Sunday, January 13, 2019

Miracles in the Name of Jesus - The God of Special Providence

What Happened to John the Baptist?
(Mark 6:14-29, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, January 13, 2018)

[14] King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” [15] But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” [16] But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” [17] For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her. [18] For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” [19] And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, [20] for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

[21] But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. [22] For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” [23] And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” [24] And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” [25] And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” [26] And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. [27] And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison [28] and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. [29] When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Who is Jesus?

As we make good use of this horrifying passage, we must not forget that the context of the recounting of this earlier story has to do with the troubling question of the identity of Jesus. Who was this Man? We are told that “King Herod heard” of something? What was it? From the previous verses we know that the Lord had sent out His disciples two by two in order to preach. He also gave them authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick, which they did. Where did this power shining forth in the Name of Jesus come from? Some were saying that Jesus was really John the Baptist raised from the dead. Others proposed different suggestions.

Herod Antipas was persuaded that it was indeed John. It is intriguing that John would be guessed, since the working of miracles is not particularly associated with his name. Perhaps John's clear message was so convicting that many believed that this new ministry accompanied by signs from heaven must be from John. Herod thought that the story of John was over. Now it seemed that it was not so is to be rid of the truth. Herod was afraid.

Herod's Fear Considered

What was Herod so afraid of? Herod Antipas, the youngest son of Herod the Great, had entered into a relationship with Herodias, his niece and the wife of his half brother, Philip. At the time Antipas and Herodias were both married to other people. Both then divorced their spouses and entered into a new marriage covenant with each other. John said that this was “unlawful,” either because Herodias was the niece of Antipas, or because both Antipas and Herodias had pursued unlawful divorces and then had married unlawfully, or for both of these reasons. In any case Herodias found John's opposition to her uncle impossible to ignore, and she sought to destroy him.

Antipas feared John, but he also protected the prophet from the murderous intentions of Herodias. He was greatly “perplexed” by John's message of repentance and the kingdom of God. We learn that Antipas heard John gladly, but the time soon came when he would deliver John over to death.

The Trap for Herod and John

When the opportunity arose for Herodias, she seized upon it. We have read the story of her daughter's dancing in the presence of dignitaries and all that transpired so quickly after the extravagant public words of Antipas at his own birthday celebration. The daughter of Herodias sought her mother for advice regarding what she might ask Antipas for on this strange occasion. The young dancer relayed the horrific instruction: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Herod's excuse in this matter looks pitifully weak. He protected his own pride, and his vicious wife was able to bring about the unjust murder of a righteous man.

Actions have consequences, and one of the results of this horrible episode in history is that Antipas was troubled when he heard that Jesus and those serving in His Name were performing great signs. He determined that John had risen from the dead. Of course, this was not true. What was true was that Herod Antipas was unsettled by the events of the day. It was further true that Jesus was not John, but the Christ, the Son of God.

John the Baptist was an extraordinary servant of God who ended his days on the earth as a martyr. How could this be right? Why would God allow it? Can there be any sense in the teaching of our fathers in the faith that God not only permits, but even ordains all things which come to pass?

Glorious victories for the Lord's children may sometimes appear to be our worst defeats. John's faithfulness to the Lord in the face of powerful opposition was his finest hour.

How do we evaluate tragedies and triumphs in the kingdom of God? More importantly, how does the Almighty look upon His beloved servants who suffer for the sake of Jesus and His righteousness? Consider these two words of God to His children: “Well done.”

Is God really in charge of everything? Yes. (Psalms 33:11, Isaiah 14:24, Acts 2:23, Ephesians 1:11-12). Could God actually being doing great things in the most horrific events of life in a fallen world? Yes, especially for His chosen ones. Notice WCF 5-7. “As the providence of God does, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it takes care of his Church, and disposes all things to the good thereof. (1Timothy 4:10, Amos 9:8-9, Romans 8:28-29, Isaiah 43:3-5,14)”

Can there be comfort only in persecution, or is there also hope in accident and evil? Yes. Because Jesus was not John sent back to plague Herod, but the God of all providence.

For further meditation, consider Romans 5:1-11, Romans 8:18-39, and James 1:9-11. This world is not all there is. There is something beyond the temporary. Jesus lives.

