THE SHEPHERDS’ STORY

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20221218 The Shepherds’ Story

Luke 2:8-21 NET

Last week, we put on our congregation’s annual Christmas play. While we were observing the spectacle of all the angels, sheep, shepherds, wise men, and the odd King Herod, I was struck by the reality that this story has been told so often by so many. This is not a story that will die unnoticed. If the Lord gives us another thousand years to testify of his grace and to share his gospel, we will be telling the story of the Bethlehem shepherds even then.

Why do we tell this story? What is the significance of the fact that angels visited shepherds that night, and that the shepherds visited Mary and Joseph and saw a little boy asleep in a manger? Those are the questions that I want to address this morning.

Dr. Luke himself told us part of the answer when he introduced his biography. He told his friend Theophilus that “many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:1-3). He did this so that Theophilus would “know for certain” the things he was taught (1:4). All of the stories in the Bible are there for us to read, to listen to, to study — so that we can understand what God wants us to know.

God chose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on the good news (8-10).

8 Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people:

Suppose you were living in the town of Bethlem back then. What if you had a letter with important news in it. Would you give that letter to a shepherd? No, you would not. You have to understand something about shepherds in first-century Palestine. The shepherds were considered the lowest of the low. Because they had to keep watch over their sheep 24/7, they did not participate in any religious activities. They didn’t attend worship in the local synagogues. Because they did not participate in religious activities, they were considered unholy. Shepherding was not considered a noble profession — far from it.

Luke tells us that this group of shepherds was nearby — that is, nearby the town of Bethlehem. They were not in the town, they lived out in the field where the sheep were. They camped out with the animals. If they had business in town, people could see them coming a mile away. They could probably smell them coming two miles away.

Because of the nature of their work, and how they had to perform it, shepherds were not the most trusted. Even though king David himself had been a shepherd, there were no shepherd politicians in Bethlehem in the first century. So, my question is, why would God choose to reveal his good news to these shepherds. Why did he choose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on that good news?

He chose them because they were lowly. He chose Zechariah and Elizabeth because they were old. He chose Mary because she was a virgin. He chose Joseph because he was a mere builder. God chooses to bless the poor to show us that his gospel is for everyone.

The angel who appears to the shepherds tells them that he has good news that can bring great joy to all the people. I want you to stop and think about that phrase “all the people.” Notice how comprehensive that phrase is. It includes everyone you will ever meet. It includes millions and billions of people you will never meet. You will not be able to reach all the people. But you can reach some. The shepherds were not able to reach all the people. But they tried to reach as many as they could.

Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves (11-16).

11 Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.”
16 So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger.

The shepherds did not immediately begin telling the inhabitants of Bethlehem about the presence of the newborn king. Notice the three things the angels said about this infant. They said he was the Savior. They said he was the Christ. They said he was the Lord.

Two of those terms were very familiar to everyone living in Bethlehem — in fact, everyone in the whole Roman empire. Caesar Augustus used the title Savior (Greek, Soter) of himself. He also used the title, Lord. People were used to saying “Caesar is Lord.” So, the titles Savior and Lord were political statements. They were slogans that identified the people who said them as political rebels, and traitors against the established government.

But these titles were even worse than that. Each of these titles was a religious designation.

Listen to Psalm 65:5. “You answer our prayers by performing awesome acts of deliverance, O God, our savior. All the ends of the earth trust in you, as well as those living across the wide seas.” This angel did not use the name, Jesus. That had been revealed by Gabriel earlier. Jesus in Hebrew is Yeshua — short for Yehoshua — and means Yahveh is salvation. Established religion had taught that God alone is the savior. So, to call this baby the Savior is to say that he had a unique standing before God.

The title Christ was even more specific. It was the Greek term that corresponded to the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed one. It was a political term as well, but one that specifically identified the hope of a Jewish deliverer who would overthrow God’s enemies and rescue the Jews.

