“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
This is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is lamenting, or complaining, that he is alone. He feels forgotten. That even God is hiding on him. He’s been attacked by his enemies, has run away in defeat, and is now left alone with only his own resources to work with and only his own terrible, inner thoughts as company. And, it seems, he’s been there for a while. It feels like he’s been forgotten “forever”. (Psalm 13)
Loneliness at Christmas
There are a lot of people these days who know how this psalmist feels. Christmas is only a few days away and a lot of people are in the full swing of the holiday season. Trees and decorations are all up, the radio is playing holiday music, the TV is playing Christmas movies, the Nativity Play is tonight, Christmas Eve service is around the corner. It’s at this time of year you get to ask people the very weird question, “How many turkey dinners have you had so far?” and for a lot of people here the answer is usually more than two.
When you ask people on the street their favourite part of Christmas, or even just “what is Christmas all about”, you’ll usually get the answer, “Time with my loved ones.” Most of society doesn’t recognize the “Christ” part of Christmas anymore, but they’ve certainly been conditioned that this time of year – usually from about Thanksgiving to New Years – is about making excuses to spend time with family and friends doing something special.
But it’s not like that for everyone. While many people are taking time off and flying and driving all over North America to be with their families and friends, others are not so blessed. Part of the problem with making the holidays all about family is that those without family are often lost in the shuffle, forgotten, and their feelings of loneliness can get very intense.
I saw a heartbreaking post that went viral online a couple weeks ago. There was a woman in Tulsa who posted this to Craigslist under the heading “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas”: “I have nobody and would really like to be part of a family. I cook and I can cook dinner. I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts! Let me be part of your family.”
That’s sad, but the response to her plea was even sadder. She had to quickly take down the post because many of the responses she got were very negative. She was accused of trying to trick people, others calling her a “parasite” trying to prey on a generous family, and one person told her to go kill herself. Such is the risk we take when sharing our feelings online – and such is the nature of how toxic the internet can be.
One article about the post this week said how this is a reminder of the “loneliness and social isolation acutely felt during the holidays, particularly among [those] who have no family or have become isolated from relatives.” This problem is increasing as fatherlessness and divorce are common, children move farther away for school and work, life has gotten so much busier, and fewer people are having children at all. According to the article, fewer and fewer people are even feeling the need to visit their relatives anymore.
It’s quite well known by now that some governments around the world have said we are having a loneliness public health crisis. Australia and the US have official government agencies dedicated to ending social isolation. And the UK, after doing a yearlong study on the problem even created a government position known as the “Minister of Loneliness” to try to help their nine million citizens (14% of the population) who suffer from loneliness.
A Universal Problem
Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”. The gist of the article is that if we can solve the loneliness problem, we’ll save a lot of tax-money because loneliness has connections to things like early death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide. One shocking statistic I read is that according to the 2016 census “for the first time in recorded Canadian history, one-person households are the most common household type in the country.” Another amazing statistic was that “being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A 2008 study apparently said that “loneliness is contagious”. It said that “every additional day of loneliness per week led to about an extra day of loneliness per month for those in the social network.”
Of course, this all costs tax-payer money in a country with public health care, but it also costs businesses money too. Everyone, in the western world anyway it seems, is trying to fight a “war on loneliness” with everything from prescription drugs, free bus service for seniors to go do things, an international summit’s on isolation, encouraging people to play online video games, asking doctors and social workers to give people a ‘social prescription’ to take dance lessons, and giving them companion animals or even companion robots to keep them company. They’re throwing everything they can at the problem to try to ward off the crippling despair that seems to be growing in the nation.
Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, may experience the problem differently but there’s no segment of the population that doesn’t feel it. Seniors seem to feel it worse than the rest, but teens have some deep feelings of isolation too – even as they are surrounded by friends or family.
Pastors aren’t immune to this either. You’d think that a group of men dedicated to Jesus and His people wouldn’t feel lonely. But that’s not the case. You might think that if you just went to church more, served the community more, kept busier with work, or just invited more people out, that you’d never be lonely – but that’s not true. The busiest, most diligent, friendliest, most godly men I know are also some of the loneliest.
Why Loneliness Hurts
The North American world has tried almost everything to combat this epidemic of loneliness in society, but it’s only getting worse. I don’t want to speculate as to the myriad of causes because I’m sure you can all come up with a dozen off the top of your head. But I want you to consider for a moment the danger of loneliness and the root causes of it. And, clearly, it’s far more than just being sad or bored. It’s a far deeper issue – so much so that it affects every part of life. We just talked about how it’s linked to depression and suicide and even has the power to infect others. That’s a powerful influence.
And I think it comes down to three things: Loneliness isn’t an end in itself. Loneliness leads to three even more powerful problems: Lovelessness, Joylessness, and Hopelessness.
There’s a big difference between being alone, being isolated, and being lonely. One can be alone and still feel loved, joyful and hopeful. If you’ve ever had the flu or a bad cold and have been stuck in your bed, even sent away from the family so they don’t catch it too, you know what it’s like to be alone, or isolated, but not feel lonely. People are avoiding you, but not because they don’t love you. You lie there miserable, but you still know you’re loved, feel joy that they’re around you and not sick themselves, and have hope of feeling better to join them.
Being lonely is different. You can feel lonely while in a crowd. You can feel lonely while smiling and serving people. You can feel lonely while sitting across from someone you love. Loneliness can be like an infection, a disease that latches onto your soul and won’t let go. For some people, loneliness is like a wave that crests on them out of nowhere. While for others it’s an enemy that crouches in the corner of every room just waiting for a moment of silence, a distraction-free moment, to strike and cripple – which is why they are always listening or watching or doing something.
