Advent Week 4 and Christmas Morning: The King of Christmas, Genesis 49:10

Who is the King of Christmas? Many Americans would vote for Santa Claus. He embodies godlike qualities we might like to see in a king ruling over us. He knows who is naughty and who is nice (omniscience?). He creates billions of presents for all the children of the earth (omnipotence?). As a jolly old elf, he loves all people (omnibenevolence?). And he manages the physically impossible task of visiting every household on earth in a tight window of 24 hours or so (omnipresence?). His gifting seems to exemplify justice (concern for poor children), mercy (overlooking a few moral boo-boos), and humility (no self-praising tweets about his accomplishments).

Santa seems a much better King of Christmas than such pretenders such as Rudolf (abnormal nasal appearance), Frosty (undependable, melting presence), or Tiny Tim (too young). Problem: the Santa Claus we culturally celebrate is a fictional character, not a real person.

In Genesis, a picture of the future Messiah, the needed Savior of humankind, emerges for us. As the author of Hebrews might say, the messianic picture is in little bits and pieces, and we understand the hints of Genesis far better in hindsight than the ancients did in foresight.

One of these is the prediction that the future Messiah would be a king, a royal person. The narrative focus in Genesis is on various patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, etc. These were family chiefs, but were not kings. Yet at the end of Genesis, the glimmer of a king emerges. Genesis 49 presents the aged Jacob giving blessings to his twelve sons. He has words for each, an ironic act given that Jacob’s life was radically affected when he stole his brother Esau’s blessing from his father, Isaac.

Judah, the youngest of the four sons of Leah, receives his blessing in Genesis 49:8-12. This passage is loaded with images that become important in later texts. Judah is promised that his brothers would bow down to him, an act of acknowledging royalty. He is equated to a lion, the source of the powerful image of Revelation, the Lion of Judah. He is prophesied to wash his robes in wine, a foreshadowing of the saints of Revelation who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

The most intriguing text is Genesis 49:10:

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

This is not an easy text to translate, but Christmas morning is no time to unravel that scholarly debate. Notice two things. First, the language of “scepter” and “ruler’s staff,” the physical implements of kingship. Second, the promise of one who is coming who is the true and rightful king commanding the “obedience of the nations.”

I know I have biases and presuppositions as a Christian, but I cannot help but see this as a prediction of the Messiah. Would he be a warrior? Maybe. Would he be a judge? Maybe. Would he be a teacher? Maybe. But would he be a King? Definitely! And this royalty is tied to Judah, the ancestor of King David and of Joseph of Nazareth. The coming Messiah of Genesis would be the King of Kings of Revelation. Paul promises that eventually, every knee would bend and every head would bow in recognition of his royal reign over all peoples.

The 19th century New England newspaper editor, Josiah Holland wrote a poem for Christmas in 1872 entitled, “There’s a Song in the Air.” This is the fourth stanza:

We rejoice in the light, 
and we echo the song 
that comes down through the night 
from the heavenly throng. 
Ay! we shout to the lovely 
evangel they bring, 
and we greet in his cradle 
our Savior and King! 

Christmas is a time of motherhood, of gifts, of stables, of babies, of angels, and of mangers. Let us not forget the original location was David’s royal city, Bethlehem, and that that manger cradled the “Little Lord Jesus,” our “Savior and King!” He and he alone is the King of Christmas.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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Advent Week 3: The Ladder to God (Genesis 28:1-15)

An oft-mentioned but little understood biblical reference is “Jacob’s Ladder.” It comes from a story about the patriarch of the nation of Israel, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. It is difficult to point to a more pivotal figure in the history of Israel than Jacob, the person whose name is changed to “Israel” and whose twelve sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The story of Jacob’s courtships and marriages reflects archaic practices and understandings that teach us little about family values, but Jacob’s journey and blessings from God teach us much about God and his plan for the redemption of humankind. In Genesis 28, Jacob leaves his mother and father (Isaac and Rebekah), fleeing from the wrath of his cheated brother (Esau) and journeys north to his relative Laban.