The title Lord was so specifically religious that when the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they used the term Lord (Greek Kurios) in place of the name of God.

What I am saying is that before these shepherds go spouting off all these things about a newborn, they had to see if it was true themselves. Is this child all that the angel had said about him? They went to see him. Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves. They saw him, and just seeing him was enough.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to tell the world about who Jesus really is. Don’t try to do this without coming to Jesus yourself. You need an experience with Jesus before you can tell anyone about who he is. You need a relationship before you can be a witness.

The shepherds’ ministry was testimony and worship (17-21).

17 When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child,
18 and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said.
19 But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.
20 So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.
21 At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Once they saw that baby in the manger, they believed everything that they had been told about him. Their experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They did not have to go to Sunday School for twenty years in order to share their faith in Christ. They didn’t need to go to Bible college and seminary. All it took was one look.

As a result of their experience with Christ, they set out to share the good news of his existence with everyone in the town. It did not matter that they were low on the totem pole. Their status as lowly shepherds was irrelevant. They were not in Bethlehem to draw attention to themselves. Their message was all about that boy. That boy in the manger was the Savior. He is the Christ. He is the Lord.

The shepherds’ job was to get the message out. They related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. Luke does not say that everyone in Bethlehem believed what the shepherds told them. No doubt, some did believe. But the mission of the shepherds was to get the word out. The same is true of you and me. Our mission is to get the word out. Some will believe because of what we say. Others will not. Our task is to testify.

Notice that the shepherds ministered to Mary. They shared their testimony about Christ with her, and she pondered their words and added them to her own experience. Their testimony helped her to understand what the Lord was doing in her life.

The shepherds testified but they also did something else. On their way back to the fields, they were glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. These lowly shepherds, who could not participate in worship in the synagogues because of their job — were now worshiping God. They not only got the message of the gospel out to others, but that message changed them.

The message of the gospel is designed to change us as well. We come to Jesus because of something someone else has said about him. We meet Jesus and discover that what the witness has said is true. But when we return to our fields, we discover that we are different people. We might keep on watching our flocks by night, but we do so with a praise song that wasn’t there before.

The shepherds’ story is our story.

MARY’S STORY

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Mary’s Story

Luke 1:26-55; 2:1-7

It had been five months since Zechariah had been interrupted at work by the angel Gabriel. He had not been able to speak since then.

The same angel who had visited Zechariah, also visited Mary (26-27).

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

The engagement of Mary and Joseph was a legally binding contract. If Joseph had died that year, Mary would have been a widow. God had a wonderful surprise in store for this young woman.

Mary’s first response was fear (28-29).

28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!”
29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting.

Many today are confused about the meaning of this greeting as well. They think it is a statement about Mary’s unique qualification to give birth to God’s Son. In fact, it was God’s favor — his grace that qualified Mary. It is that same grace that God offers to us. We have no reason to fear this good news.

Mary had not asked the same question that Zechariah had. She asked how what was predicted was going to happen since she was not in a physical relationship with Joseph yet. The angel’s answer: the Holy Spirit will do this. Mary (in essence) said, “sign me up.” If God is in this, I will sell myself to him to do his will. That is what faith sounds like.

Let’s compare the two angelic announcement stories. Look at what the angel had told Joseph:

“But as he thought about these things, see, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what has happened to her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21 JDV)

Joseph was told that Jesus would be a savior, but Mary was told that he would be a king. Joseph was encouraged to stay engaged to Mary because the Holy Spirit had been the source of her pregnancy. Mary was encouraged to not fear her situation because her pregnancy was not a disgrace, but a result of her being a recipient of God’s favor. Both had been told to name him Jesus, because he is the one who can rescue, and the one who will reign. He can deliver those who look to him for rescue, and his kingdom is the only one that will last forever.

But Gabriel’s explained that he had good news about Jesus (30-33).

30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God!
31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

The good news of Christmas is Christ himself. He is God’s gift to all of us. Have you opened that present?