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 92 – Bearing Christian Fruit in a Fallen World

New Testament Reading—James 1:9-11 Temporary Glory

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Sent Out with Authority

What is Our Mission?
(Mark 6:7-13, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, January 6, 2018)

[7] And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. [8] He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—[9] but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. [10] And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. [11] And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” [12] So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. [13] And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

The twelve sent out with authority

We join the key apostles/disciples at a time of massive transition. We have already heard in an earlier passage (Mark 3:13-19) about our Lord's choice of “the twelve” to be His disciples. The only reason given for choosing these particular men was that these were “those he desired.” Immediately following the listing of the men, a large crowd follows Jesus home (3:20), and Jesus' family comes to the conclusion that He was “out of His mind.” (3:21) Very soon after that, Jesus reminded those listening to His Word that “whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (3:35)

As we see the twelve being sent out on the Israel mission (Mat. 10:5) prior to the much larger Great Commission, we can understand that observers might consider that Jesus was not thinking straight simply based on the people He chose for these key positions of servant leadership. Several of these men were simple fisherman from a part of Israel that was not highly respected by the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. Another was a tax collector who would have been hated by the crowds that hoped to be out from under the thumb of the Roman authorities. Worst of all, we now know that one of the men was Judas, who would be a traitor to Christ and to the kingdom of God.

These were some of the men that Jesus sent out two by two as His ambassadors. He also gave them amazing spiritual gifts. It was by the command of Jesus that these particular chosen ones had “authority over unclean spirits.” Wow!

The Master's charge

Jesus gave the disciples specific instructions that few mission agencies would consider sensible today. He told them to “take nothing for the journey.” Now we prudently insist that a missionary raise a very high percentage of funds before he or she leaves for the mission field. As Jesus sent out the twelve, He did not insist on meeting minimum fund-raising targets. Instead He told the men the maximum that they could take with them: a walking stick and the clothes they were wearing. Shocking.

What about when they arrived on site? We might be happiest to report the number of different families that hosted us. Without any particular explanation, Jesus insisted that the teams of two not split up, but stay in one house during the whole time spent in that village or town. There was no sense of solid strategic advice that is so popular today, We might have imagined that key cities would have been identified, leaving smaller locations to future teachers and miracle workers. If there was any such planning for this mission we do not have any record of it.

What should they do if their host family or the the town that they were staying in proved to be inhospitable to the message of the kingdom or the activities of the Lord's servants in confronting the works of Satan? There was no loud pronouncement against the offenders. Nor was there was any super-tolerant and polite expression of appreciation for those who had rejected them. The commanded display, “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them,” was something for God to see. It was not loud but quiet, but it was also not a complement but a divine judicial testimony against them.

So they went out

These were the Lord's men and His instructions, at least for then and there. With this direction they went into an inhospitable world. Would limiting the geographic scope of the mission to Israel give the disciples the advantage of at least being among their own people group? The evidence is exactly the opposite. Gentiles were more receptive than Jews. This was a mission only to Jews, so it was a very challenging assignment.

These men, with these instructions, brought a message that many in Israel had already heard. One would have to assume that those who wanted to respond would have already done so. What was the message? The same as what John the Baptist had proclaimed and Jesus had reiterated. The kingdom of God was at hand. It was time to repent of sin.

I recently listened to the testimony of a Scottish man who had a very challenging upbringing, went to prison, came out unconverted, and eventually was called to faith by the Lord. He found Matthew Henry's six-volume commentary on the Bible somewhere, and thinking at first that it was the Bible itself, he read it all in about two months. He was particularly attracted to Paul's Letter to the Romans. It confronted lies he had been told all his life. Chief among them was the idea that he was at root a good person who was not responsible for his murderous behavior. He saw that God was calling him to repent and to find forgiveness through Jesus alone. This message was true in the days of Mark 6 and is still true today.

Jesus sent out the twelve to call people to repent. He also gave them authority to confront an evil spiritual empire. They “cast out demons” and “anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” How was it that these signs took place? Brilliant ambassadors? Shockingly intelligent methodology? Or was it just the power and grace of God using weak sinners to extend the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ to other harassed sinners in a way that fit His plan for Israel moving from Old Testament to New Testament life?

Think about it. This band of chosen servants went out. They proclaimed a message: that people should repent. They confronted the devil and his works according to Christ's instruction. The message that He and John had preached and the miracles that He had performed now became the ministry of the disciples throughout the territory of ancient Israel. Not everything they did immediately transfers to us. Still, the church is being sent out in every generation in accord with the teaching of the Scriptures. Will we follow where our Lord leads us by His Word? Every step the twelve took was one step closer to the cross of Christ and His resurrection. Every step the church takes now in obedience to our Master moves us one step closer to the return of the King and the new creation. What is your mission? What is our mission? Shall we trust Him through every change?

