A Word of Great Hope

                “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the Angel.  The Angel said to those who were standing before Him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”  Then He said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away all of your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.””

                                                                                                                                                                Zechariah 3:3-4

                ““Listen, o High Priest Joshua and his associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring My Servant, the Branch.  See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua!  There are seven eyes on that stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it, says the Lord Almighty, and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.””

                                                                                                                                                                Zechariah 3:8-9

                Over the past weeks we have been inundated with various kinds of bad news.  With each new event we find ourselves cast anew into the fears that dominate much of our lives.  We wonder what the future will hold.  What will happen to us?  Will there ever be joy and peace again?  Who will stand up and fight the battles which we fear we are about to face?  We wonder where the word of hope is in our uncertain times.

It is in times like these that the words of the prophetic scriptures are so helpful and comforting.  In reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I came across a reference to Bonhoeffer’s study of the Psalms in which he made reference to the tremendous comfort that could be found there by people who were facing dangerous and difficult times.  What Bonhoeffer had learned was something which God’s people have always known.  This is the Word of God has the power to lift us out of our secular, unbelieving, frame of mind, and to cause us to focus upon the word of hope which we find in the Gospel.  It is this that we find the Prophet Zechariah doing as he passes along the visions that he had received.  He was providing ministry to people who were facing very uncertain and disappointing times.  Zechariah finds his visions pointing ahead to an incredible event that was to come.  This event, the coming of a Savoir, who would, in one day cleanse his people from all of their sin, would become a word that would provide comfort and joy for people right down to today.  Imagine what Zechariah is recording for us.  Personal, and National, sin will be cleansed away.  A new start would be given.  The benefit of what the redeemer to come would accomplish would be of eternal.  Hope is rooted in One who is eternally faithful.  It is not given by shifting people, or governments who can never be counted on.  It is not a security that is based upon fallible and weak people.  Our hope is established in the Redeemer who is unchanging, eternal God, who in love took upon Himself flesh, and came to live among us so that He could die in our place bearing our personal sin.  This hope can never be lost because it is in Him, not in us, or anything human.

At the heart of our hope is the forgiveness of our sin.  The wonder of this forgiveness can be illustrated by a testimony recorded by David Baron in his commentary on the book of Zechariah (David Baron, The Visions and Prophesies of Zechariah, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1975, p. 93-94)

“Some of my readers may have visited the Wartburg and had pointed out to them the black spot on one of the walls of the room which Luther occupied during his benevolently intended imprisonment.  The legend connected with it is this.  One night during this mournful solitude, when suffering from great depression, because, as he himself expresses it in a letter to Melanchthon, dated May 24, 1521, “I do see myself insensible and hardened, a slave to sloth, rarely, alas! Praying – unable even to utter a groan for the church, while my untamed flesh burns with a devouring flame” – the great reformer dreamt that Satan appeared to him with a long scroll, in which were carefully written the many sins and transgressions of which he was guilty from his birth, and which the evil one proceeded to read out, mocking the while that such a sinner as he could ever think of being called to do service for God, or even of escaping himself from hell.  As the long list was being read, Luther’s terrors grew, and his agonies of soul increased.  At last, however, rousing himself, he jumped up and exclaimed: “It is all true, Satan, and many more sins which I have committed in my life which are known to god only; but write at the bottom of your list, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleansesth us from all sin,’”  and grasping the inkstand on his table he threw it at the devil, who soon fled, the memorial of it being left in the ink-splash on the wall.”

                Amen!!  It is in that completed, holy work of the Son of God that we have hope.  It is that work that brings the joy into our lives in this new year.

