Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Gospel According To Bethlehem

The English-American poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “Nothing that is possible can save us.  We who must die demand a miracle.”

And that is exactly what we, who must one day die, received at a place called Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

Most of us have seen just enough Christmas plays that we don’t even think about Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, as being anything more than a nondescript Jewish town full of mean prejudiced inn-keepers with over-crowded motels.  We easily fail to recognize how shameful Christ’s birth in Bethlehem really was—in the eyes of anyone living during that time.  But more importantly, we lose the connection between Bethlehem and Calvary that clearly marked the Baby Jesus’ path to Mt. Moriah where most of the thousands of residents born in Bethlehem also ended their earthly lives.

Yet, Bethlehem, correctly understood, yields spiritual nuggets which, if quarried out of their many layers of historical and cultural strata, expose  even deeper tiers of the divine drama the Bible calls the Gospel.

Bethlehem was not much of a town with a population between 300 and 1000 people—most of them shepherds, stone workers, and wheat farmers.  Located about five miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible as the place where Jacob was going when he buried his wife Rachael in Genesis 35:19.  It was the setting for the story of Ruth who became the wife of Boaz and the great grandmother of King David and one of Jesus’ earthly ancestors.  Bethlehem was the town David was born and grew up in and become known as the City of David. 

The small town was known for its wheat fields—hundreds of acres of fields of wheat grew in and around Bethlehem giving her the nickname “House of Bread” which, is what Bethlehem means.  It was also famous for being the town where literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of sheep were raised and kept for Passover as well as the daily sacrifices of the Temple in Jerusalem.  

But more than anything else, Bethlehem was known as the city in which the Messiah would be born—that eternal King Who would come from Heaven to save His people from their sins. The prophecy is found in Micah 5:2, written over 700 years before the birth of Christ.

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

So, it was no accident that a census ordered by Caesar Augustus required Joseph, the carpenter engaged to be married to Mary who was pregnant with Jesus, to return to his hometown which just happened to be Bethlehem.  God wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem.  You know the story.  It’s found in Luke 2:1-20.

Once there Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays Him in a manger or feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn.  But then Luke transitions in his story to shepherds and their sheep that were in the wheat fields of Bethlehem.  In telling us in Luke 2:8 that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, Luke is giving us clues about Jesus and the significance of the sheep in Bethlehem’s fields.

Being 21st-century Westerners thinking and living in an urbanized, industrialized culture, we easily miss the importance of these contextual clues.  But, if we were first-century Middle Eastern villagers reading this text, we would wonder why sheep were in the fields at night.  Normal practice would be that village sheep were kept in sheepfolds at night for protection. But there were two reasons why this was not the case at Jesus’ birth. The first reason was that the sheep were allowed in the wheat fields around Bethlehem after the wheat harvest and before the next planting so they could fertilize the soil with their manure.  And the second reason for the sheep being in the fields at night instead of in protective sheep enclosures was that there were simply too many sheep and lambs to house anywhere.

You see, these are special lambs being raised to supply the humongous need for Passover lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover as well as the two lambs needed every day for the  perpetual sacrifice, known as the Tamid. The best estimates suggest that over 200,000 newborn lambs were needed every year to care for theses sacrifices. Thus, the flocks of sheep and their lambs were so sizable that no sheepfold was large enough to hold them for night-time protection.  They had to remain in the fields at night—where they were born.

So, on the same night that Jesus – the Lamb of God – was born in the manger which was really nothing more than a vacant sheepfold in a cave, lambs destined for the Passover sacrifice and the daily sacrifices were also being born in Bethlehem’s wheat fields.  Wow! The connection between Christmas and Easter is already being established.

Luke’s narrative continues with the “Good News” of the birth of Jesus being first announced to these shepherds who were employed by the Temple priests.
While Psalm 23 portrays the role of a shepherd in a most honorable way, by the time of Jesus, shepherding was viewed as a despised profession.  It was considered unclean for two reasons—because caring for sheep in the outdoors was a dirty occupation and because the 24/7 care the shepherds needed to provide the sheep kept them from observing the Sabbath.  Many rabbis during this time held that shepherds, because of the wandering nature of their profession could never keep the Sabbath and thus the religious culture of that day considered shepherds reprehensible people practicing a shameful profession.

