This Advent season, we’ve chosen to focus on the prophecies about Jesus. When Rich asked for volunteers to speak this week, I said that I would as long as I could take it in a really unusual direction. So if, by the end of the sermon, you’ve decided that I’m a heretic…blame Rich.
Come up with a smooth transition here
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, we see the visit from the magi:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The “Sunday School” retellings of this often miss some important points about the Magi:
The Magi Aren’t Jews
The Magi Aren’t Jews
They clearly have some awareness of Israel because they’re able to ask about the King of the Jews, but it seems unlikely that they would have had access to the Hebrew Bible.
Even if they did have access, it may not have made much of a difference to them because...
The Magi Clearly Identify Themselves As Astrologers
The Magi Clearly Identify Themselves As Astrologers
Astrologers may not have had the seedy reputation that they do today
Find a corny neon sign advertising fortune telling
But this was a practice that was forbidden in Israel.
So some of Jesus’ first worshippers were foreigners who discovered him by engaging in religious practices that are forbidden to us.
As an aside: if we take this passage seriously, it tells us that on at least one occasion, the practice of astrology yielded results that were accurate and useful.
The modern, Western church has a tendency to be quick to dismiss claims of the supernatural that originate outside of the Bible or the church.
While I have no doubt that many modern, Western practicitioners of divination are frauds and charlatans—and I definitely don’t advocate involving ourselves in these practices—labelling all such phenomena as “fake” cheapens our own claims and experiences, and we do this to our detriment.
Aside from some polemical material about idol worship, the Biblical writers generally don’t tell us that these things are fake—they tell us not to get involved in them. That’s an important distinction.
But I digress.
The more central conclusion that I want to draw from the magi is this: there was prophetic knowledge about Jesus that isn’t recorded in our Bibles.
This shouldn’t be too surprising: John explicitly tells us that Jesus’ own deeds are not recorded in their entirety, and Paul tells us that God’s attributes—his “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20)—should be clear to everyone.
We usually understand Paul to be referring to the notion that God’s existence should be apparent from nature itself. While this is probably close to his intended meaning, it doesn’t preclude the idea of more direct revelation being given to “outsiders”.
We even have direct examples of this in the Old Testament: the story of Balaam from Numbers 22 and Belshazzar literally seeing “the handwriting on the wall” (although he needed an Israelite interpreter) [Daniel 5] are a couple of the more well-known examples that come to mind.
So God reveals himself, and especially Jesus, in ways that may not be recorded in our Bibles. With all of this as a backdrop, I’d like you to turn to the book of Tobit.
I say that I’d like you to turn there, but many of you are probably unable to do so. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have never heard the name “Tobit” at church!
That’s because Tobit is part of the Deuterocanon—also called the Apocrypha. While this set of books is part of the Catholic and Orthodox canons, they do not appear in the Protestant canon. So unless you went to a Catholic bookstore to choose your Bible, you probably don’t have it.
I don’t have a strong opinion about whether Tobit should be included in our Bibles, and I’d be hesitant to rely on information that only appears there.
I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life. I performed many acts of charity for my kindred and my people who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh in the land of the Assyrians.
You may recall that in 1 Kings, after Israel split from Judah, the new king of Israel—Jeroboam—was concerned that he would lose his political hold on Israel if the people kept returning to Jerusalem to worship. To prevent this, he set up a coupld of idol worship sites with golden calves—why is it always calves?
All my kindred and our ancestral house of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf that King Jeroboam of Israel had erected in Dan and on all the mountains of Galilee. But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep.
But even in exile, he continues acting righeously: he gives food and clothing to the poor—a recurring theme in the book—and he buries the bodies of fellow Israelites that are left out by the Assyrians.
This last practice actually gets him into quite a bit of trouble: the king becomes so angry that he seizes Tobit’s assets and seeks to put him to death, so Tobit has to go into hiding for a while. [Possible connection to Matt 5:10?]
Then during the reign of Esar-haddon I returned home, and my wife Anna and my son Tobias were restored to me. At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to eat. When the table was set for me and an abundance of food placed before me, I said to my son Tobias, “Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles in Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me. I will wait for you, until you come back.”
Which sounds a little bit like the end of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast:
Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Four years later, when his family begins to receive charity from their neighbors, his situation becomes so bad that he wishes he could die, which is what he prays for:
“You are righteous, O Lord, and all your deeds are just; all your ways are mercy and truth; you judge the world. And now, O Lord, remember me and look favorably upon me. Do not punish me for my sins and for my unwitting offenses and those that my ancestors committed before you. They sinned against you, and disobeyed your commandments. So you gave us over to plunder, exile, and death, to become the talk, the byword, and an object of reproach among all the nations among whom you have dispersed us. And now your many judgments are true in exacting penalty from me for my sins. For we have not kept your commandments and have not walked in accordance with truth before you. So now deal with me as you will; command my spirit to be taken from me, so that I may be released from the face of the earth and become dust. For it is better for me to die than to live, because I have had to listen to undeserved insults, and great is the sorrow within me. Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress; release me to go to the eternal home, and do not, O Lord, turn your face away from me. For it is better for me to die than to see so much distress in my life and to listen to insults.”
