I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. –Genesis 3:15
The serpent’s deception led to Adam and Eve’s rejection of God’s righteousness. The serpent would continue to be an enemy of all God’s ways. His favored method of assaulting God is to assault God’s treasured possession, human beings. His opening salvo took place in a garden paradise and his deception lured Adam and Eve into sin.
From the very beginning of fallen human history we had the promise of a Savior. Even in the midst of judgment God delivered a promise that from the woman would come One who would crush the head of the serpent.
Jesus Christ did not come in a vacuum of history. His entry into humanity fulfilled thousands of years of promise and hope. In Eden, Adam and Eve were barred from the tree of life. In Jesus Christ we are given the bread and water of life. His coming brought hope and restoration and victory over sin and the grave.
Christmas is about a Savior who entered human history to crush our age-old adversary and to pay in his flesh the penalty for our sin. We cannot celebrate his birth without remembering why he was born. Without Easter, Christmas would have no meaning.
Rejoice in the knowledge that your enemy is vanquished. Satan’s power has been crushed and God has won a people for himself. The children of God are eternally secure even though the forces of darkness continue to rage against them. People of God, rejoice! The serpent has been crushed! Your sins are paid for! You have been redeemed! You are no longer of this world but belong to the kingdom of God your Father.
All this because over two thousand years ago, God took on flesh.
Today is Christmas Eve. Once again the Seasons of the Church are turning, the Light is here, tonight, for us Christians, and all the world, the Incarnation shall come once more.
Unfortunately we rarely talk about the Mystery of the Incarnation except at this time of the year. It truly is a Mystery beyond human comprehension, but I do believe and confess that one night, long ago, the Word was made flesh.
That miracle of Incarnation to me, teaches us that we should share in all human happiness and mourn every human grief. All genuine human joy and contentment is the business of a Christian because it was shared by God, Incarnate. Not staying in the walls of a Church, getting into the business of life is Incarnational. But also, all human suffering, misery, depression, and darkest despair is our concern because Christ walked with us there also. When my late wife suffered in the pain of her cancer, Jesus was there, with her, with me, going through that agony. There is no human condition that Jesus did not share with us, apart from sin.
In dealing with pain and suffering in this broken world, Archbishop Rowan’s words speak to me: “There is something about Christianity that always pulls us back from imagining that everything will be all right if we can find the right things to say – because for God, the right thing to say at Christmas was the crying of a small Child, beginning a life of risk and suffering. God shows us how, by His grace and in His Spirit, we can respond to the tormenting riddles of the world.”
That the Word of God, Who was with God from the beginning, and Who is God should have become flesh, not just putting on some sort of human “skin suit”, but becoming flesh, recreates all human experience into a new place, one that God Himself deigned to dwell.
So tonight, in the candles, incense, and songs of the devout, may we greet once again, the Lord of Glory!
This is what happens when God’s power breaks in: darkness is cast out. The power of evil spirits is broken and driven away. The Holy Spirit creates a pure atmosphere, one of unity and of peace.
The little stable in Bethlehem was a place where God’s love broke in. While on earth, Jesus expected God’s kingdom to break in. His expectation was that light must break in upon this darkened earth. He saw that death had heaped up a barrier so that light could not come into life on earth. Therefore he sacrificed his life so that in the area of death an opening might be made; so that there might be a rift in the layer of gloomy fog around the earth – an opening through which the light of God could come in. If a house has even only one window where the sun shines in, it can no longer be dark inside the house.
If Jesus opens a breach in death then God’s kingdom comes down to this earth. This was the faith that the early Christian church had when they waited for the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They were determined to wait until the flame of the Spirit, like the star over Bethlehem, should come down at this one place. And this did happen; it came.
From the place where a stream enters, it pours out into the entire world. Where love breaks in, all other forces yield. Jesus was victorious on the cross, not by a greater force, but by a greater power – the power of love – in comparison with which all force is nothing. No human force is able to achieve anything in comparison to the power of love.
The birth of Jesus is the in-breaking of the power of love.
