God’s Servant: killing sin softly with his song

God will conquer the world and drive sin out of it, but as the four Servant Songs in Isaiah make clear, he will not act like an ordinary human conqueror. He has appointed a gentle servant to accomplish the task. The first (Isaiah 42:1-4), while not a typical Advent scripture, is very appropriate for this time of year.

Isaiah has already identified Israel as his servant (Isaiah 41:8-10), but, as it turns out, a thoroughly incompetent one (Isaiah 42:18-22). In the Servant Songs, God reveals another Servant, none other than the chosen Messiah, Jesus. God has put his Spirit on this Servant to bring justice to the Gentiles.Read the rest

Isaiah 40: one prophecy, three fulfillments

Isaiah 40 may be one of the best-known passage among all the Old Testament prophets. Anyone who knows Handel’s Messiah will immediately recognize the text for the first tenor recitative and aria, the first chorus, the first alto aria (with chorus), and the second alto aria among the first eleven verses of the chapter: “Comfort ye my people,” “Every valley shall be exalted,” “And the glory of the Lord,” “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” and “He shall feed his flock.”

We associate these verses with the Christmas story at least because John the Baptist claimed to be the “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,” words quoted in the tenor recitative.… Read the rest

Herod–and us

“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.” — Matthew 2:16 (NIV)

Christmas, it seems, ought to be such a beautiful time. We celebrate the birth of a darling baby to wholly admirable parents. A bright star shone. The angels sang. The shepherds left their flocks to see the baby. Magi came from a great distance to offer gifts fit for a king.… Read the rest

The Prince of Peace

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:6-7

Thank God for this tremendous promise. We have not seen the entire fulfillment of it. Jesus has indeed been given to us. To all who know him, he is indeed a Wonderful Counselor, this son revealed as Mighty God and Everlasting Father. And how we need a Prince of Peace.

Saying so does not imply that Jesus is not the Prince of Peace, but we certainly do not yet see the government on  his shoulder.… Read the rest

Reclaiming the remnant, the next time around

The time leading up to Christmas, Advent,  prepares worshipers to receive the coming of the Lord in at least two senses. Christ has come once as a baby and will return as a conquering king. Scripture often contains multiple meanings and multiple layers of fulfillment. A familiar passage in Isaiah, delivered probably in the days of King Ahaz, refers to both arrivals.

The “stump of Jesse” in verse 1 indicates that David’s line will be cut down, which it was about 120 years after Isaiah delivered the prophecy. Just as a tree, having been chopped down, can grow again from the stump, so will a shoot arise from the destruction of the Jewish kingdom.… Read the rest

Joseph: the forgotten man at Christmas

Nativity / Blake

Illustration to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity / William Blake, 1809

I just heard a speaker say she had searched the web for contemporary Christmas songs about Joseph and found only three.

I know of a few more than that from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of them are secular pieces that mock him for being a cuckold. Poor Joseph deserves so much better than that.

We can learn a lot about him by juxtaposing Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of Mary’s pregnancy. When Mary told the angel, “May it be to me as you have said,” the Holy Spirit probably came upon her immediately.… Read the rest

1 Corinthians 13: The Christmas Version

A retired preacher friend of mine shared this with me, from an old Christmas card he found. It’s good enough to share some more.

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights, and shining balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.… Read the rest

Mary’s commitment

There is an old Medieval carol that speaks of Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit, but it ends by saying, “Blessed be the time the apple was taken. Otherwise, our lady would never have been heavenly queen”–basically giving thanks for sin so that people could worship Mary. Protestants look askance at Catholics for praying to Mary and honoring her as queen of heaven. Unfortunately, we have made up for it by virtually ignoring her, a worse mistake than honoring her wrongly. At least at Advent we pay some attention.

God deliberately passes over the great and prominent in order to do his work through the lowly and ordinary.… Read the rest

Unbelief stops God, usually: a pre-Christmas miracle

Luke begins his gospel by introducing Zechariah, a very minor priest. Politically important priests lived in Jerusalem. Zechariah, on the other hand, lived in the countryside and visited Jerusalem only when his team was on duty, twice a year for a week at a time. Luke tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth were upright, and blameless in the sight of God and observed all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. And that is despite the very real possibility that they did not realize that God loved them so much.

They were old for their time and had no children.… Read the rest

Double meanings at Christmas time

Scripture means so much on so many different levels. As one example of a scripture with multiple meanings, Isaiah’s rebuke to a weak and fearful king turned out to foreshadow the coming of a new King who would have the power to defeat the devil  himself.

Ahaz, King of Judah, was frighted when the kings of Syria and Israel invaded his territory. God sent Isaiah to  him with a message of hope. Isaiah told Ahaz to remain calm and have faith in God. Instead, he asked the King of Assyria to help him out.

And so in a second confrontation, Isaiah told Ahaz to ask for a sign.… Read the rest