Preparing for Advent-Christmas

This November issue of “Equipper” (articles and sermons linked below) is focused on helping you prepare for the upcoming Advent-Christmas season.

From Greg: Go tell it on the mountain!
Greg Williams encourages us to use the upcoming Advent-Christmas season and every day to share with others the good news of Jesus.

On Leadership: Go to the source
Continuing our series on leadership, Rick Shallenberger addresses an approach that avoids the problem of making decisions based on gossip.

Kid’s Korner: Using Christmas to teach children about Jesus
Ted Johnston shares ways parents and children’s ministers can use Christmas to teach kids the good news about Jesus.

RCL sermons for December
Here are five sermons synced with the Revised Common Lectionary. They cover the four Sundays of Advent and the Sunday following Christmas:
– Sermon for December 3 (Advent 1)
– Sermon for December 10 (Advent 2)
– Sermon for December 17 (Advent 3)
– Sermon for December 24 (Advent 4)
– Sermon for December 31

For a series of videos produced by GCI for Advent last year, click here, or watch them here:

In case you missed the RCL-syned sermons for November, here they are:
Sermon for November 5
Sermon for November 12
Sermon for November 19
Sermon for November 23 (Thanksgiving)
Sermon for November 26 (Christ the King Sunday)

From Greg: Go tell it on the mountain!

Dear ministers of Jesus:

Greg and Susan Williams

This issue of Equipper focuses on preparing us for ministry during the upcoming Advent-Christmas season when we’ll celebrate Jesus’ three comings: 1) his future bodily return in glory, 2) his coming now through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and 3) his coming 2,000 years ago through his incarnation and birth.

This season is a great opportunity for us to share Jesus with people who don’t yet know him, though talking about our Lord and Savior should be part of our conversation throughout the year.

I was reminded of that recently as I read Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus into the Everyday Stuff of Life in which Jeff Vanderstelt notes that all of life is about Jesus:

God is intent on making everything about Jesus because it is through him that all things came into existence and it is in him that they are sustained.

As I read, I asked myself (and I invite you to do so as well): Am I in the habit of talking about Jesus, sharing with others what it means to be one of his followers? The apostle Paul gives us this related instruction:

Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:17)

Note the reference to both “word” and “deed”—the combination provides a powerful, credible witness to who Jesus is and what he offers.

Vanderstelt’s book motivated me to be more attuned to gospel fluency—conversations where Jesus, or truths about him can be addressed. Shortly after reading the book, I was watching a Nascar winner being interviewed on the nationally-syndicated TV show Sports Center. After being winless in 40 races, the driver said this: “I want to give credit to my Lord and Savior Jesus!” Isn’t that the perfect way to begin an acceptance speech? It made me think of a number of professional athletes or other prominent people who have become some of the bolder Christians in our increasingly post-Christian world. Using their notoriety to point to Jesus is huge in my book.

I had another experience of gospel fluency when visiting the Philippines recently. I was privileged to spend time at the Cebu Airport with Eugene Guzon, our GCI-Philippines Mission Developer (we’re standing together in the picture at right with the young women mentioned below). Eugene knew a young woman who had grown up in GCI, but now her job at the airport had taken her away from regular church attendance. Eugene had set a time for us to meet her and have coffee. I was moved as Eugene showed thoughtfulness, respect and kindness to this young lady. Not once did he attempt to make her feel badly about her lack of church attendance. Instead, he assured her that she was loved by Jesus and then he purposefully turned to me and had me pray blessings over her. Her eyes filled with tears and she was moved by the love of Jesus that had flowed through Eugene. As if that wasn’t enough of a mountain-top experience, even as we made our way to the boarding gate, there was another young woman with ties to the church, and the same process began again.

Recently, in a deeply moving experience with one of my sons, I heard Jesus being proclaimed through my own lips. My son came to me after an especially tough season. He was struggling with work, with a relationship, and temptations that were getting the best of him. He was broken and distraught. The dad voice in me began to rise up and attempt to fix things (all dads can relate to that internal voice!). Before my list of solutions could come streaming forth, I simply asked him, “What about Jesus? Does he know loneliness? Does he know temptation? Is he alive in you? Is he able to help? What if we cast these burdens on him?” Jesus was present in a powerful way, transforming both father and son.

I can regale you with more stories, but you have your own. And if you are like me, the list of stories continues to grow. I invite you to join me in this exercise of observing where Jesus is proclaimed and shared in practical acts of kindness. You are likely to see even more examples as we enter into the Advent-Christmas season.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Murillo
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The stories of Christmas fascinate me. Don’t we discover a kinship with the shepherds as we rehearse the birth narrative? Aren’t we just ordinary people like them who have met Jesus? And like the shepherds and so many others who came in contact with Jesus, aren’t we changed forever and moved to the place that we want to tell others about Jesus the King and Savior?

Luke’s Gospel tells us that “when [the shepherds] had seen him [the Christ child], they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17). This passage is the inspiration behind the spiritual and Christmas carol, “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Vanderstelt reminds us that there is one true story and it’s the story of God found in the Bible. It is this story of Jesus that redeems, heals and completes all of our smaller personal stories. It is the story that must be told and retold.


On YouTube at https://youtu.be/UAfIKeh04KU.

Perhaps many of us will sing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” this season (I’ve embedded a sing-along version above). As we do, let’s not just sing the words—let’s commit to the practice the song proclaims—let’s go tell the stories of Jesus so that others can be inspired, motivated and encouraged by the good news that Jesus is and that Jesus brought.

I pray that, through your words and deeds this Advent-Christmas season and always, Jesus will be proclaimed into the lives of people all around you. Please join me in that prayer.

—Greg Williams, CAD Director

On Leadership: Go to the source

This article from GCI-USA Regional Pastor and Equipper writer and feature editor Rick Shallenberger continues our series on Christian leadership.

This is part 5 of a series on Christian leadership. For other
articles in the series, click a number: 1, 234, 6, 7, 8.
Rick Shallenberger

Many years ago, several people “warned” me about a person I was going to be working with. I was told that this person was really difficult to work with and I’d better go into the relationship prepared for battle. I’m ashamed to say I fell for the talk, and wasn’t at all surprised to find conflict as we started working together.

One day, while praying for this person to be more agreeable and humble, the thought came to me (credit the Holy Spirit): “Do you even know this person? You are basing everything you say and do on what you’ve heard.” Ouch! It was true.

I took the person to lunch and said, “Tell me your story.” By the end of lunch I had a completely different view of them and realized that most who had shared things with me didn’t know this person at all. We ended up having a productive working relationship—once I’d changed.

As leaders, we know how quickly gossip spreads. We can sometimes be surprised at the things we are quoted as having said. We often hear about trials people are going through not from the people themselves, but from others. And we often hear things—about a myriad of topics—and if we aren’t careful, we can jump to conclusions, making decisions based on gossip, rather than on what is true.

Go to the source

Allow me to share a valuable tool produced by GCI-USA’s leadership consultant, GiANT Worldwide. Named “Go to the Source,” it addresses the related topics of gossip, discretion and discipline. I believe that by using this tool we’ll be better leaders—ones who liberate the people they lead.

(used with permission from GiANT Worldwide)

Go to the Source illustrates what Jesus taught in Matthew 18:15-17. Granted, his instruction addresses offenses that arise from sin, but the principle of going to a sinning brother or sister applies to many things we might hear, and it comes directly against the sin of gossip.

