Alleluia

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Revelation 21-22

What makes for a happy ending?

Let me suggest four factors:  The good guys win.  The bad guys get their just deserts.  There’s a wedding.  And you finish on a song.

There’s something immensely uplifting about a story that wraps up with this kind of victory.  But the bible claims that history is headed towards just such a conclusion.

In Revelation 19 we see all these elements:

The Good Guys Win

In verse 6 we learn what it is that heaven and earth will sing:

Alleluia:  for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

This verse might be familiar to you from Handel’s Messiah – it’s the most repeated line of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.  (Hallelujah is just another way of spelling Alleluia).  It celebrates the day when God will be the only power reigning in the world.  No more evil, death, curse, sickness or sin.  The Lord God Almighty will rule in unopposed glory.

Perhaps when you thought of “the good guys” you thought of someone else.  But the bible insists that the future belongs to the Almighty Father, ruling through His Christ by the power of His Spirit.  They are the “good guys”.  In fact, they are the only “good guys”.  Everyone else is either with them or against them.  But the future belongs to God.

The Bad Guys Get Their Just Deserts

A key part of the future celebrations will be the justice of God’s final judgement.  We will sing with gusto:

“true and righteous are his judgments.”  (verse 2)

And His judgements will burn against the devil and his servants:

“these [are] cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.” (verse 20)

Brimstone was an old word for sulphur.  We have thought previously about “fire and brimstone”.  We’ve noted how many people seem to fear “fire and brimstone” preaching more than “fire and brimstone” itself.  Yet the bible insists there is an eternal judgement for the devil and for all who follow him.  The bible does not conceal this, it celebrates it.

In the fairytales and the films we cheer when the wicked get their comeuppance.  In the same way, Scripture says that when Jesus returns His people will cheer as Satan and his followers are judged.

But notice this:  In an ultimate sense, the human race isn’t either the good guys or the bad guys.  The ultimate division is between God and the devil.

Yet there are those who end up on God’s side, and there are those who end up on the devil’s side.  Therefore the vital issue is this, How do we ensure we’re with the good guys?

That’s what the next element answers…

The Wedding

“Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.  And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.”  (Revelation 19:7-8)

Have you ever wondered why all happy endings include a wedding?  Why are our stories about the guy and the girl finally getting together?  The Bible says that all of history is headed towards a wedding.  Our future hope is a cosmic marriage feast where we will celebrate the union of Jesus and His people.

In the verses above, Jesus is described as “the Lamb” because He is the great Sacrifice who died for our sins.  And His people are called “his wife” because they are united to Him as in a marriage.  This is the key to whether we end up with God or not:  Are we united to Jesus?

When my wife and I got married we said these vows to each other:

“All that I am I give to you
And all that I have I share with you.”

This provoked sniggers in the congregation since everyone knew we were broke.  Essentially we were pledging to merge our debts!

With Jesus and us, it’s very different.  We are in debt.  Colossally so.  Our sins are more than we can ever pay off.  But Jesus is rich – royally rich.  And here’s what happens when we unite to Him:  He takes our debts and we get His riches.

This is why Jesus died as our Lamb.  He died to absorb all our debts – all our sins – and to pay them off in full.  Now He can turn to us and say,

“All that I am I give to you
And all that I have I share with you.”

All His royal status and connections, all His royal inheritance, all His riches become ours in an instant.  That’s why Revelation 19 speaks of Christ’s people being “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white.”  None of us deserve to wear white, we are naturally unclean through our sin.  But on the ultimate wedding day and in the presence of God, Christ’s people will wear dazzling white.  Those who say “I will” to Jesus instantly receive His riches, i.e. His righteousness.  Jesus takes our filth and gives us His purity.  For free and forever.

This is the good news.  The Handsome Prince marries the girl in the gutter and instantly she goes from rags to riches.

This is how we can have our own happy ending.  It’s how we cross over from the “bad guys” to the “good guys”.  We cannot buy our way into this Family.  No amount of good deeds will earn such a future.  But anyone who says “I will” to Jesus marries into the ultimate Royal Family.  They cross over from rags to riches, from the bad guys to the good guys and from a tragic ending to an eternal inheritance.