I think that’s what the psalmist means when he says, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” He’s tired of listening to his own bad thoughts – and back then he didn’t have an iPod to plug in or a radio to turn up.
He doesn’t feel love because his enemies have overcome him. He doesn’t feel joy because everything’s gone wrong and there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it. No one has come to help – not even God – and that is leading him into a very dangerous place: hopelessness. You see, loneliness doesn’t end with feeling lonely. Once you feel lonely, it’s not a far journey to believing that no one loves you… which means you think you’ll never feel joy… which means life is only pain… which, if that thought process isn’t interrupted, if there is no other “counsel” for their “soul”, it will ultimately lead to the feeling of utter hopelessness.
Hal Lindsey once said, “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.” That’s why loneliness hurts so much.
But why is loneliness so powerful? I want you to consider Genesis 2:18. It’s the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” I’ve mentioned this many times, but remember that God said this before the Fall of Man. The world was perfect. No sin, no problems, no bad weather, no bad news. Adam is standing in the Garden of Eden, has been given a meaningful job and an abundance of resources, and is standing in the direct presence, in the very glory of God Himself – and God says, “There’s something wrong.” “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
That reveals something. The fact that the presence of God Himself and the perfect environment of Eden wasn’t enough to combat loneliness tells us something very meaningful about the power and danger of loneliness.
What’s the Solution?
I think secular society is starting to figure this out, which is why they are trying to fix the problem. But they simply do not have the resources – because loneliness cannot be fixed by giving someone a dog, making them go to a community centre lunch, medicating away bad feelings, or giving them access to the internet so they can post on social media or play video games online. That’s like trying to treat cancer with a Band-Aid. The problem is deep, and so the treatment must be deep.
Humans were not designed to be alone. And that loneliness isn’t merely a sociological problem – it’s an existential one, a spiritual one. Our greatest problem is not a physical or sociological problem and therefore it cannot be solved by man-made ingenuity. Our greatest enemy is not economic or political or familial or even mental or emotional. Our great enemy is the spiritual problem of sin and our spiritual enemy called Satan. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pe 5:8), and just like a lion he doesn’t take on the strongest member of the pack, instead, he chases the herd until the weakest fall behind, until the ones who cannot run well, or who are immature, or injured, get left behind, become isolated, alone, and then feeds on them. Loneliness isn’t just miserable, it’s deeply dangerous.
And therefore, since the problem is spiritual, the only solution must be spiritual. And our spiritual solutions are found in Jesus.
We’ve been lighting advent candles for the past month and doing readings about those candles. Do you remember what they stand for? Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope – all surrounding the Christ Candle. Why? Because having Christ at the centre of our lives is the only way to solve our greatest problems. Jesus’ greatest gift to us is not to solve our worldly problems. When He inaugurated His kingdom He didn’t save us financially, politically, or physiologically. If Jesus would have come to give everyone health, wealth, and worldly peace – a lot of people would have been happy. But they would have still been suffering from the effects of sin – broken relationships with God and each other, a spirit that longs for wrong things, and ultimately death and judgement before a holy, wrathful God who would send us to Hell. We should be very thankful that Jesus’ solutions weren’t worldly ones, but spiritual ones – because our greatest issues are not physical, but spiritual.
I want to show you something from another Pastor named Paul Tripp for a moment because in an advent message he gave recently he absolutely hits the nail on the head.
Come back to Psalm 13. Look at how this lonely man responds. Start at verse 3,
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” He turns to God and says, “God, look at me, listen to me, and please answer me. You are my Lord and my God and I know that you’re the only one that can keep this loneliness from dragging me into death, the only one who is going to keep the enemy from claiming victory.”
And certainly here Christians can say the same thing about our spiritual enemy.
He says to God, “Light up my eyes!” Another translation says, “Make my eyes clear!” He’s saying what we’ve been saying about Jesus in our study of the gospel of John. He is the source of light and the only one who can bring light in the darkness, who can restore sight to the blind. Psalm 19:8 says,
“…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”
In his moment of weakness, he’s turning to the word and promises and person of God.
Listen to Ephesians 1:15–21,
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
What is Paul’s prayer? That the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened by knowing the hope that is found in Jesus. Hope comes from knowing our souls are secure in Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus as saviour and friend. Peace comes from knowing that Jesus is victorious over our enemies. And love comes from knowing that God loved us while we were unloveable. As Romans 5:8 says,
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This is why we come to God and says, “O Lord my God, light up my eyes…”
Look back at our passage in Psalm 13. What is his conclusion? How does the Psalm end? At the beginning of this short psalm, this man is almost overwhelmed with loneliness and grief. He’s almost lost hope. But he turns to God and asks for light in the darkness. What happens in verses 5-6?
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
What we see here is that God has answered his prayer. What did God do? Send friends? Conquer his enemies? Give him abundance of wealth and health and power? No. This man’s problem was a spiritual problem, and God solved it with spiritual power.
God shone a light in the darkness and said, “Here. See the truth.” And in that moment this lonely, hopeless man says, “Wait. What am I saying. I’m not alone. God is here. And God is trustworthy. And God’s love never fails. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’m sitting here right now alive because He saved me. Sure, I got pounded, but I’m still here, and God is still good. The story isn’t over. God is always victorious and His people always win in the end. And when I think of all the ways that I’ve been saved and blessed up to this point I can see that I’m not at the end of my rope – in fact, I can see a lot of ways that God has “dealt bountifully with me.”