A prime example

In the account of the dividing up of the Promised Land in the book of Joshua, we are told in chapter 22 that Moses assigned to the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh land located east of the Jordan River. However, before those 2 ½ tribes could settle their territory, Israel needed warriors from all the tribes to clear the land west of the Jordan. After doing so, Joshua gave these 2 ½ tribes permission to return to their land east of the Jordan. Just before crossing over the Jordan River, they built an “imposing altar” on the river’s western bank (Joshua 22:10).

(source)

Seeing what these 2 ½ tribes were doing, the other tribes became upset and determined to go to war against their brothers. They sent several chiefs and the high priest to confront this group who (from their perspective) were rebels deserting the faith, starting to follow other gods. These leaders went before the leaders of the Reubenites, Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh and accused them:

The whole assembly of the Lord says: “How could you break faith with the God of Israel like this? How could you turn away from the Lord and build yourselves an altar in rebellion against him now?” (Joshua 22:16)

Giving those they accused no opportunity to reply, they continued accusing their brothers of putting all of Israel at risk of the wrath of God for their unfaithfulness.

The situation here is a good illustration of the issues addressed in the Go to the Source tool. Israel had been forbidden to build altars of sacrifice wherever they wanted. There were specific rules to follow. Those who saw the altar, immediately started gossiping among themselves—they got upset, they wanted to go over and destroy their brothers for this rank idolatry! The priests and tribal chiefs served as a conduit for the people’s fear and anger, rather than as a firewall. What they should have done is say, “Let’s go talk to our brothers and see what’s up, rather than prepare for war and storm over with accusations.”

Long story short, the altar was not built for sacrifices—it was built to be a witness, a constant reminder to all that the brothers and sisters on both sides of the Jordan honored and worshipped the same God—the God of Israel. That altar was built to glorify God, not to cause division.

I believe that one of the reasons this story is preserved for us in the Bible is to remind us to always go to the source. As leaders, we need to be a firewall against gossip, and we need to teach others to be firewalls rather than conduits. When we go to the source and encourage others to do so as well, we will have fewer problems with gossip in our congregations.

Kid's Korner: Using Christmas to teach children about Jesus

This Kids Korner is from GenMin co-founder and Equipper editor Ted Johnston. This article excerpts a version published on the GCI.org website.

Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their lives. (Proverbs 22:6)

Parents or guardians are usually the most important influences in children’s spiritual development. This reality presents both a responsibility and an opportunity. Concerning the responsibility, parents have the God-given assignment to teach their children about God and his love (Deut. 4:10; 6:7). Concerning the opportunity, young children tend to see their parents as “god-like” in authority and credibility.

Because this “window of opportunity” may remain open for only a few years, wise parents are opportunistic—capitalizing on teachable moments in the lives of their children. One such moment comes each December as Christmas dominates community, school and family life for many people.

Though we may object to the commercialism of much of these Christmas celebrations, we can take advantage of this annual opportunity to help children learn about Jesus’ birth, perhaps the greatest of all God’s miracles—for through this birth, God took on human flesh in order to become Immanuel—God with us—God come to be one of us; God come to save us. Glory to God in the highest!

This biblical message of Christmas, appropriately presented, captures the imagination and hearts of children everywhere. Think about it —God chose to enter our world in the flesh of a baby—Jesus, fully the Eternal Son of God, and yet fully a human baby!

Adoration of the Shepherds (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Why God came in this way is part of the mystery of Christ. In coming as a baby, God fully identified with our lowly state—sharing fully our experience, including our suffering. What a powerful way to show children that God loves them—he was once a child, just like they are. The Christ child grew up, became a man and died and was resurrected so that they can be with him and share his joy forever.

Christmas offers parents and children’s ministry workers a wonderful opportunity to share Jesus. This can be done by enacting the stories of Jesus’ birth—his nativity in a stable, the visit of the shepherds, and the eventual visit of the Magi. Many children delight to participate in these dramatic reenactments. They also make powerful outreach events.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Within the home, Christmas decorations can serve as teachable moments for children. An evergreen Christmas tree can be a captivating illustration that Jesus is eternal life. Lights on the tree illustrate that Jesus is the light of the world. The exchange of presents can be used to tell children about God’s greatest gift—his Son who came wrapped in swaddling clothes. A manger scene on the mantle can be used to illustrate the entire nativity story.

My encouragement to parents and congregations is this: use Christmas for the powerful teachable moment that it can be. Teach about Jesus—and in particular, the miracle of Jesus’ birth. Don’t miss out on this great opportunity.

To help you capitalize on the opportunity of Christmas, here are some ideas adapted from “Help Your Child Discover the Real Christmas,” published by Gospel Light in 1992.

Help your child know the simple facts of Jesus’ birth

Read the story of the first Christmas to your child from Bible storybooks or from an easy-to-understand version of the Bible. Tell your child that they will hear the story again in church. Attend the Christmas service as a family, no matter how busy your schedule may be! Listen to the gospel and sing the Christmas hymns together.

Visit your Christian bookstore and choose “Baby Jesus” books or videos that will appeal to your child.

Help your child feel that Jesus is God’s best gift of love

Remember that much of a child’s response is a reflection of the attitudes he or she sees at home. Nurture feelings of joy, love and thankfulness in your child. Avoid (as much as possible) the hectic holiday bustle that makes a young child feel left out. Concentrate instead on preparing for the celebration of Christ’s birth in a spiritual way by praying together and celebrating the Advent season.

In the presence of your child, give thanks to God for Jesus.

Help your child express joy, excitement and feelings of love

Include your child in making Christmas decorations, food, gifts and cards for family members and friends. Show gladness to your child as you sing the songs of Christmas. Learn the songs your child is singing at church so you can sing them together at home, too. Emphasize Christ-centered songs.

Be sensitive to moments when it is natural to talk about God, and encourage your child to talk to God with thanks and praise.

Celebrate the Nativity

Keep the meaning of Christmas clear throughout the holiday season by frequently commenting, “Christmas is a happy time because it celebrates Jesus’ birthday.” Bake and decorate a birthday cake for Jesus. Children will understand that because Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birthday, there should be a cake. Sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and plan together what your family can give him for a gift of love.

Give Jesus a birthday present as a family, by doing something extra special for others. Make cookies (or even a whole dinner) and deliver them to elderly relatives and shut-ins. Take canned foods or personal care items to a rescue mission. Adopt a needy family through a charity.

Keep Santa in the proper perspective

Explain that Santa legends are based on the real Christian leader Nicholas, who loved God and gave generously to the poor.

Avoid the “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” and “Be good for Santa!” emphases. When your child wants to talk about Santa Claus, listen attentively. Then turn the discussion to Jesus and his birth.

Sermon for December 3, 2017 (Advent 1)

Scripture readings: Isa. 64:1-9; Ps.
80:1-7, 17-19
1 Cor. 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37 

Sermon by Michelle Fleming from 1 Cor. 1:3-9

Expectant Waiting

Introduction

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:3-9, ESV)

Today begins the season of Advent, which begins a new year of celebration in the Christian worship calendar. Advent is a time of both celebration and anticipation in that it celebrates Jesus’ three “comings” (the word “advent” means “coming”). These comings are traditionally celebrated during the Advent season in reverse order:

  1. Advent ends with a celebration of Jesus’ first coming through the Incarnation, which fulfilled the Father’s eternal covenant of drawing humanity to himself. That then leads into the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
  2. In the middle part of Advent, we celebrate Jesus’ present coming, through the Spirit, to dwell with us and in us.
  3. Then at the beginning of Advent the focus is on what is often referred to as Jesus’ second coming—the time, yet future, when our Lord will return to earth bodily to establish the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth and thus to set everything right in the world. This is the coming of Jesus that we focus on today, the first Sunday of Advent.