Each year between 1926 and 1933, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth penned a Christmas meditation for a German daily newspaper. In his 1931 reflection, ‘It gives new lustre to the world’, Barth began by asking a question asked each Advent by Christians generally, and perhaps especially by those called upon to preach: ‘What does it mean to hear the Christmas message?’ He proceeds to say that if the question is put like that, ‘then it behoves us all, especially if we happen to be theologians, to keep our mouths shut and first to consider that the Christmas message is not a philosophy, nor an ideology, nor a moral system or anything like that’. Instead, the Christmas word is ‘the Word of God to which no one has the key and whose real meaning for us, now as in former ages, is God’s secret. Hidden is the point where the Christmas message concerns each one of us and our whole generation, where its grace and judgement, its promise and command affect us’.
However (and it is a big ‘however’), as Barth proceeds to note, the question posed above does not need to be put like that. We could ask, for example, ‘What does it mean that we have heard the Christmas message?’; in which case, while we cannot lay hold of the full reality of the Christmas message, interpret and apply it, as if it were some human wisdom, neither can we or should we ignore its testimony which speaks to us of its hidden reality, of its way and nature, whereby both we and every other generation are reminded of certain possibilities, which are, so to speak, the outer garb of an incomprehensible but real encounter between God and humanity. In the grace of God, we can and must speak that which we know and have heard. In the grace of God, we can and must bear witness, testimony, to God’s self-disclosure. And in the grace of God, this testimony is preserved for us in Holy Scripture.
When, therefore, the Christmas word seems too incredible to believe, we can hear … and believe again. And what is this word? Barth again:
If God had wanted to deal with us as He is free to do, and as we well deserved it, according to His principle, He would never have become man. But He was and is merciful, and therefore in Christ He has come together with us (with us!), though His holiness and our weakness and wickedness should really exclude any coming together on His part and any thought of cooperation on our part. But God did and does just this, the impossible or – should we say? – that which is practical only for Him the Merciful One, which must happen so that His free and merciful will be done. The fact that also in this respect human beings can believe the eternal Light, means that we do perhaps have the will to do that which concerns us most, and which under any circumstance must be done in common with others. – Karl Barth, Christmas (trans. Bernhard Citron; Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 47.
Open our eyes, Lord
especially if they are half-shut
because we are tired of looking
because we fear to see too much
or bleared with tears
because yesterday and today and tomorrow
are filled with the same pain
because we only look at what we want to see
Open our eyes, Lord
to gently scan the life we lead
The home we have
The world we inhabit
and so to find
among the gremlins and the greyness
signs of hope we can fasten on and encourage
Give us, whose eyes are dimmed by familiarity
a bigger vision of what you can do
even with hopeless causes and lost causes
and people of limited ability
Show us the world as in your sight
riddled by debt, deceit and disbelief
shot through with possibility
for recovery, renewal, redemption
And lest we fail to distinguish vision from fantasy,
today, tomorrow, this week,
open our eyes to one person
or one place
where we – being even for a moment prophetic – might identify
and wean a potential in the waiting
And with all this,
open our eyes, in yearning, for Jesus
On the mountains
in the cities
through the corridors of power
and streets of despair
to help, to heal
to confront, to convert
O come, o come, Immanuel
The story of Noah and the flood is one of the most terrible and wonderful stories of the Bible. In the story there is adventure, drama, and excitement. But more important than any of these is the message of salvation that is clearly told in the story. Noah finds himself in a strange situation. God reveals to Noah that He will send a terrific, destructive flood on the earth. No one will be spared, not even animals. No one, that is, except those that God Himself will protect and carry through the flood. God tells Noah that He will protect Noah and his family and gives him very specific instructions regarding what he is to do. These instructions are written for us in Genesis. How detailed they are. We read that Noah must make an ark of gopher wood. Precise measurements and an exact layout are given. Finally we read that there will be only one door. God promised Noah that if he would obey these instructions, he and his family would be spared. God promises Noah that he will be safe in the ark. Many people have been taken by the picture of the ark that these instructions paint and rightly so. But as we ponder these detailed instructions what can we learn?