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 91 – Show Us Your Salvation

New Testament Reading—James 1:5-8 Ask God in faith for wisdom from above

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Back to Mark, and to Nazareth

What now, Lord?
(Mark 6:1-6, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, December 30, 2018)

[1] He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. [2] And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? [3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. [4] And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” [5] And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. [6] And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.

Special Messengers of the Best Form of Happiness

Back on June 3, 2018, we began a series in Mark's gospel. We took a break over the last four weeks to enjoy Luke 1 and 2 together. This morning we continue our celebration of the coming of the Messiah and we also return to Mark's gospel, but as we do, let's remind ourselves of where that great message began in Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” How would we find out and who would believe?

Mark quoted Isaiah and Malachi to make the point from the Hebrew prophets. He then spoke of John the Baptist who surely saw the great worth of the coming of the Lamb of God. The Father and the Spirit also testified to the glory of Jesus. Unseen realms of angels and devils knew about it and became secondary players in the events happening in Israel. But especially, Jesus knew who He was and why He had come. He clearly had immediate revelation from the Father. He knew that it was time for action, and He knew where to go and what to do.

His hometown

Which brings us to Jesus' mission in Mark 6 to His own hometown of Nazareth. What do we know about Nazareth from the Bible? First, it was the place that Jesus came from. Even though He (in His divine nature) existed eternally in heaven with the Father and the Spirit, and even though He was born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah 5:2, and even though in his earliest years His parents were facing murderous dangers and went into Egypt and then later out of Egypt, Jesus spent His growing up years in Nazareth. When crowds spoke of Him they often referred to Him as Jesus of Nazareth.

What else do we know? We know that there was a synagogue in this town, and that it was the Lord's custom to attend the services there on Saturday, the Old Testament Sabbath day. We also know that the region of Galilee and the town of Nazareth were not held in high regard by the religious authorities. Even one of the men who would be part of the twelve disciples, when he heard that Jesus came from this lowly place made this comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:42)

One more fact from Mark 6:1, when Jesus came to Nazareth on this occasion He was not alone. “His disciples followed Him.” We might have expected that this would be a great time for God to bring about the transformation of this suffering village. Apparently not. The locals were not entirely pleased.


The synagogue goers in first century Nazareth had some obvious questions. Where? They heard His message [based on a passage in Isaiah 61:1-2?] regarding the ministry of the expected Messiah. They said, “Where did this man get these things?” What? “What is the wisdom given to him?” How? “How are such mighty works done by his hands?” Who? “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And finally, implicitly they are asking one more important question. When? We knew you. You were nobody not that long ago. When did you become somebody? “They took offense.” A prophet at home.

We have a question for the questioners. Does Jesus offend you? Why? We have to be careful or we will just end up with two groups of offended people, one for Jesus, and another one against Him. Our better line of inquiry is this: “What is God doing here?” This is not the natural question we ask, which might be something more like this: “Why did God not give His Son Nazareth that day. The very center of Jesus' own friends and neighbors becomes not a locus of faith but of unbelief. Why?

Jesus the answer

Jesus is the answer for Nazareth and for the world. He is the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses wrote, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”

But they did not listen. At that point, if we were writing the script, we might have had Jesus do a series of big miracles right there like God did with Moses in Exodus 4:27-31. Convert them all with a spectacle. He does not. Instead we have the absence of the divine gift of faith—unbelief. Jesus marveled at that. He healed a few and kept on going.

What now, Lord?

Why would God not have awakened the town of Nazareth when one of their own was doing the signs of Messiah in neighboring villages like Capernaum? In the 19th century, Scottish missionary John Paton first lived on the New Hebrides Pacific island of Tanna, where others before him had been eaten by cannibals. He had very little fruit there. He spent four years alone on Tanna after his wife and son died of fever. He then returned after four years of mobilization to a smaller neighboring island of Aniwa with his second wife and ministered there until her death 41 years later. Almost the entire island was converted. How did Aniwa compare with Nazareth? No experience with Jesus as a child. No real personal contacts with Jesus. No synagogue preaching God's Word every Sabbath. No ministry of John the Baptist preparing the way. A cannibalistic culture. What do they get? Gospel revolution. Why? Don't know. I am learning to be careful of having answers where God is silent. Would we be offended by those who take offense, and marvel at faith? Instead, let's marvel at unbelief (re providence), and keep on going.

