Christmas

EPIC 2020

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It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.

Chapter 1: The Beginning

Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.

So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.

And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.

And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.

 Chapter 2: The Fall

Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.

Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.

Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.

Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden

The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.

And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.

As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.

Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.

Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.

Chapter 4: Noah

Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.

Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.

The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.

But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.

After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.

And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.

Chapter 5: Abraham

Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.

God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.

This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.

Chapter 6: Joseph

Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.

His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.

Chapter 7: Moses

Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.

One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.

Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.

But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.

God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.

He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.

But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.

All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.

So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.

The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.

Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.

Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.

But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!

For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.

Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.

Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.

This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.

Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.

Chapter 9: The Messiah

God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.

Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.

He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.

No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.

His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?

Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.

I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!

Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.

One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?

For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…

Chapter 10: The Resurrection

But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.

Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!

God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.

The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.

If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.

Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.

And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement­, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.

But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.

God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.

Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Chapter 11: The Denouement

Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.

This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.

This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.

Why Loneliness Hurts So Much

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“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.”[1]  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.[2]

A Universal Problem

Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”[3]. 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.”

Conclusion

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.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/19/us/grandma-for-christmas.html

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy

[3] https://ottawacitizen.com/health/seniors/doesl-one-loneliness-kill

A Family for Christmas (Christmas Eve Sermon)

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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.

Conclusion

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.

Jesus of the Advent Candles

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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.

Advent

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.

Finding Hope at Christmas

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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.[1]

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:

Verse 19,

“…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.

Conclusion

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?

[1]  The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.

Advent Devo: Jesus The King (by Steve) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 105)

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105 Advent Devo Steve Jesus the King.JPG

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.

Podcast Audio:

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Advent Sermon: Jesus as Tabernacle (by Pastor Al) (Carnivore Theology: Ep. 104)

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104 - Advent Sermon Jesus as Tabernacle

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

Podcast Audio:

Sermon Text:

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.

 

[1] https://thestateoftheology.com

[2] ESV Study Bible notes

God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World

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Advent 2 - God's Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World

*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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.

Conclusion

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.

 

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2017/11/27/how-2017-became-the-greatest-year-for-superhero-movies-of-all-time/#18caa3e113e6

[2] https://silverscreensuperheroes.wordpress.com/projects/the-american-western-and-the-superhero-genre/

[3] https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/was-jesus-illegitimate

How to Find Hope When Hopelessness Strikes

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Advent 1 - Where to find hope

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Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.

Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.

But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.

It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. 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 the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.[1]

Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in 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.’”

Disappointed with God

Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything 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. They were 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 and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.

But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.

He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.

God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? 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. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, 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 crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!

Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?

Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.

Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”

We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.

We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.

We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.

So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us 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 just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether 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. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.

Where to Find Hope

What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:

“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 this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain 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 gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the 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 be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?

Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “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.”

They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”

What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”

What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!

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…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:

Verse 19, “…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? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”

He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.

How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!

Elijah is John the Baptist

Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,

“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. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”

I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?

And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).

Choose to Meet

Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.

My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s 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?

[1] Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.

Reflections from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Christmas Day Sermon for Kids)

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5 - Christmas Day Charlie Brown.JPG

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How many of you watched a Christmas movie this year? We have a tradition at my house, though we haven’t been the best at it this year, of watching Christmas movies throughout the month of December. We like the fun ones like Elf, Santa The Clause, Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, Rudolph, and the Grinch, but we also make sure to watch other ones like The Nativity and It’s a Wonderful Life, but my favourite one is probably A Charlie Brown Christmas. Has anyone watch that one this year?

It’s a really interesting story. Charlie Brown starts off the movie quite sad because he doesn’t feel happy at Christmas time. He wants to feel happy, and looks around to see everyone else enjoying themselves, but he just can’t join in. He even says, “I think there’s something wrong with me. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” He likes Christmas trees and decorations and gifts, but none of it really seems to cheer him up enough. It doesn’t help that no will send him a Christmas card. He figures that the problem is that everyone knows something he doesn’t.

So, his solution is to go to Lucy to ask for some advice. He pays his nickel and she tries to figure out what’s wrong with him. In the end, her advice is simple: “You need to get involved in some real Christmas projects.” and invites him to be the director of the Christmas Play. Charlie Brown agrees, but on the way to the Christmas Play, he sees even more reminders of what people think Christmas is all about.

Lucy wants to be the Christmas Queen. Snoopy is setting up a dazzling lights display on his doghouse so he can win “money money money”. Even his baby sister, Sally, asks him to write a letter to Santa to ask for lots of presents, but figures if that’s too hard, then Santa can just send her money – preferably 10s and 20s. For them, the true meaning of Christmas is all about showing off and getting things.

When he finally gets to the school where they’ll be having the Christmas Play, Charlie Brown walks in on a huge party! Everyone is dancing and listening to music. He yells, “Stop the music! We’re going to do this play and we’re going to do it right!”. He hands out the scripts for everyone to learn and yells, “Places everybody!” and tells the piano player Schroeder to “set the mood”. He blasts into the party music again and everyone starts dancing! Even though he’s told them their parts as innkeepers, shepherds and sheep, they just want to party! For them, the true meaning of Christmas is all about partying and having fun.

Charlie Brown stands frustrated off stage and Lucy comes up with a big smile, snapping her fingers and saying, “Hey Charlie Brown, isn’t this a great play!?” and tries to convince him that it doesn’t really matter what they do in the play as long as it’s loud and “commercial” (meaning that it’s flashy, popular, and gets people to spend money on tickets). Charlie Brown says he doesn’t want the play to be “commercial”, but wants it to have the true meaning of Christmas, the “proper mood”, so he grabs on to the one thing he thinks will help – a Christmas Tree! Maybe that’s the true meaning of Christmas – a Christmas Tree!