God made it clear that there was only one way to be saved. Nothing else was going to work. We can imagine the futile, desperate attempts that mortals must have made once the rains fell. But it was all for nothing. So we see ourselves in a similar situation. Sin abounds, destruction of this world is inevitable but we have a promise from Almighty God. We have His promise that Jesus Christ is the way to the Father. We also have His word that there is no other way. It is only in Jesus that we dare hope.
God, of course, made good on His promise to Noah. He and his family emerged from the flood unharmed. They stepped from the ark onto dry land and received another promise. God placed a rainbow in the sky and told Noah that this was a sign that they never again had to fear destruction by flood. God’s plan to carry them through the water was sufficient for all time.
Again, as Noah was so we are. God’s salvation from sin and death offered to us in Jesus Christ is sufficient for all time. As we ponder this great promise in Jesus, we can boldly sing with Charles Wesley, “No condemnation now I dread!” What a glorious thing.
This Advent season as we prepare our hearts and minds to celebrate the first coming of our Lord Jesus as a baby in a manger, reflect on the beautiful picture of God’s grace and salvation that is present in the tale of Noah and the flood. Rejoice in truth that in Jesus we have life, hope, and salvation. Rejoice that it is God who does great things through Jesus. Just as Noah would have been powerless to face the flood alone, so we would be hopeless apart from Christ. Praise God and glory in the fact that what God did for us in Christ and who He is for us in Christ is sufficient for all time. Rejoice that, just as God kept His promises to Noah, so He will keep His promises to us. And more than that we now know that all His promises find their yes in Christ Jesus.
The Advent Hymn
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is based on ancient Latin antiphons (verses said or sung in response) used in the early church during the week leading up to Christmas Day. Each stanza describes Jesus Christ in the various ways he was revealed to Isaiah in his prophecies of the coming Messiah.
The precise origin of these verses is uncertain. Boethius (c. 480-524) referenced them, thereby suggesting their presence at a very early time in the church’s life. At the Benedictine abbey of Fleury in the sixth century these antiphons were recited by the leaders of the abbey in descending rank, and then a gift was given to each member of the community. By the eighth century, they were in use in the liturgical celebrations in Rome, signifying their widespread acceptance in Christian worship.
Many churches sing this hymn throughout Advent during the lighting of the Advent candles. By singing it, we identify our hope for Christ’s return with Israel’s hope for the Messiah. We rejoice in the fulfillment that Emmanuel has come and we put our hopes in the sure promise that he is indeed coming again!
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
It goes without saying to anyone who knows the Christian year….but it’s not Christmas. It’s Advent. Two different things.
Christ hasn’t come. We are waiting. Watching. Wondering. We are feeling the absence and the expectation, not the joy…at least not entirely, and not yet.
We live in hope and faith; we read and reread the promises. We aren’t “there yet,” as children tend to say.
The secular celebration of the false Christmas has eaten up the whole season from Nov 1 to December 31. The Christian season of Christmas should begin with the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, and extend until Epiphany, well into January. The “New Year,” with all its pagan false promises of starting over without the Gospel, is nowhere on our calendar.
Advent is a time of preparation, so much is appropriate. Our participation in the cultural celebration may take us out of Advent and into Christmas from time to time, which is forgiveable, I suppose. (Everyone peeks at their presents these days.)
The Puritans eschewed the Christian Year because “no one should consider one day above another.” I believe that was a mistake. The Christian Year is a fine way of sanctifying time in a pagan culture that seeks to make all of our time serve its false gods.
So Advent. A season that is not quite Christmas; a season that takes stock of all the hopes and fears that we bring to Bethlehem that night.
Keep Advent. Await Christmas.
The holiday season is upon us. For some, this is a time of creating traditions with family and friends, spending time laughing and having fun together. I am loving my family and the Christmas traditions I am back in the middle of. It is like wrapping up in a big, warm blanket. It is good to be home.
But for so many others, it is a reminder of what has been lost, of torn relationships and seemingly hopeless situations. Though this time of year is meant to remind us of the hope found in Christ, so many find themselves struggling with discouragement and despair.
But let’s consider for a moment the truths which Christmas is meant to remind us. The almighty Word of God gave up His rights as King and came to earth to live among us. He came to bring hope. He came as the Prince of Peace. He came in humility to bring life to the dead and to reconcile man with God.
