Thoughts on the night sky

What do you see when you look at the night sky? What do you think about yourself when you think about the night sky?

A lot of people today see the vastness of the heavens. Scientists tell us that our solar system is off in a corner of a vast galaxy, and there are other galaxies just as large. Life on earth doesn’t seem very important in comparison. As a song in a Broadway musical puts it, “You can’t even count the stars in the sky, and compared to the sky the sea looks small. And two little people, you and I, we don’t count at all.”

What did people think of the night sky before we got all this scientific knowledge? One ancient astronomer wrote that in comparison with the distance to the stars, the earth is a point without magnitude. The vastness of the heavens is not a new idea.

But it was not the vastness that caught their imagination; it was the brightness. By day, the sun lit the earth. When it went down, all was dark—except for the moon and the stars. The heavens were glorious. The earth was not. And so many people decided to worship the sun, moon, and stars, which were so obviously greater than anything or anyone on earth.

Whether it’s the vastness of the heavens or the glorious brightness, there is something that makes people think of themselves as puny, weak, and insignificant in comparison. Even David wrote, “When I consider of your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). But where the pagan mind answers, “man is nothing,” David answered, “You have made him little lower than God.”

David looked not only at the night sky, but considered the God who had made both the heavens and mankind on earth. Isaiah did, too. “Look to the heavens. Who created all of these?” (Isaiah 40:26). The sun comes up. The sun goes down. There is a predictable rhythm. The moon comes up. The moon goes down. There is a different rhythm. The stars have their own rhythm. And everything is always where it is supposed to be. No one has ever looked at the night sky and noticed, “There are only two stars in Orion’s belt tonight. What happened to the other one?”

In all the vastness of space, nothing gets lost. That’s because God is even vaster. The stars know nothing and care nothing about life on earth, but God knows and cares. God knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground. God knows how many hairs are on each of our heads. If we look at the sky and think only about what we can see, the universe gets very lonely. If we look at the sky and think about the God who created it, only then can we think of the greatness of his love for all of his creation. Even us.

All things are become new

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” — Matthew 3:16 (NIV)

Last week it was 2009. This week it’s Twenty-Ten. Just think. Last week when we wrote a check, we might have had to think about the day, but not the month or the year. I suppose for most of us it will be another month before writing 2-0-1-0 becomes second nature.

When the calendar changes, our whole society is programmed to think of other changes, too. Many years ago, I resolved never to make New Years Resolutions again, and I have been successful. Most people seem to be less resolute about that than I, and so most of the population is looking forward to all the changes they expect to make over the coming year.

Of course, life does not wait for a particular day on the calendar to bring momentous changes. Think of December 7, 1941; June 6, 1944; September 11, 2001; or for that matter, your wedding date, the birth of your children, starting a job that caused you to move to another town.

Everyone experiences all kinds of turning points. Hardly any of them actually occur on the first of January. In fact, on New Years Day we cannot anticipate more than a very few of the turning points the year ahead will bring.

As the third chapter of Matthew opens, John the Baptist was having a fairly normal day denouncing sin, preaching repentance, and baptizing those who came to him. Then Jesus showed up. We know from John 1:31 that John did not yet know that Jesus was the Messiah whose way he had prepared, but somehow he recognized that Jesus was different from anyone else. He felt uncomfortable baptizing him. At Jesus’ urging he did, having no idea that it would literally change everything.

First, it changed Jesus. Jesus had always been both Son of God and Son of Man, but just as priests did not begin their ministry without a ceremony when they turned 30, and just as kings of old had not begun to reign without being anointed, Jesus did not become empowered as the Christ until his baptism.

Second, it changed John. By preaching and baptizing, he prepared the way for someone greater than he. Only when the heavens opened up and Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove did John know who it was. From that moment on, his ministry decreased as Jesus’ increased.

Third, it changed baptism. John had preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). It had no power to help anyone live free from sin afterward. Christian baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is otherwise impossible.

Because fourth, Jesus’ baptism started a ministry that led to the cross, where he died for the sins of the whole world and ushered in an era of grace. Before, godliness had been defined by keeping the law. No one could keep it all, and only the most prideful ever thought they could. In Christ, anyone can become righteous by faith, and then through the grace of sanctification live more righteously than he or she could have ever imagined.