But what happens? When he goes out to buy the tree, he can’t even find one that’s made of wood! They’ve take the old fashion trees and made them “commercial”: big, metal, multicolored and fancy! They don’t even look like trees anymore! What happened? Well, just like Snoopy and his sister and all the kids in the play, no one wanted the real thing anymore, but preferred something bright, shiny and fake. Even Linus asks, “Do they still make wooden Christmas Trees?” But Charlie Brown is resolute! In an act of rebellion, he gets a little, withered, old fashioned, wooden tree. It’s the only real one in the whole tree farm.

Charlie Brown wants the play to go right, so he can find out the true meaning of Christmas. But when he brings it back to his friends, everyone HATES IT! They wanted the fake kind, not a real one!

He’s seen a lot that day. His family thought Christmas was all about showing off getting presents. His friends thought Christmas was all about partying and having fun. But none of it feels real to him. He feels like that little tree!

Frustrated and sad after being laughed at and abandoned by all of his friends – even his dog – he yells out, “ISN’T THERE ANYONE WHO KNOWS WHAT CHRISTMAS IS ALL ABOUT!?”

Drop the Blanket

And Linus steps in. Now, Linus has been pretty quiet so far, but one thing we know about him is that he is famous for having a blanked he takes everywhere. Lucy keeps telling him to get rid of it, but he doesn’t want to. When Lucy threatens to punch him, he uses the blanket as part of his costume. When Sally embarrasses him, he hides under his blanket. When everyone is trying to throw snowballs at an empty can, Linus uses his blanket as a slingshot. He uses it for everything! He says that when he grows up he’s going to turn it into a coat! Nothing can separate him from his blanket!

But now, when his friend Charlie Brown needs to know what Christmas is all about, he knows it’s his time to speak. And here’s what he says:

Did you notice something? It happens very quickly, and most people don’t notice it, but it’s there. As Linus is quoting the story of the shepherds from the Bible, the moment he says, “Fear not!” he drops his blanket.

It’s not until he is done that he picks it up, walks over to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown smiles, grabs the tree, and heads out to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.

But there’s still a problem. Charlie Brown is alone. He tries to decorate his little tree, but it doesn’t work and he thinks he killed it with one decoration. And then something very special happens. All the kids who had listened to Linus’ story about the true meaning of Christmas follow Charlie Brown home, see his little tree, and dress it up for him. They even like it now! And they all sing “Hark the Harold Angels Sing”, a Christmas hymn all about Jesus coming as Saviour of the World.

Fear Not

This is one more reason I love this little cartoon – because of that moment with the blanket.

In the Bible story that Linus was telling it says that when the angels came to the Shepherds, “they were filled with great fear”. This happens a lot when angels show up in the Bible – people get scared. But the Shepherds had more than just the shepherds to be afraid of. They were living in very difficult times. Most people hated shepherds. They weren’t allowed to go to the synagogue, which is like our church. They had bad reputations as being untrustworthy and unlikeable. Sure, they wanted their sheep and wool, but they didn’t want to be their friend. Religious people wouldn’t even talk to them. It was a rough life for a shepherd.

Plus, they were under Roman Rule. Their money was often taken by the government, they were abused, and they didn’t get much to themselves. It was a sad, lonely, life full of dirty, hard work.

And yet, who did God send to see Jesus first? The Shepherds! One character in the Charlie Brown cartoon doesn’t like that he has to be a shepherd – maybe because he doesn’t think they’re important enough – but they were incredibly important to God. They may have been the very first people, other than Mary and Joseph, to meet Jesus the Saviour!

These men, full of worries and fears hear a very special message from the angel who says, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” “You don’t need to be afraid. Be full of joy because the promised Saviour has come to you. Go see him and rejoice!”

Conclusion

This is why the Christmas story is so important to us Christians. It reminds us that we never need to be afraid because God knows who we are and Jesus is always near.

Like Linus, we all have our own blankets that we cling to. Maybe it’s a person or a thing, a teddy bear or a special toy, that we grab when we’re scared or worried. Some of us adults cling to more complicated things like money, food, chemicals, or other bad habits. We turn to them when we’re worried, afraid or alone.

But the message of Christmas tells us that when we trust in Jesus we can drop our blanket because Jesus will take care of us. The moment that Charlie Brown heard the story of Jesus, his whole view of Christmas changed. He suddenly knew the true meaning of Christmas, and it wasn’t the presents, the lights, or the parties, but the message of joy that the angels gave about Jesus…

And it was that message that brought all his friends together. The boy who didn’t get any Christmas cards, who everyone called a blockhead, but who wanted desperately to know the true meaning of Christmas had found it in the story of Jesus and the love of his friends singing praises to God.

So, my encouragement today, as you celebrate Christmas, is to remember the true meaning of Christmas. That Jesus came to set us free from fear, to be the one we can turn to for help, and to give us a brand new family of believers to help take care of us.

 

 

Yes, Christians Believe in the Virgin Birth (And No, We’re Not Crazy)

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Doctor Luke

Tonight we’ve read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, the man whom the gospel was named after, was Greek Gentile (or non-jewish), who was trained as a doctor. He was a friend to the ailing Apostle Paul and accompanied him on some of his missionary journeys to help him with his consistent health issues. Luke was a very intelligent, detail-oriented man, a diligent physician, and a passionate follower of Jesus who was led by God to write an account of the life of Jesus Christ about 40 years after His death and resurrection.

