Saturday, 19 December 2020

I'm dreaming of a weird Christmas

Daniel 9:1-19

Introduction

Our situation

Our current situation is that our Land is going through the throes of a pandemic.

As of today, there are 809.9 cases of COVID 19 in Llandovery and 708.4 cases/ 100,000 in Llandeilo.

It’s a lot.

So we can’t afford to meet face to face during this pestilence because of the safety needs of our people, we can’t have those great times on a Sunday afternoon in the coffee house with good coffee and great cake but even more closeness, warmth, fellowship and encouragement with God in His worship and in His Word.

These are the things we were HELPED by in our Christian life.

These things are the things God COMMANDS His people to do to grow and be strong in the faith and in our relationship with Him, by the encouragement we gave one another.

And now that has all gone.

We need to ask ‘Why?!’ … not just because we loved all those things we’ve lost but because we know He loved that too so if it’s been taken from us there must be QUESTIONS to be asked!

And let’s be honest, this situation has left us in a bit of a state.

Our desolation with it

This REALLY affects our every-day lives because we have to cope with the threat of the disease itself and have to manage to avoid it.

Now, the good thing about this virus is that it can’t really travel about very much on its’ own.

But the bad thing about it is that it uses PEOPLE’s legs to get about, and that means other people have gone from being a potential blessing to being a potentially significant risk to us … so other people are to be avoided.

Mankind is made for relationship

(A phone call is NICE, but a phone call doesn’t quite cut it).

So meeting people is what really lifts most people’s spirits

(And a quick Facetime over the internet doesn’t really cut it).

Loneliness is the plague following in the virus’s steps.

It’s a violation of our humanity-as-created.

Just as God looked down on Adam in Eden and saw that it wasn’t good for the man to be alone, so we weren’t (somehow) MEANT to live like this either.

But it’s a deeper spiritual problem than this.

We’re made not just for fellowship with one another but also for fellowship with God by His grace, and the MEANS of grace that He uses to build and strengthen people from the inside out as they live in relationship with Him seem to lean so heavily of face-to-face contact with other people … the ones that potentially give this pestilence, this coronavirus TO us!

We have GOT to ask, ‘What’s going ON here?’

Why are we left dreaming of such a VERY weird Christmas?

Daniel is the man to help us out.

Daniel was exceptionally faithful, and Daniel had to wrestle with WEIRD.

Daniel's problem, vv. 1-2

Exile from his destroyed homeland

For Daniel, the problem (strangely) wasn’t what he didn’t know, but what he knew.

Daniel 9:1

“In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom – 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, 

according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.”

Now given what we’ve just been saying about our current predicament, mebbe we can identify with the sort of feeling of dislocation at the dystopian situation Daniel confronted and the feeling that ‘this isn’t going away any time soon’?!



Babylonian captivity context - EN

 Apologist, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t know a lot about which Darius this is but he was Persian and he came to rule over the Empire that had previously taken Daniel and his friends captive to Babylon following the Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC

The suggestion is that the first year of Darius would have been about 538 BC and that by then Daniel … who had been through an awful lot since he got hauled off to Babylon … would have been about 82 years old when the events of this chapter took place.

So Daniel is predictably past his prime and might very naturally be wondering ‘Lord how LONG is this going to go on for? Will I EVER live to see Jerusalem restored?!’

What does a faithful person do in a personal spiritual crisis like this?

They turn to God’s Word.

And THAT is what precipitated Daniel’s crisis …

The Scriptures and Jeremiah's prophecy

Now, the problem here for me is that I don’t personally know what Bible notes on Jeremiah that Daniel had actually been reading when he drew this conclusion.

We aren’t told, and the Bible does usually tell us when we need to know.

What we DO need to know, though, is that whilst reading generally in the Scriptures around Jeremiah’s prophecy, Daniel drew this conclusion … it will be ages yet and beyond Daniel’s predictable life-span with a lot more suffering for God’s people to go under the bridge yet before the Lord brings the desolation of Jerusalem to an end.

Now, it’s worth noticing here that the Word of the LORD to Jeremiah in v. 3 is the Divine Tetragrammaton … YHWH … the covenant Name for God which was deemed so holy as to be unpronounceable.

It referred to the covenant faithfulness of God and whilst this chapter is the ONLY chapter in Daniel to use this covenant name for the LORD … this chapter uses it EIGHT times.

In this time of desolation and shaken-ness, whatever else is going on Daniel is CLINGING to the covenant of the faithful, therefore covenant-keeping – God.