The point I want to make today is that Advent includes expectant waiting—waiting for Christ’s return; training our hearts and minds to long for that ultimate hope. Karl Barth put it this way:

Unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.

(source )

The Father’s covenant promise to send a Messiah for the people of Israel is the same one the church now clings to—the future coming of Jesus Christ to establish the fullness of the kingdom of God on earth. And so Advent, which celebrates the reality that Jesus has come and now is coming, also looks forward with anticipation, grounded in the hope that Jesus will come again.

The advantage of waiting

The rush toward Christmas celebrations can cause us to overlook the great spiritual advantage of waiting. In our results-driven culture, waiting is not given much value. In fact, waiting is often seen as a negative. We tend to believe that the product is of far greater importance than the process. But in God’s economy, waiting is of great value, for it helps us understand where our hope lies—it helps to show us what we are orienting our lives around.

Today’s reading in 1 Corinthians reminds us that Advent is not just about celebrating Christ’s first coming—it’s also about waiting for his return:

…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:7)

Note that this is not worry-filled, nervous waiting, trying to earn our way into the kingdom. Instead, it’s a hope-filled, stand-on-the-tip-of-your-toes, excited waiting. Paul encourages the Corinthians by pointing out that they already have received the gifts they need to sustain them until Christ returns. This grace-filled passage is a reminder that, through Jesus, we already are included in the life and love and thus already are experiencing his kingdom rule and reign.

While we wait for his return and the fullness of his kingdom, we experience the naked vulnerability of trust. No matter how disciplined, organized and prayerful we are, we never outgrow God’s invitation to wait. The learning curve through this waiting is life-long.

Advent is the season to keep learning and practicing the discipline of waiting that challenges us all. It’s an opportunity to see the good fruit that waiting with patience and in hope produces in our lives.

The perils and pitfalls of waiting poorly

In and through Jesus, we have every spiritual blessing needed in order to wait well for his return—for our one true hope, which is the fullness of his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Sadly, in the verses that follow our reading, Paul scolds the Corinthians for not waiting well—for comparing and thus quarreling over their own little kingdoms (1 Cor. 1:10–16), rather than orienting their hope and identity in Jesus and his kingdom. Their quarreling was a denial of the reality of the rich life that is ours in Christ as we await his ultimate return.

We are prone to the same pitfalls that befell the Corinthians. We tend to focus on the world “that is” rather than the one that is “to come.” We build routines and schedules, relying on the systems of this world, rather than leaning on the person of Jesus. Due to a focus on the world, we are shaken when we see events occuring that are so disconnected from what we were created for—events like natural disasters, divisions, senseless violence, the list goes on and on, giving us reasons to lose hope. Advent reminds us that our ultimate hope is not in this world.

Active, hope-filled waiting

Awaiting Jesus’ return, we have hope despite the chaos and confusion of the fallen world around us. Jesus does not leave us alone—by the Spirit he brings comfort and counsel, helping us wait with hope. Knowing for whom and for what we wait, our waiting during Advent, and always, is not passive. Instead it’s active and expectant. We are reminded that we are not looking for a king or kingdom of our own—our King has come, and invites us to help build his kingdom as we await his return in glory.

When Jesus first came to earth, he lived as fully human—in the beauty and brokenness of relationships, the temptations and struggles we all have. When he died in our place, he did not do so theoretically. He knew you by name, in each day-to-day moment—not your dream or ideal life but the actual life you are living.

What if we lived out of the truth that Jesus has redeemed both the big and small moments of our lives, intentionally joining his continued rescue and redemption of the whole world? In our active waiting this Advent season, let’s live out of the righteous and just life that Jesus came and died to give to us. We each have a specific calling, and so our participation in Jesus’ love and life may look a bit different for each of us, but here are some ways that, like Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, we can enter the chaos and confusion of the world around us and bring peace:

  1. Bringing reconciliation to our relationships by being the first to apologize to our spouses, co-workers, children, or friends when there is a place of brokenness in the relationship.
  2. Asking about then deeply listening to someone with a different experience or worldview than ours—sharing our own story only if asked to do so.
  3. Resting in the abundance of God’s economy, blessing someone who has limited time, health, or financial resources, meeting a need they have during this Advent-Christmas season.

I encourage you this week to prayerfully consider how you are being called to actively and expectantly wait during this Advent season.

Conclusion

As we end our time today, let’s stand together as a symbol of our active waiting, and read, pray, and declare some words of hope together.

RESPONSIVE READING

Note: it will be helpful to print this
reading in the bulletin 
or project it on a screen. Source: www.crivoice.org.

[Leader]  O Lord, stir our hearts as we prepare for the coming of your one and only Son.

[People]  We wait. We wait with expectant hope. In a world that often seems hopeless, we wait in anticipation of the hope only you can bring.

[Leader]  From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who works for those who wait for him.

[People]  We wait in expectant hope. Come, long expected Jesus.

[Leader]  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land as dark as death a light has dawned.

[All]  O God, rejoicing, we remember the promise of your Son. May Christ our Savior bring light into the darkness of our world, and to us, as we wait for his coming. We ask this through the hope we have in Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for December 10, 2017 (Advent 2)

Scripture readings: Isa. 40:1-11; Ps.
85:1-2, 8-13
2 Pet. 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 

Sermon by Ted Johnston from 2 Pet. 3:1-15a
(drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository
Commentary and David Wheaton in The New Bible
Commentary)

Gospel-centered diligence

Introduction

Today on the second Sunday of Advent, our focus continues to be the promised return of Jesus. A classic passage addressing that advent is found in 2 Peter chapter 3. In chapter 2, Peter is addressing the problem of false teachers troubling the churches in Asia Minor with their “destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1). He pulls no punches, calling them out to warn his readers to steer clear of their false teachings (also good advice in our day!).

“The Apostle Peter” by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Then in chapter 3, Peter counters the false teachers’ heresy by pointing to three foundational precepts of the orthodox Christian faith:

Precept #1: God’s word is truth

In 2 Pet. 3:1-4, Peter reminds them that because God’s word is truth (truth that, ultimately, is found in Jesus), they must pay careful attention to it (thus blocking out messages to the contrary). Part of that truth is that judgment is coming upon all evil—a judgment that will occur when Jesus returns—the very return that the false teachers were scoffing at. Instead of this judgment being one of condemnation, it will involve a decisive intervention that will convey visibly and conclusively the truth of all truths—namely, who Jesus truly is. This “unveiling” or “revealing” of Jesus will also mean exposing—judging—humanity’s darkness.

Precept #2: God’s work is consistent

In 2 Peter 3:5–7, Peter notes that the false teachers who scoff at the idea of Jesus’ second coming argue that because God has not interrupted the stable operation of his creation before, the promise of Jesus’ return must be false. But Peter refutes that argument, citing evidence that the false teachers deliberately ignore, namely the work of God at creation (3:5), and the work of God through the flood in Noah’s day (3:6). He then concludes by noting that God will intervene again in a time of judgment, which he says will be a cleansing “fire” (3:7).

