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)
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
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.
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
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
Today we’re going to cover what is perhaps the most popular carol, “Joy to the World.” But did you know that it actually isn’t a Christmas carol at all? Written by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” originally appeared in his 1719 The Psalms of David, and it was Watts’s unique take on Psalm 98. The full title of Watts’s song book is The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship, which sounds like a noble effort, but in reality most of the words bear only a slight resemblance to the Biblical text. Watts began his project in a time when many Puritans only allowed for the use of the Psalms in worship music (no other songs of any kind), and his title makes it clear that the goal was to “Christianize” the psalms, making the person of the Savior explicit. In retrospect, Watts actually managed to supplant the use of Psalms in worship altogether, as most of his hymns are paraphrases at best and their popularity cleared the way for even less-textually based worship songs in the future. As an extended result, there aren’t many psalm-singing churches left at all, not even among the Presbyterians. But that is another conversation for a less happy occasion. Today we’ll stick to the fun stuff. Continue reading
When I heard that Sufjan Stevens had a new Christmas album, the obvious question was “Why?” It was just 2008 when he put out Songs for Christmas, a collection of 42 songs. And ok, sure, Songs for Christmas was put together over a few years, but still, who does two Christmas albums? And who would do two so close together? Well, Silver and Gold has a whopping 58 tracks, some serious, some a little quirky, and some entirely bizarre. There are traditional Christmas carols, some Advent hymns, at least one Lenten hymn, some playful electro-folk, and a bit of plain noise.
As I began listening to Silver and Gold, I had a few more questions. First, while I love the hymn Ah Holy Jesus, it isn’t a Christmas song at all. Rather, it’s about the death of Christ. What was it doing on this Christmas album, and in three versions at that? Also, there are a lot of Advent themes– “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates” and “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee” are traditional Advent hymns. It even seems that Sufjan has written at least two specifically Advent-aimed songs, “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” and “Justice Delivers Its Death.” For those who are not familiar with the distinction between Advent and Christmas, Advent is the penitential season in the Church calendar just prior to Christmas. Rather than being jolly, it stresses the judgment associated with Christ’s coming, both his first and second coming. And so Advent songs are often about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Jesus returning cosmic order and righteousness to the universe. What’s striking is that Advent and its music are typically somber, a stark contrast to what most people think of as “Christmas music.” Obviously Sufjan is doing all this on purpose, and so the question is, “What’s he up to?” Continue reading