We need to recognise that and learn from it.

Daniel is going to PLEAD the covenant faithfulness of God, but we’ll come to that.

For the moment, his Bible study gives Daniel a problem that drives him URGENTLY to prayer.

And it’s prayer of an instructively particular type.

Daniel's prayer, vv. 3-19

Focused prayer, v. 3

“So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”

Daniel turned toאֲדֹנָי הָאֱלֹהִיםʾ    adonay haʾElohim

Elohim is the third word of the Bible back in Genesis 1:1, is a very common OT name for God and refers to the Creator God.

Here it is linked with the word Adonai which means Lord/ master.

So when he was thrown, confused, possibly even disillusioned, Daniel turned to His Lord and Master, the Creator God Who speaks and it is done.

And Daniel does that in a way that is conceived to mean business:

‘Pleaded’, ‘prayer and petition’, ‘fasting’, ‘sackcloth and ashes’ … Daniel’s found FOCUS!

There is so much we could say but so much yet remains to be said … so just work with me here?

Daniel turns away from all other considerations … many legitimate ones too, like EATING … and carves out specific and prolonged time to get serious with God.

My suggestion to you … to cut straight to the chase … is that in our circumstances today, where we are prevented by this disease

Focus by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images 

outbreak from doing the things God INTENDS us to do, in order to feed us and build our relationship with Him (I’m talking about ‘the Means of Grace’ here) in this situation the FIRST thing we need to do is take our questions to the Scripture and get our hearts into God’s presence.

When the fundamentals of what we KNOW are God’s basics are suddenly taken away from us our priority needs to be NOT taking the legality of lockdown to court to challenge it, but taking the Lord on in prayer to submit to His Sovereignty and plead for His mercy.

If His Word is our life and His worship is our delight … then we’d better turn to Him now as both those are being so substantially withdrawn from us.

  • Turned to God.
  • Pleading.
  • Prayers and petitions.
  • Fasting.
  • Sack cloth.
  • Ashes.

Daniel is not MESSING ABOUT!

Confession, vv. 4-8

Confessing

"I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed", 

We take up our own responsibility for our own guilt.

Basic.

That IS our position.

This IS what Christians believe:

Everyone is responsible for their own actions.

Everyone is responsible for the consequences of their own actions.

This is NOT someone else’s fault, I BEAR my responsibility and I CERTAINLY don’t blame my woes on my God:

“‘Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong.”

I hope you are getting that.

Without that we aren’t going ANYWHERE out of this.

Now, I don’t know what she was aiming at and I may have misunderstood here entirely but there was a Thought for the Day a week or so back when a normally very good Anglican Evangelical lady spoke about her daughter’s long running illness which, in fairness, sounded like quite a trial for a young woman and spoke approvingly of the idea that Mum was welcome to pray not that God would forgive her for her frustration etc. with her illness but that she would be able to forgive God for it.

To some extent I want to sympathise and this sounded very honest and open, but I’m not sure the boot’s been put on the right foot there.

Daniel is NOT asking for the strength to forgive God.

He is asking for God to forgive him.

“‘Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong”

Him … Daniel!

He is taking personal responsibility – faithful Daniel of Lions’ Den and Dream interpreting fame – for the sins of his people before and after the exile.

He put His life on the line to keep kosher in Babylon and has just been studying the Bible to work out WHERE his people’s calamity’s come from and he says to God (v. 5):

“We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.”

Now please LISTEN to what I’m saying here, and don’t assume that I’m saying what I’m not.

In the calamity we are facing with this pandemic we’re all battling that ‘WE’ we hear from Daniel is NOT what I hear from Christ’s bride the church.

She is blaming everyone but herself.

She is blaming the Government for the rules they are putting in place to try to protect us and our vulnerable ones.

She is blaming the sinners and the rebels, she is blaming the Chinese, she is blaming … today I heard it was the livestock farmers’ fault.

Daniel is having none, none AT ALL of any of that.

And here is why …

Lamenting personal shame

"I ... lamented my SHAME"

v. 7 – we are covered with shame

v. 8 – “We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame”

Shame is the experience they are having because it LOOKS as if the ungodly have prospered … as it were … and it looks as if their God is no good because they have been carried off into an oppressive captivity AWAY from the land the Lord their God had given them to a life lived under the control of and dependent upon their oppressors.

And now it looks to this elderly, faithful servant of God (Daniel) as if that isn’t going to end any time soon.

Two things particularly stand out here:

Daniel is in NO WAY blaming God for the situation.