Being The Church

                “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.  Don not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.  For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith that God has given you.  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

                                                                                                                                                Romans 12:1-5

                As I have been wrestled with the book of James and the Gospel of Mark over the years it has occurred to me that one of the themes that they share together is a cross-centred discipleship.  James calls believers to live with Christ-centred sacrificial love for one another.  Mark calls His disciples to follow Him to the cross where real sacrificial love will be demonstrated for this sin sick world.  These same Disciples were then to be called to follow His example in living lives of cross-centred service for this world in all its lostness.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the giftedness of the Roman Church should be rooted in imagery that calls believers to cross-centred living.  So often we want the gifts of the Spirit as a means of exerting power over others.  This is not the Jesus way.  His way is one of service to others.  So when Paul reflects upon the giftedness that we are given by the Holy Spirit he begins with a call to sacrifice.  We are to be living sacrifices.  In fact Paul tells us that this is what it means for us to truly Worship God.  Until we can follow Jesus to the cross, being immersed into His sufferings, we will never be able to share in His Glory.  We will therefore be of very little use in His Kingdom, and we will bear very little fruit for Him.  The reason for this failure on our part is because we will still be living for ourselves.  This is why the Corinthians were pursuing the more sensational gifts.  It was all about their own glory, rather than the glory of the God who had redeemed them.   They were unable as a result to build a Christ exalting Church.

To the Romans Paul lays the foundation for real Christian fellowship in the call to the cross.  It is at that place of suffering that we find that our desire to conform ourselves to the pattern of this world is broken because we have died to it.  We have been given a new orientation in life.   This is to live with a mind transformed by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that we are now centred upon His will.  Now we live to glorify God by serving one another.  In this environment the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in fact the whole of the life of the Church operates as it should, and God is glorified.

In Mark 10:32 we read that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem.  He was going up to worship.  His altar of worship was the cross of Calvary.  His Disciples were following Him, as must we.

A New Heart

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?  Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

                                                                                                                                                                James 3:9-12

                Whenever we engage in an intense inspection of the Gospel of Mark or of the Book of James one thing becomes increasingly clear.  This is that the Bible is a book that calls us to become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Mark seems to be describing the process by which the disciples became faith filled followers of the Lord.  Their hardness of heart is exposed, and the way that the Lord led them to faith is described for us in great detail.  James outlines for us the vital place that discipleship plays in our lives as believers.  In fact it is possible to argue that without such a living, vital walk with the Lord Jesus Christ we cannot make a claim to be a Christian.  Saving faith according to James bears fruit.

As James explores this he tells us that there is fundamentally wrong with us when we live apart from Christ.  This is that we are double minded.  We focus our lives, and the affections of our hearts upon the things of this world.  We are not pursuing the purpose for which God has created us, which is to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.  We do not live in order to glorify God.  Our glory is ourselves.  This is what we find ourselves seeking.

As James looks at this reality he explores it by looking at our speech.  He tells us that what we say is a direct reflection of what is in our hearts.  Just like the rider controls the horse through the bridle, a very small thing, and the pilot controls the ship through the rudder, another small thing.  The body is controlled through another small thing, the tongue by the heart.  What is in our hearts is manifested to the world around us by the things which we say.  In writing this James is really only quoting his older half brother, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Matthew 12:33-37 we read these words of our Lord.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit.  You brood of vipers, how can who are evil say anything good?  For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.  But I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

                What James leads us to understand here is that we need a new heart.  It must be transformed by the grace that God has given to us in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We must come to Him asking for His help.  We must ask in faith, believing that God will give to us what He has promised to give.  We believe this because we have come to believe that God is faithful and just to fulfill His promises to us.  This is how we become disciple of Jesus rejoicing in the grace that He went to the cross to purchase for us.

A New Year Hope

“I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and the mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.  Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.  Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done.  The things you have planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.  Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.  Then I said, “Here I am, I have come — it is written about me in the scroll.  I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.””

