have times that we are distracted by something else.  There are also times when we aren’t thinking the same way that the communicator is and so we can miss the point.  But I understand those things.  What actually surprises me is the ongoing ignorance of what matters, of what is at the heart of any given instance of communication.  Some people go for years having never grasped the great themes of movies like The Dark Knight, or books like The Chronicles of Narnia, or passages of Scripture like much of Paul’s writing.*

For the past 20 years at least, preachers and others who study the Bible regularly have been reacting against the culturally common portrayal of the nativity.**  Songs and nativity sets alike have been bashed and bruised.  Stable?  I think not.  Silent night?  You obviously don’t have children.***  Three Kings?  Let me count the ways that one is wrong.  No, seriously, let me count them for you.  Three?  Says who?  Kings? I see Magi.  At best you can call them wise men.  There the night of the birth?  Maybe the night of the birth of their second child.  We aren’t told for sure when, but over the past couple of decades we’ve been led to believe that Jesus was more likely a toddler (or at least a much older infant) than a newborn when the Magi showed up on the scene.  But the more I think about these things, the more I think that these reactions are a distraction and possibly even inaccurate themselves.

I’m all for Biblical accuracy, but I think that at times, we’ve missed the point.  We get so busy correcting the minor details that we’ve lost sight of the larger story arc.  This is especially ironic considering where and how Matthew placed the visit of the Magi in his telling of the greatest story ever told:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking,  “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem.  He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:

‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared.  Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”

After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!  They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.

After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

Matthew 2:1-15 (NLT)

Probably one of the more simplistic reasonings for placing Jesus as a toddler when the Magi arrives is founded in Herod’s command to kill every boy 2 years and younger (based on the time of the star first appearing to the Magi), as the text tells us.  I think that in part, this assumes that the star appeared upon the birth of Jesus, and not sometime before.  But we aren’t told, and even Herod doesn’t assume that.  He’s not taking any chances so he’s having every boy who was born in the area of Bethlehem, from the time of the appearance of the star until now, killed.

But even very intelligent scholars debate the timeline of this account and how it can/should be harmonized with Luke’s record.  Quite a few scholars place the appearance of the Magi after Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth after presenting Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:39).  The reasoning is that Mary and Joseph went to Nazareth to get their belongings and essentially move to Bethlehem.  After their escape to Egypt, they intended to return to Bethlehem upon their return  but out of fear of Herod’s son, went to Nazareth instead.  I’m okay with that.  All of this to say that we aren’t exactly sure when some of these events took place.  We don’t know when the star appeared.  We don’t know the length of time they were in Egypt.  We aren’t even sure exactly when Jesus was born (not only time of year, but the year itself).  The timing is even possible that the Magi showed up within days of Jesus’ birth.  Certain points of view will hold more sway than others based on the amount of contextual evidence, but we just aren’t sure.

For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of the O.T. promises of a King sent from and by God, who was of the line of David and who would save Israel.  These events surrounding the Magi play an important role in Jesus’ fulfillment of those prophecies/promises.  The Magi are used by God to provide for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus while still fulfilling the scriptures.  Much more devotionally and theologically can be said about the Magi, their visit, and their gifts, but greater theme being woven by Matthew is that Jesus is the one.  The one who was prophesied, the one who was promised, the one they’ve been looking for.  Jesus is King!

*Paul has a way of writing where he is communicating on two, sometimes three levels.  There’s the surface level (which is often unoffensive), and then the deeper point he’s trying to force.  Philemon is a great example of this.

**Chris Lyons wrote a series of excellent posts in prior years explaining in depth many details that help give us a more accurate view of the nativity and how and why those things matter.  I don’t think such things are unimportant, on the contrary, I find them to be very helpful.

***I don’t want to take from the Magi, but I just have to address Silent Night as well.  I’m sure the birth was noisy, and I’m sure there was crying during some of the time, and I’m sure some of the animals sporadically made various noises.  But I’m also sure that there were many hours of rest and peace and silence.  Where the beauty of the night, of the silence, of the events, of their newborn Son asleep made that the most glorious night ever.

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Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.
-Aslan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve listened to traditional Christmas carols playing in the places I live and play. Specifically, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen beautifully speaks to the ransom theory of atonement as we celebrate the birth of he who came to save. I don’t often think about, talk about, or write about ransom theory. Which is a shame, because it’s a treasure the church has forgotten that needs to be found.

