Introducing the Christmas SEASON to Evangelicals (and Epiphany)

Although most people tend to see Christmas as a day (December 25), actually Christmas is a season on the Church calendar.  It lasts from December 25 through January 5: Twelve days – and yes that’s where the song comes from, though I’ve never understood why anyone would want so many birds – 23 by my count!  I’ve said in another place, our culture conditions us to celebrate Christmas from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, and then on December 26 crash in relief that it’s all over.  This is all backwards.  Advent, which precedes Christmas, is a season of self-examination and spiritual preparation so that we may fully enjoy Christmas when it arrives – and enjoy it for twelve days, no less.  What if God’s people would do things that way?

January 6 marks Epiphany, a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” in reference to the manifestation (revealing) of the Christchild to the nations, marked by the Scripture passage of the “Visit of the Magi” (Matthew 2).  Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas Season.

These traditions go back, not to the New Testament Church, but to a few centuries afterwards.  Those who scoff at them as manmade traditions without Scriptural warrant may just as well scoff at celebrating Christmas and Easter since these also are manmade traditions with no Scriptural basis (and many early Baptists did not observe either day).  But these are ancient traditions, nonetheless, the purpose of which is to provide some regularity to Christian devotional practice.  Of course, it is not required.  But I have found that the Church calendar does provide a time-tested and proven way to guide one’s thoughts, prayers, and meditations.

Merry Christmas & Happy Epiphany!

 

Saturday after Epiphany

Isaiah 66:1-24

The One Who Trembles at His Word

We have reached the end of Isaiah, and in many ways we have come full circle.  You will remember in the very first chapter, the Lord says, “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.  New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations – I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates” (1:12-14).  So here in the last chapter, we hear the Lord say, “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.”  And then we have the reason for the Lord’s rejection of their offerings, and just as we saw in chapter one: “These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations.”

Worship is so important to God.  And He demands that we worship Him with integrity.  We often think that we can cover our sins with our Sunday worship; that, well, somehow, showing up on Sunday morning and singing hymns and sitting through a sermon, makes things we did during the week alright.  But hear what God says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”  Did you hear that?  “Trembles at my word!”  Wow!  And I thought God was just looking for chums who have warm fuzzies when they worship Him.

It would appear that God thinks worship is serious business.  He refuses worship that is mixed with unrepentant hearts, people who think they can have their God and their sin, too.  (Well, they can, just not the true God.)  He refuses worship from those who think they can make up their own rules, or change the rules, laid down in Scripture.  At the heart of worship is sincerity – a desire to be changed in the presence of the living God.  And that begins with a humble and contrite – some might even say, broken – spirit, a spirit that trembles at His word.  And what does it mean to tremble?  It means that when we hear His word read and faithfully proclaimed, it is not for us to debate.  His word is, and is meant to be, to and for us, sharper than a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).  It is meant to cut, to chip away, to kill if need be, for the purpose of bringing life.  We cannot come into the kingdom and not expect to be refined.  As John the Baptist said at the beginning of Advent: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Friday after Epiphany

Isaiah 65:1-25

Idolatry Makes a Difference

I have entitled this devotion, “Idolatry Makes a Difference,” because that is ultimately what I think this chapter is about.  But first I have to begin where it begins because it anticipates, indeed, prophesies, what came to pass in the New Testament Church, spoken of by Paul in Acts 28 and Romans 10.

But before I speak of that, we must be honest, as the Church of Jesus Christ, about our own sin, and, bless God, much of the Church has, at least by now, done so.  No, I won’t apologize for the text, but I will confess our sin – and the sin I speak of is “anti-Semitism.”  Unfortunately, much of church history is filled with unspeakable crimes against the Jews, and that by twisting God’s holy word for justification (a terrible sin).  However, Christ, “himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…,” through the cross (Ephesians 2:14-16).  Indeed, Paul calls the “mystery of Christ” “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs” and “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” with, of course, the Jews (3:6).  Christians (most of which are not of Jewish descent) are not to hate anyone, but especially the Jews, who were before us in the faith, who regarding election “are beloved [by God] for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28).  None of this is to deny what happened: The Jews rejected the gospel which the gentiles embraced, which was prophesied by Isaiah in 65:1-2, and cited by Paul in Romans 10:20-21.  But that is all the more reason for us to pray daily for their conversion, for “how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (Romans 11:12).