Daniel is a VERY faithful man who is not going to turn against God nor abandon what he knows to be true about God (in this case God’s faithfulness) no matter how challenging the situation … the threats of absolutist tyrants and the teeth of hungry lions notwithstanding.

Daniel is putting responsibility for where the hand of God has taken people NOT on the faithlessness of God to His covenant but on the faithlessness to God of His people.

So vv. 9-11 say: “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.”

And NOW Daniel turns to his Biblically-derived and thorough-going analysis of the reason of the trauma he has experienced and now realises from Scripture that he will not live to see the end of.

There are three parts to Daniel’s analysis of the reasons for their current situation:

  1. “‘Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. 

  2.  You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. 13 Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, 

  3. yet we have not sought the favour of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. 14 The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.”

Daniel's Biblical Rational Analysis, vv. 9-14

This is happening BECAUSE of the Covenant

Firstly, what has happened to Daniel’s people … the horror of the fall of Jerusalem, the captivity and exile and the continuing desolation of Jerusalem … these are not violations of God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Israel but FULFILMENTS of it.

Jerusalem is desolate and this is because of the Covenant and on account of God’s keeping it.

“‘Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you.”

We don’t really have time to go into the blessings and curses of the Covenant … there’s a ceremony around them which the Lord gives the Israelites as they are about to cross the Jordan to enter the land He was about to give them – it’s in in Deuteronomy 11 - to perform on Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim when they have entered the Land.

Moses reminded the people that they were obliged to do this in his farewell to them just before they crossed the Jordan … Deuteronomy 27 spells out the curses and blessings to be pronounced over the covenant people and basically the things Daniel and his compatriots missed were the covenant blessings and the things Daniel’s people had for a long time been doing to offend against God were specified in the curses against unfaithfulness that Moses said were to be read out in that ceremony:

It’s a huge tally of idolatry and the social injustice and sexual immorality that consistently, across all human societies, have resulted from idolatry:

“15 ‘Cursed is anyone who makes an idol – a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands – and sets it up in secret.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

16 ‘Cursed is anyone who dishonours their father or mother.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

17 ‘Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbour’s boundary stone.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

18 ‘Cursed is anyone who leads the blind astray on the road.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

19 ‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

20 ‘Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, for he dishonours his father’s bed.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

21 ‘Cursed is anyone who has sexual relations with any animal.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

22 ‘Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his sister, the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

23 ‘Cursed is anyone who sleeps with his mother-in-law.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

24 ‘Cursed is anyone who kills their neighbour secretly.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

25 ‘Cursed is anyone who accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

26 ‘Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.’

Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

It was a fairly dramatic ceremony designed to FIX this issue in the minds of the Israelites and you can read about them complying with the instruction of Deuteronomy 11 when they got to those specified mountains in Joshua 8 after the capture of Jericho and Ai

Did you notice all those ‘Amens’?

VERY plainly, this was the covenant the people had signed up for and which they had violated in the years of the Monarchy that led up to the Babylonian Captivity and the Exile.

That’s the first thing.

Daniel prayerfully, Biblically and rationally analyses the situation … we’re in this mess because we’ve violated the terms of God’s covenant with us.

And then, it is PERSONAL ...

YOU have done all this to us

So, secondly, Daniel says to the Lord, ‘You have done this to us’.

That is fascinating!

vv. 12-13 “You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us"

Daniel sees that it is God, personally, Who has done these things that Daniel finds so painful and so challenging and that aren’t going to end soon, and He says ‘Lord, I recognise this is on you.’

He is not FOR ONE MOMENT quibbling with God for doing this.

Let’s just let that point there sink in a minute.

I see so many Christian people on social media becoming quite critical, complaining and downright ABUSIVE at the moment against the authorities for the measures those civic and national leaders are putting in place to try to HELP us stay safe.

It seems … odd.

But look … here is Daniel saying that God has done these things that Daniel doesn’t like at all … not one bit … and Daniel says ‘Yes Lord, YOU have done this but this isn’t on you, it is on US.’

That is called ‘faithfulness’.

And Daniel recognises the source of his most recently felt pain … the fact that this situation is going to go on for a bit yet … is not something he can really blame on God either …

This situation persists because the CAUSE of it persists

Thirdly, Daniel’s analysis acknowledges that this situation that hurts him so much persists because the cause of it persists …

The cause is not God being nasty but His people’s idolatry, with all its’ sinful consequences … and because that SIN has persisted, so the unpleasant circumstances have persisted too.

