How many of you breezed through the genealogy that opens the book of Matthew? Perhaps some hardly even skimmed it. Well, go back and look at it again and watch this short video that may give you some more insight into the text.
We know about the recent events of Newtown, CT and the depths of darkness we see in such a tragedy. It make me ache to think of those whose lives were snatched away. It seems difficult to celebrate with joy the coming of Jesus when the world looks so dark.
Sadly, that is just the sort of world to which Christ came. It is why he came. This place is not as it should be nor is it as it was created to be.
When Christ came, did waves of goodwill roll out from Bethlehem enveloping the whole world? Sadly no. Immediately the dark powers of this world were in full force. Jerusalem was distrubed, but the king–the man with power and power to lose–escalates the situation. Hate takes hold, fear drives him on. And so soon after Immanuel, Jesus Christ is born, children are slaughtered by Herod to protect his place as King.
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
How can we even claim to be a people–a world–worth saving? From his first to his final breath, we see how the world reacts to its savior. Jesus comes to bring peace on earth, to make peace between humanity and God. Yet Herod seeks his life at his birth, and the crowds are calling to crucify him before his death.
It is terrible. And this world can still be terrible. It can terrify us. But that is why he came. And that is why we need his peace. Only Jesus has the power and authority to say in John 14, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
But it is hard to live with his peace, especially in trying times. I am reminded of the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and this stanza:
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Hate is strong. There is evil is this world. We can’t ignore that. We can’t deny it. The events of the world do not make sense if there is no sin. It is a powerful force pulling and pushing us. But there is more. Hate is strong, sin and death are powerful, but they do not have the victory.
It may appear that they do, but we are to live according to what is unseen. We are to step out in faith and believe that Christmas does mean peace on earth and Jesus has come to save. It does not always look like this has happened. But by faith we say we will not live according to the darkness. We won’t live according to the ways of the world nor the values or this world. We, by faith, seek to be children of light and live in light of God’s rule. We live as followers of a new way.
He did not design his people for hate and fear. He called us to love and service. We are called to live in a way that is a great ‘yes’ to God and his ways, and is a resolute ‘no’ to the evil we know tries to overwhelm the world.
Christ came into a world not unlike what we see now. Full of fights for power, with greed, fear, and hate. A world with sin. The fight looked to have been lost to all who knew him for those powers had won. The powers had put him on the cross. It looked like the day was lost–that love had lost. But we were wrong. Christ defeated such powers and did so through sacrifice, humility, love, and obedience. The cross looked to become a sign of the victory of all that is wrong in the world, but appearances can deceive. Hate was strong, Christ was mocked, there seemed to be no peace. Despair seemed the only option for his disciples.
But the truth of God can go unseen for a time. Sin and death were no match. We were wrong. When it looked like Christ had failed and God had died, he had won the victory. The Christmas carol concludes:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.
By faith we hear those words and sing that song. There still is hideous evil in this world and we mourn. But we Christians are called to live out our hope. We live unlike those who believe hate gives strength and power prevails. We follow a savior who had power in humility and submission. Our savior died at the hands of evil, but he died for us, and he now lives. At this time of year we celebrate his birth, but every Sunday we celebrate his resurrection, and the resurrection is victory over the powers of sin and death.
Jesus Christ came to a world created good, a world that fell–but did not fall from grace. God’s grace endures. Christ came to this world bringing grace, making peace, and doing so because it is a place in the greatest of need.
Today the world needs Jesus Christ. We need him. Only he is our peace, and when we place our faith in him, look to him for our hope, and live in his love, then we make a stand. We draw a line and say ‘no.’ We will not let sin masquerade as sovereign on earth. We will not forsake this world to evil. God is not dead, nor does he sleep. Christ rose and we will carry his name into a world in desperate need and live according to his rule, anticipating the day when he will come again.
You may have been longing for some Advent readings for Year in the Bible and if so, this is your week. We are in the third Sunday of Advent and we open up the Gospel of Matthew. It is also our last of the four gospels and it’ll be a bridge from the Fall to Winter quarter.
Take your time with familiar passages like these. Even though we hear about Christmas every year, we always can return to these cherished texts. And it is easy to “hear about Christmas” every year and for that to mean a lot more about shopping and family get-togethers than Immanuel.