A new year has come upon us. How will we face the trials and opportunities ahead? What will the Lord do with our efforts and achievements this year? Will we be noticed and appreciated in a world that was ready to treat even Jesus dishonorably? Marvel at unbelief and keep on going with the ministry that God has given us. Live. Teach. (6:6)

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 90 – Establish the work of our hands

New Testament Reading—James 1:1-4 Meeting trials

Monday, December 24, 2018

Two facts to treasure in your hearts: 1. They found the baby Jesus. 2. Jesus found you.

Birth of Jesus
(Luke 2:1-20, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, December 24, 2018)

[1] In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. [2] This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. [3] And all went to be registered, each to his own town. [4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, [5] to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. [6] And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. [7] And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

[8] And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. [10] And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. [11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. [12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 among those with whom he is pleased!”
[15] When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” [16] And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. [17] And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. [18] And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. [19] But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. [20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem

When Augustus was the emperor in Rome and a man named Quirinius had charge over the province of Syria, there was an imperial decree that all the area under Roman authority “should be registered.” Everyone needed to return to the place of record-keeping for their families. In the case of Joseph, this meant traveling with his very expectant wife, Mary, to the town of Bethlehem, the ancestral home of the long-deceased King David.

Joseph and Mary lived in a northern section of Israel, Galilee, in a town called Nazareth, that was not a place of great renown. They went south toward Jerusalem, which in the Bible is always referred to as going “up” since Jerusalem was the place where the temple was located. Bethlehem was not far from Jerusalem.

While they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor and gave birth. The baby was her “firstborn son” and would have appeared to be just like any other poor newborn in that time and place, except that they were away from home and had no place to stay. That was why the baby was resting in a feeding trough, since there was “no place for them in the inn.”

Her Firstborn Son is a Savior, Christ the Lord

All of this would have escaped everyone's attention had it not been for what was taking place on the outskirts of this little town, where “there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” We have been speaking of towns that were thought to be something worth noting (or not), places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. But now we need to think about an entirely different realm: heaven.
When an “angel of the Lord” comes to earth with a message, where does he come from? Heaven. I wonder if the shepherds believed in heaven. It is hard to conclusively and objectively reject the reality of other realms that do not make it on to our maps. If there is nothing else but this world of GPS locations and adjacent wilderness, then where did Isaiah go in Isaiah 6? What about all the other Hebrew prophets over the centuries that were witnesses of a “heavenly council” where they received their commissioning? Were they all delusional? Where did the voice come from at Jesus' baptism? What happened at the Transfiguration? Where did Jesus go when witnesses saw Him rise up on clouds of glory in Luke 24 and Acts 1? And what in the world happened to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus?

Back to today: Are we to dismiss the reports of thousands who “die” and then return to life? Is all of this nothing? Must we conclude that the world that is open to our senses is the only thing that is real? What a strange presupposition, particularly in light of the testimony of so many both in the Bible and in life itself?

It is one of these events that was recorded for us by Luke the intellectual (doctor, historian, writer, faithful friend and companion of Paul). He learned from others about the report of these ordinary people just doing their jobs that night. They heard first from one angel and then from a large number of them—a “multitude of the heavenly host.” The shepherds reported the frightening spectacle of a great light as the first angel appeared to them. Luke wrote that “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

The first angel had a message: 1. Don't be afraid, 2. I have good news of the birth of a Messiah Savior who is the Lord Himself, and 3. Here is a sign for your faith—a newborn baby in a feeding trough for animals.

Supporting and authenticating that message was the sudden appearance of many more angels. Their message: 1. Glory to God, and 2. Peace on earth for elect humanity everywhere.

Go Quickly and See

This would have immediately been tremendously impressive, but the heavenly words needed to be supported by facts on earth. No time could be wasted. Off went our first century fact finders to do what we simply cannot do at a distance of 2000 years. Investigate. Was there actually a baby born in this village that night among the many travelers that came to the ancient birthplace of King David, and was he indeed lying in a feeding trough? Yes, He was. The shepherds told the parents about the heavenly display and the message they had heard. Mary treasured up the entire experience which eventually was investigated by our smart friend, Luke, and recorded for us to consider. The shepherds returned marveling about what they had seen and heard, first from heaven, but then witnessed by their own eyes on earth.

