We’re back into the Gospel of Mark. So far in Chapter 6 we’ve talked a lot about what happens to people who are faithful about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. First we saw Jesus rejected and almost stoned to death in his hometown. Then as Jesus sends out the twelve to heal people, preach repentance, and announce the Kingdom of God. In His commissioning speech He reminds them to stay dependent on God because though there would be some that would accept their message, there would be others who wouldn’t. And then we read the story of when John the Baptist telling the king to repent before God. The king respected John but his wife was offended and conspired with her daughter to have John killed out of spite.
So it goes even today for believers who are willing to stand up in Jesus’ name.
A Hard Road Lately
Dealing with suffering and stress has come up more and more over the past few weeks.
When we talked about our Mission Statement, we were reminded of how important it is that we work together and stay obedient to the Word of God, because this world is conspiring to tear us apart and is giving us every excuse to abandon the faith. After that was Kid’s Sunday where we were reminded how seriously Jesus takes ministry to kids and how important it is to raise our children to love Him and His church so they will have a firm foundation in this shaky world.
Then came the murder of Canadian soldiers and the attack on parliament, which made the entire nation pause for a moment and ask the question, “What’s going to happen now?” Because of the rise of ISIS and militant Islam throughout the world, Christians were especially concerned because they recognized the religious overtones of the situation. Then came Remembrance Day which reminded us of the current reality of war and the world’s history of martyring Christians.
The past while been hard on everyone, and our church is no exception. As I thought about it, it’s almost as though we’re getting a taste of the four horsemen of the apocalypse! We’ve felt the sting of antichrists who seek to steal people away from the church, we’ve felt the touch of war, we’ve seen sickness and sadness, and we have witnessed murder.
Christmas is right around the corner, but many of us are being pressed upon by many stresses. Some see the coming of Advent and the holidays as a wonderful thing, a much needed break (or at least distraction) from the troubles of the world, while others are readying themselves for a time of loneliness, frustration, worry, pressure and even more stress.
Some have felt the darkness of depression and anxiety press into their souls in a deeper way over the past little while. I’ve noticed that more and more health issues have come to the forefront as our families and friends have been inundated with serious physical crises.
Some have felt the sting that Jesus felt as He was rejected by those from his hometown, people that He knew and loved for a long time – as your own loved ones turn their backs on you, said unkind things, got more and more angry, and pushed you away.
Some have felt the anxiety of the disciples as they were sent out on their mission. Before you is a huge task, a difficult season; something bigger than you can handle standing in your way, testing you like never before. You know that you’re need to move forward in faith, but you have no idea what’s going to come.
Some know how John the Baptist felt as he said the right thing, did the right thing, shared the message God gave him to share, but was arrested, tied up and thrown into prison. For you, life feels pretty unfair right now. You feel like Job – sitting around one day happy and content only to have Satan come in and run roughshod over your life. You’ve done the right thing, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why things should be getting worse. You don’t feel like you deserve all this mess, it’s not your fault – and yet there it is. Angry, wicked, selfish, manipulative people have set themselves against you – and their winning. You’ve been treated unjustly, and there seem to be no forthcoming miracles to make it all better. All that’s left, it seems, is for them to finally offer up your head on a silver platter.
So much frustration on the shoulders of so many people these days.
Remembering all of that, let’s read Mark 6:30-32,
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”
Contrary to my usual method, I only have one point to my sermon today. The message I have is a simple one, but one that a lot of people don’t understand. Or, even if they do understand it, they don’t practice it. I want to talk about the importance of getting away.
Remember what’s happening here in the story. There’s been a lot of action up to this point, and there will be just as much to come as Jesus grows more popular and the people opposing him get angrier and more desperate. But here we read about a very important moment in the life of the disciples, something we read about Jesus doing more than once – and that’s getting away.
Busyness as Virtue
We don’t put much stock in stopping these days. Getting away sounds too much like quitting, and so we don’t want to admit that we’re doing it.
Busyness is a virtue! If you ask someone how they’re doing, you will likely hear the words, “Oh, I’m busy!” and we think, “Uh oh, I better tell them I’m busy too.” And then we can have a “busyness competition” comparing schedules to see who’s busier. Or some people will say, “I’m keeping busy!” in almost a pleading or apologetic tone trying to justify their own existence.
What’s the first question you ask someone after a holiday or a vacation? “So, what did you do on over the holiday – what did you do on your vacation?” If the person says “Nothing. I did nothing at all.”, isn’t there something in the back of your mind that either doesn’t believe them or considers that some kind of failure? “You holidayed wrong!”
The “family meal” where the whole family sits down together to eat is almost a thing of the past. Having everyone at home, at the same time every day, for more than an hour, to eat a home-cooked meal that took an hour or more to prepare, is seen as basically impossible. We’re too busy to do that. Our schedules are far too full. What we are doing is far too important to interrupt it with a long dinner that requires everyone to be at home at the same time.
Forget about praying with your kids, there’s not enough time and we’re all exhausted.