Remember that this same God is the One who is in control of every broken relationship. The God who healed the sick can bring healing to your wounded heart. The God who raised the dead can bring life back into lifeless families and friendships. And even when reconciliation is not apparent, even when all others forsake us, He is the One who welcomes us in as His beloved child.
“My father and mother walked out and left me, but God took me in.” Psalm 27:10 (the Message)
“At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength….” 2 Timothy 4:16-17 (ESV)
Let us find hope and comfort this holiday season in that no matter what our family situations may look like, the God who called our dead, lifeless hearts to bring Him praise is the same God who is still sovereign. And let us learn from the examples of those like Joseph, David and Paul, that even if we are forsaken by every friend and family member on this earth, the Lord is ever at our side as our strength and support.
Do not give up hope. The Almighty Savior who came to bring us peace with God is near. Emmanuel – God is with us!
Advent is a season to celebrate remembering, to rejoice in the truth that God remembers his people.
A reading from the book of Isaiah:
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
Call and response is a familiar worship practice to the community of God. We call and the Lord responds. From the Egyptian captivity onward, the people of God cried out to God for salvation. They cried out and waited for the day of deliverance, and like verse 4 declares, God Almighty is the only god who acts for those who wait for him.
At Sinai, the sky was rent, the earth shook, and fire blazed as Yahweh declared, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” He had not forgotten the words of promise spoken to Abraham and he proved the He indeed remembers his people and hears when we call.
This call has always ultimately been for a messiah to deal with our broken relationship with God. More than deliverance from slavery to other nations, we need salvation from our slavery to sin. And once again, God has heard our cries. He has not forgotten that we need healing to our humanity, forgiveness of our sins, and a a true shepherd to lead is into the way of peace.
God has not forgotten. In fact, he has already given us forgiveness, healing, salvation in the incarnation. Zechariah heard the first whispers of this fulfillment, and after nine months of silence he extolled the Lord saying:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” –Luke 1.67-79
Far from God forgetting, he has chosen our savior to be Emmanuel: God made flesh to save us from our sin and give us true healing and deliverance. Jesus is our savior. He is Christ the Lord, and his birth is the fulfillment of God’s word to man.
Advent is our celebration and remembrance of the incarnation. We rejoice that God has remembered man kind, and has chosen to make all who believe in this savior a community that draws life and hope from the humble act of the Son of God.
In the bleak midwinter
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone:
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
So writes Christina Rossetti, in her hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol, ca. 1872. Following Milton, she explores the provocative theme that Christ came to earth, born on a frosty night, world blanketed by freshly fallen snow. It is a beautiful thought, and one with theological significance – the Lord of glory descends in the bleak midwinter, the darkest, shortest days of our year, Light of Light, very God of very God, to lighten our way – into our dark coldness He descends with the warmth of heaven’s light: our Lord Jesus Christ!
Christina continues this theme from Advent to Advent, where the fruition of the humble stable is found on another bleak midwinter, somewhere in human time:
Our God, heaven cannot hold him
nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away
when He comes to reign:
in the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord God incarnate,
Then, compellingly, Christiana brings the theology to the human heart:
What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give Him?
give my heart…
And here we see the theological significance of His descent in midwinter: Before His descent, it is always winter. He comes to the cold, the frozen heart, and brings it life. He is no stranger to the frozen human soul, for that is why He came; indeed, that is just when He comes: in the bleak midwinter – just for you, for me! Our only real response is in giving Him that which is His – our heart.
Humanly speaking, we cannot allow our coldness to deny His warmth, for He is no stranger to the cold! That is why He descended, so long ago; and that is why He descends, now, this day, in the Spirit – just for you, for me!
The heart grown cold is just the place He desires: open, and see – your winter shall pass away! It cannot always be winter where the light of Life makes His home…
Every winter comes to an end.
coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
pervading and permeating all creation,
you order all things with strength and gentleness.
Come now and teach us the way to salvation.
Come Lord Jesus!
Ruler of the house of Israel,
you appeared in the burning bush to Moses
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come with outstretched arm to save us:
Come Lord Jesus!
O Root of Jesse,
rising as a sign for all the peoples,
before you earthly rulers will keep silent
and nations give you honor:
Come quickly to deliver us.