Tonight, after the passage of 2000 years, the words of the angels are further vindicated when people thousands of miles away from Bethlehem hear the message of the poor baby born to live and die and believe it to be good news. Is it good news that Jesus was born? Is He Christ the Messiah and the Lord Himself come to do what only He could do? Did He live and die for you? Is He risen from the dead? Is heaven real?

Two facts to treasure in your hearts: 1. They found the baby Jesus. 2. Jesus found you.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Providence and Revelation

Birth of John
(Luke 1:57-80, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, December 23, 2018)

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
[68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
[69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
[70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
[71] that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
[72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
[73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
[74] that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
[75] in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
[76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
[77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
[78] because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
[79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
[80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Naming John: Jehovah has been Gracious

Let's talk Providence and Revelation in the Bible and in your life: What is providence? (Psalm 139:13-16, Luke 12:6-7) What is revelation? (Written: 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Visitation: Abraham-Genesis 12:2-3, 17:15-21, Zechariah-Luke 1:13-18)

However anyone evaluates the Judeo-Christian tradition, it should be clear that Jehovah/Yahweh/Adonai/Elohim is not a new God. The name “John” means “Jehovah has been gracious.” Yes He has, and He has been around a long time. Jehovah (I-AM) has been providing His providence and speaking His revelation for many centuries. The two—providence and revelation—are related. God often uses the first to convince us that we should listen to the second. Abraham and Sarah had a very hard time believing the Word of God until they began to see the provisions of His providence. The same is true for Zechariah. He was told by an angel about a son that should be named John. How could he believe that? Providence helped him, though it was not entirely pleasant. He lost his voice for nearly a year, and then received it back again. Meanwhile John arrived. He knew what the name of the boy had to be. He also knew that the end of the Old Testament prophets had spoken of this child. That “end” demanded further revelation. Malachi 4:5-6 spoke of God sending Elijah before the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. That certainly opened up a question that had to wait for an answer. Who was this “Elijah?” We received the explanation of this and thousands of other critically difficult Old Testament riddles in the New Testament (Matthew 11:14).

We needed a speaking God to come and finish His book. Jehovah has been gracious. He sent John to prepare the way for His great arrival as the only God/Man, Jesus, whose name means “I-AM salvation.”

The Prophecy of Zechariah

Now that baby John was born and named, and now that John's father could speak again, more revelation was given through the very man who had trouble believing the revelation that had been given to him. What did God say by the Holy Spirit?

He spoke of John as the prophet of the Most High ... the Lord ... the Coming One who would visit and redeem. Jesus, the promised Son of David, would be “a horn of salvation.” Through Jesus, Israel would be “saved” from their “enemies.” They would receive “mercy” which had been “promised” to their ancestors in God's “covenant.” That “covenant” or “testament” was ultimately a book that we call the Old Testament, and it was also an arrangement by which God related to ancient Israel when all the rest of the world was following nature-based religions with their own stories to tell.

As a book, the Old Testament was quite challenging, because 1. It contained so many difficult interpretive questions that were not answered, and 2. It had no adequate literary ending within itself. (Torah: Deuteronomy 34:9-12 [confer Deuteronomy 18:15], Prophets: Malachi 4:5-6 [confer Jeremiah 31:31], Writings: 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 [confer Esther 1:1, 3:13, 4:14) The Old Testament believers were trusting in God for answers, but they had many reasonable questions about central issues of the “knowledge of salvation” and “the forgiveness of their sins.” John would “go before the Lord to prepare His ways.” He would begin to give answers to these open questions especially by pointing to the Passover “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John would begin to give us the ending of the book that was left for 400 years in a status of being clearly unfinished. What great news it was that the ending contained a “way of peace” with God based not only on His uncompromising justice, but also on His “tender mercy!”

Christmas Guidance from Heaven

John was a gift from God who prepared the people for an even greater gift. Jehovah was gracious in giving Israel a prophet to prepare the way of the Lord. Even more grace has been bestowed on the world through the gift of Jesus, the “Sunrise” who has visited us from on high. He will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Two specifics for you:
1. Find the right ending to the revelation of the Old Testament. Don't settle for some fan fiction, or for the very unsatisfying solution of having no ending to the book at all.
2. Find the right ending to the puzzling providence of God in your life. Your life is an unfinished book. Who are you going to trust to write the ending?

