Advent 4, Year C–Hebrews 10:5-10

Here is my true confession.

Of all the Advent readings following the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, this is the one that puzzles me the most.

I can think of so many other lections that would make more sense.

The justification, I think for this one is the opening phrase.–Circle that one in your Bible. “When Christ came into the world”.  I think that is what ties this passage to Advent. I checked to see if maybe the Latin Vulgate used a variant of “advent” in its rendering, but it does not. It uses the word ‘ingrediens” which means “to go in” or “enter.” This makes perfect sense for our word ingredient, which are the things that ‘go into’ a dish. Don’t ever say you learn nothing from the Greenbean blog.

But watch this–Jesus is and was the missing ingredient in the world.

I’m telling you, that will preach.


Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it his written of me in the scroll of the book.” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come [note–this word come is venio, which is in the same word family as advent] to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Hebrews 10:5-10

Most of this is a citation of Psalm 40:6-8. In fact, there are eighty-nine words in these verses, and only thirty-four are not from Psalm 40. This means sixty-two percent is from Psalm 40.

This leaves us to ask two questions.

Question One

The first question is, what is Psalm 40. The answer is Psalm 40 is a plea for the Lord to come and help. It begins with, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock”. The quotation Hebrews uses is not far after that, and then it is followed by a reference that sounds a lot like preaching–“I have told the glad news of deliverance”–then in verse 12 of Psalm 40 we find a reference to sin. “My iniquities have overtaken me.” Finally, Psalm 40 finishes with a reference to the enemies who gloat and a call for the Lord to not delay.

It is a beautiful Psalm. The rock band U2 wrote a song called “40” that is an interpretation of Psalm 40. It is a beautiful prayer.

The way the writer uses Psalm 40 is telling. He indicates that Jesus is the one who said it, which is for us a WOW moment. It is the equivalent of saying, “Remember that time when Jesus said “A wandering Aramean was my father?” (Dt. 26:5). There is something special here in putting the Psalms actually on the lips of Jesus in a specific way. I also find fascinating the sacerdotal trail: blessing leads to sacrifice that leads to preaching that leads to confession which leads to petition mingled with praise.

Question Two

The second question is, what commentary does the writer of Hebrews add to this citation. In very few words, he adds four thoughts.

  1. He indicated Psalm 40 doesn’t have full meaning apart from Christ’s advent.
  2. Jesus canceled the old ways (law and sacrifice) in favor of the new (grace and praise).
  3. The new offering is his atoning death.
  4. We are sanctified by this new, once and for all offering.

It is a stunning theological move to take Psalm 40 and preach the atoning death of Jesus, but that is exactly what the writer of Hebrews does. This methodology would fail every seminary class, Bible test, or preaching test that exists today. You can’t just draw lines from one text to another without some kind of clear connection. Yet that is what the writer of Hebrews does. And he or she can do that, because it is scripture. You and I, not so much.

The Advent Angle

Here is your advent perspective. You cannot separate the birth of Christ (when Christ came into the world) with the work of Christ (to save human beings). The fourth Sunday of Advent, ever so close to Christmas Day, tempts the preacher and spiritual leader to move into the sweet nostalgia of glowing candlelight and drain the moment of its blood. The writer of Hebrews forbids this, and that is good reason why this is actually, against my judgment, a great Advent reading.

 

Advent 4, Year C–Micah 5:2-5a

The last week of advent features a common Old Testament passage because it predicts Bethlehem as the birthplace of Messiah, and is quoted as such by Matthew. However, Matthew doesn’t quote the whole prophecy. Let’s take a moment to examine the text, but then I want to also address a second issue.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel, whose coming forth is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until he time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.

Micah 5:2-5a

Bethlehem means “house of bread” in the language of the Hebrews, and the further demarcation Ephrathah, an alternate name, means “fruitful.” I will resist the urge to draw too many connecting lines, but Jesus is the bread of God born of a woman–the fruit of her womb. Surely that can’t be completely coincidence. Micah sees the smallness of Bethlehem as a tiny village, not even a clan, as a grand reversal in that the Messiah will arise from there. Matthew cites this passage, but he also cites a non-biblical prophecy (unless Matthew is making a play on words and is referring to the word “branch” in passages like Isaiah 11) in Matthew 2:23 that says Messiah will be a Nazarene.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but he is raised in Nazareth (Galilee). Sometimes, two things can be true at the same time.

It is quick work to note details of Messiah–which would form a very good outline for a sermon or Bible study.

