December 15, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Biblical scholars call passages like Luke 1 “type scenes.” A modern kind of “type scene” might be something like this: one evening while channel-surfing, you run across a movie already in progress. It’s obviously a Western with two cowboys standing about thirty yards apart in the middle of a dusty street. Each man is glaring at the other, one hand slightly raised and angled toward his hip.
Now, even if you have no idea what movie this is—and even if it’s a film you’ve never before seen—just seeing that set-up immediately tells you that what is about to happen is an Old West-style shootout. You don’t need to know what the movie’s larger plot has been about: the boilerplate set-up of the scene conveys what you need to know–you even have a strong idea of what’s next.
There are a number of similar type scenes in the Bible. For instance, if you run across a scene where a man meets a woman at a well, it probably means they will soon be getting engaged and then married. If you encounter a story in which someone is driven into the wilderness or up onto a mountaintop, you can assume that some new revelation from God will happen there. And if an angel appears to a woman (especially a woman who has never before been a mother), what often comes next is the promise of a child.
Yet Luke 1 is different from other such stories in interesting, and also instructive, ways. Unlike all of the other women in the Bible for whom the announcement of a child is such incredible news, Mary has not been pining away for years to have a baby. She’s not even ready to have a baby yet! She’s still very young, having gained the physical ability to become pregnant in probably just the last year or so. Further, she’s not married yet–like most girls of that era, her marriage had been pre-arranged by her parents long ago, so there was no question that she would be wed one day. But it hadn’t happened yet.
So Gabriel’s announcement of an impending pregnancy was not the answer to Mary’s prayers. This not Hannah or Sarah or Rachel who have long lived with the bitter disappointment of infertility. Far from it! In fact, Gabriel’s words do not so much solve a problem for Mary as they create a problem. This simply was not the time for Mary to have a baby.
But that is at least partly the point of this story: it’s not about Mary’s time or plans but is simply and solely about God’s timing, God’s plans, and God’s work. God is intervening in this world, upsetting schedules and re-aligning lives because that’s what it takes to get God’s premiere work of redemption accomplished.
But in the wider biblical context, the things that make this scene different from the many other, similar scenes ought to give us pause. After all, go back to the analogy about the shoot-out: suppose you did run across a scene like that while zipping through your channels one evening. But then suppose that, just before you were going to click the remote for the next channel, you noticed that one of the two cowboys was dressed in pink and was reaching for not a gun but a daisy that he had tucked into his belt. My guess is that this would be enough to make you stop your channel-surfing long enough to see what in the world was going on here! There had to be a reason behind this change in an otherwise predictable set of cinematic circumstances.
Similarly in Luke 1: an angel visits someone to talk about having a baby. We’ve seen this before. But wait: she’s a virgin. Of course she hasn’t had a child yet, but accomplishing that hardly requires a miracle. Further, she’s not like Sarah who was in her 80s or even cousin Elizabeth who also appears to have been close to retirement age: Mary’s just entered puberty. Clearly, these changes in a traditional type scene signal that something quite new is taking place in Luke 1. Mary quite logically asks Gabriel, “How will this be since I am still a virgin?” But an equally good question to ask is, “Why will this be?” since Mary does not seem like a logical candidate for divine intervention on the fertility front (nor does she seem a likely candidate to be a big player in the drama of cosmic redemption).
In other words, savvy biblical readers will come to this part of Luke 1 and say, “Hmmm, this is a scene I’ve seen before, this is a story I’ve heard before.” But then the text tilts, the familiar gives way to the unfamiliar, and the reader gets the sense that something very new, very striking, and quite possibly very wonderful is about to happen.
And it is!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
What does Christmas mean? Well, to some folks in our world Christmas is all about bringing people together again, especially those who have maybe become estranged for some reason. Most of the better-known holiday movies climax when the mom and dad who had been fighting get back together again and so avoid divorce. Scrooge wakes up a changed man, the Grinch’s heart grows larger and more loving, the whole town comes together to save George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the next-door neighbor re-establishes contact with his estranged son at the end of Home Alone. Christmas is a time to focus on the other people around you.