Remember … there are three parts to Daniel’s analysis of the reasons for their current situation:

1. “‘Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. 

2. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. 13 Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, 

3. yet we have not sought the favour of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. 14 The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.”

The New English Translation (NET) is particularly helpful in getting what is being said here across to us:

“Just as it is written in the law of Moses, so all this calamity has come on us. 

Still we have not tried to pacify the Lord our God 

by turning back from our sin and 

by seeking wisdom from your reliable moral standards. 

The Lord was mindful of the calamity, and he brought it on us. 

For the Lord our God is just in all he has done, and we have not obeyed him.”

The Hebrew says: “Still we have not pacified the face of the LORD our God.”

The covenant keeping God (DN) has (as I so often heard anger described growing up in the Valleys) ‘got a face on with us’.

It is not remote and distant but deeply personal and almost intimate.

It’s like hearing a few words of hard truth from your Welsh Mam … if you’re one of those who never had a Welsh Mam don’t for a minute think that trivialises the reference, because for a small child where I grew up when his Mam ‘had a face on’ with him, the skies were about to fall on your head!

What WOULD have pacified the LORD’s face?

If they had turned back from their sin and 

gained insight from His ‘reliable moral standards’ … v. 13 … 

Heb “by your truth.” The Hebrew term does not refer here to abstract truth, however, but to the reliable moral guidance found in the covenant law.

Man, if we are faced with hard circumstances we cannot understand, which seem to lie so far outside the life circumstances of blessing and joy that we hoped walking with God would bring us, faithfulness to God needs to prioritise getting back to God and getting back to His book and renewing our covenant with Him!

“Yet we have not obeyed Him.” (v. 14).

There is no rancour.

There is no failure to accept personal and corporate responsibility oneself and for one’s people.

All is overwhelmed by what is KNOWN by faith to be true about our gracious, Covenant keeping God and the passionate DESIRE to get back into proper and right relationship with Him.

There is NO thought here of us forgiving God for the hardships we have faced, but every thought for our God-displeasing violations f the covenant, which are to blame for the loss of covenant blessings.

And at the back of it all (as we’ve seen) lies idolatry.

v. 14 The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.”

The situation is dire, it is desperate and it is MAN-MADE …

Given his analysis that this situation comes from human rebellion against their God and that it persists because they haven’t turned from their sins and give attention to His truth, guess where Daniel goes next?

Daniel's faithful resolution of the matter, vv. 15-19

God’s historic and known character

The Exodus was the big founding event of the Nation.

A family – Abraham’s family – went down into Egypt, prospered but became enslaved and exploited and when God redeemed a people out of there, He took them to mountain in the Wilderness to give them their first developed, codified Covenant which went further than the simpler promises of all the covenants that went before.

In reality, this was the founding of the Nation … with promises about blessings and curses, as it happens.

Daniel recalls the redemption and the covenant and the name that God made by leading them to miraculously conquer the Land … but ‘we have sinned, we have done wrong.’

And then Daniel asks for God to turn away His anger from His people on the basis of Who He has historically revealed Himself to be …

Recognition of human responsibility and the righteousness of God’s anger

v. 16 “Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us."

It’s on US.

Your Name is the thing … "in keeping with all your righteous acts"

Again, the NET translation is pretty good at the end of v. 16 “For due to our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people are mocked by all our neighbors.”

So now Daniel starts to …

Pleads GOD’s cause with God, vv. 17-18

““So now, our God, accept the prayer and requests of your servant, and show favor to your devastated sanctuary for your own sake. 18 Listen attentively, my God, and hear! Open your eyes and look on our desolated ruins and the city called by your name”

Where it asks for God to show favour on His desolated sanctuary in the Jerusalem Temple the Hebrew phrase says “let your face shine.” 

This idiom pictures God smiling in favour, and you get it also a fair bit in the Psalms (Pss. 31:16; 67:1; 80:3, 7, 19).

Remember what we were saying about a Welsh Mam’s face earlier?

Here Daniel prays for the reverse … when you were dressed as a shepherd in your school nativity play with some curtains around you and a tea towel wrapped around your head, and you forgot your lines and had to be reminded but her face beamed with unutterable pride and joy nevertheless?

Yes.

That!

Daniel is not afraid to ask such a blessing because He KNOWS that the heart’s desire of this covenant keeping God Who loves His people because of what HE is not because of what THEY deserve … the heart’s desire of this God is to bless His covenant people with such covenant love as Daniel asks for!

“For your sake, Lord, look with favour on your desolate sanctuary.”

