Saturday, December 14, 2013

Four Christmas Passages in the Bible You Rarely Hear About

If you were raised in a Christian background, you have probably heard the traditional Christmas story dozens of times in your life. Most likely these tellings were replete with the typical characters: Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the three wise men, the little town of Bethlehem, etc. And that’s good! Because that traditional story has a lot of meaning in it: God choosing to come to humanity in the form of a powerless baby, and revealing himself first to the humble Mary, the lowly shepherds, and the pagan Magi. The Omnipotent one becoming the weakest of all, and in so doing raising up the meek and the outcast.

Yet, there are at least four sections to the Christmas story that I do not think I have ever heard a sermon preached on. They’re all right there in Luke chapters 1 and 2, but for whatever reason (lack of time; difficulty?) they are glossed over in a lot churches. And that’s too bad, because they are powerful. Here are the four parts; please take a few minutes to reflect on each and what they would mean for you this Christmas. (I have also provided some of my own thoughts, but please ignore them if they distract you. I think the text speaks for itself.)

1. The story of Anna.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Anna. Married at …16? 17? Seven years married. Then sixty years alone. Widows in Jesus’ day were devoid of legal status and often powerless, unless they managed to remarry. Anna never did. Instead, she focused all her attention on worship, prayer, and fasting. What faith! While she could be on the Temple Mount, she, as a woman, could not go far inside: past the Court of the Gentiles, but not into the Court of Israel (where men could enter). Anna was caught in the middle, tasting the glory but always wanting more. Like many, she looked forward to the liberation of Jerusalem from the greedy, idolatrous Roman Empire. Unlike many, she put all her energy into praying for God’s kingdom to appear on Earth. And then! Finally! The one of whom the prophets had spoken: Meshiach. What rapturous joy must have consumed her tiny frame. No wonder she spoke about it to all around her! The first evangelist.

What are you thankful for this Christmas? What are you still longing to see?

Oh Lord, grant that we would have the faith to worship, fast, and pray for your Kingdom to come…and the strength to persist in doing so all the days of our life. Amen.

2. The story of Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist)

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)

Temple Priest. Righteous. Blameless. Infertile?
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth join the legion of characters from the Bible that are unable to conceive. A mark of shame in ancient Jewish society, childlessness drove these characters to desperately seek God, year after year. And then! An angel appears! Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have a child—but not only that, the child who will prepare the way for the Meshiach.
Zechariah prophesies about Jesus and John, despite the fact that neither has even been born yet. Two children, brought into the world through miracle, linked in a common destiny to change history. John would prepare the way for Jesus, to teach about the tender mercy of God, about the forgiveness of sins, and that the dawn is coming in a land of darkness. Jesus would come to bring that dawn, to bring that salvation, to guide his people out from the shadow of death---death! No longer would that specter haunt humanity. It would be banished forever in the light of God’s infinite love and glory!
And Zechariah gets to be there at the very first glimpse of the dawn.

What are you longing for? Where do you need God’s light to shine in your life?

Oh Lord, grant that you would enable us to serve you without fear. Guide our feet into the path of peace. And rescue us out from the shadow of death. Amen.

3. The story of Simeon.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child 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.” (Luke 2:25-35)

Simeon’s prophecy is striking in a few aspects. We see the first understanding that Jesus was coming not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. This would probably have struck Simeon’s listeners as surprising. The Meshiach was supposed to crush the Gentiles in battle, not grant life-giving revelation to them! Secondly, we see that this child, Jesus, is destined to “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Jesus would cause many to fall out of favor (the rich, the powerful, those who thought themselves close to God) by revealing their true nature and exposing their “whitewashed tombs” for all to see the dead bones within. But those who were downtrodden and downcast would be lifted up: the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the sinners.

But Jesus, this “light of revelation,” would not be welcomed by everyone. Radical change has many enemies. Jesus would “be a sign that will be spoken against.” And the persecution would harm those closest to him: his mother’s heart would be broken too. But all of this was part of God’s salvation.

What inner thoughts of your heart does Jesus’ message reveal?

Oh Lord, thank you for your Meshiach, and for the light of revelation he has given us. Amen.

4. The story of Mary

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
(Luke 1:46-56)

Perhaps the most radical speech of the Christmas story, Mary’s song (the “Magnificat”) is a pronouncement of God’s kingdom and a denunciation of the existing order. To put the spotlight on a woman in the patriarchal 1st century was remarkable in itself; for Luke to write out her stridently prophetic words—even more so. Mary speaks in the present tense, anticipating and trusting that God will do all that he has promised: to life up the humble, fill the hungry, and be merciful. Those phrases are beautiful. In the Pax Americana, we would much prefer to skip over the other phrases, where God brings down rulers, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away empty. “Isn’t that a bit harsh, God?” we might ask. But like the humans in the Tower of Babel, or the rich young man who asked Jesus for the secret to life from above, perhaps the best thing God can do for the powerful is to humble them and take away their things. Only then can they be empty-handed and contrite, ready to receive his blessings. 

Are you proud? Let God humble you. Are you humble? Let God lift you up.

Oh Lord, extend your mercy to me, a sinner. Fill me with good things, and help me to release those things that keep me from embracing you. I love you. Amen. 

Snow in Bethlehem last week? Miracles can happen. Merry Christmas!