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 89 – Remember, O Lord!

Sunday, December 16, 2018

God My Savior

Elizabeth and Mary
(Luke 1:39-56, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, December 16, 2018)

[39] In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, [40] and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. [41] And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, [42] and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! [43] And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? [44] For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. [45] And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

[46] And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
[47] and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
[48] for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
[49] for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
[50] And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
[51] He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
[52] he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
[53] he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
[54] He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
[55] as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
[56] And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

Elizabeth and Mary

It is always an amazing miracle for a woman to carry within her body a new life (Psalm 139:13-16). This was certainly the case for Elizabeth who was beyond the age of childbearing. How much more Mary who had never known a man.

We would only expect those who are of age to be impressed with these matters. It shocks us to learn that John the Baptist has a reaction to this visit even though he is himself in the womb of Elizabeth.

We are told that “Mary arose and went with haste” to visit Elizabeth. In traditional cultures, a visitor's voice calling out from the gate was the only doorbell that anyone would expect. Elizabeth and her son both react to Mary's arrival. “The baby leaped in her womb,” and the elderly mother spoke an inspired message by the Holy Spirit.

Why such a stir? The young visitor was greatly blessed “among women” by God. How so? Many may carry little ones, but the “fruit” of Mary's virgin womb is the saving Lord of expectant worshipers like Mary, Elizabeth and her little son, John. The visit of Mary (and her baby?) was a great honor that was “granted” to the elderly, pregnant Elizabeth. She adds to her son's dance of joy a word of encouragement acknowledging that Mary “believed” what the Lord spoke to her. Elizabeth is greatly pleased to extend hospitality to young Mary (and her baby, the I-AM in the flesh, who may be within His mother).

Mary and Elizabeth

Mary does not return the compliment in kind. It is easy to miss this point. She could have said. “Oh no, it is a privilege for me to be in your house. God has blessed you and your little baby. I have so much to learn form you, and there is no place that I would rather been than with you.” All true, but not Mary's passion at this moment.

Mary has a higher focus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary's own “estate” as a servant of the Almighty is extraordinarily humble. When she and Joseph go to make the sacrifice for a baby boy as commanded in Leviticus 12, they have to choose the poor people option. Joseph is not a king in Jerusalem. He is a laborer from Nazareth who works with his hands.

Yet “all generations” will call Mary “blessed.” Why? Because she is smart, beautiful, pious, or has other commendable quality like humility? No, though if we were to choose one attribute to extol, we would do well to agree with Elizabeth. Faith. Mary “believed” the Word of God.

Yet Mary herself focuses on God and not herself. He is “mighty.” He is “holy.” He has “mercy” for all who call upon His Name with reverence in every generation. He defeats all proud adversaries. He feeds “the hungry,” and “the rich He has sent away empty.”

With words that remind us of the inspired songs of David or the oracle of the Old Testament surprise mother, Hannah (1 Samuel 2), Mary remembers the character and promises of the God of Israel. The Lord spoke “to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” He has now remembered His own ancient hymns.

By the time that Mary was visiting Elizabeth, those songs of old had been sung for about a thousand years. In the intervening centuries there was much disobedience and the horror of two massive empires who first destroyed northern Israel and then took the best and the brightest in Judah and Jerusalem and brought them far away to Babylon. Even though God led some back to the Promised Land to start up the old patterns of worship again, their was no prophetic Word in town for centuries, and there was very little hope for this despised people group under the subjugation of mighty Rome.

Where was Yahweh now? He was in the womb of a virgin just as he had promised in Isaiah 7:14. Jehovah, the One who is entirely “other,” was now “Immanuel,” God with us in a way that was frankly shocking. He came to a place where He was not expected at a time when most had given up. 1000 year old songs sung by Hannah and David, and promises spoken much earlier to Abraham were now alive and as close as was humanly possible. Mary stayed there three months with a spiritual mother and then went home.

God My Savior

Elizabeth (and the baby, John) rejoiced in the Lord, and Mary gave all the glory to the Almighty, who she called “God my Savior.” The words of these two women, inspired by the Holy Spirit, teach us that the best kind of spiritual friendship moves us toward the fruitfulness of honest worship offered up to our mighty and merciful God.

