Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Righteous Resolutions for 2015 on


If you are like 45% of Americans, you probably made at least one New Year’s resolution a couple of days ago. Maybe your resolution was one of the top ten resolutions made in 2014:

                1. Lose Weight

                2. Get Organized

                3. Spend Less, Save More

                4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest

                5. Stay Fit and Healthy

                6. Learn Something Exciting

                7. Quit Smoking

                8. Help Others in Their Dreams

                9. Fall in Love

                10. Spend More Time with Family (statisticbrain.com)
 

All of these resolutions are good ones to keep; however, it you are like 92% of Americans who made them last year, you will fail to achieve these goals. Some of these goals (trying something new, getting organized, etc.), if not kept, are no big deal. In fact, many people will say things like, “I can always try next year.” However, the resolutions I hope we will glean from John 20:19-23 are far more important than most and, if left unkept, can have eternal ramifications. What will serve as our motivation for making and keeping the resolutions we will soon learn about? –The greatest event in all of history—Jesus’ resurrection. Following this greatest act, Jesus manifests Himself in three ways to His disciples in John 20:19-23 and accompanies these manifestations with three messages that will give us confidence, call us out, and break our silence in this year and in every year to come.




The Miraculous Appearance-20:19
 

As we return to our John series, we arrive immediately after Mary Magdalene is sent from the empty grave to the disciples with the glorious news of Jesus’ resurrection. It is now evening on “that day, the first day of the week” and her incredible message had no doubt made its way to the disciples and their close friends/loved ones. However, instead of bringing them cause for celebration, it is obvious that at this point, Mary’s news has brought them nothing but anxiety; the ”doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews” (20:19a). They probably wondered, “What would the Jews now do that the body was missing?” “What would Rome say?” “Could they really trust Mary’s message?” Instead of leaving the bunker they had rested in for the last few days to look for answers to these questions or faithfully spreading the message of Jesus’ victory to others, they held themselves up and hesitated to do just about anything. Something profound would have to wake them from their increasingly comfortable insulation and fearful isolation—something even more shocking than news from a secondary source—something like Jesus Himself! In His first manifestation, a miraculous appearance demonstrates that Jesus’ peace can be known in the midst of anxious situations.

 
At this time, “Jesus came and stood in their midst” (20:19b). There stood the body that was bruised and bleeding just days before healed and alive! Having made His way past the locks and through the doors, the disciples’ Savior, Teacher, and Friend confirmed Mary Magdalene’s most wonderful report, “Jesus is alive! Just as He said He would be!” The same man who buckled under the weight of a heavy cross and was taken from His loved ones to die now stood before them in total victory.


Jesus never performs a miracle for show, He always accompanies His acts with a message. This time, the message is peace. As soon as He appeared, He spoke this peace into the fearful milieu that gripped the disciples saying, “Peace be with you” (20:19c).  Victory had been achieved! Death was conquered! Everything Jesus said and did was now confirmed in this one miracle!  Surely this would wake them from their worry!

 
This is just like Jesus to break through barriers to bring encouragement and inspiration. Throughout His ministry He had conquered illness, storms, and the Jewish authorities. Though these previous victories should have inspired faith among the disciples, nothing was as grand as Jesus’ victory over death. However, to bring confirmation of this to those who should have expected it all along, Jesus had to break through the doors and locks His followers had put in place to insulate and isolate themselves.

 
The tendency we see in the disciples’ here is not unlike what we are prone to do in our lives. Some faith-shaking events or tragedies drive us into insulation or isolation behind closed doors into bunkers of fear or hesitancy. When this takes place, we are paralyzed spiritually, unmoved by the good news, and incapable of sharing it with anybody. However, we are not without help. Jesus breaks into our bunkers of isolation and insulation and wakes us up, speaking peace into our trouble, rendering us useful again! Sometimes He speaks through His word in times of quiet devotion, undeniable experiences, or through faithful messengers who preach His Word. No matter what way the message is communicated, Jesus is constantly reminding His own that because He rose from the grave, we can rise out of despair knowing that His victory is confirmation of our own in Him. His miraculous appearance here in verse 19 demonstrates Jesus’ peace in the midst of our anxiety.

 
The Presentation of Evidence-20:20-21

 
After Jesus had miraculously appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, He decides to take things a step further by offering more proof of what has occurred. He does this by presenting evidence of Himself to those who at this point were probably wiping their eyes and asking, “is this a dream?” “And when He said this, He showed them both His hands and His side” (20:20). The verb “show” is emphatic and suggests that Jesus took time to explain the meaning or significance of the scars that remained on His body.  These scars confirmed that the glorious figure they beheld was the same one who hung on the cross and was taken away. They were a grim reminder of the most glorious demonstration of love ever made.
 

Jesus’ scars were empirical evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. This was not just a spirit floating overhead or a mirage in an amber glow. Jesus had been raised bodily from the dead. Also, Jesus’ post-resurrection scars are a brilliant reminder of to what lengths Jesus was willing to go to provide salvation for His disciples. The evidence has spoken; Jesus’ scars tell the story; Jesus has risen from the dead!
 

 At this point that the readers of John’s account are given the response the disciples made after witnessing these first two manifestations, “the disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord” (20:20b). Having witnessed the miraculous appearance and having examined the evidence along with Jesus’ corresponding explanation, they rejoice. Why, because they beheld their Lord! Knowing that Jesus is alive from the dead is the difference between being most pitied and exceedingly blessed.

1 Cor. 15:17-19-“and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Because Christ has been raised from the dead, our faith is fruitful; we are no longer in our sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have life. If we have hoped in Christ in this life AND the next, we are of all men most blessed!

Jesus accompanies this presentation with another message, “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (20:21). His second message is a reiteration of the first (“Peace be with You”) with a corresponding call (“I also send you”). In fact, the call that Jesus makes is dependent on the peace the disciple has because of Jesus’ life in them. One cannot be sent of God like Christ unless they know His peace. Because Jesus came and ministered without fear or worry, we must have peace to be like Him as we are sent into this world. To obtain this peace, we must examine the evidence Jesus has presented and, like the twelve, behold our Lord alive and well.

