The Bittersweet Song of Simeon

Text: Luke 2:22-35

This morning we will be looking at the narrative of Simeon and his recognition of the young Jesus as the messiah. This text should sound familiar, or at least part of it should, because we sing “the Song of Simeon” at the end of our service each week. In the original context, it was about the end of Simeon’s life. He was giving a sort of doxology and thanksgiving to God for being able to see the messiah before he died. Christian tradition has used modified it just slightly for the liturgy, singing it at the conclusion of the worship service, and that is our practice. This morning, however, we will look at the original context, learning who Simeon was, what he said, and what he predicted about the future of Jesus and His work.

Simeon

Simeon is an interesting character in large part because we know so little about him. He seems to come out of nowhere, and he does not reappear anywhere else but here. All we know is that he was an old man who had received a promise from God that he would see the messiah before he died. In a sense, he only existed to point to Christ, and that is just what he does. But we can also see that he is not alone. Just a few verses after Simeon, we read about Anna, a prophetess who was also waiting for the messiah. And so we can conclude from this pairing that there were several, even if still only a small minority, who were expecting the messiah to show up in Israel just at this time, and they were eagerly keeping watch in the temple for signs of his arrival. Continue reading

Collect for Christmas

For those of us (like me) who grew up in churches with no official formal liturgy, the term “collect” is likely unfamiliar. It simply means a general prayer, usually short, to be said by all the people together. The Book of Common Prayer has a number of very beautiful and powerful ones. Here is the 1662 ed.’s collect for Christmas Day:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Remembering the Covenant of David

Text: Psalm 89

Have you ever been disappointed by God? Have you ever asked Him for something and not gotten it? Are you ever let down by His providence? We probably feel like we’re not allowed to admit to these kinds of feelings, even though we have them from time to time. But what if I told you that the people of God had these very feelings, and that, in fact, there is a whole psalm devoted to this feeling? That’s what Psalm 89 is. It is a song, meant for use in corporate worship, where God’s people lament the fact that it looks like He has not kept His promise to send them a faithful king.

The Covenant With David

Psalm 89 begins by praising God’s covenant. “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations” (vs. 1) This is not just any covenant, but the specific covenant made with the house of David:

I have made a covenant with My chosen,
I have sworn to My servant David:
Your seed I will establish forever,
And build up your throne to all generations.” (vs. 3-4)

Continue reading

It’s Not Torture, But If It Was It Would Still Be Ok

Dick Cheney was on Meet the Press yesterday, and it was pretty ugly. Conor Friedersdorf does a good job summarizing Mr. Cheney’s answers to certain questions, as well as the larger logic employed. Certainly the most scandalous answer given by the Vice President was when he said that he had “no problem” with the fact that nearly 25% of the detainees were innocent. He explicitly and unwavering used an “ends justify the means” argument to vindicate wrongful arrest and subsequent abuse to innocent people. This confirms everything I have been writing about the moral problems with the current defense of torture by America. But there’s more.

The one charge which Mr. Cheney did struggle with answering was that of rectal hyrdation Here is the transcript:

CHUCK TODD: Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan’s lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.

DICK CHENEY: That wasn’t–

CHUCK TODD: Does that meet the definition of torture?

DICK CHENEY: –that does not meet the definition of what was used in the program as–

CHUCK TODD: I understand. But does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?

DICK CHENEY: –in my mind, I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

CHUCK TODD: I mean, medical community has said there is no medical–

DICK CHENEY: If you go and look, for example, at Jose Rodriguez book, and he was the guy running the program, he’s got a very clear description of how, in fact, the program operated. With respect to that I think the agency has answered it and its response to the committee report and I–

CHUCK TODD: –but you acknowledge this was over and above.

DICK CHENEY: –that was not something that was done as part of the interrogation program.

CHUCK TODD: But you won’t call it torture.

DICK CHENEY: It wasn’t torture in terms of it wasn’t part of the program.

Continue reading

The Meaning of the Magnificat

Text: Luke 1:39-56

There are not many times when evangelical pulpits will devote sermons to Mary. This is typically due to reactions against Roman Catholicism, but it also comes from the simple fact that Mary does not actually occupy much space in the New Testament. However, there is a time where she does factor in a big way, and it is in the beginning of the gospels and the birth of Jesus. The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel tell us the most about her, and her famous song, The Magnificat, teaches us something about how she understood God to work. This morning we will look over Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth and her reaction to the fact that already her son-to-be was recognized as the Lord Himself. We will see how she is blessed by this and how she reflects that blessing back to God to magnify the Lord.

Mary and Elizabeth

The story of Mary and Elizabeth meeting together is primarily meant to show us that Jesus’ special identity was known already, even if in part. He isn’t even born yet. He is just recently conceived, alive in Mary’s womb, but already His spiritual significance can be detected. This teaches us something about prenatal life as well: both John and Jesus already have clear and irreducible identities, and John is portrayed as having a sort of awareness. Indeed, he is able to identify Jesus as he leaps in the womb. Continue reading

What are You Prepared to Do?

The so-called “conservative” responses to the Senate torture report are now making their rounds, and they tell us quite a bit about what really matters to certain people. Thus far no one has denied that the most morally repugnant alleged practices actually took place. No one has said, “That’s crazy! We would never use rape as a weapon! We could never forcibly insert food into someone’s rectum! No way!” No. They have not said that. They have attempted to justify the practices by arguing that the practices produced important information, that the proper authorities knew about them, and that our enemies do much worse. But they are not denying those practices.