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 88 – The God of My Salvation and the Day of Darkness

Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Real Mary and the Real Jesus

Birth of Jesus Foretold
(Luke 1:26-38, Preaching: Pastor Stephen Magee, December 9, 2018)

[26] In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, [27] to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. [28] And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” [29] But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. [30] And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. [31] And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. [32] He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, [33] and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

[34] And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

[35] And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. [36] And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. [37] For nothing will be impossible with God.” [38] And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary, Greatly Troubled

Young Mary of Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph, was God's “favored one,” according to the heavenly ambassador sent to her. Yet she was “greatly troubled” by the news she received. This was not her plan for life. What would it all mean?

Whatever the future might hold, Mary could be comforted by the angel Gabriel's message. She need not “be afraid,” for she had “found favor with God.” What can a human being lack if she has the favor of the Lord? Yet that way of thinking about life can be hard to come by when a person faces the shock of the unexpected. We can meditate upon these famous words: “The Lord is with you,” and take them as our own.

Jesus, Son of Mary, Son of the Most High, Eternal King

Who would this child be? Mary would “bear a son,” so to state the obvious, the baby would be a real descendant of a woman and therefore a real human being. His Name, Jesus, had the meaning “I-AM Salvation,” with the “I-AM” being the personal Name of the Lord from the Old Testament. Was this to be taken literally, that the human being inside her would also be the I-AM Himself? That would certainly explain why He would be “great” and would be called “the Son of the Most High.”

What else was said concerning Him? He would be the eternal King descended from David and promised ten centuries before in 2 Samuel 7. Jesus would be the God/Man who would rule over the Lord's family “forever.” Therefore there could be no doubt that “His kingdom” would have “no end.” This being would be at the very center of God's eternal purpose. Without Him, there would have be no point in creation at all.

What a child! What a message for humble Mary to receive!

Nothing Impossible with God

Still, this all seemed impossible. Mary was not married. She had not been with a man. She was a maiden.

All we know is that the baby would be conceived by the agency not of Joseph or any other human being, but by God Himself. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Yes, this “holy” child with no stain of original sin would be son of Mary and “the Son of God.”

Mary had a “relative” (which may just mean a fellow Israelite) named Elizabeth who was now in the sixth month of her pregnancy. A “barren” woman had conceived a son “in her old age.” This news was to be an encouragement to young Mary. The point for all of us to remember: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

According to Your Word

And so it begins. Mary humbly yields herself to God as a “servant of the Lord.” She is ready to do whatever God wants as she makes this promise which should be ours as well, “Let it be to me according to Your Word.”

One note: Today's passage and the one next week are the source of a prayer that many of us learned as Roman Catholic children. If we take Luke 1 seriously regarding Mary, it should be obvious that her focus is on the person she later calls “God my Savior.” You might miss that she submits herself to the Word from heaven. The biblical Mary is not the Mary of tradition. She is a humble young lady who knows that she needs a Savior, loves God's Word, is soon married to Joseph, and has children with Him as part of their normal relationship together as husband and wife.

What an experience she went through before she was united with her husband! The mysterious appearance of an angel was deeply troubling to this young Hebrew maiden. Nonetheless, she accepted the astounding truth concerning the coming of Jesus who would be both her son and the Son of God. What seemed absolutely impossible was in fact the settled eternal plan of the Almighty. Just as Mary so long ago, we are the servants of a great eternal King. May everything that God has predestined concerning Jesus and us happen according to His own perfect will.

Last week we thought about growing in Christmas hope within the context of the Old Testament prophets and the story of a godly elderly couple who had never been able to have a child. Today we want to go further back in time to the eternal counsels of Yahweh. Christmas hope is not a second best plan after His first plan for a holy Old Testament Israel failed. The coming of Jesus has always been on His heart.

Believing God's Word should be a natural by now, but we need all the help we can get. Mary needed help too. God gave her the gift of Elizabeth's pregnancy to assure her in the midst of the strange events that would soon change her life forever. May our experience of Christian hope be strengthened by those around us who have looked to God for help and have discovered that He is able to surprise them with joy.

God has always known about His own eternal purpose. The rest of us have learned about His plans little by little over the course of the history of God's speech to His people. We cannot insist that we know and understand everything before we yield our lives to God. It should be enough for us to hear the Word of the Lord and to yield up our lives in heartfelt obedience. Let all mortal flesh keep silence.

Old Testament Reading—Psalm 87 – This one and that one were born in her