Surprised by Grace: Simeon

The prophets of Israel longed to know about which they spoke. Peter wrote of them,

Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Suffering played a key role in the early church, and Peter wrote to these suffering Christians to encourage them so they would not lose heart. He used the role of suffering to illustrate that just as Christ suffered, so also must they in a world which sin turned upside down. We gather from what Peter wrote a deep sense of longing arising from both the prophets and angels of God for the coming of Messiah and the redemption He brings. However, God gave the prophets a limited message beyond which they could not speak or even know. God also informed the angels that even they could comprehend only so much.

God alone laid out His plan in perfect order down the corridor of time, and He alone would fulfill the promise of grace made in ages past concerning the ultimate grace He would bestow on humanity through Messiah. God used suffering to prepare the world for this Messiah event. He did so that people would not look to themselves or their resources for deliverance but to Him, the Mighty God, Deliverer, and Holy One of Israel.

The time finally arrived. Anticipation rose to its highest peak. God now commanded His angels to shout gladness and joy from the heavens, their desire fulfilled. A star announced the Consolation of Israel and the Gentiles. Magi arrived at the house in which the baby slept and bestowed gifts at the feet of this newborn (Matthew 2:11). They looked upon the grace of God with awe.

There is more. Grace awaited an old man who longed for Messiah. He knew he would not die or face Nunc demittis[1] or “Now you dismiss,”

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

Like the prophets of old and the angels, Simeon simply longed for Messiah. He knew God would fulfill His promise. But when? Signs pointed to a future time, but no one knew exactly not even the prophets. He lived to serve God. The Scriptures describe him as “just and devout,” or righteous and God-fearing. Luke emphasizes that he communed with the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit was his constant guide and companion. While Simeon walked with and in the Spirit, the coming of Messiah remained undisclosed.

One day, the Holy Spirit sent him to the Temple. To Simeon, this prompting must have been simply a normal one. His communion with the Spirit was a common occurrence from what the Scriptures suggest. Off he went down the dusty street, perhaps praying as he walked with the tentative gait his age conveyed on him. He goes about his worship, a custom he relished. He hears footsteps echoing down the Temple corridor. These were not the normal footsteps of routine visitors making their way in to offer worship.

His half-closed eyes widened. Is it…? Can it be? He straightens himself up as much as an old man could and makes his way to his feet from his knees. His anticipation heightens as he begins to tremble. He squints and sees two shadows coming closer and closer. A couple enters the light of the Menorah candles on the altar. The woman carries a baby in her arms. Yes! Yes! Surprised by grace. Messiah! He stretches out his arms with a soft smile and tears streaming from his eyes. The woman comes closer and hands him the baby as Simeon sighs with joy. He speaks,

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, New Revised Standard Version).

He pauses, turns to the woman, and continues,

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35, NKJV).

He performs his final service for his God. He declares Messiah and His mission. He prophesies the agony and pain His mother will experience. He tells of the promise fulfilled for redeeming the lost. He calls for God to give his Nunc demittis (“Now you are dismissing”) so he can rejoice with the angels in heaven. He passes the mantle to John to declare,

Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight” (Mark 1:3).

[1] Latin for Simeon’s words after he saw Jesus and translates into English as Now you are dismissing or Allow me to depart. It is often sung as an evening canticle at Christmas.

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Surprised by Grace: Mary

All of us know the story of Mary the mother of Jesus. The Scriptures speak highly of her and give us many details about her. She fearlessly stood with her Son before the cross as He died for our sins. She prayed in the upper room with the disciples and witnessed their choice of Matthias to replace Judas. She received the Holy Spirit when He came upon the disciples on Pentecost. The writers of the gospels relied on her as a resource to record the life of Jesus. Yes, she played a pivotal role in rearing Jesus in bringing Him up in the fear of God. Although He existed as God come in the flesh, “He learned obedience…” (Hebrews 5:8), we cannot deny Mary’s participation in teaching Him. Yet, while she gave birth and mothered Jesus, she acquiesced to His rule over her as her Savior and Lord.

