“Glory to the Newborn King!”

UZZIAH AND YAHWEH

 In his prime, King Uzziah of Judah was one of the greatest rulers Judah ever had—until his greatness lead him to arrogance, and his arrogance lead him to sacrilege, which cost him his health and, more significantly, his ritual purity. Uzziah trespassed into the temple, was struck by God, and finished his life in isolation as a leper (II Chronicles 26:16-21). As the head of Judah, Uzziah’s physical and ceremonial sickness reflected the moral decay of the nation (Isaiah 1:5-6). Though every Davidic king was the anointed of the LORD – a little “m” messiah – they were all disappointments. It was clear that even the relatively decent Uzziah was no savior. But in the year of Uzziah’s death, Isaiah the prophet was granted a vision of the True King:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple…” (Isaiah 6:1)

The familiar scene is full of seraphim (“burning ones”) with six wings, who serve as the court attendants of the Lord. Dazzling enough themselves to look at, even they must shield their faces from the greater glory of the God they serve. The voices of these seraphim calling “Holy, holy, holy” shake the threshold of the temple, and Isaiah the prophet is unable to bear it:

Woe is me! For I am lost; for 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 contrast between King Uzziah and King Yahweh could not be more drastic. Uzziah is  weak and sick—cut off from Israel because of his uncleanness. Yahweh is overwhelming, and transcendently holy and glorious—cut off also, because in his holiness he dwells in unapproachable light.

AHAZ AND YAHWEH

Skip ahead some years (but only one chapter in Isaiah) to Uzziah’s grandson, Ahaz. Ahaz had no redeeming qualities. He was one of the most profoundly wicked kings in Judah’s history. Among his transgressions are burning his son as a offering to pagan gods (II Kings 16:3), exchanging Yahweh for the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser by naming himself the latter’s “servant and son” (II Kings 16:7), and seeking to cover his faithlessness and fearfulness with a thin cloak of godliness (Isaiah 7:12).

By Ahaz’s time, Assyria’s ascension on the world stage had created a foreign policy crisis for Judah. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had formed a defensive league and were trying to take out Ahaz and install a king friendly to their cause so they could join Judah to their alliance (Isaiah 7:1-6). Ahaz’s heart “shakes” at this threat (Isaiah 7:2), the same word that described the shaking threshold in the temple in Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:4). Faced with the option of either becoming a full vassal to the Assyrian beast—losing independence but gaining security—or standing firm and trusting in Yahweh, Ahaz inclines toward the first option. This is in spite of the fact that the eternal God, through Isaiah, promises deliverance for Ahaz in accordance with the Davidic covenant. Ahaz is king in Jerusalem after all. Yahweh tells Ahaz to not fear the conspiracy his neighbors are plotting:  “Do not let your heart be faint… It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass… If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isaiah 7:4, 7, 9). Even when offered a sign of assurance, Ahaz refuses, hiding his distrust in the Lord under a mask of piety:

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.’” (Isaiah 7:10-12)

Once again, the contrast between the human king and the divine king could not be more clear. In Uzziah we have a good king, if a flawed one, and also a weak and dying leper. In Ahaz we have a wicked king whose “shaking” heart will not even let him bank on God’s direct assurance of deliverance. Uzziah, like all mortals, will die. Ahaz, like all sinners, will choose fleshly security. Through it all, God is Judah’s true king – transcendently holy, eternal, unchanging, faithful, and powerful.

HUMAN KING OR DIVINE KING?

 This contrast highlights a tension that runs unresolved through the Old Testament. God has promised that David’s throne would be forever (Psalm 89:27-37), but isn’t God himself Israel’s true king (e.g., I Samuel 8:7)? It is clear that the kings who sit on David’s throne are beset with weakness—if not wickedness. At the same time, the direct and unveiled  presence of Yahweh is overwhelming. God knows we need a king who is near to us and who can sympathize with our weaknesses, but who is himself without sin.

And then comes God’s reply to Ahaz. Refusing the sign of assurance that God offers, God goes on and promises a sign anyway – one that will come to pass when Ahaz is long gone:

Hear then, O House of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

In Isaiah chapter 9, we hear more about this son:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

God’s people need a king who is like us and near to us, but who will not fail. That is what we have in Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of King Yahweh in human form—born as a child, born “unto us”—for us and for our salvation. A king from the House of David, fulfilling God’s covenant promises, resolving in himself the tension between the flawed kings of the Old Testament and the true, transcendently holy and glorious King of Isaiah’s vision. The Christmas hymn gets it exactly right:

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn king”

~Charles Wesley, 1739~

Student Article: “Taking Back Your Joy”

The following article was written and submitted for publication by Cherokee Christian High School student, Benjamin Koehler, Class of 2017.


Have you ever felt discouraged?  In this world, it happens more often than not. Places like school or the workplace can be filled with discouragement, and unfortunately even at home with our families it’s easy to get discouraged over little things.  It’s easy to talk about hope and thankfulness, but when life seems to take all your joy away, living it out seems near impossible.  Being a pressured high-schooler, I know that when I encounter hardship in life, it’s hard to remember that everything happens for a reason.

the-flashThat’s exactly the lesson a popular TV superhero learned not too long ago.  With the recent debut of the new season of The Flash, fans have gotten to see what happens when their hero, Barry Allen, is able to take back all the things life took away from him by time traveling.  It starts out wonderful at first. He has the girl of his dreams, someone else is playing hero for him, and both his parents are alive (something he hasn’t experienced for a long time).  But things get a little messy after a while.

