Saturday, December 19, 2015

Traveling to the Hill Country

Traveling the Hill Country                                                   12/20/15

Micah 5:2-5, Luke 1:39-46


Background to Micah Reading:

          --his name means:  Who is like God?

          --prophesies during the Late 700’s, includes predictions of

                   Fall of Samaria in 722, and judgment of the people

                   during Hezekiah’s rule in 700.

          --3 Eras of Prophets:  Assyria, Babylon, Persia

          --Other Assyrian era prophets:  Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah

          --His 3:12 prophesy is quoted by people defending Jeremiah


During Advent, we remember two comings, that first coming of Jesus, when he was born in a cave outside of Bethlehem, as well as the second coming of Jesus, at the end of the age, when he reveals himself as King of kings and Lord of lords, glorious and One with the Father.

Bethlehem was a small city in the Hill Country of Judah, about 5 miles outside of Jerusalem.  Its original name was Ephrathah, given to it in the time of Jacob, with its meaning “fruitful”.  Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.  How fitting that the place where the Bread of Life was born was named the House of Bread, the place where the Vine of Life was born was named Fruitful.

Micah proclaims that it is this small clan of Bethlehem out of which the Messiah will proceed.  It is out of smallness that the ultimate power of God will come.  Strength comes not from the big city of Jerusalem, but rather, the small town of Bethlehem.

The Messiah’s lineage can be traced to this small town.  Bethlehem will be exalted because out of it is born the Savior.  The Messiah from Bethlehem will rule over Israel, and his origins are from eternity.  The modern translation says “from of old, from ancient times”, but it really means ‘before the creation’, and the same exact phrase is used in Proverbs 8:22-23, when wisdom proceeds to humanity from eternity.

C.F. Keil reminds us “man is bound to time and in his mode of thought, can only picture eternity as time without end”
(Keil, Commentary on the OT:  Minor Prophets.  Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.  1982.  pg. 480)
Eternity is not only time without end, but also time without beginning.  The Messiah that is comes out of Bethlehem is from eternity.

The Messiah enters human history by way of the small town of Bethlehem.

One thousand years before the Messiah came by way of this small town, a young shepherd named David watched over the fields outside Bethlehem.  He was destined to Jerusalem, anointed King by Samuel after being called in from the fields.

Bethlehem was on the highway.  It was a popular stop on the way to Egypt, and to the ancient city of Hebron.  There was an Inn there.  No, really, there was.

And there was also a cave outside the Inn.  This cave was used as a stable.

The Messiah would come to rule the world, by way of Bethlehem.  The Messiah would shepherd his people with strength.  The sheep would be secure.  The Shepherds greatness would reach the ends of the earth.  The Shepherd would be their peace.

The Messiah is from the family line of David the King.  David could not fulfill God’s justice, though he did love God with all of his heart.  The Messiah would come to rule the world; with truth and grace.  He would be our peace.


The teenaged Mary meets older Elizabeth in the hill country.  She endured the difficult travel to meet her relative.  Elizabeth praises Mary, for being chosen by God, and for believing in God’s word and God’s promise.

Mary was blessed to be the mother of the Messiah. She was blessed because she believed what the Lord had said to her, and that the Lord, the Strong Shepherd of his people, had the power to do what he said.

Mary and Elizabeth become models for our faith.  Elizabeth, and John the Baptist growing within her, are filled with the Holy Spirit when they encounter Jesus.   They proclaim with loud voice the wonders of God, the blessing of living in his ways, and she blesses Mary.  Mary is a model because she trusts in God. She remains humble and glorifies the Lord, not herself.

Mary traveled to the Hill Country.  We too, travel there.  Hill Country provides several images for our faith:  hills are not without slippery slopes, and have an element of danger to them.  Their heights offer perspective, and a deep sense of beauty.  You need stamina to climb the hills.