It was to just this kind of a hopeless person living in chronic state of cultural and religious shame that God directed the angels to announce His incredible Good News!  But even more interesting and often overlooked than the shame of the shepherds was the shameful treatment Joseph received upon arriving in Bethlehem—his hometown!  He went back to Bethlehem because that was where his family originated.  It was where his ancestors had lived—where his grandparents lived as well as his parents.  He had relatives there—friends—and acquaintances.  Bethlehem was his home turf.  Yet, you’d hardly know it by the way he was treated when he arrived with a young pregnant woman on a donkey in tow.

Wouldn’t you find it astounding for a young man with his pregnant wife to arrive in his hometown and not make his way to his parent’s home or a brother’s home or even a friend’s home to stay the night?  But Joseph apparently doesn’t even try.  He tries to find a room in an inn but is refused even there.  And the reason for his not going home and for his being refused at the inn was not so much that there was no room for them in this town—there was no room for an adulterous woman about to have a baby out of wedlock in this town!  You see, Joseph’s wife, Mary had become pregnant before she and Joseph were married.  The angel Gabriel made it clear to Joseph that the child in Mary’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God but who would ever believe that?!  Certainly not his family back in Bethlehem!!!  And they didn’t which, is why Joseph and Mary could not find a place other than a vacant, dirty, dingy sheepfold in an empty cave to use as Jesus birthing room.  Even by 1st Century standards this was appalling.

Put back into its first-century setting, humanly speaking, Jesus’ birth was not something to be celebrated—at best it could only be tolerated as the shameful consequence of Mary’s supposed sin.  And Joseph who, as the oldest son in his family, was responsible for maintaining and even enforcing the family honor had deeply shamed and offended his family by choosing to marry his pregnant fiancĂ© rather than send her away or even have her stoned.  Thus, while Jesus’ birth was indeed glorious from Heaven’s perspective, the opposite would have most likely been true for Joseph’s Davidic clan in Bethlehem.

How appropriate, then, that Jesus’ birth was first announced to and celebrated by religious outcasts and socially unacceptable shepherds.  Jesus’ shameful birth in Bethlehem really sets the scene for His shameful death in Jerusalem where as far as this city was concerned—He was crucified as a shameful impostor and liar on a cross between two thieves.

But Heaven saw it in a completely different light.  You see, on the Sunday before the crucifixion—the Sunday we call “Palm Sunday” when Jesus was enroute to Jerusalem along the road from Jericho He stopped to stage His approach and entry into Jerusalem just outside the small village of Bethany two miles east of Jerusalem.  He sent two disciples into Bethany to secure the donkey upon which He would ride into Jerusalem.  Then at just the right time He began His final journey to Jerusalem riding east toward the Mount of Olives where He would stop and meet up with a huge crowd which included Temple and religious leaders on the Mount of Olives—the mountain directly east of Jerusalem where the roads from the village of Bethany and the town of Bethlehem intersected.

But why was there a huge crowd which included Temple officials and Pharisees on the Mount of Olives when Jesus arrives?  Most of us have the idea that they were there to meet Jesus as He rode into the city of Jerusalem so as to worship Him but I don’t think so.

You see, on this Sunday—Palm Sunday—tens of thousands of Passover Lambs were being herded from Bethlehem to the City of Jerusalem for the Passover celebration on the following Friday.  The shepherds had to herd them into the city on Sunday—an undertaking that would have taken all day so that on Monday the people could come to the Temple and buy their Passover Lamb.
They would then take this Lamb to their homes or camps to live with them for four days before killing them on the Passover. But before the shepherds bring all the lambs into the city they are met by a massive crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem as well as by a huge crowd of people from Jerusalem wanting to see the lambs entering the city.  