  • His coming is from of old–ancient.
  • He shall give them up–enigmatic to be certain, but I take it as a reference to ‘leaving Israel to her own devices for a period of time’
  • The rest of his brothers . . . return–I think this is future and refers to the repatriation of Palestine by Hebrews. You can pick your time period–distant past, recent past, or future. Or all of the above.
  • He shall shepherd–This is a kingly usage as David was the shepherd. Messiah will exert real power to protect the people.
  • They shall dwell secure–this is the people, his brothers, in Israel.
  • He shall be great to the ends of the earth–The name of Messiah will be feared by all peoples.
  • He shall be their peace–Messiah will ensure peace for his people.

Some of this prophecy is the past–the birth of Jesus. Some of this is also fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus as he has come to bring us peace and he is also our good shepherd. But much of it has not. Which is why this Micah oracle is applied across multiple timelines. We should also not rule out that some of it might have been fulfilled before Jesus’ birth, such as the return of exiles. Nevertheless, the bulk of it will not be fulfilled until the ultimate return of Christ and eternity begins.

Now, to the dirty work. The scholars of Israel in Herod’s time knew this oracle, and they knew where to tell the Wise Men to look for the baby. The actual timetable for when these things happened is hard to know, but the location is not. They said, look in Bethlehem. For this same reason, Herod knew where to do his butchery. He sent the soldiers to Bethlehem too. This leads us to the unsettling reality of prophetic and biblical material. In the wrong hands, it can be used for evil. If I were preaching this passage this Sunday (and I am not), I believe I would make this the actual focus of my sermon–“When the Good Word is turned into Evil Actions.”

This isn to about poor hermeneutics or misunderstandings. This is about people who are evil in their heart and turn the words of the Lord upside down.

  1. Terrorists quote the Bible as they murder abortion doctors.
  2. Politicians quote the Bible as they oppress millions or start wars.
  3. Churches cite scripture and verse to justify the tolerance of abuse.

You probably can come up with your own, but it is a real problem. Does this make God culpable? A co-conspirator? Absolutely not. People who twist the scriptures in violent and immoral ways will be punished. We, as people of faith, have an obligation to be alert for these particularly heinous kinds of false teachers.

 

 

 

 

 

Advent 3, Year C–Luke 3:7-18

If you are not careful, John the Baptist can swallow your Advent calendar. No lie. I’ve actually had it happen to me a time or two. You think you’re plugging along doing the right thing with these verses from the lectionary laid out every week, and the next thing you know you’ve essentially peached a four part sermon on the prophecy, birth, ministry, and death of John the Baptist. It can happen to anyone.

The reason it can happen is because, quite honestly, there is so much juice there. The third Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke’s synopsis of The Baptist’s preaching ministry, and quite honestly, it has some of my favorite lines in it.

You brood of vipers! Luke 3:7

The Baptist did not follow seeker sensitive paradigms. I feel like this was his opening. Whereas most preachers today would tell a lighthearted story or a joke to warm the crowd up, JB just lays into them by inferring they were a bunch of snakes. I wonder what insults he’d come up with to open a sermon today? Maybe, “You entertainment entrepreneurs” or perhaps “self-help supplicants” or something biting. I’ve often wondered if he isn’t, by saying ‘vipers’ intimating a connection with the serpent in the garden.

We have Abraham as our Father. Luke 3:8

This is the claim of the religious leaders–we are the children of Abraham so we are automatically spiritually significant. It is a type of elitism that boils my skin. Pedigree is meaningless in the Kingdom of God, and those who would hide behind it or revel in are grossly mistaken. I like how he called them out on it. There is no place for snobbery or nepotism in the church.

The axe is laid to the root of the trees. Luke 3:9

The people are the trees and the axe is the activity of the Lord. Having grown up on a farm, this image is powerful to me. The tree is not being chopped off where there will be stump. It is being cut at he roots and pushed over. Nothing of it will be left exceptionalities the hole that is left in the ground.

Share with him who has none  Luke 3:11

There is nothing in his sermon to this point that is complicated or necessarily doctrinal. He gives the warning and then launches with ethics. Share. Whatever you have, share it.

Be content with your wages Luke 3:14

This is what he said to the soldiers who were out there. Soldiers in the ancient world padded their income with extortion, bribes, and violence. I am certain in some parts of the world this is still the situation. JB says don’t do that. I find it fascinating that he doesn’t, and neither does Jesus, say “stop being soldiers.” Soldiery is honorable, good, and important. But not all soldiers are good. For the record, these are probably the priests soldiers and not Roman soldiers.

