November 29: The First Sunday of Advent

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-46

Well, Happy Advent to you too! There’s nothing quite like a passage on eternal damnation to really get you in the mood for what the world calls the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! It is a good time and Advent is a good thing because we look and long for the coming of King Jesus. He has come and He is coming. There are two major discourses in Matthew and both end with parables. The Sermon on the Mount ends with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders and the Olivet discourse closes with parables warning His disciples to be prepared for His Coming (24:45-25:30). That’s where this passage falls.

It’s common to think of the event of the separation of the sheep and the goats as being entirely future and involving everyone (you’re either a sheep or a goat—there’s no third option). I wouldn’t argue with the latter, though it’s not exactly what Jesus is saying. Contextually, Jesus warned the Jews at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that their “house” will fall if they do not keep His words. As the story goes, by the time chapter 23 comes along, they have made it abundantly clear that they are not going to keep His words. So, Jesus prophesies that the “house” in Jerusalem will fall with not even one stone being left upon another.

This helps us understand better that the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is less about the “lost” and the “saved” generally, and more about Israel and the Church. Jesus refers to the operative group here as his “brothers” (“brethren” is a better translation referring to brothers and sisters). He has already identified who the brethren are in chapter 12, While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

That’s the church! So in light of this and many other passages, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats is a description of the Jews (or other non-brethren claiming to be God’s) being judged according to their reception of the church (the brethren)! Those in the church are Jesus’ disciples, and what you do for them, you are doing for Him.

It fits too with the Beatitudes from the first discourse as well: poor, mourn, meek, hungering and thirsting. These are Jesus’ disciples, His brethren, and the way you treat them is the way you treat Him. That ought to get our attention. We’re all hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and imprisoned to something. But, we are to love mercy, and remember with James that visiting widows and orphans in their affliction is pure and undefiled religion. How you treat others in the church counts forever!

The sheep are called righteous in this parable, and it’s because a kingdom was prepared for them from the foundation of the world. They treated each other in the church with kindness, forgiveness, grace and mercy. Consequently, that’s how the Judge of the Nations treats them forever. And that’s the gospel!

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” – Mark 1:1-8

Last week we saw the beauty and majesty of Mark’s first line: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Here he is telling us exactly what to expect: the joyful proclamation of the victory of King Jesus. God has delivered His Messiah, promised from so long ago, and now He is making all things new.

Mark moves immediately into the news about John the Baptizer. There’s not room here to expose it, but Mark quotes John, which is an amalgam of quotes from Isaiah and Malachi all with an eye toward Exodus. John is definitely known for being a baptizer. The Greek word for “baptism” (contrary to popular lore) was used to refer to ceremonial cleansing and washings. Mark himself uses the word in 7:4 for washing dishes just like the writer of Hebrews uses it for the ceremonial sprinklings of the Mosaic law (Heb. 9:10). Cleansing and baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins cannot be the only meaning of John’s baptism because he was not in a very advantageous place to do it out in the wilderness region of the Jordan at the far eastern boundary of the Land of Israel. Surely Jerusalem was a far more target-rich environment!

The reason all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him (an inconvenient trip) at the Jordan River is fascinating. For some background, we must keep in mind that the Apostle Paul refers to the crossing of the Red Sea as a baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-2). Remember when the Israelites entered the Land from the wilderness, they crossed the Jordan River on dry land just like at the Red Sea. It is here that they were circumcised (Josh. 5), which Paul associates with baptism (Col. 2:11-13). And then in Deut. 2 they crossed over the brook Zered as the water crossing between these two points. This was a symbolic transition between the condemned generation of the Israelites and the new generation who entered the Promise Land.

When these three instances are put together, they show that there is a water boundary between the old and the new, the cursed-for-sin and the blessed-with-forgiveness. Moreover, we even see this in the layout of the Tabernacle/Temple with the laver of cleaning or “bronze ocean” (1 Kings 7:23ff) in order to enter God’s presence. This was, of course, a shadow of the Heavenly Throne Room where the throne itself is separated by the glassy sea (Rev. 4:6). In other words, passing through water means moving toward God in His holiness and requires repentance and cleansing to move from the old to the new.

With this in mind, we know that those who left their homes in Judea and Jerusalem and traveled the long road to John the Baptizer at the Jordan River (the boundary to the Promised Land) were actually entering the Promised Land. It was a powerful confession that they were still in the wilderness, not the real Promised Land, and needed salvation. They were essentially confessing that they were still under bondage in Egypt along with their entangled sins.