Forget about having a conversation that doesn’t start and end with “Did you get all your stuff done today? How much more stuff do you have to do?”
Forget about the idea of spending personal time in prayer and reading the bible every day – that’s something we can do in the car on the way to places. And absolutely forget about quiet meditation – that’s just not going to happen.
Forget about sleeping too since most are jacked up on caffeine and sugar, spend the evening staring at a glowing box, and are so stressed out that we can’t close our eyes except out of sheer exhaustion.
We’re even doing it to our children. Kids don’t play at the park anymore – they don’t have time. We sign them up to more and more and more things.
For two reasons: One, both parents’ calendar is so full that they just don’t have the time to care for their children, so they need nurseries, schools, and activities to baby-sit them from morning to evening. And two, the culture of busyness has so seeped into our minds that we actually feel guilty when our children have time off. (Tweet this)
The Jones’ kids are in soccer and hockey, taking extra credit classes, and are part of three different after-school clubs – therefore we feel shamed and inferior when we have to admit that our kids actually have evenings with nothing on their schedule. So we go sign them up.
Statistics Canada says that millions of people now suffer from “extreme stress”. One article I read this week talked about how messed up we really are. Instead of not wanting to be stressed out, we are actually
“more inclined to boast about how much [we] can shoulder. We feel proud of our ability to keep all the balls in the air, believing stress is synonymous with success. But relentless busyness is nothing to brag about: The consequences of chronic stress range from annoying — that cold you just can’t kick — to downright dangerous (research has linked it to an increased risk of cancer, depression, heart disease and diabetes, and a tendency to overeat, smoke, drink and take drugs).”
We are so afraid to be called a sloth that we now perceive slowness as weakness, resting as quitting, stopping as evil, wanting time off as a personality fault. But it’s not. It’s a sign of strength.
It Comes from Sin
It all comes down to sin. 1 John 2:15-17 says:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
That’s where our business comes from. We love the world. We think like the world. We want to look more impressive and compare ourselves to others – that’s pride. We want to get more stuff – (that’s desires of the eyes). We want what the world wants us to want, and we sacrifice peace, quiet, meditation, contemplation, silence, solitude, worship, our prayer closet – all the most important things that divines throughout the centuries have said are so very important to the health of our soul. It’s foolishness and sin.
Satan knows that we are stronger when we are connected to God through His word and through prayer. We are wiser when we spend time reading the Bible, listening to good teaching, and meditating on what we have learned. We are stronger when we have taken time to put on the Armour of God and draw from the One who gives life. We will start to realize that the world is passing away and that the will of God abides forever, and our priorities will straighten out. Satan knows that we have a better attitude when we are thankful and worshipful. He knows that we will see more clearly when we see through God’s eyes.
He knows that we will be less angry, less prideful, less envious, less frustrated, when we have our hearts, minds and souls fill up with the words, actions and promises of Jesus. He knows that just as a person needs to care for their bodies, so they need to care for their soul. And so he works double-time to make sure that we are tempted to do anything and everything else.
The Neglect of Our Souls
In my own devotional life I’ve started calling it, the “neglect of my soul”, and it’s something I repent to God for regularly.
AW Tozer once said, “The neglected heart will soon be a heart overrun with worldly thoughts; the neglected life will soon become a moral chaos.” (Tweet This)
Jesus said it this way, “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
A puritan author named John Flavel gives this helpful illustration. Imagine,
“a master who commits to his servants care, the child and the child’s clothes. It will be a poor excuse for the servant to say, at his master’s return, ‘Sir, here are all the child’s clothes, neat and clean, but the child is lost.’ Much so of the account that many will give to God of their souls and bodies at the great day, ‘Lord here is my body; I am very grateful for it; I neglected nothing that belonged to its contents and welfare; but as for my soul, that is lost and cast away forever. I took little care and thought about it.”
That seems like an extreme example, but I believe it is absolutely biblical. Let’s push it one step further. “Thank you so much for my children Lord, for my wife, my husband, my church… I am very grateful for it. I taught them how to care for their bodies. I helped them take care of what they ate and made sure they got a good education. I held them accountable to be good workers. But as for their souls, I didn’t take the time. I didn’t much care about the condition of their souls. I didn’t even think about it.”
When Paul is speaking to young Timothy about how to make sure he can face the trials and tribulations of the Christian life he said,
“…train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Think back to that list of troubles I gave at the beginning and consider how you’ve been facing them. Here’s some truth: it’s not about being strong enough or smart enough to face all of the difficulties that are coming at you. It’s not enough to train your body and mind to be able to deal with all the stresses life is going to throw at you – too keep all the balls in the air.
It’s not enough to make bigger and bigger piles of money so you can feel secure. It’s not enough to surround yourself with good people. It’s not enough to build a strong bunker to escape into. No matter how physically or mentally strong you are, no matter how rich, no matter how prepared you think you are, your ability to deal with the trials of life is going to come down to the health of your soul.
