Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tree Trimming #15: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

"Do not say, 'Why is it that the former days were better than these?'  For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.
Ecclesiastes 7:10

Okay, so it is clear that when it comes to me asking about older songs, I'm not wise at all.

Honestly, one of the saddest things about my love of Christmas carols is the discovery of how far (generally speaking) the church has fallen from heavy, scripture-saturated, lyrical content in music.  Most of the Christmas hymns that I like fall in this category.  But I think there's an argument to be made that O Come, O Come, Emmanuel might rank #1 in this category.  I'll offer brief commentary on my favorite verses from the song:

O Come O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.

I think that there's a double-entendre here.  There's a historical re-telling of Israel's bondage in Babylon where it was hard to sing the songs of Zion.  But after returning to the land, the Son of God appeared.  At the same time, there's a very rich sense where "the Israel of God", both Gentile and Jewish sons of Abraham according to faith in Christ are held in exile.  1st Peter 2:11-12 declare believers are merely "pilgrims passing through".  As aliens and strangers to this world system, we too cry out "O Come O Come Emmanuel"!  Advent goes both ways.

O Come Thou Rod of Jesse Free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of hell thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave!
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall Come to thee O Israel

Isaiah 11:1-2 tells us the shocking news that though Jesse's tree became a mere stump, a rod or shoot would come jutting out of it.  Beyond that, a branch from it's roots would come forth and bear fruit.  Jesus is that shoot since the Davidic line of kings was virtually destroyed by Babylonians, and then trampled upon further by Greeks and Romans.  And yet, from a descendant of Jesse (the father of King David) Jesus stands out as a very different kind of king.  His ultimate victory isn't over Philistines or Amorites, but over hell and death itself.

O Come Adonai, Lord of Might
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
Didst give to thy people the law
In cloud and majesty, and awe
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
Shall Come to thee O Israel.

It is hard to say for sure, but I wonder if the author of this carol is saying that the giver of the law itself is the pre-incarnate Christ?  I wonder.  The imagery of this stanza brings to mind Hebrews 12:18-24 where the contrast is made between the "shock and awe" of Mt. Sinai and the joyous celebration in Mt. Zion.  For indeed the law was given with numerous warnings and in such a way that the people would have fled if not for terror that God would overtake and deal with them even  more severely.

But the coming of Emmanuel is enhanced because of how the law shakes us at our core.  We are aware of our horrible standing before the tribunal of God's holiness.  As Sinai shook under the presence of God, so our souls are naked and ashamed due to the awful weight of sin's folly.  Therefore, when the Spirit makes the sweetness of God's grace towards us in Christ evident to us, we rejoice at the coming of Emmanuel.  God with us is not a terror, but makes us merry.  We are clothed in Christ's garments and not our feeble fig leaves.  He brings security in peace and not enmity.  We are invited to the most lavish meal where Christ drinks from the fruit of the vine anew in His Father's kingdom.  And His banner over us is love.

Even if the former days are better than these days, it is for certain that the future days are better than them all.  O Come O Come Emmanuel!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tree Trimming #14: Light and Dedication

Yes, the usage of "A.D." is quite intentional, thank you.  
"Back in the day when I was young..." I used to think of Hanukkah as "Jewish Christmas".  Obviously, I use the word "think" very loosely.  I must have heard that phrase some where from someone and never gave it another (legitimate) thought.  I went to Catholic schools from grades 1-8 so I never paid much attention to Jewish holidays and often found them confusing.  The menorah was a beautiful symbol to me, but apart from seeing it as symbolic of the "festival of lights", I didn't give it any serious consideration.

It wasn't until many years later that I heard a sermon that things began to change.  The preacher made a passing reference to the "Feast of Dedication" in John 10:22 actually being Hanukkah.  The thought that Jesus celebrated the feast fascinated me.  The basic facts of Hanukkah made it a great holiday to observe for anyone connected to the Temple at Jerusalem.  Even as a Christian, I find that the themes are certainly worth celebrating.

Dedication... When Antiochus IV attacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple mount, forbidding sacrifices and erecting statues of Zeus, the Jews had to make some hard decisions.  Being inferior in military power and under the demoralization that comes from such humiliations, they could have been passive and gone along with the status quo.  But Hanukkah celebrates the passion and faith that inspired and informed the Maccabean Revolt which eventually led to the reestablishment or dedication (that's what the word Hanukkah means) of Temple worship.  Psalm 69:9 makes it clear that it is a good thing to be zealous for God's house of worship and to be personally insulted whenever God is dishonored.

