Advent VI: When Hope Comes Home

IMG_4683When Luke started his Advent story, he began in the temple, which for the Jewish faithful was home. It had been rebuilt centuries earlier by returning exiles to signal God’s hope was alive in the homeland. Hope was in short supply, however, “in the days of Herod”. Amidst expanding empires, Israel’s role in civilization had diminished; and when Rome subjugated the Jews by way of occupying the land and violating the temple’s sanctity, labeling the Jews as atheists and offering a pig on the altar, this place of God’s presence now seemed all but a fading relic of God’s past glory. But hope always defies the way things seem, bubbling beneath the surface, going against the grain.

Luke writes “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

While the ways of the world trailed off in various diverging directions, Simeon kept himself to the way of the LORD as established in His words. It is a way that transforms how we perceive life and God at work within it. It was a way that brought Simeon into God’s presence and permeated his spirit with hope. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

The hope God gives is not abstract, like some floating wisp of ideas detached from reality, but always connected to the world in which we live. God had promised Simeon he would one day see his Messiah; not a conceptual figure or representation of idealism, but a person whose life would be all about God’s salvation. The hope that held Simeon’s heart all his days would be a human who was so much more than that.

One day God’s presence moved Simeon to enter the temple, this place he and so many others longed for God to glorify. He was about to discover God’s presence had just returned. Jesus had been born about forty days earlier; now on this day his parents had brought him to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the LORD”. Sometime during their visit, their path crossed with Simeon’s. A lifetime lived upon the way of the LORD had led Simeon right to Jesus; “…then he took Him into his arms…” The hope that held his heart for so many years Simeon now held in his arms. A life of waiting, hoping, and anticipating now culminated in this baby as God’s past glory visited Simeon’s present with a glimpse of a glorious future.

Captivated by wonder, Simeon “blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bondservant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’”

In this tiny infant Simeon saw his entire life story reach a climax that made his every moment worth the wait. Everyone sees death; not everyone sees Life. Having hopefully seen it from a distance all his days, he now beheld it before him, savored it, and was satisfied in the heavenly peace that saturated him. The hope that was somewhere out there had come home. But not just for Simeon.

This salvation he saw had been prepared amidst “all peoples” for “all peoples”. Drawing on Isaiah’s messianic imagery, Simeon likens this little one to light that will both reveal God to the Gentiles and return glory to Israel’s story. Like Simeon, Israel’s story was reaching its climax in this advent of its Messiah. Israel had always thought of the days of Solomon as their golden years, when God’s great glory filled the temple; bygone days that were mournfully missed. But now here in the infant Jesus, the infinite incarnate, the perfect image of the Father, God’s great glory has returned to the temple. This place of God’s past glory has become the place of God’s present glory; a glory that will shine out salvation throughout the world’s future.

Jesus has arrived; our Advent story has concluded. But Simeon offers one final comment to an amazed Mary and Joseph: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed…to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

As Jesus would eventually affect all life in Israel, he would inevitably do the same throughout the world. Being either a step to raise others up or a snag over which others would fall, who Jesus is reveals who we really are. The person of Jesus forces us all to show our true colors. How we respond to him reveals where we stand with him.

Historically, globally, and communally, that puts all Jesus-followers in the place of Simeon—waiting, hoping, anticipating. Waiting for God to work His salvation out upon this world, hoping in God’s Spirit to remain faithful witnesses to His salvation, and anticipating the Second Advent of Jesus our Messiah.

Jesus was brought home to the temple to be presented to the LORD that the LORD may present Jesus to the world. Hope had returned to the home that had been lacking its hearth. But the home is a haven just for momentary respite, a harbor to ready the ship to sail again. Hope went home so that hope would again set out to visit homes, hearts, and lives.

I pray that as your Advent season concludes and you begin a New Year, Christ-centered hope will attend, keep, and cultivate you all your days. Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

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Past Sorrow as Anticipation of Future Salvation | Matthew 2:14-23

As Matthew concludes Jesus’ birth narratives in the latter half of chapter 2, he references three prophetic fulfillments, which I will explore in chronological order.

The first occurs amidst a shockingly tragic moment.  Enraged the magi never returned to him with information on Jesus’ whereabouts, Herod orders all males in Bethlehem under age two to be slaughtered.  It’s every parent’s nightmare coming true in life-shattering horror.  There are no words to soothe such sadness.  It’s a kind of deep-cutting event that can completely redefine a community; a dark cloud of shock, anger, and bitterness could have very well hung over those homes and community for the rest of their lives.  I try imagining the fathers going to synagogue and trying to prayerfully mouth some semblance of the Psalms in an effort to find some glimmer of hope in their inexpressible sadness.  The only comment Matthew makes about this great tragedy is from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”

Decades removed from the event when he writes these words, Matthew might be seeing something typical of Israel’s history playing out in this early moment of Jesus’ story.

