Posts tagged ‘Angel’

Christmas: Grace Upon Grace

Credit: Burkay Canatar / Pexels.com

For a moment, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You come from an impoverished family and have endured a hardscrabble life. But now, finally, things are looking up. You are engaged to a good girl named Mary, and the two of you are on your way to a wedding. But then, she turns up pregnant. And you know the baby is not yours. What would you do?

2,000 years ago, in Israel and as a Jew, Joseph had only two options.

First, according to the law of Moses, he could have called for her life:

If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)

Second, as the son who Mary eventually bears notes, he could have divorced her:

I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

Divorce displeases Jesus, but He permits it when sexual unfaithfulness is involved.

Death and divorce – these are Joseph’s options. Which will he choose? Matthew tells us:

He had in mind to divorce her. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph chooses divorce over death. But there’s more to Joseph’s decision than just one option over the other. Matthew adds a very important qualifier to Joseph’s divorce decision:

He had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

In the first century, divorces were often public spectacles, meant to shame an unfaithful spouse. But Joseph forfeits his opportunity to shame his fiancé, as Matthew makes explicit in the rest of this verse:

Because Joseph was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

Joseph was walking a tightrope. As a pious Jew, devoted to following the law of Moses, he knew he couldn’t just continue on as if nothing had happened. But Joseph also knew that grimly responding to his fiancé’s perceived infidelity with all that he could do according to the law wasn’t what he should do, for shaming her would destroy her. Something else was needed.

Grace.

Joseph followed the letter of the law by planning to divorce Mary, but he also did everything he could not to retaliate against her even though he thought she had betrayed him. He responded to her apparent unfaithfulness with every bit of kindness he could muster. Joseph did the right thing according to the law and the loving thing according to grace.

Joseph’s path can be instructive for us as we face messy moral challenges in our lives. Respecting divine law is necessary and right. But we are also invited to seek opportunities to layer divine grace on top of divine law.

We can discipline our children and still remind them how much we love them.

We can reprimand an employee and still do everything we can to help them succeed.

We can adamantly disagree with someone while still treating them gently.

When Joseph layered grace on top of law, something incredible happened:

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

When Joseph chose grace, an angel appeared to show him where even more grace could be found. He did not need to divorce Mary, for, contrary to appearances, she had not been unfaithful. Instead, she was being a radically faithful servant to the Lord who had miraculously gestated in her the Savior of the world (cf. Luke 1:38).

In John’s account of the Christmas story, he describes Jesus’ mission like this:

From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (John 1:16)

“Grace upon grace.” Grace that begets even more grace. Pile it high. Spread it wide. Do what Joseph did for Mary. And trust in what Jesus has done for us.

This is the miracle and the message of Christmas.

December 20, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Celebrating Christmas Slowly

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Credit: “The Angel Appearing to Zacharias” by William Blake (1800) / Wikimedia

When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in Luke 1 while he is performing his ritual duties at the incense altar in the Holy Place at the temple in Jerusalem to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son who will prepare the way for Jesus, it signals a remarkable turning point in the history of the nation of Israel. The Old Testament ends with a dangling prophecy:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5-6)

This prophetic word is both retrospective and prospective. It is retrospective because it hearkens back to Israel’s greatest prophet, Elijah, who lived over 400 years before this prophecy was proffered. It is prospective because it looks forward to another and greater Elijah who will create a new family out of the remnants of a nation that has been scattered and battered by years of exile and conquest.

And then ­­–

Gabriel shows up and announces:

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John … And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:13, 17)

This fulfillment had been a long time coming. Again, over 400 years had elapsed between the time Malachi had forecasted the coming of a new Elijah and Gabriel had announced the arrival of this new Elijah. Indeed, the last time Gabriel had shown up to anyone was over 500 years earlier to another prophet named Daniel:

While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill – while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. (Daniel 9:20-21)

It is interesting to note that Gabriel appears to both men while they are making sacrifices. The angel seems to like to show up in the midst of worship.

The apostle Paul writes of Jesus’ birth:

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

It turns out that sometimes, God’s “set time” takes a long time to get here – hundreds of years, in fact. And this is one of the many things that Christmas can teach us. In a season that is known for its hustle and bustle, Christmas is best celebrated slowly and patiently – waiting for God to work in His way in His time. In a culture that prides itself on social media platforms like Instagram, cooking gadgets like Instant Pots, movie franchises that are Fast and Furious, and even Covid tests that are rapid, slowness does not find pride of place in our imaginations or priorities. And yet, it was a promise slowly but faithfully kept that changed the world – and is still changing eternities.

The name Zechariah means, “The Lord remembers.” By the time Gabriel appeared to this old priest to announce that he and his wife would have a son, it must have felt like they had been forgotten. But they had not been. God was just working slowly and patiently. May our character reflect God’s work this season – and each day.

December 13, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sunshine & Branches

Tree, Aesthetic, Log, Branch, Winter Sun, Winter, Kahl
Credit: Pixabay.com

When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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