You can sit in your bunker, with your friends, surrounded by money – and still be absolutely undone if you have neglected to cultivate and care for your soul. No matter what you have set up around you, no matter your own strength, it will fail and you will crumble. The only thing that won’t is Jesus – therefore, you must ensure you are connected to Him and His strength.
Let’s come at this a different way. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5). To be “meek” means to be not easily provoked. In times of hardship, there is calmness. All over scripture we read about the importance of Meekness.
It’s a synonym of gentleness or humility. It doesn’t mean “weak”, no, meekness means “strength that has been turned over to a greater power.” Or more simply, “power under control.” It’s not only about a person’s outward behavior, but has everything to do with what is going on inside their hearts. People get this confused. They think that meekness and humility means that a person is weak and useless. But that’s not the case.
Jesus is called “meek” and he certainly isn’t a weakling – He had the infinite resources of God at His command. It’s considered to be a description of the Holy Spirit, and is a fruit of the Spirit for Christians. It describes someone who has listened to the word of God and submits themselves to it as their highest authority.
The Greek word is PRAUS and was used by the Greeks to describe a warhorse that was trained to obey the rider instantly and absolutely. The battle may rage around them, confusion, blood, bodies, distraction, fear and noise everywhere – but the horse wouldn’t bolt. It certainly had the power to throw it’s rider off and run away from the battle, but it didn’t. It had been broken by the rider and was now at his command. A small bit of pressure from the rider’s leg or knee and the animal responded immediately. Despite having immense power, the horse was meek. (Source)
Jesus says “the meek” are blessed.
It is a “meek” thing for one to stop their activities and turn to God.
It is a meek thing to step aside and rest because God has told you to.
Praying for help is a humble activity.
Taking a Sabbath rest requires believing that God will take care of things while we’re not working.
Walking away from responsibilities that have been heaped upon you so you can read the scriptures and meditate in silence requires incredible strength of character and humility.
Sometimes, it is not an act of weakness to walk away – it is strength and faith. The act of weakness is being too afraid, too stubborn, to prideful, too idolatrous to stop.
It means saying to yourself, “I’m not in control, God is. I don’t need to be there every moment of the day, because God is. I cannot do this without the guidance of God, therefore I will step away and be with Him. Or better – I will not do this without the guidance of God because otherwise I won’t be doing it right.”
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle [Meek] at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
and I think He meant it!
The World Won’t Change So We Must
I can tell you from personal experience what burnout is like. I know all about destroying my adrenal glands with anxiety, facing depression, getting the shakes, living with a constant stomach aches and physical pain in my joints, getting fatter and fatter, cycling between angry at everyone and too tired to care, and getting to the point where I just wanted to die. I know about. I’ve been there.
And I got there because I neglected to care for my soul. I learned for myself that life isn’t going to get any easier, Satan isn’t going to stop attacking and tempting, and the world isn’t going to be getting any better. And if I was going to wait for everything outside of me to change, I was going to wait for a long time. So the only thing that I could change was me – and that meant humbling myself before God. Doing things His way.
When I was most bruised and burnout, I met the Christ who is the one who says
“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench…” (Matthew 12:20)
In our passage today we see Jesus kidnapping His disciples because He saw that they needed rest. It says
“He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.”
You know that feeling. Many people, things, responsibilities, troubles, coming and going – and you feel like you don’t have any time to take care of yourself. You haven’t prayed, or exercised, or rested – and the pressure is relentless. See what Jesus does. He takes them away.
Was everyone saved? Nope. Lots more people needed to be talked to. Were all the sick healed? Nope, there were lots more sick people. Was Jesus on an important mission? Of course. The most important! But what did Jesus do? He got them into a boat and sailed away.
He knew they needed time with Him. Jesus knew they needed to ask questions, take a rest, eat some food, and Sabbath – and I’m using that term technically now to mean “cease and desist from work – to rest” – with Him. That means you have permission to do the same. The world isn’t going to change, so you must.
Make the Time
There will never be a time when Satan relents and says, “Ok, go ahead and take care of your soul now. I’m done tempting you.” There will never be a time when the world says, “Ok, we’ll leave you alone now so you can rest in God and meditate on His word.”
- You will never “find the time”… you must “make the time.” You must make the time to rest. For some of you that is going to require a massive shift in thinking.
- This means you’ll have to look over your schedule (and your family’s schedule) and make some huge cuts to things that are good, so you can concentrate on things that are better.
- This means you’ll have to say “no” a lot more, and you’re going to feel an unholy sense of guilt – but you must realize that it’s not guilt from God, but from unrealistic and ungodly expectations you’ve imposed on yourself (or have been imposed on you by others).
- It may mean you have to quit some things and let some people down. I don’t mean breaking agreements – but maybe not signing up anymore, or not doing the job you normally do, because you need to concentrate on your spirit.
- This means you’ll have to let things go, and walk away in the middle of other things, because you need to spend time with Jesus. Just get in the boat with Jesus, even if it’s half done.
- And it might mean walking away, even from a sick and hurting person who needs you, so you can rest in God.