Before the baptism of John, they were living in the world of sin and rebellion against God. It was time to turn around and go the right way. When they emerged, it was to look for the one who would deliver all the covenant promises of God, and John wastes no time in telling them: After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And that’s the gospel!

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. – Mark 1:1

As we begin a sermon series in the book of Mark, there are so many great things I want to tell you about. I confess that in the past, although I would never have said it out loud, I’ve believed that Mark was somehow of lesser importance because it is the shortest. It has no narrative of Jesus’ birth. Mark covers Jesus born, baptized, tempted, and calling disciples before he is half-way through the first chapter! One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately” (used 35 times, 9 times in chapter 1 alone). Whereas Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses, the rabbi or teacher, who goes about using intellectual challenges to the original audience’s interpretation and use of the OT Scriptures, Mark characterizes Jesus as a man of action on the move. For Mark, Jesus is a new David, the shepherd-warrior-king.

So, my previous error of slighting the book of Mark has been corrected. Mark is an essential component to our understanding of who Jesus is and even to what the gospel itself means. Speaking of that, did you notice the first verse of the book copied above? What a great first line! The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There are several sermons that could be preached just from that sentence. Why does Mark use the word “beginning” or “Christ” or “Son of God”? He’s not liberal with word selection, so there is great meaning behind each one.

I think it’s important not to take the word “gospel” too lightly. What is the gospel? That’s a good question, and a question I think more people who frequently use the word ought to ask. Since the Newer Testament wasn’t written at the time Mark was writing this gospel (probably late 40s-early 50s), we would need to see how it is used both in the Older Testament and in the pagan world at the time of Mark’s writing.

Back in 9 BC we find the word used in the announcement of the birthday of Augustus Caesar. Various scholars agree that use of the Greek word evangelion is a technical term that refers to the announcement of a great victory, or the birth or accession of an emperor. It is a public announcement of some sort of victory.

Then if we look in the OT, we find the word in Isaiah 40:9 and 52:7. Both of these texts concern the return of God’s people from exile where God will dwell again with them. That’s in Jerusalem in the Temple. We find it earlier in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles to refer to the construction of both God’s “temple” and Solomon’s kingly “palace.” We can draw from this the same meaning as the pagan usage: it is an announcement of the victory or ascension of a king.

That lets us in on more of what Mark is saying than might initially meet the eye. When we think of “gospel,” we tend to think of forgiven individuals and changed lives. Maybe we’ve grown a bit and thought of the gospel as the announcement of what Jesus has done for us. That’s good and ought to be preached, but let’s be clear here that Mark’s use of the word is less about getting a “personal relationship” with God and more about announcing that a new King is acceding to His throne. He will conquer his enemies, and they should tremble in fear. For those who want to live under His reign, our knees must bow in submission to His royal (Davidic!) authority. That’s what Mark is introducing: the conquest and victory of a new King of kings. And that’s the gospel!

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you. — Hebrews 13:20-25

Here are the final verses of this grand book. I can’t help but laugh just a little that the author appeals to the audience to bear with these exhortations which he has written to you briefly. I wonder what the long version would have looked like! And there are some personal notes: Timothy has been released from prison, and some of their fellow Italians who were away with the writer send greetings. I wish this helped us identify the author with certainty, but it probably doesn’t.

In this passage we find the crowning glory in the great benediction. Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Up to this point the writer hasn’t had much to say about the resurrection of Christ. Obviously it has been assumed throughout, since the resurrection was necessary to make all the spectacular promises he outlines possible, but here it is mentioned explicitly. God brought again (or “led up”) Jesus from the world of the dead. This is proof that He is the promised Great Shepherd, which was the hope of all the faithful from before. On the cross He shed His blood to be the inaugural blood for the eternal covenant (i.e., the New Covenant).

That’s grand and marvelous, but what may be even more staggering is not just that the future is amazing, but that He is working in us right now, at least in a preliminary way, some of the eternal covenant blessings. We are doing His will on earth as it is done in heaven. That means we are bringing His kingdom to bear upon the world. It’s the Great Shepherd of the sheep who is equipping us for this task. Remember, this it written to people suffering persecution. Some have been in prison and others have had their property plundered, but the truth is that they are doing what is pleasing to God through Jesus Christ!

If it is true that through Jesus Christ God is at work in us, we ought to expect struggles along the way. That’s all the more reason to hold fast and give Him the glory forever and ever. This Great Shepherd is the one who pioneered the way and who brings us into the presence of God. He waits to welcome us to the city that is to come, and it is by His death, resurrection and ascension, as well as receiving the gift of His own Spirit that we are equipped to do and be priests to God in the Kingdom that cannot be shaken. And that’s the gospel!