Fear not.

The Word for today:
Psalm 37:1-20

Today, and for the last couple of days, we’re trying to put Christmas in a whole-Bible context. Certainly, we did not attempt to jam every verse of scripture into your stocking, but by taking a seemingly un-Christmasy Psalm (#35), some scenes from Zechariah and Job, a Christmas carol (“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”) and — today — a passage from Revelation 12, we’ve tried to re-connect Luke 2 and Matthew 2 to the rest of the Bible, and paint the Star of Bethlehem against a wider sky.

Just ahead — a few days before Christmas, and on the Day itself — Pastor Joe will complete the series by placing Christmas in the context of the cross.

***

Certainly Christmas is a light show: the wise men followed the star; the glory of the Lord shone ’round about the shepherds. But it is painted against the darkest background:

“In thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

In the Temple, on the eighth day of Jesus’ life, the prophet Simeon solemnly declared the future:
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 2:34-35)

Indeed, darkness itself is very likely why Christmas eventually found its way to December 25th. While we can come very close to the year Jesus was born, no one knows the month (let alone the day). There is more evidence for April or September than December; but since we can’t be sure, the days surrounding the winter solstice in late December — the darkest days of the year — are poetically true to the time of his birth, symbolically enhancing the arrival of the prophesied Star:

I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near;
A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel,
And batter the brow of Moab, and destroy all the sons of tumult. (Numbers 24:17)

In Revelation chapter 12, the arrival of the Star out of Jacob is seen through this darker prism:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron…
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

***

In Scripture — The Story of Jesus Christ — Christmas is when the Light of the World pierced the darkness, and the tide of battle turned.  So rest ye merry, ladies and gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay:

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
“Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Let nothing you dismay.

The Word for today:
Psalm 36

Over the next couple days, Stand in the Rain is going to re-connect the Christmas story to the rest of the Bible (and the rest of the year). We’ll see how Psalm 35 and Revelation 12, when connected to “the Christmas Story” in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2, tell the Whole Story of Christmas…

I used to feel left out of certain Psalms. They seemed to be about situations that did not apply to me. So I read them as if I were behind a buffer zone, far removed from the battle.

Psalm 35 is an example:

Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. (Psalms 35:1,4)

I used to skip right through a Psalm like that because it did not seem to relate to my life.  No one is seeking my life or plotting my ruin, I thought.

But scripture and experience taught me to think again; the Bible and my own eyes made it clear to me that we are plotted against and pursued, whether we know it or not.  Now I take Psalm 35 personally, because the battle has come to my backyard.  It’s even gotten to the point where I don’t read Psalm 35 as much as I fervently pray it.

***

The Bible teaches us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, but against organized spiritual forces:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  (Ephesians 6:12)

Psalm 35:15 depicts these unseen attacks:
Attackers gathered against me when I was unaware. They slandered me without ceasing.  (Psalms 35:15)

These forces deploy the strategies of their commander, Satan, who is identified in Revelation 12:10 as the accuser of our brothers:
They devise false accusations against those who live quietly in the land.  (Psalms 35:20)

Job chapter 1 and Zechariah chapter 3 show us actual “courtroom scenes” where Satan appears before the LORD to accuse the people of God. In the scene from Zechariah, the Angel of the LORD, the pre-incarnate (pre-Christmas) Christ, rises up in defense of those whom he has redeemed.

This is the same “Angel” of the LORD who rises up, in Psalm 35, to defend David against those who hunt him down:
Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.
Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid.
Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me.
Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”
May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.
May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away;
may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. (Psalms 35:1-6)

Certainly Christmas is a lightshow: the wise men followed the star; the glory of the Lord shone round about the shepherds. But when seen in the context of the entire Bible, Christmas is when the Light of the World pierced the darkness, and the tide of battle turned:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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We Three Kings of Orient Are–Not!

The Word for today:
Psalm 35

Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma
Look what they’ve done to my song
Well they tied it up in a plastic bag
And turned it upside down, Ma
Look what they’ve done to my song.  –Melanie Safka

 

There’s so much that’s just right about Christmas! But there could be much more.

Please don’t think I’m going to bewail glitzy commercialism and Santa Claus and tinsel and all that schlock. That’s what unbelievers make of their Xmas, so what more should we expect?

