Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Angels' Song

Part 3 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 2:8-14





“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased” (v. 14). 


What Is Christmas All About?

My favourite Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. It begins with Charlie Brown depressed about Christmas. He says to Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Finally, as Charlie Brown is trying to direct a Christmas play, he asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus responds by reciting Luke 2:8-14. [1]

Unlike Charlie Brown, the majority of people in North America know that Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth. But I think most people miss the significance of his birth. Why does the birth of Jesus matter?


Good News! 

There are many surprising parts to the Christmas story. One surprise is that the first people to be told about Jesus’ birth is a group of lowly shepherds. God cares about ordinary people. These shepherds are “keeping watch over their flock by night” (v. 8). Imagine the shepherds’ surprise when “an angel of the Lord appear[s] to them, and the glory of the Lord [shines] around them” (v. 9). As we would expect, “They [are] filled with fear” (v. 9). The angel says to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news” (v. 10). The good news that the angel brings to the shepherds is news “of great joy” (v. 10). [2]

The good news is that a baby has been born in Bethlehem. The angel announces, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11). The good news of Christmas is that a Saviour has been born!


Praise in Heaven, Peace on Earth

After the angel tells the shepherds the good news, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” (v. 13). All of the angels are “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (vv. 13-14). [3] “In the highest” refers to heaven. God in heaven is given glory, and people on earth are given peace. “Those with whom [God] is pleased” are those who have put their trust in Christ as their Savior. Peace “is essentially a synonym for salvation.” [4] We need peace with God.

When we understand what Christmas is all about, we should be filled with praise! The angel had given to the shepherds a “sign”: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). “What is amazing is not that the child is wrapped up, but who the child is and where he is. One hardly expects to find Messiah in an animal room. One would expect a palace…. Messiah’s life will contain an unusual bookend for a king, since he was born in an animal room and will die with robbers.” [5]

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[1] Network executives didn’t want Linus to recite Scripture, thinking that viewers wouldn’t like it. But Charles Schulz was determined to keep the scene in, saying, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”
[2] We could contrast the lasting joy of this good news with the temporary joy that most Christmas presents bring.
[3] This is the third Christmas song in the Gospel of Luke—though it does say that the angels said these words (“saying”). This song is often called the Gloria because Gloria is the first word of the song in the Latin Vulgate.
[4] R. H. Stein, Luke, 109.
[5] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, 219.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Zechariah's Song

Part 2 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 1:67-79




“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (vv. 68-69). 


Leaving Home for Christmas

People like to go home for Christmas. Many popular Christmas songs talking about going home for Christmas. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was originally written to honour soldiers who longed to be home at Christmastime. The BBC actually banned the song in the UK because they feared that the lyrics might lower morale among British troops. [1]

I’ll be home for Christmas 
You can count on me 
Please have snow and mistletoe 
And presents on the tree 

I’ll be home for Christmas 
If only in my dreams 

But Christmas is really about leaving home. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus left home for Christmas. He came to this world to visit us. [2] Jesus traded his throne in heaven for a manger in Bethlehem. He exchanged the praise of angels for the mocking of his enemies. He gave up the glory of heaven for the suffering and shame of the cross.


The Birth of John Foretold

Zechariah is a priest, married to a woman named Elizabeth (v. 5). They have no children. Elizabeth is “barren” and both she and Zechariah are “advanced in years” (v. 6). [3] As Zechariah is serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him. He announces to Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you shall call his name John” (v. 13). He will prepare people for the coming of the Christ (v. 17).

Zechariah doesn’t believe the angel’s news. It’s just too amazing to be true. He says, “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (v. 18). The angel tells him, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20).


Salvation!

Zechariah has been unable to speak for at least nine months! When he’s finally able to speak, he praises God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (v. 68). [4] Zechariah praises God for three things God will do through the Christ (i.e., Jesus). He uses the past tense because he’s certain that God will do these things: “He has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (vv. 68-69). [5]

How would God visit us? Later in the song, Zechariah declares that “the sunrise shall visit us from on high” (v. 78). “The sunrise” refers to Jesus who would “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (v. 79). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light shone” (Isa. 9:2; cf. 60:1-2; Mal. 4:2). God would visit us through the coming of Jesus to earth! [6]

How would God redeem us? When the Jews would think of redemption, they would think of their deliverance from Egypt. They has been slaves, and God freed them. In Zechariah’s day, the Jews were looking for a new exodus. They were looking for freedom from the Romans. But Zechariah was looking for more than political redemption. He was also looking for spiritual redemption because he says that his son would “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (v. 77). Freedom from sin is our greatest need, though most people don’t understand this. God would redeem us through the death and resurrection of Jesus!