Light... God's divine power was not only seen in granting victory to the Maccabees in their revolt.  The miracle of Hanukkah was also in the supernatural provision of 8 days worth of light when there was only one day's worth of oil.  It is evident from this divine occurrence that God was enabling the work of re-dedication for His glory and for the good of the nation.  Jesus declared Himself to be "the Light of the World" (John 8:12 and again in John 9:5) and in the beginning of John's gospel we are told that the life within Jesus is, in fact, the light of men (John 1:4-5).  Jesus also makes reference to light as being necessary to do the work of God which flows well with the significance behind the need for light in the re-dedication that Hanukkah commemorates (John 9:3-4).

Historical Context... I used to struggle with the idea that Christmas itself was never something believers in Christ were mandated to celebrate.  However, Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, which, by the way, is not a festival mandated in the Old Testament.  What can we say?  Is Jesus acting against the word of God?  Safe to say, that's an impossibility.  But it seems to me that Jesus, in the historical context of His humanity and national identity, saw fit to celebrate God's faithfulness to His people in the miracle of Hanukkah.  If this is true, then I think I can safely say two things:

1.  Christmas is certainly worth celebrating though as a festival it is "extra-biblical".  What could be more worthy of celebration than the Incarnation of Christ which fulfills the hopes of all those counted righteous by God since the Garden?

2.  Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tree Trimmings #13: Silent Night

While searching for the full set of lyrics to Silent Night, I was surprised by two things: 1) I knew all three verses!  That doesn't always happen as I was expecting to find an additional 1-2 sections of the song that I had never heard sung before.  2)  I came across a book with an amazing title:  Silent Night--The Remarkable 1914 Truce.  It was a story I vaguely remembered hearing.

On Christmas Eve in 1914, in the midst of what was later to be called World War I (WWI), soldiers from opposing sides agreed on a truce.  According to an article from The New York Times, approximately 100,000 soldiers (mainly Germans and British) participated first cautiously then happily in the cease-fire.

The Christmas Truce sounded a lot like what many of us would recognize as part of celebrating the day:  plenty of drinking, watching and playing sports like "football" (aka "soccer" to most Americans), singing Christmas carols, decorating Christmas trees, listening to Christmas sermons, etc.  While the vast majority of troops enjoyed an end to hostilities, a certain German corporal who's first name was Adolf and last name was Hitler scolded his counterparts for failing to honor their obligations as soldiers to engage in war.

All in all, it was the first time in months that the noise of war was muffled.  For once, they enjoyed a Silent Night.

But it was short-lived.  By December 26th, hostilities were renewed and men who sang together, shared meals around the same table and even professed to worship the same God renewed the antagonism and the call to arms was answered.  This wasn't a bittersweet moment, but a hope that died as the flower of tragedy bloomed.

Now I don't want to be labeled a pacifist, but it seems to me that people who could celebrate Christmas with "the enemy" and then return to being enemies within a 24-hour period don't really understand the holy day.  Christmas is more than an interruption.  It's the celebration of God's decision to halt hostilities and make for peace with His enemies; eternal peace through the death of His Son and ultimate restoration through the resurrection of Christ.   Romans 5:1 declares,

"Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."  

As much as one might criticize those soldiers, the challenge for us all is the same.  Will Christmas merely be an interruption in our self-centered lives where we give gifts as if to exonerate ourselves from the shame of our self-absorption all year long?  Will Christmas merely be a cease-fire between ourselves and God as we put on a good face for Mom by coming to church for the sake of the day but not for the sake of the Savior celebrated on that day?  Prayerfully Christmas will not be a day to enjoy pretend peace with God.  Especially when He has gone so far out of His way to offer permanent peace.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tree Trimmings #12: God With Us (Part 2)

Psalm 136 is not what you'd call a classic "Christmas text".  I can't see why not though.  It's one passage of scripture that is remarkably balanced between God's amazing works, awful wrath, and the awesome worship He deserves due to His faithful love.  When we consider that Christmas marks the coming of the "Mighty God", here's a good snapshot of Who He is:

The Most High:  "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good... give thanks to the God of gods... give thanks to the Lord of lords... who alone does great wonders"  (Psalm 136:1-4).  God stands alone as the supreme being and most revered of all celestial personalities.