On the way, Jacob sleeps rough in the countryside. One night, he is given a marvelous dream in which the promise of the land and of a great nation originally given to Abraham is reiterated to Jacob, designating him as the chosen heir (not Esau). But this is not new. We have heard this promise several times before in Genesis. This time, though, the dream-vision reveals a staircase (or “ladder”) extending from earth to heaven. Jacob witnesses angels ascending and descending this hidden passage, moving freely from God to mankind.

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Genesis 28:12)

In a little noticed encounter in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus praises his future disciple, Nathanael, for his demonstrated faith. Nathanael responds with a Messianic confession,

Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel. (John 1:49)

Jesus, rather than basking in this praise, pushes Nathanael with a “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” moment, telling him,

 You will see greater things … You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

This is clearly an allusion to the vision of Jacob, the stairway to heaven full of angels. In Jesus’ interpretation, he himself is the ladder. Jesus is the connection between heaven and earth.

What does this have to do with Christmas?

Often, we understand the birth of Jesus as the descent of God to earth to dwell with men and women in human form. This is true, but there is more to the story. Jesus comes to us not simply as an emissary, but as a bridge spanning the gap between sinful humanity and holy God. In the English version of the 14th century Christmas song, In Dulci Jubilo, one of the verses has these words:

Good Christian men, rejoice,
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened the heav’nly door,
And man is blessed forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!

Prayer: Lord, may we not forget the door to heaven that was opened by Jesus, your Son. May we take joy in the spiritual stairway he provides, the great mediator between human beings and you, our Creator and Father. He was born for this! We thank you for this great gift. In his name we pray, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 2: Sacrifice of Son

Week 2: Sacrifice of Son Genesis 22:15-18

During Advent, attention spent on the Old Testament usually has the focus of fulfillment of prophecy. This follows the pattern of Prophet said thathundreds of years later, this happened to fulfill this prophetic statement. This is not the only type of fulfillment from Old Testament to New Testament, however. An equally important pattern is that of typology, a somewhat discredited and often neglected aspect of Scripture study.

Typology understands certain patterns found in the Old Testament as being pointers or precursors to the New Testament. These can be people, events, and even institutions. In the Old Testament, this pattern (or type) can occur several times, but all of these are partial and often unclear. In the New Testament, this type is fulfilled completely (the antitype). Many, but not all, of the Old Testament types point toward the Messiah, and these are the ones that interest us the most at Christmas time.

THE BIBLE, George C. Scott, 1966, (c) 20th Century Fox, TM & Copyright

One of the most dramatic stories in Genesis concerns Abraham’s near-murder of his son, Isaac. The birth of Isaac is itself a type of miraculous conception and birth, not quite a virgin conception but still marvelous. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had long past the child-bearing season of her life when she became pregnant through God’s miracle. Sarah herself conspired to provide Abraham with an illegitimate son, the fruit of her servant Hagar (the original “handmaid”). This Abraham/Sarah/Hagar/Ishmael incident did not meet the Lord’s plan, however, while the miraculous birth of Isaac did. Only through this legitimate, God-ordained child could the great promises of the Lord made to Abraham be fulfilled.

The Mt. Moriah event proved Abraham’s absolute trust in the Lord as shown by his obedience. Abraham was willing to kill, by his own hands, the son he had waited for over 100 years. God stopped this murder-testing at the last possible moment, speaking to Abraham while he had knife in hand. Seeing the purity of Abraham’s faith, God told him this:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. (Genesis 22:16-18)

The typology here is profound. A miraculous birth. An only son. A brush with death. An act of obedience. A blessing for all nations. It is not difficult to see this as a pre-enactment of the life of Jesus, the main difference being that God allowed his own son to die for the sins of the world.

At Christmas, we rightly celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Let us not forget that this baby became a full-grown man, and that he obediently climbed his own mountain and died so that we would all be blessed. And let us also not forget that he did not stay in the grave, being raised on the third day to life forever.