Which leaves only one response…

Singing

Four times in this chapter the people cry out in a loud voice, “Alleluia.”  It’s a Hebrew word that means “Praise the LORD.”  And this is what we are built for – celebration, singing and praise.

When an artist has delivered a spine-tingling performance, when your team lifts the trophy, when the concert of a lifetime concludes on a rousing crescendo, we rise to our feet and pour forth praise.  It’s ecstatic.  And it’s where creation is headed.  Under God, this world is straining ahead on tip-toes towards the Hallelujah Chorus.

When Jesus returns, His people will shout for joy because on that day the good guys win, the bad guys get their comeuppance and we celebrate the ultimate wedding.  We won’t just sing.  We won’t be able to stop ourselves singing.

Spend a moment anticipating this glorious future:

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)

However your year has ended, and whatever the next year holds, be assured:  the people of Jesus are headed for an almighty and eternal Alleluia.

So then, have a very Happy New Year!

Armageddon

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Revelation 16:12-21; 19:1-21

Armageddon is well known in our culture as the “final battle” for the future of the planet.  But the way people imagine this battle differs greatly from the biblical reality.

According to Hollywood, “Armageddon” is a special effects punch-up where the outcome is doubtful right up to the last minute.  According to the Bible, “Armageddon” is all build-up and no follow-through.  It’s a case of “first round, first minute” for the good guys!

Before we consider it, we’ll set the scene in the book of Revelation.  If you like, you can skip the outline below, but it shows some of my “working” for why I consider “Armageddon” the way that I do…

Outline of Revelation

In Chapter 1: John sees a vision of the risen Christ.

In Chapters 2-3:  Christ addresses seven churches.

In Chapters 4-5: As a slain Lamb, the Son approaches the enthroned Father and takes the scroll from His hand – here are the title deeds to creation.

Then we have the largest section of Revelation: from chapter 6 to chapter 20.  This shows the unravelling of the scroll.  Jesus, the Lamb, unfolds God’s history.  These chapters show us the history of the world from Christ’s first coming until His second.

And so chapters 21-22 show us God’s new world – the new heavens and new earth.  This is the ultimate “happily ever after”.

Most people think of Revelation as a book about the future, yet the great majority of the book tells us about the present. What we see in chapters 6-20 are are 7 action replays of this history from different angles.  So we see…

Chapter 6: The opening of the seven seals.

Chapter 8-11: The blowing of the seven trumpets.

Chapters 12-14: We meet the unholy trinity:  the Dragon (Satan), the Beast and the False Prophet (his earthly intermediaries).  We also meet the anti-church: Babylon.

Chapters 15-16:  The pouring out of the seven bowls of judgement.

Then we see the defeat of the four evil forces…

Chapters 17-18: The destruction of Babylon (the false church)

Chapter 19: The destruction of the Beast and the False prophet.

Chapter 20: The destruction of Satan.

Armageddon

Some may not agree with my outline, but it seems clear to me that these are not seven consecutive scenes of judgement.  Here are seven “action replays” of the same reality viewed from different angles.

One of the reasons I take this view is because of “Armageddon”.  There are three final “punch-ups” narrated in Revelation.  They correspond to the defeat of Babylon, the defeat of the Beast and False Prophet and the defeat of Satan.  Either God fails to eradicate evil twice but gets it right on the third attempt, or all three descriptions are true descriptions of “the end.”

If that’s right, then the “Armageddon” passage is one of three angles on the same last battle.  See if you can spot the common theme in all three tellings:

[They were gathered] to the battle of that great day of God Almighty…. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.  (Revelation 16:14-17)

And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him.  (Revelation 19:19-20)

Satan shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.  And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.  (Revelation 20:7-10)

Did you notice the common theme?  There is a menacing build up followed by a complete non-event of a conclusion.  There’s stockpiling of weapons, there’s amassing of troops, there’s sabre-rattling.  But the minute God’s had enough – it’s over.  There’s a knockout punch before the bell has sounded.

Evil is not an equal and opposite force which gives God a run for His money.  As we saw with “the bottomless pit” – darkness is no match for light.  Emptiness is no match for fullness.