It reminds me of another passage we studied recently that said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (1 Cor 4:7-9)
In verse 6 we read something amazing. He says, “I will sing to the Lord…” From loneliness and hopelessness and joylessness and fear and feeling forgotten and unloved – to “I will sing.” How does that happen? Did his circumstances change? No. Did his enemies get conquered? No. Did he get a windfall of money or some new weapon? No. What changed? What takes a person from “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” to “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”?
There is only one thing. God answered the prayer for Him to “light up his eyes.”
Let’s turn to one more place in scripture; to Isaiah 9:2-6, a passage we read every Christmas because it’s a prophecy about the birth of Jesus and what He would do. Ever wonder why baby Jesus is usually glowing in nativity pictures? Isaiah 9 is why.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
What is that light? It’s Jesus.
“You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this room, right now, there are people who know this truth, have seen this light, and have met the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace”. There are people here who have lived on both sides of this psalm – and who still struggle on both sides. I can tell you today that the solution to your problem of fear, sadness, hopelessness, joylessness, and loneliness is not a worldly solution. I think, deep down, you know this because you’ve tried it.
You’ve tried to distract it away with work and entertainment. You’ve tried to control it with schedules and exercise and rules. You’ve tried to medicate it away with pills and food and porn and alcohol. You’ve tried to ward it off by serving people, going to parties, staying busy. You’ve tried to find your solution in another person – a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – and whether they’ve let you down or they continue to try, they are simply not enough, which is why you blame them or push them away or cling to them so hard that you suffocate them.
It doesn’t work because the only solution to your loneliness is to have God Himself light up your eyes, to restore you to Himself through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to go from hopeless and lonely to singing about “steadfast love” is to, like the advent wreath, have the light of Christ at the centre of your life.
Every year around Christmas time people all over the world set up nativity scenes – and there’s a huge variety. There are old-timey ones that have great detail and classic poses, modern, new ones that are more simple, even impressionistic, and there are the weird and silly ones. We have a Little People set at home and new this year is a rubber duck set we found online. But my favourite weird nativity that I found online this year is the hipster nativity set where Mary is taking a duck-face selfie with baby Jesus, the cow is eating gluten-free feed and is 100% organic, and the wise men show up on Segways with gifts from Amazon.
Regardless of how traditional or weird the Nativity Set is, one thing always holds true – it’s never lonely around the manger. Jesus is surrounded by people, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
The holidays are a time for getting together with all kinds of people. We plan dinners and events with people we work with, we take a little more time talking with people around us about the season, we find time to have friends in our homes and go to theirs to meet others, we make time to gather with family members that we don’t see very often. If you ask most people over 12 years old what their favourite Christmas memories are they will no doubt all give the same list – the big family dinner, the family around the tree, seeing family from far away that they haven’t seen in a long time. No matter how nice the decorations are, how great the turkey is, what presents you get, what music you sing, or what your favourite tradition is, the make-it-or-break-it part of Christmas is how close or far away you are from the people that mean the most to you.
Which is why Christmas can also be such a lonely, difficult time of year for a lot of people. As the lights multiply in the streets, store music changes to carols, the smells of baking fills the air, and the traditions multiply around you, they can trigger some pretty intense emotions that you’d rather not deal with. The decorations and the smells – though nice – are sometimes a reminder of what’s missing. And it’s one big reason that so many struggles with depression and addiction around Christmas time.
We did a lot of reading and singing tonight and there was a pretty resounding theme to all of it, right? One that is familiar to many. That the world looked pretty dark and lonely and scary – for Israel, the shepherds, and the world – but that all changed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As Isaiah 9 said,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa 9:1,6)
That was written 700 years before Jesus was born. And when the Apostle John wrote his gospel about Jesus he started with words that sounded very similar. I want to look at the first 13 verses of the first chapter of John because I want you to notice something very important tonight. It’s a Christmas story but told in a different way. It begins by introducing Jesus as not only a baby in a manger, but backs up the story way before Mary and Joseph, even before Adam and Eve. It says that Jesus wasn’t merely a special man, but God incarnate – and speaks of His coming as a light piercing the darkness. It says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Next, John introduces fast forwards to the forerunner, the precursor, the prophet who was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus – the one known as John the Baptist. It says in verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
This is all building up to a summary of who Jesus is and why He came. John will tell the rest of the story in his book, but for now, here is the story of Jesus in a nutshell. Starting in verse 9,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
If you know the story of Jesus then you know that this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world, lived a perfect life, spread light and wisdom and goodness and truth, showed people who He was and demonstrated His divine power in healing and miracles, but even those closest to Him didn’t understand Him. He came to the world He had established, to the humanity He had created, to the nation He had chosen, and they did not receive Him. He was born in barn and laid in a feeding trough, because there was no room for Him and that reality would dominate His entire ministry. He would come to people, tell them the truth, but instead of receiving Him, they would try to use Him, misunderstand Him, lie about Him, neglect Him, and then reject, humiliate, abandon, and unjustly crucify Him.
Jesus said this in John 3:19-20,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light…”
God Created Family
But if we keep reading at the beginning of John we find out that there is more to the story. Jesus came as light in the darkness, but people loved the dark more than the light – but listen to verse 12,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
What does it says Jesus provides for those who receive Him, who put their trust in Him, who believe in Him? Most often in church, we say that believers receive salvation, forgiveness, cleansing, hope, renewal, joy, etc. and all that is true, but notice what it says here: believers are given “the right to become children of God”.