We are almost to our final winter quarter so keep your eyes peeled for an updated reading guide to take us all the way to the end.
Jude is a very short letter thought to have been written by the brother of Jesus. There is one part of its one chapter that stood out to me and it was the interaction of the angel Michael with the devil. Here is an archangel, the NLT reads ‘the mightiest of angels’, and when confronting the devil, Michael still does not rely on his own authority. He says, “the Lord rebuke you!”
When we’re doing well in life it is easy to start feeling pretty self-sufficient, even in the area of our Spiritual life. We think we can take the wheel for a while and take responsibility for ourselves. But we are always supposed to humbly follow Christ, relying on his power and his authority for all we do. If even an archangel confronts the devil by relying on Christ’s authority, how could we do anything else when it comes to trials and temptations? It is folly to rest on our own strength, especially when the power of God himself is offered to us.
As I read Nehemiah I can’t help but think about the amazing things God can do through us when we come together. It is a typical warm, fuzzy notion to have–everyone working together to make the world a better place. But we leave God out of that equation too often. When God works in the one man Nehemiah it is not done there. God works through him to reach countless others. (Maybe not countless since much of this book deals with lists and numbers!) The job at hand couldn’t have happened had it not been for the way that these people sacrifice for one another, seek after the needs of others before there own, and pool their resources.
There is very good reason we’re called to be a people, not a person. We are much better together. We need the church body. We need it to be encouraged and strengthened, we need it be held accountable, we need it to do greater things for God than we ever could do alone.
In the opening of Nehemiah hears the sad news of what state Jerusalem is in and in response he weeps and mourns for days. I think if we saw this godly sort of grief happening we might think something was wrong–not with the situation of Jerusalem being in ruin–but rather with Nehemiah. Days of mourning? We might try to tell him to think about something else. Do something to get if of your mind. Don’t be so glum.
But this is not a mourning that bears no fruit. He is deeply affected by the news he has heard and it leads him to action. His sorrow leads him to put everything on the line, going to the king and asking leave to return to Jerusalem. Once there it leads him to repent with his countrymen. It leads him to give generously from his wealth to sustain the building projects. And this is not just a simple construction site. It is full of danger. Nehemiah is moved at this news and does not just write a check and send it off, while staying in safety. He goes to the city and together with the people stands guard against his enemies who intend to attack. To rebuild the walls is not an easy endeavor and it is a dangerous one for all who are involved. God used Nehemiah’s mourning to him to action and sacrifice in order to accomplish God’s will.
I learned during a Walk Thru the Bible seminar years ago when I was in youth group a way to remember some of what Nehemiah is about. It helps if you say Nehemiah out loud first to hear what it sounds like. The instructor said Nehemiah can be remembered by slightly mispronouncing his name as Knee-High-Miah, and that was as tall as the wall he was building. Now this may not actually be factual–but it is a bit ridiculous and the more ridiculous something is, the easier it is to remember. I hope you’ll now always remember that Nehemiah involves the rebuilding of a wall.
It is thought that this book was originally coupled as one book along with Ezra, under that name. I tried to then couple them in our reading, but reversed the order of Scripture because I wanted to balance out the number of chapters so that as we get even closer to Christmas we’d be reading the Christmas story from the book of Matthew. Both of these books gives details regarding the return from exile and the work of returning life to its proper order, including worship and rebuilding projects.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar set up. (Try coming up with a sentence with four crazier names.) The consequence of this was that they were to be thrown into a furnace, one that was burning so hot it killed the men who were to carry out this deed. But on the way to their almost-certain death, these three men talk to Nebuchadnezzar as he presses them to worship false gods.
King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. (Daniel 3, NIV)
It is amazing to me that these three have such confidence before a furious king. And their confidence is not in their comfort or safety. Whether they live, because God delivers them, or they die they still have confidence that God is the one God, and nothing else is deserving of worship. They do not worship God because he blesses them, they worship him because he is God. He deserves it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego won’t dishonor God in such a way, and they want the king to be aware of their devotion. They serve God and they do so even if he won’t deliver them.
That is a difficult prayer for us to make as we always want God to see things our way and help us out in a bind. But we need to seek to honor him no matter how situations turn out for us. We need to finish our prayer with our own version of “even if he does not”, and a good one is taken from Jesus who prayed just before his great suffering, “not my will but yours be done.”