Let me take a minute to read the very first part of the Gospel of Luke because it gives us a good idea of why he wrote what he did. He says,

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

So the backstory goes like this: Theophilus was most likely a wealthy, Roman patron who learned some things about Jesus through some preachers and oral traditions but wanted someone to do some research into how accurate the stories were. The name of this small-town, Jewish, carpenter who had walked on water, raised the dead, fed thousands, and who had died on a Roman Cross only to be seen by hundreds of witnesses to have come back to life three days later, must have been quite a fascinating story. And to hear that He claimed to be the Creator of the Universe come in flesh, the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Saviour of the world was worth checking out.

Certainty

But, like many of us, he probably had his doubts, so he found a trustworthy, non-Jewish, non-apostolic, non-eyewitness, unbiased man, to go and do some research – and Luke fit the description. Maybe Luke was his own doctor, we don’t know. What we do know is that Theophilus trusted Luke to set about going throughout the Jewish and Roman world to gather witnesses and write down what people had seen and heard.

Luke states his mission right up front. He says that even though others had undertaken to write about Jesus (by this time the Gospel of Mark had already been written), His plan was to gather the data he had learned over the years, and record it in an orderly way so that Theopholis, and all those who would read his gospel after, would be able to “have certainty concerning the things [they had] been taught”.

We sometimes assume that people from a long time ago were silly, superstitious and far more gullible than we are today, but that’s simply not true. CS Lewis calls that “chronological snobbery”. They were as intelligent as we are. The first century people knew how extreme Jesus’ claims were and they weren’t about to believe it until they could get some “certainty”.

What would give them that? Well, Luke would talk to the “eyewitnesses”. He says that he had “followed all things closely”, which is also translated, “invested everything from the beginning”.

Now, Luke was no dummy. He didn’t grow up in a Christian or a Jewish home, but a Greek one. The Greeks looked down on Jews as backward and strange. Plus Luke was a doctor, used to making decisions about what to do with a patient based on the evidence of their symptoms. He wasn’t about to give up his heritage and convert to Christianity because of a few fantastical stories.

Also, around this time, the barbaric and insane Emperor Nero had already been in power and had set about destroying Christianity through torture and murder. It was likely that by the time of his writing, Luke had already known of the many who had been killed, and may have even witnessed the brutal death of his good friend Paul.

It was one thing for those who had seen Jesus face to face, had talked to Him, to face martyrdom. But Luke, Theopholis, and the Romans he was writing to, hadn’t seen any of what Jesus had done first hand, and to claim to be a Christian in those days was no light thing. If someone claimed belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died on a cross and then rose again to prove He was Saviour of the World, they had better be sure. A lot of people’s lives – including Luke’s – rode on the accuracy of his research.

So, He visited the witnesses and wrote what they saw and heard – and we’re not just talking about the Apostles. It’s very likely he talked to Mary, Jesus’ mother and some of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and heard first-hand how His birth came about. He could have talked to Lazarus, the man Jesus rose from the dead, and of course to many of the hundreds of witnesses around Jerusalem and scattered throughout countries beyond, who had actually seen Jesus’ miracles, witnessed His death, and had then spoken to Him after His resurrection.

Distrust of Certainty

Luke’s mission was to give Theophilus and the rest of his readers, including us, “certainty”. That’s not a popular word these days. People don’t really like “certainty” because it sounds too dogmatic. We live in an age where we distrust almost everything – the news, the weatherman, our facebook feeds, and even the supposed truth-checkers. We’ve seen too much corruption, and our hearts hardened towards anyone who claims to be certain of anything.

We much prefer saying, “no one can know the truth” or “you believe what you believe and I’ll believe what I believe and we’ll both say we’re right.” I actually hear that quite a bit. I heard it at a coffee shop just a couple days ago. One barista was a Christian, the other was an Atheist. As I sat waiting for my friend, who was late to arrive, I listened as they debated Trump vs Hillary, then Trudeau vs Harper, and then moved from politics to religion. As they disagreed, one kept reminding the other that this might not be the best conversation at work, but the other was relentless. At one point I came out for a refill on my coffee and the Christian barista looked at me and said, “If you want to talk about religion, this guy is a pastor!”. I almost got swept into the fray, but ended up being quickly dismissed with “Ugh, church people. He probably doesn’t even believe in evolution.”

Before I could answer, the other barista chimed in with, “Yes, yes, but we can all believe whatever we want to believe, right?” And the atheist responded like a good Canadian, “Well, of course.” And, since it wasn’t really the right time or place, I slunk away back to my table.

I’m not sure what it is about this coffee shop, but many times I’m there I face little interruptions like this. A few weeks ago as I sat across from someone else who looked me right in the eye and said, “You don’t actually believe that the Spirit of God impregnated a virgin, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I actually do.” and received back something like, “Well, there’s your problem…” And about a week ago someone interrupted a conversation I was having and thanked me for talking about the Bible.

No one is really neutral on the subject of Jesus, and there are a lot of people who think Christians are crazy for believing this stuff. I get it. Jesus made some huge claims. That’s why people try to say these events are mythological or symbolic, or stolen from other, ancient cultures. There’s no way that someone could be born of a virgin, live a perfect life, fulfill hundreds of prophecies written over centuries, be stabbed through the heart and pronounced dead, sit in a cold tomb for three days, and then join his friends for lunch and a Bible study soon after! That’s got to be made up!

But that’s kind of the point isn’t it? There is no one like Jesus. Not before or since. That’s why it was so critical for Luke to get it right, because believing this wasn’t just a choice – it was the difference between life and death. Following a myth that causes people to stop hiring you, refuse to sell goods to you, gets you kicked out of your family, and makes you a target of the government, isn’t worth it. The only reason anyone would believe it would be if it’s true.