Pleads God’s mercy not human deserving

v. 18 “For it is not because of our own righteous deeds that we are praying to you, but because your compassion is abundant.”

Daniel is making a case in some style, with some force, as we said earlier He is GIVING himself to FOCUSED, determined, considered, (to use an ancient but excellent term) Daniel is giving himself to importunate prayer!

And here comes the final argument in this importunate prophet’s praying …

Pleads the honour of God’s own Name and Glory

v. 19 “Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.’”

There, then, is Daniel’s faithful resolution of the matter of his agony for the cause of his people.

When he’s done all he’s done, he rests the whole matter faithfully in the hands of His faithful covenant keeping God and rests his confidence on the Name and Nature of His God.

So what are we to learn from all of this in the weird times through which we are having to live?

Conclusion- the call on our hearts of a weird Christmas 

There’s no avoiding this fact: we’re heading into a Christmas where we will possibly be separated from family, from friends, possibly from a lot of our cherished materialistic trappings that we have bolted onto the outside of Christmas and begun to identify with the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation itself … ah.

Whoops!

Daniel had also had the entire annual and septennial cycle of festivals and celebrations at the Temple in Jerusalem removed from him and all that was left to celebrate was God and His covenant relationship with His people.

And this situation, as Daniel Biblically and rationally analyses it, represents a call back from persistence in the idolatry – worshiping created things rather than the Creator God Who is above all and should be forever praised – a call back from that by way of repentance and return to God and His Word.

Of course it does!

God’s people are not experiencing His blessing and God delights to bless His people so something has CLEARLY … almost by definition … gone wrong with the keeping  of the covenant that promises blessing.

So back to that covenant Daniel goes to discover the source of the blessing and runs straight into Mount Ebal and Mount Gerazim.

It very much seems to me that the call on our hearts of a breakdown in blessing is to return exactly as Daniel has done, to see IF it’s the case that we … there is an AWFUL lot of Evangelical idolatry out there to be identified and repented of … 

So we need to deeply examine whether WE, and the people of our land have gone astray into idolatry and into the lack of social justice and immorality that a breakdown in blessing so often indicates.

Now, entering into a hard time and a break-down in blessing doesn’t ALWAYS indicate that.

This experience can be an experience like Proverbs 3:12 or Hebrews 12:6 ff … discipline as in ‘training’ in greater closeness to God.

But seeking covenant renewal with God and praying for His gracious intervention and restoration of the covenant blessings that God delights to show … these are the right course to follow to meet either of those situations and circumstances … God is looking for 

Focused prayer, honest soul-searching confession, Biblical and rational analysis seeking GOD for the cause of our desolation or difficulty, a recognition of God’s personal and faithful agency in our situation and a return to pleading for our people on the basis of God’s character and merits … never for a moment on the basis of anything we can offer of our on.

Now, we have not had our land, people and worship DEVASTATED the way Daniel has.

But we are certainly living in weird times when the important things that ‘bless’ the Christian have been to some extent removed from us.

Where are we going to go with that?

To Government to complain about what they are doing to us?

That’s not the cause of our problems.

To conspiracy theorists and weird websites to give us a rationale for the things that are confusing us?

They cannot help us with that.

Daniel goes back to God.

  • Determinedly.
  • Faithfully.
  • Personally.

Openly asking:

 ‘LORD (eight times using the covenant Name for God in this chapter but nowhere else in the whole book!) 

… this is NOT what we would expect, this is thoroughly weird, 

will you show me please where have WE, or where have I (actually) gone wrong?’

And in times when the Church in the West and the society in which we live has gone so far from God’s covenant and His heart, this (it seems to me) is where we need to go with this weird Christmas I’m dreaming of.

  • Focused prayer.
  • Rational, soul-searching Biblical analysis of where we are RIGHT NOW with our Covenant-keeping God.
  • Confession of any and all known sin … the fault is OURS and most definitely not His.
  • Pleading God’s redemption and His covenant and His NAME.

My friends I passionately believe that in the coming three months at least of ‘lock-down’, we really must be doing that somehow, agreeing and covenanting together to do this, being faithfully the people once again of our God.

What a STAR!

 


 Matthew 2:1-12

I.        Introduction - the 'Christmas Star'

On 21st December 2020 - the winter solstice otherwise known as 'the Shortest Day' - Jupiter and Saturn will come very close together forming an effect in our observable sky that many are calling 'the Christmas Star'.

The planets will look like one very bright star.