One of the greatest gifts that we receive when we come to Jesus is the gift of family. It means never having to be alone. Consider the story of scripture, right? In the beginning, God creates the whole world and puts Adam in it. There is no sin, Adam can see God face to face, everything is perfect, but God says something is “not good”. What is it? “It’s is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). So God makes Eve and then tells Adam to go make a family.
When God saved Noah, He told him to bring his family. When God chose Abraham, God chose to bless an old, barren couple with a family and then worked through that family to create a great nation through which He would bless the world. And that pattern continued. Moses needed his family’s help. David and Solomon’s biggest problems came when they messed with God’s plan for their family. Over and over we see that God doesn’t just use special individuals, but families to carry forth His will and dispense His blessings.
When Jesus came to earth, He could have come like one of that lone-gunman we see in those old western movies. A man in a white hat with no past rides into town, dispenses justice, and then rides off into the sunset. He had the power to do that. He’s God, He doesn’t need anyone to help Him. But what was His perfect plan? It was to come as a member of a family. He had a mom, step-dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. That wasn’t an accident.
And then, to everyone in this dark world, He not only offered salvation through His death on the cross for all who believe but also offered them the opportunity to be part of His family. Not His human family, but His eternal family.
“…To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
The word “right” is a legal term. It means that not only is an invitation given, but also a contract is signed. If you believe in Jesus then you have the “right” to call God your Father. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1:3-5,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
When you are saved you are also adopted as a son or daughter of God, because He wants you in His family. He wants to be your Dad. When Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how does He tell them to start the prayer? “Our Father”. What does Romans 8:15 say to all believers who are afraid?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
You don’t need to be afraid because Dad is with you. What does Galatians 4:6 say about how close our Heavenly Father is?
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Your Heavenly Father is as close to you as your own spirit.
Could God’s view of families be why He repeatedly tells His people that the way we love Him best is to show our love for widows and orphans? To be family to those who have none.
My message this evening is simple and twofold. The first is that I want you to remember to appreciate your family. For all the drama and excitement and struggles of being part of one, a family is one of God’s greatest gifts and I want you to remember that the best part of Christmas isn’t the food or fun, but your family. They are what you’re going to remember, so maybe stay off the electronics, put down the drink, and spend time with them. And remember, if you are a Christian, you are part of a bigger family too. God doesn’t just make Himself our Father, but also gives us a new family of brothers and sisters that we will be with forever. So if you need something, if you have something to share, call up one of your brothers and sisters in the faith.
And second, if you don’t know Jesus and feel alone tonight, if you are afraid of what is happening inside and around you, if you need freedom from your guilt and fear, or have never really known the deep love of a Father who accepts you for who you are and wants to be with you forever – Jesus stands ready to invite you into His family, if you are willing to receive Him. To receive Him means more than merely agreeing with some facts about Him, but welcoming Him into your life, submitting to Him as Lord, and building a personal relationship. It means believing what He says and trusting His way is better. To do this you need to admit your sins, admit your guilt, admit your need, and then accept that Jesus died for that sin. Receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. At that moment you become a child of God and will never be alone again, but will be adopted as a son or daughter of God.
And if you do that tonight or tomorrow, I encourage you to call someone and tell them right away. What a great gift to give and receive at Christmas.
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.
*Sorry, no audio.*
Have you ever read the book of Malachi? It’s the last book of the Old Testament and sort of has the qualities of a sunrise. You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this little book reads like that. It starts off super dark but ends with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Those who heard it first really needed that glimmer because even though they thought things were bleak, they were about to get darker.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and helped Israel restart their worship practices, but things were still pretty rough. The generation that had returned to Judah did okay, but as usual, it didn’t last long. The prophets told them that if they rebuilt their temple and turned their hearts back to God, then they would receive the promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, and peace – all that good stuff that meant God was with His people.
But after a hundred years they were feeling pretty disillusioned. The Promised Land didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Sure, they were no longer slaves in a foreign land, but the glory days of peace, prosperity, popularity, and power that they had under King David and King Solomon were long gone. Now, though they were being mostly left alone, they were still the least important territory in Prussia, ruled by a the pagan king Artaxerxes. They were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, were constantly fighting with their neighbours, and couldn’t even get along with themselves.
Actually, it wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them most. What troubled Israel more was the spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system was working, but the temple was much smaller and inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. Everyone knew that God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple, that first drop of blood spilt on the altar, that the miracles would start automatically raining down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
But was God gone? Had God abandoned His people? Had He broken his promise to be faithful to them? Of course not. Look at Malachi 3:13-15,
“Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Do you hear what they are saying? It is not that God left His people, is it? Instead what we see here are a people who are upset that God isn’t giving them what they want, so they have given up. God says, “Your words have been hard against me!” That means they haven’t just been grumbling, but actually accusing God of being unfair, unjust, unkind. Maybe they didn’t say it aloud – that would be pretty unjewish – but this is what they said in their hearts and their actions show it. They thought, “What’s the point of keeping the faith if there is no profit to it?” So their worship was lethargic and passionless. Their prayers were lists of complaints about God’s lack of love, about how He was unjust in His dealings, and full of bargaining to try to get something out of Him. They even withheld their tithes and offerings because they didn’t think God would take care of them and were worried they wouldn’t have enough.
