It's been few years since we did a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year program. But it's time once again at the beginning of the new year to do it again. This year we will use the online ESV program found here.
You can read the texts provided each day on your computer or phone or you can just note what the readings are and use your own Bible. If you want to have a copy of the plan on paper so you can read from your physical Bible, you can download the pdf file here. I think I'll use my own Bible. I like to make notes and I can better remember where passages are visually in my own well-used Bible. But that's up to you.
I've also created a closed Facebook page for those of you who want to comment or ask questions about any of the daily readings. This will be a private page and NOT open to the public. So only members of the group will see the comments and questions. You can use the posts on this page to share something surprising you read in the daily reading, ask a question, or even ask for prayer. It's up to you. I'll do my best to post comments regularly to encourage you in your reading or explain and apply some portion of Scripture. It's easy to get discouraged with a through-the-Bible-in-a-year program. Hopefully this FB page will help keep us all on track and motivated.
When you click on the Facebook link and get to that page you won't see much because the page is private. Just click the "join" button and I'll get a notification to approve your request. If you know of Providence members or attenders that would like to join, feel free to add them to the group. Of course, if you don't have a Facebook account, you'll have to do that first (I think).
Happy New Year!
Pastor Jeff Meyers
It is disappointing to see churches observe Advent but have no clue about its meaning or proper observation in the liturgy of the church. The Advent season sometimes seems to function simply as a countdown to Christmas Day, or worse, a silly exercise in let’s pretend that we are living in the days before Jesus came.
First, Advent and Christmas should not sentimentalized. The celebration of Christmas for Christians in the church must have nothing to do with sentimental reflections on the cuteness or innocence of infancy. What the church sees in the Nativity is not the sentimental picture which is accessible to unbelievers. In the descent of God to man, the church celebrates a reality which can be perceived by faith alone: the beginning of the divine action that would bring man back to God. The beginning, not the end.
There is no spiritual power for us in simply thinking about the baby Jesus. Important as it was that the Second Person of the Godhead take on our humanity and be born as a man, just thinking about baby Jesus and how sweet and nice he might have been has no spiritual power for us. It does not transform our lives. All the sappy poems that are read and all the cute little Christmas movies that kids watch have little or nothing to do with the church’s celebration of Advent and Christmas. There’s nothing necessarily evil or dangerous about them. They are simply not enough.
Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday party. We have greatly impoverished Advent and Christmas when all we have left is some vague sentimentalized commemoration of the baby Jesus. Pagans do this all the time. Nativity scenes here and there. Syrupy Christmas misic everywhere. This is the only thing left in American popular culture. Sentimental feelings about a baby. Christmas has been Disneyfied. The climax of the Disney idea of Christmas, remember, is those cute little animals huddled together around an indistinct warm glow. There is nothing left but that indistinct war glow, the mere feeling of niceness. There is more to the Christian faith than that. Again, there is no spiritual power in this stuff.
The word “advent" is derived from the Latin word adventus which means “coming” or “arrival." Advent is the time of year when we reflect upon the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent begins 40 days before Christmas day (or simply 4 weeks in the Western church). Remember, a period of forty days or forty years in the Scriptures symbolizes a time of testing and preparation (wilderness wanderings, the Ninevites had 40 days of Jonah’s preaching, Jesus tempted for 40 days and nights, etc.).
Advent, then, is a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. But it is just here that so many churches are confused. We are not preparing for his first coming. That has already happened. The Son of God became man, suffered, died, rose again, and has ascended into heaven as Lord. Whatever Advent means for the church, it simply cannot be a time when we pray for his first coming. And there is no spiritual power in make-believe prayers about his first coming. Acting as if he hasn’t come, as if we were the generation waiting for his birth is not what Advent is all about. Let that sink in.
The Church of Jesus Christ has always insisted that it is not the birth of Christ by itself that we are to focus our attention on at Advent and Christmas. Instead, it is the birth of Jesus that causes us to mediate on the faithfulness of God in the past, present, and future. More than that, we are encouraged to prepare and pray for the coming of the Lord now.
The life and worship of the church is prayer. “My house shall be a house of prayer,” Jesus said. How could we pray for his first coming? We can't. How can we pray for what has already happened? He’s already come. So when we sing the Advent hymn “O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel” we are not play-acting, as if we are Israelites living before the birth of Jesus. This hymn is a corporate prayer. We are the new Israel. And we are asking Jesus to come again and again to deliver us from sin and the curse. We use the language and imagry of his first coming, but the prayer is addressed to our faithful God in reference to our present mourning in lowly exile. All good Advent hymns are prayers.
It is especially imperative that we who live at the beginning of the 21th century, who are so comfortable, so well installed in this world, not lose the fervor of the hope for the world to come. The purpose of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany is regularly to reanimate that hope, that expectation, to move us again to pray for the coming of Jesus in our time. Embracing such a posture of prayer would help the church resist the sentimentalization of Christmas in America’s sappy civil religion.