We Believe…

For Christians, this is the most important truth in the universe, and we stake our lives, our reputations, and our eternities on it. We believe that there is a God, the Father almighty, who created heaven and earth. We believe gave humanity the free will to choose to obey Him or not, and that we chose to go our own way, incurring the penalty of the curse, physical and spiritual death. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, written by trustworthy men that were carried along by the Holy Spirit to ensure it would be exactly what God wanted to say, and that it tells us of how God has worked through all of human history to bring about His plan to deliver us from the consequences of sin.

We believe that the Bible was written not only to tell us about God and ourselves, but to tell us what the Saviour would be like. For centuries before Jesus’ birth God told us what to look out for. Jesus fulfilled over 300 historical prophecies. The odds of anyone doing that are astronomical.

Christians believe that the stories the Bible tells about Jesus are historically true because they were confirmed by eyewitnesses, and through diligent scholarship we are sure that the words in today’s Bible are nearly identical to the words written by the original authors.

We believe that Jesus was truly conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under a real man named Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and three days later, really did rise from the dead, making a way for all who would believe in Him to be free from the curse of death and hell.

We believe that the baby we celebrate at Christmas is the judge of all mankind and everyone will stand before Him to make an account of their lives. And that everyone, everywhere will one day bow their knee – so we choose to do it now.

We believe that God alone can forgive our sins, and only does it because of our faith in in Jesus. And that one day, because Jesus proved He could do it first, He will raise us all from the dead to live with Him forever.

Christmas

Many of us come here tonight not just out of tradition, to sing songs and hear old stories that bring us nostalgic comfort, but because we believe the story of Christmas and are thankful for God sending His Son to be born in such a humble way so we might be saved through Him.

As we sit in these shadows and see the light of the Christ candle, we see an image of the light of the world who has pierced the darkness, and offers to exchange the darkness of our hearts for the light of His life.

I pray with all my heart that you would, like Luke, investigate the claims of Jesus Christ and come to believe in Him too – and that if you do believe it, that you would take time in the next few days to reaffirm your faith and recommit your lives to Him.

If Jesus is My Saviour, Why Don’t I Feel Saved?

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Tigger & Eeyore

Have you ever met a super-happy person? One of those folks that just seems to have a good attitude all the time, glowing about life, full of energy, optimistic about the future? I’ve met a couple of them, though not many. They’re awesome to be around because their energy is infectious.

  • When you are down, this person will have a dozen ways to pick you up.
  • When you are hurt they will bend over backwards to try to make you smile.
  • They’re the ones who, when they see you frazzled, instead of saying, “Wow, keep up the good work!” say, “Wow, you look stressed out, maybe you need a vacation.” because they’re not driving by needing to produce things.
  • These people have all kinds of hobbies and interests and are forever sharing them on Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram and inviting you over to see them, and giving them out as gifts.
  • When you share bad news, instead of commenting, they share a funny meme or cat video. If we were to use a character from Winnie the Pooh to describe them, we’d pick either Pooh himself or Tigger.

Have you ever met one of these people? Are you one of these people? If so, thank you for being you.

I kind of wish I was, but I know I’m not. If I’m anyone, I’m Eeyore… maybe mixed with a little of Tigger’s confidence… and a little of Piglet’s fastidiousness. I’m not really that cheery of a person. Keep in mind I’m the guy who wrote a sermon a while back called “Life Sucks and then you Die” reminding everyone why there is suffering, evil and despair in the world. And just a couple weeks ago I tried to cheer everyone up from the 2016 downers by reminding us of Super-Volcanoes, the Ice Age, the Black Death, and the atrocities of the World Wars.

My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” since for every silver lining they come up with I tend to find a cloud. I have to be careful at dinner time not to bemoan the fallen state of the world, and it takes work for me to find the bright side of things. And I definitely utter the words “Wow, people suck…” too often in front of my kids. It’s sort of become my unofficial motto now. I’m not proud of it, but every day I read or experience something that keeps proving it right.

The Whole Truth

I know, right? You come to church today, listen to an Advent reading on Love, sing uplifting Christmas songs, and want hear something akin to “Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!” Maybe you’ve come to be cheered up with a positive message, reminded about all the wonderful things about this time of year. You want to hear a story with lowing cattle and a glowing baby laid in a bed of clean straw – the light of the world come to grant joy and peace and hope to lowly shepherds, prostitutes and tax collectors alike. You want me to tell you all about how Jesus is going to give you answers to your deepest questions, make your life abundant, repair your heart, and give you everything you need because He’s promised to. And I don’t blame you.

Everyone likes the cheery people. They flock to the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world to hear uplifting messages about how God is going to make them happy, healthy, wealthy, and pain-free. But I can’t do that. I won’t, because it’s not the whole truth.

That’s the thing, there is some truth to the prosperity gospel message, but it’s not a whole truth. Does God care about you? Is He concerned about your daily needs? Does He promise healing? Will He give answers and freedom from tears? Yes to all of that! But the thing is, as true as those statements are, God is clear that it doesn’t usually happen the way we think it will – and it usually doesn’t happen when we want it to.

All of this confusion is an unmitigated mess that comes from a complete misunderstanding of the salvation that Jesus offers. At its heart is the false hope of the prosperity gospel touted by so many false preachers. And people are desperate to believe it – and always have.

From Adam and Eve to you and I, people have been trying to get things from God that we aren’t supposed to have and twisting His Word to fool ourselves into believing it’s a good idea. God will speak, and we will listen to half of what He says and then go with that. You’ve experienced that, right? Where you tell someone something in two parts, but they only take the first part?