As Christians, our lives, when lived faithfully, are not without potential difficulty and danger.  Christian faith does provide perspective and a sense of beauty not offered by godlessness and faithlessness.  And you do need to be strong to be a Christian, it requires endurance, perseverance, and courage.

Those who have faith enough to travel to the Hill country will meet Jesus Christ there.  Jesus’ birth and death, take place in the Hill Country.  The defining moments of human history take place on a hill.

Long ago, the hills surrounding Bethlehem hosted sheep, and shepherds, like David.  The hills watched throughout the generations as travelers passed by.  The hills welcomed the Messiah as he was born in that little town of Bethlehem.  The House of Bread gave the bread of life to the world.


Some 300 years after the life of Christ, a famous Christian named Jerome spent the last 30 years of his life in Bethlehem.  Living in a cave cell for most of that time, Jerome wrote extensively, including the Latin Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Scripture. He also served as a priest to a small number of followers there.  It is delightful to think that one of the church’s most important scholars had journeyed to many places and important cities throughout the world before traveling to the hill country of Bethlehem, to write near the place of his Lord’s birth.

Like Jerome, we should go to the place of Christ’s birth.  It is this wondrous story that leads us to salvation.

Like Jerome, we must spend time interacting with the Word of God, in human flesh Jesus, and in print, the Bible.  This word has the power to save and transform all human life, as well as all life throughout the cosmos.

Like Jerome, we should seek to understand God’s word in such a way that we can also translate to the common person.  Are we pointing people to the bread of life?  Do we walk alongside friend and neighbor and co-worker in order to point them to the Hill Country, where they too might seek and find Jesus Christ?

Are we traveling the Hill Country?  If so, we too will see and know the Messiah, Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, King of kings, Lord of Lords.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mountains and Valleys: 2nd Week of Advent

Mountains and Valleys                                               12/6/15

Isaiah 40:1-5, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11

Slavery.  Freedom.   Look to your left and right, and each one stands opposed, both calling to you.
It is easy to say we would look to freedom, and easily choose her.  But the story of God’s people reminds us it isn’t always that simple. 

When faced with hunger, on the road to freedom, Israel recalled supposed ‘better days’.  The people recalled that in Egypt, “we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted” (Exodus 16:3).

God had provided his strong salvation in the Exodus story.  God’s mighty voice spoke through Moses, “Let my people go”.  The people left their slavery behind, and started the journey.  When brought to the Red Sea, with the repentant Pharoah having sent his army to right his wrong, God parted the sea, and sent the people on their way.  Egypt was judged.

It would be wonderful, if the Israelites had simply crossed and entered their new state of freedom. But in their preparing work, the false security of slavery beckoned with its reconstruction of the past:  You had all the food you needed, where are you traveling to?  Why not come back?

God had hoped the people would rely on his promise to bring them home.  If nothing else, the fire by night and the cloud by day should have served as a reminder that God would provide.

The people, in the wilderness, decided on a third option.  Recalling the supposed security that slavery had provided them, and not yet in the land of promise, Israel chooses to stay.  Israel chooses the wilderness. 

God’s offer of smooth paths, milk and honey, and a land for children and children’s children was rejected, for the wilderness.

Essentially, God, in his anger at the disobedience and shortsightedness of the people, gives them what they want.  They want wilderness?  You’ll get it.  None of the generation that led their children on the road to freedom would enter the land.

The New Testament Letter called Hebrews interprets this decision to choose wilderness:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,

    though for forty years they saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. 15 As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.”

16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
(Hebrews 3:7-19)


The wilderness ways have continued throughout history, and we find ourselves still traveling through the wilderness, having found it comfortable enough even to make our spiritual home in the wilderness.  From the wilderness, we see two dominant features within the landscape:  We look around, and see mountains and valleys.  It is our God who calls to them to make way for the Lord.  We are to prepare a path for the coming of the King.

