Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Faith or Fear: the only real choice

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:21-40

The 1st Sunday after Christmas almost always seems anti-climactic because the festive fury of Christmas reaches a particular crescendo and then suddenly dies down – or completely out. It is as if the Story that began to unfold with so much excitement and anticipation only came about in a few short weeks and then abruptly ended. To make matters worse, at least according to the church calendar, we will move into Lent in a few short weeks. So what began as the fevered pitch of excitement and anticipation at our welcoming the birth of Messiah will come to a somewhat sinister conclusion at Calvary when man utterly rejects Him, even as we know how that turns out.

This is one of the reasons why I am not entirely comfortable with the Advent season. Lent is another story and another sermon altogether, of course, but the anticipation of what will come in Advent with a BANG and a CRASH will die out as soon as everyone realizes that the Christmas season is over. The only regrets will be in saying goodbye to loved ones who came to spend the holidays with us or figuring out what to do with the ugly neck tie or the fruitcake some “thoughtful” soul gave to us.

Life goes on, however. Even during the time of Jesus’ birth, there was still much to be done and years to come before Jesus would enter into His public ministry. Until His appointed time, He is raised in the faith of His parents. In order to enter into the faith of His parents, He is brought into the Covenant by the faith of His parents. Few seem to notice or care that Jesus’ parents did not decide to “let the Boy wait until He can make His own profession of faith”. Jesus the boy, the child of Mary and Joseph, was very intentionally and rightly brought forth by His parents and was given into that about which is written, “an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:7, 13b) established by the Lord God. According to what is written in Genesis, it is a Covenant with no shelf life, no expiration date. It is, according to the Lord God Himself, “everlasting”.

What far too many misunderstand about the nature of a Covenant is that such a Covenant is a divine promise. It is, by its very nature, the essence of the Lord, and each Covenant the Lord has offered has come by its very nature: eternal and divinely imparted to man regardless of man’s actions. That is to say, the Lord’s Covenant is His promise, His Word. If we believe in the eternal nature of the Lord God Himself, then we must surely understand that His promise is as eternal as He is; it does not stand only until He changes His mind, for it is written: “I am the Lord; I do not change.” Malachi 3:6

Something to remember in exploring the nature of a Covenant: one might suggest that Mary and Joseph were under the threat of LAW and would have been bringing the Boy regardless. Such a thought is not consistent with the reality, however, that the Holy Father entrusted Himself as a Child, as a helpless infant, into the care of such faithful and favored souls. For everything that has been and will be asked of Mary and Joseph, these are persons who obviously live by faith, not fear.

In Luke’s reading, it is also notable that “the Child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about Him” (Luke 2:33) by Simeon, a man blessed by the Holy Spirit. He was promised by the Lord Himself that he would not see death until he had placed his own eyes upon the Messiah. So we are not dealing with people of the Law here who are involved in a legalistic “baby dedication”; we are dealing strictly with people of faith. The Child is being brought into THE COVENANT by his parents. The unusual circumstances of the Child’s birth seem not to be so fresh in the minds of Mary and Joseph; they are only doing the right thing by their God and their Child according to their faith.

The mark of that Covenant, which still exists among our Jewish brethren, happens to be circumcision. And in the continuing traditions and practices of the Jewish faith, the child will make his own proclamation at his Bar-Mitzvah at the age of 13. Obviously a boy cannot be re-circumcised nor is there any need to be, not because the foreskin will have grown back and not because the child did not remember the event, but because the Covenant he was brought into was GOD’S PROMISE, not man’s.
The Covenant came to life because GOD MADE IT, not man. And the Covenant is the real deal because GOD MADE IT SO, not man. And the Covenant is everlasting and a done deal because GOD MADE THE PROMISE – it is irrelevant whether the child was old enough to remember it though at Bar-Mitzvah, the child is called upon to recall the Covenant – again – that GOD MADE. The parents, at the child’s bris, merely brought the child into GOD’S PROMISE because they … believed in the Covenant which already existed. It would become, for the child, a Covenant to freely walk away from if the child would so choose; but it was not, and is not, a Covenant the parents are free to withhold from their children.

So Paul challenges the practice of circumcision according to his understanding of the New Covenant and grace, so this is not necessarily about the validity of the physical act and certainly not about Paul’s understanding of the need for circumcision. We are, indeed, people of the New Covenant; the mark of this New Covenant is baptism. It is our duty and privilege as Christians and parents of the New Covenant to bring our young children into that New Covenant – GOD’S PROMISE, not ours, to offer all people of faith eternal life.

But even this is not about the difference between Calvinists who refute the validity of infant baptism and Arminians who uphold ALL baptism – including that of infants. It is about the sacramental nature of the Covenant. And, ultimately, about our faith.

Being a Sacrament of the Church, it is understood that Baptism, the mark of the New Covenant, then, is evidence of the Lord’s giving of Himself. It is understood that a Sacrament is HIS ACT, not man’s. Just like Holy Communion as a gathering of all Covenant people – and yes, incidentally, though “legally”, unbaptized children should not be allowed to participate in Holy Communion. There again, however, is the tricky part about explaining to a young child why he or she cannot have some Jesus! To explain to a young child why he or she is excluded from GOD’S PROMISE, especially when Jesus said: “Let the little children come to Me and DO NOT PROHIBIT THEM …”

Before us as reasonable persons, then, is but this one choice and has nothing to do with man-made traditions. We can continue to live in FEAR of doing the wrong thing the wrong way at the wrong time … or we can choose to live in FAITH that the Right Thing has already been done and is divinely imparted to us. Finally and completely. No apologies, no doubts. No Fear.

It is, ultimately, the choice responsible Christian parents make not for their children but for their GOD to bring all whom we are responsible for and entrusted with to Him and into Him through the New Covenant, the Promise He has made for all time. It is our duty and privilege to share – but it is NOT ours to withhold.

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