Despite the scoffing and heretical teachings of the false teachers, Peter assures his readers that Jesus will return and that it will involve God’s judgment. And lest his readers be scared out of their wits by this assertion, Peter reminds them of a third foundational precept:

Precept #3: God’s will is merciful

In 2 Peter 3:8–10 (NRSV), the apostle both reassures and exhorts his readers with some important facts:

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

The scoffers are not only ignoring what God has done in the past (creation and the flood), but they are ignorant of what God is like. They have re-created God in their own image, ignoring the fact of God’s eternality. God has neither beginning nor ending. God’s eternity is not just “extended time.” Rather, it is existence above and apart from time. In this passage, Peter is quoting Psalm 90:4: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”

Since a thousand years are as one day to the Lord, we cannot accuse him of delayed fulfillment of his promises. In God’s sight, the whole universe is only a few days old! He is not limited by time the way we are, nor does he measure it according to our standards.

When we study the works of God, especially in the Old Testament, we see that he is never in a hurry, but he is never late. God could have created the entire universe in an instant, yet he preferred to do it over a very long period of time. He could have delivered Israel from Egypt in a moment, yet he preferred to invest 80 years in training Moses. He could have brought about the first advent of Jesus much sooner, but he waited for “the fulness of the time” (Gal. 4:4, ASV).

Though God works within time, he exists outside our time and is thus not limited by it. Thus to God, a thousand of our years is like one day, and one day is like a thousand years. God can accomplish in one day what it would take others a millennium to accomplish! He waits to work, but once he begins to work, he gets things done!

The false teachers did not understand God’s eternality and they did not understand his mercy. Why is God delaying Christ’s return and other yet-coming aspects of the final judgment? It is not because he is unable or unwilling to act. He is not tardy nor off schedule! Nobody on earth has the right to decide when God must act. God is sovereign in all things and does not need prodding or even counsel from sinful humans (Rom. 11:33–36). Rather, God “delays” Jesus’ coming and the judgment his coming will bring because he is merciful—patient as it says in the NRSV—wanting to give lost sinners the opportunity to awaken to and embrace their salvation in Christ. Peter said it this way: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2Pet 3:15).

There should be no question in anyone’s mind about God’s desire for every person: God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2Pet 3:9). 1 Tim 2:4 affirms that God “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” These verses assure us that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked as is noted in Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11. Indeed, God shows his mercy to all (Rom. 11:32) even though not all will embrace the salvation he has secured for them.

A call to repentance

2 Peter 3:9 is the only place in his two letters where Peter uses the word repentance, but that does not minimize its importance. To repent is to change one’s mind. It’s not about regret (being sorry for being caught), nor is it about shame or remorse (a hopeless attitude that can lead to despair). Instead, repentance is a change of one’s mind resulting in action of the will. The sinner who changes their thinking (repents) about God and his will and work, turns to God in faith (trust), receiving with a receptive mind what God has secured for them already in Jesus.

The return of Jesus (source)

But when will Jesus return?

Having reaffirmed the certainty of Jesus’ return and the judgment that comes with it, Peter anticipates his readers’ next question: When will Jesus return? His answer is that nobody knows, because it will come unexpectedly “like a thief” (3:10, and see Matt. 24:43 and 1 Thess. 5:3). Moreover, he shows that the coming of Jesus and judgment will be earth-shattering. Kenneth Wuest gives an accurate and graphic translation here:

The heavens with a rushing noise will be dissolved, and the elements being scorched will be dissolved, and the earth also and the works in it will be burned up. (2Pet. 3:10)

In short, it will be a time of unparalleled transformation of the entire cosmos, making room for a new heavens and new earth (2 Pet. 3:13).

In this cataclysm, the empty works of rebellious humankind (including the false teachers) will be burned up. All that humans boast of in their arrogance—their great cities, great buildings; inventions and achievements—all these will be destroyed in a moment of time.

Peter’s point is that when we all stand before Jesus at his return, we will have nothing to point to as evidence of our own greatness. The only thing that will be seen is who Jesus is and who and what we are in him. We will either joyfully acknowledge and accept that truth, or we will turn from it in continued obstinacy. God will not force anyone to receive and live in his gift of salvation, which is our inclusion in the love and life of Jesus.

In the remaining verses of this letter, and the latter part of our reading in 2 Peter today, Peter applies the truth of the life we have in Jesus to daily living. But before we go there, I think it’s appropriate that we should push the “pause button” to ask ourselves an important question: What is my relationship with Jesus, God’s Truth? Is my life grounded on him—the Solid Rock of my existence? Or is my life grounded on the sinking sand of human ideas and achievement—all which are destined for the ash heap that gives way to a new heaven and new earth when Jesus returns? My prayer for us all is that we will rejoice and live fully in Jesus right now, every day. He is God’s Truth, our Life, our everything.

A call to diligence

Having established the reality of who God is, and of Christ’s promised return with the judgment that will bring about, Peter now concludes his letter with a call to diligence—he admonishes his readers to be responsive to the truth that is in Jesus—the truth that establishes their very identity as the people of God on journey with Jesus toward a new heaven and new earth.

Peter’s call to diligence is prevalent in this letter. He already has told his readers to be “applying all diligence” (2 Pet. 1:5, NASB) and to “be all the more diligent” (2 Pet. 1:10, NASB). Then he says of himself, “I will also be diligent” (2 Pet. 1:15, NASB). And now he concludes, telling them:

Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight. (2 Pet. 3:14, ASV)

This diligence is not about self-effort motivated by fear or by superstition. Rather it is joy-filled participation in Jesus’ own diligence, which is expressed in the hope and expectancy of his life and message (the gospel). Peter ends his letter with three admonitions for gospel-centered diligence:

Admonition #1: Be diligent to live the gospel

A key word in 2 Peter 3:11–14, NASB, is look (or looking). This looking is not about physical sight, but spiritual sight—a hope and expectancy grounded in the truths of the gospel, including the promise of Jesus’ return, which is the believer’s “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). Because we realize that the world and its works will be “destroyed,” we fix our hope not on the things of this world, but on Jesus and his enduring, ever-expanding kingdom.

The believer who hopes in the things of this world, rather than in Jesus, develops a worldly orientation that leads to an unfaithful life (Luke 12:35–48). Like the false teachers, they may even begin to scoff at the very idea of Jesus’ return as they pursue their own evil desires. But a gospel-centered attitude of hope and expectancy yields positive changes in personal conduct (2 Pet. 3:11). These changes don’t come from self-effort as though we could change our own nature (can a leopard change its spots?). Rather, changes come because in union with Jesus we “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4). Through this participation in Jesus’ relationship with the Father in the Spirit, we are transformed from the inside out and thus begin to live differently from the people whose lives are not centered in this hope.

Peter says that a Jesus-follower lives a “holy and godly” life (2 Pet. 3:11b). In his first letter, Peter wrote: “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). God’s holiness, which we share with him by grace in union with Jesus, is grounded in God’s own being—it is his relational “wholeness” as an eternal triune communion of love: Father, Son and Spirit.

