Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Week Six: December 28, 2015 - January 3, 2016 - Luke 2:36-52

Three years ago, I had an overwhelming experience of God's presence.  Standing in the nighttime air at the foot of what is left of Herod's Temple Mount in Jerusalem, I was overcome by the Spirit of God as I glared upward at the huge, ancient stones.  My mind was flooded with the thoughts of countless ancestors in faith who had encountered The Most High God in that place.  Priest, prophets, kings, and commoners had received grace and witnessed the glory of God for hundreds of years in the Temple at Jerusalem.  God dwelled with the people in the Holy of Holies within the Temple...set apart from them, yet with them.

My wife took this picture of the moment.  I'm in the center-left wearing the red/maroon shirt and khaki pants.

Yielding to God in prayer with my hand against the ancient stones, I sensed the presence of God with me in a profound way.  I poured out my heart to God in awe, in praise, and in humble recognition of God's grandeur and love.

Upon returning to the United States, I began realizing that God desires for me to experience His presence on a daily basis.  While the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is most assuredly "Holy Ground," the presence of God through the Holy Spirit makes every physical space "Holy Ground" and every moment an opportunity to experience the presence of God.

Our Scripture this week tells us of two people who walked closely with God.  First, we read about Anna, a prophetess, who spent her life worshiping God at the Temple.  For what must have been close to sixty years, "she never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying." (Vs. 37) How incredible...her life was spent in worship, abiding in the presence of God.

Second, we read about Jesus, God in the flesh.  After accompanying His earthly parents to the Feast of the Passover at the age of twelve, He wanted to stay in the Temple even as His parents traveled back home.  His parents "found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." (Vs. 46) Jesus says to His alarmed parents, "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" (Vs. 49)  The focus of Jesus' life was abiding with the Father.

I believe both Anna and Jesus teach us that a Jesus-shaped faith practices the presence of God.  Brother Lawrence, a lay member of a Carmelite Monastery in Paris during the seventeenth century, understood that a person can find the holy presence of God within the ordinary routine of life.  Brother Lawrence, whose daily tasks were to cook in the monastery kitchen, learned to do everything with a constant current of love toward God who is always present.  He said, "As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties."*

Anna, Jesus, and Brother Lawrence have much to add to our walk with God.
-What can Anna's fasting and praying night and day teach us about worship and devotion?
-What can Jesus' thirst to remain in the Temple teach us about our own desire for God?
-What can Brother Lawrence's practice of the presence of God teach us about conversing with God on a regular basis and doing everything in life with love toward God?

May the reading of this week's Scripture draw us closer to God and fuel our own life of prayer and worship.

*Brother Lawrence - The Practice of the Presence of God

Monday, December 21, 2015

Week Five: December 21-27, 2015 - Luke 2:8-35

So let's start this week at the end with the beginning in mind.  In verses 34-35, Simeon says to Mary, "This child (Jesus) is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Here Luke tells us that Jesus' ministry is about the revealing of hearts.  When a person comes into the presence of Jesus, the true nature of his or her heart is revealed.  As John, the Gospel writer says, Jesus is "the light [that] shines in the darkness" and "the true light that gives light to every man." (John 1:5, 9)  A Jesus-shaped faith is identified primarily by heart transformation.  Recognize that this does not simply mean behavior modification.  Rather, Jesus has come to change who we are from the inside-out.

We witness heart transformation throughout this passage.

We see it first in the shepherds.  Who were they?  Better yet, we might ask, why are shepherds included in the story?  First of all, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, right?  The prophet Micah tells us in Micah 5:1-5 that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (vs. 2).  Verse four of this passage says, "He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth." Thus, Luke's inclusion of shepherds hearkens, perhaps, to the Micah prophecy itself.  Second, Luke includes shepherds to show that the the Gospel of Jesus includes the poor and low of status. However, Alfred Edersheim in his 19th century book, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, asserts that these may not have been any set of random shepherds.  Edersheim says these shepherds might have been the shepherds who watched the sheep destined for temple sacrifice in Jerusalem.

Edersheim says, "For, close by Bethlehem, on the road to Jerusalem, was a tower, known as Migdal Eder, the 'watch-tower of the flock.' For here was the station where shepherd watched their flocks destined for sacrifices in the temple. So well known was this, that if animals were found as far from Jerusalem as Migdal Eder, and within that circuit on every side, the males were offered as burnt-offering, the females as peace offerings. It seems of deepest significance, almost like the fulfillment of type, that those shepherds who first listened to angels' praises, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifices in the temple. It is when we remember, that presently these shepherds would be in the temple, and meet those who came thither to worship and to sacrifice, that we perceive the full significance of what otherwise would have seemed scarcely worth while noticing in connection with humble shepherds."