- This means you’ll have to start things later than you want to because you want to make sure you connect with God first.
And since we’re entering into the Christmas season, you might feel that this is a difficult time to do this, but this is actually the perfect time to start planning how you can make this Advent a time of waiting and remembering rather than stress and busyness.
For the past couple years my family and I have had a tradition of taking our collection of Christmas movies off of the shelf, wrapping them up, and then, when we have time in the evening, opening one of the movies as a surprise and then watching it. We all have our favourites (my favourites are It’s a Wonderful Life and Nightmare Before Christmas), and wrapping them up keeps us from arguing about which one we should watch.
But no matter how good the Hollywood Christmas stories are, one of my favourite things to do during the season is to watching the children put on their Christmas play. Each time is special and they never get old.
The Story of Wally
I want to tell you a quick story* about another little boy who was involved in a Christmas play. His name is “Wally”. Wally was big for his age—seven years old. He was very friendly, very excitable and everyone liked him – but he was a slow learner. Wally’s family had only been coming to the church since summer, but now that the annual Christmas play was coming, everyone wondered what role the teacher would give him. He was on pins and needles as the teacher announced the roll. The rest of the Sunday School thought, “He’s too big to be a sheep because they give that roll to the little kids. Perhaps he could pull the curtain or light the lights.”
The director went down the list. Tommy would play Joseph. Clark, Jenny and Peter would be the Heavenly host. Mary would, of course, be Mary. And then, to everyone’s surprise the teacher gave Wally the role of the innkeeper. The boy of course was delighted. He even had a speaking part. All he had to learn was one line: “There is no room in the inn.” He practiced it every day before the big night. Even on the way to school he would repeat, “There is no room in the inn. There is no room in the inn.”
Then came the night of the program. The parents took their places. Every seat was filled. The children entered singing “Oh come all ye faithful.” The lights dimmed. A hush moved over the audience. The curtain opened. Mary and Joseph entered the stage and walked up to the large wooden door that was to represent the inn. They knocked on the door and Wally came out, dressed as the most perfect innkeeper you have ever seen.
In a loud, confident voice, Joseph looked at Wally and said, “Please sir, my wife is not well. Could we have a room for the night?”
Wally was ready for his line. He had rehearsed it all day long. He began loudly, “there is…” and he hesitated. He started over again a little quieter. “There is…” and again his mind went completely blank. His cheeks flushed red. His heart began to pound. Sweat began to form on his brow. Everyone in the auditorium was absolutely silent, feeling a little embarrassed for poor Wally who just didn’t know what to do.
After a moment, Joseph thought he would improvise and started walking away toward where the stable was set up on stage left. Wally looked at Joseph and seeing him walking away, in desperation called out: “Hey, there’s no room in the inn… but there’s lots of room at my house, so why don’t you just come on home with me!”
Redeeming The Innkeeper
Isn’t that a nice little twist on the familiar story, isn’t it? Over the years the characters in the Christmas story have become very clearly defined for most of us who hear it every year. King Herod is a villain, the wise men and the shepherds are heroes. But the Innkeeper—well, how do you see the Innkeeper? When you read the story, and after watching years and years of Christmas plays and movies, what image comes to mind when I say, “There was no room for them in the inn?”
Perhaps, in our minds eye, we envision a crotchety, old man – like Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Potter, or the Grinch – on his head is a nightcap, he wipes the sleep from his eyes, he stick his head out of his second story window grumbles: “There’s no room! Go sleep in the barn and leave me alone!”
The Bible doesn’t mention an innkeeper, but let’s assume there was. An “inn” in that day was more like a fortified campground with walls, towers, traders selling wares, and protection from marauders and thieves. Weary travellers could go there with their animals and know that, at least for one night, they would have water and be safe. There was a lot going on this night, and the place was packed beyond capacity. There was likely someone in charge of this resting spot.
And I think this poor man, this innkeeper, has gotten a bad rap. I want to redeem our poor innkeeper tonight. Consider that on that crazy, busy night in Bethlehem, when the entire Roman world was astir, and everyone was clambering for a place to say. Was it his fault that there were twelve rooms instead of thirteen? Was it his fault that Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that the entire world should be taxed, and that they would all come banging on his door? Was it his fault that Mary and Joseph were so late in arriving? If they would have come a couple days earlier… then maybe he would have had a room and he could have been a hero too! Hospitality was a serious responsibility and was expected in the Near East. It would have been very difficult for this man to turn away a very tired man and his young, frazzled, uncomfortable, very-pregnant wife.
So what did he do? Let’s use our imaginations for a moment. Joseph doesn’t know his way around. Mary is making some noises she’s never really made before and looks frightened. Joseph looks into the innkeepers eyes, desperate for something, anything. And what does the innkeeper do? Tradition says that Mary and Joseph stayed in a cave nearby that was being used as a barn. He made room for them. He found space. He figured out how it could work.