Do you worry about the future?  Does it seem like the darkness will win?

Take heart, the Lamb wins.  When push really does come to shove, Armageddon is no contest!

Bottomless pit

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Revelation 11:1-12:17

The word in Greek is “Abyss.”  Jerome’s Vulgate left it untranslated.  John Wycliffe rendered it “the pit of depnesse”.  But it’s been William Tyndale’s turn of phrase that has endured: “bottomless pit”!  Rightly, the KJV decided it could not improve on Tyndale.  The phrase occurs seven times, all in the book of Revelation (where sevens abound!).  Take this representative example:

They had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. (Revelation 9:11)

The sense of the “bottomless pit” (or “abyss”) is an unbounded chaos.  Infinite emptiness. An immeasurable depth.  Limitless nothingness.  This place of destruction and corruption is highlighted at the beginning and end of the Bible.

In the opening verses of Scripture we read about a void opened up in the creation of heaven and earth:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  (Genesis 1:1-2)

“The deep” is the Abyss.  And its presence is felt in the second verse of the Bible!

God, having created a reality beyond Himself, is faced, not with a mere extension of His divine being, but with something distinct from Himself. God is light but here is darkness.  God is full but here is an emptiness.

This is not to suggest that such a realm is evil the fall is yet future.  But in His good creation, there is something beyond God which needs enlightening and filling full.  This is what the work of creation involves.  Over the six days God forms and then fills the universe, acting redemptively upon what is, by nature, “without form and void”.

God separates light from darkness and sea from dry land. He divides and adjudicates – “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further” (Job 38:11).  God’s creative work is all about undoing the abyss. He brings light, fullness and form – bounding the boundless.

Yet somehow there is a sphere that stands against the spreading goodness of God.  There is an abyss.  And when evil enters the world, the abyss becomes a natural hiding place from the Light of the world.

This realm of evil does not stand on an alternative foundation.  The only true foundation can be the living God.   No, God’s enemies have nothing to stand on.  Their realm is groundless – a bottomless pit.

Think about this negative reality.  The realm of evil is not an equal and opposite kingdom.  It is darkness, somehow resisting God’s radiant light.  It is a boundless emptiness, somehow resisting God’s glory filling the earth.  It is rebellion without a cause.

Sin and evil have no ultimate foundation, no reasons, no footing.  They are madness.  Those swallowed by the bottomless pit can only keep falling.  Think of the tragedy: it’s one kind of death to fall far – it’s another to fall forever.

What hope is there in the face of this abyss?

Paul writes to the Romans to tell them that we have no hope against the powers of darkness.  None of us can ascend to heaven and none of us can plumb the bottomless pit.  But Christ has come down from the heights.  And He has risen from the abyss:

Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)  Or, Who shall descend into the deep [the abyss]? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)  (Romans 10:6-7)

We don’t have to climb up to heaven and we don’t have to climb out of the bottomless pit.  Christ has done it all.  He is the Radiant Light of the Father.  He is the Spreading Goodness of God.  And He has come to plunder Satan’s house (Mark 3:27).  He has entered into our darkness and risen to bring us home.

We cannot reason with evil – it’s insanity.  We cannot climb out of the bottomless pit – there is no footing.  But Christ has done it all.  We need only trust Him and He’ll turn our pit to paradise:

If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.  (Romans 10:9)

Alpha and Omega

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Revelation 1:1-20

What is the book of Revelation?  Christian psychedelia?  Religio-political prognostication?  End-of-the-world prophecy?

In chapter 1 we see that it’s a letter from John based on visions of Christ.

“I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last:  and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia.”  (Revelation 1:9-11)

John is in tribulation as he writes – imprisoned on the island of Patmos due to his Christian witness.  Yet tribulation is precisely the point at which we find our deepest fellowship with Jesus.  And here John has a vision of Christ – an “apocalypse”, (meaning revelation).

Appropriately enough, the very first way in which Jesus describes Himself is:  “Alpha and Omega.”  The phrase comprises the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and, according to the KJB, it comes four times in Revelation (1:8,11; 21:6; 22:13).  You could update the saying to mean something like “I am the A to Z of reality.”  Let’s think about what it means for Jesus to be Alpha and Omega.