So we start to think after a while that a “good Christmas” means being a little nicer than usual, maybe patching up broken relationships, digging a little deeper into our pockets to chip in to a charity or two, and just generally getting along with everyone so as not to spoil anyone’s holiday cheer. “Peace on earth” may or may not be achievable in any literal sense, so we’ll settle for the “peace” of not having Uncle Charlie and cousin Bernice argue about women’s rights at the Christmas dinner table like happened last year. We’re not really looking to change the world: we’ll just settle for getting along with reasonable happiness and tranquility until January 2 arrives and we can get back to normal again.
In other words, we make Christmas about us, about solving our problems, about finding ways to handle this or that difficulty in our family’s dynamics. At least some such concerns are not bad things to think about, they’re just nowhere near the core of Advent. Christmas isn’t first of all about our agenda. As with Mary, so with us: God brings us what he knows we need whether we thought we needed it or not. God intervenes in our lives to remind us that what Advent is about is the defeat of sin, evil, and death. The advent of God’s Christ into this world—as Gabriel’s speech to Mary made so abundantly clear—is ultimately about so much more than the pedestrian things we bring to the table each December.
Church traditions vary but in the Reformed branch of the church in which I grew up and where I now do my work, most people would find it merely odd to celebrate the Lord’s Supper / Eucharist on Christmas Day or at a Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols. Whatever else Advent and Christmas are all about in people’s minds, being reminded of the death of the baby at the center of our Christmas reflections is not typically among the more prominent thoughts people have in December. Curiously, however, nowhere in the Bible does Jesus ask us to celebrate his birthday. Two of the four gospels don’t even mention Jesus’ birth. But everywhere Jesus and the apostles command us to celebrate Jesus’ death–to eat this bread and drink that cup . . . until he comes.
But in the wider world and even to many in the church, Advent/Christmas does not seem like it’s the time to ponder the deathly demise of that wee baby in the manger. We don’t need talk of death just now–indeed, we pity those whose Christmastime is clouded by death. On an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H, Dr. Hawkeye Pierce falsified the date on a death certificate by moving a man’s last breath forward fifteen minutes from 11:50 PM on December 25 to 12:05 AM on December 26. Why? Because, Hawkeye reasoned, this man’s family shouldn’t in future years have to recall Christmas as the day their loved one died. We don’t need death at the holidays. It just makes things more complicated.
But if that is how we find ourselves thinking as Christians, maybe our problem is having gone along with the world too much in making Christmas much, much too simple.
There is a curious clustering of grace-related words here. Gabriel’s initial word to Mary is chaire, which was a standard way to say “Hail” or “Hello” back then but is a direct cognate of charis, the New Testament word for “grace.” What’s more, this same word could also mean “Rejoice!” So it’s an open question whether the angel was merely saying, “Hello” or telling Mary she should rejoice. (Or could it somehow be both?)
Then, the word for “highly favored” is likewise a cognate on this stem. Charitoo means to endow with favor or, as could perhaps be better said, to grace, to have grace/favor bestowed upon one. Being the target of grace is always a cause to rejoice. And indeed, in verse 30, the direct New Testament word for grace (charis) is used when Gabriel tells Mary she has “found favor/grace” with God. Perhaps there is not much to all of this and yet in a sense it is instructive to see all of this talk about grace and favor clustering around the Lord’s call of Mary. After all, it will be Mary’s son who will bring “grace and truth” to the entire world, opening up a gracious way of salvation through his own sacrificial death.
When children are small and are just learning how to eat from a spoon, parents involuntarily open their mouths even as the baby opens his or her mouth. It’s quite comical to see. Pastors who get to sit up front in church each week often get to see a similar spectacle whenever young children participate in a church service or Christmas program. When a son or daughter is up front speaking various lines, it’s not uncommon to be able to look out into the congregation only to see the tyke’s mom or dad on the edge of a pew, mouthing the words right along with the child! As a parent, you can’t help it!