Come Lord Jesus!
O Key of David,
Scepter over the house of Israel,
you open and no one can close;
you close and no one can open:
Come to set free the prisoners
who live in darkness and the shadow of death.
Come Lord Jesus!
O Ruler of the nations,
Monarch for whom the people long,
you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity:
Come save us all, whom you formed out of clay.
Come Lord Jesus!
our Sovereign and Lawgiver,
you are the desire of all the nations and Savior of all:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Come Lord Jesus!
God of grace,
Ever faithful to your promises,
The earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming
And looks forward with longing
To His return at the end of time.
Prepare our hearts to receive Him when He cmes,
For He is Lord forever and ever. Amen.
Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas. We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen
This morning, I was was watching the news only to learn that there are just nine more days until Christmas! Of course, the context had nothing to do with the celebration of Christ’s birth but rather shopping. Retailers were encouraging folks to get out and buy more stuff because we just can’t wait for the next bargain.
At the heart of it: we can’t wait to get what we want. The power, the pleasure, the purchase: it’s all ours to take as long as we show up and rush for the prize of the high calling of cheap gadgets. Advent is the Christian season of waiting. We give up to God the running of the world. We give up to God the saving of the world. We wait. Believing and hoping. All our prayers take place with the fulfillment of the old covenant waiting behind us and the fulfillment of new covenant waiting still before us.
We wait for a savior to redeem and heal God’s broken world. Jesus has come to bring God’s kingdom in power and to fill his Good News with victory over sin, death and the grave.
Until Jesus returns, we are watching, on guard, waiting, serving as those trusted by the master to do his work until he returns.
The world waits and demands its wait. God’s people wait, but serve him, love others and hope for his return. As he kept his promises before, we can be sure he will again.
In the first light of a new day no one knew he had arrived
Things continued as they had been while a newborn softly cried
But the heavens wrapped in wonder knew the meaning of his birth
In the weakness of a baby they knew God had come to earth
As his mother held him closely it was hard to understand
That her baby, not yet speaking, was the word of God to man
He would tell them of his kingdom but their hearts would not believe
They would hate him and in anger they would nail him to a tree
But the sadness would be broken as the song of life arose
And the firstborn of creation would ascend and take his throne
He had left it to redeem us but before his life began
He knew he’d come back, not as a baby, but as the Lord of every man
Hear the angels as they’re singing on the morning of his birth
But how much greater will their song be when he comes again to earth
Hear the angels as they’re singing on the morning of his birth
But how much greater will their song be when he comes to rule the earth!
May the gift of the Savior Himself be your greatest joy, today and every day.
This painting is called Seeing Shepherds by Daniel Bonnell. The more I look at it, the more I am moved spiritually. I cannot begin to imagine that night when the angels appeared to the shepherds but I think this painting captures that moment – they were moved to praise and utter awe as the sky filled with angels leading them to Bethlehem.
But on the other hand, I cannot help but think that we too are like the shepherds on the ancient night needing a sign or a visit from a host of heavenly angels. We search for meaning in life or for answers and yet we miss those answers and they are all around us. As I sit here and write this, I realize that there are people shivering in the cold. There are people who have no homes or family for Christmas. There are people who have lost their jobs and are hurting. There are people whose needs are greater than mine.
As we wait in anticipation for the coming of Christ and as we pray through Advent, let us be reminded that Christ is all around us. Where you may ask? Let the words of Christ be the answer:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.” –Matthew 25:34-40 (NRSV)
This Advent and Christmas as you are celebrating, be mindful of Christ all around you. Be mindful of those around you in need and be mindful of the ways you can help. May we too be seeing shepherds without the need for a host of angels to point the way to Christ.
