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November 27th, 2011

You will find Jesus in the Bible when you pay attention.

Matthew 2:1-6

November 27, 2011

Meditative reading

I’ve been learning new ways to read Scripture and pray its message. Perhaps I’ll share more detail in a future sermon, but I am more anxious to share these fresh angles on prayer and the Bible than I am to explain them.  This time of year finding new meaning in familiar stories from the Bible is quite necessary, especially as a preacher.  

I found several messages in my files on Matthew 2, including a sermon outline almost 30 years old.  My most common way of preaching this text has been to give a true-false test on the story of the Magi, correcting misconceptions.  I usually quip that the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” is pretty good except that there weren’t three of them, they weren’t kings, and they weren’t from the Orient.

But what good does it do just to correct facts?  Our 2011 Advent theme is “take another look.” Read what you’ve read dozens of times and see what you’ve never seen.

One of the ways to do so is spiritual exercise called “meditative reading.”  In this approach to the Bible, you read the text and pay attention to God.  You read one word, one phrase at a time.  You are in a museum or art gallery, unhurriedly focusing.  You might move quickly through the gallery or stay with the one painting that has captured you.  Meditative reading is just like that.

You have already heard this text read out loud.  Now I want you to read it meditatively – and silently.  Open your Bible or the one in the pew to Matthew 2 (p. 1497 in the pew Bible), and read starting at verse 1.  I’m going to give you a couple of minutes to read.  You might read verses 1-6 several times.  You might keep going and read all of chapter 2.  You might not make it past the first verse.  I want you to read until one single word or phrase grips you.   You want to think about it, learn more about it, ponder what it might mean in your life, perhaps even turn it into a prayer.  Begin now.

A fresh twist

I hate to interrupt your meditation.  You have identified something in the text that is fresh to your mind and heart, and perhaps you would like to stay there.  Think of me as the museum tour guide, suddenly available for a little more background.  Let me encourage you to follow that word or phrase further in your own meditation this week as an Advent discipline.  Read this text daily, continuing to meditate on it.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, as you heard earlier in the service.  I encourage you to set aside time for family worship this season.  One traditional idea with a fresh twist is the Advent wreath.  You can find a little more background on my blog, www.corinthpastorbob.com.  You’ll also find a suggestion for lighting the candle on the first Sunday of Advent based on today’s reading in the worship service.

The new twist is this year is that the first candle is the “prophecy candle.”  During the weeks ahead, we’ll name the other candles the “Bethlehem candle, “Angels candle,” and “Shepherds candle.”  You may remember that in previous years we called these candles hope, peace, joy, and love.

Honestly, we got the new names of our candles from our bulletin covers. I learned this week the candles have also borne these names based on the nativity stories for a long time.  It’s a fresh theme, at least to me.

Since Week 1 is the prophecy candle, the word I want to lift from Matthew 2:1-6 for our meditation is “prophet.”  Verse 5 says, “This is what the prophet has written….” 

To be sure, there are many other words and phrases that catch my attention – and that probably grabbed yours.  Words like “born” (1,2,4), “star” (2), “worship” (2), “disturbed” (3), “least” (6), “ruler” (6), and “shepherd” (6) are all pregnant with meaning.

Then there are the cities named in this story – Jerusalem (1, 3) and Bethlehem (1,5,6).  I’ve been in both of them this fall, and those place names, along with Judea (1,5,6), Judah (6), and Israel (6) could lead to some great reflection.  The people in the story, starting with Jesus (1), also called Christ (4), are important.  The Magi (1), of course, and the chief priests and teachers of the law (4).  Rulers and kings of the past, present, and future are named in this text.

The most intriguing person at this point in the narrative may be Herod.  We know much about him from later in this chapter and other sources.  He was half-Jew, appointed by Rome as “king of the Jews.”  He wanted to be honored, loved, and remembered as Herod the Great, so he expanded the infrastructure of the land, erected palaces for himself, and constructed a massive platform of stone that still stands today on which he expanded the second Jewish temple.  This pleased the Jews greatly.

But he was also a wicked man, so paranoid about holding on to power that he not only killed his rivals, he killed two wives and his three eldest sons.  Caesar Augustus quipped that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.

This band of astrologers Matthew calls the Magi apparently knew nothing of Herod’s reputation when they came to him announcing they were following a star they believed would lead them to the king of the Jews.  It was widely believed in those days that the alignment of stars signaled important events and identified pivotal people.  That such a star had been sighted and had led foreigners to Israel to worship a new born king had Herod, in the words of Matthew, “disturbed.”  If Herod ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy – thus “all Jerusalem” was agitated as well.

The Magi just wanted to know where to find him.  Their clue had been a star they followed to Jerusalem, but their search wasn’t over.  They needed help.  Once they spoke to Herod, he wanted to find the child as well, but with very different motives.  So the Magi and the king together consulted the experts in Jewish Scripture, presumably without telling them why they wanted to know where the Christ was to be born.

The priests and scribes answered, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet has written.”  Micah had said Bethlehem, a small town five miles south of the big city of Jerusalem – so insignificant that Herod had never contemplated building one of his palaces there – would produce a ruler for Israel.  They knew their Bible.

And so, for one of 42 times in Matthew’s gospel alone, the word “prophet” (or some variation) comes into the story.  I want to ponder prophecy.  Would you meditate on prophecy with me?