The events of this Jeremiah text had already tragically happened centuries earlier.  When the culture of entrenched idolatrous indifference in the southern kingdom of Judah had climaxed, God brought the Babylonian Empire against them in judgment.  Jerusalem was destroyed, many of its citizens slaughtered, and the survivors were exiled to Babylon.  Departing Jerusalem, one of the first towns they passed through was Ramah; heartbroken over Jerusalem’s destruction and bereaved of their loved ones, they mournfully wandered through, wondering what the future held or if hope was possible after this, probably much like how the Bethlehem parents felt.  So as Matthew recounts this tragic event from which Jesus escaped, he may be interpreting it as an echo typical of Israel’s story.

While some prophecies can be fairly literal predictions of what will happen, other prophecies can be more typological, in that what is happening is a type of what has already happened.  New Testament scholar R.T. France clarifies typology as “the recognition of a correspondence between New and Old Testament events, based on a conviction of the unchanging character of the principles of God’s working, and a consequent understanding and description of the New Testament event in terms of the Old Testament model.”  I believe Matthew’s three prophetic references here are examples of typological prophecy.

The second prophetic passage occurs after Joseph, Mary, and the child have fled to Egypt, escaping Herod’s rage.  The text doesn’t detail how long they stayed there, but it was until Herod’s death, at which point an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, which Joseph did, exiting Egypt to enter the land of Israel.  Matthew again comments on these events with a prophetic reference from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Again the event spoken of had already taken place.  This time it’s the northern kingdom of Israel that had grown so idolatrously indifferent to what God had called them to be and would thus suffer the consequences of God’s judgment by the Assyrian Empire.  Perhaps as a disappointed parent might, God uses Hosea to recall how youthfully loveable Israel was when he initially called them out of Egypt, lamenting how their own rebellion has brought them to this judgment.  It’s a memory of God’s salvation amidst a moment of impending judgment; as tragic judgment approaches, Hosea’s thoughts turn to their past salvation from slavery, perhaps hoping that, even as judgment descends upon them, God’s salvation may one day return to Israel.

By quoting the Hosea text in the context of Jesus exiting Egypt and entering Israel, Matthew may be reframing the Exodus memory, that memory of past salvation Hosea recalled, as an anticipation of the impending salvation Jesus would bring upon the land and people of Israel.

Both of these cited prophecies were delivered at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel both underwent tragic consequences for their great idolatry and indifference; moments that shaped within the surviving remnant’s post-exilic mindset a shameful sense of what was historically typical for their people.  But what Matthew hopes his readers will observe in the text is that with God, salvation is also typical.

The third prophetic comment is actually not a prophecy at all, but more of a Messianic characterization built on other prophetic statements.  As Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settle in the city of Nazareth, Matthew comments “This was to fulfill what was spoke through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”

These exact words are found nowhere in Scripture.  Two theories thrive here.  First, other Messianic prophecies say Messiah would be despised and rejected; in John 1:46, Nazareth seems to personify a sense of worthlessness.  The second theory is, since the word Nazareth is similar to the Hebrew word for branch, Matthew may possibly be alluding to the Isaiah 11:1 prophecy about a branch springing up from David’s line, bearing righteous fruit.

Considering the context already discussed, I think both theories are plausible.  Having been battered by God’s judgment and years of post-exilic shame, an atmosphere of worthlessness or despair permeates Israel, shaping much of how they perceive themselves.  Who can lift such a soul-crushing burden?  Only one who knows its weight himself.  To truly be Messiah, Jesus must empathize with the people, living life as they have, know what it is to be despised and stung with sorrow.  In doing so, Jesus is identified, not just with his own people, but with all humanity.  Jesus is one of us.  Only after he is identified with us can he be revealed as so much more.  The shameful history that has come to shape Israel’s downcast identity is the soil from out of which the righteous branch shall grow and produce a redemption that redefines everything.

We are all shaped by our history.  We’ve all had moments that may mold in us a cynicism or downheartedness that redefines our perceptions of what we think is typical.  We may express these perceptions through learned phrases like “story of my life”, “just my luck”, or “it is what it is”.  We may be living according to a script in our heads that says our role is that of a worthless one or a sorrowful wretch or someone who has nothing to look forward to.  The role of Messiah, however, is meant to show us we’re reading the wrong script; that this story is about salvation.  Though life may teach us that sorrow is typical, Jesus shows us that with God, salvation is typical.  A part of learning to follow Jesus means adjusting the perceptions of our minds and hearts to the salvation reality embodied in Jesus.  I pray the eyes of your heart be saturated with the salvation permeating this world through the presence of Messiah Jesus.