They haven't been as close as this for 800 years and according to Patrick Hartigan (an astronomer from Rice University in Texas) "You'd have to go all the way back to just before dawn on 4th. March 1226 to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky."

This 'conjunction' will be very low in the sky and off to the West and as sunset is at about 4 p.m. and the two planets will set about 6 p.m. ... and it will be hard to see.

You may need to go up a hill or to the top of a high building to get a view of the conjunction, as it will be close to the horizon, and at the moment the weather forecast suggests it will be cloudy and raining!

So why am I teasing you like this?

It's because there is a strong suggestion that the star which guided the Magi to the birth of the Lord Jesus on earth may well have been just such a planetary conjunction too.

There was a suitably interesting conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn around this time, when those two 'gas giants' were within one degree of each other THREE times within just EIGHT months!

The star of Bethlehem could also have been Venus and Jupiter which, in 2 BC, "would have appeared to observers in Babylon to have merged just before setting in the general direction of Bethlehem to the West."

Now ... none of that seems particularly closely related to the popular perception of 'the Three Kings of Orient-are' which conditions and colours our fantasy Christmas story.

And there is a lot to do to clear the ground to arrive at a more useful grasp on the historical realities of the fundamental real events on which Christian faith is actually based.

Why is this important?

Because the Christian faith is based on things that actually took place in human history - its' essential issues are rooted in historical reality - and mythical elements and legends that stick to the outside are like overweight scaffolding fastened to the outside of a viable, beautiful but old building which ends up twisting it out of shape.

So let's just briefly get a spanner to that unhelpful scaffolding and expose the glory of the structure that lies beneath

II.      Exposing the underlying structure

Now, let's be clear at the outset that the point of this uncovering of what's really thee in this Gospel account is not to be clever or to be a destroyer of dreams, but to get at what God is trying to tell us.

So ...

A.     Who actually were the men on the camels?

1.     Magi

a.    How many?

We've got to get this out of the way straight away:

Most of us will realise this already but whilst traditionally we're told of three of them, you won't find that number in Matthew ... and only Matthew's Gospel tells us about the Magi.

The traditional idea comes from the three gifts the presented to Jesus but the tradition of three 'Kings' dates back at least to Origen who lived 185-254 AD, so it's an old tradition but not Biblical.

We don't know.

Matthew just uses the plural of Magus … Magi.




b.    What were they?

So, that plural word used in Matthew's text here is μαγοι (magoi) ... the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc. and therefore this word gets used here of these Eastern wise men (these astrologers) who, having discovered by the rising of a remarkable star that the Messiah had just been born, came to Jerusalem to worship him.

The bottom line? They were false prophets and sorcerers. The traditional 'wise men' or 'kings' isn't in Matthew's Gospel.

So ... 'Magus' comes from a Persian word for a priestly caste ... but it's also used for astrologers and interpreters of dreams.

Philo uses it for the Egyptian sorcerers in Exodus 7.

Josephus uses it for interpreters of dreams.

In the Greek translation of Daniel 2 (LXX) magoi appear with the Babylonian enchanters and wise men consulted by Nebuchadnezzar to intrepret his dream ... amongst whom were certainly numbered Daniel and his friends, because the sentence of death for the failure of the 'wise ones' was about to fall on Daniel and his friends too!

(More of that shortly!)

These guys were practitioners of Mantic (Persian origin) hidden wisdom, divination,astrology and dark arts.

c.     Where were they from?

We're told they came from the East ... likely from Persia, Syria/ Jordan or Babylon itself.

Clement of Alexandria traditionally favoured Persia as it was a hotbed of Zoroastrian astrology.

Other ancient writers like Justin (partly on the basis of Psalm 72:15) favoured some part of Arabia.

Babylon is a great candidate though, because Babylon's 'Magi' would have come into contact with Israel's Scriptures through Daniel and the exiles of the Babylonian Captivity.




By André Thévet - Internet Archive scan of Les vrais pourtraits 

et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens, 

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6885509


They probably didn't come from 'The Orient'.


d.    When did they come?

It makes for a good children's nativity play to have the three kings turn up straight after the shepherds the night Jesus was born in the stable in Bethlehem.

But if Christianity is a faith that stands and falls on its' historical reality ... particularly, of course the real existence (life, death and resurrection) of Jesus of Nazareth ... Son of God and Saviour ...  then we need to spring clean a few of these non-historical myths or the message loses all its' credibility!

Matthew 2:1 says: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem"

It implies a time lag.