This happens to every single person I know that has tried to make Kraft Dinner. I’ve heard the story multiple times. The kid is left alone with a box of Kraft Dinner and is brimming with confidence as they are now allowed to “cook”. They figure, “I’ve got this. I’ve seen it done a million times! Easy peasey!” So they fill a pot with water, put in noodles – and then turn on the element. Oh wait, how long do we cook it for? Dig the box out and look for the number. Oh, 7-8 minutes. Throw out the box. Then, add the cheese powder directly to the water, right? Now what else? Get the box out of the garbage again. Oh yeah, milk and butter. Toss some into the lukewarm water. Ok, it took 7 minutes just to that all that gunk to boil. “Oh well, I’m just following the directions!”, they figure. “The water does look kind of gross though – I don’t remember that.” Now what? Get out the strainer and pour it all into the sink. And what are they left with? Nothing anyone wants to eat. Oh well, that’s why God gave us ketchup, right?

We do that all the time with God’s word! We read part of it, close the book, and figure we can figure the rest out on our own.

No matter how many times I try to teach people about God’s promises they keep mishearing me. Maybe I’m not as good of a teacher as I think I am, but there are times when someone will come with deep questions I’ll say something like, “Pray, read the Bible and talk to your Christian friends and I believe God will give you answers.”, and I’ll try to explain what that means, but they hear “If you do this God is going to explain everything to you in detail and give you a perfect roadmap for your life.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says. God is under no obligation to give us detailed answers, but as we pray and read the Word, He will often help us learn to trust Him, His plan, and His goodness – even though we can’t see what He’s doing.

They’ll read or hear me say, “Following Jesus will give you an abundant life.” What do they hear? “Jesus is going to make your life like an adventure movie: heart-pounding excitement, dramatic romance, and you’ll always come out on top.” That’s not even close to what “abundant” means.

Someone else, with deep hurts, will hear, “God can repair your heart”. But they hear, “God will fix your relationships, make your marriage strong, keep your kids close to you, and give you lots of friends.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says either.

They read or hear a Christian teacher say, “Trust God to give you everything you need.” And too many people hear, “God will give you everything your heart desires because the desires of your heart are obviously what you need.” And then they blame themselves, Christians, the Bible, or God for not delivering on His promises. But again, it’s not God that is wrong. You’re just only listening to half of the truth.

Or, “God has given you good things to do and doing them will bring blessings to your life.” and they’ll hear, “Karma is real. Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and bad things will happen to you. God is all about balance.” That’s not what the Bible teaches at all.

Reading the Other Half

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the verses we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, which are Isaiah’s prophecy about how Jesus the God-Man would come as a child destined to be our Great Saviour.

Isaiah 9:2’s gives the promise that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has

“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. 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.” And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right?

And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right? Light, multiplied blessing, increased joy, harvest celebrations, glad hearts and spoils. But all of that requires something… it requires the next verses…

“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.” (vs 4-5)

In order to have a Great Deliverer, we must have something to be delivered from! God says that because our world has turned their back on Him, over and over, and preferred ourselves, sin and evil to Him and His light, we will walk in darkness. Because we have rejected Him as king, we will be overwhelmed with oppressors and experience great burdens. Our lives will be filled with war, our clothes covered in blood.

This is the flipside of faith in Jesus Christ – the admission of sin, guilt, and need. The admission that we are in trouble, that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need someone outside of this world, untouched by the effects of sin and death, to deliver us from them. Without that admission, there is no salvation, because we will not have acknowledged that we do, in fact, need a Saviour.

Let’s keep reading,

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…”

Why? Because the government, no matter what country they are or what system they use, is going to be corrupted by sin. And even if, for one generation you get a ruler that does everything right, they are going to die. Jesus is our Saviour from corruption – but that requires us stop putting our faith in the belief that salvation will come from any world government – that all we need is the right leader, the right party, the right Prime Minister, and we’ll be saved. We must admit that we need a ruler beyond this world, and that is Christ.

It continues:

“…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”

We need Jesus to be our Wonderful Counsellor because we are surrounded by a lot of awful counsellors who, no matter how hard they try, and how great their intentions are, cannot fully save us, will eventually leave us, will pass along false information, and sometimes simply get it wrong. Faith in Jesus requires us to admit that we are lost and confused, and put away our belief that the perfect earthly guru or emotional support system will solve all our problems.

We need Jesus to be our Mighty God because we are utterly weak and require divine intervention. To admit Jesus’ power is to admit our lack of it. We have to admit that we will never be smart enough or strong enough to pull ourselves out of the troubles of this world. We will never have the willpower to conquer all our sins. We will never be able to stop all the wars and hatred happening around the world and in our hearts. We require someone of perfect strength that never fails. We must admit our powerlessness and allow Jesus to be our Mighty God.

We need Jesus to be our Everlasting Father, because there is no perfect father out there. A lot of people in this world start out fatherless, abandoned by their dads before they were born. Many more have bad, ungodly fathers. And in the end, even if we have a great dad, unless we die first, we all eventually end up fatherless. We require someone who loves us, knows us, protects us, provides for us, and won’t ever leave us – and that’s Jesus. But, that means we have to stop believing that there is someone out there who can give us all that. We have to realize there is no girl or boyfriend, no wife or husband, no friend or coworker who can give us all that we need.

And, in the same way, we have to admit that we cannot be that for others! We are not the fount of all wisdom, the great defender, the perfect provider who knows exactly what our family and friends need – only Jesus is. And we have to point people to Him, not us.