Alpha

At key points the Lord Jesus is described as the “First” or the “Beginning.”  (Isaiah 48:12; Proverbs 8:22; Colossians 1:18).  Eternally at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is that primordial Other who is Himself the rationale for everything else other than God.  As the Father’s eternal Counterpart, Jesus becomes, in time, the Alpha, the First, the Beginning, the Way out from God into a whole universe of others.  By the Spirit, the Father’s outgoing life radiates in and through Jesus.  Therefore Jesus defines and shapes all else.  Nothing makes sense without Jesus, “the Alpha.”

Omega

Isaiah could not describe the LORD Jesus as “the first” without calling Him “the last” (Isaiah 48:12).  Colossians could not call Him “the beginning” without saying He is “the Firstborn”, meaning Heir. (Colossians 1:18).  And Revelation can never call Him “Alpha” without also calling Him “Omega”.

It’s not just that all things come from Christ, they are also destined for Him.  Redemption is not the salvation of creation towards another goal.  It is the bringing of all things back to their true Source and Meaning.  We are made by Christ and headed for Christ.  In this way, God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

What place does Jesus have in your thinking?  It seems to me that there are many ways in which we diminish the Person of Christ.

Perhaps we begin our thinking about God without Jesus, imagining an essentially christless doctrine of God onto which we add a Jesus-gloss.

Perhaps we begin our reading of the Bible without Jesus, imagining an essentially unitarian God in the Old Testament, to which Messiah is later added.

Perhaps we begin our understanding of the world without Jesus, imagining an essentially neutral and non-Christian world, to which Christ is an added extra.

Let’s reclaim the true meaning of repentance (that is, to change ones mind).  I know for myself that I do not think highly enough of Jesus.  Yet if we saw Him correctly we would know that we cannot think highly enough of Jesus.

Therefore let’s determine to repent:  to begin and end all our thinking with Jesus:  the Alpha and the Omega.

God is love

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1 John 4:7-5:21

It’s universally popular.  You can find it cross-stitched on Granny’s mantle-piece and emblazoned on a rock star’s T-shirt.  It tumbles from the lips of bible-thumping fundamentalists and soft-spoken gurus.  But what does it mean?

Let’s consider four points…

Because God is love, there is relationship, radiance, room and response.

Relationship

1 John 4:8 says “God is love.”  It doesn’t say ‘God is loving’, which would be true.  But God is love.

This could not be true of a single-personed God.  Just imagine an eternity past of utter solitude.  If God was an individual, He’d never know anything of love, of sharing, of give and take, back and forth.  He is defined by being alone.  He is defined by being supreme.

If such a god brings creation into existence it will be the first time he has had to relate to anything.  And such a god is definitionally supreme.  So how is this god going to relate to its creatures?

This god can only dominate you.  This god can only lord it over you.  The very being of this god is power and supremacy.  And you must be its slave.

But what about our God?

Our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as 1 John 4:9-14 unpacks). Therefore, for everlasting ages past there has been giving, sharing, back and forth, give and take, exalting the other, blessing the other.  The early church used to refer to it as a dance (perichoresis).  And it’s a dance like all the best dances when the partners bow to each other and defer to each other.

That has been the Trinity’s existence from all eternity.  Our God enjoys having others alongside.  Our God lives to bless the other.  Our God is love.

Radiance

When you read “God is love” in context you realise that “God” refers particularly to the Father.  In the next verse we read how “God” sent His Son.  So “God is love” tells us particularly of the Father’s being.  Eternally He has been defined by love because that is who He is – He is Father.  And fathers beget.  Fathers give life.  That is the definition of a father.  You are not a father unless you have given life.  But the Father has been eternally life-giving.

Wind back the clock into the depths of eternity and you will always find the Father begetting His Son.  (This is what the Nicene Creed means when it says that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father.”   The Father has always been giving life to His Son).  There has never been a time when God was not Father – when He was not Life-giver, Lover.