A lot of stuff happens next in Matt. 2:4-9 that would be impossible to fit into the gap between the birth of Jesus and the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds in Luke 2:7-8

And even if the star 'appeared' at or shortly before the Lord's birth, it would have taken WEEKS for the Magi to travel to Bethlehem.

And on their arrival (Matt. 2:9-11) the Lord is called a 'child' not a 'baby' (as in Luke 2:12).

And the Magi visit the child in a house, where the family appear to have relocated after the birth.

Finally, Herod subsequently orders the death of boys two years old or younger 'according to the time ascertained' from the Magi (Matthew 2:16)

And that bears on our next question ...

B.     What led them to journey to Bethlehem?

1.     Faithful Daniel

In Jeremiah 29 we find part of Jeremiah's letter to the Exiles in Babylon, speaking to them prophetically for God, saying: "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into Exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jer. 29:7)

Those exiles who had seen the destruction of their own homeland and Temple included Daniel.

It can't have been easy to accept this call from the prophet, but Daniel obeyed God's call and became (we're told) 'chief of the Magi' and a valued adviser to the King.

Certainly a very tough call for a faithful Israelite.

You see, the story of the star of Bethlehem and these Magi doesn't start with Matthew 2, but hundreds of years before in the Babylonian exile where Daniel faithfully answered God's call to a work that was HARD, engaging his idolatrous culture in the hardest of times, so that these Magi knew of  Daniel's God and KNEW of the One Who was to come ... as detailed in Micah's prophecy

2.     Micah's promise

You see, the prophecy we often read around Christmas time in Micah 5 - which dates to around the last half of the 8th century BC, according to its superscription - promises a new David.

It promises a coming King Who would shepherd His people, defeat their enemies and bring a time of great peace.

Under this King, Assyria would come to Israel to be defeated by Israel.

Instead of Assyria shepherding Israel, Israel would shepherd Assyria.

There would come a new day where, instead of tribute flowing out of Judah to the other  Nations, the wealth and tribute of other Nations would flow to Jerusalem.

The Nations would not come to Jerusalem to invade, but to join them under a new King Who would bring peace to the world.

And now these Magi are coming from the East ... Assyria or Babylon or Persia ... from those nations that invaded and terrorised and tore apart Daniel's Israel.

And they are coming not to make war but to worship Christ the King.

Not to plunder but to praise.

Not to take but to give.

Just as God said they would in the Scriptures Daniel took with him to Babylon and was able to circulate there because of the status God gave him in that secular, idol-confronted calling to be a Magus in Babylon.

And because he was FAITHFUL in what he did there ... in a captivity God had told him he'd not live to see the end of (more of that in the podcast sermon for today on Daniel 9)

3.     Astrology and astronomy

The Magi were prompted that these Scriptures, which Daniel witnessed to amongst them, had now been fulfilled by the appearance of an astronomical phenomenon - the Star. 

And those Magi invested that astronomical phenomenon with astrological significance.

But WHY did these Magi, on seeing this star, make the long and challenging journey looking (Matthew 2:102) for "He Who has been born King of he Jews"?

Well, we know that ancient peoples had heard about the expected King Messiah of the Jews.

These Magi see what's happening in the Heavens and conclude that this King has been born.

I know the hymn envisions a floating star 'westward leading, still proceeding' leading the Magi from 'the Orient' to Jerusalem where they had their little chat with Herod.

Matthew's account doesn't actually say this.

Something like that DOES seem to have occurred on the short onward trip south to Bethlehem, but that's differently described.

Look ... in ancient times astrological events were thought to accompany significant events.

Magi were experts in such phenomena.

But what about this star drew them particularly to Jerusalem?

Fasten your seat belts ...

In Numbers 22-24 Balak King of Moab summoned Balaam the pagan prophet to curse Israel.

Balaam was a performer of incantations and divination who came 'from the East' (Numbers 23:7).

But this scoundrel of an occult practitioner (not a nice guy -check the story) blessed Israel instead by prophesying it would receive a deliverer-King via the symbol of a star.

So Numbers 24:17-18  reads: "‘I see him, but not now;

    I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob;

    a sceptre will rise out of Israel.

He will crush the foreheads of Moab,

    the skulls of all the people of Sheth.

18 Edom will be conquered;

    Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,

    but Israel will grow strong."

Of great importance is the verb used in Numbers 24:17 ... the Star Balaam prophesies "will arise"

Matthew alludes to it in 2:2 and 2:9 as he describes the Magi seeing the star 'in its rising', which is a term derived from the word used in Numbers 24.