I suspect that seen the right way, something similar happens in Luke 1. The whole cosmos, all the hosts of heaven from the archangel Gabriel on down, are holding their collective breath and sitting on the edges of their seats. All eyes and ears are trained on one little girl, perhaps no more than twelve or thirteen years of age. She’s about to get the shock of a lifetime, but what will she say in response? What will her answer be? Will she get it right? As Frederick Buechner once put it, Mary was probably too dazzled to notice, but maybe just beneath his wings and bright garments even Gabriel was trembling a little in nervous anticipation at how this encounter was going to go.
In the end, as we all know, it went just fine, and the hosts of heaven must surely have heaved a collective sigh of relief! The long-awaited plan of salvaging this fallen creation was now really moving forward! After ages of waiting, a mother had been chosen to become the bearer of the very Son of God himself. Within a year that little baby would be born in Bethlehem, and the salvation of the galaxies would be off and running (or at least off and crawling initially!).
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Author: Scott Hoezee
What’s the deal with Nathan in II Samuel 7? When King David came to the prophet to suggest that he was feeling guilty for not having built God as nice a house as the palace he had just built for himself—and that therefore he was minded to rectify the situation by getting busy on building God a house—why did Nathan so readily agree? Did David catch him in a distracted moment? Is this kind of like what happens when one of your kids asks you a question while you are deeply immersed in a really interesting novel?
“Hmmm, yes, what is it?”
“Can I make a bonfire in the backyard using wood from the fence?”
“Um, sure, whatever you want, honey.”
Ten minutes later you sit bolt upright in your chair as it slowly dawns on you what you had just agreed to let your kid do! It’s the kind of thing that sends you racing to the backyard to head off the mayhem that you distractedly unleashed!
So was Nathan just kind of not thinking, just kind of daydreaming, when David first approached him? Did his answer to the king amount to a kind of, “Yeah, well, you know, whatever you want, my liege, is fine be me.” Or did Nathan really ponder this as best he could, concluded it was so pious-sounding that it could not possibly be wrong, and so told David to forge ahead because, after all, what could be even remotely wrong with trying to give God such a fine gift?
Whatever the precise cause, Nathan soon discovered that not only had he spoken too soon, he had quite simply misread the mind of God (and how nice to know that even biblically authorized prophets get things wrong now and again—a comfort to all of us who preach!).
But I am still curious if there is anything further to be discerned in Nathan’s initial shoot-from-the-hip answer to David. Probably attempts to ponder this trend in the direction of the speculative—and for that very reason in a direction that may incline us toward making our own errors—and so a measure of caution is called for. But in this Advent Season I wonder sometimes if Nathan’s error—and what may have been behind it—is not sometimes also our error when it comes to the ways of God and our understanding God’s more typical way of operating.
What I mean is this: maybe one of the reasons Nathan agreed so readily to David’s initial idea was because he assumed that even as we human beings like what is lush, lavish, showy, and outwardly impressive, so does God. If presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, live in places like the White House or Buckingham Palace—and if such manifestly powerful and regal abodes convey the majesty of the people who hold the power—then surely the all-powerful, almighty God would need (and would like) such a thing, too.
In a scene from the movie The American President, the actor playing the President of the United States tells a visitor to the Oval Office that the architects of Washington D.C. designed the capitol city to be so impressive and overwhelming as to strike fear in the hearts of would-be enemies. “The Oval Office,” the president said, “is the best home court advantage in the world.” And in real life, people who have visited the President in the Oval Office often say that upon entering that inner sanctum of power, they became so flustered and overwhelmed that they can scarcely speak. Even perfectly intelligent and articulate people find themselves with mouths full of teeth, totally forgetting the well-rehearsed speeches they had in mind before entering that room.
That’s the kind of glitz and power we know something about as human beings and so we assume that maybe God is interested in making a similarly powerful impression on people and so—as perhaps Nathan likewise thought—is worthy of an earthly house at least as impressive as anything an earthly monarch, president, or prime minister might have.
But in II Samuel 7 God sees no such need. By the time we get to the New Testament and Mary’s being informed of who would be taking up residence in her humble womb, we start to understand the reason why. The God who possesses more power, glitz, elegance, and sheer awesomeness than any being in the cosmos and beyond knows that the best things in life—including the redemption of the world—come through more modest means, through humility and gentleness and sacrifice.