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
- Rowan Williams
Grace is one of the most difficult things in the world for sinners to grasp. And as soon as we gather that it is difficult, we turn the “grasping of it” into a contest and a work, with the right answer earning the “best in show” award. But of course, grace means that some with the wrong answers will be saved and some with the right answers won’t be. The salvation that came to the world was all of grace.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” –Luke 2: 13-14
As we have all heard many times, there were shepherds in that area, watching their flocks by night (v. 8). But do not think of a quaint pastoral–this group was much more likely to be a group of tattooed roughnecks than anything else. Shepherds were not part of the upper strata of Israelite society. One angel appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were terrified (v. 9). The chances are good that the angel interrupted them in the middle of a ribald joke. The angel told them to not be afraid–he brought them good news, tidings of great joy, and the message was for all people (v. 10). The basis for the joy was the fact that Christ the Lord had been born in Bethlehem that day (v. 11). A sign was given–the baby would be wrapped up, and lying in a manger (v. 12). After the angel of the Lord had finished saying this, this great message of peace was reinforced by a heavenly army (v. 13). The multitude (many thousands) said this (v. 13) in their praise of God: 1. Glory to God in the highest, 2. peace on earth, and 3. goodwill toward men.
We have trouble with something as straightforward as “goodwill toward men.” We are afraid of grace getting carried away, and so we want to slap some conditions on it. This shows up in some of the other readings. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14, NASB). This is consistent with that peace being limited to about twenty-eight people–surely God cannot be pleased with any more than that. The goodwill and the peace are dispensed with a teaspoon within a select club, and we no longer have to worry about His apparent spendthrift ways.
But there are too many passages which make God’s saving and gracious intention for the entire world clear, and plain. So we ignore them, or move them to some trans-historical place. But we have to do something about the verses that frequently show up on Christmas cards. Surely, this doesn’t “really mean” that God’s goodwill is extended to all men generally? Yes, it does. First, quite apart from the manuscript issue, notice what the angel of the Lord had said before the whole heavenly army appeared and sang the chorus. He had said that this was “good tidings of great joy,” and it was for “all people” (v. 10).
The fact that God has every intention of saving the entire world is a gracious message. And those who are worried about us getting carried away with talk of indiscriminate grace don’t need to worry. Herod was not a messenger of this grace (although he was an unwitting instrument of it). False teachers are not messengers of this grace (although they too are encompassed by God’s purposes). Grace has a backbone, and knows how to define itself. In part, that is what we need to be doing here. Grace is not the word that we are to use as the “open, sesame” of the Church. Grace is not something we do. Grace is not something we can control. Grace is not something that we can manage. And this means that we in the Church, particularly in the sola gratia wing of the Reformed church, need to recognize that curators of grace are frequently the most dangerous enemies of grace. Grace is God’s declared intention for the whole world, whether we like it or not.
The word used here for goodwill is a cognate word to the expressions of pleasure that God pronounced over His Son. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). We are clearly not in this position of favor through any great moral achievement of ours–in the city of David was born a Savior. The Savior brought deliverance and forgiveness, which we in our sin desperately needed. We declare this, we preach it, we announce it, which is God’s way of propagating it. And if God said to all mankind on that first Christmas night, “I don’t care how rotten you have been . . . here, in the city of David, a Savior is born,” how much more willing would He be willing to say this to you? “I don’t care how rotten you’ve been. Got that? I don’t care.”
We know our Bibles well enough to know that grace, properly understood, does not lead to a life of moral outrage. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not. We know the Scriptures in this, but I am afraid that we do not know our own hearts. God’s grace is a tsunami that will carry us all away, and deposit us in places we would not have anticipated–and all of it good. We analyze all this carefully, and say that we want our grace to be true and pure water, just like the tsunami, but we want it to be a placid pond on a summer day that we can inch across gingerly, always keeping one pointed toe on what we think is the sure bottom of our own do-gooding morality. As the old blues song has it, everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everyone wants to cross the Jordan, but nobody wants to swim.
God has declared, through His angelic emissaries, His goodwill toward our world. He has declared His intentions for peace. He did not do this so that we would then drastically restrict the message to a tiny “club for peace and goodwill.” The gospel is for the world. The reason we have trouble with this is that we think it means having the world fit into our tiny club. But they wouldn’t fit, and they don’t want to come. That won’t fix anything. So God took unilateral action, and through His angels He made a unilateral declaration to some shepherds.
Here is today’s sermon manuscript based on Matthew 11:2-11:
We say that the season of Advent is a season of waiting. We try to persuade ourselves that if we just say that often enough, it will become true. Advent is a season of waiting. Advent is a season of waiting.