John preached that the Messiah would come with a judgment of fire, and so he will, but his ministry began not with the sign of fire, but of a dove. For the first time, God’s kindness was revealed before. not after, the display of his severity.

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. All is calm and beautiful. Except for Herod.

Why would God allow such an atrocity to cloud this season of wonder and hope? What is the point of it?

Back in the Garden of Eden, God made Adam the lord of everything he could see. Adam, assisted by Eve, was supposed to tend the garden, take care of the beasts, and rule the earth. Only one thing was off limits–the fruit of one tree. Having given his instructions and the one small prohibition, God left the two alone.

Satan came immediately to take the word of God away from them. They chose to obey Satan’s dishonest suggestion instead of God righteous commandment. In so doing, they turned their authority and rulership over to Satan. He became the god of this world.

God gave Herod–and all the rest of us–free will for the same reason he gave it to Adam: to demonstrate to the rebellious Satan that he, God, could indeed create a being who could freely choose to love and obey him. He could do that only by creating a being who could freely choose to hate and reject him.

Either way, God had a plan that the fall of mankind could complicate, but not thwart. Satan had not won a lasting victory. God immediately decreed that the seed of the woman (hence, a man born of a virgin) would defeat Satan. Satan has bullied mankind by deception and fear ever since.

Why did Herod kill all of those children? Because he feared anyone who could conceivably occupy his throne. Caesar Augustus once commented that he would be better off as Herod’s dog than his son. His murderous fear of a baby makes no sense,  but then neither do a lot of the decisions we see and hear about every day–including, we must all admit, decisions by the person who stares back at us from the mirror.

But remember, Satan is the god of this world. The Old Testament records the lives of many people who freely chose to obey God, although none did so perfectly. Satan has managed to corrupt everyone, some by causing them to stumble in their walk with God (Moses or David, for example) and some by controlling them completely (Herod, for example).

Satan has always feared children and sought to kill them. Every dead baby is one who cannot grow up to choose God over Satan. And Satan knew that one baby, born of a virgin, was destined to defeat him.

Children suffer the  most in times of war, in times of famine, in times of epidemics. The ancient Canaanites practiced child sacrifice as an important part of their religion. In modern affluent societies, largely safe from such plagues, abortion has become Satan’s primary means of destroying children.  Herod’s rampage fits this pattern perfectly, all the more because the baby he feared was precisely the child of the virgin Satan feared.

At Easter, we sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” the implied answer being, yes, we were all there. We were the indifferent majority who didn’t care what happened to this country preacher. We were the priests and synagogue leaders so opposed to this new move of God that they stooped to an  illegal trial to put an end to it. We were the  howling mob shouting for the crucifixion. We were the followers of Jesus so scared for their own skin  that they ran away and hid rather than stand up for him.

What is the point of the slaughter of the innocents at Christmas? We were there, too. Thank God for his great mercy. God still had the same plan in Bethlehem as he had in Eden. He has the same plan today. Except now, the child born of a virgin has already dealt Satan a crushing defeat. In Jesus, we can truly see the character of God, and it has become easier than it was before to turn to him, to chose to love and obey him.

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. I lose track of how many wars are active in our world at this very moment.

When my dogs are out in the yard and I call them by name come in, they look up to acknowledge their names (at least more often than not) and then go back to whatever they were doing. One in particular specializes in finding weakness in the barriers I have set up to keep her out of the rose bushes and other places they shouldn’t go. The whole human race responds to Jesus pretty much the same way.

During my college days, some people wanted peace in Vietnam so intensely that they through bricks through windows, set fire to cars and buildings, and even rioted in the streets. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace!

Today, I see bumper stickers that proclaim, “War is not the answer.” We don’t have peace riots against our current wars, but we certainly do say nasty things about whomever happens to be the President. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace, either.

In fact, Ecclesiastes 3:8 tells us there is a time for war and a time for peace. As much as we’d like to, we can’t get peace by demanding that our human leadership provide it. We will not achieve freedom from war until the nations rally to Jesus’ banner. It will happen eventually. In the mean time, what kind of peace can we expect, if Jesus is truly Prince of Peace to us?