(By the way, the gift-giving and -getting that we believers participate in with the unbelieving world is probably the one thing we have gotten perfectly right about the day when God, who so loved the world, gave us our greatest gift.)

What bothers me isn’t what they’ve done, but what we’ve failed to do with the boundless possibilities which Christmas, when rightly told, presents.  First of all, the church (the historic church, over centuries of time) let the essential story — the heralded fulfillment of Isaiah’s Immanuel (“God with us”) prophecy (1) — be confined to a day in December as if it were a birthday party.

We could have taught the entire gospel — the saving plan of God — with Christmas as a lustrous launching point. We could have proclaimed the entirety of God’s great Good News with this as the first sentence:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)

But by and large we’ve managed to disconnect Christmas from the rest of the year and the rest of the Bible.

I knew things had gone askew when I heard “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and it occurred to me that there weren’t three, they weren’t kings, and they weren’t coming from what we commonly call ‘the orient.’

Other than that, it’s a fine song!

***

Over the next couple days, Stand in the Rain is going to re-connect the Christmas story to the rest of the Bible (and the rest of the year). We’ll see how Psalm 35 (today’s reading) and Revelation 12, when connected to “the Christmas Story” in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2, tell the Whole Story of Christmas.

We’ll work “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” — a Christmas carol that does tell the Whole Story — into the mix. So, until then, let nothing you dismay.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(1) see Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23

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a Mary Christmas, and a Magnifi-cent New Year

The Word for today:
Psalm 34

Psalm 34 is a riveting song, and a rousing prayer. (Yup, prayers can be rousing!) It’s full of promise and power and the personality of God. It starts with these unforgettable lines:

I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear of it and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.

Magnify, in the case of the infinite God, is an illogical term. We really can’t make God bigger than he is. We can’t overstate, enhance, hype, or embellish him.

The only way for God to get “bigger” is for us to get closer to him. Thus it follows that the one Bible character who knew him the best magnified him the most. That, of course, would be Mom:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. (Luke 1:46-53)

I’m in awe of those lines (known as the Magnificat) and of the young Mom who spoke them. Every year at this time, I read and re-read her lines. They’ve become my perennial New Year’s Resolution.

The only way for God to get bigger is for us to get closer to him. Resolve with me, then, to be at least one step closer to Jesus on this day next year:

Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.

Have a Mary Christmas, and a Magnifi-cent New Year.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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the hill where the LORD hides

The Word for today:
Psalm 33

mark this: Psalm 32:7
You are my hiding place;
You shall preserve me from trouble;
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.

When I was a kid, I had a special spot. I’ll bet you did, too.

When I went to my special spot, I went alone. I never showed anyone, or even told anyone, about my spot.  To this day, no one else knows where it is.

And to this day, I still go there.

I grew up there. A couple times, I broke down there. There’s not an emotion I’ve ever felt that I haven’t brought to my spot. I brought triumph and disgrace, and longing and listlessness.

I’ve often spoken aloud to my spot, but for the most part I’ve listened to the silence “she” speaks. I’ve seen the wind there, and I’ve heard the snow.

Everything seems enhanced there. Night is darker, stars are brighter; the grass is greener than the sky is blue; and the blue is truer than true.

I can’t say with any certainty, but I think that my spot was a kind of surrogate for God, whom I had not yet met when I first found her. “She” spoke and remembered and understood; she knew more than there was to know. She was here before here was here.

And when I was with her, I was there; I’d arrived. She is where the sidewalk led.

***

I found my spot when I was 11 years old. Twenty years after that, they buried my Dad not too far away. Since then I have often walked, on a summer’s afternoon, from my spot to his.

There, on his gravestone, is a verse from “Requiem,” by Robert Louis Stevenson:

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

***

Longing, for both David and me, wouldn’t stay in place.  Our desires incarnated; David found his hiding place in God:
You are my hiding place;
You shall preserve me from trouble;
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.

I found, in Jesus Christ, the existential imperative–the AM who I am not–that every moment of my experience demanded there must be.

So I can’t help but wonder, whenever I stop at my Dad’s grave, if his longing ever formed the face of God. I hope so.

But it may be that all he found was a fragment of verse on the stone beneath the pine tree where the meadow meets the slope of the forested hill.

May life hold more, in its store, for you and me and mine and yours: may your word become flesh, may your longing unveil her face; may we ‘grave a better verse.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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