                                                                                                                                                Psalm 40:1-8

                Happy New Year!  How often have you given and received this greeting over the past few days?  Have you made any resolutions for this coming year?  Perhaps more importantly, will you keep the resolutions you are making?  I must begin my last blog post for 2017 by letting each of you know that I am praying that this coming year will be a year that will be richly filled with the Lord’s blessings for all of us.  As I write this however I am aware that these greetings and hopes betray something of the deep inner longing that is part of every one of our lives.  We sincerely hope that our lives will indeed become better in the coming year.  In our hearts we find ourselves longing for a better world.  We want peace on earth.  We want solutions to the sin, failure, and brokenness that we struggle with each day.  We feel this way because we have been created with a desire for something better.  In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we read, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  We know that there is a better reality than that which we experience each day.  We find ourselves turning to all manner of different solutions to our longings.  What are we to do?

These thoughts are a somewhat lengthy introduction to the reflections of King David in Psalm 40.  Like us, David is living a life that is tried by a variety of harsh circumstances.  I am sure that there were many times when he wondered whether there was any solution to his struggles.  He tells us in the twelfth verse that he is overwhelmed by his sin.  He has discovered a solution however.  This is the promise that God has given Him in His Word.  In 2 Samuel 7:18-19, as David is humbly coming before God and prayerfully reflecting upon the promise that God has made to him that his house will produce a ruler who will sit on an eternal throne as God’s King, he makes the following statement.  “Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me thus far?  And as if this was not enough in your sight, O Sovereign Lord, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant.  Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign Lord?” (NIV)  Walter Kaiser Jr. In The Messiah in the Old Testament, makes a convincing case that that last line could be better translated as “this is your charter for humanity.” (Kaiser p. 79-80)   What David recognises is that God has made a promise here that will fundamentally redeem everyone who believes it.  David must now live believing that what God has promised God will do.  Everything is changed as a result.

David opens the Psalm with praise to the Lord, who has made such an astounding promise to his people.  Such praise looks ahead to God’s promised blessing with what David calls expectant hope.  He is looking for the promise to be fulfilled.  He has a deep longing for God’s promise to become reality.  In the meantime however David will fix his gaze upon that promise.  He will pray for it to come.  He will live his life secure in the promise that God has made.  He will even die full of faith in what God has promised.  You see, David knows that God is present, and actively at work in his life working out the promise that has been made.

This is the faith that we are called to live by.  The promise was not just for David, it is for every believer.  As David reflects upon the promise his thinking becomes prophetic.  He looks ahead and sees the coming King as one who will bring in God’s promised gift of righteousness through a sacrificial act that will astound the world and make believers righteous.  It will be the Lord’s doing when it comes.  It will humble us to the very core of our being, and then produce in us a deep and abiding praise.

What we long for is biblical.  God has created us for a better world.  Our ways of satisfying this longing are often not very biblical at all.  We turn away from trusting Him, in order to put our hope in all manner of things that can only fail us.   David calls us to put our trust in the Lord.

Will you?

And When You Pray

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.  I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.  This then is how you should pray:  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…..”

                                                                                                                                                Matthew 6:5-9

                Last evening as I was reading in the third volume of Wilhelmus A Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service in a section, in which the author deals with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, I came across the following helpful phrase regarding prayer.

God hallows Himself: “And I will sanctify My great Name” (Ezek. 36:23) God hallows Himself both in the works of nature and of grace, revealing to man what manner of God He is.”  (page 499)

                What A Brakel is saying here, and I believe that this is absolutely crucial for believers to understand is that the first principle of prayer is to hallow, or reverence God’s Name.  When we pray we are engaged in something much deeper than just making requests of God.  In God’s grace we are invited to bring our requests before Him (Philippians 4:6-7).  What we are doing is really much more however.  We are engaged in a relationship in which we are being fundamentally changed (what the Bible calls being sanctified) by our encounter with our Lord.  2 Corinthians 3:17-18 makes this clear.  So much of our experience in prayer, and the struggles we have with prayer are owing to this transformation.  There are times when prayer is a real joy.  Other times it is characterized by dryness and real struggle.  I believe that this is when we are being refined by God.