As we participate in God’s triune, divine nature, we participate in his communion of love. And this communion transforms our lives—it conforms us to God’s own relational wholeness (holiness). Through this transformation, we become vessels of God’s self-giving love toward others.

Amazingly, Peter says that hope-filled, expectant looking “forward to the day of God” will in some way “speed its coming” (2 Pet 3:12a). Though we don’t know how this works (and Peter may just be using a figure of speech), his overall point is clear: Jesus includes us in his ministry in the world, and our participation has a real impact on how his ministry proceeds. The same God who ordains the end also ordains the means to that end, and we, by his grace, are part of that means. Our task is not to speculate but to participate—and to do so with diligence.

How do we maintain eager expectancy that motivates holy living? A key element is keeping “his promise” of a “new heaven and new earth” clearly in our view (2 Pet. 3:13). The promise of Jesus’ coming is a light of hope that shines in an often dark world (2 Pet. 1:19). We must be sure that “the morning star” is brightly aglow in our hearts as we continue to eagerly await Jesus’ advent at the end of the age. Let us be diligent to live in the hope of this gospel. And let us also be diligent to share that hope with others…

Admonition #2: Be diligent to share the gospel

In 2 Peter 3:15-16, which ties in with 2 Pet. 3:9, Peter explains why the Lord has not yet returned in judgment to usher in the new heaven and new earth. God had every reason long ago to judge the world and burn up its works, but in his mercy, he is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God continues patiently to give opportunity for the human race to embrace the salvation it has in Jesus—to repent, to trust, and to follow Jesus. Peter’s inference here is that we, as Jesus-followers, need to share his heart for peopple who are walking in darkness and join him with diligence in sharing with them the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus. Thus our motivation for sharing the gospel with others is God’s love and our participation in his love, which is reaching out to all humanity (see 2 Cor. 5:14).

In 2 Pet. 3:15-16, Peter refers to Paul’s writings, perhaps because Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, addresses the outworking of God’s plan for salvation which is in Jesus and by grace alone. But, as Peter notes, some “ignorant and unstable people” have been distorting what Paul taught. A common accusation against Paul was that his teaching about grace encouraged people to sin. But this was a false accusation, as Paul himself asserted in Romans 3:8.

Admonition #3: Be diligent to grow in the gospel

In 2 Pet. 3:17-18, Peter ends his letter by warning his readers to be on their guard. What particular danger did Peter see? That his readers might be “led away together with the error of the wicked” (literal translation). The false teachers and their followers “live in error” (2 Pet. 2:18) rather than within the sphere of the truth (2 John 1–2). These false teachers are “lawless men” (2 Pet. 3:17, with the word “lawless” being translated as “unprincipled” in the NASB). These false teachers use unprincipled (deceitful and devious) tactics to turn people away from the truth that is in Jesus. Beware! The danger being addressed here is not losing one’s salvation, but falling from one’s “secure position” or “steadfastness” (NASB) in Jesus.

Believers are vulnerable to becoming unstable when they believe untruths. Peter therefore urges us to be “firmly established in the truth” (2 Pet. 1:12). Our stability as followers of Jesus is directly related to our grounding in the truth and our confidence (trust) in that truth. To embrace lies rather than truth has devastating consequences. This danger is particularly great for young believers, “just escaping from those who live in error (2 Pet. 2:18). New believers need to be taught the basic biblical doctrines of the Christian faith so that they will not be “carried away with the error of lawless people” (2 Pet. 3:17, ESV)

How can we as believers maintain our secure position and avoid being among the unstable ones who are led astray? Peter’s answer is that we must continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). “Be constantly growing” is one translation. It’s about a lifetime of growth—constant, steady development within the sphere of the grace and truth that is in Jesus.

a. Grow in Jesus’ grace

This has to do with the traits of Jesus that, by the Spirit, he shares with us. Peter reviewed these in 2 Pet. 1:5–7 and Paul wrote of them in Galatians 5:22–23. We were saved by grace (Eph. 2:8–9) and through grace we are being formed by the Spirit into Jesus’ own likeness. Our life in Jesus is about his grace from start to finish. To grow in grace means to share more fully and actively in the life that is ours in Christ, from whom we receive all the grace that we need (John 1:16).

b. Grow in Jesus’ knowledge 

Knowledge without grace can be a terrible weapon, and grace without knowledge can be very shallow. But when we combine grace and knowledge, we experience most fully our connection to the love and life of Jesus who is the fullness of grace and truth.

The knowledge in which we are to grow is “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It is one thing to “know the Bible,” and quite another thing to know Jesus, who is the central theme of the Bible. The better we know Jesus, the more we grow in the experience of his grace; and the more we grow in that grace, the more accurate and meaningful will be our knowledge of Jesus and of the Bible given to teach us about him.

This growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus involves diligence—setting priorities and having the discipline to live accordingly. It involves spiritual nurture and development—a journey of growth with Jesus that occurs best within the context of a loving faith-family, and this is where the local church comes in. It is God’s “nursery” for the care and feeding of Christians—the God-ordained environment that encourages growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.

And what is the result of this growth? A sharing in Jesus’ own glory! “To him be glory both now and forever!” Our growth glorifies Jesus and leads to a fuller experience of his glory, which is his love and life shared with the Father in the Spirit. As Peter has already told us, it is our calling to be participants in this divine (triune) nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Our growth is about “growing deeper” in our participation in that life with Jesus.

Conclusion

As we look back on the broad sweep of this second letter from Peter, we are struck by the urgency of its message. False teachers are at work! They are seducing immature Christians! So be on guard and be diligent in living the gospel, sharing the gospel and growing in the gospel. In these ways we participate more and more in Jesus’ own life and love, which he shares with the Father in the Spirit. To and with this Jesus, our Savior and Lord, be all glory both now and forever! Amen.

Sermon for December 17, 2017 (Advent 3)

Scripture readings: Isa. 61:1-4, 8:11; Ps.
126
1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Ps. 126 and John 1:6-8, 19-28

Baptism, Jesus and Joy

Introduction

We are in the midst of the Advent-Christmas season when, more than any other time of the year, joy is in the air—the joy we read about in Psalm 126:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. (Ps. 126:1-3)

Let’s sing about that joy in a popular Gospel song:


On YouTube at https://youtu.be/86_MXU76e0c.

The focus of our Gospel reading today, the third Sunday of Advent, is the ministry of John the Baptist. His message was a call to repentance—preparing for the coming of the Messiah. He proclaimed that the Messiah was about to be revealed to the world, and that he would transform the world by taking on its sin and by baptizing with the Spirit.

But what does John’s ministry of baptism have to do with joy? As we’ll see in this sermon, the answer is “everything”—for John the Baptist proclaimed the source of the true and lasting joy that Advent and Christmas proclaim.

“St. John the Baptist Baptizes the People” by Poussin
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

A messenger divinely appointed and sent

It is a special occasion when God sends a human messenger to our world. One such occasion occurred around A.D. 27 in the Roman Province of Judea. The apostle John wrote about that sending in his Gospel:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

It had been about 400 years since the prophet Malachi had shared this promise from God to Israel:

I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come (Malachi 3:1)

For 400 long years the Jews had suffered the oppressive rule of the Medo-Persians, then the Greeks and now the Romans. Throughout this time the Jews awaited the coming of their Messiah to his temple, which would begin the long-awaited new age of the Kingdom of God. Until the time of John the Baptist, that coming had not occurred.