But while Job’s response to this is to protest his innocence—to say that there’s nothing he’s done that could possibly merit his situation—Tobit takes it on the chin. He acknowledges that he’s sinned—haven’t we all?—and asks for death, which he believes would be a small mercy.
There’s a girl named Sarah who is being tormented by a demon.
Every time she marries a man, the demon kills the man on the wedding night before they can…you know…be together.
This happens to her seven times.
Wait…does that sound familiar?
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh.
O~oh. So maybe thatwasn’t hypothetical.
Anyway, all of this is just a bit too much for one of her servants, who accuses her of being a serial killer:
For she had been married to seven husbands, and the wicked demon Asmodeus had killed each of them before they had been with her as is customary for wives. So the maid said to her, “You are the one who kills your husbands! See, you have already been married to seven husbands and have not borne the name of a single one of them.
The embarrassment of facing such an accusation is so great that she wishes she could die. After considering more extreme measures, this is what she prays for:
At that same time, with hands outstretched toward the window, she prayed and said, “Blessed are you, merciful God! Blessed is your name forever; let all your works praise you forever. And now, Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes toward you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproaches any more. You know, O Master, that I am innocent of any defilement with a man, and that I have not disgraced my name or the name of my father in the land of my exile. I am my father’s only child; he has no other child to be his heir; and he has no close relative or other kindred for whom I should keep myself as wife. Already seven husbands of mine have died. Why should I still live? But if it is not pleasing to you, O Lord, to take my life, hear me in my disgrace.”
…Anyway, because there aren’t any more brothers left, Sarah thinks that there’s no one left in line to marry her.
But the text delivers a fantastic plot twist to us: she’s wrong.
The person who’s next in line to marry her is Tobit’s son Tobias.
The text also lets us in on a secret: God dispatches an angel to heal Tobit and to free Sarah from the husband-killing demon. We’re also told that this angel’s name is Raphael, which means “God heals”.
Back to Tobit
Back to Tobit
Tobit decides to send Tobias to retrieve the money, but before explaining this, he gives Tobias about a chapter’s worth of fatherly advice.
This is one of the contexts in which almsgiving reappears. Tobit tells him
If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity.
This is immediately followed by one of the more controversial statements in the book, particularly among those who debate whether the book should be considered part of our canon:
For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness.
There are some who say that this verse (usually pulled entirely out of context) preaches “works righteousness” and is therefore false teaching, so the book clearly doesn’t belong in our Bible.
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Still, there’s something about the passage that seems really familiar.
I don’t know…must just be one of those things.
And what you hate, do not do to anyone. Do not drink wine to excess or let drunkenness go with you on your way.
Tobias doesn’t know the way to the town where Gabael lives, so Tobit instructs him to find someone who knows the way and makes a big deal about offering payment to his guide.
Tobias leaves the house and happens across Raphael, who has disguised himself as a human and taken the name Azariah.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
This is another one of those themes that feels strangely familiar.
But anyway, moving on.
Tobias and…Azariah…depart, accompanied by Tobias’ dog.
Spoiler: you might be wondering if this dog plays an important role. It doesn’t—but that hasn’t stopped commentators from trying to read all sorts of symbolism into it.
Along the way, Tobias goes on an accidental fishing expedition, and Raphael instructs him to keep some specific parts of the fish guts for…you know…medicinal purpose.
Eventually, the two of them reach Ecbatana, which is Sarah’s hometown. Raphael tells Tobias about Sarah and talks her up like an expert wingman—and Tobias isn’t even a little bit suspicious about how his new friend knows so much about her family situation.
Tobias is a little bit concerned about the rumors of death and demons, particularly as he’s an only son, at which point Raphael reveals that some of the fish guts serve as excellent demon repellent when burned as incense—particularly when paired with prayer.
So Tobias asks to marry Sarah, and her father warns him that his daughter seems to be quite the femme fatale.
“Are you sure about this?”
But Tobias threatens a hunger strike, and the wedding is arranged at once.
On the wedding night, the two of them use the incense and pray, and Raphael takes care of the demon behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s family are pretty sure they know what’s coming next, so they dig a grave.
In the middle of the night.
Their plan is to dump Tobias’ body before their neighbors get up in the morning, so that they don’t become “an object of ridicule and derision.”
And you thought your in-laws were tough to get along with?
After finishing the grave, Sarah’s father sends someone in to check for vital signs. Surprisingly, Tobias is still alive (and asleep).
Quick! Fill in the grave!