 

What this passage makes abundantly clear is this: because Jesus is alive, there is no reason to be anxious and no justification for being idle. We have His peace and because of that we have His call to be sent into the world to share it.

 

The Promise of the Holy Spirit-20:22-23

 

The final manifestation Jesus offered in this text is a simple breath, “and when He said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’…” (20:22). “The process of breathing on someone may have very important symbolic implications. In some instances this can be related to a blessing” (Louw Nida). So what does it symbolize here? The most obvious theological antecedent is Genesis 2:7. There the exact same verb form is used (albeit in the Septuagint) when God breathes His Spirit into Adam at creation, (rendering him a “living being”). Here, at the occasion of the commissioning of His disciples, Jesus breathes life into the new messianic community (Kostenberger, 574-75).

 

However, is this new community really established in this moment? Is the Holy Spirit actually given here?  What about Pentecost in Acts 2? Is this a biblical discrepancy? No, instead, Jesus is symbolically promising the future gift of the Spirit at Pentecost with this breath and encouraging, nay, commanding that the disciples receive Him when He comes.

 

Like the miracle and the presentation of evidence before, this action comes complete with an accompanying message. The first message was about peace and the second was a command to be sent. This time, the message has everything to do with forgiveness, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (20:23).

 

In this context, the mission of Jesus’ disciples and the Spirit who empowers them is in full view (“being sent” in verse 21 and the reception of the Holy Spirit in verse 22). With this in mind it is important to correctly interpret the perfect verbs here as aspectual (i.e. “they stand forgiven”) and passive (implying that it is God who is doing the forgiving). There is therefore little doubt that the reference to forgiving sins, or withholding forgiveness, is connected to the message the disciples would eventually preach. The preaching of the gospel either brings men to repent as they hear of the forgiveness of God (forgiving them), or it leaves them unresponsive to the offer of forgiveness, thereby leaving them in their sin (i.e. retaining their sin) (Marsh, 641-42). Therefore, a paraphrase of this might read, “if you preach a message of forgiveness and they respond positively, their sins have been forgiven by God; however, if you preach a message of forgiveness and they respond negatively, they are still in their sin” (Jeff Dickson).

Each of the three messages builds on to reach other. First, there is peace because of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, those who have this peace are able to be sent into the world. Third, those who are sent into the world must do so to spread a message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.


So What?

I cannot think of a more appropriate message for the beginning of this year. As often as we taken time to remember the birth of Jesus and the death of Jesus, we should also reiterate His glorious resurrection. This passage offers three manifestations of a risen Jesus that inspire His disciples away from fear and toward peace, off the pew and into the world, and call us to speak up and not be silent. All of these activities depend on one’s understanding and remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection. For those who are IN Christ, there really is no reason to fear, no justification for remaining seated, and no message more important than forgiveness of sin through Jesus.

Therefore, resolve this year to live in the confidence that comes from knowing your Savior is alive and not dead. Resolve this year to use the peace Jesus has made available to catapult you out into your world for His sake. Resolve this year to keep His message of forgiveness of sin on the tip of your tongue as you do life with those around you who need to hear it. These are resolutions that I pray through God’s grace His church will keep!

 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Greatest Hits: The First Ever Christmas Song Luke 1:46-55


One of my favorite things about the Christmas season is the music. Some of my favorite Christmas tunes include O Holy Night, Sleigh ride, and anything by the Tran-Siberian Orchestra. However, I’m not the only one who enjoys carols and familiar musical phrases. The research shows that Christmas music is a powerful force to be reckoned with as it is a multi-billion dollar a year industry!
 


One thing that many arrangers or recording artists have done is provide compilations or medleys of several different songs that have already been written. Whether it’s a medley of carols or a grouping of holiday favorites, I always enjoy how arrangers use what has already been made available or already written to create something new (with its own spin and flavor). I had the privilege of singing such medley at the holiday pops along with the symphony orchestra choir and an entire auditorium full of people just the other day.

However, songs or groupings of songs used to commemorate a season are not new. In fact, many might be unaware of the very first Christmas song ever written. Though this first ever Christmas song is a single tune, Mary’s Magnificat is also a compilation of previous melodies that existed in the first century.  Written by the Holy Spirit and originally recorded by the virgin Mary, this song is a hymn of praise and reflection that continues to inspire those who hear it today. Let us look at its two profound verses in Luke 1:46-55.

I. VERSE #1: MARY’S PERSONAL PRAISE BALLAD-1:46-49

The very first Christmas song was sung by a virgin girl who would one day give birth to Christ Himself. The word “magnificat” is Latin for my soul magnifies and it comes from the first word used in the Latin text of this passage. In this translation, the opening lines read, “my soul exalts.” Mary begins this ancient hymn and most beautiful Christmas melody with praise and adoration for the Lord God in Heaven. The direction of her praise and adoration is to the Lord in whose eyes she had found undeserved favor.  While we have already observed how she reacted to such grace with obedience (putting her “yes” one the table), she now responds in praise and explodes in worship. 

Such exaltation is witnessed in Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2:1-10- “my heart exults in the Lord.” Interestingly, she too had found favor with God by means of a miraculous conception and in response chooses to praise the Lord.

It is important to understand that although God had shown Mary grace by choosing her for this task, the result of this journey, the completion of this task, would result in her own salvation. In a very Jewish way, Mary had also waited for the Savior that she now bore and would deliver. In essence, Mary was asked to be a small part in the program of salvation by acting as the vessel through which the God-child would come to earth. In this she rejoices in God who would save her through her child saying, “and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (1:47).  It is obvious by this personalization (“my Savior”) that Mary saw herself as part of the godly remnant that had served the Lord.  