But it’s not. Advent is a season of impatience. Sure, there are other times throughout the year when we experience impatience. But this season, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this season is the climax of impatience, when all our anxiety and hurry and worry are concentrated into four short weeks.
We are busy preparing, each of us in our individual way, for something special to happen to us. Is this the right gift, or shall we seek another? Is this the right way for me to serve the poor, or shall I seek another? Is this the party I was waiting for, or is it another one? Is this the moment with my family that I was waiting for, or was I waiting for something else?
The horrible possibility lies in the back of our mind that our expectation will indeed go unfulfilled – that what we are waiting for will never happen – that we will forever sit lonely and empty by the side of the road like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. Or waiting lonely by the window like Eleanor Rigby.
Or like John the Baptist, waiting in prison. Yes, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is back today, speaking differently than he did last week.
In last week’s gospel lesson, he burst on the scene with fire and vengeance, full of confidence and certainty. He announced the coming of Jesus with great hope and expectation. He gave us a fairly accurate model for Advent, full of energy, like children decorating the Christmas tree!
But, today, he represents Advent in another way, in a way that is just as authentic as last week’s style. But he is tired. He is discouraged. He questions. John the Baptist is like us. He jumps to hope with power and aggressiveness. But, later, he has questions; he even has doubts.
Listen to John the Baptist later in his ministry. He thought he knew Jesus. After all, he supposedly baptized him in the River Jordan. He was eager and energetic just last week. But, then, time went by. Things got harder for John. In today’s passage, from Matthew chapter 11, Jesus has begun his ministry, and John has been cast into prison by Herod the Great. He begins to have his doubts. Is Jesus really the one he was looking for?
What happened to the vivid forecasts of John the Baptist-that Jesus would chop down fruitless trees and throw chaff into the fire? Has Jesus spent his ministry throwing chaff into the fire? No, it seems not. And so John sends several of his own people, his own disciples, to ask the poignant question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” John has devoted his entire ministry, even gives his very life, to preparing the way for Jesus Christ, but John does not even recognize Jesus when he comes.
John the Baptist is a prophet because he shows us so clearly what happens to our narrow expectations. Jesus Christ came for John the Baptist, but Jesus came in a way that John did not expect.
At least John had sense enough to ask the right question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Because that is the Advent question: “Are you the one I’ve been waiting for, or shall I wait for another?” Is this the present I’ve been waiting for? Is this the party, is this the family reunion, is this the date I’ve been waiting for? Is this the job I really wanted? Is this really the house we wanted so desperately two years ago? Is this really the person I loved four years ago? Is this really the person I love now?
We will find a precious gift, the gift of Christ; we will find reconciliation and peace-if we have eyes to see beyond our expectations-if we look around us and notice new places where Jesus is working. “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” said Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk. The dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
Jesus Christ did not come to those people who had the details of his arrival all worked out. He came to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the poor, the dead. He came to the downtrodden. He came in humility for the humble. He came for those who did not have it all worked out for themselves. He came for those who knew they needed Him.
When I was a little boy, all the presents I thought I wanted, I opened early. They were also the earliest to fade away. It was those last little presents under the tree that often lasted the longest. The presents I now remember in the fondest way were not the ones I wrote down on my Christmas list.
There comes a moment when we know the children have grown up. It happens when they stop making Christmas lists for themselves. Remember how long and delicious those lists used to be?
Some of us have grown up only recently. We have the house we always wanted. We have the job security we wanted. We have that spouse, that husband or wife, who is the answer to all our dreams. We even have the car we wanted. We got our children into good schools.
But is that all there is? Is this what we were waiting for?
Listen to what Jesus told John’s disciples when they asked that question. Jesus said, “When you get me, the lame walk, the blind receive their sight, the dead are raised, the poor get good news.” What did all that mean? It meant that John’s disciples, who had already repented and turned around once, were going to have to repent and turn around again.
It meant that Jesus comes to reverse things. What was dead is now raised. What was blind now sees. What was lame now walks. When we get the gift of Jesus, our lives are changed. The sign that Jesus has come is that people are changed.