Mary-JesusAs we enter into her story, we discover the surprises she received from God. The first of these surprises came about when an angel of the Lord appeared to her. This was no ordinary angel. Rather, God sent Gabriel the archangel, among the highest of God’s angels. Gabriel dwelled in the presence of God (Luke 1:19), in His royal court as His personal servant (Maxwell Davidson, “Angels” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). It took a special messenger with a special message for Mary because she would bear the Son of God. Gabriel declared to her,

“Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28)
This declaration troubled Mary. That is, her emotions appeared to overwhelm her thoughts with intense perplexity and confusion rather than expressing joy as Gabriel encouraged her to experience. Favored? Blessed among women? What kind of message is this? God surprised her with grace. Gabriel continued in his greeting,
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30)
Gabriel wanted Mary to know that what he said was not simply idiomatic or an ordinary greeting as we often express ourselves to others such as,
Bless you!
or,
Have a good day!
or again,
I wish you well!
Rather, Gabriel declares God’s grace twice to Mary, not with a frivolous phrase, but with meaning and the full weight of God’s promise. God embedded His guaranteed redemption in this grace. God gave Mary genuine and earth-shattering grace. In the same way that Noah found favor or grace in God’s eyes (Genesis 6:8), so also did Mary. The favor or grace toward both Noah and Mary was momentous and historic. It was redeeming grace. Just as God redeemed Noah and his family, He also set apart Mary to bear the Redeemer of humanity. This grace amounted to far more than wishing one well or a reaction of “Bless you.” This grace possessed eternal weight and results, because God’s word has repercussions for eternity. What could prepare Mary or us for such grace?
Grace does come in surprising ways, especially when unexpected. Mary had a difficult time handling this grace from God. It initially confused her to realize that the King of all existence and the redemption of sinful humanity would grow in her womb and receive birth from her. Rejoice? Finally, after Gabriel finished speaking, she said,
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
What an example for us toward whom God declares grace! God surprised Mary with grace. He also does that with everyone who belongs to Him. God’s grace is not a frivolous declaration from Him such as “Bless you, my Son.” When God blesses us with grace, He does so with purpose, power, and resoluteness.
When God appeared to Isaiah as he worshiped in the temple, Isaiah fell prostrate on the ground and shook as he cried,
“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5)
The same trembling and fear came upon him as descended on Mary. He recognized the grace of God with great humility and received it in similar fashion. God’s grace causes such a response. It bends us to the earth and causes us to recognize our state – those in need of the Savior, for it comes with overwhelming mercy and love stunning in our encounter with it. How does grace bend us to recognize our state and simultaneously lift us up with mercy and love?  Forgiveness and complete acceptance.  Everyone who believes through the touch of the Holy Spirit, receives forgiveness and total acceptance before God the Father.  Grace surprises us and catches us off guard in a similar way that it did with Mary.
The group Hillsong presents this same surprise of grace in their lyrics:
And I stand, I stand in awe of you
I stand, I stand in awe of you
Holy God to whom all praise is due
I stand in awe of you
From Hillsong, “I Stand in Awe of You”
Awe expresses surprise and wonder.  Christmas is a time that represents God’s surprising grace that lifts our face to His. Does God’s stunning grace captivate you?
HAVE A GRACE-FILLED CHRISTMAS

A Daily Prayer

Read: Ephesians 1:15-21

15Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, 18 the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power 20 which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. (Nelson, Thomas (2009-02-18). Holy Bible, New King James Version (NKJV) (p. 1134). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.)

Father in Heaven, our Sovereign Lord,

Grant us [the church] the spirit of wisdom to know you and your word;

Grant us understanding for embracing the hope we have in you –

A hope based on your righteous and unfailing faithfulness (Psalm 36:5) –

And insight into the wealth and treasures of your glory (Psalm 113:4-9)

that shines forth the inheritance we have through Your precious Son

Who died that we may live with You in Your glorious realm – our future home (John 14:2-3) –

Who lives to reveal Your will through Your living word (Hebrews 4:14)

Grant us the strength from the greatness of Your divine power

You work in us through Your Holy Spirit to conform us to Your likeness –

Setting us apart to love us and to transform our minds

To think Your thoughts and to act according to Your will.

Grant us the grace to sustain us through all temptations and troubles (1 Corinthians 10:13)

We face daily from those who oppose You, the gospel, and Your Son

From Your enemy – Satan – who stands day and night

Accusing Your children of wrongdoing (Revelation 12:10) –

Those whom you accounted righteous before You.

We thank you for answered prayer and all the gifts we have in You.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Amen

“My Preferred Reading” – Have We Lost Sight of the Biblical Authors?

A few words caught my attention in Scot Mcknight’s recent blog: “My preferred reading.”  I have read that phrase a thousand times over in another phrase: “That’s your interpretation.”