As Barry traverses this brave new world where he has supposedly fixed all his problems, he starts to realize his mistake.  In this new reality, one of his close friends has train-wrecked his life, and another is an egomaniacal businessman who only cares about his money.  Many of his friends and family find themselves feeling off-kilter, like something is missing, and as Barry learns more and more about how he twisted reality, he also finds that his actions are destroying him – literally. The more he lives his new life the more his old one ceases to exist, and his old self ceases to exist.  As his memories start to fade away, Barry realizes that changing the story of his life was the wrong decision, and he ends up in the sorry state of begging his rival to undue his wrongs.

Now, although the show makes no reference to God, and has nothing to do with school, the spiritual lesson to be learned for our student lives is invaluable.  Life has been unkind to many of us, and though we may not be time-travelling super heroes, we have our own battles to face in our lives as workers and students.  As a student, I know that our struggles can sometimes feel like unbearable burdens. This leads us to think that we would be better off if they were erased from our lives, but we’re missing the point.

Barry Allen is an example of someone who made a mistake of trying to play God, and who got bitten back for it.  In trying to do what he thought would be best for his life, what he thought he deserved, he ended up digging himself into a pit of even worse despair.  It’s easy to see, and yet all too often we so foolishly assume that if we were in control of our lives we could do better.  We are willing to be thankful for blessings, but have you ever
stopped and tried to be thankful for a trial?  It’s not as if our goods, relationships, opportunities, and other such gifts in our lives are our only blessings, and our trials are our curses.  That next test, that painfully stressful project, they aren’t problems that God has accidently let affect us.  They are blessings too.  If you think about it, the only reason Barry was a hero was because of his tragic history, and as much as that made him stressed-student1hurt, it did more good than harm in the long run.

It’s natural for us to get discouraged, especially since high school is often a massive sleep-stealing, stress-inducing confuddleball that sometimes seems to gnaw away at students.  But we shouldn’t see it as a curse on our lives or it will truly become one.  If we start to assume that life would be better if we could obtain what we thought we deserved, we will make the same mistake as Barry, albeit with a little less time travel involved.  Instead, all the trials and sorrow and pain are things we should look at with hope.  They aren’t problems for us, they are only small obstacles that make us better, make us who we are meant to be.

So next time you have that terrifying test, or problematic presentation, don’t wallow in your agony.  Give thanks for all the things that come your way.  Sure, it’s not exactly as glorious as running through the streets with superpowers, but it’s just as important.  If you really want to take life into your own hands, it’s not about how you change your
situation, it’s about how you let your situation change you.  That in mind, go and be thankful for your blessings and your trials.  Your thankfulness is the first step to taking back your joy.

Fear… not?

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, 
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11

The Christmas season is filled with moments of solemn reflection and joyous celebration as the hearts of Christians all over the world are drawn near to a simple manger in an obscure town where the “Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” was born over two millennia ago. The story of Jesus’ birth recorded in Matthew, Luke and John contains elements that are utterly captivating – the awe-inspiring angelic messengers, the miracle of the virgin birth, the mystery and wonder of the incarnation, the vivid image of wise men following a singular star. And why shouldn’t this story be captivating. It is, after all, the story of stories about the coming of the King of kings! To quote someone who knew a thing or two about incredible stories, C.S. Lewis said:

“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”

What could be more marvelous than the birth of the promised Messiah, the Savior, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)?”

And yet, amidst all the spectacular events in the Christmas story that inspire genuine awe and wonder, there is a thread of common human experience that roots the narrative in earthly reality… fear. As I read the accounts in Matthew and Luke, I can’t help but notice that the central characters are routinely faced with circumstances that produce fear.

First, there is the unique kind of shocking fear that is induced when Heaven comes to earth. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the chosen shepherd-witnesses were all struck with great fear on the occasion of their angelic visitations. “Fear not,” and “Do not be afraid,” are the repeated opening lines of the angels because this is the natural human response to sudden heavenly glory. But there is more.

We also observe the kind of common fear that can grip a human soul when real-life circumstances become overwhelming. Matthew chronicles Joseph’s deep fear as he considered the scorn and shame that would come if he actually took the expectant Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18-21). Similarly, Luke opens a window into the fearful hearts of the temple priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. Prior to receiving the angel, Gabriel’s news that they would soon bear a son who would become the forerunner of the Messiah, they had endured the cultural burden of Elizabeth’s barren womb and feared they would never have a child (Luke 1:5-25).

Then, there is Mary, the humble, young virgin, chosen to bear and deliver the promised Savior-King who would ultimately bear the sins of man and deliver God’s people from eternal judgement. While we can only imagine the fear and uncertainty she must have wrestled with through her unique ordeal, we do get an actual glimpse of what initially troubled her. When Gabriel appeared to her and said,

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Luke tells us she was “greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:26-29).” While the text of Scripture doesn’t provide any more detail than this, it seems reasonable to infer that Mary’s trouble centered around her own sense of unworthiness to receive such favor. There is a kind of fear of inadequacy that is rooted in genuine humility. This fear, of course, did not paralyze Mary and cause her to reject God’s grace. Rather, it stimulated profound gratitude and comprehensive dependence upon the Lord (Luke 1:46-55).

Finally, there is a more sinister root of fear that is clearly observed in the record of King Herod. Upon hearing from the wise men that “the king of the Jews” had been born, Herod’s consuming fear of loosing his seat of power drove him to the mass murder of all male children under two years of age born in the region of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-18)!

What we see in the Christmas story is what we know from our own experience:  fear comes in a variety of “shapes and sizes.” What we also see is that fear can lead to heartfelt worship and obedience. On the other hand, it might also result in paralyzing doubt and distrust, or unabashed wickedness on a grand scale.

How we identify and deal with fear in our lives, and how we help our children deal with the fear in their lives, is of paramount importance. Here at Family Matters, we will attempt to tackle this subject in a series of articles next month.

But for now, let’s celebrate Christmas by heeding the wonderful message of the angels:

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11