Re-post: Reflections on God’s Marvelous City

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)The following is a refreshed version of a piece I published in October 2009.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 RSV).

The holy city referred to here is neither gleaming office towers nor decayed inner city. It doesn’t belong to the ancient world buried beneath sand dunes or to the modern world often clouded by the haze of pollution.

It isn’t marked by human genius nor scarred by human depravity. Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is The City of God.

Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their building and organizational skills have come to a peak in the building of modern cities.

Ancient Petra and Babylon, and modern San Francisco, Toronto, London, Atlanta — these highly developed communities proclaim across history the genius of their creators.

Yet ancient cities have fallen one-by-one, sacked by enemies, corrupted by inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history. It is possible the same will happen to modern cities.

The Bible has a complex or complicated attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and also wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it.

It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it was known as well for its stoning of the prophets.

Then this city that God had uniquely honoured, Jerusalem, had demonstrated the peak of human pride in rejecting his Son.

While the Bible begins its story of man in a garden, it ends in a city, “the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

The vision of this special holy city, given to John on the Isle of Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation speaks of its splendor.

This last book of the Bible communicates in what some have called cartoon language. For example, in our times a cartoonist, to represent tensions between Russia and China, might simply sketch out a picture of a bear being threatened by a red dragon.

The Book of Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem.

The message we are intended to get is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it “the Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26), and “our commonwealth . . . in heaven” (Php. 3:20) RSV).

It is the city toward which Abraham was ultimately heading, “the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10 NEB). It represents the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many cities of man are under a cloud, if not a cloud heavy with sulphur dioxide as in some cases, then a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb or even the death of throngs by a murderous truck driver.

To many “lost” people it’s a place of physical decay and human despair, or even a kind of hell without flames. Yet, many leaders keep a proud silence about God and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed people in its dirty streets. Will he do less for God’s people?  And they, in turn for others?

Everywhere there are needs that compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians help relieve such problems.

But, here’s the paradox. Christians serve best with compassion in the city of man when we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.


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Is God’s Mercy Really Boundless?

If you know someone who thinks their sin history is so dark that they are beyond God’s mercy, suggest to them that they ponder the story of King Manasseh of Judah (2 Chronicles 33).

Manasseh was the most wicked of the kings in the lineage of King David.

God had declared that his own name, Jehovah, would endure in Jerusalem forever but Manasseh wantonly defiled his holy temple there. He built pagan altars in the courts of the temple for the worship of all the “starry hosts,” and he covered the land with altars to Baal, the fertility god of Judah’s neighbors.

Following the practices of heathen nations, Manasseh sacrificed his sons in a monstrous religious rite, burning them in the valley of Ben Hinnom.

Here’s the chronicler’s summary of the extent of his evil: Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites (2 Chronicles 33:9).

The nation followed Manasseh’s lead and God’s anger was provoked. As punishment, Jerusalem fell to the Assyrian forces, and they captured Manasseh, put a ring in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles, and took him far away to Babylon.

Eventually, an unexpected word came from that distant land. The chronicler tells us, In his distress, [Manasseh] sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers (2 Chronicles 33:12).

He had been so wantonly wicked that one might expect the Lord’s response to his entreaties would be: You’ve crossed the line of no return. There’s no hope for you!

Instead, the chronicler writes: And when [Manasseh] prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God (2 Chronicles 33:13).

The Lord’s mercy to Manasseh was boundless, beyond our comprehension.

For Christians, such incomprehensible mercy points us to Jesus. He was the lamb slain from the foundations of the world (Revelation 13:8) so that his sacrificial death might pay the penalty for the sins of the world from Adam forward. God’s wrath against sin was appeased and, at the same time, God’s mercy towards the penitent was displayed. As Charles Wesley wrote centuries later:

He breaks the power of canceled sin

He sets the prisoner free;

His blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

Upon Manasseh’s return to Jerusalem after his release from Babylon the forgiven king took up the hard work of undoing his previous evil and setting Judah in order. He got rid of the heathen idols, destroyed their altars, and improved the protection of his people. He also spoke out as God’s man and exhorted the people of Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel (2 Chronicles 33:16).

Was Manasseh a rare case of undeserved mercy? When God gives the most sinful of us a glimpse of our sin history and we humble ourselves like Manasseh did, his boundless mercy is given and his grace sets us on a new course.

What is the sign that Manasseh’s mercy was received? With a new heart and hands he worked to undo wrongs he had committed and to live henceforth under the sovereign rule of Judah’s God.

