Friday, 26 December 2014

Gifts: A Christmas Meditation

When we buy our gifts at Christmas, and indeed at any other time, we often ask ourselves what kind of gift is appropriate for the person? As a general rule, we don't buy after shave for toddlers, neither do we by cuddly toys for middle-aged men. Those gifts are not fitting.

Our sense of what is appropriate for them boils down to what we think will bring them pleasure, or at least be helpful. As mentioned above, we don't buy children's presents for adults or vice versa, but even amongst adults, there is wide variation. I know one middle-aged man, who would be thrilled if I got him a West Ham United season ticket for Christmas, but if I got it for his middle-aged friend, his middle-aged friend (whilst being from the same demographic) would be distraught - considering it an utter waste of money. The gifts that bring pleasure or are helpful to those receiving them are those gifts which resonate most strongly with a sense of who that person thinks they are or what they think they are becoming.

So when the (unknown number of) wise men come to Jesus and present their gifts to him, what do the gifts say about who he is and will become? Well, one helpful way of looking at it is this...

All the way down the Old Testament, the three big jobs (the proper term is "offices") which illustrate best who Messiah would be and what he would do when he came were those of king, priest and prophet. And each of the gifts offered are symbolic of those three offices.

1. Gold: The office of a King - 1 Kings 10:21

Gold is symbolic of power and glory. Power because it is rare and valuable, so to have it, you must be powerful. Glory because it is "solid light" and it shines like the sun.

King Solomon reigned at the height of the Israel's power and glory. In fact, you could almost call Solomon an emperor - not because he took an empire by military force, but because nations from all over the known world were behaving like an emperor's vassals and falling over themselves to send tribute to Solomon in the form of all kinds of precious things. So much gold was around at this time, that silver was considered of no value!!

Moreover, when the Queen of Sheba visits him (1 Kings 10), she can't believe how glorious the kingdom is, not only is the kingdom supremely wealthy, but the ruler of the kingdom is wise and has ordered everything in his kingdom in an understanding way such that his people are the happiest of peoples.

2. Incense: The office of a Priest - 1 Samuel 2:28

Incense was burned by priests in worship, both on its own and mixed in with the various food sacrifices. It symbolised the prayers of the righteous wafting up to God. It was forbidden for kings and prophets to burn incense at the altar.

Priests remained in the presence of God at the tabernacle / temple. They drew near to God on behalf of the people, and to people on behalf of God. They brought God "near" to the people by teaching them everything God had commanded them to do and brought the people near to God by offering prayers up to God on their behalf, but also helping them to offer right sacrifices.

3. Myrrh: The office of a Prophet - Matthew 23:30-39

Myrrh was used amongst other things to anoint the dead and is symbolic of death.

Prophets were not based in the temple, they went out into the world as the conscience of the people - they called wandering people and nations back to God by their words and their lives. The problem was that people would usually rather kill them than hear and receive their message. The likelihood was that in the Old Testament, if you were to be a faithful prophet of God, the best you could hope for was to be considered an utter wacko. More likely, you would be exiled or killed.


What can we say of this Jesus who, as a baby, received these three gifts?

1. That he was a king, but as God, he was a different kind of king.

His kingdom and power were not of this world, and so his definitions of power and glory were not either. He used that power to serve, to heal and to restore. The great glory of this kingdom was not to be seen in gold encrusted temples and palaces, but on a twisted wooden cross where love would find its deepest and fullest expression. The Glory of this king and his kingdom continues to flow into the whole creation, for by the power of an indestructible life, this King Jesus reigns and pours our his Holy Spirit into the world. Glory returns to him, but not in the form of gold, silver and precious stones, but in the form of something greater, the souls of men and women who are captivated by his beauty and swear to him their allegiance.