This was a big event—a celebrative event and this was the parade route, if you will, into the city.  And the Temple officials—the Pharisees were there—not to meet Jesus but to meet the lambs and lead the vast processional into the city.  But as this processional of literally thousands of Passover and other sacrificial lambs converges on the Mount of Olives from the south they meet another processional traveling from the east with none other than the Lamb of God riding on a donkey.  And Luke’s Gospel describes this scene for us in Luke 19:37-38.

37) When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:  38) “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Note that the song the crowd sings sounds very much like the song sung by the angels at Christ’s birth.  There is a slight variation but for the most part this song sung about Jesus on the Mount of Olives sounds very much like the song sung by the Angels at His birth.  I cannot help but think that the shepherds herding the lambs up from Bethlehem must have recognized the words and immediately were taken back to that night in the fields 33 years before.

And as the two processionals now become one with Jesus taking center stage and the people beginning to sing about Him—the Pharisees react ordering Jesus to silence the crowd.  But listen to Jesus’ response to them.  It’s found in Luke 19:40-44.

40) “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41) As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it  42) and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43) The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44) They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Wow!  Jesus Christ—God the Son—was entering into Jerusalem that day to offer Himself as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of all who believe and He was doing it on the same day that hundreds of thousands of sacrificial lambs were being herded into the city.

Jesus then continued on down the Mount of Olives through the Kidron Valley near the Garden of Gethsemane and up Mt. Moriah to the city of Jerusalem where He entered the city gates with all the Passover lambs which would be sacrificed over a two-day period in celebration of the Passover, some the day before, and others, on the same day that He was to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God.

Now in going back to Exodus 12, as well as seeing how the Passover was celebrated in Israel’s history we are able to learn what requirements a Passover Lamb had to meet if he was to be an acceptable sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.  In summarizing the requirements, the head of each family had to select a male lamb without any defects or blemishes of any kind.  The lamb had to be taken into the family home for a period of four days prior to its sacrifice so that it could be observed and examined for any such defects.  And at the end of the four day period it was customary for the head of the household to rise up and declare the lamb clean and without any defects or blemishes of any kind.  At this point the lamb was considered acceptable to God as a Passover offering.

Jesus also met all of the requirements of the Passover lamb.  Jesus was a male, without defect or blemish upon His life and character—He was sinless.
Jesus was in Jerusalem four days prior to His execution and examined scrupulously over and over again by the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the High Priest, Pilate, King Herod, and Pilate again only to be found innocent of any crime or sin.  And in fact, at the end of those four days the head of all the households in Jerusalem, the Roman Governor, Pilate stood up and declared Jesus clean, not just once but three times in John 18:38, 19:4, 19:6.  At this point Jesus having met all the requirements necessary to make Him legally acceptable as the Passover lamb was led away to be placed on the cross.

But, there was one more requirement for a Passover Lamb to meet which could not be met until he had died and his body was consumed—not a single bone in his body could be broken according to Exodus 12:46.  Jesus met this requirement as well for as John reports in His Gospel in chapter 19 and verses 33-36.

33) But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34) But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35) He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36) For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”

Jesus is indeed our Passover Lamb.  But for what reason?  Why did Jesus identify Himself with the Passover Lamb and why did God have Him die at the Passover?  Why not Yom Kippur--The Day of Atonement?  Why is Jesus identified as our Passover Lamb but not the one sacrificed on Yom Kippur?

As I mentioned before, Jesus was crucified on the day after the Passover Meal was eaten. We know this because He ate the Passover Meal with His disciples the night before He was crucified.  On that following day Jesus was nailed to the cross at 9 AM and died at 3 PM the same times that the Tamid or burnt offering for sin was offered in the Temple.  The Tamid offering was the twice daily offering of an unblemished lamb for the sins of the people that was offered everyday.  It is significant that Jesus was placed upon the cross at the first offering of the day and dies upon the final offering of the day.  He was our Tamid Lamb--the sin offering for our sin which puts an end to the priests daily offering of sacrifices which can never take away our sins.