Hannah also understood how God had saved her in spite of her barrenness by providing for her pregnancy. In her prayer you read that she also rejoices in the salvation that God provided.

1 Samuel 2:1-“My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is lifted up by the Lord. My mouth boasts over my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.”

One reason for Mary’s praise ballad is the attention God gave to her humble situation.  Luke cannot seem to shake the theme of humility in the account of Jesus’ birth. This awesome and Mighty God took notice of Mary’s humble state (a teenage girl from a small township in the middle nowhere) and chose her for a most important task. Because of His unique and surprising choice in this matter, Mary can help but to send praise His way, “…For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave;…” (1:48a). The only difference this reference to her humble obedience has with the one we talked about last week is that she is now living out her obedience, not just claiming it. She has made good on her answer and is living out her humble commitment to God’s great scheme to bring Jesus to earth.

Have you ever considered that only smaller birds sing in a pleasing way? You never hear a note worth whistling from the eagle, nor admire the sound a turkey makes, nor find the squawking of an ostrich pleasant to the ear. However, we love to listen to the sophisticated tunes of the canary, the wren, and the lark. Similarly, the sweetest music comes from those Christians who are small in their own estimation.

Not only does Mary praise the Lord because of His recognition of her in spite of her humility; but she also understood the eternal implications of the child she bore and that she too would be remembered for her humble service in God’s incarnational program, “for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed…”(1:48b). The small role she plays would be remembered by all who know the Bible and appreciate her example of courageous obedience. The opportunity to be a testimony of obedience is yet another reason that she praises the Lord in the first verse of this song.

However, while some might be tempted to venerate Mary herself. Mary is careful in her song to keep attention where it should be--the Lord God. God and His mighty power is the third reason she give Him praise, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me…” (1:49a). Even in her song Mary expresses that she was undeserving of any credit or any glory. Instead, she points all glory to the One who made her great because of His grace. The great things God did in her life are the only source of her goodness and that is the reason we see her praise the Lord in song, rather than sing about herself.

Mary concludes her praise ballad with a proclamation of God’s holiness—the fourth reason for her praise. Perhaps God’s most over-arching quality, holiness describes His unique and separate character that made everything transpire in both Mary’s life and in the world. It was God’s holy and awesome will that put this program of salvation together and now was pleased to bring Jesus to Earth. It is His holiness that authored salvation in the first place and it was his holy wisdom that saw fit to extend to Mary His grace and favor. For that reason Mary sings her humble praises.

Mary’s personal praise ballad is a rubric that can be followed today. Just as Mary borrowed from Hannah’s Old Testament hit, we can borrow form this song several principles to apply in our lives. Taking from this song’s template so far, we must pick up the melody and praise the Lord by our obedience in all things. Following Mary’s example, we are compelled in this text             to glorify God for all of the good that He has given. When we do this, the melody is beautiful.

II. VERSE #2: MARY’S REFLECTIVE REFRAIN-1:50-55

In this second verse of Mary’s song, she borrows lyrics from several popular Psalms and makes a transition from praise and toward reflection. First, Quoting from Psalm 103:17, Mary reflects on God’s activity in Israel’s history in general and how this miraculous conception in her life fits into a much larger story, “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him…” (1:50). Truly, the entire story of the Old Testament that led up to this moment in Mary’s life was characterized by rebellion and mercy. In rebellion man sinned in the garden and God provided his mercy with the coverings of animal skin through a sacrifice. In rebellion, mankind grew so wicked that God determined to annihilate mankind in a flood and yet because of God’s mercy Noah and his family were saved. In rebellion, mankind built a tower to God and they were confused in their languages, forming all kinds of peoples and nations. In mercy, God chose Abraham to start a new nation that would bless the world. In rebellion, the nation God chose was disobedient and as a result was displaced and thrown into slavery. In God’s mercy Moses was raised and led his people to the Promised Land. In rebellion, God’s people demanded a king when they were supposed to follow Him. In God’s mercy he provides King David (albeit after Saul). In rebellion God’s people turn toward idols and are thrown into exile. In God’s mercy, He returns them to the land and rebuilds their city, their temple, and its walls. The entire Old Testament is a testimony of the incredible mercy of God. Most recently for Mary, God has been silent for 100s of years silence because of man’s rebellion; but now in this single act, He breaks that silence in a big way and shows Israel, once again, His incredible mercy by sending His son.  

Along with God’s mercy as demonstrated in the Old Testament, Mary reflects on God’s mighty deeds—floods, fires, healing, victory, etc. “…He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart, He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble…”(1:51-52). Each mighty act showed favor to the humble and judged the proud. Fires or floods were sent to scatter or destroy those who had become too proud to worship the one true God (Proverbs 8:13-The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate). Defeat was handed to those nations who were haughty in the face of Israel. Even for Israel herself, pride led to exile, destruction, and defeat (cf. Amos 6:8-The lord God has sworn by Himself, the Lord God of hosts says: “I abhor the pride of Jacob, and hate his palaces, therefore I will deliver up the city and all that is in it”). However, when returned to her correct state of humility, Israel was blessed, protected, and provided for. Victory and promise is given to the humble. Reflecting on this principle for Israel, Mary realizes that because of her humility, she was able to experience her own mighty act of God.

Quoting from another song (Psalm 107:9), Mary also reflects on God’s unique provision in response to man’s desperate need “…he has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty -handed” (1:53). It is clear when one looks at this Psalm (Psalm 107:5-6-“they were hungry and thirsty their soul fainted within them. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble…”), that Mary is not condemning the rich, but rather a failure to recognize dependency on the Lord for all things. This line in her reflective refrain reveals that those who recognize their hunger before the Lord are filled; however, those who already think they have it all will be sent away with nothing. Mary recognizes this throughout Israel’s history and in her own life as well. In no way did she pretend to have it all and not need God. In her own mind, she understood that God’s grace had filled her and her life with good things because of her dependency on Him. That was something to sing about.