The Creator:  " him who by understanding  made the heavens... who spread out the earth above the waters... who made the great lights...the sun to rule over the day... the moon and stars to rule over the night..."  (Psalm 136:5-9).  He is the manufacturer, designer, and owner of all that is.  He delegates authority as He pleases and even celestial bodies do His bidding.

The Judge: " him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt... and overthrew Pharaoh and his host into the red sea..."  (Psalm 136:10 and Psalm 136:15).  God condemns the wicked at a time and in a way He knows to be expedient for their destruction and for His own glory.  Who do you know of that has done anything people will be talking about 4000 years from now?  But that Red Sea tho...

The Deliverer:  "... who brought Israel out from among them... with a strong hand and an outstretched arm... who divided the Red Sea in two... and made Israel pass through the midst of it... who led his people through the wilderness..." (Psalm 136:11-16).  The Mighty God makes distinctions between those who are His and those who are not (Exodus 8:22, Exodus 11:7, and 2nd Timothy 2:19).  Since all have sinned and fallen short of His glory, He is free to bestow saving grace upon whoever He pleases.  Whoever has found a refuge in Him is blessed indeed!

The Warrior:  "... to him who struck down great kings, and killed mighty kings... Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan" (Psalm 136:17-20).  The rapper Jadakiss once observed, "Dead rappers get better promotion."  The wrestler known as "Undertaker", somewhere along his very long and storied career, used to threaten his opponents by saying, "I'll make you famous".  But God has been famous for making the vast majority of his opponents nameless.  He decimates and destroys the unrepentant.  He overcomes and overwhelms those who stand against His people.  Woe to the one who refuses to kiss the Son.

The Promise Keeper:  "... who gave their land as a heritage to Israel... who remembered us in our low estate... and rescued us from our foes... who gives food to all flesh..." (Psalm 136:21-26).  Promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all kept.  God delivered on each and every one of them (Joshua 21:43-45).  

The might of God's power is matched only by the power of His faithful love which, along with His glory motivates and informs all that He does.  It is altogether astonishing to consider the One residing in a virgin womb as the inventor of it.  We are blown away to consider the Mighty God as a little helpless baby learning to walk on legs He designed.  And although He is a judge and warrior, He came to defend the guilty and make peace with His enemies.

We might well say along with David when he wrote in Psalm 139:6, "such knowledge is too lofty for me to attain".  But then again, what should we expect when we experience Emmanuel the incomparable and Mighty God with us.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tree Trimmings #11: God With Us (Part 1)

"So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.'"
Matthew 1:22-23

When we say Jesus in the flesh was, "God with us", what does that mean?  We simply must look at the way Jesus had previously been revealed prior to His birth to understand better what His incarnation meant.  To begin our quest, we look briefly at John 1:18 as the Rosetta Stone to interpret for us how we should understand the various appearances of God in the Holy Scriptures:

"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."

Whew!  That's worth re-reading.  I'll insert brackets to assist:

"No one has seen God at any time [if you're not Trinitarian, you're in trouble]; the only begotten God [neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit are ever described as having been "begotten" so, that leaves You Know Who] who is in the bosom of the Father [hmm... we have God with God and God at the side of God... sounds a lot like John 1:1-2 here], He [Jesus is the Son of God which logically makes Him "the only begotten God"] has explained [revealed] Him [the Father]."

Simple enough, right?

Well, it seems pretty straight forward from this verse of scripture, almost everything I used to think about God in the Old Testament was wrong.  I used to believe that every time God spoke/appeared or was otherwise revealed before Christ's birth, it had to be The Father.  It's so strange because if you had asked me whether I believed in Christ's existence before His birth, I would have said "yes".  But then, I'd go along making impositions on the Bible as if I denied it.  Anyways...

John 1:18 appears presents a problem when we consider texts like, Genesis 18:1; Exodus 24:9-11; Numbers 12:6-8.  How can it be that "no one has seen God" when these OT passages clearly speak of persons seeing God.  Plain and simple, the Bible says that Abraham saw Yahweh.  Up to and at least 70 elders of Israel saw Yahweh.  Then we find that Moses sees Yahweh's form.  This is especially confusing when Jesus tells us in John 4:24 that God is a Spirit (what form does a spirit have?) and 1st Timothy 6:16 says that seeing God hasn't happened nor CAN it happen.  How do we answer this question?