Jesus Prince of Peace

And, we need Jesus to be our only Prince of Peace. As I’ve said, needing a Saviour means we need to be saved from something. If we need a Prince of Peace that means that we must be in the middle of war. And we are. I told you about the historical context of the Christmas story last week, but consider the trouble that Jesus’ coming into the world wrought.

Mary was chosen, not because she was perfect, but because she had found favour with God. She was a good woman who loved God. But what did Jesus bring her? Joseph thought she had cheated and almost divorced her. She ended up giving birth to her first child in a room intended for animals and laying him in a feeding trough. When she presented her baby at the temple, Simeon, a perfect stranger came up to her and said, “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). And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.

“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).

And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.

Then, within a couple years, Magi from the East mistakenly go to Jerusalem and inform the insanely jealous King Herod that there is a contender to the throne, and discover he was in Bethlehem, causing him to fly into a rage, killing all the boys in Bethlehem that were two years old or younger.

Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee the country to live as immigrant refugees for a few years in Egypt, only to return after Herod had died. Who knows the troubles they had there.

Jesus’s birth was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the one that would come and be the Prince of Peace, but those closest to Him certainly didn’t have Peace – at least not the way we would define it.

And there’s my point. If we only go half way, read it like a prosperity preacher, then we end up confused. Jesus brings Peace, but Mary, Joseph, everyone else closest to Him for the rest of His life, and Jesus Himself experienced great troubles and pain. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t the right guy? Or that we are wrong about how and when Jesus will bring Peace?

I believe that it’s the latter. It’s not Jesus who hasn’t fulfilled His promises, but we who are importing our own ideas, preconceptions, and selfish desires onto His promises.

The Hero Has Come

Think of it this way: Have you ever watched a movie where someone was kidnapped or trapped somewhere by the bad guy, and the whole plot of the film was to have the hero track them down and get them back? Whether it was a princess in a tower, a wife held by terrorists, or a daughter sold to slavery, the whole point of the movie was that the prince, husband, or dad, was doing everything they could to save their beloved from the hands of evil.

How did that movie make you feel? Nervous, scared, anxious, sad… but you kept watching, right? And then came that moment when the hero finally caught a glimpse of the one they were rescuing? What did you feel then? I bet you smiled. The guy has been through hell and back, followed clues and fought enemies just to get to the point where they can hide behind the box, or peak through the window, and get a glimpse of the one he has come to save. It’s in that moment we feel the mixed emotions of hope and anxiety, but we grin knowingly. We know that it’s going to have a happy ending, we just don’t know how.

The girl was still in danger, the attackers weren’t dealt with yet – but we feel a sense of joy and hope. Why? Because we know that the hero has finally come and justice is about to be served.

There’s often a moment in those movies where the hero and the victim secretly lock eyes without any of the bad guys noticing. The prince winks, the husband mouths “I love you”, the Father, “I’m here.” She nods without letting anyone else see. They share a brief but powerful moment, and we all know it’s going to be ok. Why? Because her hero is here. The bad guys are as good as done. Salvation has come.

That’s a joy moment. That’s a Jesus moment. Yes, the trouble is still there. She’s still technically kidnapped, under the power of the bad guys, but the hero has given the wink and it’s going to be all good. All that’s left is for him to make the final move.

Therein lies our Christmas joy and the meaning of Advent. Therein lies the whole story of what it means to be saved by Jesus. Right now we are still under the power of evil and life really is painful sometimes. Right now, we face the bad counsellors, weak wills, unfulfilling relationships, and the war of life. But the hero has come! All we’ve done is sat tied up, surrounded by evil while He did all the work. Jesus has come, has given us the wink, has said, “I love you, I’m here.” and even though we are looking into the faces of our enemies, surrounded by trials and trouble, we are already saved. Regardless how bad things have been, we are absolutely sure we are about to be free. Why, because we trust our hero to save us.

That’s the full Christmas story, the gospel story: We have looked around and seen our desperate need, and we have looked into the eyes of the only one who can save us. He has come, and is coming again to finish His work.

What God is Doing When We’re Not Looking

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We read a scripture last week from the Isaiah 8-9 and I want to take this week to revisit one of those verses. Open up to Isaiah 9:6-7 and let’s read it together again. Last time we emphasized verses 1-5, as we discussed God coming as the child Jesus, making Himself the answer to the troubles of this world, the light shining in the darkness, the Saviour for those who cannot save themselves. This time I want to look at another of the titles that Jesus is given. Let’s read it together:

“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. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

This passage is one of the most famous in the Bible for a lot of reasons, one being how specific it is in speaking of God coming as a child, but also because it is so jam-packed with descriptions of how God intended to save His people. I gave you some of the backstory last week, which I won’t rehash here, but it’s no wonder, in light of how terrible things had gotten for Israel and for the rest of humanity, that people have turned to these words for hope.

For centuries God’s people have turned to this passage, especially during the seasons of Christmas and Easter, because it reminds us that when things get difficult, we are not alone, God has a plan, our Saviour is real and present, God loves us, and we have hope because our Rescuer is greater than any of our trials.

Is God Distant?

But our hope isn’t just for someday. One thing I’ve noticed is that even though some believers trust Jesus is their Saviour and that they are going to be with Him in Heaven, they think that right now, there’s not much that He’s doing for them.

They find comfort knowing that God is in charge, that Jesus loves them, that His Bible is full of really good stuff, and that sometimes He even answers prayer and performs miracles, but they figure that most of the time, when things aren’t going too badly in the day-to-day of normal life, that God isn’t really doing much.