God’s purpose for our praying is to cause us to develop a sincere reverence for Him.  If we were to use the word glory to describe our purpose here, as in to “glorify God”, what we would mean by this is that we would be giving God His proper weight.  Our struggle is centred upon the fact that we keep thinking of God as if He is like us.  We keep falling short in our understanding of God’s true greatness.  God will not allow us to persist in this attitude for long.  A Brakel tells us that God “Hallows His own Name”, meaning He will always be bringing us to reverence Him for who He really is.  Prayer brings us to the point where this happens in our lives.  We, in prayer begin to see that He alone is God, there is no other, including all the false views of God that we create for ourselves.  In prayer God shows us His goodness, or graciousness.  He consents to be reconciled to us through the Lord Jesus Christ entirely on His merit not ours.  I do not believe that we truly understand just how gracious He is towards us.  In prayer He reveals to us His justice in judgement.  He really does deal with sin, but provides a way of redemption through His Son.  In prayer we are confronted with His omnipotence as He works out His purpose in our lives.

Once we begin to pray we find that nothing is ever the same again because God meets us and we begin to see His glory revealed through His Son.  He offers us and invitation to come to His throne of grace in real prayer.  Shall we pray?               

Advent Reflection

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of His inheritance?  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.  You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl our iniquities into the depths of the sea.  You will be true to Jacob and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago.”

                                                                                                                                                                Micah 7:18-20

                This coming Sunday will be the last Sunday of Advent.  For many this will be a delightful day in which we continue to sing Christmas carols.  Those songs of the Incarnation always seem to move our hearts in joyful worship.  I must confess that I love singing the Christmas carols, as they are among some of the most delightful of the hymns of the Church.  Advent looks ahead to the main event, the celebration of Christmas itself.  We love every part of that day.  We eagerly anticipate its coming each year.

This week I looked up the definition of advent and made some discoveries.  For the Christian Church Advent is a season of anticipation where we look forward to the coming of our Redeemer, the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ.  With this anticipation of His arrival we find ourselves immersed in hope that all that His coming means with become reality in our lives.  As Phillips Brooks writes in his masterful hymn “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  That line from O Little Town of Bethlehem captures our mood as we enter into advent this year.

There is however a third element to the definition of Advent for the Christian Church.  This is the call to repentance which the season brings.  John the Baptist came and called people to prepare the way of the Lord.  In doing so John was letting his world and ours know that any communion with God requires repentance.  We must turn to Him.  This was as well the message of the Prophets.  They were sent to call God’s people back to Him.  Their message is filled with the word of the Advent.  God is coming among us.  Isaiah even has a Word or a Name to designate His coming, Emmanuel, God with us.  Therefore it should not surprise us that a substantial portion of the focus of Advent is upon the Prophetic message.

That message consistently confronts us with the character of the God we worship.  Micah writes, “Who is a God like you?”  In fact that is the meaning of the Prophet’s name.  This is a key thought for us to focus upon this Advent season.  What do the Scriptures tell us about the character of God?  How is this reflected in the mighty works which He accomplished in the Incarnation of Christ?

Here we encounter the God of grace who became human flesh and dwelt among us so that He could redeem us from our sin.  The only response that is adequate to such great grace is one of believing worship.

A Christmas Message

                Christmas is the time when we focus our attention on one of God’s great promises.  This is the promise of Immanuel, God with us.  Isaiah and Matthew point us to this promise when they write, “Behold, the virgin will conceive and bring forth a son and you will call him Immanuel, meaning God with us.”  (Isaiah 7:14 & Matthew 1:23)  This tremendous promise changes everything about the lives that we live.

In thinking about this I came across this quotation which formed the inspiration for Anne Ross Cousin’s Hymn originally entitled “Last Words” but now known by the name “The Sands of Time are sinking.” 

“But the summons found him ill and like to die, and the court prepared to try him, received the treasured and characteristic answer: “I am summoned before a superior court and judiciary; and I behove to answer my first summons and ere your day arrive, I will be where few Kings and great folks come.”