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas–doesn’t it feel about a week earlier this year than usual?–lots of us are getting worked up into a stew of frustration about all the preparations we need to make, or think we do. On top of the usual daily routines, which do not stop for holidays, we have shopping, mailing, decorating, and food preparation. We also contend with traffic jams, full parking lots, bad weather, and a worse economy that keep (or at least delay) us from getting it al accomplished.

When we give Jesus our frustrations and trust in him that his kingdom and his righteousness are more desirable than finishing our ever-expanding to-do list, we can find peace in the midst of the bustle. For now and the foreseeable future, peace does not mean an absence of pressure or conflict. It means the ability to stay calm under pressure while conflict swirls around us. Fortunately, that’s as close as a deep breath and a prayer of thanks.

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. Later prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah copied Isaiah’s use of “Branch” to refer to the coming Messiah.

Verse 10 says “in that day” the nations will rally to this “Root of Jesse” and that the Lord will  reclaim the remnant of his people from Assyria, Egypt, and other places a second time!. In what day? It must be whatever day is described in verses 1-9. And what is the first time? I know of no general return of exiles to the land before the return from Babylonian captivity more than 200 years after Isaiah first preached these words. Could the second time refer to the recreation of a Jewish state in 1948? Certainly no event any earlier qualifies, but it depends on the “day” described in earlier verses.

We can easily see Jesus’ lineage and character in verses 1-5, and therefore see the gospels as a fulfillment of this prophecy. We cannot recognize in verses 6-9 anything ever observed on the earth. This chapter therefore beautifully illustrates the image of two mountains, which from a far enough distance looks like one mountain. From where we stand, Jesus has come once. At no time since have herbivores been safe from carnivores or babies from poisonous snakes. At  no time since  have the nations rallied to him to find rest. What to Isaiah looked like one mountain looks to us like at least two. If the events of 1948 are a second fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, then there must be a third yet to come.

Isaiah began his ministry in about 740 BC. Ahaz began his faithless and disastrous reign five years later. The final stage of the Babylonian captivity, a direct outgrowth of Ahaz’ policies, took place in 581 BC. Isaiah saw that, as well as the first restoration 70 years later. Then he saw the earthly life and ministry of Jesus 500 or so years after that. We are now living about 2000 years later and have not yet seen in history the rallying to Jesus that Isaiah also saw.

There are only two kinds of  prophecy in the Bible: those that have been fulfilled and those that haven’t–yet. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we ought also be prepared all times for his return. It will happen.

Joseph: the forgotten man at Christmas

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. In the very next verse, she was on her way to visit Elizabeth.

We can only imagine what might have gone through Mary’s mind or what conversations she may have had after she realized she was indeed pregnant. It does seem almost certain, though, that she was not showing when she left for Elizabeth’s village. When she returned to Nazareth three months later it must have been obvious to everyone. Did she dare tell anyone about angel visitations and the power of the Most High? If she did, why would anyone believe her?

Pity Joseph. He was betrothed to this obviously pregnant woman and knew he could not be the father. By rights, he could have denounced her as an adulteress, and as a result, she would have been stoned to death. For whatever reason, Joseph rejected that course of action. He decided to divorce her quietly–perhaps send her out of town to have her baby and live as well as she could manage.

By the way, ignorant people who fancy themselves intellectuals sometimes explain away the “myth” of the virgin birth by saying that people two thousand years ago did not know as much science as we do now, so of course they would believe all kinds of impossible things. Joseph knew enough science to understand that he had not had sex with Mary, and that therefore she was not bearing his child. He and everyone else knew enough science to know that someone had to be the father, and not a one of them jumped to the conclusion that she became pregnant without having a sexual experience.

Matthew tells us that Joseph accepted this conclusion, preposterous on the face of it, after having a dream in which the Lord of the Universe spoke to him and told him to go through with the marriage. The two of them must have had a miserable time dealing with all the gossips in Nazareth. It is from Luke that we learn of the decree from Caesar Augustus that sent them to Bethlehem. What was probably a headache and inconvenience for most people forced to travel to an ancestral home must have seemed like gift from God to Joseph and Mary.