2. That he was a priest, but as God, he was a different kind of priest.

He lived constantly in the conscious presence of his heavenly Father for he himself was the true temple. He not only brought God near by teaching the people how to obey him, but he himself was God deeply desiring to draw near to his people. He would also draw near to God on behalf of the people offering up prayers to God. However, this priest would not teach people how to make food sacrifices to God, instead, he would become their sacrifice. He would not offer the blood of animals to God, but rather his very own blood, and in so doing, not just make people symbolically clean, but actually and thoroughly clean and righteous before God, enabling them to draw near to him, not just once, but for all time.

3. That he was a prophet, but as God, he was a different kind of prophet.

As a prophet he went looking for the lost sheep of Israel, speaking words and living a life that demonstrated the message: "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!" The Lord is looking for those who will worship him in Spirit and Truth. However, he soon ran into opposition from those who saw his teaching and ways as a threat to their established order and after three years of plotting and a sham trial they crucified him. But the blood of this prophet was of a different order and spoke a better word that the blood of all the Old Testament prophets, for instead of calling our for justice to be executed on those who spilled it, this blood called out for their acquittal. Now, instead of bringing words of jusdgment and death, this prophet, speaking from Heaven, speaks words of eternal life, that through his body, the church, flow into the whole creation.

Through Christ and by the power of his Spirit, God has demonstrated his power and his glory, he has drawn near to us, made a way for us to be fit for his presence and sent his words of eternal life out to the ends of the earth to call all those who will hear him.

He has joyfully made his peace with us. Will we receive that peace and reciprocate that joy?

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Consolation of God: An Advent Meditation

At the beginning of the last chapter in the Old Testament, there is a curious little promise:
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 3:1
If you were a devout Jew, like Simeon, living at the time of Jesus' birth, believing the prophecies that God gave to Daniel in Daniel 9 and half decent at doing your seven times tables, then you would be living state of great expectation, that at some point in your lifetime, Messiah, the one enigmatically referred to here as "the messenger of the covenant" could finally appear.

Of course, we modern, progressive "on the right side of history" types tend to write off that kind of apocalyptic number crunching as ridiculous, fictitious Dan Brown style speculation, but for Simeon and others like him, this was a time of taking God at his Word, fasting, praying, waiting, looking and hoping - and they were not disappointed.

So it's no surprise to him that the Holy Spirit - in accordance with what He had had written down hundreds of years ago by Daniel, tells Simeon in Luke 2 to hurry down to the Temple where he will finally see the Lord's Anointed One. Simeon's heart must have been on the verge of bursting open with joy!!  Exactly how the Holy Spirit pointed out which baby Jesus was the baby Jesus, we don't know, since, on any given day there would have been many (possibly hundreds of) babies being dedicated in the temple as it was the only place of dedication for newborns in the whole nation - and Jesus was a common name at that time as Oliver or Mohammed is in ours.

But there's a twist…

You see, every time The Lord Jesus had come to his temple before, it was in a manifestation of great power and glory.  When Moses and Aaron and all the Israelites finished the Tabernacle, (Exodus 40) the Glory of the Lord (an old testament pseudonym for Jesus) came and lived in it - it was his house and his house was in the midst of the camp.  The Son of God drew near and made his dwelling amongst them.

When Solomon finished building the great temple in 1 Kings 8, the same thing happened, the Glory of the Lord (yes, that's Jesus again) was so excited to be with his people, he barely waited for the priests to get out of the Holy Place before he moved in making his house in the midst of the City of God's people - Jerusalem.

But after years of personal and national apostasy and idolatry by the people, the Glory of the Lord, (Jesus again), left his home, the temple.  And like all empty houses, it soon got plundered, ransacked and eventually flattened by invading powers.

And even though God restored the people back to the land gave them great favour with the ruling empire of the day such that this empire bankrolled the reconstruction of the temple, the Glory of the Lord, (you know who by now) never returned to take up residence in it.

So whilst many in the restored kingdom didn't care, to those who were looking in faith to the coming of the Lord, the words of Malachi 3:1 brought great comfort to an otherwise desolate, and seemingly deserted people.