We’re all looking for meaning. What is the true meaning of Christmas. And as we chew on that it expands in our minds to “what is the meaning of life?” And then it gets personal and we ask, “What is the meaning of my life?”
I believe that if we want to discover the true meaning of Christmas, the meaning of life, and the meaning of our own lives, it comes down to what we have been talking about: making room for Jesus.
If the birth of Jesus is the true meaning of Christmas… and if Jesus is God in Flesh, Emmanuel, the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord – then He is the one gives meaning to life. Which means we must ask ourselves: if we really want to know why we are here, what our true purpose is, then are we prepared to make room for Jesus to tell us?
There’s something hopeful about Jesus being born in a humble cave on a busy night. It gives us hope because in the same way, when we look at our lives, our souls, perhaps we see the same business, harriedness, guilt, sin, darkness, uncertainty, that existed around Bethelhem that night. And then, like the Innkeeper, we make room for Jesus. We open our minds to considering his story, we open our hearts and ask for forgiveness and peace, we begin to pray for direction – and humbly, quietly, He comes to the place we give Him – however small… however dirty… however messy it is… and He blesses us, and miracles occur. Just like in the innkeeper’s stable. God took the small amount of room that was made for him and made something infinitely special happen there. God fit the Saviour of the world into the tiniest, little place.
Perhaps you are looking for a miracle in your life. Perhaps there are things in your life that you want to see fixed. Maybe there are broken relationships, financial problems, addictions, fears, stresses and anxieties that are overwhelming you. Maybe you have been seeking comfort in places that have been only making you feel worse. Maybe your heart is so full of hurt or pain or anger that you don’t know how to deal with it, and though no one sees it, every day is a struggle not to collapse under the weight of it… to lash out and hurt others… or to give up.
Maybe you are searching to find out the meaning of all of the things that have happened to you in your life. Maybe you don’t feel urgency, but when you step back and look at all the pieces of your life so far, you just don’t know how they fit together. What is your purpose? Where is your life headed? What is the meaning of my life?
To you I give the example of the Innkeeper: he made room. Make room for Jesus. Yes, He wants the whole of your life. He wants to change every part of you. He wants to completely forgive you, to recreate and renew you, to give you a new mind and heart, a new purpose and new desires – and promises to do so as you get to know Him more. But He’s willing to start with whatever small place you are willing to make room for him. He will bring miracles there. He will shine light there. He will show you meaning there.
Make room for Jesus tonight by talking to Him in prayer. Make room tomorrow by opening the Bible and reading the Christmas story. Make room this season by remembering and reflecting on why He came and what He has done for you. Make room for him each week by coming to church to learn more about Him and be around his people. Keep making room, and giving Him a little more room when He asks for it.
I promise that if you make room for Him, He will work miracles and give you exactly what you have been desiring. He will show you peace, love, joy, hope and the meaning that you long to see.
*The story of Wally was adapted from one I’d heard a long time ago. I don’t know the source and Google didn’t help.
Last week we talked about the first purpose of Christmas, which was to Celebrate the Love that God has for us and how he proved it by giving up so much for us. Big cost, big love. I said there that one of the challenges for us this Christmas season was to live be purposeful about what we do, and to not let all of the extras push the true meaning of Christmas out of our minds. And I believe the way we do that is to purposefully concentrate and bring the Gospel of Jesus to the front of our minds. If we fill up with Him and His story, we leave less room for the other things to crowd it out.
This week we move a little deeper into our reason for celebration by talking about the second purpose of Christmas – Salvation. I really enjoyed our reading in “The Purpose of Christmas” this week because Rick Warren hit the nail on the head. His presentation of the Gospel was spot-on!
Again, it’s based on the words of the Angels to the Shepherds during the Christmas story of Luke 2. This time he pulls out verse 11 which says
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
We Need a Saviour
I really appreciated how Warren presented the Gospel, and his model is a good one for us to follow. Not only when we are talking to others about our faith, but when we are talking to ourselves – when we are reminding ourselves about the true meaning of Christmas; the true meaning of life.
He began by reminding us our desperate desire for a Saviour. When we look around at what we are doing in our lives, we begin to realize that much of what we do – in our own energies – is driven by fear. We want to be free, saved, helped, to have hope.
We have worries about the uncertainty of the future, so we prepare our homes, save our money, buy insurance just in case, get RRSP’s for later. But even they fail us when disaster strikes, the economy collapses, and our health fails us. Then our worries drive us to seek control, put ourselves above others, to hoard and to neglect to share.
We have fear of abandonment, so we sell ourselves short to make friends we shouldn’t have. We buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like. We take up bad habits so that we can distract ourselves from our loneliness. Then our fear drives us to push people away so they can’t hurt us, or to give ourselves away so they will stay with us.
In our hearts we deeply long to break this cycle of fear – but we know that we cannot do it ourselves. How do we know? We’ve tried. We’ve built up piles of money and stuff and accomplishments and trophies and still feel hollow. We’ve surrounded ourselves with entertainment, friends, food and drink, and when it quiets down we still feel sad, guilty and broken. We give, and share, and bless, and volunteer, and help, and no matter what we do the needs only grow and the problems are too overwhelming to solve, so we feel like a failure, despondent, disappointed in ourselves and others, and want to give up.