The well-known Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” is remembered primarily for its first verse. But, consider the third verse:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote this carol, understood the ironic symbolism of the gift of myrrh to the Baby Jesus. It was a “spice” used in preparation of corpse for burial (John 19:39). Myrrh represents that greatest of Christmas mysteries, that Jesus was “born to die.” Hopkins also knew the end of the story, though, and includes it as his final verse:

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Earth to Heaven replies.

What a great Christmas word: Alleluia! Hallelujah! Praise be to the Lord!

Prayer: Lord, we marvel at the faith of Abraham, willing to kill his beloved son at your command. But we are utterly astounded at your willingness to give your beloved Son, your Only Son, who died for our sins. Our astonishment turns to gratefulness when we remember how much you love us. Bethlehem was only the beginning of this story. Thank you for the birth that took place in a humble stable, the advent of a Savior for our sins. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 1: Curse and Promise (Genesis 3:15)

Advent season is a good time to remember the scriptural background that led to the coming of the Messiah. The birth of Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, in Bethlehem would matter little if not for the context of expectations and fulfillment of prophecies made before that birth. These earlier Scriptures define the coming Messiah in at least three important ways:

  1. What would be the purpose of the Coming One? I.e., why was a Messiah needed?
  2. What would be the identifying marks of this Messiah? I.e., how would he be recognized as the Promised One?
  3. What would be the characteristics of the Promised One? I.e., what roles would this person fulfill according to God’s plan

Clearly, these are not distinct categories without overlap and we should not expect them to be. They converge in a single person, anticipated for centuries and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

For Advent 2017, I would like to highlight references to the coming Messiah found in the book of Genesis. These reflect the oldest traditions from the people of Israel, even before there was a nation of Israel. The first one, seen by scholars as the earliest reference to a future savior, is in Genesis 3. We call it the protoevangelium, the first gospel.

This text comes at the time of the earliest and greatest crisis in all the Bible. Adam and Eve, the first human couple, have disobeyed the Lord, and this sin has led to a series of pronouncements from God given to Adam, to Eve, and to the serpent who tempted them in the Garden. The message for the serpent is a curse, demoting his to the status of the hated snake from then on. The Lord ends his curse with this prophetic word:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
(Genesis 3:15)

The great drama of human history is foretold in these words. Humanity is caught in the primeval and modern triangle. In one corner is God, the Father who loves his children but wants them to love him and obey him in return. In a second corner is the serpent, Satan himself, who tempts God’s children with the allures of sin and disobedience. In the third corner is the human race, unfaithful and needing help to resist Satan’s enticements and be restored to God.

The protoevangelium addresses this dilemma. It recognizes that the generations of people coming from Eve will hate and fear the tempter, even while falling for his lies. But the text promises a deliverer, a descendant of the woman who would deliver a mortal blow to the serpent while suffering a wound in the process.

We see this as looking forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection more than his birth, but the text reminds us that God’s intention from the earliest pronouncement was to provide a human savior. Not an angel. Not a demi-god. Not a specially created being. A human being who was born like any other man and grew from a baby to be a man. He had to be human so that he could die and then be resurrected from the dead. This crushed Satan’s power forever. At Christmas, we celebrate the first stage of this journey, the Savior of the World, destined for greatness, and born in Bethlehem to a loving mother and father in unimaginably humble circumstances. As Emily Elliot wrote:

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.

This is the story of the baby of Bethlehem, the focus of Christmas who was to become the hero of humanity. May we marvel at the centuries of preparation for his coming, and the centuries of blessings we have enjoyed since his birth. May we pray the last two lines of Emily Elliot’s verse:

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation for Christmas Eve: Singing the Messiah

sing-along“Sing-along Messiah” events are Christmas traditions in many communities. They involve community members bringing their copy of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah and joining the choir to sing the choruses in the performance. It is traditional to do the “Christmas portions” of the massive oratorio composed in 1741, Part 1 plus the “Hallelujah” chorus from Part 2. (Note: Part 2 of the Messiah is the “Passion” section, sometimes performed at Easter, Part 3 is sometimes seen as the Pauline section, singing of the resurrection of the dead.) It has been my privilege and joy to participate in Messiah Sing-Alongs at least ten times by playing in the orchestra. I love it. The community orchestras I have played in used these events as fundraisers. Instead of paying the performers, they pay you! What a deal!