 

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How Joseph Struggled over Mary’s Pregnancy and How God Comforted Him

Luke tells the Advent story from the perspective of Mary the Virgin (Luke 1:26 – 38). Matthew gives greater attention to the way Joseph got the information and how he dealt with it (Matthew 2:18 – 25).

Joseph was engaged to marry Mary. Engagement in first century Israel was like a first phase of marriage, and much more binding than it is today.

When a man and woman were pledged to marry, their engagement was sealed by a public ceremony. Matthew gives us a sense of the firmness of the relationship between engagement and marriage: First he writes that Mary “was pledged to be married to Joseph (v.18). But in the next verse, though nothing has changed, he refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband (v.19).

Moreover, to break an engagement required the signing of divorce papers. And if the male should die during the engagement his pledged bride was regarded in society as a widow.

Then at the appointed time (sometimes after time allotted for the groom to build a house) the marriage itself would be celebrated with a flourish and the husband would take his bride into his home where the marriage would be consummated.

Imagine Joseph’s shock when word reached him that during their engagement Mary was found to be pregnant. Questions must have raced through his mind. There are indications that he struggled with the question: How shall I cancel my sacred pledge? 

To characterize Joseph, Matthew uses only one descriptive word: He was a “righteous” man. That meant he was a serious practicing Jew; a respecter of God’s law; a religious man set on doing God’s will. Society would not likely have looked down upon him if he had divorced Mary in a very public and humiliating way.

But his righteous character had a compassionate counterbalance. Though profoundly disappointed, his love for Mary was protective. He decided he would divorce her quietly so as to cause her as little humiliation as possible.

At that point, an angel appeared to him in a dream to help him through his quandary.

The angel addressed him as Joseph, son of David — David being Israel’s most honored King from whose line the Messiah was expected to come to Israel. 

The angel said, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus (meaning Jehovah the helper) because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew adds the following words from the prophecies of Isaiah made 700 years earlier: A virgin shall conceive and the son she bears will be called Immanuel — God with us (Isaiah 7:14).

Jehovah the helper? God with us? Joseph would need those words. There were to be hard days ahead as he took Mary into his house to live out the pregnancy. Though the community would not understand, he was resolute both as a righteous man and Mary’s protector.

His name shall be Jesus! That’s what the angel announced. He will be Immanuel — God with us!  That’s what the prophet Isaiah prophesied!

Advent brings home to us afresh those words. In the birth of Jesus through the agency of the Holy Spirit and the obedience of Joseph and Mary God came into the human family. In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is with his people to this day. And to this day he has the power to save us from our sins.

Jesus! God with us! Savior! Oh blessed Christmas!

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Let Advent Heighten Our Love for the Gospel

It’s the longest book in the New Testament, written by the only Gentile contributor to that sacred collection. Some would say it is also the most beautiful literary work found there.

Luke, a long-time companion of the Apostle Paul (Acts 16:10-11), is its author, and he is a first century doctor by profession (Colossians 4:.10-11.14).

But in our skeptical times, critics question the trustworthiness of Luke’s claims. Are they real history? Confidence in his message has loosened its hold even on some believers.

Luke almost seems to anticipate our skepticism. And so, he begins his message with the longest sentence in the New Testament, carefully crafted to lay the groundwork for everything he wants to say.

To help you feel the seriousness of what he claims I’m going to break down that original sentence into several even shorter sentences as follows:

(To Theophilus, to whom he is writing): Remarkable things have happened among us. Many have believed and attempted to draw up an account of these events. Their accounts were handed down to us by people who were first-hand witnesses. They were people who gave themselves to spreading the word. Not just they but I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning. I feel compelled to write an orderly account of it all. This is for you, most excellent Theophilus. You have already had basic teaching of the faith. But my purpose is to be sure you feel the certainty of what you have been taught.

Theophilus may have been a Roman government official and a relatively new convert to the faith. Here, in his Gospel account, Luke goes to great lengths to enrich his faith by giving him a fuller grounding in the historical facts and claims of Our Lord Jesus Christ as his diligent investigation has uncovered them.

Here, I want to point out the first and last miracles Luke reports.

The first miracle, recorded nowhere else in the New Testament, has to do with an elderly priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, both of them from Israel’s priestly line. They were childless and while Zechariah was ministering in the temple the angel Gabriel came to him and announced that, in spite of their great age, he and Elizabeth would have a son, to be named John.