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? I have. You read the Bible, see the promises, do what you’re supposed to do, and things seem to get worse? That’s the kind of month I’ve had. I try to do things right, and things get worse. The spiritual attacks are relentless, the voices in my head are terrible, the circumstances add up, the suffering around me grows, and I get more and more bad news and I spend my time confused, angry, sad, and afraid. I try to pray, to read my Bible, to call a friend – but I can’t sleep, don’t eat, and feel miserable. I honestly feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the past 2. My tinnitus screams in my ears, I can barely hear sometimes. Some days my whole body hurts and I can hardly get upstairs. I spontaneously burst into tears in front of random people now. It happened the other day when I asked the optometrist at Costco to adjust my glasses. I literally choked up.
Have you ever had a rough patch in your life where nothing seems to go right and you start to ask yourself, what’s the point in following God? Where’s the “profit” in following God’s rules, doing things His way, saying prayers, reading his word, doing what we’re supposed to, denying ourselves pleasures – which almost always makes life more difficult? But you stick to it, believe God’s way is right, try to do things His way, but things seem to just get worse? You wonder where God is? Where’s all that “peace that passes understanding” and “joy in the midst” you’re supposed to be feeling?
And then you look around, read some stories online, or hear from others that things seem upside down. The Christians you know are all going through tough times, but the God-hating, hedonistic, non-believers are prospering. People who are outright committing evil, lying through their teeth, spreading gossip, killing babies, mocking God to His face, are not only getting away with it but are being praised and rewarded for it! Hypocrites are adulated and the faithful mistreated. One starts to think, “Where is God in this? What’s the point in doing things God’s way if it never seems to make our lives any better?”
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. I know I’m not alone in this. Israel was tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God but fighting amongst themselves and then losing every other battle to the enemies that they used to be able to defeat easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi isn’t a book of complaints and accusations. In this book God reminds His people that He is more than happy to bless them, stands ready to help them, but there’s a problem. Malachi reminds the people that God hasn’t abandoned them. It was God who chose Israel and God who stayed faithful, even demonstrating great love when they had completely turned their backs on Him. He even restored them back to their land and saved them from their enemies when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He demonstrated his willingness to bless them.
But what was their response to God’s amazing grace? Was it to worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? It was for a short time, but not for long. It wasn’t long before they forgot the agony of being slaves in Babylon and started to grumble and complain that things weren’t good enough. They wanted more comfort, more prosperity, more gifts from God – and faster. But when God didn’t come on His magic sleigh with His eight tiny reindeer to deliver presents to everyone, it wasn’t long until they got upset with Him, so they started to dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings to the temple, holding back the good stuff to themselves. Then they started to withhold their worship, love, and obedience, saying that they would only do what God wanted if He would start doing what He was told. Then, when God didn’t fulfil their demand for more worldly pleasures, they decided to do it themselves. They committed sexual sin, divorced each other, married unbelievers, took advantage of each other, and refused to help the needy. But they still wanted to be called “Holy” and “Believers” and “God’s people”, so they kept doing their religious activities.
So God tells them that the reason they aren’t feeling His presence right now, the reason they aren’t connected with Him right now is that their hearts and lives are a mess. That’s what the whole first part of Malachi is about.
God told them they were treating Him like a sugar-daddy. They proved they didn’t want a loving relationship with Him but just wanted to use Him to get nice things. And when the nice things stopped, they dropped Him like a hot-potato. That’s not love.
But here’s the revelation for us today, certainly for me, but maybe for you to. I can’t just point fingers at Israel in this because I know I’ve done this too.
It starts to feel like God only does nice things for people who love Him enough. That He’s always trying to get away and we are the ones who need to hold tight to Him. That God has lots of blessings to share but He’s giving them to the wrong people. But is that true? Is it true that if we loved and obeyed God enough, tried hard enough, worshipped good enough, served and tithed and sang enough – that things would be easy? Is it true that all the hard things in life are just God being mad at us for not trying hard enough?
The wisest man to ever live struggled with this. In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon puzzles about how the world works. It all seems upside down. In Ecclesiastes 8:14 he says,
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous…”
A few verses before, in 8:10–11 he says,
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
He felt it too. He feels like the world is topsy-turvy, that evil is rewarded and good is punished, and God isn’t showing up fast enough – and so our hearts start to think that maybe it would be better to do evil because it seems to work.
We wonder why doing bad things seems to easy and good things so hard, don’t we? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. The rest of the world is another thing. I don’t understand what the government is doing. Corporations are getting more powerful and sometimes eviler. People seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have scientists doing all sorts of insane things like creating and destroying human embryos and messing with their genes, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
And when all the difficulty hits, Christians fall on our knees and cry out to God, but nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, give some money, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for a bit, feel some peace when we read a psalm or our eyes are closed, but the troubles invariably come crashing back when we get up and get back into life.
It’s easy to slip into that Malachi mindset. Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little back because we are worried about the budget. We skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries because there’s lots of work to be done elsewhere and church stuff hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises. We start to indulge more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – because it gives us that little rush we were trying to get from God, but He wouldn’t provide. Sure, it produces shame… but if we keep at it we know that will eventually go away.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music because it just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either more miserable or better off – and we don’t want to hear from either one of those people. We head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution and they prescribe something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it doesn’t help. We rarely pray except to complain about how unfair life is or say that if He’d just fix things then we’d start doing what we’re supposed to. But nothing changes, and we start to wonder if God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. Sure, it goes against everything we think we believe, but by that point, oblivious seems like a better option than constant pain, sadness, and disappointment, right?