Setting the scene of Jesus’ story | Matthew 1:1-17

Every story has a setting. As Matthew prepares to narrate the story of Jesus, he sets it within its historical context, beginning with a long list of names comprising Jesus’ genealogy. His Jewish readers would instantly recognize this list of names was actually a series of stories threading together one long continuous story. Not just any story—their story. And yet not just mere history—revelation. For beneath the overlaid blacktop of our human story lies the foundational bedrock of the deeper, broader narrative—that of the glorious God telling a story of salvation by working redemption throughout human history.

Matthew begins Jesus’ story with the same character with whom God began his redemption story—Abraham. Since Genesis 3-11 showcases a humanity that rejects a holiness thrust upon them, God will thus cultivate it generationally through one special people; in Genesis 12:1-3, God chooses Abraham to go to a chosen place to become a chosen people, a blessed people through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

God continued this covenant-relationship with Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and subsequent descendants through the centuries. At a historic moment when “the LORD saved Israel” from Egyptian slavery, their covenant-role focused as God clarified they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”a people of the divine King whose lives would display God’s holy worth and ways to the world.

Later generations, however, demanded a king “like all the nations”. Though called to be a kingdom of God’s holiness, they aspired only to be another worldly kingdom. But God kept his covenant and gave the people “a man after His own heart”, whom Matthew identifies as “David the king”. Matthew’s inclusion of “the king” is the first of two titles in his genealogy and its appearance says a lot, not just about the direction of Matthew’s narrative, but where God is steering his redemptive story.

With a wider monarchial witness to the world, David did his best to make it one of worship. For his heart of worship, God made a covenant with David that one of his descendants shall always sit upon his throne as his kingdom would “endure forever”, the fulfillment of which is the aim of Matthew’s text.

Israel, however, was not an ideal people, but an actual people. The story of redemption God has been trying to tell kept encountering rebellious resistance from the very characters through whom he was trying to tell it, including David. The generations of kings following David would sow national discord, institute idolatry, exploit their own people, align with idolatrous nations, shrug off justice; finally, at the height of the people’s entrenched indifference, God brought destruction against them. With Jerusalem and the temple destroyed, the surviving exiles were deported to Babylon to face humiliation and new threats, but not without a hopeful glimpse of a future kingdom God would set up which “will itself endure forever”.

God kept the covenant with Abraham and David, eventually bringing the exiles back to the chosen land to rebuild and return their hearts to God’s purposes. But their existence would mostly consist of wearily surviving the dominant civilizations expanding around and about them. As the rule and culture of the Roman Empire came to shape the ways and means of the world, the children of Abraham wondered and waited for the arrival of God’s kingdom with a son of David as its king. Thus Matthew’s genealogy finally comes to Joseph and Mary, “by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

Messiah is the second title to appear, and it means “Anointed” or “Chosen”, indicating one appointed to embody or execute a divine task. Throughout this redemptive history, framed by covenant and kingdom, Israel has never played their role righteously; Israel needed someone to show them how, to do it for them, to personify what the story was always supposed to be, to embody the redemptive righteousness God always purposed for them. Thus Jesus enters the story to embrace his Messiah role. How exactly he will do that Matthew has yet to relate, but for the moment, his genealogy has shown that Jesus’ story is the next chapter in Israel’s history, his revelation the next phase in God’s redemptive work for Israel and all the world.

How does this text set us upon the way of Jesus?

By setting the scene for Jesus’ story, the text provides us our entry point for stepping into God’s redemptive story; it makes us participants instead of spectators. We learn to walk upon the way of God by keeping company with Scripture’s characters, with whom we are now faith-companions. How they live out faith shows us how to actually do it and how not to do it.

The text also guards us from regarding a relationship with God simply between him and ourselves. The relationship may be personal, but it is not private. We are not in this story alone. Even though our lives or subplots may seem individually our own, we are an intimate part of an intricate community we impact by how we play our roles in God’s redemptive story.

Finally, since the text’s critical point is to show God’s redemptive story ultimately leads to Jesus as the “Chosen One” who shows how holiness is embodied, salvation is presented to us, not in the form of principles, but of a person. This implies discipleship is not simply about trying to live a better story, but about stepping into Jesus’ story, following him by conforming our lives to his holy character.

As we gradually navigate through Matthew’s narrative, Jesus will continually show us what it means to be his followers, but this initial text gives us our bearing. Human history has been and continues to be so mired in sinful horror and chaos, it seems a joke to hope there’s another way to be human, but that’s exactly who Jesus Messiah is—the Holy One who is the way in which God’s redemption is revealed to the world.