We’ve looked inside and we know that there is something wrong. So we try diets, and self-help books, we get more education, build ourselves up with degrees, skills, careers and awards. Maybe if I go to a good school, maybe if I get a good job, maybe if I get married to the right person, maybe once I have kids, maybe once I get a house, maybe once I get a bigger house, maybe once I retire, maybe once I write that book, join that group, climb that mountain, make that art – maybe then I will feel good about myself, confident in myself, crush this habit that I keep going to, feel like I’m a good person. But it never comes. It never works. God never allows those worldly, human, limited things to be enough. They will never fill the God-shaped-hole He built into us.
Religion Doesn’t Save
Why? Because the problem isn’t physical, or emotional – it’s spiritual. We are trying to use physical things, like pleasure and possessions to solve a spiritual problem. We are trying to use emotional things, like relationships and accomplishments, to solve a spiritual problem.
That’s why there are so many religions – because everyone in the world is trying to solve their spiritual brokenness. The problem is that, for most of them, it’s not working. Why? Because they are trying to fix themselves.
As far as I’m concerned, the most important chapter of the little book we are studying is the one entitled “Jesus Came to Save You By His Grace”. The reason that these other religions don’t fulfill is because they always, always, leave room for doubt. Let me read what Rick Warren said,
“In practically every area of life—school, sports, work—we are judged by our performance.… So, when it comes to spiritual matters, many assume God relates to us with the same performance-based ethic. You may feel that you have to earn God’s approval, deserve God’s love, and work your way to heaven by doing good or trying to be perfect.” (Pg 67)
He then quotes John 6:28-29 to explain that isn’t how God works.
“Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
Let me quote a little more of what Rick Warren says,
“Religion is man’s attempt to please God. Grace is God reaching down to man. Every religion boils down to one word: ‘do!’ Do our list of things, and you will earn God’s love…. So God came to earth as Jesus essentially to say: ‘You guys have it all wrong! Of course doing good things matters, but it doesn’t make me love you any more or any less. My love for you is unlimited, unconditional, unchanging, and undeserved. So let me teach you a new concept called grace. You can’t purchase it, work for it, or be good enough to merit it. It’s a gift that will cost me a lot, but it is free to you.’
While religions are based on the word ‘do,’ salvation is based on the word ‘done.’ When Jesus died for you on the cross, he exclaimed, ‘It is finished!’… So, what is finished? The payment for your salvation! The phrase ‘it is finished’ is actually a single word in Hebrew that Jesus cried out. It was stamped on bills that had been paid off and on prison sentences that had been completed. It meant ‘paid in full!’” (Pg. 68-71)
That’s the solution to our spiritual problem – the Grace of God shown to us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He did everything. The question is, are we willing to accept the gift of salvation given by grace?
We Can’t Save Ourselves
For many, accepting grace is hard. We want to earn our salvation. We understand the religions that ask us to “do!” because we can then chart and how much we’ve done, and how much we need to do. Then we can boast (Eph 2:9) that we are the ones who saved ourselves, got ourselves to heaven, earned our rewards, and who didn’t need God. We so desperately want to put our confidence in ourselves and earn our way to heaven.
But, as I’ve been saying all along, it doesn’t work, does it? We cannot save ourselves. How do you know when you’ve done enough? If you ask any other religion of the world if they have assurance that they are saved and will achieve whatever the next level is – whether it’s heaven, or nirvana, or whatever – they just don’t know.
I once heard a great teaching on this (by Mark Driscoll). Religion will lead us one of two places – pride or despair. We will either feel proud that we have accomplished so much in our religion that we will feel above others, perhaps even above God since we become the judge of our own goodness and worthiness, or we will feel constant despair because we never know if we’ve done enough, gone far enough, served enough, given enough away, sacrificed enough, to earn God’s love. We just don’t know.
The Apostle Paul talks about this throughout his letters, but there is a section of Philippians 3 that really makes the point. He says in verses 2-3,
“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…”
Basically, he’s saying, “Watch out for these evil teachers who are trying to teach you that religion is the way of salvation and tell you to put confidence in your actions.” Then he does something remarkable in verse 4. He says,
“…though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:”
Paul is about to remind his readers about his own personal testimony. There was never a person so religious, so devout, so deserving of heaven than him. He says he was,
“…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
“If you think you have an impressive religious resume, you’ve got nothing on me”, says Paul. “I have followed every law since the moment I was born, am part of the chosen people, have a pure and uncompromised blood line. I was taught by some of the greatest teachers of all time and surpassed them, fought more passionately than anyone against Christians – helping to kill and imprison many because of my zeal. And there is not one person in all of Jerusalem, from the High Priest down that can bring any accusation against me.”