That feeling, by definition, is hopelessness, and it’s not only where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi, but something felt by a lot of people today. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, 400 years later, except for a few exceptions, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the entire nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? Where do we find that Romans 5:5 “Hope that does not disappoint”. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Look at Malachi 3:16. Here we see something special. After the complaining, faithless, disobedient and hopeless have had had their say against God, another group emerges: “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In the first part of Malachi, we see God listening to the conversations and blasphemies of the first group – the complainers. Now, we see God listening into the conversations of another group – the faithful. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God there was one group that was still faithful, still hopeful, still hadn’t bowed their knee to another god, still hadn’t turned to sin, but had remained obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How? Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”.
I’m sure most of you have had a campfire. Some of you even have fireplaces in your homes. And you know how it goes, right? You can’t just stick one log in at the beginning of winter and let it go until you don’t need it in the spring. Sure, you start with a nice fire, but as time wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be left with only a few charred, little blocks with a few tiny, flickering, little flames, surrounded by some orange glow and grey ash. So what do you do? When the flames are dying down, and the heat is dying out, what do you need to do to make sure the flame doesn’t go out altogether? You bring those embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should draw together. One of Satan’s main tactics is to get us alone, to tell us all the reasons to stay home, stay alone, not share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and temptations with people. He wants to divide and conquer. But to keep the flames of faith alive we must draw together.
Above my monitor, I have two cards that were given to me at just the right time with just the right message. The first has a quote from Isaiah 46:4 that says, “I have made you and will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” They remind me of God’s love.
The other one simply says, “We’ve got your back!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at that card, reminding myself that my church has my back. Let me tell you that I’ve had some dark times lately, some dark thoughts, and Satan has been non-stop trying to tell me some very evil lies, trying to make me feel alone and forgotten. But I look at that card and remember that my church loves me, my church cares for me, my Christian friends have my back, and it gives me the strength to send a text to a friend, an e-mail to the elders, and ask for help and prayer. It reminds that when I am too weak to pray for myself, too sad to read anything, that I can draw closer to God by leaning on His people.
And what do God’s people do when they get together? They “spoke with one another.” Hebrews 10:23-25 was given to believers in a very similar situation to Malachi’s. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says to believers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” I would imagine that God’s people of Israel in Malachi’s time and God’s people when Hebrews was written, and all of God’s people who have come after, speak the same things, right?
They confessed their hope to one another. They spoke God’s word to each other, reminded each other of the truth about of God, combatting the evil lies that were in their heads. They asked each other what brought them hope that week? They told stories about how they saw God that week. They remembered God’s promises and told stories of his faithfulness.
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. Christians stopping their lives to come to one another and simply say, “How have you been this week? How can I help you? How can I serve you? Did you know that so-and-so needs something? Can we work together to help them? Tell me about how you’ve struggled with sin and temptation this week, and let me help you. How are you doing with guilt and forgiveness? Do you know that God has forgiven you?”
What else do Christians speak about to generate hope? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but let me remind you how far you’ve come. I know you feel lonely right now, but you’re not. God’s here and I’m here too. I know you feel like your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I see answers that you’re not seeing. Let me tell you about them. I know you feel worthless but I want you to know that I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it even though you don’t. Don’t give up on God or yourself.”
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”
He’s saying the same thing. Don’t go to sin to try to get the things that only the Spirit of God can provide. But look what he says next because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
“…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? How do we keep the fire of faith from going out in our heart? How do we feel better when we feel like God and the whole world are against us? Satan will tell you to get alone, turn away from God, from friends, from prayer, from church, from your spouse and children, to get alone and get selfish. What does God say? Connect with God by connecting to other believers. He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, communicate and get together with His people. How do you resurrect dying coals? Gather them together and then blow on them! So how do we encourage ourselves when our spirit is dying? By connecting with other believers and letting the wind of God’s Spirit blow on us.
This whole section of Malachi is leading up to the prophecy about the coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture. Advent means “arrival”, but the Season of Advent is the waiting for that arrival. As even the faithful people of Israel groaned in frustration, but kept the faith, so Christians participate in advent as a time of waiting, of groaning, of knowing things aren’t right with the world, but anticipating that God’s plan will come to fruition, that He will make things right, that He is victorious, and that all of His promises in Jesus are true.
Christmas time is such a mixed bag, isn’t it? I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you look forward to and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know for others, there is so much going on in your life and heart that you wish Christmas would be cancelled. Both of those feelings are necessary to understand Advent and the Christian faith.
So my encouragement to both of you, whichever side you are on, is to do the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses to get together and invite people from outside your usual circles so more people are encouraged.
And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear some space in your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, to find ways to talk and sing with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, into temptation, being sucked into the dark, or call text another believer and tell them. Ask them to pray for you. I have been rescued from the dark so many times by doing that because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It works because gathering with other believers is the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
This week Steve shares some scripture and devotional thoughts about Jesus as the Coming King. Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year.
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Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.
*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below
Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.
But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.
I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.
In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.
Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.
After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?
Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.
Expecting a Saviour
Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.
We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.
Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.
They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.
That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.
Jesus Broke Expectations
Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.
And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.
That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.
Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.
Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.
Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.
I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.
God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.
Jesus Tabernacled with Us
With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.
John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”
The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.
Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.
But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.
When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.
But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.
And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.
Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.
This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.
 ESV Study Bible notes
*Sorry, no audio this week.