So What?

With that, Mary’s compilation of Old Testament hits is complete. Having borrowed from Hannah’s timeless hit and a couple of noteworthy tunes from the Psalms, Mary was able to create something new for the first ever Christmas season. Both her personal praise ballad and reflective refrain sing of God’s greatness, mercy, and sovereign purpose in the world to bring about redemption to mankind. First, Mary’s personal praise reveals that this experience was one that brought much joy and wonder to her life. She recognized that her humility had been awarded with this opportunity to shine brightly for the Lord. After praising God for this she reflects on how God has done similar wonders in the life of her people. He extended mercy to Israel following prideful rebellion, had done mighty acts, and would continue to see the promises He had made fulfilled.

These verses teach us that God is eager to bless the humble with greatness and desires to perform the miraculous with the lowly. It is when we grow proud or arrogant that God decides we are useless (just as He demonstrated in the flood and in exiling His nation). Mary’s humility was an opportunity for God to use her. Israel’s humility led to incredible victory. Your humility before the Lord today is also an opportunity for God to use you in extraordinary ways. The more unlikely you may feel it is for God to use you, the more likely it is that God wants to glorify Himself through your life. The less you feel you have to offer, the more God will have to come through when you throw yourself out there. This Christmas, humble yourself before the Lord in order that He might shine brightly in your life. Recognize that your humble state, my humble state, and the humble state of this church is not an obstacle we are having to fight against. Instead, it is an opportunity we have for God to shine in ways other people or places who fail to realize this cannot.

This song also outlines how we should respond when God uses us. Like Mary, we are always to give God the credit and praise His holy Name. Who do you praise? Who gets the credit for what takes place in your life? Choose this Christmas to sing a new song in place of the selfish tunes we are prone to belt.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Christmas' Greatest Hits: Gabriel's Gloria -Luke 1:26-38


Any man who is married has experienced the following scenario: Your wife comes in and tells you something that she presumes you already know and you obviously have no idea what she is referring to. She then proceeds to say that she already told you about the event, situation, or errand earlier, perhaps even days earlier. In this moment, the husband has a choice to make. He can be stupid and try and prove that she didn’t make him aware of whatever it is they are discussing, or he can plead ignorance and chalk it up to not remembering what she must have made perfectly clear. In my short tenure as a married man, I have learned to choose the latter.  In fact, I have unfortunately proven very adept at forgetting the unmemorable. There are few conversations that I can remember vividly. 1Unless, it is really important or commands my full attention, I will probably forget the details. However, I do remember the conversation I had with Brianna’s parents before I asked her to marry me. Everything from where we ate to what was said to how we left is imprinted in my mind. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my parents as they dropped me off at College my freshmen year and drove off. I can still remember what was said and how long the embraces lasted. I remember every detail surrounding the moment when Brianna told me we were expecting our first child and second child! Some conversations you just don’t forget.

 Today we are going to look at 4 Parts of a conversation experienced between two unlikely individuals, an archangel and a teenage girl, as we look forward to Christmas time. Like my conversation with Brianna’s just a few months ago, a young woman is soon going to learn that a baby changes everything. How she responds will teach each one of us how we ought to respond when God speaks.


I. PART 1: The Context of the Message-1:26-27

The timing of the conversation is intimately connected to the first 25 verses of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ story begins as yet another story has already been introduced—the birth of Jesus’ would-be cousin John.  This obvious correlation is made to show how Jesus’ life and work was a large part of an even greater narrative God was in the process of writing. Just as Elizabeth had conceived miraculously in her old age, Mary would conceive even more miraculously in her virginity. When John would be called great in the sight of the Lord (1:15), the Lord Jesus would be called the Son of God (1:32 & 35). 

After the timing of this conversation is identified, the messenger is revealed.  Gabriel is the trusted messenger who has been sent from the eternal glory of heaven. His angelic resume makes Gabriel a perfect choice as it is riddled with eschatological events. Twice in Daniel, it is Gabriel who brings news of the end of the ages. This new message He will bring to Mary is yet another announcement of God coming to earth. What he reveals will turn Mary’s gaze ahead to the long awaited Messiah’s work on the earth and how that work would usher in the age that would lead to the end of time.

So rare had God’s activity in the world been for the last 400 years (the intertestamental period) that this would have been absolutely shocking.

Now that we’ve examined the time and source of the message Mary was given, it follows next that we uncover the location in which the message was received. Luke is oddly specific (as would become his trademark in Luke and in Acts) concerning where Gabriel was sent.

Nazareth was the Brookneal, VA of Israel.  Have you heard of Brookneal? Exactly. In order to help his readers understand where the tiny town of Nazareth was, he specifies its location in the land of Galilee. The humility of this birthplace is made even more acute in John 1:46 when Nathaniel says, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Humble beginnings like this are not accidental nor are they superfluous. It is purposeful that God would allow His Son to be sent in such a humble way as His ministry would be forever marked with humility and His destiny marked with an even greater humiliation (Calvary). God’s glory is, even in Christ’s birth, shown most beautifully in the most unlikely of places.

I’ll never forget finding a 20 dollar bill on the road one day as a kid. It was so exciting to find something so valuable in such an unlikely spot. I would not have been so excited or pleasantly surprised to have a 20 dollar bill given to me from my dad’s wallet. In the same way, to create something special, galvanize excitement, and draw attention to the glory of Christ, God places Jesus in the most unlikely of situations from the beginning.

Part of understanding the context of this interaction involves understanding who was included in the activity. Luke clearly emphasizes here and elsewhere that Gabriel was sent to a virgin woman. Not only was this woman a virgin, she was given to be married to a man –something that could not be broken except through something similar to a formal divorce. At this time, Mary would have probably been only 15 years old, some scholars suggest she was even a younger 13 (as this was the normal age of betrothal).