Gabriel answered her question and gave evidence for his prophecy (34-37).

34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age — although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month!
37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Elizabeth was the evidence Gabriel gave to verify his promise. The Jews said that it takes three people to have a baby: the mother, the father, and the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age was proof that the Holy Spirit was present in her life. Now, Mary needs to only recognize that the Holy Spirit is all she needs for the miracle to happen.

Mary accepted his word and investigated further (38-45)

38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah,
40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb!
43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me?
44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

John the Baptist’s first testimony of Christ took place while he was still in the uterus. Mary had gone to investigate the evidence that the angel had put forth. She found his words to have been true. The angel had told Zechariah that his son would be filled from the Holy Spirit from his mother’s uterus. Now, Elizabeth proclaims a prophecy coming from him while he is still en utero. She passes on a prophecy that John communicated via a kick.

Mary prophesied and praised God for his blessing (46-55).

46 And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord,
47 and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
48 because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
50 from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
55 as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This Magnificat of Mary was a prophetic word from the LORD about what he has done and is doing. Mary could have chosen to be a criticizing soul or a lamenting soul. She had lots of reasons to be those things. But she chose to be a celebrating soul. She looked beyond the temporary inconvenience and potential shame, and confusion. She chose to believe that God was calling her to a status of permanent blessedness and joy. She took hold of that joy and started celebrating.

Mary blessed the world by giving birth to its Savior (2:1-7)

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes.
2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

The census was politics at work, but God used it as a means to accomplish his will. She who had been blessed brought forth the blessing. God did not ask her to save the world. He simply called on her to do her part and let him do the rest.

God moved the mind of the emperor to make a royal command, and that was why Joseph went to Bethlehem. And, God sent an angel. And, God moved a prophet to predict it. And, God enabled Joseph and Mary to travel. Many circumstances conspired to bring that young couple to Bethlehem so that Mary could give birth to Jesus at that place, on that day.

As we look back on our lives, we also can see the hand of God at work in the commands of men, and the coincidences of life. He is sovereign and active.

ZECHARIAH’S STORY

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20221204

Zechariah’s Story

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

During this month I plan to share the Chrismas stories — not the ones written by Charles Dickens or sung by Gene Autry. No, I want us to go back to the Christmas stories written by Dr. Luke. When the Holy Spirit moved him to write his Gospel, he consulted a number of witnesses to the events of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection.

Today’s story is that of Zechariah. We don’t know whether Luke interviewed Zechariah himself. He probably got his information about Zechariah from Mary, who was related to Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth. Zechariah’s story is not directly about the birth of Christ. It’s about the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. But when we tell our children and grandchildren about Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, the angels, the wise men, and the baby in the manger, we often include this story, and rightfully so.

Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because it was one of unfulfilled faithfulness(5-7).

5 During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and he had a wife named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 7 But they did not have a child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old together, faithfully doing the work assigned to them, but Christmas had never come for them. As a priest, Zechariah served many families with many children, but he never had the happiness of raising a child himself. He and Elizabeth went year after year watching other families enjoy the wonderful process of physical and spiritual growth in their children. But they always watched others, never experiencing the joy themselves.

No doubt some people wondered if Zechariah of Elizabeth had been guilty of some secret sin that kept her barren and them both unfulfilled. But they knew that they had been faithful, “both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” But they were old now, and well past their “use by” date.

Politically, it didn’t seem like God was doing much for Israel. They were still under the domination of the Roman empire, and Caesar insulted Judea by making a foreigner their king. Herod was an Idumean. He was a puppet of Rome — a man so cruel he had to order a large group killed on the day of his death so that there would be mourning. It had been a long time since Judea had been ruled by one of David’s descendants. It didn’t seem like Christmas was coming for the nation either. But it was.

Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because his date with destiny finally came (8-11).

8 Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense. 10 Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him.