But now, 400 or so years later as Simeon walks into the temple, he doesn't see a glory cloud above the Holy of Holies, he doesn't hear a Voice booming before which he trembles (e.g. Deut. 18:16).  Jesus had finally turned up at the Temple in the way that he promised he would back in the Garden of Eden, as one born of a woman, born not of natural descent or of a husband's will, but born by the power of God (John 1:13)

Jesus is the Consolation of God - Luke 2:25. The word used in Greek that is rendered 'consolation' in our English Bibles describes the kind of thing a mother does when she finds her runaway child who has been set upon by bullies and left in a heap, as she holds the child in her arms she nurses and heals the wounds and strengthen's the child's spirit with her words. (For another example, see Matt 23:37)

The great hope of Christmas is that in all our misery brought on by our own mad and faithless wandering, the Lord has not just drawn near in a glory cloud as of old, but he has united himself eternally to our humanity by becoming one of us, that he might bear and destroy our curse (a bit like this) and with great compassion pardon, cleanse, heal, strengthen, renew, adopt and glorify so that we might become like him. Truly, Isaiah was right:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder
Isaiah 9:2-3.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Anna: An Advent Meditation

In Luke's gospel we're told (chapter 2) that there was a lady called Anna who was a prophetess. Luke goes on:

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.

Now, why should Luke bother to include a mention of this elderly lady? Honestly, what does this add that we don't already get from what Simeon said? Back then ink, paper and copying was an expensive and time consuming business. Is this merely a frivolous little cameo of life in first century Jerusalem? One that makes charismatics go "Hurrah!" and everyone else go "Well she was a bit intense!" Is he ticking his diversity box, making sure every sub-group gets a mention?


Anna's life tells a story that echoes the great story of history. Her story brings that great story into sharper focus and helps us to feel it more keenly. She's a symbol of the Old Testament Church. She is a matured (elderly) Eve.

Back at Eden, in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, Eve, symbolically became a widow. If you read what the LORD says towards the end of the chapter, He has no promises for Adam, all his promise of redemption is addressed to Eve. It is the seed of the woman who will crush the Serpent's head. Adam will not contribute anything. All he gets is judgments. Whilst Adam carries on living, and he will bring forth biological life, his ability to give spiritual life to Eve and through Eve to creation is gone. He is dead and buried as far as Salvation's story goes. (Notice that in Genesis 4. Eve get's all the airtime of the two, Adam is just a detail.)

Eve will hold on to that promise of a serpent crusher miraculously going forth from her womb as she ventures out into the wilderness beyond the temple mountain garden of Eden. Though Adam and Eve were never let back into the garden, they would come to the entrance to offer sacrifice. It's most likely where Cain and Abel offered their famous sacrifices of Genesis 4.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and we see the echo of Eve in the face of Anna the prophetess. Anna was married seven years to a man who then died, echoing the seven days of creation that culminated with Eve's marriage to Adam. He then spiritually died.

Anna, no longer the soft and tight-skinned fresh-faced virgin of Eden, but a tired, wrinkly worn out pensioner, who despite all the trials and temptations, all the joys and sorrows, all the false starts and hopes of life, held fast to God's promise of Messiah all her life long. And even though her eyes were failing and her strength fading, she finally saw the hope that she had long been waiting for when she looked into the face of that baby Jesus.

The Serpent Crusher of her youth was finally here.

True Israel, the Eves, Noahs, Abrahams, Sarahs, Jacobs, Josephs, Moseses, Samuels, Davids and others of the Old Testament who had waited and hoped through times of flood, famine, wealth, slavery, apostasy, warfare and anything else you care to mention, who had seen so many false starts in their people's history, finally in the face of this little baby, saw all their hope culminated.

The Serpent Crusher of their youth was finally here.

This widow would be married once again to a truly life giving husband.