There was a whole eternity when God was not Creator.  There was a whole eternity when God was not Lawgiver.  Creator and Lawgiver are not fundamental to who God is.  Of course we readily imagine that God’s prime job description is Maker, Ruler or Judge.  But it’s not. And Trinity means it can’t be.  Far more fundamentally God is Love.  And He was love long before He was Creator, long before He was Law-giver.  Long before He was Judge.  His Fatherliness is the most basic thing to say about Him.

Which means that God has always had a radiating quality.  The Father has always been giving life (begetting), always shining His Light (Hebrews 1:3), always speaking His Word (John 1:1), always loving His Son – and this in the power of the Holy Spirit.  God’s very nature is an outgoing, radiating nature.  He is a Fountain of life and blessing, because “God is love.”

Room

All of this means that there is room in God.  Perhaps that sounds like an odd phrase, but just listen to how John speaks in verse 16:

“God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”  (1 John 4:16)

What an astonishing thought! “Dwelleth in God.

Think of the lonely god for a second.  With such a god you might make your way towards him if you slave really hard.  But you would always be outside Him.  Now think of the Trinity.  By the Spirit we are grafted into the Son and brought to the Father.  In other words, by trusting the Son we are brought in on the love that God is.  We dwelleth in God!

All the other gods keep you at arm’s length.  In Islam only a few of the righteous will even get to see Allah, on one day and from a great distance.  But because the Living God is Trinity we are wrapped up in God.  Filled with the Spirit, clothed in the Son, doted on by the Father.  2 Peter 1:4: “We participate in the divine nature.”

Response

Finally, there is response in God. Think of the dearly beloved Son of God. For all eternity He has responded to His Father – receiving His love, trusting His care, obeying His words, offering His praise – and all by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But at Christmas time, this perfect response to the love of God was earthed into our humanity.  Here’s what John says:

“God is love.  In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.”  (1 John 4:8-9)

The Beloved Son takes flesh and lives a fully human life of response to God.  He receives, trusts, obeys and praises the Father in our name and on our behalf.  And now, says John, we live through Him.  In other words, we come in on the perfect response of the Son.  We live in perfect correspondence to the Father through Jesus.

Just as Christ lived our life in our name, now we live His life in His name. We not only pray “in Jesus’ name” but do all things, whether “in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him.” (Colossians 3:17).

The wonder of “God is love” is immense.  But without the truth of Christ’s response, “God is love” could only condemn me.  “God is love” but I’m full of hate and indifference.  ”God is love” but my heart is sluggish and cold.  Yet God sent the True Responder to His love into the world.  And now we live through Him.  Hard-hearted, hate-filled sinner though I am, Jesus has saved me.  He has propitiated the Father’s wrath (v10) and offers the perfect response of gratitude and worship on my behalf.

God is love and now, through Jesus, I dwell in love.  Hallelujah!

Dearly beloved

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1 John 3:1-4:7

Imagine two scenarios.

Scenario 1:  We are on a ship.  It springs a leak and starts to sink.  While we’re fleeing to the life-rafts, you manage to grab a bag.  Unbeknownst to the rest of us, your bag contains a bottle of water and some canned meat – tuna, spam, etc.

We all huddle together in the life-raft, bobbing along the open sea.  Eventually we spot an island in the distance.  We start paddling towards it and as we get closer we see that the island is incredibly bare.  Not a stick of shrubbery, no sign of fresh water, it’s basically a big rock in the middle of the ocean.  But it’s our only hope.  So we row towards the island and as we get closer your brother turns to you and says “Boy I’m thirsty.”  What do you do?

Scenario 2:  We’re on a ship.  Our ship sinks.  We flee to the life-rafts.  Unbeknownst to everyone you have a bag containing water and canned meat.  As we bob along in the open sea we spot an island in the distance.  As we paddle towards it, we see that it’s lushous, luxurious, full of life.  You can see the trees heavy with choice fruits.  There’s a gushing waterfall in the distance.  It’s a tropical paradise.  As we row towards shore your brother turns to you and says “Boy I’m thirsty.”  What do you do?  Do you give your brother a drink of water?

Surely you are more likely to share the wealth in scenario 2.  But why?

Are you a much nicer person in scenario 2?  Are you suddenly more moral?  What has changed between scenario 1 and scenario 2?