There were so many priests at that time that they had divided themselves into 24 groups and took turns officiating at the temple. Zechariah had probably made the trip to Jerusalem many times. He had no reason to believe that this time was going to be any different than the others. He had never seen Gabriel before.

Incense was a symbol of prayer. We are told that outside there was a crowd of people interceding as Zechariah presented the incense inside. Everybody was praying, but we don’t know how many were actually expecting anything to happen. Zechariah was probably praying for his nation. After all, he was a priest, and that was part of his job. He was busy at work, and he liked being busy at work because it took his mind off his personal sadness. It is just at that very point in time — “too late” — when God chose to bless old Zechariah.

But Zechariah’s blessing came with tremendous responsibility (12-17).

12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”

The name Gabriel is a lot scarier in Hebrew than it is in English. A Geber is a young, strong man, the kind of man who is fit for battle. Gabriel was God’s soldier, who stands guard in the presence of Almighty God. Anyone who saw this angel would naturally be visibly shaken and seized with fear.

But thankfully, the news Gabriel comes to share that day was good news. His prayers would be answered, and he was going to have a son. Finally, he would have the chance to experience the joy and gladness that he had only witnessed in others in the past. Elizabeth was going to bear a son — and not just a son. He would be a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord. He would be one of the few — the proud — the Nazarites. They take a vow never to drink alcohol, and he would take that vow.

John would be his name because he would be a sign to everyone that Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The phrase in Greek is ek kolias — from the uterus. This was fulfilled literally because when Elizabeth met Mary, John jumped inside her. So, if anybody wants to argue with you about what the initial evidence of being filled with the Spirit is, just take them to Luke 1:41.

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”

John recognized his Savior even before he was born. He gave his mother a kick, and She was filled with the Spirit too. He dedicated his life to turning many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He served as “forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”

It was Zechariah’s responsibility to raise that young man for that tremendous task. To whom much is given, much is required. That’s how God’s gifts work. When Christmas comes for us, we are blessed. Then we are responsible for blessing others.

Even though he was blessed, Zechariah struggled with unbelief (18-25).

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” 19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” 21 Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place. 22 When he came out, he was not able to speak to them. They realized that he had seen a vision in the holy place because he was making signs to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was over, he went to his home. 24 After some time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.”

Zechariah was tempted to do what Gideon did — to test God to see whether or not he would be faithful to his promise. He misunderstood the story of Gideon. God did allow Gideon to ask for proof, and he gave him the proof. But Zechariah did not need any more proof than what he was going to be given — the child himself.

Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be silent until his words would be fulfilled.

Zechariah overcame the consequences of his unbelief (57-66).

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother replied, “No! He must be named John.” 61 They said to her, “But none of your relatives bears this name.” 62 So they made signs to the baby’s father, inquiring what he wanted to name his son. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 64 Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 All their neighbors were filled with fear, and throughout the entire hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. 66 All who heard these things kept them in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the Lord’s hand was indeed with him.

When the time finally came, Zechariah and Elizabeth were both able to proclaim that God had been gracious to them. They did it by naming their son Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. Zechariah’s unbelief had resulted in his being temporarily unable to speak. He had lost the opportunity to brag about the boy. You better believe that they both made up for that lost time after he was born.

Zechariah’s experience led to praise for God (67-75).

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. 69 For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 He has done this to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant — 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants 74 that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.

Zechariah understood that whatever role John would have, it was just the beginning. The Messiah was coming, and God’s salvation was coming with him. He praised God not just for what he had done, but also for what he was going to do. You and I need to learn the same lesson. It is one thing to praise God for our personal salvation, bought by the blood of Christ. But we also need to catch a glimpse of the fact that our story is just part of the bigger story. Our blessing is part of the bigger blessing of a people redeemed for eternity and a new creation.

This section is also remarkable in that it mirrors many of the kinds of prayers that Zechariah and the other priests would have prayed in the temple. But with one difference. These words are prayers turned into praises. It is not “God, come help” but “God has come to help.” It is not “God raise up a leader from the house of David” but “he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

Zechariah’s experience also led to prophecy about his son (76-80).