Well, like any kid who's ever been to Sunday School knows, when you can't answer the question, just say "Jesus".  And in this case, it's not just the trite thing to do, it's the most profound answer possible. 

As one who holds to the doctrine of the Trinity, I believe Jesus is God.  But I don't believe that Jesus is the Father.  In the OT, there weren't any obvious or plain distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps this is in part because God's first step in revealing Himself is was to impress the singularity of His being upon His people.  We can see that being essential because of the polytheistic systems of religion that had to be avoided and denied by Israel in order that they would be the Lord's people.  

But the revelation of Jesus requires a distinction between persons in the Godhead.  In NT talk, "God" is almost always a reference to the Father and "Son" is naturally a reference to Jesus.  So we find that Jesus is SENT by God although He is God (even OT passages hint to this kind of distinction, see the speaker in Zechariah 2:8-11).  

Therefore, when we see a passage like John 1:18, declaring that no one has ever seen God it says plainly that those who saw Yahweh didn't see the Father, but they saw the Son.  Jesus is the One Abraham, Moses and the 70 elders saw.  Jesus is the One Who has explained and revealed the Father, not only in the NT but in the OT as well.  .  John 1:18 has not introduced a contradiction, but a clarification.  

So all those times God appeared in the Old Testament, that was Jesus?  Yes.  All the judgement, all the fire, all the thunder-- that was Jesus?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Amazingly, "God with us" did not come to kill as many had feared (see Exodus 20:18-19).  Emmanuel came to save us.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tree Trimmings #10: Midnight Clear

That glorious song of old...
Some people have problems with Christmas carols because there are too many verses.  My problem with Christmas carols is not knowing ALL the verses.  And as a result of not knowing all that was being said in "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", I slept on it. Then I discovered this verse,

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way,
with painful steps and slow
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing!

Minister Edmund Hamilton wrote this song in 1849 with slavery in the backdrop.  Sketching with his stanzas, even 165 years later we can easily envision the "forms bending low... with painful steps and slow".  He called slaves to receive encouragement from heaven that better days would come quickly.  At the same time, he called for justice with and peace with these lines,

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long
beneath the angel strain have rolled
two-thousand years of wrong
And man at war with man hears not
the love song which they bring
O hush the noise ye men of strife
and hear the angels sing.

Minister Hamilton understood that he had to reject the false tyranny of "either, or" and with wisdom he embraced the "both, and" in this case.  It would not have been enough to merely recite platitudes of comfort to slaves without a call to repentance for all who have participated in "2000 years of wrong".  He was a man for his times and we are in need of his faithful echo today.  May God give us grace to lay down our burdensome sins and trust the One Who says His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). 

This Christmas season the great challenge for so many of us will be to quiet ourselves enough to hear from heaven.  Shopping, holiday travel plans, family gatherings, and church activities--yes, even church activities--can interrupt us from focusing on God's message to us.  Which sounds from Babel's tower are muffling the Messiah's music?  May God make us wise and willing to count "our richest gain a loss" if we don't seek FIRST His kingdom and righteousness this Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tree Trimmings #9: O Little Town of Bethlehem (Revised)

How still we see thee lie!

I have loved Christmas carols for as long as I can remember.  I knew I loved Christmas carols when I realized that I enjoyed singing along with my father to Luciano Pavarotti's rendition of "O Holy Night".  Dad was a huge Pavarotti fan, which, to a kid with hip-hop sensibilities, was utterly embarrassing and quite confusing.  But somehow, I could overlook the operatic style when it came to Christmas music. 

Anybody else wanna admit growing up in a house with this album on vinyl?
At some point, Dad got a Nat King Cole album with Christmas songs that were all in English.  Okay, besides the little Latin in "Adeste Fideles", it was mostly English.  That was pretty huge.  I had heard Bing Crosby, the Vienna Boys Choir, congregational singing in the Mass, and of course, Pavarotti.  But I had never heard anything like jazzy, soulful voice of Nat King Cole before.  It was on that album, to my recollection, that I first heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem".