Most people in the church today have a hard time believing the New Testament’s message that now each and every believer is him- or herself a temple of the Holy Spirit. We are now the dwelling place of the Most High God. But since most of us don’t exactly look the part, we live out most of our days as though it weren’t true.
But it is. The Bible tells us so.
One of the most mind-boggling spectacles I’ve ever seen is a short science movie titled Powers of Ten (the recent IMAX film, Cosmic Voyage is a recent update of this film). You can view the original film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0 Many of us no doubt saw this movie in a high school physics class. As the film opens, you see a close-up view of a young couple spreading out a picnic blanket on a grassy section of Chicago’s Grant Park. Then every ten seconds thereafter the camera pulls back, each time increasing its distance from the couple by one more power of ten.
First the camera pulls back just one foot; ten seconds later it pulls back ten feet; ten seconds later it pulls back one hundred feet and then one thousand feet and then ten thousand feet and so on. At first you can still see the young couple. But soon you can pick out only the small square of their picnic blanket in the midst of the larger Grant Park. Seconds later Grant Park itself has been reduced to a small green patch as you can now see all of Chicago and the southern curve of Lake Michigan.
Next Chicago disappears as you see the whole United States. Then you see the whole planet earth, then even our own sun starts to shrink into an ordinary looking star. Within just a couple of minutes the picture has pulled back to the outer limits of the Milky Way galaxy and soon thereafter to the edge of the known universe. Once the edge of space is reached, the camera then quickly hurtles back through space, finally zooming back in on the couple in Grant Park. All in all the film is a stunning reminder of how small we are compared to the vastness of the universe.
Once upon a time God’s Son took his own cosmic “powers of ten” journey. Long ago the Son of God zipped past galaxies, quasars, suns, planets, and continents getting ever closer to this world until finally he dove deeply into the confines of a virgin’s uterus. There, as a microscopic zygote, he took on human DNA, skin, organs, and blood, and was born in a small stable, all his vastness enclosed by no more than a goat’s feed trough.
Never before had the cosmic and the local, the vastness of space and the smallness of a single human being, mingled in so wondrous a way. And that is the God and Lord we serve; that is why we can be so sure that despite our smallness, despite the fact that we, like ancient Israel, hardly look like the center of the universe, we really are. We are now the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of a God who for so very long now has specialized in taking vastness and making it very, very specific, small, and local!
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Author: Doug Bratt
Notes and Observations
Most scholars recognize that Psalm 89 is a psalm of lament. Yet the poet devotes most of it to praising God for God’s faithfulness and celebrating God’s covenant with David and his descendants. Even the segment toward which the lectionary directs our attention this week seems reluctant to highlight the lament aspect of the psalm, focusing, as it does, on God’s covenant with the Davidic line.
Psalm 89’s first verses introduce the beating heart of its theology. Verses 1 and 2 speak of God’s “faithfulness.” In fact they repeat references to “love” and “faithfulness.” Verses 3 and 4 then point out how God demonstrated God’s faithfulness in part by making David king and then promising to always keep one of his descendants on Israel’s throne. The poet then expands on these two themes throughout the rest of the psalm.
Some scholars suggest the poet pens these words during Israel’s Babylonian exile when Jerusalem has been trashed and its kings no longer reign. Verses 1-4’s two key words, “faithfulness” (hesed) and “covenant” (berit) assert that God remains true to who God is, even in the face of Israel’s misery.
Rolf Jacobson says “faithfulness” and “covenant” form one of the most powerful “tag-themes” in the psalms. Those words, after all, describe God’s character. The first word, says Jacobson, goes to God’s internal character. It insists God is fundamentally a faithful God, even in the face of human unfaithfulness. The second word, “covenant” describes God’s actions and professes God keeps all the promises God makes. Psalm 89 explores God’s promises to David and, through him, to God’s Israelite people.