Singing and Christmas have a tight relationship in our annual celebration. How do you think a Christmas eve service would be received if no Christmas carols were sung? All the public spaces are filled with a repetitive list of Christmas music. My personal opinion is it might be good to expand this repertoire a bit. I’m not sure I need to hear Dean Martin sing “Let It Snow” more than five or six times a year.

Some claim the greatest music ever written is Christmas music. Beyond the Messiah, we think of Bach’s Magnificat or Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Especially beloved is the Adophe Adam music written for Placide Cappeau’s poem “Minuit, chrétiens,” first performed in 1848 as Cantique de Noel. In America, a minister named John Sullivan Dwight offered an English version in 1855, and we still sing it: O Holy Night!

But why music and Christmas? Why a night that is more holy than others?

The Christmas story is full of paradoxes and there is none greater than the appearance of the angels to the Bethlehem shepherds. It was a visit of the most powerful created beings in the universe to some of the lowliest with the precious message of Christmas: the Savior of Mankind had been born! This could only be a message from the Lord God himself, great glad tidings, the good news of the Gospel for human redemption!

angels-and-shepherdsThe announcement by this lead angel was followed by something more astounding: the revelation to the shepherds of more angels, “a multitude of the heavenly host” (πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου), literally, “an army in the sky.” A singing army of angels, and this is what they sang:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

The KJV has the angels “saying” this refrain, but that misunderstands the variety of meanings of the Greek word lego (λέγω), which can refer to singing words as well as speaking.

These humble but obedient shepherds go to the place in Bethlehem village where the new Messiah has been born. Were they humming the angel’s tune? Were they singing it? Did they teach it to the new friends they made in the Jesus stable? Did the ox and ass keep time?

We live today in a world full of music. It is hard to escape it, our media saturation society drips music. How great it is to have at least some of that music focused on our Lord Jesus Christ! So in these last days of Advent, may we join the angels and sing.

Gloria in excelsis deo et in terra pax

Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 4: Giving for and Receiving from the Messiah

four-candles-litWhen we were boys, my two brothers and I always got up early on Christmas to open presents. We expected toys! Grandma Bessie didn’t understand this: underwear! One year a belt! Never toys or anything cool. She just didn’t get it, I thought. Christmas was mainly about the presents I was getting.

Things changed when I was a junior in high school, age 16: my family had a very rough Christmas. My father was very ill with Hepatitis and was in the hospital. My dad was a doctor and while we were not rich, we always were comfortable. But doctors don’t get paid if they don’t work, and he was in the hospital a long time. From something my mother said, I realized that money was very tight. And I realized I was the only one who had a job, a little part-time gig in the down drugstore, so I took the money I had saved, about $150, and made a determined effort to buy nice gifts for my family: mother, father, older brother in college, and younger brother in grade school. I even realized we did not have a Christmas tree, so on the day before Christmas I stopped by a lot and bought one. At age 16 it was one of the best Christmases I have ever had.

I had moved from the joy of getting, to a much greater joy: giving. Perhaps I understood a tiny bit of being godlike, the joy that God felt when he gave us his Son. Perhaps I had begun to know that no one was rejoicing more on the first Christmas than God the Father.

Now I have over 60 Christmases under my belt. I enjoy getting gifts from friends and loved ones. I enjoy giving gifts to friends and loved ones. But there is another stage. The families of guys like me will usually say, “He is hard to buy for! I never know what to get him!” For years when I was asked what I wanted for Christmas, I would say something like, “I just want your love.” But that missed the point. I was denying others the joy of giving. I had not learned how to receive.