Nevertheless, the anticipation grew during those 400 years. Think of a bride and groom awaiting their wedding! Think of a mother and father awaiting their child’s birth! These are times of great, anticipatory joy. In a similar way, the people of Israel were waiting, their anticipation growing, looking forward to the promised time of great joy.

Before our passage in the Gospel of John, introducing John the Baptist, we are told of one called “the Word,” who was with God and was God. He is said in John 1:9 to be the “true light” that shines in the darkness of this fallen world. John the Baptist was sent to witness to—to testify concerning—this special person, the Word, the Light.

Because of the Jew’s great national anticipation of deliverance, John the Baptist received a lot of attention as he baptized large numbers of people who went out to the Jordan River to hear him preach. This activity was noticed at the highest levels among the Jewish leadership. They wanted to know who he was and what his ministry was about. John 1:19-23 explains:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

The primary religious leaders of the Jews were the priests and a council of religious leaders called the Sanhedrin. From Jerusalem, where they worked, they sent representatives to investigate this intriguing new preacher, wanting to know if he was the one prophesied to come. King David, the prophet Daniel, and others had prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah (Psalm 2:2; Daniel 9:25); the prophet Malachi had prophesied the coming of Elijah (Mal. 4:5); and Moses had prophesied the coming of “the Prophet” (Deut. 18:15). Jewish scholars considered that these three highly-anticipated historical figures would bring radical transformation to Israel, leading the people to faithfully fulfill their covenant as the people of God.

But John the Baptist made it clear that he was not one of these three. Instead he quoted Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:3) about one who would prepare for the coming of the Lord. Instead of pointing to himself, John pointed to Jesus, an even greater deliverer than the scholars anticipated.

Unveiling the all-time historical leader

A delegation of Pharisees sent to investigate questioned John: “Why do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:24-25). Typically, baptism was reserved for non-Jewish people who repented of their pagan practices and converted to the Jewish religion as proselytes. Surprisingly, instead of baptizing proselytes, John was baptizing large numbers of Jews. The Pharisees sensed that something highly unusual was taking place, but they could not figure out what it was. They thought it centered around John the Baptist, and hoped that he would tell them more about his reasons for baptizing such a large number of Jews. Apparently, they did not understand Isaiah’s statement about “the voice in the wilderness,” especially that it signaled the impending arrival—advent—of none other than Israel’s Lord himself.

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:26-27)

John the Baptist was only immersing people into water after a confession of sin as evidence of repentance. Although that confession was significant and a good thing, it was not extraordinary. The far bigger matter was who already was present in the nation (incognito, as it were) and what he was about to do! John describes this individual as so special that he, John, was not worthy to do for him the most menial of servant-tasks—untie his sandals to wash his feet.

Simply put, this person was greater than anyone else on earth!

The higher baptism

What caused John the Baptist to think so highly of this person? He explained later, probably to his followers, as we read in John 1:31-34:

I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

“John the Baptist baptizes Jesus” by Gustave Dore
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

John the Baptist was sent by someone, he does not say who, and this someone told him to baptize and proclaim to those who came that the great revealing—the advent of the promised Messiah—was about to take place. As John was baptizing Jesus, an amazing sight occurred that John witnessed: the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove and lit upon Jesus! Just as the sender had told John, this unusual sight would pinpoint for him who this person he had baptized actually was: none other than the Son of God, who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.

Some Christian groups teach that the higher baptism is done by the Holy Spirit and comes as a “second blessing” after baptism in water, which signifies conversion and receiving of the Holy Spirit. This passage in John, and the related passages in the other Gospels, teach that Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Spirit. The Pentecost miracle described in the book of Acts confirms this teaching. Let’s consider what that baptism does.

The joy of advent

John the Baptist prophesied about the outcome of his experience and encounter with Jesus, noting that Jesus would fulfill the promise of the outpouring—the baptism—of the Holy Spirit upon humanity. We read prophecies about this outpouring in Joel 2:28-29, Jer. 24:7; 11:19; 36:25-27 and 37:14. These prophecies describe a time of cleansing of the people by sprinkling—another type of baptism—that refreshes them as the Spirit of God renews their minds. Radical repentance moves them to turn away from idolatry to God with all their hearts. Motivated to want to obey God’s law of love, they come to know the God they profess.

The fulfillment of these prophecies began at Pentecost in Jerusalem with the followers of Jesus, and continued from there, sweeping through the world. The process takes time—millennia of human experience—and is still progressing today, like an ever-expanding flood. Those overtaken by this out-pouring believe in Jesus and trust in his promises, living with an underlying hope that the purpose of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit will be accomplished.

Faith and hope then spark in them a deep sense of joy in the midst of their still-broken present lives. It is the joy of anticipating the promised future. This joy is not our doing, but the outcome of Christ in us, preceded by our own repentance and baptism.

The song, Joy, that we heard as we began this sermon, poetically expresses this process. The singers acknowledge their brokenness as only a repentant heart would. Nonetheless they see beauty in their brokenness. Why? Because they are experiencing the marvelous exchange of God’s love and forgiveness for the pain that is the consequence of sin. At the same time, they recognize the seeming contradiction of being free, yet being captured by the Lord—in knowing the Lord they know what it is to be truly free. Consequently they experience joy instead of mourning.

As individuals, we now have joy to mollify the relentless sorrow, pain and brokenness of this world. It is a joy that resides down deep in the soul where nothing can dislodge it. We are confident knowing that, eventually, we will experience the fullness of our Lord’s joy.

Conclusion

I would like to conclude by sharing my own story of joy [speaker, substitute your own story here]. I was baptized at 21. At the time, I was a rather confused and troubled young man. Sensing a call from God, I had abandoned the ways of my past. So much changed about me that I found myself at odds with many of my friends and family members. Most of this was a result of my misunderstanding of God and what he expected of me, but the result was that I became sad, lonely and depressed. But God is gracious! Immediately after my baptism in which I confessed faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior, I experienced a period of about a week of sheer ecstatic joy. When the week passed, I resumed a more normal temperament, but no longer was I sad, lonely, and depressed. To this day, I don’t know how to explain it except to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit gave me a gift—a down payment, so to speak—of joy and I can truthfully say that this joy has never left me.

Despite temptations, sins, disappointments, big mistakes, setbacks, obvious failures, personal illness, loss of loved ones, and many times of sorrow, anguish, and despair, deep down the joy remains. I wake up every day reminded that Jesus Christ is my Savior, and that gives me security. Despite the miserable state of world conditions and even conditions of people close to me, I continue to have hope for a better future. I know that my God is right, and there is no other way, so I can live in confidence, continuing to grow in knowing him.

I relish enjoyable times and blessings, but the joy I experience is not the result of something good happening in my life—it’s deeper than that. It is not the result of anything I have or have gained—it’s deeper than that. The joy I experience comes from outside me, but resides within me. It is with me in measure, but always there. No, I don’t have it in full, but I know who gives it, and his name is Jesus. It’s a fruit of his Spirit in my life. Without Jesus, I would be simply an older version of who I was at 21 before my repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit through my precious, wonderful Lord! Amen.