The lucky fiancĂ© of this young lady was none other than Joseph of the descendants of David. This important factoid demonstrates Jesus’ relationship to the line of David, King of Israel, who was promised a forever kingdom. Through these context clues, Luke reveals that the message Gabriel is bringing has something to do with this royal family line. This, along with the unlikely setting and even more unlikely miracle would have created quite a stir Mary and Joseph’s life.

Before we move on to talk about the content of the message consider this. An angel going to Nazareth of Galilee to deliver this message to Mary would have been like an angel going to the outskirts of Brookneal, VA to speak to the young daughter of a family who lived in a double-wide. This is a proper way to view the situation as it was for Mary and Joseph as this is how Gabriel’s news found them in their lives. You can bet that she would never forget this encounter or the conversation that would take place.

II. PART 2: The Content of the Message-1:28-33

So eager was Gabriel to bring this news that he begins talking as he was coming into Mary’s presence. While in the process of appearing, he tells Mary that God considers her highly favored, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). There is no evidence to suggest that this was because of any merit or special holiness she possessed (as some suggest). Instead, she had been chosen because of his own mysterious and glorious purposes. This proclamation of God’s choosing is quickly followed with a promise of God’s presence in her life (the Lord is with you), revealing a timeless principle: once God chooses you, there is no escaping His presence in your life.

There is nothing implicitly confusing about Gabriel’s salutation. However, think for a moment about how it was given in the first place. Here is an angelic being appearing to young girl in the middle of nowhere after God has proven almost silent for 100s of years. A little confusion is understandable of this young girl who had seen nothing of this sort in all of her life, “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was” (1:29). Maybe she wiped her eyes thinking it was a dream or checked herself to see if she had hit her head on something.

The heavenly being is able to read her expression of dumbfoundedness and quickly assures her that there is nothing to be afraid of. God’s favor has found Mary. (As stated earlier, this does not suggest that Mary had earned it in some way, but it does mean that she had been sovereignly chosen of God for the task she would soon hear about).

After assuring her, Gabriel eagerly divulges the prediction he had been sent to communicate, “…You will conceive in your womb and bear a son…”(1:31).

Immediately following the prediction of the child Himself, Gabriel provides Mary with the name of the child. This follows an Old Testament pattern of prophecy and then naming.

When Brianna and I found out she was pregnant (both times) we couldn’t wait to discover whether it would be a boy or a girl. However, notice here that Mary is not given the opportunity of waiting to see what the sex of the baby will be. Nor is she able to name the baby for herself!

Gabriel states that the name will be “Jesus.” Luke doesn’t make a big deal out of the name, in fact, the commonality of his name in the Jewish culture runs parallel to His ordinary birthplace. However, Jesus (which means God is salvation), would prove to be anything but ordinary and his life everything but common.

 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David” (1:32). According, to Gabriel, Jesus will be great…PERIOD (no qualifications, nor conditions)! Gabriel also reveals that He will be the “Son of the Most High,” which is simply another name for the Son of God. Finally, Jesus will prove to be the long-awaited heir to the throne of David. The Davidic throne is clearly a regal image drawn from the Davidic covenant’s promise of a son, a house, and an everlasting rule. In fact, the promise made to David (the hero of the Old Testament) will culminate in Jesus Christ. Words like “son” and the reference to “David” are examples of strong regal language Gabriel used to let Mary know that her son would prove to be the King her people had awaited for a long time.  

However, not only will Jesus have a title and claim to the throne of David, “He will reign over a the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end…”(1:33). The phrase “house of Jacob” is another way to refer to Israel. However, the everlasting quality of His reign seems to suggest that his sovereignty will extend beyond Israel’s borders.

What an earful! Sure I don’t get to name my baby or talk things over with Joseph but the son of God! Wow! He is going to be THE King! He is going to rule THE forever kingdom the OT looks forward to! But wait…how is this even possible? A justified question from a young Jewish girl.

III. PART 3: The Explanation of the Message-1:34-37

Given her lack of sexual experience, Mary questions how this all will transpire. While not yet through high school, it is obvious that Mary understands that several things need to take place socially and biologically for this to happen; and yet, in keeping her vow to stay pure, she has not “known” a man. This question along with the couple’s resolve to abstain from sexual activity until after Jesus’ birth help to prove that Jesus would be miraculously conceived. This is what Gabriel reveals next.

What Gabriel tells Mary runs parallel to what was spoken to Elizabeth and is similar to other stories of miraculous births in Scripture, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (1:35). Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Isaac had Jacob and Esau, Hannah had Samuel, etc. God has always enjoyed bringing life from barrenness and glorifying Himself in these miraculous births. In fact, these allusions are small images of Christ Himself who brought life in a dead and dying world. In the midst of spiritual barrenness, Jesus breathes life. Jesus’ birth through the power of the Holy God is what gave Him His perfect nature and set Him apart from any other man. His birth was the direct result of God’s creative power and because of this He can be called the Holy Child and Son of God—holy because Jesus was set-apart for Spiritual Service, like His Father in every way. First called the Davidic son because of his practical parents (Joseph and Mary), Jesus is now revealed to be the Son of God because of His true Father and divinity.

To help Mary to process this incredible influx of information, Gabriel draws her attention to her relative Elizabeth whose miracle birth would have given Mary pause to consider the possibility that with God, all things (even bringing God to earth in the womb of a virgin) are possible, “and behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month” (1:36).

 Only God could perform this greatest of miracles—the incarnation. In Jesus’ birth, God came to earth in the form of a man.  The outsider and creator of everything became the creation to save it from itself.

Message complete, proclamation given, and predictions made, Gabriel’s task is complete. He now leaves the ball in Mary’s court. This early teenage girl’s response to the message is what I hope inspires us today. Before we think about how excited we would be to accept such an offer, consider the risk it was for her. She was pledged to be married. What would Joseph say about the teenage baby bump that would eventually show? What would friends and family members speculate?  Sure her life was simple and common, but it was familiar and stable. What if she didn’t want this God-sized interruption? What if she wished it upon someone else? She probably recognized more than anyone else that she was no one special. “Why me?” she could have asked. However, Mary says none of these things.