This gives those who preach and teach Psalm 89 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the part the recognition of God’s faithfulness plays in lament. Lament and celebration of God’s faithfulness may seem like nearly polar opposite actions. Yet isn’t it true that if worshipers don’t believe that God is faithful, they have no real reason to lament God’s apparent faithlessness? Who laments predictable behavior? It’s the shock of God’s seeming display of unfaithfulness that fuels Psalm 89’s and other laments.
Psalm 89’s poet believes God is faithful, but seems to wonder why God hasn’t kept at least some of God’s promises. In fact, she seems to even wonder how God could ever keep those promises. Yet those who read Psalm 89 after the fact know that God has, in fact, kept those promises. God did bring the Israelite people back to their land, saved them, healed them and again planted them in the land of promise.
Verses 19-37, which include this week’s lectionary selection, focus on God’s covenant with David. They echo especially 2 Samuel 7’s account of God’s response to David’s offer to build a house for the Lord in which to dwell. Psalm 89 recounts God (and God alone’s) selection of David to serve as Israel’s second king. In it the poet remembers how God promised to support and strengthen Jesse’s son by destroying his enemies. The poet especially praises God’s promises to David, especially God’s promise that God’s covenant with David was permanent.
As James Mays notes, David’s kingship reflects Yahweh’s kingship. After all, God the divine Warrior, as verses 19-20 point out, chose a warrior-king. God’s right hand and arm, according to verses 13 and 21, equip David’s hand and arm. As the poet notes in verses 10 and 22-23, just as God defeated God’s enemy that is chaos, God also promised to defeat David’s enemies. God, in other words, ruled over creation in part through David’s faithful rule. Psalm 89 also recalls the intimate relationship between David and the Lord, remembering its father-firstborn son closeness.
So how might those who preach and teach Psalm 89 help hearers to think about this psalm? After all, Israel as the poet knew it no longer exists. The modern nation of Israel doesn’t even try to claim to have one of David’s descendants as its leader.
To begin to answer such questions, we need to ask ourselves why Israel retained psalms like 89 when David’s descendants no longer ruled over Israel after 587 BC. It’s at least in part because Israel continued to believe God would send one of David’s descendants to rule, to serve as the Messiah.
Those who read Psalm 89 in the light of the New Testament know that God, in fact, didn’t actually break God’s promise to keep one of David’s descendants on Israel’s throne. After all, Jesus Christ was one of David’s descendants. Though parts of Israel rejected him as king, God raised him to the heavenly realm from which he now rules over not just Israel, but the whole world. In Jesus Christ, Christians profess, God’s “love stands firm forever.”
On November 1, 1945 Marjorie Cooper became ill with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down at just 26 years of age, she lived the rest of her life, nearly 40 years, in an iron lung. During those four decades, her husband John remained faithfully at his wife’s side. He was her full-time nurse and caretaker – feeding and bathing her, brushing her teeth, rubbing her back to prevent bedsores.
“And my Dad did it all so uncomplainingly,” says their son Dale, who was three when his mom got sick. ” He gave not even a hint that he thought life had cheated him, or given him a raw deal. On the contrary, he was life-affirming and so full of joy. Without ever saying so, he considered caring for my Mom a sacred vocation, something God had called him to do.”
When Marjorie died on August 29, 1985, Cooper remembers that his dad tried his best to alleviate her breathing distress, but nothing helped. “Mom took her last shallow breath,” he says, “and then died. I shut the lung off – the first time in 40 years. For a brief few moments, the room was deathly quiet. Then my Dad punctuated the silence. With eloquent simplicity he spoke words I shall never forget: ‘Margie was a wonderful wife.'” (Adapted from “Calvin News,” July 30, 2003)
In his loving care for his ailing wife, John Cooper faithfully acted a bit like the Lord.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions
We’re almost there. The journey is almost ended. Joseph and Mary are nearing Bethlehem; the manger is in view for us now. The long period of waiting is nearly over, so in this lectionary reading from the epistles we turn from eschatology to doxology. As the angels will soon fill the night sky over Bethlehem with the cry, “Glory to God in the highest,” Paul calls us to give glory to God right here on earth for the incredibly complicated thing God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. It’s a fitting end to Paul’s long journey through the dense woods of great theology in Romans and a rousing conclusion to Advent. We can stop waiting now and give full voice to our praise– “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ.”