According to Luke, Jesus’ birth took place in a stable, where shepherds paid a visit after hearing a choir of angels singing. Probably the majority of creches show both the shepherds and wiremen gathered around the manger, but Matthew 2:11 clearly says that the wise men visited the holy family in a house. That Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem up to two years of age indicates that Joseph had decided to settle there to be safe from the unpleasantness they had known in Nazareth. Another dream warned him that it was not safe from Herod, so he took his family to Egypt.

After learning that Herod had died, Joseph intended to return to Bethlehem until he learned that Herod’s son ruled in his place. Another dream sent them back to Nazareth, where whispers and looks of disapproval for Mary and pity for Joseph probably made life continually uncomfortable.

God chose his human parents with great care. It is not enough that both were descendants of David. Both had personal characteristics of obedience and faith that made them ideally trustworthy to care for the God/Man during his childhood and youth.

Joseph exhibited great love and tenderness when, believing Mary to have been unfaithful to him, declined to take steps to have her executed. He exhibited great courage as he chose to marry her, accept her shame as his own, and stand between her and the gossips. When God himself thwarted his evident hope to settle permanently in Bethlehem, Joseph exhibited great humility as he meekly and without hesitation moved back to Nazareth.

In him we see quiet strength sufficient to enable him to follow through with decisions that make no human sense at all and to live with the consequences without complaint or hesitation. After one more incident that happened thirteen years later, Joseph disappears from Scripture.

God apparently determined that we do not need to know anything more about Joseph in order to discern a character of monumental and heroic faith. Among other things, the Christmas season gives us an annual opportunity to marvel that such a man ever walked the earth and played such a critical role in preparing for the salvation of the whole world.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by a.drian

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.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crystal snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will outlast everything.

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. He chose Mary to be his mother, not despite the fact that she was a peasant girl, someone of no special status, but because of it.

Gabriel announced God’s blessing and told her that she would give birth to a son named Jesus, who would be called Son of the Most High. Betrothed, but not yet married, Mary was troubled and puzzled at the announcement. She missed the fact that Jesus would be Son of the Most High, not the son of Joseph and wondered how she could become pregnant when she was still a virgin. Gabriel explained that she would become pregnant by the power of God. Mary committed herself to God’s will, perhaps not realizing until later the emotional turmoil that being an unwed mother would cause her and those she loved.

Luke says that Mary went quickly to visit Elizabeth, an older relative who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. She might have already been reviled by her family and townspeople, but Elizabeth pronounced a blessing on her and her unborn child. Mary chose to ignore her shame and respond to the blessing. Her next recorded words are one of the great prayers of the Bible.

Being a poor girl from a hick town did not make Mary stupid or ignorant. The passage shows great familiarity with other prayers of the Old Testament, especially Hannah’s prayer before the birth of Samuel. Mary’s prayer, known as the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin translation, starts, “My soul glorifies the Lord” (NIV).

Older translations, closer to Latin, use the word “magnify,” which entails making something appear larger and closer by focusing attention on it by eliminating other things from view. Another key word, soul, has become a rather vague religious word to us, but we get our word “psychology” from the original Greek word, psyche.  So we can think of the soul as what psychologists study: personality, intelligence, will, emotion, etc. Therefore, Mary praised God with her whole heart from the very depths of her being.

The second line of the poem restates the first: “my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” “Savior” implies protection and deliverance. If God is our savior, the military, the government, a spouse or parent, comfort foods, all the stuff we accumulate, etc. are not. Mary turned to the real source of salvation, but something troubled and puzzled her. Through Gabriel, God, the savior, told her to name her baby Jesus, which means savior. What did that mean? She must have thought about that for a long time.

Mary’s neighbors and relatives may have persecuted her for getting pregnant before getting married, but she was about to become the mother of God himself. The praise and honor she would receive from every subsequent generation of people more than made up for the pain she would experience from her acquaintances. All generations, she says, will call her blessed. Because of great things she did? No. Because God did great things for her in his power, holiness, and mercy.

The next several verses refer to what God has done. “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel.”

The Greek verb tense, more complicated than anything in English, can indeed refer to past actions, as the English perfect tense does in our translations. Indeed, without the mighty deeds God has already accomplished, there is no good news to tell. But God’s works are not all in the past. What he has done promises what he will do in the future.

And so the Greek verbs also refer to acts that are still in the future, but which have begun to be realized. In that sense, Mary’s prayer is prophetic. Like the Old Testament prophets, she speaks of God’s intentions as if they have already happened, revolutionary intentions that represent a complete reversal of normal human expectations.

