January 1, 2016

Why the Assault on the Manger

The message of Christmas is a message of peace and of judgment, and the myrrh of the suffering prophet can be to us a fragrance of life or death this year. 

In the history of the church the threefold offices of King, Priest and Prophet have become associated with the three gifts the Magi brought to Christ sometime after his birth: gold for kingship, frankincense for priesthood and myrrh for the prophet. If Jesus is born a prophet (as well as a priest and king), what is the calling of a prophet? Biblically the prophet is one anointed and set apart by God to speak God’s word and speak for God. In many respects the prophet’s work reminds the people of God’s laws and promises and calls them to obedience – that is loyalty to God and his concerns and desires for the world. The prophet therefore speaks for God and tells forth his word.

The association of myrrh with the role and office of the prophet is perhaps identifiable in two ways. First, myrrh is a small tree with bushy branches bearing a plum-like fruit producing a fragrant gum that was put to several uses. It was used as an anointing oil (Ex. 30:23), and as a perfume for ceremonial cleansing and preparation for burial. Jesus’ body is prepared for burial with myrrh in John 19:39.

The gifts brought to Jesus at his nativity actually help us to see important aspects of what his offices really mean. The anointing symbolized by myrrh reminds us that Jesus is God’s anointed one, our prophet, and his message is the fragrance of life for those who are being saved. But it also reminds us of his death and burial, the killing of God’s prophet by sinful and rebellious people. Myrrh therefore speaks of his suffering as God’s mouthpiece and the day of his burial. In this we see that we cannot look at Jesus’ birth as simply a heartwarming story, in isolation from his role as the true prophetic office bearer. The baby Jesus who lies in the manger is God’s anointed one, the prophet foretold by lesser prophets, right through to John the Baptist. Myrrh reminds us he is set apart, his mouth is filled with God’s word, and he is going to suffer and be persecuted for that message.

Recently cinemas in the U.K banned a 45-second ad that highlighted Christ’s nativity as ‘too religious,’ and therefore offensive. If it seems odd that people could be so offended and threatened by the birth of a baby, remember that they were in the first century, and they still are, because that baby is a prophet who calls us to repentance and obedience. Our increasingly faithless culture today has turned Christmas into a strange festival of consumer madness, sentimentality and partying – a bizarre vacation centred on pure consumption and often revelry.

We have generally turned away from the babe in the manger because, as those first gifts from the magi indicate, he grew as God’s anointed prophet who preached, healed, died and was raised. To truly acknowledge and celebrate the cradle means therefore to acknowledge and celebrate the cross and resurrection and indeed the session of Christ on his throne as the true office-bearer. His prophetic word of truth from God is found to be no less offensive today, than it was then.

His coming had long been foretold. Scripture says, “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.” (Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22-23). This powerful prophecy concerning the anointed prophet who was to have total authority was well-known among the Jewish people, and St. Peter cites it in reference to Jesus.

It is important to note, then, that Christmas is not only a promise of peace but also a warning of danger. The word danger, like many words, has been gradually altered in meaning over time. To us it means exposure to trouble, risk or disaster, but the word goes back to a Latin root ‘dominium,’ meaning power or lordship. In that original meaning, danger meant ‘ruled by a master’ – it meant to be in the power of someone other than Christ the Lord. To be under any other god, to be ruled by sin, to be mastered by a false faith, to act as though you were your own god, all this is to be in danger.

So the prophets came and spoke for God, declaring his promises and warning of the danger of being under the power of any other than God the Lord. Christ comes as our prophet to free us from every false word and every usurping power. But this message is a threat to false power-centres and so puts every prophet at risk. God alone is infallible, all-wise and all-knowing and so alone is able to speak the word as the true prophet – an absolutely certain word that we can rely upon. But this does not go over well with self-assured people who do not want to go God’s way and seek an alternate word of man over that of the creator and redeemer.

Not all that long ago in parts of Europe it was illegal for churches to include Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55) in church services because some of the monarchs of Europe regarded it as subversive. In this famous prophetic song of praise Mary declares that the birth of her Son means the overturning of the great powers of the world in terms of the word of God, so that her song actually speaks of God’s judgment on sin. This means that Christmas spells bad news for all rebels, both great and lowly, who prefer sin and evil to God’s righteousness, and they will fight against the promised prophet and his people who speak with his voice. Alternate prophets will be offered in place of the anointed one and people will bring their gifts and praise to them instead.