In spite of Zechariah’s great piety, he did not believe Gabriel’s message, and for that disbelief he was rendered speechless for several months until after the promised miracle was fulfilled. The son born to them became none other than John the Baptist.

The second miracle is the one with which Luke closes his Gospel (Luke 22-24). It is the greatest miracle ever — Jesus’ resurrection! Although he suffered disfiguring brutality brought about by Israel’s religious rulers and carried out by his Roman executioners, nevertheless, on the third day he was raised from death as promised in the freshness and vigor of resurrected life.

In the telling of these two miracles after careful investigation — the miraculous conception of the herald of Jesus’ coming, John the Baptist, and the astonishing resurrection of Jesus — Luke is faithful to his declared purpose. He has done his research.

To be blessed by his account it remains for us to read his report with eyes of faith, embrace it, rejoice over it, and sing again the song of personal resurrection promised every believer.

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Consider Jesus at Twelve

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by WIlliam Holman Hunt, 1860. Public Domain.

In our culture we don’t make much of the age twelve.

Sixteen is important because at that age a person becomes eligible to learn and be licensed to drive a car.

In Canada and the United States eighteen brings the right to vote. And twenty-one has long been considered the age of maturity.

Each is an important year, but not twelve. However, it was different in Jesus’ Jewish culture.

St. Luke tells us in detail about the birth of Jesus including the wonders that attended it. Then he skips to age 30, when Jesus’ public ministry began.

The years between Jesus’ infancy and the beginning of his ministry are sometimes called the silent years.

St. Luke breaks into that silence to report one important event in Jesus’ life when he was only twelve.

For background, Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, were serious practitioners of the faith of Israel. For example, they brought the baby Jesus to the temple to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life, as prescribed by Jewish law.

As well, they were apparently competent and committed parents since Luke tells us in passing that Jesus was obedient not only to his Heavenly Father but also to his earthly parents.

Also, during Jesus’ times a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” at the age of twelve. That is, a boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah.

At that ceremony the lad would begin his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” — old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts.

In Jesus’ times, a twelve-year-old could also attend his first Passover in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph took pains to make this happen, and Luke reports the event.

When Jesus’ first Passover was over and his parents had begun the long trek north to Nazareth he lingered behind, in Jerusalem, talking to the teachers in the temple.

His distressed parents had to turn from their journey and go back to search for him. When they found him in the temple and expressed their distress he responded, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”

Was this Jesus’ first awareness of his purpose on earth? His surprising response makes it seem so — “my Father’s business.”

The consciousness of his divine assignment must have grown for in the later full stride of his ministry he was accepting of titles such as Savior, Redeemer, Master, Lord, and the very God incarnate — “he who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Think of it: all this was possible at twelve years of age — a rich knowledge of God’s law and an awakening awareness of God as his Father in a unique way!

It makes one think more seriously of the capacity a twelve-year-old can have for religious knowledge, spiritual understanding, and the experience of the living God!

And, as well, like Mary and Joseph, think of the accountability of today’s parents to the demanding spiritual task of laying a Christian foundation for their children’s lives.

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The Fruit of Our Faith May Live on Past Our Lifetime

Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli, ca. 1665. By Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Public Domain

Elkanah, a man in ancient Israel, had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had sons and daughters, but Hannah, Elkanah’s favorite, lived with the intense emotional pain of childlessness.

Back then, married women were expected to produce children. Otherwise, people wondered what they might have done to invite God’s disfavor. Childlessness brought anguish and humiliation.

Peninnah, the second wife, was particularly cruel to Hannah. She scorned her to her face and made snide comments and stinging verbal jabs at every opportunity.

Elkanah tried to console Hannah. He asked her, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” This reassurance did not ease her sadness.

Each year, Elkanah, Hannah, Peninnah, and her children would travel to a place called Shiloh, to worship. At one of their visits Peninnah’s abuse was particularly disturbing. During one mealtime Hannah wept, left her food uneaten, and went to the tabernacle nearby to pray. She would pour out her distress to Jehovah.

“Jehovah,” she prayed, “if you will look with mercy upon me and give me a son, I’ll return him to you for all the days of his life . . .”

The aged priest, Eli, sitting nearby, saw her lips moving but heard no audible voice as she prayed. He rebuked her, thinking she was drunk. She corrected him, and he blessed her.

Returning to the table she had left, she ate and her spirits lifted. She believed that the Almighty God of Israel had heard her prayers and that he would answer them.