Surely it’s this:  your vision has changed.  You have seen an abundance of life and it’s liberated you to be generous.  You’re still the same bundle of sins and selfishness.  But now you’ve seen something captivating.  Now you’re celebrating.  Now you’re assured that things are going to be ok.

In his first letter, the Apostle John makes precisely this argument: Christians are those who have seen the abundance of grace and love flowing from the Father, through the Son.  We have seen Jesus and said “that is the life!” Christ has invited us into the “fellowship” He shares with the Father (1 John 1:1-4) and now we share this wealth with others.

The whole letter is summed up in chapter 4, verse 7:

“Beloved, let us love.” (1 John 4:7)

In Greek it’s only two words.  Beloved, love.  We who are dearly beloved, may we go and love others.

Because we are not just those who are heading towards a tropical island.  We are residents of a kingdom of overflowing life, recipients of a torrent of unending blessing.  Children adopted into the ultimate royal Family. Therefore we can afford to crack open our little stashes and be generous with our supplies.

So John would say to us:  if we are not loving, have we really received the love of God? If we’re not overflowing to our brothers and sisters, has God’s love really been poured out to us? From the fountainhead of our beloved-ness will flow our life of love.

Thus John would have us meditate on that word “beloved.”

The Greek word (agapetoi) is most often translated “dearly beloved” in the King James Bible (e.g. Romans 12:19; 1 Corinthians 10:14; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 12:19; Philippians 4:1).  And that phrase is probably best known to us as the opening words of the marriage service.

It’s interesting to note that “dearly beloved” occurs seven times in the Book of Common Prayer.  On three occasions it refers to the congregation.  On four occasions it refers to Christ, “the dearly beloved Son” of the Father.

That’s highly significant.  The theology of Thomas Cranmer is very biblical here:  What the Son is singularly, the Church is corporately.  How the Father feels about His Son is how He now feels about us – clothed in His Son.  As Jesus Himself said:

“The Father himself loveth you, because ye have loved me, and have believed that I came out from God.”  (John 16:27)

We are dearly beloved.  Loved with the very love that predated and produced the universe.

Therefore, as John continues:

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (1 John 4:11)

There is abundant life overflowing for us.  Ultimate reality is not like that barren rock in the ocean, forbidding and sparse.  Ultimate reality is paradise.  It’s the God who is love and who has invited us in.  If we’ve seen anything of His love, won’t we reach into our supplies – our time, money, goods, emotional energy – and won’t we share what we’ve got?

Dearly beloved, let us love.

Gold and frankincense and myrrh

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Matthew 2:1-12; Psalm 72

What do you buy the man who has it all?

Advertisers pose that question this time of year.  And usually they answer: some kind of razor.  But here’s the one occasion where the question is not hyperbole.  Jesus really is the Owner and Inheritor of the universe.  As Colossians 1 puts it:

“By [Christ] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers:  all things were created by him, and for him:  And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”  (Colossians 1:16-17)

So what do you give the Man who has it all?  The three wise men were faced with that conundrum.  And here’s what they came up with:

“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him:  and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”  (Matthew 2:11)

Perhaps through Daniel and the other exiles these wise men from the east had access to the ancient Scriptures.  Perhaps they had heard that the cosmic Messiah will receive gold from distant kings.  That’s certainly what Psalm 72 prophesied:

“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents:  the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.  Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him… to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba:”  (Psalm 72: 10,11,15)

Isaiah repeats the thought and adds another appropriate gift:

“The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…  all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.”  (Isaiah 60:3,6)

Such gold seems the perfect gift for a lesser king to give to a greater One. And certainly gold placed on the head is a sign of kingly rule (Genesis 41:42; Psalm 21:3, Daniel 3:1).  As we’ve seen, Isaiah adds an accompaniment to gold: frankincense.  This is because the universal King is also a Priest.

Frankincense is almost always used in connection with the temple and priesthood (e.g. Leviticus 2).  So the wise men bring a priestly as well as royal gift to the baby Jesus.  He will not only rule man for God.  He will mediate man for God.