Sermon for December 24, 2017 (Advent 4)

Scripture readings: 2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16;
Luke 1:46-55; 
Rom. 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-28

Sermon by Sheila Graham from Luke chapter 1, and 2 Samuel chapter 7

Jesus, a Promise Fulfilled

Introduction

As we come to the close of our celebration of Advent and look forward to Christmas Day tomorrow, we continue to look back and also forward to the overwhelming significance of what the Incarnation of the Son of God means to us as human beings. From Genesis on, the Scriptures point to the fulfilment of the promise that God would send a Messiah to save his people. God promised both Abraham and later David that the Messiah would come from their descendants.

Promises fulfilled

God made many promises concerning the Messiah in the Old Testament. As we saw in our reading today from 2 Samuel, God said no when David wanted to build a house for him. Instead, God would make David a house—a lineage that would include the Savior of the world.

Then in our reading today from the Gospel of Luke we were reminded that when the young virgin, Mary, was approached by the angel Gabriel, she already knew what was prophesied in the Scriptures. Though she was shocked at the appearance and words of the angel (and who wouldn’t be!), she had been told about God’s promises to Abraham and to David. She knew a Messiah would come, and he would be from the line of Judah, of the house of David. What she didn’t imagine was that God would actually choose her, from a God-fearing but humble family to be the mother of the Savior. She expressed her sense of joy at being the one chosen to bear the long promised Messiah in a poem called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

The significance of Christmas

In this harried season, filled with frenzied consumers who, in many cases, dread Christmas, if we’re not careful, we can be caught up in the commercialism of the holiday. We can overlook the significance of what we are supposed to be celebrating. All the decorations, some beautiful and some not so much, don’t begin to express the joy we should feel about Christmas.

We are celebrating the birth of God into this world, our world. God came to earth to become one of us so we could be reconciled to the Father! So we could be saved from our sins! So we could live with him for eternity!

How great is that!

Arguments over whether or not “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” should appear in stores and on other types of greetings can steer our minds away from the momentous truth that God has come down to earth to be born as a human to dwell among us and to lead the way for us to have an eternal relationship with him. But, how is it possible that God, who is spirit, could become human? It’s a question that’s been asked and argued about over the centuries.

Mary’s role

“The Magnificat” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s look at Mary’s important role in God’s plan of salvation. We don’t learn a lot in the Bible about the girl God chose to be the mother of his Son. She was, most likely, betrothed to Joseph at a young age. The Jewish custom was for girls to marry as young teens. Mary may have become a mother as early as age 14.

Mary, we are told, was God-fearing and trusted God with her life. She could have been a candidate for stoning for being pregnant outside of marriage. And, even if that didn’t happen, she would (and did) have to suffer rumors that Jesus was illegitimate. Yet she agreed to be the mother of the Messiah.

Some think Mary had no choice, but that isn’t true. Maybe you’ve noticed in the Bible that angels are rather abrupt when they bring messages from God. There’s no “if you agree” or “if you feel like doing this” in their proclamations. But the Scriptures also show there’s room for negotiation. Think Abraham and Gideon. Both negotiated with God. Mary had a choice.

Did you notice the difference in the way Gabriel treated Mary as opposed to how he treated Zechariah? When Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant with John, and Zechariah asked how that could be, Gabriel punished his lack of belief by making him unable to speak. But when Mary asked basically the same question, Gabriel patiently answered her. Perhaps there was a difference in attitude. It seemed he decided to treat this young girl with more patience than he did an old priest who should have known better than to question God’s abilities. Zechariah’s time of silence helped emphasize how his child was special; Mary’s role was already difficult enough.

When Mary affirms that she is willing to bear the Christ child, she becomes the first disciple of Jesus. How? Listen to this; it’s important: She received Jesus from the Holy Spirit by responding in faith, not through any other actions on her part. Further, even the faith to do so came from God. Contrary to what some teach, she wasn’t perfect—she had not earned the right to have a Savior, much less to give him birth.

Mary’s response to God, despite her imperfections, is a model for us. She was a human being like you and me. When we come to Christ, we come as imperfect sinners, with empty hands. We have nothing to give to show we are worthy of him. Like Mary, we respond to Christ by faith, by the Holy Spirit, and then—and right now would be a good time to shout Hallelujah, praise God—we are in Christ and Christ is in us!

Mary’s reaction to the shepherds’ words and Simeon’s prophecy and her response to her own son’s words when she finds him in the Temple, continue to show she was a believing disciple of Jesus:

  • She knew Jesus could perform miracles before he had publicly done so.
  • She was totally confident he could take care of the embarrassing lack of wine at the wedding feast.
  • Though she and her family sometimes wondered about and questioned what Jesus was doing, they eventually understood.

Though some in past centuries have gone overboard and even come to worship Mary, we shouldn’t shy away from honoring the mother of our Savior. Her role was significant.

The promises are for all

Mary was an Israelite. The prophecies were written that the Messiah would come to Israel. In Romans, the apostle Paul also refers to the Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah, a Savior, but he shows the promises go beyond the nation of Israel and the house of Judah to include the gentiles. Now, not only Israel but also the gentiles (that’s most of us, folks) are blessed to understand, through Jesus Christ, what God had planned from eternity, to make salvation available to all humankind. At the close of the book of Romans, Paul writes:

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27, NRSV)

Paul speaks of messianic prophecies not even the prophets themselves fully understood at the time they were given. Only through the life, death and resurrection of Christ could these mysterious prophecies be understood.

God is God of both the Jews and the gentiles. His purpose for all eternity has now been revealed through his Son. God’s plan of redemption includes all humankind. A sense of wonderment and joyful praise fuel Paul’s words.

By faith, not works

Now, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our obedience is through faith, not works. And salvation through Christ has come to the whole human race, both Jew and gentile. We can say with Paul, “through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever!” Praise God for his love and mercy!

Speaking biologically, you can’t explain the incarnation of Jesus the Son of God as a human being apart from any male involvement, any more than you can explain the creation of Adam without any female involvement. Jesus’ birth as a human being was a new creative act of God.

Death came through Adam’s and Eve’s sin, and God’s incarnation as Jesus conquered sin and death and saved the whole of humanity—both male and female. Thomas F. Torrance in The Ministry of Women writes that the incarnation was “the healing of our complete human nature.”

Conclusion

The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus, of the Incarnation in which God became human (adding our humanity to his divinity), cannot be overestimated. As noted by the apostle Paul, from the beginning, from Genesis to Revelation in God’s Word and through Jesus Christ, who is also God’s Word, God promised a redeemer, a savior of humankind. God did not create us and then abandon us. In the first Adam we disobeyed and abandoned him. But in the birth, life, resurrection and ascension of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, through his grace and mercy and love, God made a way for us—all of us, Jew and gentile—to be reunited to him for eternity.

Worth celebrating? I should say so.

Merry Christmas!

Sermon for December 31, 2017

Scripture readings: Isa. 61:10-11; 62:1-3;
Ps. 148; 
Gal. 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Sermon by Ted Johnston from Gal. 3:26-4:12a
(drawing on the writings of John Stott, 
G. Walter Hansen and Gary Deddo)

Live Like Adult Children, Not Slaves

Introduction

Today (December 31), is the 7th day of Christmas in the Western Christian tradition. During this season, we are exploring the truth that with Jesus’ birth, a new day dawned for humanity. But do we understand fully the implications of Jesus’ first advent? Down through the ages, some Christians have not—they have erred by looking to the Law of Moses or other rules as the basis for their life in Christ.