Usually Christians frame their faith by believing the most amount of energy expended on the relationship comes from them. God sits in His Throne Room, Jesus Stands in the Heavenly Temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in us… but it is we who say our prayers, go to church, sing the songs, do good deeds, take communion, read the Bible, share our faith, ask and grant forgiveness, build churches, set boundaries, choose our jobs, go to work, eat food, raise our kids…. Sure, we do it by reading God’s word, and when we get stuck, we pray and God answers, but most of the time we see Him like a good friend; someone who is good to talk to, who cares about us, who we can call on for help, but who has their own house, their own problems, and a million other things to deal with – so as much as we know we can call on them anytime, we don’t want to overstep any boundaries, strain the friendship, or come across as needy.

I think a lot of people have felt this way. I know I have. It’s easy for me to see Jesus as King on High, Great Teacher, Creator of the Universe, Saviour of the Whole World… but it’s been hard to see Him as the ever-present “friend of sinners” “who sticks closer than a brother” (Luke 7:34; John 15:14; Prov 18:24; 7:4). What does that even mean and how does that work?

Wonderful Counsellor

I’ve done some thinking and reading about it and one thing that helped me understand this better was this name in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counsellor”, so let’s take that apart a bit.

The first thing you should know is that people argue over where to put the comma. Some translations say “…his name shall be called wonderful, counsellor, mighty God…” and others say, “…his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God.” I don’t think it really matters a terrible amount, and I only bring this up to remind you why it’s important to thank God for all the amazing bible translators who put their time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into deciding on what to do with that comma. Whichever way it goes, both are appropriate titles for Jesus. He’s “Wonderful” in His own right and a “wonderful counsellor”.

Advocate & Advisor

That’s what I want to study a bit today. What makes Jesus a “wonderful counsellor”. To do that, let’s start by look at what the word “counsellor” and see what it means.

The main way that the word “Counsellor” is used in the Old Testament is to describe someone who gives advice and recommendations. You’d have the king, and he would be surrounded by advisers, elders, prophets, oracles, and friends who helped him remember the law of the land, gave him the relevant news about what was happening, what had been done throughout history, and give warning and guidance with decisions. King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, gave counsel to his people and rulers of other nations.

Of course not only kings need counsellors, proverbs talks a lot about the importance of everyone having good counsellors in their life. (Prov 15:22; 27:9)

In the Bible, God is seen as the ultimate counsellor who gives direction to those wise enough to ask for it, and even frustrates the counsellors who oppose Him (Ps 33:10-11). Isaiah says, “This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom.”

Jesus, in the New Testament is presented as a great counsellor and advocate for the people who came to Him for hope, healing, wisdom, and knowledge. It says He knew what was inside of men (John 2:25) and that in Him is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). The Bible says another reason Jesus is such a good counsellor is because He’s felt our weakness and has faced the same temptations we face every day, but did it perfectly (Heb 4:15-16). Who better to turn to?!

Near the end of Jesus time on earth, before His crucifixion during the Last Supper, Jesus told His followers that He would be leaving them. Not just in death, but after rising He would leave again and send them a Counsellor that would be even better than He. The word that Jesus uses here is translated “Helper” in the ESV is from the Greek word PARACLETE, which can is also translated “helper, advocate, encourager, comforter and [our word today] counsellor” He says,

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7-15)

So, let’s put this all together. In the Old Testament God is the perfect counsellor who guides and gives wisdom to those who ask, and who inspires people to write the scriptures as the guide for faith and life. In the New Testament Jesus comes as the God-Man who experiences the worst of humanity, but navigates this world perfectly, making a way for us to be in perfect union with the Father. Jesus, though He could have, didn’t put Himself on the throne and rule like Solomon, taking one problem at a time, but instead did something better by ascending to Heaven and sending His Holy Spirit, who is God and knows God’s thoughts, to take residence in the hearts of believers so we have full access to Him at all times.

The Bible says that we are never alone and never need to lack wisdom, because we have access to our Advocate and Counsellor, the Spirit of God, at all times and in every place.

That’s the first important truth we need to grasp. All believers have access to not only the word of God, but the person of God, who will lead us, guide us, correct us, convict us, enable us and help us daily. This is what pastors usually emphasize. God is with you, Immanuel, all you need to do is ask, and He will give you what you need.

What You Don’t Have To Ask For

But I want to keep going on that, because a Wonderful Counsellor doesn’t just sit around in their room and wait for us to come to them. Most do. A friend will call up and see how you are doing, but usually respects your boundaries and doesn’t try to guide your life too much. A psychologist or psychiatrist may be very smart and helpful, but they usually stay in their office and don’t move into your house. That requires a Wonderful Counsellor and it’s something exclusive to Jesus. I want to show you a little bit about how this works.

There are things that your Wonderful Counsellor will do for you that you don’t even have to ask for. There are ways that He is involved in your life that you sometimes don’t see or realize, but are just as active and meaningful as when He answers prayers or works special miracles.

I want you to turn with me back to a section of scripture we talked about a few weeks ago which I haven’t been able to shake and I think gives us a very practical way of understanding how our Wonderful Counsellor works even when we don’t ask.

It’s in Hosea 2.

Now, we don’t have a lot of time left to take this apart, but as we read it I want you to remember that the story of Hosea and Gomer is the living illustration of God and His people. As Hosea’s wife left him to go and commit adultery with other men, so the people of God broke their covenant with Him and worshiped other gods.

