Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.