If there is one man who could have had confidence in his flesh, to earn salvation, it was Paul. But he says in the next verses (7-9), “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
He tore up his resume and degrees, burned his trophies, and threw his self-confidence into the garbage. It was all worthless. All of his “righteousness” was just “rubbish”. He knew that when He would stand before Jesus on the day he would have to give account for his life, he wouldn’t measure up to the law. He had still broken it in his heart. He was still guilty before God. His righteousness didn’t come from his obedience, because every time he read the Bible, every time he read the 10 Commandments, every time he read the Torah, all he felt was guilt and fear. He still didn’t measure up. He knew it.
And so he traded all of his human accomplishments, for something better, “…faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Have you Given Up?
Rick Warren asks the very important question, “Have you given up trying to save yourself?” Have you released control of your eternal destiny, and your everyday life, and given it over to Jesus?
I said last week that Jesus taught that the way up is down. He also teaches us that the way to win is to give up. The way to win is to give up. That’s where spiritual healing comes from. That’s the message of Christmas. That’s what we are celebrating. Not that Jesus came to add to our burden, to give us more rules, to lay another burden around our neck, but to save us.
“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.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Good news, of great joy, for all people – a Saviour, a Christ (which means “Messiah”, “Anointed One”, “Chosen One”, “the divinely appointed one”). He wasn’t just another messenger like the prophets of old. He wasn’t just a priest that could bring you close, but not too close, to God. He wasn’t just a king that ruled a human kingdom. He is the Saviour, the Christ, the Lord.
You cannot possibly expect to have the power, ability, authority, resources, intelligence, or supremacy, that Jesus has! Why would you try to save yourself, when you know it isn’t working, and that Jesus Christ stands ready to give you the free gift of His grace?
Saved from So Much
In Luke 4:16-21 it says that after Jesus came back from his time of temptation in the desert, at the very beginning of his ministry, he went into his home church. It says,
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
All these fears we have, and all the things we do to try to quell them, are destroyed by faith in Jesus as our Saviour. We need good news – He is the ultimate good news. We are poor in spirit, needful of many things – He proclaims to us that He will save us. We are captive by sin, death, addiction, depression – He proclaims liberty and freedom to all who would believe. We are blind, wandering around in the dark, confused about how why we are here, what we must do, and how we are to live – and Jesus gives us light to see. We are oppressed by spiritual forces, by human enemies, by our own habits, weaknesses, dark thoughts and the weight of this world – and Jesus proclaims that we are the ones on whom His favour rests.
This is why, every Christmas, we read the Prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 9, written hundreds of years before He was born. To help us remember and realize what we have been saved from, and who our Saviour is. The one who came, who died, who rose, who saves, who will come again. Let me read from the Living Translation:
“The people who walk in darkness shall see a great Light—a Light that will shine on all those who live in the land of the shadow of death. For Israel will again be great, filled with joy like that of reapers when the harvesttime has come, and like that of men dividing up the plunder they have won. For God will break the chains that bind his people and the whip that scourges them, just as he did when he destroyed the vast host of the Midianites by Gideon’s little band. In that glorious day of peace there will no longer be the issuing of battle gear; no more the bloodstained uniforms of war; all such will be burned.
For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder. These will be his royal titles: ‘Wonderful,’ ‘Counselor,’ ‘The Mighty God,’ ‘The Everlasting Father,’ ‘The Prince of Peace.’ His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end. He will rule with perfect fairness and justice from the throne of his father David. He will bring true justice and peace to all the nations of the world. This is going to happen because the Lord of heaven’s armies has dedicated himself to do it!”
So celebrate this Saviour during this Christmas time. Fill your minds and hearts and homes with the story of Jesus Christ coming at Christmas to save us from so much. We have already experienced so much grace, and we are going to see so much more.
Turn your heart from all the other things in your life that you have set up to save you. Turn your mind away from all the ways that you are trying to save yourself. And turn yourself to Jesus, the only one who can save.
Before you start, I encourage you to read the Christmas Story from Luke 2:1-20.
A Special Time of Year
Last week I invited you last week to take one of these books, called “The Purpose of Christmas” by Rick Warren. The reason that I did this was so that we could spend time together, here at church and at home during the week, thinking about the reason that we celebrate the season of Advent and Christmas.
The whole premise of this little book is to ask the question: Why do we spend so much time, money, energy and effort on this one day of the year? Why is this the big one? What makes Christmas so special?
That being said, over the past 40 years or so, Christmas has been losing some of its specialness. It’s still the biggest holiday, but it is now being challenged by Halloween as the biggest day of the year. Where even 50 years ago people would have felt an obligation to come into a church for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – if only out of tradition – now less and less people bother. At one point the “Story of Christmas” was about baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds and the angels, and now there are many, many more Christmas stories – Santa Clause is obviously the big one, but there’s also The Night Before Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Match Girl, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, It’s A Wonderful Life – and they are given equal, if not more, significance in people’s lives than the story of Jesus. (This DVD is titled “The Original Christmas Classics” — I’m pretty sure Jesus pre-dates Frosty as the “Original” Christmas story.) Many families would much rather sit down and read The Grinch who Stole Christmas than the Nativity Story.