So the theme of Advent is the coming of the kingdom, and the coming of Jesus Christ. We pray for him to come again in time and history as well as at the Last Day. And that’s why the readings in Advent focus not only on his first coming, but also on the second coming, and on all the various ways that Christ comes to us in history. He comes to deliver us from sin and the curse in many ways.
The traditional Advent lessons remind us that Christ first coming is a pledge of his second coming. We don’t yet see all things put under his feet. We don’t yet experience the fullness of the kingdom so we look for the age to come. Moreover, we not only want Jesus to come at the end of history and wrap things up, but we also want Jesus to come in history and deliver us from oppression, from hardship, deliver us from sin, deliver us from fools, from foolish or oppressive governments, and more. We want Jesus to come and give us blessing and put down our enemies. We want him to come and give us the Lord Supper and be specially present with us in the assembly of believers. These are all comings of Christ. And on Advent our attention is focused on the fact that our God is a faithful God who comes in answer to prayers of his people.
The "political" or "civil use" of the Decalogue often gets little or no attention these days. But every polis needs a legal code that will shape the way people live in relation to one another; and the ten commandments have an inexorably social dimension. Yahweh gave the Ten Words to an amorphous Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It was to be the charter for their new culture, foundational words that would mold and shape them into a peaceful, productive society. The Decalogue is not given simply to guide individuals in their religious, private piety. It does that, our course. But it is also about how the community is called to live together in marriages, families, cities, and larger communities. Here are two ways of summarizing the Ten Words that bring out the cultural focus.
The first way highlights what God seeks to promote in human civilization. The Ten Words are intended to form a particular type of society. The decalogue so that communities of people would
1. put their trust in the true God (“In God we trust”),
2. worship God in a fitting way,
3. bear the Name of God in a glorious way in their daily lives,
4. safeguard people from the slavery of never-ending work and free them to gather for worship on the day of the Lord,
5. honor and obey parents and others in authority,
6. protect the life of the innocent,
7. remain true to their marriage covenants.
8. respect the right of private property against theft,
9. insure that courts are respected and justice is the norm because people testify honestly,
10. be content with what gifts and goods with which God has blessed them.
The second way of summarizing the Ten Words calls attention to what is prohibited and the consequences of violating God's law.
1. If a community of people does not trust the true God, then someone will step in and play God, and that is most often “the State.”
2. People that worship God through the medium of lifeless stone statutes and static images will dehumanize themselves and will bring judgment upon themselves and their children’s children.
3. A culture that bears the name Christian but does not behave as such will not be able to hide from God’s righteous condemnation.
4. When cultural authorities effectively enslave people by not allowing them rest and/or denying them the freedom of assembly for worship, then the culture is in danger of an Egyptian-style judgment.
5. A culture that encourages dishonoring parents and others in authority will not last very long.
6. When a nation refuses to protect the life of the innocent, the entire culture will be put to death.
7. An adulterous people will experience the unraveling of lesser forms of covenants and contracts.
8. A nation full of thieves will themselves be plundered.
9. Without honest testimony, a community’s court system cannot hope ever to administer justice.
10. Coveting and envying others' gifts and property will result in social unrest.
By God’s ordination civil authorities wield deadly force. Even so, they should not “bear the sword in vain,” but do so as “servants of God, avengers who carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Police officers with guns are not the problem. How police use their guns is a concern. Perhaps also the number and kind of guns the police possess should also be discussed. There’s been a lot of talk about the militarization of the police. Surely there is a time to beef up the protection and force the police use, especially when there are riots. But over the past decade or so we have seen, apart from any genuine need, the increased militarization of the police in our country. What is the justification for this? Violent crime has been steadily decreasing in America. So why are our local police forces suited up for battle? Don’t get me wrong. My militarization comments only apply to the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, not the incident itself. My main point here is that the police have a right to use lethal force and are given rules of engagement for its proper use. Christians should have no problem with that.
Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson Police officer. Whether the officer who shot Michael Brown was justified in his use of lethal force is the big question right now. Parents, relatives, and friends have a right to insist on an investigation into the circumstances. And it’s understandable that the family is looking to avenge the death of Michael and assume that he was unjustly murdered. That they have elevated this incident into an example of racism is regrettable, but hardly surprising. But whether they are justified in this accusation against the officer is the real question.