As I turned this theologically thick doxology over and over in my mind, trying to find a way to preach it, my attention kept returning to that word “wise.” On this last Sunday of Advent, Paul calls us to praise God for his wisdom. That’s not the attribute of God I would have chosen as a summary of all God has done in Jesus Christ. I would have focused on love, or grace, or mercy. Or being an old fashioned Reformed preacher I might have talked about the shadow side of those attributes, about justice done or wrath satisfied or holiness displayed. But as Paul ends his great theological treatise in which he covers all those attributes of God, he focuses on God’s wisdom. Why?
Well, think about how often we ask the great question, “Why, O God?” We don’t ask that in wonder because things have gone so well. We ask it in agony because we simply cannot understand why God allowed such awful things to happen to us and to his world. Why ebola? Why beheadings? Why the death of a child? We cannot fathom the reason for these things and we, frankly, disapprove of God’s allowing them. What was he thinking? What kind of God rules a world so full of suffering? Paul says, “the only wise God.” And rather than criticizing or questioning God, we should give him the glory.
Paul has said the same thing earlier in Romans, as he concluded his complicated explanation of God’s dealings with the Jews vis a vis the Gentiles. Remember how he ended that section? “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths are beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34) Now at the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul summarizes the wisdom of God in this tightly packed, theologically dense doxology. In essence, Paul wants us to give God all the glory for his wisdom displayed in the mystery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if we unpack this doxology, we’ll join Paul in his shout of praise as we approach the manger.
He begins by identifying God as “him who is able to establish you….” If Paul ends with a focus on the wisdom of God, he begins with God’s power (dunameno). After explaining the doctrines of salvation in great depth, Paul ends with this assurance that the Romans will not lose their salvation. By his great power, God will preserve his saints. We may not be able to hold on to God through all the challenges of our journey, but God is able to hold on to us. The one who brought us to faith will establish us in that faith to the end.
God will establish us “by my gospel” or, more accurately, “according (kata) to my gospel.” It was by means of the Gospel that God brought us to faith; “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) And it will be by the preaching of the Gospel that God will keep us in the faith. God exercises his saving power through the Gospel; it is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) I can’t think of a more powerful argument for regular church attendance. This is why there is no salvation apart from the church. Here is the first demonstration of God’s wisdom. The power of God to save the world works through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who would ever have guessed such a thing?
But that’s just the beginning of the mystery that shows God’s wisdom. The very heart of the mystery is Jesus himself. Paul speaks of “my Gospel” not because he invented it, but because it was given to him by God (cf. the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9). Lest there be any doubt about the nature of the gospel, Paul says it is “the proclamation (kerygma) of Jesus Christ.” In a world that proclaimed many ways of salvation, Paul and the rest of the early church insisted that there is just one way. Here’s another part of God’s wisdom. The power of God to save the world works only through Jesus Christ. Is that a restricting message! Only one? Paul didn’t see it that way. It was a liberating message. There is a way for everyone regardless of where they begin.
That universality of God’s mysterious plan is where Paul goes next in his explication of God’s wisdom. “The proclamation of Jesus Christ” is “according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God….” What was the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed? If Ephesians 3:3 and Colossians 1:26 are any indication, the mystery was that the Gentiles will be saved as completely as the Jews. Even they will have “Christ in them, the hope of glory.” That great truth had been revealed through the prophetic writings, but in a way that wasn’t clearly understood by the Jews. But now that the Jewish Messiah has come, the apostles preached about him using those prophecies that were formerly obscure. For example, think of the frequent use of Isaiah 53 or Psalm 110 throughout the New Testament.
Calvin put it well many years ago. “Although the prophets had formerly taught all that Christ and the apostle have explained, yet they taught it so much more obscurely, when compared to the shining clarity of the Gospel, that we need not be surprised if those things that are now revealed are said to have been hidden… We may, however, more properly conclude from the subject itself that only when God appeared to his ancient people face to face through his only begotten Son, were the shadows disbursed and the treasures of heavenly wisdom finally opened.”