Proud people are usually proud because other people have told them all their lives that they are somehow special, whether they are naturally superior by accident of birth or whether they are every bit as good as those rich folks and ought to stand up for themselves. God will have none of it. He puts down those who exalt themselves.

Kings and rulers have always pretended to be a class apart from everyone else and a better sort of people. God cares greatly about the downtrodden and lowly, which explains why he chose a poor peasant girl to be the mother of God.

Remember, God exalted David from obscure shepherd boy to king and promised that his offspring would rule forever. But then the kings of his dynasty became proud and corrupt. They turned away from God and began to oppress the people.

God cast them down, and by the time Jesus was born, descendants of those kings had again become poor and powerless—just the right circumstances for them to be exalted again and produce the promised king who will rule forever.

Society’ expects that the rich will always be well off and the poor will always be hungry. So God feeds the poor and lets the rich fend for themselves. God is not bound by what human society thinks normal. He does not exist to live up to human expectations—except for one thing: when he makes a promise, we can expect him to keep it. God made a covenant with Abraham, intended eventually to bless all mankind. Through Mary’s unborn child, the Messiah, God fulfills the covenant promises.

I called this post “Mary’s Commitment,” not “Mary’s Prayer.” The prayer shows strongly that she chose to believe what Gabriel told her, regardless of the shame and opposition she received from her family and neighbors. She continued to believe in the face of that opposition. She prayed not in fear, but in bold hope.

We can join her prayer. If God is for us, who can be against us? If we have God’s favor, and we do, why should we get bent out of shape if we don’t have someone else’s? Let it drop. Focus attention on God’s favor.

We can also join her commitment. God still sides with the lowly against the proud. We need to be more concerned about the needs of the poor and outcast than with our own respectability and privileges.

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. Zechariah’s name had never been drawn by lot to burn incense in the temple. God, it seemed, had withheld the ultimate fulfillment of a married couple, children, and of a minor priest, the opportunity for that special service. And yet they continued to live a blameless life in God’s sight. They were two of the very best people in their society.

One day, the lot fell to Zechariah to burn incense, the most important moment of his entire life. Five priests entered the temple, but Zechariah alone entered the holy place. A crowd of worshipers gathered outside the temple to wait for him to complete his ritual duties and come back out to pronounce a blessing. But this day was different from all others. An angel appeared to Zechariah and told him his prayers had been answered.

Luke does not say what those prayers were, but verb tense Luke uses indicates that it was the answer to a specific prayer, not a habitual prayer. It probably means whatever Zechariah was praying just before the angel appeared, and therefore probably not his own personal needs. The angel promised him a son in his old age, and that son would answer whatever he had ever prayed, whether for his own needs, for Israel, or for the world beyond Israel.

Unfortunately, Zechariah chose that moment to turn from his regular character as upright and godly priest and revert to crotchety old man. He asked the angel, “How will I know you’re telling me the truth. My wife and I are old.” Zechariah knew the Scriptures. He knew that Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and others had borne children in old age after years of barrenness. He knew that God had worked many other miracles. He knew that everything ever spoken by an angel had come to pass, no matter how unlikely it seemed. And yet he chose to challenge the angel and declare his unbelief. He demanded a sign.

Unbelief is a serious obstacle to God. When Jesus went back home to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, his friends and neighbors rejected him. The Bible says that he was unable to do any mighty works there—not unwilling, but unable—because of their unbelief. Had he been able to do every conceivable miracle on that occasion, it would have blessed the people who received them, but would probably not have had long-term significance for the development of the kingdom of God. In the long run, it didn’t matter whether these people received their miracle or not. And so it is written that their unbelief prevented miracles from happening.

But in Zechariah’s case, God had prepared the birth and ministry of Jesus for generations. Hundreds of prophecies relate to it, including one in Daniel that named the approximate time. The ministry of John the Baptist was part of the preparation. There is no way Zechariah’s unbelief could derail it. The angel identified himself as Gabriel, a name already part of the historical record. Zechariah got his sign. He would be unable to speak until the day John was born.