How would God raise up “a horn of salvation” for us? A horn is a symbol of power (e.g., the horn of a wild ox as mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:17). “The LORD is…the horn of my salvation” (Ps. 18:2). The phrase “raised up” is often used in the OT of God putting a person in a special position (e.g., a king). In Hannah’s prayer, she says God will “give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10). Jesus is the King of kings. God would raise up “a horn of salvation” through the salvation achieved by Jesus!


Saved to Serve

Salvation has come to us because of God’s remembrance, his faithfulness to his covenant, and his mercy (v. 72). The main characters in Luke 1:57-80 are Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, and Jesus. Zechariah means “Yahweh has remembered.” Elizabeth means “My God has sworn.” John means “Yahweh is merciful.” Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” The truth of verse 72 is summed up in the names. Coincidence? I think not!

“The essence of worship is responsiveness to God’s demands.” [7] If we, like Zechariah, are praising God, we should be willing to serve him. (What if I praise my wife for how great she is but refuse to help her out?)

God saves us to serve. God wants us to serve him “all our days” (v. 75; cf. Eph. 2:8-10). God saved us by serving us! [8] As God chose to save us because he loves us, we should choose to serve him because we love him.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas
[2] See Luke 1:68, 78.
[3] I don’t know how old you need to be in order to be considered “advanced in years,” but I’m sure Zechariah and Elizabeth are well past the age of thinking about having children.
[4] Zechariah’s song is known as the Benedictus because Benedictus (“Blessed”) is the first word of the song in the Latin Vulgate.
[5] These words are prophetic: “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,” v. 67). The prophecy of Scripture is certain to be fulfilled.
[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, 178.
[7] Ibid., 186.
[8] See Phil. 2:7.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mary's Song

Part 1 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 1:46-55




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 be blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (vv. 46-49).


Christmas Is a Time for Music

A few years ago while jogging in my neighbourhood, I found a record collection on the side of the road. I took the records home and kept the ones I liked best. I actually didn’t own a record player at the time, but two years ago Marsha gave me one for Christmas. My favourite Christmas albums are Elvis’ Christmas Album, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. They say that there’s nothing like the sound of music on a record player.

 
In the Gospel of Luke, there are four Christmas songs: Mary’s song (1:46-55), Zechariah’s song (1:68-79), the angels’ song (2:14), and Simeon’s song (2:29-32). [1] Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat. [2] In our current sermon series “The Original Christmas Playlist,” we’re going to take a look at each of these four songs.


A Song of Praise

Mary’s song is a song of praise. [3] Mary’s praise comes from her “soul” (v. 46) and her “spirit” (v. 47). It comes from deep inside her. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Ps. 103:1). God isn’t interested in praise that doesn’t come from our hearts. God said that the people of the prophet Isaiah’s day “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13).

Mary “magnifies the Lord” (v. 46). To magnify means to enlarge (like a magnifying glass enlarges an object). Mary wanted an enlarged vision of God. We should regularly stop to think about how big God is. He is “mighty” (v. 49) beyond description!

Mary calls God her “Savior.” She might have been thinking that the birth of the Messiah would result in the deliverance of Israel from the Romans. But Mary’s son would bring a different kind of deliverance. The angel Gabriel had told Mary to name her baby “Jesus” (v. 31). Why the name Jesus? “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).


A Gracious God

Mary praises God because “he has looked on the humble estate [i.e., the low status] of his servant” (v. 48). This implies that he has shown her grace. Isn’t it amazing that God looks on us? (We think it amazing if some celebrity notices us.)