The angels who greeted the shepherds gave glory to God. And God received their praise. Not because God’s ego needed a boost, but because God knew they needed to give and they needed him to received their gift.

And perhaps that is something about Christmas we miss. We are very human when our concern is getting gifts for ourselves. We are most human when we are disappointed in our gifts. But when we give and when we gratefully receive from others, we are more like God.

Remember Mary, when confronted with the news that she would become pregnant although a virgin took a minute to process. But then she said:

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

She received the greatest gift of all, a gift that blessed us today, with humility and grace. No wonder we love her so much.

Advent Week 3: Journeying for the Messiah

week-3-adventI once spoke for a Christian Indian-American gathering and had a great time fellowshipping with my brothers and sisters from the great sub-continent of Asia. I enjoyed the curry-rich food with hints of many other spices I could not name.

While eating with my new friends, I was reflecting on why a person born in India would want to come to the USA. My assumptions were: better economic prospects, easier assimilation than some immigrant populations because they already speak good English, and family already in the United States.  These were all somewhat true, but none were the primary reason. Repeatedly, I was told that America was the place where they could live as Christians without fear of persecution or discrimination. India is a large, diverse country, but the Hindu majority sees conversion to the Christian faith as both heretical and, to some degree, unpatriotic. I struck me: they journeyed to America to serve Jesus more openly.

A delightful part of the Christmas story is the part played by the magi, popularly known as “wise men.” Only mentioned by Matthew, the magi story is sparse on details. Sometimes we call them “kings.” It is possible they had royal status, otherwise their quick access to King Herod is hard to understand. We like to think there were three wise men, although Matthew does not say. This comes from Matthew’s mention of three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assuming the “one gift per magi rule”). We often say they were from Persia, but Matthew simply says they were from the “east.” Persia is east of Jerusalem, and given the historical circumstances at the time, it is as likely as anyplace for their origin. If true, this would mean they came from outside the Roman empire into the Roman world, and I think that is what Matthew wants us to understand.

The occasion for their coming to Jerusalem was the appearance of a new phenomenon in the sky, what Matthew calls a “star” (ἀστέρα). This indicates the magi studied the stars and has led us to conclude they were astrologers, people who believed the movement and alignment of astral phenomena signaled or even controlled future events. This has led many to conclude they were not Jews, but this is not a necessary conclusion. Later Jewish sources indicate a place for astrology in practice. This includes the Talmud and the much later Jewish phenomenon known as the Kabballah. I think it is both possible and even probable that these men were Jews. We must imagine the details, but I think the background of the magi was something like this:

star-of-bethlehemThere was a guild of Jewish men who studied both the Torah and other Jewish writings as well as the stars and planets. A new, unusually bright star-like light appeared in their night sky and they concluded it was a sign from the Lord that the long-promised Messiah of their Scriptures had been born. They determined that there were no further answers for them where they lived in Mesopotamia and decided to travel to the most Jewish city of all, Jerusalem, to get answers. Once there, they went to the head man, King Herod, perhaps not realizing he was not really a Jew. They unintentionally created a crisis for Herod, who feared any legitimate claimant to his throne. Herod had quick access to the best Scripture scholars of his city, and they determined that the scroll of the prophet Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. This made sense to everyone, for Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, the prototype of the Messiah. Therefore, the magi hurried to Bethlehem, just a few miles south, promising to come back and report to Herod what they find (probably the next day). As they set out, they find guidance from a truly miraculous “star,” perhaps a visionary experience that only they could see. They find the young Jesus with his mother and father in a Bethlehem house where they worship (bow down) to him and give him three lavish gifts.

Like my Indian friends, they had journeyed far to worship the Lord Jesus. It was a hard journey, a journey of faith. It was rewarded with joy and fulfillment.

As we come to the Lord Jesus in this season of Advent, may we, too, come in faith. May we brush aside the unbelievers like Herod who would exploit us or discourage us. May we realize the purpose of our journey, to serve and worship Jesus the Messiah.

O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him.
O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University