The shepherds experience a heart transformation. They go from complete fear and terror at the vision of the angels to great rejoicing as they realize a Savior has been born for them.  So with whom did they share the good news?  If we take Edersheim's direction in this path we might conclude that the shepherds shared the good news of Jesus with people in the temple including Anna and Simeon which would have alerted them to look for Jesus as he was brought to the temple.  Edersheim says, "Thus the shepherds would be the most effectual heralds of the Messiah in the temple, and both Simeon and Anna be prepared for the time when the infant Savior would be presented in the Sanctuary."

The next to experience heart transformation is Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary's heart is filled with wonder (vs. 19) as she considers the coming of the shepherds and continues to ponder the truth that her child will be the Savior of the world.  Mary along with Joseph marvel again at the temple when Simeon takes the Messiah in his arms and praises God (vs. 33).  We might see ourselves in this passage as we, too, ponder how God's presence and faithful promises fulfilled in Jesus intersect what may seem natural or even mundane in our lives.

Simeon also experiences a heart transformation.  Simeon had spent his life expecting to see the Messiah (as revealed to him by the Holy Spirit - vs. 26).  Simeon is transformed from a seeker to a worshiper when he encounters the Messiah in the temple.  Can't you just imagine him holding the Messiah in his arms and praising God?  He was literally holding in his arms his own Savior! It is Simeon, as we saw in the beginning, who explains that Jesus will reveal the thoughts of many hearts.

So what about you and me?  Where do we encounter the heart transformation in this story?  I believe we find our answer in verse 21: "On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived."

While circumcision in Judaism was a physical act, it was always meant to be a sign of what God was/is doing in the heart.

Consider these words: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt." - Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Consider also: "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done - burn with no one to quench it." - Jeremiah 4:4

Finally, consider what the Apostle Paul says: "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God." - Romans 2:28-29

Jesus came to circumcise the hearts of human bring light to darkness, to bring righteousness to unrighteousness, to bring hope to despair, to bring purity and holiness to the impure, and to bring life to the lifeless.

Origen in the third century says, "So, when he died, we died with him, and when he rose, we rose with him. Likewise, we were also circumcised along with him."

As we enter this final week of Advent and prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us invite Jesus to fill our dark world with His light and to circumcise our hearts - giving us hearts of pure love for God and neighbor - giving us hearts of praise and worship that sing "Glory to God in the highest!"

Monday, December 14, 2015

Week Four: December 14-21, 2015 - Luke 1:67 - 2:7

The theme for this week is COVENANT.  Our salvation, given to us as a gift of grace through our Savior Jesus Christ, is an act of COVENANT-KEEPING by God.  Therefore, when our faith is shaped by Jesus, we live in COVENANT with God through Jesus Christ - living obediently to Jesus' commands to love God and love neighbor while recognizing God's complete faithfulness to keep COVENANT with us.

There are three ways (at least) we see COVENANT in this passage.

First, in the Benedictus*, Zechariah's words of prophecy (vs. 67-79), we see God's COVENANT-KEEPING with Zechariah.  Back in the early verses of Luke 1, an angel appeared to Zechariah and promised him (and Elizabeth) a son named John who would "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God (vs. 16)."  In Zechariah's prophecy, Zechariah is foretelling what his newborn son will do as "the prophet of the Most High (vs. 76)."  Even before John is grown and begins his ministry and before Jesus is born, Zechariah praises God for bringing salvation to Israel.  We should keenly be aware that Zechariah understands God's faithfulness to him in the larger context of God's faithfulness to Israel.  Similarly, God's faithfulness to us is not for our sake alone.  God blesses us that we might be a blessing to others.

Second, in the Benedictus*, we see God's COVENANT-KEEPING with Abraham and David.  In vs. 72-73, Zechariah says, "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham."  This is a reference to the COVENANT God makes with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 through which "all the families of the earth shall be blessed (vs. 3)."  In Luke 1:69, Zechariah says that God has "raised up a mighty savior (or a horn of salvation) in the house of his servant David."  Luke believes that John's ministry and Jesus' birth is a part of God's COVENANT-KEEPING with King David.  God had promised at least 800 years prior to Zechariah to raise up offspring for David and establish David's throne/kingdom as an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16).  Although hundreds of years have passed, God did not forget the promise made to David.  This should be a boost to our own faith.  God does not forget the promises that bless our lives.