The other King at Christmas time.
As a child, I enjoyed the melodies and knew that the songs were good in that they were about Jesus.  How much of my enjoyment of the music was tied up to the nearness of gift-getting?  I don't know.  But I know this: I had no idea what theological treasures these scripture saturated songs were. 

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep the angels keep
their watch of wondering love

Those last two lines alone say so much to me now.  We can picture Mary who, having travailed in labor to "deliver the child who would soon deliver her", exhausted and falling asleep.  Naturally, Joseph is bravely trying to stay awake but he succumbs to the night too.  At some late hour all Bethlehem slept.  Not just physically but in terms of awareness. 

Who was awake to say that they were fully understanding what on Earth God was doing... on Earth?  Truthfully all mankind slept as the proverbial  "Thief in the Night" (1st Thessalonians 5:2) came as an infant to bind the strong man and plunder his house (Matthew 12:28-29).  Though in deep slumber, not a man in 10 million could have dreamed what God had already done in Christ nor what He was about to do on their behalf.

The angels, on the other hand, kept their watch of wondering love.  Of all the expressions that could have been used to describe the way in which angels gazed from glory, the author, Phillips Brooks, used "wondering love".   It's hard for me to see the term and not think of the following passage:

"As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow... things into which even angels long to look."
1st Peter 1:10-12

Truly familiarity breeds contempt.  We are kidding ourselves if we think that we have exhausted or mastered the mysteries of the season.  There's no way we should ever be complacent in our thoughts concerning the incredible cost and condescension involved in the Incarnation of Christ.

And while I think it's worth the intellectual rigor, the goal of the Christian is not merely a cold and systematic comprehension of the Trinitarian exploit to tabernacle among men.  Our ultimate aim should be to arrive at the disposition of the angelic host: beholding Jesus with reverent awe and "wondering love". 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tree Trimmings #8: An Angelic Invitation (Short Version)

"When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us'.  And they went with haste..."
Luke 2:15-16a

Anybody work in an office where you have a holiday party... for Veteran's Day?  MLK Day?  Groundhog Day?  Do you happen to live in a part of the world where you and almost everyone you know goes shopping for Armed Forces Day?  Ever see the shopping malls filled up for Tax Day?  Valentine's Day and Halloween are pretty big commercial holidays but I don't know of any workplaces that shutdown and pay workers to stay home for those days.

Everybody has more than enough to do and even more options during the Christmas season.  Whether one celebrates the specifically Christian roots of the holiday or not, it is generally expected that the season brings with it interruptions and worthwhile investments of time and money.  Even as many are fearful of the growing trend of secularization in the West, there are few who would espouse the old objections of Ebenezer Scrooge, "Christmas time--a poor excuse for picking a man's pocket!"  Scrooge wasn't in favor of giving Bob Cratchit the day off, but even he, miserly as he was did that much, albeit fictitiously.  People seem to make time for what they either desire to do or to do what is apparently expected of them.

Consider the shepherds' response to the "angelic invitation".  First of all, one could hardly call it an invitation in our modern sense seeing there was no explicit request for their presence.  Telling shepherds what to expect or how to verify the birth of a promised savior required them to leave their fields and go to Bethlehem.  See how the RSVP was missing?  See how the phrase "you are cordially invited" was severely lacking?  Not even something like, "Your presence is requested" was used.  This was no invitation, it was virtually a summons.  They were willing to leave their job, even while on duty, to obey a higher calling and a more urgent need.  

Naturally, if we were to see a man at our door with chicken scratchings on a strip of paper we might wonder what he was doing there since we did not invite him.  As he goes on and on about a particular office building and room number, we may well be very distracted at his untimely appearance and be distant in our thoughts looking for ways to dismiss him.  However, if he has a shiny badge, a gun in his holster, and a couple cop cars behind him, we are likely to deduce his visit is not a pleasantry but official business of government.  Failure to distinguish between the two would bring more problems than the undesired visiting we're mandated to do.

The angels in this passage came from a celestial court with a message from the King of the Universe.  As powerful as they were, their message was even more weighty because it carried the importance of God behind it.  Amazing how presumably unschooled, illiterate shepherds had enough sense to understand that.  And it would be even more amazing--if it wasn't so pitiful--that Christians today, with the same obligation to tell the world of God's salvation in Christ, think sharing the summons that is the gospel is optional.