Friday, December 9, 2011

A Man After Malachi

As Christmas approaches us, our tendency is to concentrate on the preparations, rather than the reason we celebrate it.  Lists of  card and gift recipients are written.  Frustration over what to buy certain individuals consumes us.  Decorations are brought out and dusted off and days are spent setting up the icons and doodads that represent this holiday season.  Plans are made for the feast that will be served on Christmas day and, in the meanwhile, candies, sweets, and treats begin to pile up on every corner of the counter top, threatening to add those extra pounds that eating them brings.

Don't be mistaken.  I love the Christmas season and see nothing wrong with making preparations for it, including putting up a tree.  The sights and smells along with the excitement in the air bring back memories of my childhood.  I look back with longing for the times I spent preparing the festivities for my children and my grandchildren, waiting with great anticipation to see them gather around my tree and watch their expressions as they opened the gifts I had spent hours purchasing and wrapping.  These are memories that are dear and precious to me and I will always treasure them.

But when I think about the years that I did not fully understand why we celebrate this season, I am reminded of the greatest gift I failed to give them and often wish I could turn back the clock and re-do all of the Christmas's where Jesus Christ was not fully represented as He should have been.  I wonder with awe over the emotions that came over me as I listened to the songs written about Him and gazed at the twinkling lights on the  tree - even though I didn't know Him then.  I am sure that past Christmas's would have been much different if I had known Him completely as I do now, and the appreciation for all the hard work done in preparation for that day would have been greater.

When I think about it, we are not much different than the Israelites were in their forgetfulness during seasons of celebration.  As time went on, God's chosen people moved farther away from the true meaning of their existence and what was expected of them.  They exchanged their relationship with the LORD for one of complacency and apathy, mingling with the pagan world and disregarding His will for them.  Intentionally overlooking the real meaning of worship and service to God, the people ate and drank without forethought, failing to remain mindful of the reason for their festivities and rituals and the solemnity that should have preceded them.

Over four hundred years before God sent His Son into this world as a lowly babe, He spoke through His prophets one final time.  In the book of Malachi, God warned the priests and the people of their unfaithfulness to Him.  During the daily sacrifice, the priests had presented "polluted" and imperfect food, sick, blind and lame animals not even fit for their "governors," let alone the King of the universe.  God's condemnation for this offense was great as He thundered His accusations of their unfaithfulness towards Him, cursing them for breaking the Levitical covenant He had made with Aaron (Num. 3:44-48; 18:8-24; Deut. 33:8-11).  The priests were not only intended to represent the people before God, but also to represent God and the law of Moses before the people, and they had failed miserably.

One would think that after hearing the accusations, the priests would have mourned and repented.  But as Malachi so clearly reveals, with the exception of a few who heeded God's warnings, they whined about and questioned His charges, denying the grievances of wrong-doing He was bringing against them.

Unlike other prophets who revealed the future coming of Messiah (see Isaiah 53 for the most astounding example), Malachi leaps across centuries to "The Great Day of the LORD" in his final chapter when God will avenge His name and His honor.  Although it appears God used Malachi as His last messenger, the ending verses speak of another man whom God will choose and who will announce the arrival of the greatest gift God has given to mankind (Is 40:3-5; Matt 3:1-3).  John the Baptist, the man chosen to herald the coming of the long-awaited King and Messiah, would prepare the Way for God's entry into the world to save men from their sins in one final and glorious sacrifice.

The sacrifice that was to come would rival the most perfect sacrificial lamb to be found amongst the people's flocks and laid upon God's altar.  Unlike the imperfect animals brought before God by the priests in Malachi's day, this Lamb would be spotless and unpolluted, defining perfection to the utmost degree.  God would demonstrate to the people what a true sacrifice was intended to be and one that would bring Him the greatest honor and glory.

The animal sacrifices made to God prior to this final sacrifice were not able to cleanse man completely and forever of his sin.  The ritual  had to be performed daily in order for God's mercies and providence to continue.  But this Lamb would once and for all do what the others were unable to do.  The blood that would spill from its veins upon the sacrificial altar would be shed for the sins of mankind, once and for all, its efficacy completely satisfying the requirements demanded by God, restoring His relationship with His children, and giving them life eternal. 

This is what Christmas is all about.  It's not about the festivities, the gifts, the food, the revelry, and everything else that is defined by the world.  Although these things have their place in our celebration, the season is about a Man who was chosen before time began to become the sacrificial Lamb of God.  And it just so happens that His birth and the circumstances surrounding it happened exactly as the prophets who spoke for God said it would.

Although God remained quiet for over four hundred years following Malachi's scorching condemnation for the unworthy sacrifices the priests brought Him, God spoke one final time through His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, "God with us."  Jesus would tell of all the wonders of God and reveal to men His divine and holy nature.  He would heal the deaf and the blind, the lame and the sick, and teach man the Way to eternal life.

There are many theories about when Jesus knew or understood the reason for His entry into the world.  Some say He had awareness as a baby from the beginning.  Others say that awareness did not come until later in His life.  I have often wondered about this myself and have a tendency to lean towards the first theory.  But one thing we do know is that everything He did moved Him closer to His ultimate destination.  He began in a manger for all men to wonder about and walked willingly to the cross to fulfill the Father's perfect plan of redemption and eternal salvation.

When you look at the nativity scene that most likely is placed in a position of prominence in your home, take the baby Jesus from the feed crib and see Him as a man on the cross.  His birth is, indeed, a magnificent and glorious gift to all mankind.  But it was on the cross that the perfect sacrifice was made, and the benefit of Him willingly spilling His blood to atone for our sins reveals the greater gift.

After you have seen Him on the cross, see Him as your risen Savior seated at the right hand of God in all His beautiful glory and perfection (Luke 22:69; Mark 16:19; Acts 7:56; Heb. 1:3). Once you have done this, the Christmas season will hold greater  meaning for you.  The decorations, the food, and the gifts placed under your tree will have more significance and your heart will be better prepared to celebrate our LORD'S birth. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!  May it be filled with the presence of His Holy Spirit and His outpouring of love upon your family.  And may you and yours worship Him in humbleness as you celebrate this season, remembering that God did not forever remain silent after Malachi.  Four hundred years later, He brought us His eternal Word and a perfect sacrifice, the Lamb of God, our blessed Savior and King Jesus the MessiahAnd, 2,000 years later, we His children continue to celebrate in remembrance of that day with rejoicing and gladness.

May God bless us all with His Holy presence and pour out His grace upon the world. 

And to our blessed Savior Jesus Christ who was born in the city of Bethlehem while the shepherds watched, the angels sang, and heaven rejoiced:  may He receive all the glory, the honor, and the praise, both now and forevermore!

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