And how will He do so?  This brings us to myrrh.  And on one level, myrrh is just another fragrant gift like frankincense.  It is paired with frankincense on many occasions – especially when describing the Ideal Bridegroom of Song of Solomon (3:6; 4:6; 4:14).  Yet at the end of the Gospels we see a common use for myrrh – embalming corpses (John 19:39).  And here is how Jesus will reign; here is how He will offer humanity to God – through His death.

It’s a strange gift for a child, embalming fluid!  Granted it had other uses but, within the Gospels, myrrh is very much associated with death.  And so from the beginning of Jesus’ life, He was marked for the cross.  As King He would reign from the tree.  As Priest He would raise His arms in intercession for the world.  In His death He would be established as Royal Reconciler, bringing heaven to earth and earth to heaven.

These are the appropriate gifts for the Man who has everything.  Not additions to a needy Christ, but acknowledgements of His Person and work.  This Christmas, follow the wise men.  Be awed again by your Cosmic King, your Interceding Priest, your Humble Sacrifice.  There He lies in the manger for you.

Behold, there came wise men from the east

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Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men and the shepherds tend to get mixed up in our recollections of Christmas.  But actually they couldn’t be more different.  The shepherds were poor Jews.  The wise men were rich foreigners.  For the shepherds, the birth of Christ was a ‘bolt from the blue’ as they went about their ordinary business.  For the wise men, Christ’s birth was a distant certainty that had directed their course for some time.  For the shepherds, seeing Christ marks a beginning – they rejoice and spread the word.  For the wise men, it marks an end to their long journey.  Yet for both the low born and high born, for those with nothing to give and those with everything, for Jew and Gentile, for the expectant and the surprised, Christ’s birth proves to be the fulfilment of all their hopes.

In Jesus, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, learned and common, meet.  And with the wise men especially, the whole incident proves that Christ is indeed the Desire of all nations.  His birth is not a parochial event for the tribe of Judah.  It is truly global.  Here is a baby to unite, redeem and rule the world.

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

The word for ‘wise men’ in the Greek is Magi from which we get ‘Magicians’.  Traditionally they are called ‘three kings’, but Matthew doesn’t tell us their number, nor whether they rule, (though they are clearly wealthy).  The questions we want answered are:  Where have they gotten the idea that a baby could be born King?  How would they know that the King of the Jews demands universal worship?  And what is their view of the created world such that stars preach to them the birth of a universal King?

Well the human race can trace itself back, not only to Adam but also to Noah.  Humanity has a collective memory, not only of the first Adam and Noah, but also the promise of a second Adam, a second Noah – a Man Who Brings Rest.  The Jews prophesied that their coming King would rule the nations (Genesis 49:10) and that the stars proclaimed His coming (Numbers 24:17).  Even the nations knew that this Jewish God was Lord of all (Joshua 2:9-11).  And when the Israelites went into exile, the Babylonians, Persians, Medes and Greeks came to hear about this Promised One (see, for instance, the book of Daniel).

It’s no surprise that wise men from the east would be eagerly awaiting this cosmic King.  Listen to lines from the Roman poet Virgil.  Writing around 40BC this Gentile, lost in pagan superstition still speaks of a new age dawning with the birth of a Boy to rule the world:

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own
Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,
This glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,
And the months enter on their mighty march.
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away,
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father’s worth
Reign o’er a world at peace. For thee, O boy,
First shall the earth, untilled, pour freely forth
Her childish gifts…

…The serpent too shall die..

Begin to greet thy mother with a smile,
O baby-boy! ten months of weariness
For thee she bore: O baby-boy, begin!
For him, on whom his parents have not smiled,
Gods deem not worthy of their board or bed.

Co-mingled with confusion and darkness, the hope of a baby-boy gripped Gentile as well as Jew.  The Son of his heavenly Father would bring a new age, a golden race and even the earth would pour forth its gifts for him.   No wonder the Magi brought tribute!

Jesus came not simply as the Jewish Messiah.  He was the Desire of all nations and hope of the ages.

Mine eyes have seen thy salvation

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Luke 2:21-40

—  “Old Testament folks were not particularly Messianic in their faith. And even if they were, it was very confused.”