Ransom Theory

The Ransom theory of atonement is pretty straightforward: Adam and Eve sold us down the river with their rebellion against God and so payment for humanity is required. Satan was fooled by God to accept the death of Christ as ransom, because he didn’t know that Christ could defeat death, however, once the death of Christ paid the system, justice was satisfied and humanity remained free.
Which brings us to:

In case you missed that the lyrics that really hit me hard were:

Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray

The Scripture

The primary scriptures are:

But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.
- Mark 10.43-45

And:

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
- 1 Timothy 2.4-6

Why it works

Grave Danger (is there any other kind?)
Peter Weinberger died at one month old. He was left to die in heavy brush beside a road. He had been kidnapped and held for ransom, then abandoned when the kidnapper was spooked by the presence of police and media at the drop off site. The FBI doesn’t keep statistics about kidnappings for ransom (there’s another thing to be thankful for, living in a country where ransom demands are so rare statistics aren’t even kept), but its probably fair to say that a ransomees aren’t exactly getting cheap rates on life insurance.

Perhaps this is a bit of a nuanced point, but most of the other atonement theories play into the sovereignty of God. Ransom theory plays into what happens when we venture outside of the sovereignty of God and place ourselves under the power of others. Romans 6.16 sums it up this way: Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.

When you have been kidnapped and held for ransom you are entirely under the control of forces outside of yourself. Your life is held by someone other than yourself, and if things go sideways, contrary to Hollywood clichés, chances are you’re the one ending up in a woodchipper. With Ransom theory humanity has chosen to place itself under the control of someone other than God, and the result is we are at the mercy of chaotic forces outside of our control.

Satan
Only in the Ransom atonement theory is Satan more than a footnote. This, however, isn’t all that faithful to the scriptures. Satan is powerful enough to have led rebellion against the throne, manipulated humanity into selling itself into ransom in the first place, went diabolus-a-Deus with Jesus, and is pictured as a roaring lion looking to devour any who cross his path. To relegate him as a footnote before God has relegated him to a footnote is, at the least, Biblically inaccurate.

Unfortunately, many people have misconstrued this facet of the Ransom theory to say more than it does. Satan is not depicted as God’s equal, or as a real challenge to the throne. It only speaks to him as what he is: evil, very powerful, and having under his control those that have rebelled against God.

Attributes of God
Most other theories of atonement focus on the power of God. God makes things happen because he’s omnipotent, and there is no question as to the truth of that statement. However, there are many other omnis that apply to God (God being the omni-omni, after all). The Ransom theory brings to the fore God’s wisdom and knowledge, as well as to his honor and integrity, as God holds up his end of the agreement, but also provides a way out for humanity.

Incomplete

Every theory of the atonement comes up incomplete (it’s fair to say all of them taken together are incomplete as well), and this is as true for the Ransom theory as it is for others.

Sin
Satan is the big bad guy, Sin with a capital S is downplayed.

God’s Justice
The route to the justice of God is circuitous. The atonement of Christ isn’t paid directly to God, rather it is made as a ransom payment to another party for the freedom of humanity. However, the reason why that ransom is necessary in the first place is because of the Law built into the fabric of the universe by God. No Law, no lawful hold on humanity by Satan, so while this idea is present it is the long way around the barn.

Captain’s Log, Stardate: now

The Ransom theory has been incredibly edifying to me, mostly because it’s been so buried by modern theologians and clergy (and by modern I mean from the Reformation on forward), that many of its truths have been almost foreign to me. I’ve also appreciated the form in which it came to me. Frankly, most of the classics that are played in public places are older recordings and so they are all drawn out, dramatic, and frankly, cheesy, likely because those particular performances are the cheapest to play in public. However, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, being in minor key can’t really be performed in that style. Beyond that, it is also one of a few Christmas songs that connects directly Easter with Christmas, and does so in a “the darkness is coming to an end, let’s have party” kind of way.

While working on this article I spent some time googling around to see what others had to say about Christmas music and Ransom theory. There wasn’t much out there. But what I did discover was some extreme antagonism towards the Ransom theory. It was pilloried as heretical, having little scriptural support and having had few supporters through church history. Frankly, none of those three charges are true. I don’t understand why such antagonism exists, or why such ignorance of this theory is put forth with such confidence, but it’s out there, so be careful when you quote God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or O Come O Come Emmanuel.