And while we might imagine the scenery and loftiness of the mountains, where hiking to stunning views sounds positive, mountains in Scripture spoke of boundary (they separated people from people), and idolatry (the mountains were used to offer the sacrifices to idols).  The Psalmist says:  I look to the mountains, does my help come from them, no, my help comes from the Lord (Psalm 121:1)

The valleys hold within them the floods and the fallen rocks.  The valley becomes symbolic of the anger and bitterness that stays in our life when we don’t send it away.  It stays with us, and keeps us from the path of the Lord.  

But rather than looking at what seems insurmountable, or being kept down by what has come to us, the Scripture invites a different way:


Prepare the way for the LORD.

In the wilderness make the highway out.

The straight path called for by God makes way for God, for movement, and for the glory of the Lord to be revealed, so that all mankind together will see the glory of God.


Scripture teaches us of one who understood the voice of one calling:  John the Baptist:


How did John the Baptist prepare the way for the LORD?


John is first mentioned following a list of several rulers of different layers of the Roman government.  Some of these names sound familiar to us, others have been dismissed by time.  But all human government is bound by time, and the rule of men is but second when standing against the eternal authority of God Almighty.  These names, the names that we are familiar with in our time, they don’t last:  the rule of men does not last.


It is after these names are listed, because they do provide historical context, that we find the Word of God making its way to John.  This is why it is important that we know John.  He has been lifted out of the fading, futile rule of men, in order to announce the reign and realm of God Almighty.


John is given an identity that resonates with us: John is identified as son of Zechariah, not citizen of Rome


It is while in the desert that God’s word comes to John.  He was in the desert, and from there, went out into all the country


--preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins

--he challenged decision makers to share

--he challenged tax collectors to simply do their job

--he challenged soldiers to stop extorting and accusing, and to be content.

--He pointed people to the Way, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We find ourselves in a situation not that different than John the Baptist.


Like John the Baptist, we should be preaching repentance:  someone uses the name of the Lord in vain.  Do we say something?  After all, Jesus is our Lord, his name is important to us.  “excuse me, but the name you just took in vain is important to me, and I ask that you would chose different words to express your frustration”.  You are inviting someone to repent.


Like John the Baptist, we should be challenging decision makers to share:

You could write a letter to forsake to your congressman inviting our nation to forsake the sins of the fathers when it comes to helping those in dire situations.  I watched with fascination this week the PBS documentary: Roosevelt:  An Intimate History.  There was a section at the end of episode 5 which told of America’s hesitation to welcome jewish brothers and sisters who requested asylum from Nazi germany.  Though the historical contexts are different, should not we welcome Syrian refugees, especially mothers and children?

Like John the Baptist, we should encourage people to do their jobs.  Perhaps there is someone who might feel down, you can come alongside of them and encourage them to be diligent, and do their job.

Like John the Baptist, we should call people not to steal, but to be honest.

Like John the Baptist, we should point people to Jesus Christ:  This Christmas season, you could invite someone distracted or overwhelmed by the less important things of holiday season, and point them to the better gift of a grace-filled and simple life, and the best gift of Jesus Christ


Philippians:  How do we help prepare the way for the LORD?

 Thanking God for his goodness, the people we have had chance to walk alongside

To pray with joy because of how the gospel is at work, and when we are doing our job as a church—we are promoting the gospel.

To be assured of God’s completing work.

To have one another in our hearts, as we defend the gospel, regardless of circumstance

To long for what the LORD longs for.

That our love for one another may abound, and become more knowledgeable, have more depth of insight  (love isn’t just a feeling, it is a way of life, with a familiarity of the loved one based on knowledge)

To discern what is best

To be pure and blameless until the day that Jesus comes again.

To be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes from Jesus.

To give glory and praise to God.

Today’s candle points us to peace.  Peace essentially means wholeness.  The wilderness can’t provide us peace, so let’s not choose to live there, when God calls us to his promise.  Living simply and boldly provides peace, John the Baptist modeled that to us.  And praying for the church, and loving our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, that should bring us peace too.