Do we really want the gift of Christ this year? We will recognize the gift of love and peace when we recognize that people have changed. We will recognize the gift of love and peace when we recognize that we must change, too. The spiritual word for that change is repentance, to turn around.
No matter how young or old we are, whether we are waiting to receive that perfect bicycle, waiting to receive that special answer from our loved one, waiting for that special moment of reconciliation with our children or with our parents, we are also waiting ultimately for the Christ, the Savior.
Christ the Savior will change us. Christ the Savior will turn us around. Even if we’ve changed before, even if we have repented before, Christ the Savior will raise the dead again. Christ the Savior is born.
When it comes to the Christmas story, Joseph often gets hidden in the shadows of Mary and Jesus. This is somewhat understandable. Joseph has no speaking lines in any of the Gospel accounts. Mary is of course the one chosen to actually bear Jesus in her womb, so there is more focus upon her. And of course, Jesus is the true focus and mystery of the Advent and Christmas season. So Joseph hides in the shadows. But Joseph was chosen too. As surely as God chose Mary to bear His son, He chose Joseph, her betrothed husband, to be the earthly father for His son. It’s hard enough for any man to contemplate the burden of raising his own child, much less the child of someone else. And Joseph has the strangest parental burden laid on his shoulders–to father a son conceived in his wife by the Holy Spirit. He had no reference point for this. Sure, there had been other saints in the past who had conceived children with supernatural aid, but it had still been by the normal human relation between and man and a woman. Mary wasn’t even fully Joseph’s wife yet. The child was not from his body. And yet, he raised Jesus as his own.
The Bible doesn’t say much about Joseph, but what it does says more than we might realize. It says he was a “just” or “righteous” man (Luke 1:19). We can conclude from this that Joseph was a true Israelite, not just in body, but in the heart. He faithfully worshiped the God of Israel, followed after the Law, and awaited the promised Messiah. We also see that Joseph was a man of great compassion and mercy. For all he could know, Mary had betrayed him and committed adultery with another man. It was his right to accuse her before the community, and doing so would have brought death. But Joseph, perhaps ashamed and brokenhearted as he was, was “unwilling to put her to shame, [and] resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph balanced his own sense of righteousness with mercy, when he had Mary’s fate in his power, and could have condemned her. The final characteristic we see about Joseph relates to his encounters with angels. We see in Matthew’s account that he receives three angelic messages. The first told him to take Mary as his wife and raise Jesus as his own child. The second told him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, away from Herod. The third told him to return to Israel after Herod was dead. In each instance, we are simply told that Joseph got up and obeyed. This is more complicated than it seems. In the first instance, Joseph was taking upon himself the monumental task of raising Jesus, and also taking upon himself the stigma related to Mary. Perhaps people looked down on Joseph as a coward for taking a stained woman. Perhaps people thought that he and Mary had been impure before they were fully joined in marriage. Joseph took this upon himself. In the second instance, Joseph willingly condemned himself to exile in a foreign land, leaving behind him his country and any safety net that might provide. He would have to find a way to provide for his family as an alien in Egypt. In the third instance, while returning to Israel may have been a joyous occasion, it may also have been accompanied with trepidation over whatever new political situation might emerge with Herod’s son taking the throne, and also having to return to Nazareth, where people would surely have remembered the strange events of years past. In all this, Joseph promptly and willingly obeyed God. He was faithful to the task God gave him, even thought it must have totally turned his life upside down.
MercyMe wrote and sings probably one of the few (and possibly only) Christmas songs about Joseph entitled Joseph’s Lullaby:
Go to sleep my Son
This manger for your bed
You have a long road before You
Rest Your little head
Can You feel the weight of Your glory?
Do You understand the price?
Does the Father guard Your heart for now
So You can sleep tonight?
Go to sleep my Son
Go and chase Your dreams
This world can wait for one more moment
Go and sleep in peace
I believe the glory of Heaven
Is lying in my arms tonight
Lord, I ask that He for just this moment
Simply be my child
Go to sleep my Son
Baby, close Your eyes
Soon enough You’ll save the day
But for now, dear Child of mine
Oh my Jesus, Sleep tight