Thursday, January 18, 2007

C, Epiphany 3 - Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10 "The Cupbearer of God"

Nehemiah was the cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes (pron: Arta-zerk-ses). He was a man of honour, in which the king would put his trust, as he tasted all liquids for poison before passing them to the king to drink. His story is one of fascination as he petitions the king and is appointed governor of Jerusalem to rebuild its walls, while contending with detractors who sought to trick and destroy Nehemiah and the work God called him to do.

His name “Nehemiah” is a contraction of two Hebrew words which in English translates as “Yahweh comforts or consoles”. But to give depth to its meaning one must hold with it “the sigh of relief” that one experiences as this comfort comes through earnest repentance and forgiveness.

Nehemiah lived up to his name as God worked through him to comfort and console the people of Israel, who had been exiled under Assyrian and Babylonian rule years earlier. God claimed this cupbearer as his own, using him to hold up the cup of God, calling the returning exiles and remnant Jerusalem Jews to repentance and reassurance, rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and restoring the Jewish welfare system. Now God and the covenant law might once again be present and heard in Jerusalem amongst his people.

God encouraged these events some time earlier while Nehemiah was still serving in the Persian palace, when his brother came to him and reported the ruins of Jerusalem. On hearing of the devastation, the humiliation, and the struggle of those who lived in the ruins, Nehemiah sat down and wept and fasted for many days. In this time he turned to the Lord in prayer. And in the tradition of Moses — remembering God’s work through him — Nehemiah the humble cupbearer mediates between God and his people repenting of his sin and interceding on behalf of the Israelites for their sins too. Saying…

…let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:6-7)

Our God is a God of grace. He heard Nehemiah and granted him a favourable audience before his king, when the king noticed his usually cheerful servant had become deeply saddened by the plight of Jerusalem. So after the king enquired into Nehemiah’s depression, Nehemiah asked Artaxerxes, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it. (Nehemiah 2:5) And with that God graciously opened the hand of the Persian king to allow Nehemiah to do what God was calling him to do. Artaxerxes even sent letters and soldiers with Nehemiah to grant him a safe passage and also cooperation from other governors to supply him with timber to rebuild the gates of Jerusalem.

But Nehemiah and Jerusalem had two powerful enemies, Sanballat (pron: San-bal-lat) governor of Samaria and Tobiah (pron: Toe-bee-ah) governor of the Transjordan. These men first made fun of Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild Jerusalem but when the walls started to take shaped their laughter turned to anger and they employed all kinds of tricks to spoil Nehemiah’s work and take his life.

No doubt with Nehemiah’s experiences as a cupbearer, he would have been very aware of the deception men like them were trying to instigate. So he examined the Jerusalem walls at night, without guards, in complete secrecy. The hand of God was upon him, and against his enemies. He enlisted the support of the Jewish priests, nobles, officials, and the faithful Jews, and rebuilt the city walls in fifty-two days — just seven and a half weeks!

While he was rebuilding the walls he had other things to contend with too. He had to use some of his workforce to defend his workers and the city from their enemies who were threatening to attack. So Nehemiah says to the people of Israel, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14) Then Nehemiah goes on to report, “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.” (Nehemiah 4:14-15)

Nehemiah also had to call his officials and nobles to account when he discovered they were demanding taxes from the poor. Nehemiah put the situation back in order and they gave back what they had wrongly taken.

Furthermore, Nehemiah refused to collect the tax due to him as governor, and his table was always well attended by one hundred and fifty Jews, as well as others from other nations. Nehemiah was generous and had at interest the welfare of the people who had suffered so much. The grace God showered upon Nehemiah, flowed through him onto those God had called him to lead.

After the rebuilding was complete and everyone was settled back into their home towns…

1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10)

So why is Nehemiah’s story and work important to us?

Firstly, it’s good for us to hear and be encouraged by the example of faithful servants such as Nehemiah.

Secondly, and more importantly, Nehemiah foreshadows Jesus’ ministry of restoration. Jesus like Nehemiah was prayerfully dependant on God and God used them both to do his will. Nehemiah was instrumental in the renewal of God’s covenant handed down to Moses many years earlier, and Jesus came to instigate a covenant too. But not just to renew the old covenant! Jesus was sent by God to put a new covenant in place; fulfilling the old covenant, by keeping all its laws. Therefore, like Nehemiah, Jesus brings all the fullness of God and his word in victory over our enemies, sin and death. And he calls us to continual repentance and offers forgiveness to all who heed his call.

Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem in 445 BC, just after this, God’s word falls quiet for four hundred years, until Christ’s advent as a baby and epiphany as the Son of God. Like Nehemiah, the governor of Jerusalem, God sent his one and only Son as the cupbearer; so a new government could be lifted up and built on his shoulders, and through him we have access to this heavenly city.

Jesus our cupbearer drank the full cup of wrath; the cup we should have drunk! He suffered much at the cross for us, and beforehand as he approached the hour of his death prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matt 26:42)

Jesus also said to James and John, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Then Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized.” (Mark 10:38-39) And we too drink of the same cup of death. But even greater — we share in the cup of Jesus’ life. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13) So right now, death has no power over us; and someday we will be raised to life in the New Jerusalem, gathered around Jesus our Lord, on his throne for all to see.

Just as Nehemiah had struggles in his life, we too go about our lives bearing the cup of struggles too. But we look forward in hope to the day when Christ brings us into the fortified walls of his glory where no tears will flow or sorrow will be felt. And the joy of the Lord will be the choice food and sweet drink, flowing from the eternal cup of God’s grace. Amen.