In time, the special son, Samuel, was born. And so, in keeping with her promise, soon after little Samuel was weaned she surrendered him to the care and training of Eli for temple service “all the days of his life.”

Every Sunday School child has heard the outcome of Hannah’s vow to Jehovah: Samuel grew up and became a prophet and Israel’s last and finest judge. He served the nation with integrity and two books of the Old Testament carry his name. His long life of service was exceptional.

Hannah, on the other hand, is named in only two chapters of the Old Testament. But her story will never be forgotten. In a way that may have been little-noticed at the time, the fruit of her faith made a great contribution to the unfolding story of redemption, and for that we honor her memory. To this day, many women carry her name.

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Re-post: Questions for Mary, the Mother of Our Lord

Saint Luke tells with amazing brevity the story of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary: she is miraculously to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s response, her subsequent visit with cousin Elizabeth, and her beautiful song of worship, are all recorded with few words (Luke 1:26-56).

But, when the news broke, were responses in family and community as completely serene as the account would suggest?

After all, how could such an announcement fail to land with jarring impact first on her parents, then on Joseph, to whom she was pledged to be married, and then on the town of Nazareth where she lived?

Here are some questions Luke, the physician, does not answer.

How did Mary’s mother find out about her virgin daughter’s angel-announced pregnancy? Did Mary tell her? If so, what was her immediate response? Imagine the response today if a teenaged girl should say to her mother, “An angel appeared to me yesterday and told me I’m going to have a baby without any man’s involvement.” Would she just say, “Fine,” and go on emptying the dishwasher? And how did her father take the news?

Then there’s Joseph, the man she’s pledged to marry. How did he find out? Matthew tells us that, so far as Joseph was concerned, Mary “was found to be with child. . . .” Did her parents tell Joseph? Or did Mary?

We know that, however he got the news, at first he was downright upset. His immediate impulse was to break the engagement (actually to divorce her according to Jewish customs at the time). But he would do so as quietly as possible so as not to subject her to public disgrace.

Was Mary in anguish during that time over what his decision would be? An angel had to appear to Joseph in a dream to settle him down. He then took Mary into his home though they were not intimate, Matthew tells us, until after the baby was born. (Matt. 1:18-25).

Then I’m curious especially about Mary’s trip to be with her aged cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56). It is likely that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, lived in Hebron, a town some distance south of Jerusalem.

The distance from Nazareth to Hebron could have been 80 miles or more. How does this carefully chaperoned young woman (according to the customs of the times) get from her home to that distant place? One assumes she walked, as all poor people did back then.

Going straight south, she would have to travel through the hostile territory of Samaria. If not, to avoid this course she may have crossed the Jordan south of Lake Galilee and traveled along the eastern side to another crossing near the Jericho. From there, there would be a long upward climb to Jerusalem, perhaps for 15 miles, and then still a good stretch of travel further south to reach Hebron.

So, did her father go with her? Or was she sent in a caravan of travelers? And, where did she stay overnight on the three- or four-day trip? There were no Holiday Inns.

Then, after three months with Elizabeth, she returned to her home town, Nazareth. How did the community respond? Her pregnancy would then be in its second trimester. So, when her mother sent her to the well for water and she carried the vessel on her head, did her peers snicker behind their hands as she passed by? If so, how did Mary deal with such scorn?

I believe Luke, the careful historian, would have known the answers to these questions. He says (Luke in 1:3) his research had been thorough. Years later he may have visited with Mary in Ephesus where the Apostle John is said to have taken her to live. If so, he would have had the details firsthand.

Then, why does he leave such information out? It must be because he isn’t writing a novelette to portray human conflict and struggle. He’s writing a chapter in the story of redemption. He’s reporting on the Virgin Mary’s willingness to be the servant of The Almighty in bringing into the world a Messiah. Joy is the dominant note.

Only later, a man named Simeon, a devout worshiper of God, prophecies to her that later in her life her suffering will be great as a part of this mission (Luke 2:35).

So, what does all this say about Mary? There’s no trace in the gospel accounts that Mary was to be worshiped, or even treated as in any way unique from the rest of humanity. She is simply a deeply devout young Jewish girl who has kept herself pure, and is selected by the Almighty to be the bearer of the Messiah. She is immediately willing to carry that burden.

We can’t answer the many questions Luke’s story makes us want to ask. But, during Advent, Mary, the virgin, should be held up as a model for purity and openness to God’s will for service to Him. Her response to Gabriel’s announcement rings down the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept anything he wants. May everything you have said come true” (Luke 1:39 NLT).


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