                He died at St. Andrews, March 20th, 1661.  Late in the afternoon of the final day of his stormy life, just as the sun was sinking, he was asked by one of the friends standing by the couch.  “What think you now of Christ?”  To which he gave the answer: “Oh that all my brethren in the land may know what a Master I have served, and what peace I have this day!  I shall sleep in Christ, and then I awake I shall be satisfied with His likeness.  This night shall close the door, and put my anchor within the veil; and I shall go away in a sleep by five in the morning.  Glory! Glory: to my Creator and my redeemer forever!  I shall live and adore Him.  Oh for arms to embrace Him!  Oh for a well tuned harp!  Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land!”  At precisely five in the morning as predicted, he crossed the border into Immanuel’s land, there to feast his eyes on “the King in His beauty.”

                Here are the lyrics to Anne Ross Cousin’s hymn inspired by these words.

“The sands of time are sinking.  The dawn of heaven breaks, the summer morn I’ve sighed for, the fair sweet morn awakes.  Dark, dark has been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand.  And glory, glory dwelleth In Immanuel’s land.

                                Oh, Christ, He is the fountain, the deep sweet well of love; the streams on earth I’ve tasted, more deep I’ll drink above;  There to an ocean fullness, His mercy doth expand, and glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

                                With mercy and with judgment, my web of time He wove, and aye the dews of sorrow, were lustred with His love.  I’ll bless the heart that planned, when throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

                                Oh, I am my Beloved’s, and my beloved’s mine; He brings a poor vile sinner into His “house of wine.”  I stand upon His merit; I know no safer stand, not e’en where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

                                The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace; not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hand: The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.”

                The original version of this hymn contained over twenty verses.  Our modern version has retained these five.  I want to draw your attention to one of the other verses however as it expresses the hope that is ours in Christ in the Gospel message.  Ours is indeed a resurrection faith.

                “I shall sleep sound in Jesus, fill’d with His likeness rise, to live and to adore Him, to see Him with these eyes, ‘Tween me and resurrection but paradise doth stand; Then – then for glory dwelling in Immanuel’s land.”

This message of Immanuel is the heart of the Christmas celebration.  Here we find a hope which is firmly rooted in the promise of God to redeem us so that we will live in His land eternally.  Praise God for His great love for us.

Have a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Revealing the Glory of The Lord Jesus Christ

At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon possessed!”  Abraham died, and so did the Prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your Word, he will never taste death.  Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the Prophets.  Who do you think you are?”

                                                                                                                                                                                John 8:52-53

                James T. Dennison in his article “The Gospel of John: An Introduction” (www.kerux.com/doc/0801A3.asp) writes this comment on the purpose behind the Gospel of John.  “John asks his readers to continually reflect on the question, “Who is Jesus?”  This Christological question is answered from the Prologue to the Epilogue – He is the Word/Logos, the son of God, who is God Himself.” (P.1)  Ever since I began my walk with the LORD Jesus Christ I have encouraged those who are seeking to know the LORD Jesus to begin by reading John’s Gospel.  This has been partly because that is where I began.  More importantly however I encourage this because John presents us with such a Glorious view of our living redeemer that this book is a nature and extremely helpful place to begin.

In John 8:53 the Apostle leads us to ask a key question of Jesus.  Worded literally the question is, “Who do you make yourself out to be?”   Who does Jesus claim to be?  John gives us an abundance of material to help us answer the question.  The question is not asked for Jesus’ benefit.  He knows who He is.  It is asked for our benefit.  We must wrestle with the question, “Who is Jesus?  Dennison points out that John’s Gospel seems to have been written in order to bring the answer to this question to our minds and hearts.  John does not do this as a random bit of conversation in this Gospel which is quickly passed over as we read.  John is presenting a view of Jesus which reveals Him in all of His awesome glory.  This is a glory which is entirely consistent with the revelation given to us in Scripture.  Recently I have been reading with considerable agreement the arguments of a number of scholars who point out that when we drift away from the Word of God we inevitably fall into dangerous error.  John does not make this mistake.  Everything He tells us is firmly anchored in the revelation given to us in Scripture.  The LORD Jesus Christ is the Redeemer promised in Scripture.  He has come and reconciled us to God through His cross.  It is on this solid ground that we stand.