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80 And the child kept growing and becoming strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.

All those months while Zechariah was unable to speak, he was preparing to announce this prophecy that the Lord gave him about John. The dawn of a new day was coming, and John was to prepare his people for that dawn.

John the Evangelist wrote about this in his Gospel. He said “A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-9).

When I read the story of Zechariah, it comforts me by reminding me that no matter how long I have waited for God to answer my prayers, he has not forgotten them. Even if I have had moments of unbelief, I know that one day I will testify that God has been gracious. No matter how long we wait, it is never too late. Christmas is coming. The dawn of a new age has come, and someday Christ himself will come. He will right every wrong, and answer every prayer. He will make all things new. Until that happens, our only job is to remain faithful, even if our desires are not yet fulfilled. We learn to do that from Zechariah’s story.

the battling seeds

the battling seeds

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An Advent meditation excerpted from “Christ as the Seed of the Woman” by Daniel Moore, in Meditations for Advent, 1884.

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt
bruise his heel. ” — Genesis. 3:15.
“That through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil .” — Hebrews. 2:14.

“The two seeds are severally contending for empire: and neither can have a throne, except on the overthrow and destruction of the other. The Seed of the woman avowed this to be His purpose from all eternity. To this end came He into the world, -to crush, to break, to overturn, to abolish. “For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

“See a fulfillment of the prophecy which has respect to the bruising of the “ heel” of Messiah, in the wounds, and scars, and stripes, which Christ was to endure in His lower nature. These began with His life and only ended with His life. From the first day of our Lord’s manifestation, the seed of the serpent began to contrive against Him his deadly plots. First, Herod was set on destroying the child Jesus in infancy. On commencing His public ministry, the Holy One has to sustain those forty days’ fierce encounter in the wilderness. On coming to His own city Nazareth, the maddened populace is stirred up by Satan to “cast Him down headlong” from the brow of the hill. (Luke 4:29). And, in all the subsequent trials and insults, endured by the Blessed Saviour, we see the work of the subtle serpent of evil, devising new plots and agencies to bruise and distress the human soul of Christ. He moved Herod to mock, Pilate to scourge, and the priests to revile, and the rabble to shout. He was with the false witnesses who accused, and the apostate disciple who betrayed, with the thief who cast railing in His teeth, and with the heartless soldier who pierced His side. Yes, behind all this machinery of evil did Satan plant himself. Mistaken, short-sighted, utterly suicidal as his policy was, it originated in that sentence promise of Paradise. It was so “written in the bond.” Our salvation had been an imperfect thing without it. All that was mortal in the Incarnate One, all that was capable of suffering, all that belonged to the nature which He had assumed, was to be bruised, insulted, dishonored, shamed. Hunger pinched Him. Thirst distressed Him. Fatigue wearied Him. Pain rent His limbs, and anguish cast down His soul. Oh! it was indeed the sharpness of the serpent’s tooth He felt, when, out of the deep agony of His spirit, He cried out: “ Father, save me from this hour.” But instantly the thought occurred: “For this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27). The Scripture had said that thus it must be: “Thou shalt bruise His heel. But then, blessed be God, the Scripture had also said: “It shall bruise thy head. “And here the triumph of Divine mercy culminates. The two parts of the sentence are found to be correlative: that is to say, it is the very bruising of the heel of Messiah, that leads to the crushing of the head of the serpent. For how stood the case? The head of Satan, that wherein his great strength lies, consists in his having the power of death, — a death of which the sting is sin, and the strength is a violated law. But the bruised heel of Christ has rendered both of these powerless. His submission to all the experiences of the Incarnation was a perfect satisfaction to all the demands of the law, and His death upon the cross provided an infinite propitiation for all sin. Hence, as the Apostle argues in his Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ has purchased salvation for every man by tasting death for every man. By making His righteousness ours, and our sin His, He casts in His lot with us. “For both He that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one :(Hebrews 2:11). He has made us one, says the Apostle, to this end, “that through death,” that is, His own death, ” He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Here, then, we have the prophetic promise,— the sentence-blessing laid out in its complete fulfillment. Satan is allowed to bruise the heel of Messiah, but meanwhile, and in the very act of submitting to this bruising, Christ is Himself bruising Satan in his most vital part. He is casting out the god of this world. He is destroying him that had the power of death.