Having encountered this error among Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, Paul wrote them the letter we know as Galatians. In its first three chapters, Paul points out that their attempt to earn God’s favor through obedience to the Law is wrong-headed, for in their union with Christ, by the Spirit, through faith, they already have received the covenant promise given to Abraham. Attempts to secure that promise by observing the Law are therefore foolish. Note Paul’s summary statement at the end of chapter 3:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:26-29)

The Law of Moses was temporary

In chapter 4, Paul emphasizes the temporary nature of the Law of Moses, which was added to the covenant God made with Abraham to form what Scripture calls the old covenant. Paul shows that life under that form of the covenant was a type of slavery, which is to be abandoned by Christians in order to live in the freedom that is theirs as mature children of God under the new covenant:

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. (Gal. 4:1-2)

The Law of Moses was given to Israel under the old covenant in order to illustrate God’s grace in the coming Messiah. But with Jesus’ death and resurrection, this God-given purpose of the Law was fulfilled and the old covenant came to an end. Paul makes this point about the temporary nature of the Law by noting that it was like a guardian of a child. Under that guardianship, the child was moving toward the time when he would receive his full inheritance. The old covenant is thus portrayed as temporary, replaced by the new covenant, which comes at maturity.

Moses Receiving the Law (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t misuse the Law

So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. (Gal. 4:3)

Paul then refers to the Galatians’ wrong-headed misuse of the Law as slavery to “elemental spiritual forces of the world.” In verse 9 these forces are called “weak” because the Law has no strength to save, and “miserable” (“beggarly” in the RSV) because it has no wealth to bestow. “Elemental” has two possible meanings (and Paul may intend both):

  1. It can mean “elementary things,” like the ABC’s learned in kindergarten. In this way Paul is likening the Law to rudimentary education preceding maturity.
  2. It can mean “elemental spirits” associated in paganism with the physical elements (earth, fire, air and water) and the heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars). This second definition fits verse 8 where we are said to have been “slaves to those who by nature are not gods,” namely evil (elemental) spirits.

Paul’s point is that by seeking to live under the Law of Moses, the Galatian Christians, who were largely Gentiles, were returning to a way of approaching God that was functionally equivalent to their former paganism. But Christ, argues Paul, has set us free from all that. As Christians, we are not called upon to seek God’s favor through rituals (specifically rituals of the Law of Moses under the old covenant). As mature children, our identity and receipt of God’s favor is not from what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done for us in and through Christ. That is the gospel; and the Galatians were abandoning it for legalism and superstition.

The old covenant has ended

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. (Gal. 4:4-5)

Here Paul notes that the new covenant replaced the old covenant (with its reliance on the Law of Moses) at a specific moment in history—”when the set time had fully come.” Humanity’s bondage under the Law of Moses thus continued for about 1,300 years. It was a long and arduous time of being immature and under the age of adulthood. But, at last, the time came when the children should attain their majority (legal age of maturity) and thus should inherit the promise, having been freed from guardians and trustees. This “fullness of time” (RSV) arrived at Christ’s advent, when “God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

God’s purpose: to redeem and adopt

Notice that God’s purpose was both to redeem and to adopt—not just to rescue from slavery, but to make slaves into his own children. The metaphors of redemption and adoption come from Roman law whereby a wealthy childless man might take into his family a slave youth who thus ceased to be a slave and became an adopted son and heir.

Paul is emphasizing that the one whom God sent to accomplish our redemption was perfectly qualified to do so. He was God’s Son. He was also born of a human mother, so that he was human as well as divine, the one and only God-man. And he was “born under the law,” that is, of a Jewish mother, into the Jewish nation, subject to the Jewish Law of Moses, which was central to the old covenant. Throughout his life, Jesus submitted to all the requirements of the Law and succeeded where all others before and since have failed—he perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the Law. So the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified him to be humankind’s redeemer.

Through a double sending: the Son and the Spirit

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal. 4:6)

The Greek verbs translated “sent” in verses 4 and 6 are the same word in the same tense. There was, therefore, a double sending forth from God the Father. Note the Trinitarian reference: First, God sent his Son into the world; second, he sent his Spirit into our hearts. And entering our hearts, the Spirit immediately began to cry out “Abba! Father!” Abba is the word Jesus himself used in prayer to God the Father.

(Dove) Holy Spirit (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus God’s purpose was not only to secure our sonship and our legal inheritance by his Son, but to assure us of it by his Spirit. He sent his Son that we might have the objective “status” of sonship, and then sent his Spirit that we might have the subjective “experience” of that sonship—that we might know of and then live in accordance with who we truly are in Christ—God’s children.

It is “because you are sons” that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, says Paul, and no other qualification is needed. Therefore, there is no need to recite some formula, to strive after some experience, or to fulfill some extra condition (such as obedience to the rituals of the Law of Moses). Paul says clearly, that “because” we are God’s children, God has sent his Spirit into our hearts. And the way he assures us of our sonship is not by some spectacular gift, sign or experience, but by the quiet inward witness of the Holy Spirit who leads us to pray, “Abba! Father!”

So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 4:7)

Don’t be fooled!

This radical change in status is not the result of our own merit nor our own effort—it is not the result of adherence to the Law of Moses—it is because of what God has done, through his initiative, who first sent his Son to die for us and then sent his Spirit to live in us.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Gal. 4:8-9)

Paul points out the folly of turning back to the Law of Moses. He contrasts the Galatians’ former ignorance and enslavement within paganism with their present state as adult children of God, describing them as people who have come to know God—or, more accurately, are known by him. The latter phrase eliminates any presumptuousness and recognizes God’s initiative in our redemption.

Turn to God and away from self

The advent of Christ, which we have just recently celebrated at Christmas, is the great turning point in redemption history. It is a point in which we are called to turn away from ourselves—from what we are, from what we are able to do—and turn to God, to who and what God is, and to what God in his love has done for us in Christ.

You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! (Gal. 4:10)

Paul makes it clear that the law he is referring to is none other than the Law of Moses, which has at its core the observance of “special days and months and seasons and years.” This terminology, which is taken from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) is a reference to the weekly, monthly and annual worship rituals specified for Israel under the Law of Moses. Paul’s point is that these gentile Christians in Galatia were leaving behind the free and joyful communion of children with their heavenly Father and substituting the outmoded religion of the old covenant—doing so was nothing more than religious formalism and legalism that was functionally equivalent to pagan superstition and thus a form of slavery.

I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. (Gal. 4:11)

Paul fears that all the time and trouble he has spent over them has been wasted. Instead of growing in the liberty with which Christ, through the Spirit, has set them free, they have slipped back into legalism, which is a form of bondage.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. (Gal. 4:12a)

Paul appeals to these Galatian Christians with deep feeling and tenderness, noting that when he first visited them in the Province of Galatia, he did not stand aloof or separate from them, but identified himself with them. Although he was a Jew, he lived like the Gentiles that they were. How odd, then, that they were now seeking to live like Jews!

Conclusion

As believers, we are not slaves, nor are we underage children—we are adult children of God living under the new covenant, not the old covenant (which includes the Law of Moses). And so we must not be tempted to return to the Law. Doing so is a distraction at best, and at worst a form of bondage. Instead, let’s understand and fully embrace the freedom that we have as mature children of God—freedom to live by the Spirit of God, in union with the Son of God, under the grace of God. Amen!


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