“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~

“Happy Holidaze!?”

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.
Luke 2:19

“This year, no matter what, I am NOT going to allow myself to get caught up in all of the meaningless hype and frenetic activity that has consumed so many of my past Christmas seasons!”

How many times have you flipped the calendar to December with this kind of adamant resolution?christmas-panic

There is just something about this time of year that can make us feel like we are cresting a steep hill on roller skates, and it will take all of our strength and determination to merely survive the chaotic descent into New Year’s Day. Maybe you feel a looming sense of dread that you will, once again, wake up on January 1st in a disappointed daze as you look back at what should have been some semblence of a meaningful celebration of the birth of the Savior, but all you can recall is a blurred flurry of Christmas-ish happenings that are devoid of lasting substance?

I suppose we could avoid this imminent disappointment by merely lowering our expectations to a near cynical level and resigning ourselves to the harsh reality that Christmas is all about commercial excess with a dash of seasonal lights, and that’s just how things are now.  Or, if we still have a small reservoir of passion about this season left in us, we might join Charlie Brown in throwing our hands up in the air in utter exasperation over the realization that Christmas is no longer Christmas.

frustratedcharliebrown

Or maybe there is another option… a better option…

Every year when we gather as a family, usually on Christmas day, to read Luke’s account of the birth of Christ found in the 2nd chapter of his gospel, I am routinely struck by the insightful disposition of Mary as she celebrated the very first Christmas. This young, new mother found herself  in the lowliest of surroundings with the promised Son and long-awaited Savior lying before her in what was essentially a feeding trough. Upon hearing the angelic proclamation as it was retold to her by the visiting shepherds,

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)

Luke simply tells us,

Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

What I find so compelling and instructive about Mary’s response is that it was not at all contingent upon circumstances, constrained by schedule demands, nor corrupted by sentimental, self-serving expectations. A few brief moments of genuine, worshipful reflection on what God had promised and what He had done in bringing the Savior into the world – that was her Christmas celebration!

It was the kind of celebration that could occur at any time, in any place, and under any circumstances. It’s depth of meaning centered not on the traditions of a season, but on the trustworthiness of God’s promises.

So, I say let the festive madness of the season begin. Let the sights and sounds of the holidays wash over us in waves. Bring on the rich foods and rushed shopping days. And yes, let’s protect those cherished family traditions and pass them on to our children.

But…

winter_solitudeLet’s not confuse any of that with Christmas. Let’s not fill our calendars, our senses, and our bellies with seasonal delights that eventually leave us feeling empty.  Quiet contemplation of timeless and transcendent Truth has a way of nourishing and satisfying our souls like no other activity. Behold, the Savior has come! He is Christ the Lord! Christmas is here, and none of us has to miss it!

Already Exhausted?

“As your days, so shall your strength be.”
Deuteronomy 33:25

From time to time, everyone experiences at least short periods of time where they feel exhausted. For some, there may be extended periods which can bring on depression.

However, the Lord continues to give us bodily strength to get through each day. But, there is also spiritual strength. This kind of strength is very different from bodily strength and it is His strength making us perfect in our weakness. It is the kind of strength that helps us to believe, to pray, and to live godly lives in this present evil world. Clearly, the true Christian life is not easy. Scripture refers to it as running a race that is run with endurance, or fighting a war like a soldier or warrior. We live in a world where the Christian’s enemies are formidable.

Suffering is an unavoidable part of the Christian life. The apostle Paul was told immediately after his conversion that he would suffer great things in his service to Christ. Our times are no different than his. We live in a world that is clearly anti-Christian, and if the law did not restrain men, we would experience even greater trials.

It is important to understand that God is not absent from our physical or spiritual sufferings. He uses all things for our good and we should not despise those hard life experiences, nor should we give up. Paul and James challenge us to think the way God wants us to think. In the face of difficulties, we are to believe that God is lovingly using even the evil actions of people toward us to shape us into the image of his Son.

This is the clear truth of the Bible, but choosing to believe this will inevitably bring us to ask a very scary question. That is, who has the strength to walk through every day without stumbling physically, spiritually, or emotionally? Who prays as often and as sincerely as they should? Who has a mind that does not wander into sinful and wicked thoughts? Answer: No one.

The answer should not create fear in us, but rather anticipation because, when we are weak, He is strong. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might, He increases strength, and will do it according to His glorious might!