IV. PART 4: The Response to the Message-1:38

”And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”…” (1:38). In this response, Mary immediately calls herself a slave of God and places herself under His rule, His will, and His ways. As God’s handmaid, she openly accepts what God asks of her and proves exemplary in the way she responds to God’s message of grace. Because of the grace shown to her (God found favor with her simply because He was pleased to do so), she proved submissive and obedient to Him. God can now do with her what he wishes. Despite all the risk involved, as the Lord’s servant, she willingly places her “yes” on the table.

Mary says yes in spite of what Joseph would choose to do with her. She says yes in spite of what her family would say. She says yes, in spite of how her community might respond. She says yes in spite of her own plans for her life. In response to the grace of God in her life, Mary is willing to leave everything to follow Him in obedience.

With this positive response, the Angel departs back toward the heavens excited, overjoyed, and grinning at the news he is now eager to share with his angelic peers, “she said YES!”

So What?

What a conversation! The great thing about it is we don’t have to wish we were a fly on the wall to experience what took place. Instead, Luke reveals what happened with pinpoint precision. After understanding the context of this incredible message and observing the content and explanation of the message, how will we choose to respond? While I’m sure God will never appear to you and ask of you to bear His Son, what does he keep asking you to do for Him. Haven’t we also been shown favor from God undeserved as Mary? Haven’t we been given unearned grace from the Almighty? If so, then why don’t we respond like Mary does with complete obedience? If and when we do this God is able to do with us far more than we ever could have imagined. Isn’t it about time we stop letting age or circumstance keep us from responding to God’s grace. What better gift could we give God this Christmas season than to allow our “yes” to be on the table when God asks us to do anything? What better activity could we engage in as believers than busying ourselves with actually doing what He has already instructed in His Word? Maybe it’s time you had a memorable conversation with God.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

My Reflections on Interstellar: A Response to an Incredible Motion Picture


 
As an admirer of Christopher Nolan, I knew there was no way that I could pass up seeing Interstellar in the magic of the theater house along with the corresponding drama of opening week. I was not disappointed. The Nolan brothers delivered a beautiful piece of work that managed to juxtapose an intimate look into the human condition with the intergalactic splendor of deep space exploration. In their endeavor, these gifted storytellers direct the gaze of their audiences heavenward and challenge everyone to once again dream of boldly going where no one has gone before. Perhaps, as the characters demonstrate in the motion picture, the Nolans are dissatisfied, unimpressed, or fearful of planet earth as it currently exists. In an effort to escape it, they created a craft capable of allowing their audiences to escape, even for just a few short hours, in the form of this motion picture.
However, the Nolans' desire to escape planet earth is not unique to these two dreamers/directors. One of the many distinguishing features of mankind that separates the human race from the animal kingdom is its openness to the world and its desire to reach beyond it.[1] Ever since Greek scholarship decided to answer the question of man in terms of the cosmos, the world itself was always deemed inadequate to give a definitive answer for man’s yearning concerning what he is supposed to be.[2] Entire systems of scholarship have even been established to account for this phenomenon. For instance, historians and anthropologists deal with the issues of this openness or “otherness” in their respective fields (one studies “otherness” in space, the other in time).[3] From antiquity on, man’s insatiable desire to reach beyond every horizon that opens to him has been well documented and studied.
            The Nolans join the scientific community in both recognizing and appreciating this future-oriented, “other”-associated openness in the constitution of man with this film. They reveal themselves to be sympathetic to thinkers like William Sims Brainbridge. In his compelling essay on converging technologies, Brainbridge provides an optimistic look toward a future when man, upon reaching a higher level of understanding, will leave planet earth entirely and reach a higher potential or evolutionary step.[4] Interestingly, he believes that the coalescence of technology and the human enterprise promises to grant humanity unprecedented power to change themselves and the world around them. While some in the scientific community hope that caution is practiced as humans advance in this way, Brainbridge suggests that caution would stifle the program of progress. Uninhibited, man should be released to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” and advance so far that humanity as a label will be considered obsolete.[5]  Instead of finding satisfaction in the currently inhabited world, those sympathetic to Brainbridge believe that humanity’s unquenchable openness to possibilities will inevitably lead mankind to other literal worlds by means of technological advances. But is this where people are really headed?
            To what or whom does this openness or otherness really point? What is hidden inside the black hole of mankind’s insatiable desire for satisfaction in something outside of himself? Salvation for humanity is not a new planet to populate once ours becomes useless, nor is it a clever solution to a seemingly impossible equation of quantum physics. However, the answer does exist in another dimension of space and time. It is God. Though time and space are relatively inconsequential for Him, He, like the protagonist of Nolan’s film is able to communicate (and has communicated) the secret to a meaningful life. Also like Interstellar’s Cooper, He is a loving Father bent on directing the gaze of humanity toward the hope of a better future. The code through which His message is relayed to mankind is the very openness that humans have for something more than what already is. The message  itself is Jesus Christ. As the God-Man, Jesus stepped out of His dimension and entered into our own to point the way to salvation. Not only did He relay the message of salvation, He proved Himself to be salvation. In so doing, Jesus solved the equation of our dissatisfaction with the world as it is and offers something better in its place, a real heaven.
            However, powerful forces are joining together to silence this message from coming through by erasing man’s desire for something more altogether. Textbooks have been re-written that  suggest this world is all that there is and humanity's only hope is to seek pleasure in this life. Thankfully, Interstellar has challenged this assumption in its own spectacular way by giving its audience a reason to wonder again. I just wonder if those who know the solution to man’s need will capitalize on the opportunity for discussion this movie creates by making the answer to mankind’s very real desire known to those who desperately need it on planet earth.
            Thank you Christopher Nolan for creating something that was not only fun to watch but even more exciting to ponder after the fact.