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“We are living in the world that was made by the god we worship, the world that does not yet acknowledge this true and only God. We are thus surrounded by neighbours who worship idols that are, at best, parodies of the truth, and who thus catch glimpses of reality but continually distort it. Humans in general remain in bondage to their own gods, who drag them into a variety of degrading and dehumanizing behavior-patterns. As a result, we are persecuted, because we remind the present power-structures of what they dimly know, that there is a different way to be human, and that in the message of the true god concerning his son, Jesus, notice has been served on them that their own claim to absolute power is called into question.”—NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 369

If this is where we are, and I am hard-pressed to disagree, then I have to assume that I am here for a reason. I also believe that I must be in the place where God wants me to be—if I believe that God put me where I am. It is rather difficult for me to think that I, having been taught what I have been taught, that I have been given what I have been given solely for myself. It’s also become increasingly difficult for me to believe that just because the circumstance or place is not what I had imagined that it is somehow not what God had imagined.

A fellow named Gabe Lyons writes:

“…Christians have finally recovered what many who have gone before them always understood about the faith: namely, that the Christian view of the world informs everything, that the Gospel runs deep, and that the way of Jesus demands we give our lives in service to others. Jesus’s atonement was not only to be a simple ticket to heaven—it carried consequence for how Christians live their lives on earth today” (The Next Christians, 201).

We are on earth, nestled comfortably in small spots where God wants us.

But you know what? I find this reasoning not only in Lyons (who, having gone to Liberty University, might have some Baptist background), but I find it in NT Wright (an Anglican tradition) and Karl Barth (a Lutheran tradition) and Eugene Peterson (a Presbyterian tradition) and Brennan Manning (a Catholic tradition) and Tim Keller (a Reformed tradition) and Rob Bell (an ‘emergent’ tradition) and so on and so forth. All of these folks, and many, many more like them, agree that the Gospel does something to us—it radically alters our DNA, it reshapes our spirit, it resurrects our hearts, and reforms our minds, and in so doing it prepares us to cooperate with the holy Spirit of God and carry out the work which he has prepared for us—but I am wont to define that work too particularly. Who is to say with any precision what we are and are not called to do and be?

There was this day, a while ago, after Jesus had resurrected, when he took his disciples outside Jerusalem and walked them up a hill. There, before their eyes, he was ‘taken up’ and a ‘cloud hid him.’ They, the disciples, stood staring at the sky, transfixed as it were on a cloud. It was a sad development that two angels of God had to shake them out of: “Why are you standing here looking into the sky?” In other words, “What are you doing? Get your heads out of the clouds and get your attention back down here on earth! There is work to do here and we don’t have time to be staring at the sky.” Sometimes, don’t you think, we spend a little too much time with our heads in the clouds trying to escape or forget about this place?

But how can we forget about the place where we have put down roots? How can we neglect our neighbor broken and unloved as he is? How can we think that the sole thing we have to offer is a speech or, well, “go in peace, be warm and well fed” (James 2:16).

You know what is amazing about that eclectic group of people I have mentioned? They are loved by Jesus and in turn love Jesus. His love for them radically altered them and their love for him opens them up to his plan. And the older I get, and the deeper I read, and more I walk with people like John Stott, Michael Spencer, Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, Karl Barth, DA Carson, Tim Keller, Wendell Berry, the more I walk with them and talk with them and listen to them, the more I realize that it is not perfection that is required to make the people of God the people of God, the Church. It is Jesus. Jesus is the tie that binds us together as one.

Hear this brilliance from Karl Barth: “It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendents. It was and is and will be the One who says: ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’…Verily He is that One, and none other is or can be” (Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 1.2, xi). Do you hear that? He’s talking about Jesus! We put so much confidence in position, place, this and that—but look: Jesus is our unifying and binding power. Personally, I believe we are too confident in our own power, our own brilliance, or our own knack for fixing broken things. Sometimes I do not believe we really believe Jesus owns the Church.

So where are we? We are in the world that Jesus steadfastly refused to remove us from (see John 17). He said that our place was here, for now, and that he had work for us to do and he resurrected us for that very purpose (see Ephesians 2 among others). He also said that he would empower us to carry out the work (see Acts 1:1-2:47 among others). He also said that we are sustained by His power (see Revelation among others).  We are here, I believe, because God wants us here. And you know what? I find that refreshing, empowering, comforting, and blessed. Such a thought emboldens me to grasp what I cannot hold and let go of what I can. He wants us here, and if he does, then he’s got something for us to do, he will empower us, and he will sustain us.

We are the Church, the body of Christ. We are here, in this place together. We are his people, sustained by His power and Spirit. And he has given us work to do.

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.  Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.—Paul, to the Ephesians, chapter 3.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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