But, on that same day in which Jesus was crucified the priest also sacrificed their Passover Lambs for themselves and their families.  This is significant as well.  You see, Jesus is the Passover Lamb for another priesthood--a royal priesthood is what Peter calls it made up of those of us who have been redeemed by the Lamb.  Thus, Jesus is our Passover Lamb and our Tamid Lamb.

As our Tamid Lamb, He saves us from our sins in the sense of delivering us from the penalty of our sins.  As our Passover Lamb, He saves us from our sins in the sense of delivering us from our slavery to sin, Satan, and self. Remember, the Passover is the commemoration of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus as our Passover Lamb delivered us from Egypt too.  That is He delivered us from our slavery to our old status as slaves to our sin.  Furthermore, He is delivering us from our sins each day as He sanctifies us.  This is the significance of Jesus as our Passover Lamb.

True "salvation" is being saved from our sins so that we are no longer under sin's penalty nor living any longer under sin's control.  Oh, we still struggle with sin but the mark of a true believer is that Jesus is destroying the works of the devil in our lives.  Thus, their should be within each believer the desire to pursue righteousness even though beleaguered by unrighteousness.

Jesus died at the same time as the Passover Lambs from Bethlehem—on the afternoon of the second day of Preparation for the Passover, in the same city—Jerusalem, and at the hands of the same people—the Religious Leaders.
The only difference is that they would be sacrificed in the Temple—but He would be sacrificed outside the city at the place of shame—the place of the skull—Golgotha—or as we know it—Mount Calvary.

They, the Passover lambs, died in the place of honor while He, the ultimate sacrificial Lamb of God to whom they all pointed and pictured, died in the place of shame among shameful people and for shameful people who have done shameful things.

And this rescuing of shameful people who realize they are shameful sinners from their shameful ways was God’s desire then and is God’s desire now. Some things never change.  God still forgives, saves, and lifts up those who ashamed of their sin and ready to be done with it turn to Jesus their Passover Lamb.

And so W.H. Auden was right, “Nothing that is possible can save us.  We who must die demand a miracle.”

And Jesus is that Miracle!

Praise God for the Gospel According To Bethlehem!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Devil's First Christmas

Recently I read about a man who was teaching a children’s Sunday School class. On this particular Sunday he was teaching the story from Luke 4 about Jesus being rejected by the people in his hometown of Nazareth.  He told his students that when Jesus attributed Isaiah 61 to Himself—He was in effect making His announcement that He was the Messiah. The teacher wasn’t sure if the kids were getting him until one of the little too “worldly wise” boys in the class asked, “Do you think the devil said the “SH” word when he heard Jesus say this?”

His question is one to ponder and muse on because, quite frankly, I wonder what that old serpent made of that first Christmas. Did he have a clue? Had he figured out the incarnation?  Was he behind the “no room in the inn” agenda running through Bethlehem?  Without a doubt he had it figured out by Matthew 2 when he incited Herod to slaughter all the baby boys of Bethlehem under two. But could it be that Lucifer, the angel of light, had been completely in the dark about the Messiah being safely protected as a baby innMary’s womb?

If so, it wasn’t long before he was enlightened by his righteous angelic counterparts who visited the shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem the night the Messiah was born. There, where shepherds grazed their flocks of lambs probably born and raised to be sacrificed at Passover the angels sang their song announcing the birth of the One to Whom all these little white lambs were pointing.

I’m pretty sure that by the time the angels finished their song, Satan must have known what was up. The Prince of Peace had invaded his turf and Satan’s days as the Prince of this World were numbered. God had made His entrance into His own creation quietly and stealthily as a baby Who was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” And He would without a doubt and at great cost save his people from their sin. As the glow on the hillside faded and the shepherds headed down to the manger to welcome this One Who was self-destined for the Cross where He, as The Sacrificial Lamb” would crush the devil’s head and free believer’s from their sins, I imagine the devil knew his end was in sight. And I have a feeling that he said the “SH” word.                              (Based upon and adapted from a story told by Betsy Childs)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Divine Mystery of Christmas

On Christmas, we celebrate something quite wonderful: God entering our time and space. The eternal becomes temporal; the eternally infinite becomes temporarily finite; the Word that created all flesh becomes flesh.