One such example today is the false prophecy of ‘science says.’ In the early part of the twentieth century some scientists were predicting (prophesying) about a coming germ-free world in which we would live in glass-enclosed cities and farms. We now understand that most germs are beneficial – life being impossible without them. In the 1960s they then prophesied that the world would be vastly overpopulated by 1975, some predicting a worldwide famine in the ‘70s.

When I was a young boy in school, scientists were prophesying a new ice age in which much of the planet would soon be frozen over, and what was worse, the oil and coal would be gone within thirty years. Over thirty years later the planet is a tiny bit warmer and there are more oil and coal reserves than there were then – enough for centuries. Now they prophesy that a colorless and odourless gas of which all life is made is a pollutant destroying us! Men and animals are catastrophically warming the planet, and if we burn more of the fossil fuel they said should already be gone, worldwide disaster will strike.

Yet after World War II, when CO2 levels were rising with worldwide industrial development, the planet cooled and there has been no warming for about eighteen years. All the same, this Christmas season, governments have gathered in Paris to speak the word and save the planet while Christ is ignored or ridiculed and sin is seen as a non-problem. Moreover ‘climate change’ (as though this were new – the Middle Ages had warmer spells than this in Europe) is used to account for every problem from strong winds to the existence of ISIS and poverty.

Furthermore, currently, the ‘science says’ prophets are foretelling a utopian future world in which man will merge with his technology, defeat all disease, death and social privation and will become a god. Despite all this manifest nonsense, more attention is paid by most people to ‘science says’ than to the prophet who foretold seven hundred years before Christ, “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” (Is. 9:6). Since we so often will hear only what we want to hear, it is no surprise that many prefer false prophets to the prophet-king, born into the world.

So what happened to the prophets who preached God’s word and foretold his great salvation in Christ? The prophet Isaiah who uttered those beautiful words, ‘to us a child is born,’ was sawn in half and martyred. In Isaiah 52 and 53 the prophet clearly foretells the good news of Christ and also the suffering of the anointed one. He suffered as our savior but also because he is our true prophet.

We are told in Scripture that one of Christ’s forerunners, the prophet Jeremiah, was set apart before he was born to speak to the nations. In Jeremiah 7:1-15 he preaches in the Temple, and warns against a false trust in the Temple as a religious symbol, whilst faith and obedience are lacking and sin and idolatry prevail. Jeremiah preached repentance at a time of apostasy and as a result was savagely persecuted. He was struck by the chief officer in the Temple and put in chains. Soon after the priests wanted to put him to death (Jer. 26:8). They said he was a false prophet because he had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem; what true prophet would say that rather than what people wanted to hear? Despite Israel’s hatred of Jeremiah and his word, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem as he predicted and captivity followed. God’s word cannot fail. It never fails. It always comes to pass.

To us a child is born… to us a son is given.” The parallels to the life of Jesus in Jeremiah are striking. His being set apart from birth. His preaching in the Temple and prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem. His being struck by the Temple authorities and bound. Their efforts to secure his execution from the governing authorities and so on.

Ezekiel was also persecuted and was very unpopular because he rightly blamed corrupt priests and rulers for leading Judah astray and failing to do justice. Moses had to deal with constant murmuring, complaining and betrayal and even attempts to kill him from the very people whom God had delivered by his hand. The great Elijah was hated and accused of being a troubler of Israel because he spoke the truth against idolatry and sin. The letter to the Hebrews makes clear the fate of many of God’s servants and prophets who spoke his word into a rebellious world:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,  since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb. 11:35-40).

When Jesus was approaching Jerusalem knowing that the time of his myrrh as God’s prophet was closing in he said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). Jesus went to his trial and execution at the hands of those he came to save and the prophet king was taken down from the cross and embalmed in myrrh.

As we again reflect this year on the meaning and implications of Christmas in the symbols of gold, frankincense and myrrh and gain fresh insight into our Lord’s offices and ministry, let us be reminded that the summons of Christmas is to decide whose voice we will trust and whose word we shall believe. Christmas is a message of peace and of judgment, and the myrrh of the suffering prophet can be to us a fragrance of life or death this year. Christ our prophet speaks God’s word and calls us back to true worship of the living God who is fully manifest in his person.

For our prophet-king in the manger is none other than the Lord of glory, the eternal Son of God. Thus, man is divided each Christmas as to how he responds to the prophet who is come, ‘a child is born, a son is given.’ We can hide from God’s word amidst the noise and clamor of false prophecy which assaults and persecutes those who preach Christ as Lord today, or we can do what the prophet Elijah did and recognise the divine voice in the stillness – the beautiful silence of that first great nativity announced it – God is here. Indeed, as the prophet Habakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy Temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” In Christ, God is with us. Let us keep silence before him and worship.

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