And now I turn to the meat of the passage.  The sin that is highlighted is idolatry: “sacrificing in gardens, and making offerings on bricks; who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places … who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny.”  Idolatry is our primal sin – the putting of something else in place of God first in our hearts.  It is so foolish when we consider that only God is truly authentic – the self-existing One.  The rest of us are totally dependent on Him.  God (of Scripture – the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) is what is left when everything else is removed.  Why do we settle for the counterfeit – like our enslaving obsessions and passions – when we could have God, who is all that really matters?  Those who make Him their obsession will eat, drink, rejoice, sing for gladness of heart, and bless God in the new heaven and earth that is coming.  Those who don’t, won’t, but will have all eternity to worship the passions of their flesh while gnashing with their teeth.

Thursday after Epiphany

Isaiah 64:1-12

Oh That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down

Isaiah 64 utters a longing that the people of God have often expressed, usually when under trying circumstances, but also from a heart of love and devotion: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”  And why this prayer?  “To make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”  It is a longing and prayer for God to vindicate His great name, which is to say His character and glory.  “From of old, no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you.”  And yet, humankind darkens God’s revelation of Himself with vain idols:  in olden times, with hand-carved images; in our time, with materialism, entertainment, political ideologies, and countless other things.  The believer awaits the day when every eye shall see, every knee bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-10).  It is why we pray, indeed, were taught to pray, by our Lord, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:7-15).

But then Isaiah turns to the reality: It is God’s own people who have sinned.  Worldlings will be worldlings, pagans will be pagans, but those who have been chosen by Him from the foundation of the world – these are supposed to be different.  And so Isaiah asks, “In our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?…We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  You desire that the Lord rend the heavens?  You desire “the day of the Lord?”  The prophet Amos reminds us, “Why would you have the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him.” (Amos 5:18-20).

And so Isaiah pleads the mercy of the Lord to “remember not iniquity forever.”  He pleads the pity of the Lord by calling on God to look upon the devastations of Jerusalem and His once beautiful house.  We should do the same.  In too much of the world, Christians are persecuted to death (though not reported by the media), and in Europe and America, the Church of God languishes under oppressive secularism.  Her members have strayed, too concerned about self.  Divorce, infidelity, porn addiction, and materialism are as present among Christians as they are among pagans.  “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter.”  Mold and shape us after thy will, and make us a people ready for your Son’s coming.

Wednesday after Epiphany

Isaiah 63:1-19

A Day of Vengeance and Cry for Mercy

Epiphany means “manifestation.”  We saw this when the Christchild was made manifest to the magi, the pagan astrologers who represent the nations, you know, me and you, the people who were children of wrath and aliens to the covenants of promise before the cross and resurrection, and then in our time were given the gift of the Holy Spirit who made us believe in the only One who can save.

In the spirit of Epiphany, the Lord appears again, but in this passage as warrior and judge, the Messiah who comes to execute his great wrath upon the earth.  He comes in garments crimson red, stained with blood, the blood of his adversaries.  He did this in a winepress, which is a symbol for judgment in the Scriptures (Joel 3:13; Revelation 14:17-20).  Interestingly, the Lord says, “For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.  I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me.”  The work of salvation or judgment is solely the work of the Lord.  He needs no help, but there is not one of us who could help Him, anyway.

Then Isaiah recounts the steadfast love of the Lord on behalf of His people, the compassion that He showed them, even when they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.  The Lord brought them through the sea, and shepherded them through the wilderness through His servant, Moses.

But now, it seems to Isaiah that the Lord is not with them.  Isaiah pleads: “You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel [Jacob] does not acknowledge us, you, O Lord, are our Father.”  The nation was being trampled underfoot in Isaiah’s time.  Isaiah cries, “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart so that we fear you not?”  It is a dreadful teaching from Scripture that to the extent we wander away from the Lord, to that extent will He harden our hearts in our wandering (Romans 1:18-32).  Isaiah looks over the land and the devastation, and sees that it is as if Israel had never been God’s people.