Matthew does NOT specify whether it was a supernova, comet, planetary conjunction like the one we've got coming up on December 21st. nor does he go anywhere NEAR the astronomical detail.

He says only that it 'arose' and 'appeared' (2:7 & 16)

In short, the star that appeared fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics in which these Magi were the world-renowned experts.

The Magi saw the astronomy, did their astrology (informed by the Biblical deposit of truth Daniel faithfully sowed in the dark centuries before) and Daniel's faithful sowing now sprouted into the fulfilment of Micah's prophecy as these magi travelled to Jerusalem and then ... still following the Jesus- star ... interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures about the birth at Bethlehem in Judah to follow the star to His birth-place, carrying gifts from Assyria/ Babylon/ Persia which had previously pillaged Jerusalem and bringing worship to the long-prophesied, new-born King Messiah.

III.     Unfolding the architecture's significance

A.     A tale of two outsiders and enemies

Firstly, we have in this account an outsider posing as an insider.

The particular King Herod in Matthew 2 is known to history as Herod the Great 'the King of the Jews'.

But - a bit like the long line of people who've born the title 'Prince of Wales' but weren't Welsh, so Herod bears the title 'King of the Jews' but wasn't Jewish.

He was an Idumean ... an Edomite ... Israel's historical enemies.

And he ruled by terror and murder ... it wasn't just that he ordered all the Jewish babies under two to be murdered, he ordered all his own sons to be murdered from his own death-bed.

People generally didn't like him.

Secondly, the passage also speaks of these Magi who came 'from the East' ... that is East of Jerusalem.



Coin of King Herod the Great 38-4 BC 
https://www.livius.org/pictures/a/judaica/coin-of-king-herod-the-great/


But whenever the Bible talks about enchanters, astrologers, diviners and magicians like these guys it is really ALWAYS pretty negative about them.

As well as being that type of person they've come from 'the East' ... which is where A LOT of Israel's enemies historically came from.

It's where enemy nations historically lay for Israel.

These Magi are representative of historic enemies from without, joining Herod the historic enemy from within, seeking the One Who was to be born king of the Jews.

Herod, the enemy from within, wishes Him harm.

That will be a recurring theme in Matthew's Gospel and in the life of Christ.

The Magi, the enemy from without, come with significant gifts to bring homage and worship

That's going to be a significant theme in the Book of Acts and in the unfolding history of Christ's church.

That's the big difference.

B.     Their role in Matthew's Nativity

So what role do these Magi play in Matthew 2?

Some suggest that these were foreign dignitaries coming to honour a future ruler ... that happened with rulers like Nero and Herod the Great himself.

Foreign dignitaries did that.

But look ... these are not Persian, Assyrian or Babylonian dignitaries.

These are practitioners of dark arts coming to worship the star prophesied by another of their ilk ... the magician Balaam in Numbers 24.

The forces of darkness and oppression come to worship and bring gifts to the prophesied King Messiah ... Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.

Be much more wary of the unrepentant enemy within.

IV.     Conclusion

What on earth are we to learn about that star in the sky leading these enemy-outsiders to bring their allegiance (refusing Herod's murderous plans and going home by another route), their honours (they fell down and worshipped Him) and tribute (oh, those strange gifts to give a baby!) to King Jesus?!

A.     Historical faith

The link to the stellar conjunctions that prompted these Magi's Scripture searching journey gives us a bit of a clue, an indication, of the historical nature of the incarnation.

Now, we can't STOP there ... but that certainly is the place that our historical faith in King Jesus seems to start.

This stuff HAPPENED and it not only meshed with the history we know about, it also fulfilled centuries of historic prophecy and faithful witness to God's Word in the Scriptures.

But there's more.

B.     Message of Christ's universal Kingship

This event, bringing astrologers from the East to Jerusalem, contrasting King Jesus with King Herod (who received NO tribute from the Magi) confirmed Jesus as the authenticated King over God's incoming universal Kingdom ... where the Nations come to Him to worship the King over God's  Kingdom.

C.     Grace to the most unexpected outsiders

And finally it demonstrates that Christ's Kingdom is designed to bring grace to the most unexpected outsiders ... often by the most unusual means ... by His sheer grace and to His unutterable Glory.

And this message is an utterly open invitation to me ad to you.

If this God wants men like those Magi who travelled to His childhood home to worship Him ... if He will take people like THAT on ... then He is also gracious enough to plan to take on you and me.

Don't be a threatened, paranoid, violent Herod.

Be a magus.

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