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, What is man?: A Contemporary Anthropology in Theological Perspective, trans. by Duane A. Prievbe (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977), 3. See also Hoekema, Created, 18. 
 
[2]Pannenberg, What is Man?, 7. 
 
[3] Bernard S. Cohn, “History and Anthropology: The State of Play,” Comparative
Studies in Society and History 22 (1980), 198.
[4] William Sims Brainbridge, “Converging Technologies and Human Destiny,” Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 32 No. 3 (May0June , 2007): 197-98.
 
[5]Ibid., 212. “We can agree that the planet Earth should remain a refuge for traditional humanity, living in a variety of low-tech societies in what technophiles would call a perpetual Dark Age. Those who wish to transform themselves into a very different kind of intelligent entity will need to leave the Earth, fulfilling what Alfred Bester (1956) ironically called arrival of the fittest. The original Star Trek motto — to boldly go where no man has gone before — has been criticized for splitting an infinitive and employing sexist language, and I now criticize it for implying that space travelers will be humans in the antique sense of the term. Another motto from the science-fiction subculture is better, leaving open the nature of spacefarers and playing nicely off an old religious motto: The meek will inherit the Earth, but the bold will go elsewhere.
 

Monday, July 28, 2014

CROSS SERIES #4: Surrender to Prayer


In middle school, I remember a persistent cough that my dad couldn’t seem to shake. Something trivial the he and his doctors chalked up to different superficial conditions. However, as time progressed, different people suspected pneumonia as the reason for his problem. It wasn’t until a radiologist finally took an MRI of his chest that the lymphoma was found. My dad had cancer, and what appeared trivial at first was something much more serious, even life-threatening.
 

Unfortunately, symptoms that appear superficial may, in fact, indicate real problems. This is true not only of our physical bodies, but of the body of Christ. Hesitation, fear, and even disagreement within a local body of believers might appear non-threatening at first; however, upon further investigation, they might be symptoms of the cancer of worry. Worry can kill a church, paralyze a believer, and keep the mission of God from moving forward.

Because of our sin nature we are spiritually predisposed to worry in much the same way some are genetically predisposed to different illnesses. This begs a simple question, “is there something in our strategy as believers to combat this disease?” Thankfully, the answer is yes and Philippians 4:6-7 spells out our prescription.

I. PART #1: THE CALL TO PRAYER-4:6

In the book of Philippians, Paul writes to a stellar group of believers who are running the race of their ministry well. When chapter four of this incredible letter finally rolls around, Paul erupts in a long list of encouragements that he hopes will sustain the already thriving ministry and propel it into the future. One special grouping of these encouragements is found in verses 4-9. All of the encouragements found in this small passage unite around a theme of peace. In verses 4-7, the encouragements speak primarily to situations in life in which peace may be lacking (i.e. “rejoice” in the midst of despair, “let your gentle spirit be made known” in lieu of anger or malice, etc.) However, special attention seems to be given to the third of three commands in vv. 4-7. This command is stated, “Be anxious for nothing” (4:6). Though this is a positive command, “be anxious for,” immediately it is made negative by the adjective, “nothing.” In other words, “worry about nothing.” In life and in ministry, there is nothing that any believer ought to worry or be anxious about.

Similar teachings can be found in Matthew 6:25-34 when Jesus prohibited worry while giving a lengthy lecture series in Galilee. There, He identifies several common carcinogens that often contribute to anxiety: concerns about physical attributes (v.27), clothing (v.28), food and drink (v.31), and the future (v.34). Ultimately, Jesus concludes “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will take care for itself…” (6:34).

Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching and instructs the church at Philippi to be “anxious for nothing.” Though this church was a shining example of ministry in the first century, it is not as though this church was free of any trouble that could cause anxiety or fear among those in its congregation. Just listen to these words of Paul in chapter 3 verse 2.

Philippians 3:2-“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision.”

The church of Philippi had its own set of issues to be aware of, but nothing to worry about. Similarly, every church that has ever existed has its own share of issues to be aware of; however, anxiety has no place in the life of a believer, let alone his/her place of worship. The believer ought not worry about anything. However, what prescription does Paul provide when worry does flare up or anxiety comes out of remission?

The answer is as simple as it is profound—surrendering everything in prayer, “but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (4:6b). Prayer is the cure for anxiety. In this one verse, three words are used to describe prayer. The first two provide the method of prayer, indicated by the word “prayer” and “supplication.” “Prayer” is the most general word used for communication with God. In light of this context, curing your problem of anxiety means consulting the great physician, making necessary appointments, and disclosing everything of concern to Him (i.e. every contagion that might be contributing to the symptoms of worry present in your life). However, in these appointments, one must also request treatment. This idea is wrapped up in the word, “supplication,” meaning to ask with urgency based on presumed need.

Everything needs to be brought to God in this way. There is nothing that needs to be left out of.

If you went to an oncologist in order to have cancer treated, you would be asked a series of questions concerning your symptoms, family history, and previous illnesses. How well you answer these questions will determine how well the doctor treats you. Therefore, it would be foolish to leave anything out. Instead, we are encouraged by our physicians to tell them everything. In the same way, God desires for us to bring Him everything that concerns us to Him in prayer. The only difference is, He already knows what ails us and already knows how best to treat us.

Because prayer is the cure for anxiety, it cannot be accompanied with a spirit of worry. Prayers are not a means/excuse to worry more. Instead, they are vehicles used to send and drop off our worries before the Lord. This is why prayer offered to God must be given with an attitude of thanksgiving. It is hard to be anxious when you are thankful. In fact, one might make the case that thankfulness is the furthest attitude from worry. Paul understood that when believers in Philippi adopted a sense of thanksgiving in their prayer lives, they were already on the fast track to having God cure them of their anxiety.