With many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. Luke 3:18

Verse 18 is not JB’s words. These are Luke’s words’ and Luke refers to the harsh, combative, confrontation words of The Baptist as “good news” or “gospel”.  That is not how most of us would define a gospel message. We would define it as the love of God proclaimed, a discussion about the need for salvation, and an invitation to make Christ your Lord. But that is not JB’s message. His gospel is humility, share, fairness, and contentment with honesty. That is fiery stuff in any age.

In addition to these jabs, there is the constant backdrop of fire in JB’s words. He tells them fruitless trees will be thrown into the fire, the Messiah will baptize with fire, and the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire. The emphasis upon fire is the prophetic mantle he wore. Prophets don’t hold hands and comfort, they rebuke and challenge with fiery words and fiery images. They remind people of the certainty of judgment as well as the certainty of purification. Neither one is pain free, and both will leave burn marks.

Advent 3, Year C–Philippians 4:4-7

These verses from Paul’s inspiring prison epistle come close to hitting just about every Advent theme there is.


Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made to known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

Let’s just count those Advent themes, shall we?

  1. Joy (Rejoice)
  2. The coming of the Lord (The Lord is at hand–literally, ‘the Lord is near’)
  3. Anxiety
  4. Prayer
  5. Thanksgiving
  6. Peace
  7. Love

Some might quibble with the inclusion of love, but Paul references ‘hearts’ in verse 7 and even uses along with ‘minds’ as two different things-cognitive and affective. This indicates he is speaking about love. The words ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are missing, but they can be deduced through the activity of prayer, which is faith in action, so to speak. Hope is about the future, which is where the passage goes in terms of God’s peace guarding our hearts and minds.

Now, let’s make another list. Let’s make a list of the things that can make us anxious during the Advent season leading up to Christmas?

  1. Gift buying
  2. Gift receiving
  3. Family
  4. Money problems
  5. Health Issues
  6. Weather
  7. Busy Activities
  8. Loss/Grief
  9. Bing Crosby
  10. Elf on the Shelf
  11. Pressure to cook
  12. Weight gain
  13. Schedule interruption/loss of routine
  14. Christmas cards
  15. Christmas parties
  16. Travel
  17. Houseguests
  18. Crowds
  19. Christmas trees
  20. Christmas music

That is a quick list, but hardly exhaustive, amiright?

If I were preaching this passage this Sunday (I am not), the bulk of the sermon would live with that idea-what makes us anxious. I’d spend considerable oxygen on seasonal anxiety but then I would shift to anxiety in general and perhaps have our congregation daydream with me about a warm day in June and the anxieties there.

  1. Vacation plans
  2. Plane tickets
  3. Sunburns
  4. Graduation Parties
  5. College Issues (there are about a hundred that go with this)
  6. Juggling schedules at work
  7. Children getting out of school
  8. Mowing the grass/yard work (this is a high source of anxiety for me, personally)
  9. Church activities
  10. Air conditioner broken
  11. New tires for the car
  12. Dropped phone in the lake/fountain/toilet
  13. Dog’s veterinary visit
  14. Frenemies at work (textually, this is close to the source of anxiety in Philippi, c/f 4:2)

You can see anxiety is not just a seasonal issue. It is continual and always with us. Having made that point, I would then pull from the text two different aspects that Paul seems to offer as solutions.

The first one is prayer. Whatever makes us anxious is an issue of prayer. Certainly this means focusing on these things when we pray, but it probably also means letting the moments of anxiety themselves become prayer opportunities. When the crowd makes me nervous it will help if I center myself and pray in that moment. This practice makes the awarenesses that “The Lord is near” more relevant than ever. His presence, his Immanuel, can help with anxiety.

But he seems to give us more than prayer to work with. Paul says that we should let our ‘reasonableness’ be known. The ESV chooses reasonableness as the rendering, but ‘gentleness’ has a fine tradition for interpretation, and the word could even indicate ‘graciousness.’ One of my favorite little Greek New Testament tools indicates ‘considerate’ as a baseline meaning. When you have this kind of word soup for options, I find it nice to put them in a blender and hit puree. What we get at is the concept people should not be jerks and take whatever actions are relevant to ease anxiety, whether it is their own or someone else’s. In our modern context, I take that to mean enjoying the science-based evidence that medication, therapy, a psychologist, meditation, or any other treatment that might help is in play here. It is only reasonable. Some people face anxiety in different ways than others. This could be as much biochemistry as it is spiritual. That doesn’t mean you stop praying, though. It means you let your faith and reasonable activities partner together to help you enjoy the peace that guards your hearts and minds.