It truly is a mystery!  The One who knows all things (John 16:30, 21:17) must “grow in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The all-sufficient One (Acts 17:25) must hunger and thirst (Matt. 4:2,John 19:28). The creator of all must be homeless (Matt. 8:20). The Lord of life must suffer and die. God in the flesh must endure estrangement from God the Father (Matt. 27:46).

As Jesus, God the Son, Who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), must watch His eternal plan unfold bit by bit, moment by moment. He grows from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood, responding to events as they happen. One time He rejoices; another time He weeps. From day to day, from hour to hour, the changeless God endures change. But God the Son incarnate is still God, still transcendent. As He responds to events in time, He also looks down on the world from above time and space, ruling and governing all the events of nature and history in complete sovereignty—truly a mystery!

Why did God enter time in Christ?  First and foremost, for His Father’s glory so that God the Father could remain just in forgiving and justifying sinners who deserved His wrath (Rom. 3:25-26).  The Son of God took on the limitations of time, space even death, so that He would pay the penalty for the sins of anyone and everyone who would believe in Him.  In this way and only through this way is God the Father able to forgive believing sinners and remain true to His own righteousness.  Jesus entered time to glorify God in providing the means by which believers would be forgiven and find their joy in God. 

Whereas, at the incarnation, when God the Son became the God-Man, He entered time to live and die for those of us who believe—He also entered time to “be with us”.  That is what His Christmas Name “Emmanuel” means:  God with us.

He is still with us, now. Jesus said that He would be with us always (Matt. 28:20) in the Spirit (John 14:15-18). That means that God is an actor in history (His-story), as well as transcends history. He is with me as I write, watching one moment pass into the next, responding appropriately to each event, bringing his sovereign Lordship to bear on every situation as it comes, hearing and responding to my prayers. But He is also looking down on the world from his transcendent, timelessly eternal viewpoint. He is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, He brings all things to pass according to His eternal plan. As immanent, He works in and with all things, moment by moment, to accomplish His sovereign will. 

Thus, in the incarnation, God the Son invades the time and space of history to become the “leading man” in His own drama of redemption which He planned in eternity past.  But as He plays His part in His own divine drama from below—He also and at the same time acts above History as its divine sovereign director holding every atomic particle of every being, thing, and action in place (Col. 1:17).

There are those who believe that if we are to do justice to this apparent “give-and-take” relationship that we see unfolding in the pages of the Bible between God and his creatures in history, we must reject God’s sovereign control over history, even his exhaustive knowledge of the future. Those conclusions do not follow logically, and they are not biblical.  Rather, these biblical pictures of God’s seemingly “give and take” relationship with His creatures actions in time should lead us to a heightened view of God’s sovereignty. Our God is one who can and does accomplish his sovereign will, not only “from above,” by his eternal decrees, but also “from below,” by making all things work together for his good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Even those events which the biblically non-informed would see as an apparent defeat for God (ie. The cross, our sin defeats, etc.) are the out workings of his eternal plan. In the very death of Jesus for our sins, God was acting in time to bring his sovereign purpose to pass (Acts 2:23).  Likewise, in our moments when sin has gotten the best of us, God is at work doing a work in us that is greater than the immediate overcoming of sin (Luke 22:31-32).

So Christmas reveals in a wonderful way that God acts in time as well as above it. Christmas shows us how wonderfully God relates to us, not only as a mysterious being from another realm, but as a person in our own realm: interacting with us, hearing our prayers, guiding us step by step, chastising us with fatherly discipline, comforting us with the wonderful promises of the blessings of Christ. Truly He is Emmanuel, the God who is really with us and Who is nonetheless eternally the Sovereign Lord above and beyond us.

Pursuing the Glory of Christ as though He were the most important pursuit in all the world--Because He Is!

" Looking for the Blessed Hope and the appearing of The Glory of our Great God and Savior, Christ Jesus." Titus 2:13