Mary is a nobody from nowhere. She isn’t yet married, so she’s probably a young teenager—maybe 15. And she lives in Nazareth—a small town with a population of no more than 2,000 people. Luke states that Nazareth is a “city of Galilee” (v.26) perhaps because no one would know what it was otherwise. Years later, when Nathanael is told that Jesus is from Nazareth, he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Mary acknowledges that she is blessed because of God’s grace. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). God has “exalted those of humble estate” (v. 52). Reversal of fortunes is one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke (e.g., the thief on the cross). Jesus “humbled himself” (Phil. 2:8) by dying on a cross for us. But then was “exalted” (Phil. 2:9).

Mary says, “Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48). Why will people call her blessed? Mary declares, “For he who is mighty has done great things for me” (v. 49). Mary would not be remembered today unless God had shown her grace. What would life be like without God’s grace?


God Has Done Great Things for Us!

“He who is mighty has done great things for me.” We need to be careful because “sometimes even our worship of God can be somewhat self-centered, as if the really important thing is what God has done for us. We need to look beyond this to see God as he is in himself, and to praise him for being God. Then, when we speak about what God has done for us—as we should—it will be more about him and less about us.” [4]

Each one of us should sing our own Magnificat because the mighty God has done great things for us!

In the book of Isaiah, the child to be born (i.e., the Messiah) would be called “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). The mighty God became a man to die for us! In an amazing act of grace, Jesus came to serve us—nobodies!

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[1] The opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke are sort of like a Christmas musical.
[2] In Latin, the first word of the song is Magnificat (“magnifies”).
[3] Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1-10).
[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, vol.1, 47.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Long Until the End?

Part 8 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 12




“How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). 


How Long?

This time of year, children often ask the question, “How many days until Christmas?” We are often like impatient children, asking God, “How long?” “How long?” is actually a common question in the Bible.

  • “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). 
  • “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from [my enemies’] destruction, my precious life from lions” (Ps. 35:17). 
  • “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Hab. 1:2). 
  • “[The martyrs in heaven] cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). 

At the conclusion of Daniel’s visions, the question is asked, “How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). We believe that God is sovereign. The end will come when God decides it will happen. In Daniel 12, we see how God answers the question, “How long until the end?”


The End Will Come 

When people are experiencing suffering, they naturally ask “How long?” How much longer until this is over? Daniel is told that there is be “a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (v. 1). Many Christians believe this refers (at least in part) to a time of great tribulation prior to the second coming of Jesus. [1] Though the suffering will be great, Daniel is promised that “[his] people will be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (v. 1). 

The end will come. And when it comes, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (v. 2). This is “the first and only Old Testament reference to double resurrection.” [2] This is our hope! God’s people will live happily ever after!

Daniel is told that up until the time of the end, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (v. 4). [3] Knowledge will be abundant, but wisdom will be scarce. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above” (v. 3). If we desire to be raised “to everlasting life” we must believe “the word of the cross” which is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Before the end comes (either to our lives or this age), we must put our trust in Christ. This is true wisdom.


Go Your Way

Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book until the time of the end” (v. 4). In ancient times, scribes would make two copies of a document: one would be sealed for posterity, and the other would be open for the public. [4]

Then the question is asked, “How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). This is a question we all ask. Daniel is given a time period of “1,290 days” (v. 11). And then he is told, “Go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days” (v. 13). We might not know exactly what the period of 1,290 days means, [5] but it indicates that God has determined an exact time when the end will come. Like Daniel we are to “go [our] own way till the end” (v. 13), trusting that God is in control. Until the end, I need to do the good that God’s word tells me to do.


How Much Longer, Dad? 

My kids often ask, “How much longer, Dad?” Sometimes I try to get creative when I answer them. (“It’s going to be about three episodes of [their favourite TV show].”) But sometimes I don’t know how long it’s going to be.

I don’t know how long until the end, but I do know that God is in control. It’s not my job to worry when the end might come. God has decided when the end will come. I need to trust that he will do what is right according to his perfect wisdom.

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[1] This “time of trouble” probably refers both to the past time of trouble (during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and a future time of trouble (before the second coming).
[2] Tremper Longman III, Daniel, 272.
[3] “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine in the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:12).
[4] See Jeremiah 32:9-12.
[5] A period of 1,290 days is about three and a half years (“a time, times, and half a time,” v. 7), perhaps referring to half of a seven-year tribulation. Seven years might be symbolic of a complete time of tribulation.