FRUIT INSPECTION

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FRUIT INSPECTION

Matthew 7:15-20 NET

15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.

Today’s actual command from Jesus is translated by the words “watch out” in the NET version. Other translations say “beware” or “be on your guard.” Jesus had used that word already in his sermon on the mount when he told his apostles to be careful not to display their righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise, they would have no reward with their Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). In that passage, he was warning them that what they wanted to happen could be blocked if they did something with the wrong motive.

In this passage, Jesus warned his apostles that false prophets would come (15a).

I want to stop here and note that if Jesus is saying that false prophets would come, he is admitting that there would also be true prophets. If Jesus had meant to say that there would be no true prophets, then he would not have given his instruction this way. If he had intended to say that the Holy Spirit would cease revealing God’s will through prophets in the generation after he ascended, then his instruction to test the prophets would be useless.

What I am saying is that Jesus implied the ministry and function of prophecy would continue into the church age. He said himself that he had not come to abolish the prophets (Matthew 5:17). We need to stop and let that sink in because one of the ways people have misapplied Jesus’ words here is to essentially dismiss all prophecy as illegitimate. Jesus is saying the opposite. He’s saying that throughout the church age, there will be a mixture of both true and false prophets within the visible church community.

The Holy Spirit will continue to give believers in our congregations the gift of prophecy. Paul told the Corinthians “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things” (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). So, as long as the Holy Spirit stays down here with us, we can expect him to provide individuals within our congregations who have prophetic gifts.

Another thing that I have to note here is what a prophetic gift is. We are used to thinking of prophecy as foretelling the future. A person with a prophetic gift may reveal something about the future, but that is not his or her primary responsibility. Prophecy as defined by the Old Testament prophets is less about predicting the future, and more about revealing what God wants in the present. A prophet is a spokesperson for God.

We can also get help by comparing the function of a prophet with that of a priest. A priest serves as an intermediary between human beings and God. A prophet serves as an intermediary between God and human beings. The priest serves God on behalf of the people. A prophet communicates with the people on behalf of God.

So, a false prophet in today’s context is someone who claims to speak for God, yet says things that did not originate from heaven. That person is either deceived and passes along the deception without realizing it, or that person is intentionally misrepresenting his or her words as coming from God when they are not.

Last week I mentioned that these false prophets are leaders of the easy way. They look like genuine men and women of God. These false prophets are a problem because they will appear within the visible church. If they actually represented other religions, we would not be tempted to listen to them. But they will come to us in sheep’s clothing. Some will actually be convinced that they are true believers.

Jesus warned his apostles — and all of us who follow Christ after them — to watch out for those false prophets.

He warned them to look beyond outward appearance (15b).

Those false prophets will come to us in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are voracious wolves. Jesus warned us that we would not have to travel to Tibet and climb Mount Everest to find these false prophets. We won’t have to come to them, they will come to us. They will infiltrate our congregational meetings, our Bible studies, and our prayer meetings.

Also, they are not going to be wearing Nazi uniforms, or t-shirts that say “false prophet.” They are going to look like us. In our study of 1 John in Sunday School, we encountered this verse: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us” (1 John 2:19). John was speaking of an entire cult group that was at first part of the visible congregations of believers, but broke away from them and started their own separate groups. One of the purposes of false prophets is to do that: to teach false doctrine within a group of Christians and lead them astray so that they split from the true believers and start an alternative group.