People, as much as they are creatures of habit, are also addicted to novelty. I think it’s part of the coming of sin in the world that humans not only hate change but we get bored if things stay the same for too long. Have you noticed this?
We have things we consistently like– traditions, foods, favourite toys, certain authors, or styles of movie – and we will get quite put out if someone messes with them, right? But then, at some point, we look at that thing and we’re just sick of it and want something else. We wait all year for some special Christmas treat, but after a couple days we don’t ever want to see it again – but somehow it’s not Christmas if it’s not there.
This happens in pop-culture all the time. Right now, in Hollywood, a lot of people are wondering if we’ve reached peak saturation with superhero movies. No one was making them 10 years ago and this year we had 6 of them, and together they made over 4.5 Billion dollars. But everyone is wondering when the bubble will burst. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. This happened years ago with Westerns too. First, there were none, then they were being cranked out by the dozens, and then audiences got tired of them.
It’s that same give and take we just talked about. We love it for a while but end up getting tired of seeing and hearing the same story over and over, so we want something new. But ironically, it’s not even that new. If you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities between the old westerns and the new superhero movies, right?
There are clear distinctions between good and evil. The problems are usually solved with some mashup of personal sacrifice and violence. The archetypes are similar. There’s the very good guys, like the lawful sheriff and then the antihero outlaws. The good guys are usually traditional North Americans and the bad guys are often people with different coloured skin – then it was red or brown, now it’s purple. And then, at some point, instead of lone ranger defending one place, they put a whole bunch of them in the same movie.
So, it’s not that we get tired of the story – what we get tired of the package the story comes in. We still want a story about good conquering evil, heroes overcoming villains, the strong protecting the weak, and people sacrificially working together for a common cause that is greater than them. We just want the packaging to change.
Bored with The Christmas Story
Christians believe that the Christmas story is one of the most important stories in history and that we need to keep telling it. The incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby, announced by angels and miracles, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecy, is a really big deal – but, after so many years of telling it, we somehow get tired of the story.
I think this is how we end up with so many retellings of the Christmas story from so many different perspectives. We see it from the perspective of Mary and Joseph, like in the Bible, but after that we get bored. So then we watch it from the perspective of the Shepherds, King Herod, or even the Wise Men (who weren’t even there when Jesus was born). But then we get tired of that, because it keeps coming around to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in some cave or barn somewhere and we want even newer packaging, so we stretch things. Then we get the story from a few more obscure characters that don’t have a lot of backstory, like the Angels, the citizens of Bethlehem, or the man running the overfilled Inn.
But then that gets boring, so where else do we turn? Well, then it’s time to start really getting creative by changing the story a bit, making it funnier, sending people back in time to have adventures – and then finally of course, we come to where we are today – a non-Christian celebrity voiced, comedic version of the Birth of Jesus from the perspective of some random animals who are tasked with using their animal kung-fu skills to save Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the main song they use in the trailer is by Stevie Wonder and is about how what Christmas really means is “lots of mistletoe, kissing, pretty trees, and snow”.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade because I like stupid Christmas stuff too. I’ve told you guys over the past month how tired I am of disliking things, right? My personal motto has become “Take serious stuff serious and not serious stuff not serious”, and I’ve always liked silly stuff anyway. I think dumb songs about red-nosed reindeer and magically animated snowmen are fun. I think that watching a movie with Santa in it is fine, the Grinch is awesome, and having an upside down tree is cool, so whatever.
But, from a pastoral perspective, I think there is a spiritual danger to getting bored by the actual Christmas story and concentrating not only on the peripherals, but everything else. Why do I think this? Because the current problem of the day isn’t that we have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are too familiar with it, but that we’ve spend so much time on the edges of it that we’ve forgotten the actual story.
We don’t know the prophecies being fulfilled, why it was in Bethlehem, why Joseph being of the house of David matters, who Gabriel was, the actual meaning of the name Jesus means, or the other titles He’s given in the Christmas story. We’ve lost the drama of the virgin being with child and then almost divorced and what an incredible person Mary was. We feature Shepherds and Wise Men in our Christmas play, but have forgotten Zachariah and Elizabeth whose story is interwoven with, and takes up just as much space in scripture, as the birth of Jesus. It is not that we are too familiar with the Christmas story, it is that we think we are too familiar, but many have actually forgotten it.
The Nativity Story
Turn with me and let’s read Luke 1:26–55. We talked a bit about John the Baptist last week, the forerunner of Jesus, and if you scan back a little bit you’ll see that his story is told first, before Mary and Joseph are even introduced. If you recall, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was the natural place to start the story after the last lines of Malachi 4, because John the Baptist was the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:11; Luke 1:17). The story of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist are interwoven in the first chapters of Luke. But for today we are going to start with the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. Look at Luke 1:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’
And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
There’s a lot packed into that part, some of it is pretty amazing.
It begins, “In the sixth month”. That’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the year, because it’s tying the two stories together. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel also came to one of her relatives, a young girl named Mary. Gabriel connects these two women together by informing Mary that God is already at work and has worked miracles to prepare for Jesus to come. Mary’s worry is to wonder how this is going to come about since she’s not married, nor has she ever been with a man before, and the angels response is, “The Holy Spirit will take care of that part. Do you know your old, barren, relative Elizabeth? She’s pregnant too. Nothing’s impossible with God!”
Mary and Elizabeth would have a very special relationship. The much older woman would be a great support to the nervous, young Mary whose life had been completely shaken up by God’s gift. In fact, Mary almost immediately goes running to Elizabeth for support.