Here, again, we see the wisdom of God in using formerly obscure prophecies to make clear what he had now done in Jesus Christ. We should not think that because God’s ways are unclear to us at this moment, they have no meaning in his good plan. What seems mysterious now will be revealed as part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In him, God is accomplishing his good purpose even when we can’t see it. Preaching the Gospel faithfully means using the obscurity of the prophets to reveal God’s wise plan to save us.
Paul reminds us that in his wisdom God intended to use the Jews to save all nations. Over the years, many of the Jews had forgotten this, even though God had announced it at the very beginning of his covenant dealings with them (Gen. 12:3) and reminded them again and again in the prophets. They had been called to “the obedience of faith,” and they saw that as a great privilege. But God always intended to use their obedience to draw the world to himself. Rather than overwhelm the world with his power, God chose one little nation to be the light that would draw the nations to himself. When Israel failed to be that light, the time was right to send “The Word” to be “the light of the world.” (John 1)
The light shined in the darkness, so that all nations might “believe and obey him.“ The Greek there in verse 26 is literally “the obedience of faith,” a pregnant expression that might mean the obedience that springs from faith or the obedience that is faith. I think the latter is more correct, though the former is true as well. What God demands of us first of all is faith. When the Philippian jailer asked what he had to do to be saved, Paul replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That’s the obedience of faith, and God wants all the nations to come to such obedience and be saved. God’s ways in the world among the nations might make us ask, “Why, God?” But Paul assures us that God in his wisdom is saving the world, drawing men and women from all nations to himself.
Paul concludes that we ought to give God glory because of Jesus Christ, or through Jesus Christ. The Greek order here makes this hard to figure out. Paul says literally, “to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever.” Does he mean that we ought to give God glory because of what he has gone through Jesus? Or does he mean that we see God’s wisdom in what he has done through Jesus? Probably both are true. But I like the idea that we see God’s wisdom most clearly through Jesus. Recall how Paul speaks of Jesus in I Corinthians 1:30: “in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
Think of it this way. Wisdom is practical and effective knowledge, not just head knowledge, but life knowledge, the best application of means to achieve an end. We say of a wise person, “She knows how to get things done so that life works,” as opposed to a highly educated, intelligent, knowledgeable person who “doesn’t have a clue about how to live in a right way.” In God’s wisdom, God knew how to get things done, how to make us right in his sight, holy in our lives, and completely reconciled to God. The only way to accomplish all that was through Jesus Christ. Through him, God makes individual lives and the history of the world work the way they are supposed to work. Jesus is the wisdom of God.
So, through him, we give God the glory for his wisdom. Who but God could have dreamed up and executed such an unusual, complicated, and effective plan to save the world he loved. As we gaze into the manger this week, let us join the angels in singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” As I Peter 1:10-12 says, “angels long to look” into the mystery of salvation that has now been revealed to us in Christ.
How can we glorify the God who already has all the glory? What can that mean? The other day I read a report about the first official scrimmage of the Cleveland Cavaliers since LeBron James rejoined that team. Everyone already knows that James is the best player in the National Basketball Association. Accolades have been heaped upon him ever since he began to play basketball. He already has all the glory. But the article described how glorious James was in this first scrimmage—how he passed, how he rebounded, how he dunked, how he shot, how he defended, how the whole team was better because he was there. This report proclaimed the glory of LeBron James in a way that made him seem even more glorious. His glory was magnified for all to see. That’s what Paul calls us to do with God in our own lives and in the world. Give him the glory because of his wisdom displayed in Jesus Christ.
In his magnificent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller gives a personal example of the wisdom of God’s mysterious plan. “ Redeemer (Presbyterian Church, the church Keller pastors) exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were sent to New York City to start this new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.
“This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications. What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level of help. The student was the son of the sitting President of the United States at that time. Why was his father President? It was because the former President, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.
“What if the security guard had not noticed that door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction? In that case—nothing else in the long string of ‘coincidences” would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.”
We don’t usually get to see how things fit together in God’s plan that way. Christ is the ultimate proof of God’s wise plan for those times when it’s all just a mystery and we ask, “Why, God?”