–  “Expectation for Christ revolved around a conquering Warrior who arrives on a white horse.”

–  “Believers BC wanted the Messiah to come and defeat the nations oppressing them.”

It’s common to hear many views like this about the state of Old Testament faith.  And, no doubt, many Israelites fell into those caricatures.  But they shouldn’t have done.  And faithful Israelites didn’t. Like Simeon.

What did old Simeon do when he laid eyes on the Christ-child?  He bore witness to true Hebrew belief:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.  And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.  And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  (Luke 2:29-35)

As Simeon cradles the baby Jesus, he identifies Him as salvation.  To see Jesus – even the “little Lord Jesus” – is to see the salvation of the world. And notice that Simeon is not at all nationalistic about this.  He does not become excited at the thought of Christ growing up to crush the Romans. No, Jesus will be a “light to lighten the Gentiles.”  He has not come to overthrow the foreign powers but to save them – to save the world.

If there’s going to be any over-throwing it will be of Israel itself.  There will be a “fall and rising again of many in Israel.”  There will be a death and resurrection.  Through Jesus, the old will be brought to nothing and something new will be raised up.

Simeon sees all this in 8-day-old Jesus.  And now he can die happy.  In Jesus, all that he’s waited for has come to pass.  So Simeon, as a representative Old Testament saint, “departs in peace.”

The law and the prophets have done their job.  They have prepared a people for the coming of Messiah.   We can imagine all the righteous of the Old Testament joining in with Simeon’s song.  The Hebrew saints are accompanying him, jealous of his awesome privilege – to hold the long hoped-for Messiah!

But with the birth of Christ, the time of anticipation ends.  Now there is the establishment of all that was promised.  And Simeon leads the Old Testament chorus line off stage.  The time of fulfilment has arrived and so they depart in peace.

As Jesus would say to those who witnessed His ministry:

“Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.  For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.”  (Matthew 13:16-17)

In a sense we have seen more and in a sense we have seen less than them. We have not held the Christ-child in our arms, but we have read of His glorious death on Calvary.  We have not witnessed His miracles personally, but we have been told of His mighty resurrection from the dead.  All that was promised has now been accomplished, and so our attitude is encapsulated beautifully by the Apostle Peter:

“Having not seen [Jesus], ye love [Him] … though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:  Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”  (1 Peter 1:8-9)

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night

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Luke 2:8-20

In science fiction, alien life forms are always showing up from another world.  Most often they come to destroy and dominate.  In Luke chapter 2, there is a very different kind of alien invasion:

“8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

These creatures from another world are terrifying.  But they do not come to terrify, they come saying “Fear not.”  They do not wage war.  They wage peace.

Their announcement is good tidings of great joy to all people.

Where science fiction aliens say “Take me to your leader” these angels say the opposite:  “Here, have our Leader – He’s wonderful!”  What an astonishing invasion.

The King of the angels is born as a man and for man.  For all men (v10). And, as if to underline the point, the announcement comes, not to the great and good, but to shepherds who lack even a roof over their heads. Here are the meek souls for whom Christ is given.

Therefore, what is God’s attitude towards His world (and therefore what is His attitude towards me)?  Well we have it on good authority from the heavenly host: God’s heart for His creation is, “Peace, goodwill towards men.”

And if we doubt that we ought to make the journey the shepherds make. We ought to go to Bethlehem and see the babe lying in the manger.  If we’ve seen the Judge of mankind wriggling in a feeding trough, how can we ever doubt that God’s will towards us is “Peace”?  If we’ve seen the lengths to which Christ the LORD has gone to be God-with-us, how could we ever deny His stunning good will towards men?

If, by faith, we see what the shepherds saw, we too will “make known abroad” the good tidings.  We too will praise and glorify God.

The truth is “out there.”  But the truth is not dark and disturbing.  It’s glad tidings!  There is life from another world, it is intelligent and very powerful.  But this life is for us.  In incarnation, this life has embraced us in full and wills peace and eternal joy for all mankind.  Look to the manger and rejoice.  God has moved heaven to earth to bring you peace.  He has emptied Himself to the depths of crib and cross to give you His very Self. The deepest of all truths is good news of great joy.