Jesus is telling us to look beyond the visible appearance because that is not going to be proof as to whether someone is a true prophet or a false prophet. They will appear harmless like a sheep but inwardly they are voracious wolves. They will look like they want to just fit in and get along with everybody. But their purpose will be to divide and destroy.

In that context, Jesus told them to inspect the fruit the teaching produced (16-18).

He switched metaphors on us. He said we will recognize them by their fruit. Sheep and wolves don’t produce fruit, but trees do. The leaders of the easy way will look like any other tree of the orchard, but the fruit they bear will be bad. The lives of those they lead will be disobedient and ungodly. That is how they can be recognized. The promoters of the easy way will end in destruction – by fire. The people who follow them will suffer the same fate. They will have built their houses on the wrong foundation, and it is only a matter of time in a world of rain, floods, and winds before such shoddy workmanship will be revealed.

What I am hearing Jesus say is that we should be careful to assume that everyone who appears to be a Christian is actually a genuine Christian. Some who appear to be true will eventually prove themselves false. We will discover the false from the true by looking at the lives of their listeners.

Now, I have to admit that it’s very difficult to engage in that kind of fruit inspection, and it seems to me that very little of it is being done. It is much easier to choose to follow another person’s spiritual leadership based on criteria that are easier to recognize — like denominational loyalty, or the size of the last group they lead. It’s easier to judge them on the basis of how they appeal to you subjectively — like giving them the thumbs up because they appear young enough to be healthy or old enough to be mature. Or, maybe they look like a preacher you enjoyed before. Or, maybe they don’t.

But we have to go beyond the visible and the subjective. Jesus commands us to perform fruit inspection here. We have to choose to follow leaders who produce disciples of Jesus Christ. We have to ignore the attributes of the flesh and concentrate on evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul taught that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Not one of those divine qualities can be identified by looking at a photograph. You have to look beyond the surface for good fruit.

This is another example of the fact that you have to realize what the context is, or else you might think Jesus is contradicting himself. Remember, that in the context of teaching us to love our enemies, Jesus told us not to judge them. But now he is talking about the false prophets who are going to appear among us, and he is telling us to judge them. He says we will recognize them by their fruit. That means we have to be on the lookout for signs of bad fruit. Bad fruit has rot spots. Bad fruit smells off. Bad fruit attracts fruit flies. Anyone working in the produce department at the grocery store is going to recognize that bad fruit and discard it.

In the same way, Jesus taught that we should endorse some teachers, and reject others (19-20).

He said that every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. It sounds like Jesus is talking about hell, here. I hope he is not. If he’s talking about hell, then we would have to wait for judgment day to find out who the false prophets are. That would not make sense, because Jesus has already told us that we would recognize them by their fruit. He didn’t say that we would recognize them on judgment day when he separates the sheep from the goats — or the wolves. No, I think Jesus is telling us that there will be a way for us to recognize the bad fruit and reject those teachers that produce it. Conversely, we will be able to recognize the good fruit and endorse those teachers that produce it.

In other words, our fruit inspection can work. Let me share with you two qualifications of an accurate fruit inspector. The first qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to be familiar with good fruit. A fruit inspector needs to know what makes fruit good, and what happens when it is bad. For you and me, that means we have to know the kind of fruit Jesus wants us to produce. We know this by focusing on the commands of Christ!

The second qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to know the environment that produces and keeps a crop of good fruit. When you open a package that is supposed to be grapes, but it’s raisins instead, you know that the fruit has been exposed to the wrong environment. For you and me, that means that we have to have a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit within us can help us to recognize the Holy Spirit’s fruit in others.

Jesus’ command for today is to WATCH OUT for false prophets. They are among us, and their disciples are among us. It is not always going to be easy to spot these false prophets by the things they say. We need to be sensitive to the bad fruit — the results of the false teachings. The best way to inspect someone else’s fruit is to be fully aware of what good fruit is like. To do that, we need to produce good fruit ourselves.