McKnight responds to an article by Paul Penley, “Bible Reading Destroys the Church.”  Hmm.  McKnight poses the question: “Does Personal Bible Reading Destroy the Church?”  Penley points to the real root of the problem of interpretation – authority.  He gave the example of Martin Luther before the examining council as Johann Eck interrogated him over his published writings.  He noted that Luther highlights conscience as an almost equal authority to Scripture and thereby created a shift in authority.  He quotes Luther as declaring before the council and Eck,

I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”1

Accordingly, conscience and opinion became almost one in authority.  Penley points out the repercussions of Luther’s declaration: a million different opinions and thousands of denominations.  To this day, that shift remains in place among Christians, “I think it means…”  The problem with such a statement, as Penley notes, is the “I” rising high in any response as an authority.  Anyone can say, “I am bound by the Scriptures,” but are they?  He said Luther became the authority himself as to which books belonged in the Bible: James? NO.  Revelation? NO.  His ‘conscience’ disallowed them as having divine authority.

If then Bible reading results in a thousand opinions and numerous denominations, how are we to come to grips with the Bible?  As I shared from a biblical passage in a Bible study group, a participant quickly exclaimed, “That’s your interpretation!”  She did not agree.  Therefore, to voice a disagreement without a corresponding reply from the text, the next best answer amounted to “That’s your interpretation.”  My reply was that if each of us approached the Bible from individual interpretation without first attempting to understand the author’s message, then we would be in effect dancing around author intent and substituting our authority for theirs and the Holy Spirit’s as He spoke through the authors.  It is easy to read our opinion into the Scriptures rather than do the hard work of discovering the author’s message.

One problem we all face is that we are so eager to “spiritualize” and personalize the Bible’s content that we ignore the author in favor of a mystical approach.  That is, the Scriptures speak directly to me.  Bible reading and study becomes all about me and what God wants of me or me to do.  It is personal revelation to me or God speaking directly to me.  “Me” is the center of Bible reading to the extent that the original audience, contexts of almost two thousand years ago, and the author’s intent take a back seat to me.  The author’s message get lost in the mystical aura of ‘God and me.”  When someone challenges the ‘God and me’ scenario, we decry, “That’s your opinion!”  In other words, you have your opinion and I have mine.  Accordingly, the Bible is not God’s holy word of truth concerning Him.  It is a book for me to pick and choose what I think God is saying personally to me.  Again, ‘me’ gets in the way of discovery and understanding God through the means He chose.  Personal application arises from opinion rather than discovery and meaning in the text.  Division quickly shows its face.  When ‘me’ stands front and center, the authors of the biblical text fade in the shadow of ‘me.”

Some questions arise, “Well then, is the Bible not for me to live by?  Does it not apply to my life? Does it not show me God’s will for my life?”  A qualified yes, yes, and yes.  Paul informs Timothy that it is for instruction, reproof, and instruction.  However, that is not everything.  It is a book revealing God and His ways.  It reveals God’s redemption.  God speaks through it to a lost world that rebelled from Him which needs reconciliation.  Therefore, we are to read it with care, seeking the messages of the various author’s.

God spoke through those whom  He chose to communicate His redeeming message to people groups in time and history.  Ours is to discover those messages within those contexts.  The word of God came to those of God’s choosing in specific contexts: culture, language, and geographical.  God had a purpose for delivering His word within those time frames.  Recognizing this helps us to gain a greater perspective so that we do not narrow God’s revealed truth to a “God and me” scenario.  Reading for discovery and meaning first and second and application third allows us to gather the facts from the Bible as well as the message arising from those facts.  God desires for us to know Him, and we do so through Jesus Christ.  God also gave us His Spirit through whom He promised would guide us into all truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13).  He brings to remembrance what Jesus taught and testifies of Jesus.

Seeking a mystical experience of ‘God and me’ can overshadow the Spirit’s guidance.  Rather, reading the Bible through the eyes of the original readers in seeking the intent of the authors enables us to understand God’s eternal truths from their eyes.  The application of faith arises as we grasp the messages of individual biblical authors as they reveal God, expose our shortcomings (sin), shows us God’s faithfulness, and explain to us what it means to walk by faith.

1. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/15/does-personal-bible-reading-destroy-the-church-paul-penley/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=jesuscreed_091614UTC040924_daily&utm_content=&spMailingID=46985197&spUserID=MTA2ODE4NTE0MDI0S0&spJobID=521979577&spReportId=NTIxOTc5NTc3S0

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