In biblical law the relatives of someone killed had the duty to avenge the death of their “brother.” The one who prosecuted the vengeance was actually called an “avenger of blood” (Numbers 35:9-34). But the alleged murderer had rights, too. No one was to be judicially sentenced to death apart from a trial and the compelling evidence of two or three witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). So when the close relative came after the alleged murderer the accused was allowed to flee to a “city of refuge” where the avenger of blood could not touch him until there was a fair trial. All of this took time and careful investigation, including the calling of and weighing of the testimony of witnesses. That is what is going on right now in St. Louis. A grand jury is being presented with the evidence. Currently no one outside of the grand jury knows what actually happened. We get bits and pieces leaked to us from the news media every day, but we simply don’t know the whole story. We have to wait for that. So does the family. So do the protesters.
We should not be naïve. Certain types of people are drawn to these kinds of public events for all kinds of nefarious reasons. The Bible calls these characters “sons of Belial” (Judges 19:22; 2 Chr. 13:7). They always seem to gravitate to mobs where they can engage in violence anonymously (Acts 17:5). Violent and lawless men like this agitate for their own selfish ends. Christians should be asking God to “break the teeth” of these ungodly men (Psalm 3:7; 58:6). The peaceful protestors are showing solidarity with the family in desiring for justice. That’s okay. The family occupies the place of the “avengers of blood” in the old biblical justice system. The community is standing with them. And the local and State prosecutors will take up their cause. But the looters and violent rioters have no place in this process and will bring destruction on their own heads, to say nothing of the havoc they are creating in the Ferguson community.
And we also need to prepare for the possibility that we may never get the real story. The fog of racial politics is billowing all around this investigation. Justice is supposed to be blind. The race, economic status, etc. of the parties involved in this case ought to be bracketed in the investigation and trial. But, of course, this has become the headline concern. And it will only serve to add confusion to the core issue in this case. Add to this the temptation for police departments and DA offices to protect their own. Throw into the pot the national news coverage, the insertion of the Feds into the case, the fear of a politically incorrect outcome to the investigation, and one wonders if we will ever really get an accurate account of what transpired between the officer and Michael Brown. We hope so. But one thing is certain: don’t expect to discover what actually happened listening to the day-by-day news coverage on TV.
Moreover, taking the fight (which ever side you are on) to social media will not make any difference in the outcome. Posting comments on Facebook may give you a good feeling, but it really doesn’t change anything. These new media outlets are not good for much else than the proverbial “sound bites.” This is a matter that calls for serious investigation and analysis, something that Facebook and Twitter cannot sustain.
The one thing we can do as Christians is exercise our prophetic calling and petition God to act. Remember, as prophets we are trusted members of God’s heavenly council, and that privileged status allows us to petition him on matters that pertain to the administration of his world. And the petition for “justice” is one that is found all through the Bible. Consider Luke 18:1-8
And Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me vengeance against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God avenge his chosen ones, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.
We should also not forget the individuals and families involved in this mess. Events like this tend to become iconic and then used by politicians and social activists to further their own causes. The actual people affected by the shooting, the riots, and the unrest get lost in the circus of political posturing. Petition God for mercy on the officer, his family, the Brown family, the store owners who have been looted, and the entire community of Ferguson that will likely not get over these past weeks for many years.
Q. The two parables from this passage promise the growth of the kingdom, but what about all the places in the New Testament that talk about how bad things will be at the end times?
A. When New Testament authors use the phrases "the last days," "end times," "last hour," "end of the age," and more they are referring to their own situation. Paul says in Hebrews that "in these last days God has spoken to us through his Son" (Heb. 1:2). John says, "it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18-19). They are talking about the end of human history in some distant future. Rather, they are talking about what is happening right then and there. What's coming to an end in their lifetime is the old age or the "old covenant." And it is ending as God brings judgment, specifically the judgment coming on the apostate Jews and Jerusalem. The church needed to know that the old age with its Jewish-centered world, sacrifices, food laws, a central sanctuary, etc.–all of that was ending in judgment. The work of Jesus ushered in a new age and therefore ended the old age.
Paul warns Timothy: "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money. . ." (2 Tim. 3:1). He's not talking about something that will happen in the 21st century or at the end of human history. He's talking about what is going on in the world that Timothy and his congregation inhabited. And the evidence is all over New Testament history that as the church grew in faith and love, the apostate Jews grew more violent and hateful in their zealotry. After 40 years of grace and multiple opportunities to repent, the Lord came in judgment in AD 70.
So the bottom line is this: When Jesus and the Apostles predict evil, suffering, and tribulation for the last days they are referring to their own time and situation. They were living in the "last days" of the old world. Once Jerusalem and the apostate Jews are judged, the kingdom expands and grows.
I've used this chart before. Perhaps it will help.
I have a lot of "leftovers" after most sermons. These are mostly thoughts that I didn't have time to squeeze into the sermon. Sometimes also there are questions that you all raise after the sermon that seem appropriate to answer. I don't know about you, but sometimes eating the leftovers after meals is just as good as the meal itself. So occasionally I'm going to post what I think may be interesting or helpful points related to the text of the sermon. Feel free to comment with questions about the sermon itself, too.