This passage shows how God intends to do everything in His power to save His beloved people from the damage they are causing to themselves. The interconnections are incredible, and I wish we had time for them, but for now, what we see in chapter 2 is God telling Israel, through the prophet Hosea how He’s going to deal with their adultery. He has the right to divorce them and walk away, but instead, He has a plan – and it’s a remarkable plan. His plan is to use circumstance to turn her around. Notice that God says almost nothing until the very end. All of His counsel, his wisdom, will come without her asking and through events that will happen in her life. Let’s go through it together and I’ll point out a few things about how God counsels us without us ever asking.

God Allows Our Sin to Affect Us

“Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no mercy, because they are children of whoredom. For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully.”

What we see here is God letting the nation’s sins catch up with them. He’s not going to hold back the evil anymore, but let them have what they want. He doesn’t bring the warning himself though, but instead sends her illegitimate children to do it. The results of their sinful actions rise up against them and they will see what life is like when God pulls back His hand of protection. If they want to live like demons, then they can experience Hell. As they turned away from Him, so He would turn away for a time, to allow their sins catch up with them. This will force them to see that the life they have chosen only results in pain, that the gods they worship are false, and that when they walk away from God, evil follows. Even in this there is mercy as He says He could do far worse – take everything away – but he won’t.

Sometimes God does that to us. You and I can’t even begin to process how much He does to hold back the full results of our sin and the sin of this world! We lust in our hearts, steal from others, rip people off, murder them with hate, make our own selfish plans, and so much more – and without us seeing it or ever thanking Him, God actually keeps us from blowing up everything in our lives. But sometimes, our Wonderful Counsellor chooses not to stand between us and the full consequences of our actions and, for our own good simply lets our sin catch up with us so we can experience the results.

I saw a sign this week that said, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” That’s very true, and our Good Father and Wonderful Counsellor spends a lot of time protecting us from our own bad decisions and the bad decisions of others. It’s called common grace. But sometimes, He lets our sinful hearts have what they want and it often feels terrible and produces great suffering.

God Takes Away Freedoms

“For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’” (vs 5-7)

The adulterous woman says, “I’m going to leave and go party with the bad guys. They’re great! They give me so much!” This is a people who not only believe they are getting away with their sin, but actually prefer it. They steal something or cheat someone and get away with it, and think it’s awesome. They have a sinful habit that the keep going back to, but no one knows and they feel good about it. They fill their minds with garbage, but still think they’re good parents and influences. They are filled with jealousy and hatred, but are able to put on the front where others think they’re super nice. It’s all working out.

What does God do? “hedge up her way with thorns” and “build a wall”. In verse 9 and throughout the passage it says things like , “I will take away my grain when it ripens and my new wine when it is ready.” You can’t party with the demons and give offerings to Baal if you don’t have any wine and grain. They see it as a famine, God sees it as an act of mercy. Sometimes God causes all our work to come up fruitless, no matter how hard we try, because He knows that the results of our labours will lead us away from Him and be used to harm ourselves and others.

Sometimes God takes things away so that we can’t access them anymore, because they are leading us to sin. We lose our job, the computer crashes, our car breaks down, we run out of money, no one will hire us, our health fails and we can’t go anywhere… and then we complain that God isn’t blessing us. I believe that scripture teaches that sometimes – not always but sometimes – this happens as an act of mercy that keeps us from sinning further! That tragedy blocks us from being able to go after and access our sin, and forces us to live without it.

Has that ever happened to you? Where bad circumstances made it so that you weren’t able to even get to your temptation or vice, and you had to live without it? That tough time was a mercy to teach you something! Maybe you’re a prideful, controlling, jerk, who got hurt and was forced to learn humility. That was a gift from your Wonderful Counsellor.

God Exposes Our Shame

“Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season, and I will take away my wool and my flax, which were to cover her nakedness. Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.”

As I’ve already said, there are times when our Wonderful Counsellor allows our sin to catch up with us and it brings suffering to us. And there are times when God takes away our freedoms to keep us from sin. But sometimes, the only way to deal with the darkness is to expose it to the light.

Here we see God causing sinners to feel deep shame and embarrassment by not only letting them get caught, but exposing their sin to a lot of people. A good Bible word would be “humiliation”. God humiliates them.

Sin, by its nature, loves darkness, and so do sinners. This is why Jesus and the Bible talk so much about darkness and light. We read in Ephesians 5:11-13, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…”

What’s the first line of our passage in Isaiah? “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.”

Problems, fears, temptations, and sin shrivel when they are exposed to the light, which is why Satan works overtime to make you afraid to share your temptations with others, make you feel like you are alone so you never share your struggles, make you believe there is no one you can trust, and gives you a thousand reasons why you should keep your troubles and sinful habits a secret. He ingrains hypocrisy into each one of us until wearing our mask feels more natural than not. He can’t take away a Christian’s salvation, He can’t turn a child of light back into a child of darkness, but He works overtime to convince them to keep as much of the darkness in them as possible – and then convinces them that they need to keep that darkness a secret.

But sometimes, as an act of mercy and divine discipline, God refuses to let us keep it in the dark. He forces it into the light. Someone catches us in the act. Someone hacks in and exposes our internet history and what sites we’ve signed up for. We get sick and someone goes through our personal belongings. We have a breakdown in public. Or as someone else tries to get free, they exposes our own dark secrets.

And we feel deep shame, regret, fear, and humiliation. That isn’t God punishing us. That’s our Wonderful Counsellor helping us to bring light into a dark place. Sometimes the only way to break through our fear and stubbornness and addiction is to drag us kicking and screaming into the light so everyone can see who we really are and what we’ve been hiding. As long as it’s a secret it has power over you, but once it comes to light, it loses its power and you can get help and healing. Jesus came to shine light into the darkness.