Tellingly, Dick Cheney declined to refute the charge of rectal re-hydration. He sidestepped the gravity of the question entirely by saying he had “no knowledge” of that specific practice, but then he went straight to a defense of its hypothetical use on the grounds that it would have been necessary: “What are you prepared to do to get the truth against future attacks against the United States?” It’s a good question. What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to threaten to rape someone’s mother? Are you prepared to make that threat within a context where it is credible? Are you prepared to carry through with that threat? If the answer is NO!, which it should be, then Mr. Cheney’s justification fails. Continue reading

Jesus Died For Torture Apologists

Discussions of torture and the United States’s use of it in the “War on Terror” are not new. Many thinkers, including Christian theologians, have considered the matter before, and there are some legitimate qualifications and discussions to be had. However, in the wake of the recent Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, there are no longer relevant reasons to prevent us from concluding that the United States did participate in torture and that many of the specific forms were unjust and abhorrent. They were evil.

Writing for The New Yorker, Amy Davidson summarizes the report explaining:

The interrogators didn’t know the languages that would have been useful for real intelligence, but they did come up with a lexicon of their own: “walling,” which meant slamming a person against a wall; “rough takedown,” in which a group would rush into a cell yelling, then drag a detainee down the hall while punching him, perhaps after having “cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape”; “confinement box,” an instrument to make a prisoner feel he was closed in a coffin (the box came in large or small sizes); “sleep deprivation,” which might mean being kept awake for a hundred and eighty hours before succumbing to “disturbing hallucinations”; the ability to, as the report put it, “earn a bucket,” the bucket being what a prisoner might get to relieve himself in, rather than having to soil himself or being chained to a wall with a diaper (an “image” that President Bush was said to have found disturbing); “waterboarding,” which often itself seems to have been a euphemism for near, rather than simulated, drowning; “rectal rehydration as a means of behavioral control”; “lunch tray,” the assembly of foods that were puréed and used to rectally force-feed prisoners.

This is what the talk of family could look like: “CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ ” The interrogation of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri included “implying that his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”

These ought to be shocking and disgusting revelations. The use of sexual assault and threats of sexual assault (and murder!) against family members are the kind of enormities which make rational men go mute in shock and moral disbelief. Yet sadly, many of these very practices were not surprises just revealed this week. Taxi to the Dark Side documented several of them 7 years ago. The new revelation is that they were not episodic offenses carried out by individuals but were rather intentional parts of official strategy.

Americans ought to be upset. Americans ought to be sad. Americans ought to be driven to introspection.

And this should be especially true for Christians. Continue reading

Wilderness Baptism and the End of the World

Text: Mark 1:1-8

The gospels begin in a time of anticipation. Things are not quite as they should be, and we are told that something big is on the way. In Mark’s gospel, this point is made through the strange imagery of a new sort of wilderness prophet. John the Baptist calls Israel to repentance for their sins, but he also says that his ministry is not the main attraction. The baptism for repentance is not the last word. Something else is coming, something bigger. In fact, someone else was coming. That person, the messiah, would bring in the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He would reverse the way things were, straightening what was crooked and raising up what was low, and he would finally reveal the glory of God on earth.

Wilderness

We shouldn’t miss the fact that John the Baptist is in the wilderness. Mark 1:4 says that “John came baptizing in the wilderness,” and in Matthew’s gospel we are told, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). This is especially significant when we remember that John’s parents were temple servants who lived in a city in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). That means that John chose to go to the wilderness. It was a conscious decision for his special ministry of prophecy. Continue reading

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Advent

Text: Isaiah 64:1-4

My wife hates it when folks play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And so you can imagine how it has been to learn that people here in Central Florida begin celebrating Christmas on the second week of November. Lights are up and trees and wreaths are hung all over town well before Thanksgiving. And the really remarkable thing is that nobody feels at all bad about it. You people are totally unapologetic in your Christmas creep. And you know what, I’m kind of ok with that. That’s right, I’ll come out into the open with my secret. I’ve been quietly singing Christmas carols to myself for weeks now. One of my favorites is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You know how it goes:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.

The song goes on to mention “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots” as well as “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk.” It concludes by saying “Soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.” That imagery reflects the classic Americana Christmas. It’s all about shopping, sweets, and feeling that warm spirit down in your heart. And I don’t mind this sort of American Christmas too much. It’s a lot of fun, and it reminds me of my childhood. But you know, none of those things have much to do with the Biblical picture of Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the problem of consumerism or greed. I’m sure we could talk about those things some other time. I’m just talking about the general picture. What I’m talking about is Advent. Continue reading

The Law of Faith

Text: Romans 3:27-28

We come to the conclusion of our survey of justification in Romans 3. We’ve talked about the guilt of the law and the propitiation found in Christ, and now we come to the conclusion of it all, that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” But what we need to notice is that this conclusion is itself supported by the observation that boasting is excluded. That means Paul’s argument runs like this: No one can boast because everyone’s guilt was atoned for in the same way and by the same person, by the death of Jesus the messiah. That can only then mean that we are justified by faith alone. In short, penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone are two sides of the same coin. They both imply the other, and they both mean that we must be humble and dependent upon God. The shorthand which Paul comes up with to explain this relationship is what he calls “the law of faith.”

The Law of Faith is Established

Now this expression, “the law of faith,” is a sort of play on words. Paul is using it to trump the other law, the law of works. He’s basically saying, “If you want a law, here’s one for you, the law of faith.” This is the same “law” that he says is “established” in vs. 31. So there are two laws, a law of works and a low of faith, and the law of faith overrules and disproves the law of works. And the law of faith excludes, it prohibits, boasting on the part of any human. So, the law of faith is “Thou shalt not boast.” Continue reading