Usually the priest who entered the holy place fulfilled his work quickly and left. Zechariah stayed in the holy place for a long time, so long that the crowd wondered about it. When he came out, he had been struck dumb and could not finish his priestly duty to pronounce a blessing on the crowd. Somehow, they understood that he had seen a vision. When his term of service ended, he went home and spoke for the next time to name his newborn son nine months later.

The crowd wondered what was taking him so long, this priest who had not been called to this service until he was an old man. We could understand if they concluded that he was a great sinner, that God had chosen that moment to punish him. We could understand if they concluded that he had been struck dead. There must have been great relief when he finally came out and great wonderment to realize that he could not speak. But they concluded not that he had been punished, but that he had seen a vision.

Perhaps this group of ordinary people had more faith than Zechariah did. We, too, ought to be more open to the possibility that God is here, that he is moving among us, and that he wants to work wonders. That he has a plan for our welfare, not for calamity.

American society today is very skeptical. We seem to have settled for a God of the gaps. We believe whatever science has to tell us on any given day, even though that changes noticeably over the years. We seem to think that if science has spoken about something, that settles it and there is no place for God in the matter. We make a distinction between science, or what we call reality, and religion, which we call someone’s private opinion.

Even in the church, people often regard those who talk about signs and wonders as some kind of fanatic. It isn’t reasonable. It isn’t normal. Some even teach that God’s supernatural activity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit passed away with the early church. And so the church today prays too often without any expectation that God will do anything. We hope against hope, but too often we do not believe.

Now I doubt if any of us have ever prayed a prayer that, if not granted, would derail some portion of God’s cosmic plan. We more greatly resemble the citizens of Nazareth than Zechariah. If we pray for something and then go out and tell other people we don’t have much hope of it happening, that is unbelief. If we find ourselves doubting God’s love, wisdom or mercy, that is unbelief. It is not unbelief to be uncertain of what to pray for, but if we know what to pray for and it seems like too much even for God to do, that is unbelief.

Americans do not see miracles like the ones reported from Africa or Asia or South America. We do not believe those reports very much, either. We decide that the stories are exaggerated or that there must be some other, more rational explanation. In consequence of our unbelief, God cannot do many miracles here. God does not stop wanting to do miracles in our midst; as in Nazareth, he cannot. God dislikes unbelief. It does not anger him. It grieves him.

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. Ahaz piously refused, so Isaiah gave him a sign anyway: a young woman would bear a son and call his name Immanuel. Before the child was old enough to know right from wrong, the two kings Ahaz feared would be gone.

Here, the name “Immanuel” was more important than the manner of his conception. Within nine months, it appears, the threat from Israel and Syria ended so dramatically that “Immanuel” might have even become a common name for baby boys in Jerusalem.

When Ahaz heard that name, he would have to understand that before Immanuel was  old enough to know right from wrong, Assyria would be a greater threat than those two petty kings could have ever been. Because he had been faithless, the sign pointed to the greatest national disaster since the kingdom split in two after Solomon died.

When Matthew quoted from this passage, the sign took on a dramatically different significance. Our Savior had to be born of a virgin; it is his conception, not the name “Immanuel” that matters in the gospels. The sign of a virgin birth pointed not to disaster, but salvation. The child of the virgin came into the world for one reason: to die in order to redeem the whole world from sin.

This one verse of Scripture has had two meanings and two applications. We can read in the Bible about the results of Ahaz’ faithlessness and apostasy, but scholars with the right language skills can also read about it in the boasts of the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Judah ceased to exist as an independent kingdom and instead became a tributary to greater powers for the rest of its existence.

We can also read in the Bible about how the baby Jesus grew up to be a man unlike any other, a man who was also God, the Lord of the universe. We can read of his death, resurrection, and ascension. We can read of his promise to return and put an end to sin and death.

People of faith can also look at how God’s grace has brought them through trials in their own lives, so once again, ample evidence of the fulfillment of the second meaning and application of this verse exists outside the pages of Scripture. Anyone else, if they only will, can read of Jesus’ redemptive power in the lives of his saints.

Let us, in this season of Advent, make the time to take our attention off the  hustle and bustle of shopping, parties and family get-togethers in order to ponder the significance of this holy birth–and more than that, his holy life and death. The baby grew up and demonstrated his Lordship. Let us worship and obey.