What prophecy isn’t and what it is

I’m not drawn to prophecy because the word is positive or warm.  If you come up to me and say you are a modern day prophet, or point me to the Internet or ask me to listen to a sermon by a self-described prophet, my first reaction will be cynicism, not enthusiasm.  I tend not to trust “prophecy,” especially on religious matters.

I’m not real fond of prophecy on other subjects either – who’s going to win today’s game between the Panthers and the Colts, who’s going to be the next President, how and when the economy will turn around.  I am distrustful of prophets.

Most of those who interpret current events in light of Bible prophecy, or the other way around, I find irritating as well.  I don’t go to web sites like prophecynewswatch.com or prophecytoday.com to find out how the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, earthquake, or EU economic crisis fits the Bible.

I don’t even like it when people claim the Bible must be true because 60 or 300 or 400 or thousands of Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Mainly I don’t like it because the New Testament never makes that argument.  The New Testament never once says, “The Bible is true because Jesus fulfilled prophecy.”  Not even in the case of Micah 5:2, which is among the clearest predictions in the Old Testament about Messiah. 

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, Micah had said Bethlehem would produce a new ruler for Israel.  Jesus was born there – and not because Joseph and Mary planned their location to fulfill prophecy.  From their standpoint it was a huge and untimely inconvenience to go there for census registration.

But Matthew doesn’t say, “Because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we know the Bible is reliable.”  That argument would never have occurred to Matthew.  Ever since the Bible came under all out assault a century and a half ago, Christians have been trying to defend it.  I like what Charles Spurgeon is alleged to have said when asked why he didn’t defend the Bible:  “I don’t defend a lion. I just let him out of the cage.”

Matthew’s argument is rather, “Because Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we know he is Messiah.” 

“Prophecy” comes from two Greek words that mean “before” (pro) and “say” or “proclaim” (phe).  So the word means “to say in advance.”  Thus “prophesy” means, in the minds of many – ancient and modern – the same as “predict.”  To many, a “prophet” is like a “fortune teller.”

That’s not how the Bible uses this word.  Matthew’s approach is not that prophecy is a prediction that comes true.  To Matthew prophecy is a word from God that is fulfilled, or completed, in Jesus.  Matthew reads the Bible meditatively.  He reads a text in what we call the Old Testament and exclaims, “Why, that fits Jesus!  Let me jot that one down.”  Everywhere Matthew looks in the Old Testament, he finds connections between whatever Moses or David or Isaiah said and Jesus.

Imagine Matthew’s reaction when he found this particular connection in Micah 5.  He was quietly meditating on the text, which is about an assault on Jerusalem by the dominant world power, Assyria –

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
   for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel’s ruler
   on the cheek with a rod.

 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
   though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
   one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
   from ancient times.”

He probably leapt from his seat, turned over his table, ran and found Mrs. Matthew, accidentally ran into the doorway, and yelled, “You will not believe what I just read in the prophet. Here – take a look for yourself.  Bethlehem…small among the clans…ruler of my people….origins from old….”  It’s Jesus!  He is the Christ!

To Matthew, if you’re looking for Jesus, you don’t look at the alignment of stars.  You don’t go to Jerusalem and find Herod.  By God’s grace when you’re doing those things, especially if your heart really is looking for Jesus, you may just stumble upon him even though you were looking in all the wrong places.

You can save yourself a lot of time by looking for Jesus in prophecy.  You will find Jesus when you pay attention to God as you read the Bible.  Meditative reading is one way to pay attention.  If you’re reading anywhere in the Bible and you don’t find some connection to Jesus, you’re probably not paying attention to the Holy Spirit.

Listening

Much of what I’ve just done with the text is an intellectual exercise, an analysis of the text.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes it does lead to those moments where we meet Jesus in the text, as Matthew did.

But when we pay attention to God in Scripture, we have to be sure it’s not only an analysis, a mental evaluation.  What is God saying to me?

I began my meditation on prophecy by admitting that I don’t like the word.  I should be vulnerable enough to the Lord to ask why. 

Maybe the answer is a positive insight into my soul.  Perhaps the reason I don’t like the word is a matter of discernment.  People have taken a perfectly good Bible word and misused it.  Much of so-called “Bible prophecy” is, indeed, a self-glorifying twist on the Bible that is not so different from fortune telling or insider trading in that it gloats about secret knowledge that nobody else has.  “I know something you don’t know.”  The Spirit is telling me I’m right to be wary of the arrogance of false prophets.

On the other hand, what is this about what “I” don’t like?  Who am I to be so condescending toward others, or to dismiss all those who study and teach their understanding of biblical prophecy as unworthy of my time?  Why should I dismiss a precious word the Bible itself uses hundreds of times because it has been misused?  As I attend to the Holy Spirit, he convicts me of my judgmentalism and superiority.

When I listen patiently and attentively, the Spirit always points my attention back to Jesus.  He forgives my sins of pride, of ignorance, even of responding to prophecy with disdain instead of seeing him.  He is my model – fulfilling all God’s plans without trying to manipulate the story.  He is my pattern for wisdom and discernment – finding the balance between gullibility and cynicism.  He is the Christ, my Messiah, who gives me hope for the future in my life, for those I love, and for this world.  Amen.

One Response to Where to Find Him »

  • inhisgrace says:

    Bob,
    What are you using that is shedding more light on reading the scriptures? Redemptive Historical, i.e Kline, Clowney or Vos?

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