Friday, January 05, 2007

C, Epiphany of our Lord - Ephesians 3:1-12 "Mystery not Magic"

One can only imagine what must have been a sight to be seen, as the caravan of camels departed from downtown Persia or Arabia with the star shining ever so brightly in the night time sky.

We’re not really sure how many Magi saddled their camels for the cavalcade which was to follow the star wherever it went. In fact, we don’t really know anything about these men at all. Tradition has it there were three of them and they were wise — three because of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh — and wise because Magi were mediums or fortune-tellers using astrology or divination, or some other secret art. The word ‘Magi’ is the plural of the Greek word magos, from where we get the English word magic.

But what we do know from God’s word is a number of these envoys from the East travelling from another place followed the star, which they believed, announced the birth of the King of the Jews. And their divination proved right, finding this King and his parents in Bethlehem, within two years of his birth.

What comes as a complete surprise is the shocked reaction of Herod and all Jerusalem with him. The scribes and the priest had the word of God and yet the birth of the Christ was a complete mystery to them until these Gentiles came with the news revealed to them through magic. Surly Herod must have been completely beside himself to hear a real Jew had been born King of the Jews.

It also comes as a shock to many today that God still seeks to reveal the Messianic King to us in this life — spiritually and physically. Some believe we now only live in the realm of the Holy Spirit, since Jesus has ascended into heaven at the right hand of the Father. And adding to this, some wrongly believe we too must ascend into the heavenly realm, to have an audience with God, through some secretive magical means.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as Jesus was revealed in the word of God to the Magi and the Jews, as the infant King born at Bethlehem, we too are told in his word that Jesus still continues to make his epiphany amongst us. He sends the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to him, his grace, and the administration of his ways, or means, so we might dwell in God the Father’s presence in peace, here on earth and in eternity too.

This is not some magical act or revelation, but as the Magi witnessed, it’s the mystery of God, born in flesh at Bethlehem for you and me. Perhaps the Magi were surprised, even shocked, that the baby Jesus was living with his parents in such humble surrounds. We might be surprised too, that God reveals himself to us, Gentile sinners, through humble but mysterious means.

St Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles, encourages the church in Ephesus not to be discouraged by his humble suffering, but rather hang onto Christ, given in the administration of the mystery, which is God’s grace given to you — to us — by way of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This encouragement is for you and me in today’s Gentile church too! Therefore Paul proclaims to us, This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)

However, since the ascension of Christ, we, the church, have grappled with questions like, “How do we receive the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection from a time long past, right here, right now, today? How do we dwell with our hidden Triune God?”

In seeking answers to these questions, some seek to rationalise the mystery, so they might believe by understanding the wisdom of God which can only be believed by God-given faith. Or instead, yearning for spirituality, turn from the life-giving mystery of God, to — pseudo-New Age, Eastern, magical, secretive — emotion-driven hocus pocus! Through their deeds they proclaim a faith that one must be some sort of super-Christian endowed with an individualistic personal higher knowledge of God, above and against what Jesus Christ has given us in his word.

So when the Word of God, over and over again, reveals it is the Triune God who comes down to us and still does even today, it comes as a shock to some — perhaps even disturbing to others too. In fact, we live in the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, right here, right now. If this is not the case, then every prayer prayed “Dear Heavenly Father…” is prayed to nothing and a complete deception!

But the mystery of the gospel is anything but deception or disturbing for those who, knowing their sinful nature, trust in the administration of the mystery of a present but hidden God. So their sins are forgiven and they live in peace with God, in times that are anything but peaceful. Paul again in Ephesians 3 says, concerning Jesus Christ and the reception of the mystery, In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Ephesians 3:12)

The mystery of Christ, and the administration of this mystery, the way God administers himself, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to us — the means of grace — is revealed through his word and nowhere else. It was revealed to the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit of God, and they wrote it down, and now through these same written words the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us.

Jesus Christ makes his epiphany to us through his word. He is made plain to us, made manifest; through his word the Holy Spirit en-fleshes Christ, in us and with us, spiritually and physically. This is not magic, but done through physical, practical, and spiritual means as men administer God’s way with water, bread, and wine, together with the proclamation of God’s word, both Law and Gospel, and the forgiveness of sins for eternal life. It is hidden in complete mystery and seen only by those who hear and believe his word.

So hot on the heels of Christmas, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord on January the 6th, where Christ the Messiah, the King of the Jews, is revealed to be born at Bethlehem through the words of Micah 5:2, to all Jerusalem and the Magi, and to us in the gospel as well. In fact, the Sundays after Epiphany continue to reveal Jesus as not just the human Messiah but also the Son of God, first in his baptism and concluding at Transfiguration, where for only a moment God reveals the full extent of his glory veiled in flesh.

Likewise, we have received the mystery through the water, the word, and the Holy Spirit at baptism. We continue to receive the mystery in the preaching of the word, and in Holy Communion too, where together with the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven we adore and magnify his glorious name, and eat and drink his precious body and blood so that he is veiled in the flesh of those who believe. This is the administration of God’s grace, this is the way we receive the mystery of Christ, his death and resurrection. This is his word and sacraments, the means of his grace. This is the way God chooses to love you and me!

So we, as a church, do well to administer this mystery according to God’s purpose in Christ Jesus; for the sake of our personal welfare, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of our relationship with God and each other in the church community. For this is God’s way, the only way, worked and revealed by God himself. Even greater than this, in Ephesians 3:10 Paul also reveals God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 3:10)

In the mystery of the gospel, and through the mystery of its administration, God promises to come to you in a very real, practical, physical, and spiritual way, and give eternal life through Jesus’ death and resurrection to those who hear him and trust him in his word.

As you believe, let it be done for you! Amen.

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