The third word used to describe prayer in this verse is “requests.” This is the essence of prayer-- “to let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). However, as “good Christians” we have been taught that filling a prayer with requests is somehow off-putting to God. Though thanksgiving, confession, etc. are championed in different popular works on prayer and encouraged by pastors everywhere, voicing requests is often treated as secondary and less important. This does not seem to be the case in Scripture. Though God does enjoy being praised and thanked and loves to be pursued for forgiveness, I believe that God is equally delighted to hear the believer’s requests and answer his or her needs. Why? It is the very act of bringing a request to God that demonstrates surrender to His supreme power, praises Him for His ability, and confesses dependency on Him in one’s lack. There are fewer things that bring God more pleasure and afford Him more glory than coming through for His people when they ask Him for things that He alone can provide-including a cure for anxiety. (Similarly, there are fewer things that bring a doctor more joy than seeing a patient who is riddled with cancer go into remission after treatment).

In this short verse, the believer finds the answer to the age old question, “Why pray?“ At the very least, prayer (as it is most appropriately exercised under an attitude of thanksgiving), removes worry from the heart of a believer as it is in process. It also allows for requests to be made of God which demonstrate the believer’s inability and God’s supreme ability. This creates a situation in which God is pleased to intervene in order to glorify Himself by doing what only He can do in a multiplicity of scenarios.

II. PART #2: THE CONSEQUENCE OF PRAYER-4;7

In the place of anxiety, prayer yields the “peace of God,” (4:7a). Notice, this is not just any kind of peace; it is the very peace of God—perfect peace from the only One who can give it. Such peace acts as a fortress that “guards...hearts and minds” (4:7a) from anxiety and all other stressors in the life of a believer. Therefore, not only will God cure anxiety in answer to the prayers of His children, He will prevent anxiety in the life of a believer by means of a bulwark of peace. In fact, “guard” in this context is a military term, implying that peace stands on duty to keep out anything that brings worry.

In keeping with our extended metaphor, think of peace as an inoculation a third party (namely, a doctor), provides in order to alleviate the risk of disease. God provides peace as an inoculation against the contagions of the world that desire to wreak havoc on the hearts and minds of believers. However, this inoculation is offered only in His office which can be entered at any time through prayer.

The kind of peace that God provides is not only divine, and not only guards the hearts and minds of individual believers, it also “surpasses all comprehension” (4:7b) or “transcends all understanding.”

Long ago a man sought the perfect picture of peace. Not finding one that satisfied, he announced a contest to produce this masterpiece. The challenge stirred the imagination of artists everywhere, and paintings arrived from far and wide. Finally the great day of revelation arrived. The judges uncovered one peaceful scene after another, while the viewers clapped and cheered.

The tensions grew. Only two pictures remained veiled. As a judge pulled the cover from one, a hush fell over the crowd. A mirror-smooth lake reflected lacy, green birches under the soft blush of the evening sky. Along the grassy shore, a flock of sheep grazed undisturbed. Surely this was the winner.

The man with the vision uncovered the second painting himself, and the crowd gasped in surprise. Could this be peace? A tumultuous waterfall cascaded down a rocky precipice; the crowd could almost feel its cold, penetrating spray. Stormy-gray clouds threatened to explode with lightning, wind and rain. In the midst of the thundering noises and bitter chill, a spindly tree clung to the rocks at the edge of the falls. One of its branches reached out in front of the torrential waters as if foolishly seeking to experience its full power.

A little bird had built a nest in the elbow of that branch. Content and undisturbed in her stormy surroundings, she rested on her eggs. With her eyes closed and her wings ready to cover her little ones, she manifested peace that transcends all earthly turmoil. 

This is the kind of peace that God provides when His people call upon Him. Peace and rest in spite of everything contributing to the contrary—peace that “transcends all understanding.”

 In the biological community there is something called homeostasis.  This term describes a state of equilibrium in living organisms—whether in a single cell or an entire system of living things. Cells or other living things require equilibrium/homeostasis to reproduce and thrive. Therefore living things work hard to maintain optimal temperature, PH, oxygen saturation, and metabolism for that purpose. When something is introduced into the body, cell, or system that disrupts homeostasis, it becomes very difficult to thrive. The same is true in the spiritual lives of believers. God offers believers homeostasis (peace) that allows an individual, a church, or the entire body of Christ to thrive as he/she/it performs his/her/its mission in the world. Because we as believers cannot maintain homeostasis in and of ourselves, God has prescribed prayer as a means through which we can demonstrate our dependency on God for our equilibrium, allowing Him to provide peace, even in the midst of incredible duress.

Such peace, introduced in response to prayer, is only made possible “in Christ Jesus.” In other words, one must be “in Christ Jesus” in order to know peace like this. Actually, one must be “in Christ Jesus” to pray in the first place. Christ, the prince of peace, provides the way of communication to God by means of His death and resurrection. Without this, believers in the church at Philippi or in churches today would still be at odds with God and with no means of communicating with Him. However, thanks to Jesus Christ, the lines are open for those who believe in Him and what He has done to provide salvation. All prayer and all peace is given as a result of Jesus’ work of redemption.

So What?

Inasmuch as believers and this church are predisposed to anxiety because of our sin and the flesh, creating an opportunity for the cancer of worry to kill the progress of the gospel, we must answer the call to prayer as it provides the cure for our distress. In answering our prayers, God provides peace that passes all understanding, providing the right kind of environment for us to thrive and continue the mission He has given us of knowing Him, growing in Him, and showing Him to the world.

Prayer must not be forsaken. Instead, everything needs to be brought before the Lord in humble supplication. Don’t worry, God never tires of hearing your requests. Instead, He delights in seeing you and I depend on Him, and desires to glorify Himself by answering us in our need. Our church must be a place of corporate worship, relationships, obedience to the Word of God, and surrendering to the Lord in prayer. May it never be said of our church that we are a place of anything else.

Isa. 56:7-“…For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”