John confronts us with the question of Jesus’ identity.  He then gives us abundant material with which to come to a conclusion about Jesus.  His whole purpose is summed up in the words of John 20:30-31, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”  John’s Gospel is a selective account, as is our reflections upon it today.   The purpose of the Gospel and our study today is the same.  This is to lead us into a life of faith in Him.

Who Is Jesus?  John describes Him in the following incomplete list as the One who is.

1)      The Incarnate Word/Logos who redeems us through the cross. (1:14)

2)      As God – “It is I” (6:20)

3)      As the Bread of Life (6:35)

4)      As the Light of the World (8:12)

5)      As Eternal God (8:58)

6)      As the Gate for the Sheep (10:7)

7)      As the Good Shepherd (10:11)

8)      As the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)

9)      As the True Vine (15:1, 5)

Every one of these statements is a reference to a Biblical metaphor which leads us into an understanding of part of the Scriptural revelation of the character and mission of our redeemer.  As we reflect on these incomplete descriptions of all that John tells us may we come into an ever deepening faith in Him.  For John has pointed us to a vision of the Glory of the Lord in the face of Christ.

An Advent Meditation

“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.  But after he had considered this, 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 it 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.”  All this took place to fulfill what the LORD had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” – which means “God with us”.    

                                                                                                                                                                Matthew 1:19-23

                As Matthew relates the account of the birth of the LORD Jesus Christ to us at the beginning of his gospel he also speaks to us about the proper way to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Christmas miracle.  In fact Matthew shows us how to go about seeking to know the LORD as our redeemer.  He does this as he relates to us the manner in which Joseph deals with the news of Mary’s pregnancy.  Most of us would have responded to such news by dismissing Mary’s tale of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement and its consequences.  Whether through hurt pride, anger, fear, or simply through unbelief we would have broken off the marriage and gone our own way.  Word of the virgin birth would not have seemed true to us.  That is not how Joseph responded.  His actions lead us to examine our own responses to the difficult things that God calls us to experience in our lives.  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man.  His righteousness seems to be something much more than the self righteousness which we often encounter.  He genuinely sought to obey God’s leading in this situation.  This crisis in his relationship with Mary would be another opportunity for Joseph to live out the obedience of faith.  Therefore Joseph pondered it.  The words means to think deeply, perhaps even to meditate upon a subject.  It seems apparent that part of this meditation involved reflecting upon the message of the scriptures.  He wanted to understand God’s purpose for all of this so that he could be believingly obedient even in this hard time.

Joseph’s meditation bore fruit in two ways.  It led him into the book of the Prophet Isaiah where he would have read in chapter seven about the necessity of standing firm in faith.  God had promised that a day was coming when Emmanuel would come.  This coming would in fact be God with us.  Could it be that the tale that Mary had told was true?  The second was that an angel came to Joseph in a dream giving him specific promises and instructions that must be received and obeyed in faith.  Now Joseph had a decision to make which would test him to the very core of his being.  He was to take Mary as his wife and raise Jesus as his own child.  All of this was to be done in obedience to God who was now among us.

Phillips Brooks in his delightful Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” writes these words which not only describe the reality of that first Christmas day, but which continue to describe our own situation today.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  Life is filled with hopes.  We constantly look forward to something better which is just around the corner.  Life is also filled with fears.  We have learned through bitter experience that life is hard and that things constantly go wrong.  How are we to respond?  Joseph meditates upon his situation responding with the Word of God which he then obeys in faith.  His response can be described with this classic quotation of Martyn Lloyd-Jones from his book on the Puritans.  I found the quotation on the internet this morning.  “There are many scriptures which demonstrate that repentance always comes first.  You find this in the gospels.  John the Baptist precedes our LORD and he preached a baptism of repentance.”  Joseph faced his hopes and fears with a desire to cast himself upon the purposes of God.  In faith he repented, seeking to yield his circumstances to the LORD.  He then obeyed God.

Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation of the Christ.  Preparation for the believer always involves real repentance which brings us to submit all of our hopes and fears to the LORD’s plan and purpose for us.  Such repentance leads us to obey the calling of God upon our lives.  In recent days we have all been asked on numerous occasions, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  Following Joseph’s example that question takes on a much deeper significance.  “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Open Your Eyes and Look

                “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’?  I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!  They are ripe for harvest.”

                                                                                                                                                                                         John 4:35

                When we look carefully at John chapter four and explore the concept of the Divine Appointment which Jesus had while on His way to Galilee we discover some precious truths.  It is clear here that Jesus has an appointment with the Samaritan woman who He leads to ask Him for living water.  It is equally clear that Jesus has an appointment with the people of Sychar, many of whom come to believe in Him after they have met Him for themselves.  There is a third Divine Appointment here as well however.  This is the appointment which Jesus has with His disciples.  There is a lesson which they needed to learn, which could only be taught in that Samaritan village at the foot of Mt. Gerizim.  Here in the heart of the lost nation of the Samaritans these disciples were about to learn about the wonderful grace of the LORD Jesus Christ which would justify the ungodly.  As we explore this text we too can learn some valuable lessons.

1)      We can learn a lesson about the expectations which we have as we encounter people in our day to day lives.  These disciples were following Jesus into a region which was characterized by ungodliness.  The Samaritans were a people who were ethnically the result of the racial mixture of poor Jews who had been left behind at the exile of Israel with pagan people who had been resettled in the region.  Their religion was a mixture of the Hebrew faith with all manner of pagan beliefs and practices.  They had even set up a rival religious centre to that of Jerusalem on Mt. Gerizim.  As the disciples drew near to this Samaritan centre of worship one can imagine what they must have thought about the hopeless, ungodly people they were encountering.  Perhaps these disciples were hoping that they would be able to pass through this region quickly and without incident.  If ever there was a people beyond the touch of God’s grace it was these people of Sychar.  Yet it is here that Jesus stops to rest.  Like us, these disciples see a people that they will not associate with because they are just too lost.  A number of years ago while serving in one of my first charges after graduation from Seminary I spoke to one of the leaders of the congregation about my intention to visit a family that lived down the street from the church in order that I might encourage them to attend services at our church.  The leader looked at me as if I was insane or at the very least hopelessly naive.   “These people will never darken the door of the Church.” he told me, “They are just too lost.”  I went anyway inviting the family to come to worship and sharing with them the gospel.  Not only did they begin to attend our church, they came to faith in Christ and brought many of their relatives who seemed to be even more lost than they.  We learned a lesson in those days about the way that the LORD was working in the hearts of that family.  Nothing is impossible with the LORD.  He can even bring hardened Samaritans to faith in Christ.

2)      Jesus tells His disciples that they need to have their eyes open so that they can really look and see what is going on around them.  The fields are ripe for harvest.  The word of the LORD has been doing its work.  Prayer is being answered.  People are finding that their hearts are being prepared for that day when they hear the Gospel.  The text tells us that the work does not depend upon us alone because others are at work as well.  The Word of God has been doing its work, quietly, almost imperceptivity, but surely.  It has been preparing the way for the harvest.  The disciples are not to think that everything depends upon them.  They are not to look at a people as being beyond grace.  They are simply to keep offering the message of grace to everyone who will listen to it.  We are to offer it with the love of God.  We are to offer it humbly.  But offer it we must.  Robert Murray McCheyne once remarked regarding his work among the slum dwellers of his city that “the flesh dies well there.”   This work is not about us, it is about the LORD.  He is powerfully at work in our world.  We are called to obey His call to witness, wherever He takes us, believing that He has already prepared the way for His Gospel.