Look at verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
We have no indication that Elizabeth knew Mary was coming, and it was unlikely in that culture that Mary’s pregnancy news had travelled that far so quickly, so it must have been so encouraging to hear these words of prophecy about her obedience, God’s plan, and the truth of who her baby would be coming from someone she knew and trusted.
The mother of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of Jesus, and the mother of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, coming together to care for, support, and wonder at God’s work together. It’s a beautiful picture – one I don’t see very often in many Christmas stories.
And what is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s encouragement? One of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture: one that we call “The Magnificat”. She says,
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World
That’s a beautiful song of faith from a young woman in a very difficult situation. There’s so much happening in this story, but I want to point at just one thing I think we can learn from today. I want to notice that God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Up Our World.
The coming of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, was the best news in the world, but it wasn’t news that made everyone’s life comfortable. Jesus coming into the world sent shockwaves everywhere and caused a lot of problems for a lot of people – but it was still God’s perfect plan and was the way He would work out our salvation.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, that meant they were engaged but not living together, and both of them would have to wait a year and remain pure while they got their house in order for the marriage. Jesus’ birth messed all that up. Now Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph almost divorced her, and there was no doubt – even though it doesn’t say it in the story – that the family faced fallout from that for a long time. We know from second century writings that the Pharisees wrote in the Talmud that Jesus was the son of adultery. Another anti-Christian writer of the second century said Mary cheated on Joseph with a Roman soldier. Some people even take some of names the Pharisees called Jesus during their arguments as indication that there was a rumour that Jesus was an illegitimate child (John 8:41; Matthew 13:55)
Not only Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down, but everyone around Jesus. Remember that after the Wise Men went to King Herod his response was to murder all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old (Matthew 2:16) causing Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee and live in a foreign land for a few years.
The faithful words of Elizabeth and Mary stir our hearts, but we must remember the context. The coming of the Lord, the long awaited Saviour, is good news, but it brought much trouble to those who God blessed to be part of the story. Mary declares that God will feed the weak, save the powerless, bless the nation – but it doesn’t happen immediately. Mary declares that she is blessed, and certainly was, blessed beyond all other women, but at times that blessing brought a lot of trouble.
And when baby Jesus was only 40 days old, and comes to the temple to be dedicated, what does Mary hear from Simeon? “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35). The greatest blessing in the world comes with a sword to the heart.
Hebrews 11 says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m amazed at young Mary’s strength and even more amazed at her faith. She is troubled by what she hears from the Angel but doesn’t argue or demand a sign. She accepts God’s plan immediately – with her only hesitation being a quite natural wondering about how it’s going to work. She relents to God’s plan because she is sure she can trust Him. She doesn’t understand, but believes is convinced God knows what He’s doing.
Over and over, from the moment Jesus’ came into her life, everything got more complicated and more frightening. There’s the nervousness of being pregnant. Joseph almost divorces her. Then she walks three days to Elizabeth’s house and when she gets back it’s not long until she’s big and almost nine months pregnant, and then there’s the census requiring her and Joseph to travel a 10 day journey to Bethlehem! Then there’s nowhere to stay and she ends up giving birth in a stable and laying her baby in a feeding trough, maybe with people helping, maybe not. Then there’s some weird shepherds visiting and a month later Simeon’s bad news. Then, when Jesus is only 2 years old, they have to flee the country for a few years on fear of death, staying away until the heat dies down.
Sometimes God’s plan for our life is as complicated and troubling as it is amazing. Mary’s faith was in something she hoped for – the Salvation of the world through her Son Jesus, but it took years and years, from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, for her to start to understand God’s real plan – and then some troubled years as a persecuted Christian after that – and sure, maybe she had moments of doubt (Mark 3:21) (though so did John the Baptist!) – but overwhelmingly we have the story of a woman who trusted God, trusted Jesus, kept the faith, and knew that no matter the trouble, believed God knew what He was doing.
For us today, this application is pretty clear and important. God’s plan of salvation is amazing and life changing. Having Jesus in our lives is an incredible blessing, but His coming also stirs everything up. There’s nothing like the knowledge and hope that comes from being a Christian – to know we are saved from sin and death, forgiven of everything we’ve ever done wrong, adopted into God’s family, and secure in Him forever, is amazing and it is right for us to worship and be excited about that – but it doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily going to get easier and more comfortable. In fact, the more we follow Jesus, the more we act in faith, the more our life is going to look like His – and He had a lot of trouble, right?
But that’s why we turn to scripture and prayer (I’m sure Mary did a lot of praying!) and other believers (like Mary did), because it is how we are reminded that God is faithful. For every trouble that came to Mary, God had a way to save her. When she was young, alone, and under great stress from Gabriel’s news, God provided Elizabeth. When Mary was about to get divorced, Joseph had a dream. When the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, God warned them to leave. When it was time to come home, God brought them. Mary was never in the wrong place because she and Joseph were always following God’s leading. Sure it was tough, but God always saw them through.
That’s the simple message today. First, don’t get bored with the Christmas story and miss out on what the Bible actually says, because in doing so you will miss out on the best parts that help our faith in Jesus to grow. And second, remember that whenever we follow Jesus, exercise our faith, step out and do what God has asked us to do, it’s going to bring trials and troubles and shake up our world, but that’s normal and God has it under control. Our job is to trust Jesus each step of the way, lean on each other, and keep going, accepting whatever method He provides to help us.