Third, in Luke 2:1-7, we see God's COVENANT-KEEPING with Israel and "all the families of the earth" in the birth of Jesus.  In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God speaks of a NEW COVENANT that will be made with Israel and Judah in which God will put his "law within them...writing it on their hearts (vs. 33)."  The NEW COVENANT would mean that everyone would know the Lord and their sins would be remembered no more (vs. 34).  Jesus brings this knowledge/relationship with God and complete forgiveness to the world through His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return to bring the fullness of His Kingdom to humanity.  As the Bible teaches us, we participate in this NEW COVENANT through our faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16).

If the language of COVENANT seems confusing, don't get lost in trees.  This is GOOD NEWS of the highest order!  God's faithfulness to Abraham, David, and Zechariah (men who have long passed from their earthly lives) also means that God is faithful to the NEW COVENANT that includes YOU!

God's faithfulness through COVENANT is also a reminder in this Advent Season that Jesus' promise to return is a promise that Jesus will keep.  The Apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 3:8-9, "But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."

A few final thoughts for extra-credit: (1) There are more Old Testament references in the Benedictus* than can be pointed out in a short article like this.  However, take some time to compare these verses: Luke 1:76 = Isaiah 40:3 and Luke 1:78 = Malachi 4:2.  (2) Pay attention to Luke 1:80.  What does it mean that John was "in the wilderness?"  Could it be that John was active with the Essene community  near Qumran at the Dead Sea or at least familiar with their ministry?  Take some time this week to read about the Essenes who lived "in the wilderness."

*Benedictus - "The Song of Thanksgiving (Lk. 1:68-79) uttered by Zachariah for the birth of John the Baptist. In the Western Church it is sung liturgically at Lauds (Morning Prayer), whence it was taken over for Mattins in the Book of Common Prayer." - The Concise Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church

Monday, December 07, 2015

Week Three: December 7-13, 2015 - Luke 1:46-66

The focus and theme for this week's Scripture is PRAISE. When our faith is shaped by Jesus, we live a life that continually PRAISES God.

So what is PRAISE?  PRAISE is the love that we give to God simply because of WHO God is.  In their book, Will You Worship, Ray Jones and Dino Senesi define PRAISE as our first act of worship (followed by Adoration, Confession, Listening, and Obedience). Page 46

Consider these verses that tells us about PRAISE:

Isaiah 43:21 - The people whom I formed for Myself, will declare My praise.
2 Chronicles 16:9 - For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.

In short, these verses tell us that we were created to PRAISE God and that God is looking for people who have hearts that belong to Him.

In Luke 1:46-66, Mary PRAISES the Lord in what is often referred to as The Magnificat* (see below). As you read this passage throughout this week, I want to encourage you to think about a few questions.

1. How does Mary describe God?  What are the names and adjectives that Mary ascribes to God?  Who is God that Mary offers to God her PRAISE?
2. What has God done and what is God doing that Mary lifts up PRAISE?

-As you consider these questions, how does Mary's PRAISE lead you into PRAISE of God?  Spend time this week giving PRAISE to God for WHO God is and for WHAT God has done/is doing.

Take note that Mary's song of PRAISE mirrors Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.  Read Hannah's prayer and consider the similarities between Hannah's prayer and Mary's PRAISE.

Also take note that Mary is not the only one to offer PRAISE in this week's passage.  Zechariah also offers PRAISE in Luke 1:64.  The first thing Zechariah does when the Lord opens his mouth is PRAISE God.

One final thought:  Origen in the third century writes that our PRAISE does not add anything to the Lord.  God is what God is.  However, PRAISE reshapes and forms our souls into the image of Christ.  In other words, PRAISING God makes the image of Christ larger or more dominant in our souls.

May the Lord bless you this week as you PRAISE God along with Mary and Zechariah!

*Magnificat. The song of praise (so called from the opening word of the Latin text) which the Blessed Virgin Mary sang when her cousin Elizabeth greeted her as the mother of the Lord (Lk. 1:39-55). From an early date it has been the canticle of Vespers in the Western Church; it is included in the Evensong in the Book of Common Prayer.  In the Greek Church it forms part of the Morning Office. Some scholars argue that Luke originally attributed it to Elizabeth and not to the Blessed Virgin Mary. - The Concise Oxford Dictionary of The Christian Church