There are times in our lives we need to examine ourselves and ask if it seems we are no longer God’s people and ask “Why?”  Perhaps you might recount the deeds of His steadfast love in your life and let that bring you to repentance.  He comes to save. Return and know rest (Isaiah 30:15).

Tuesday after Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-12

A Bride Not Forsaken

Some of the most precious words in Scripture are these: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 & Joshua 1:5).  It is one of our God’s greatest promises – the simple, “I will be you” (Exodus 3:12).  It is the word that calms our fears and gives us hope.  No matter what the circumstances, the Christian knows he can get through it if only He is with him.

During Isaiah’s time, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to Assyria, and the southern kingdom of Judah was reduced to vassalage.  Indeed, in a few years time, Judah was destroyed.  It was easy for God’s people to see themselves, and even call themselves by the names, “Desolate” and “Forsaken.”

But God had a message for them: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.  The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.”  The rest of the chapter goes on to describe the new Zion.  She will be called, “My Delight Is in Her,” “The Holy People,” “The Redeemed of the Lord,” “Sought Out,” and “A City Not Forsaken.”  She is described as a bride in whom the bridegroom (that is, the Lord) rejoices over.  She will be a “crown of beauty” to the Lord and
a “royal diadem” in His hand.  The Lord has sworn it.

The image of God as the bridegroom (in the New Testament, Jesus Christ) and His people His bride (in the New Testament, the Church) is central in Scripture.  (Our Lord’s marriage to His Church is the basis for Christian marriage in Ephesians 5.)  God is constantly wooing His faithless bride.  He must sometimes chasten her, but He never leaves her.  God’s love is such that it cannot be conquered even by our sin.  That was the whole purpose of sending His Son, the quintessential Bridegroom, to love her to the shedding of His own blood.  She is his Bride, the Church of Jesus Christ, that He has purchased.  Her history is quite checkered, both under the Old Covenant and the New.  She has been draped in scarlet and hounded into caves; she has both persecuted and been persecuted; at times she has been her own worst enemy.  But her Bridegroom will never forsake her, though oddly some of her members think they have license to.  Nevertheless, He has washed her sins away, clothed her in white raiment, and promises her a glorious future (Revelation 21 & 22).  May we yearn to be so faithful to Him.

Monday after Epiphany

Isaiah 61:1-11

The Year of the Lord’s Favor

Epiphany is a single day, not a season, but the week after is taken up with the final chapters of Isaiah, chapters of longing and hope and fulfillment as we see the New Testament relevance.  Today, we read Isaiah 61, the first few verses of which find their fulfillment in our Lord’s ministry, recorded in Luke 4:16-30.  Here in Isaiah we read, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It is these words that our Lord read in his hometown of Nazareth recorded in Luke’s gospel – that almost got him killed.  After reading, and while “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” he said to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And now let us return to Isaiah 61 to discover exactly what it was that was fulfilled that day in Nazareth and what is fulfilled for us today.  As Isaiah had prophesied the devastation of Judah due to the nation’s sins (which occurred in 586 B.C. at the hands of the Babylonians), he also prophesied their redemption as recorded here.  But Jesus takes up these words and refers them to himself.  He is the One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord is, for the Father has bestowed upon his Son the Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34).  And we see all the things mentioned in 61:1 happening in Jesus’ ministry. When John the Baptist was in prison and sent some disciples to Jesus to ask if he were “the one who is to come,” Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:2-6).  No doubt, Isaiah’s hearers heard this message and applied it to themselves with good effect, but its greater fulfillment was in Christ Jesus, himself.

And its present fulfillment is upon the Church of Jesus Christ.  Isaiah said that the redeemed nation would be called “the priests of the Lord.”  It was this that the nation of Israel was charged by God to become (Exodus 19:6), and this that the Church of Jesus Christ is today: a kingdom of priests sanctifying the world with their prayers and holy living (1 Peter 2:9).  Jesus ended his message to John’s disciples that day saying, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  In Nazareth, they took offense.  People will in our day, too.  Stand firm and continue in your priesthood.