And so, this year, I wanted us to ask ourselves the question, “What is the purpose of Christmas?” We are Christians, this is a church, and we know the Christmas Story. We talk about Jesus all year long, so what makes Christmas so special? Or perhaps, the better question I want us to be able to answer is this: “How can we make sure we have a purposeful Christmas and make it special?”
The Meaning of Christmas
Doing that – having a purposeful, meaningful, special Christmas – is sometimes harder than we think. And I believe the reason that it’s hard is because there are so many different ideas about the “True Meaning of Christmas”.
Rick Warren’s first chapter is entitled “A Time for Celebration”. His point is that one of the main purposes for Christmas is that it is an annual time that we have set aside to concentrate on celebrating — something. For hundreds of years people knew what we were celebrating, that the “true meaning of Christmas” was the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s just not the case anymore.
It’s not that people aren’t thinking about it. We’ve heard and read the phrase a million times in every movie, TV show and newspaper article at this time of year. Everyone is looking for the “true meaning of Christmas.” What is the “true meaning of Christmas”? But it’s almost as though they believe the there is no answer. Like so many other things now, there’s no “right answer” to the question because everyone gets to answer it for themselves. Truth is relative, meaning is relative. It’s like looking at an impressionist painting intended to allow each person can ascribe whatever meaning they want.
For some, the “True meaning of Christmas” is getting presents… not the noblest of causes, but at least their honest. For some it’s simply time off work and an excuse to spend money. For others, it’s all about getting together with family. Some believe the “true meaning of Christmas” is found in the rituals and traditions: baking cookies, turkey dinner, skating on the canal, decorating the tree, and remembering Christmases as a kid.
It’s easy to get caught up in that because they are all really good things! Christians are supposed to say that the “True meaning of Christmas” is the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If we are asked on the street corner, or in a mall whether we say “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”, we will unabashedly – almost militantly – say, “Merry Christmas” because Christmas is all about Christ.
But in our hearts, in our homes, in our private times, and in our celebrations, it is so easy to get caught up in all the other things that come with Christmas – and push Jesus off to the side. I know I’m guilty of it.
And so, during this short Advent season, my hope and prayer is that each of us will be able to be purposeful about this Christmas season – that we will imbue it with special meaning – not in the secular sense, but in the sacred sense. That we would enjoy all of the rest of the good things in the season, but not allow them to dominate our thoughts – that we would keep Jesus at the centre of all that we are doing.
How to have a Purposeful Christmas
How can we do that? I believe, first and foremost, it comes through an understanding of what Christmas is really about. It comes from allowing the story of the incarnation of Jesus Christ to fill up our hearts so that there is much less room for other things to take it over. I believe that if we can remind ourselves consistently about the love Jesus showed for us, the grace given to us, the story of what Jesus did for us, that our Christmas will have more meaning.
What I’ve appreciated about this little book we are going through is how Rick Warren simplifies the message of Christmas for us so that we can not only understand it, but appreciate it. The whole of the book revolves around in on what the angels say to the shepherds, and the first chapter pulls out that first phrase: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
The big idea is that with all that comes with this season, we must remember the very core message of what we are celebrating: That “God loves you”, that “God is with you”, and that “God is for you”. If we are able to purposefully keep those things in mind: that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God loves us — that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God is with us — that celebrating Christmas reminds us that God is on our side — then we will be able to celebrate a Christmas full of meaning.
Little cost, little love. Big cost, big love.
John 3:16 says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son…”
The reason that we celebrate Christmas, and the coming of Jesus Christ, is because it is a demonstration of His love for us.
One of the ways you can tell how much you love someone, or are loved by someone, is what they are willing to give up for you. One might call this Sacrificial Love. It’s not always a fair equation, but I think it’s at least one of the ways we can tell. People who love you will show it by giving up their time for you, their energy, their reputations, their comfort, and even their money, because they value you more than whatever it is they are giving up.
If you want to show someone you love them, or wonder how much you really do care about them, just ask yourself how much you would be willing to give up. These could be good things: A mother sacrificing her career for her children. A soldier sacrificing his life for his country. A father sacrificing his health for his family. Or they could be not so good thing. A mother sacrificing time with her children so she can go out and party. A businessperson sacrificing their family so they can stay at work more. A gambler sacrificing his money so he can play the game. That’s a form of sacrificial love too.
Are you willing to put aside yourself and your wants for the sake of the other person, or do they always come after you? This is something that happens around Christmas all the time. We are constantly caught weighing out how much we really care about someone. Do I get them a gift, or a card, a phone call or a letter, a hug or a handshake? How long do I shop for this person’s gift? Are they someone I shop for at the dollar store, or someone I spend hours worrying about as I search online or walk malls looking for the perfect gift? And how much do I spend? (I know this is cruel, but it’s true) Is this a $5 relationship, or a $300 relationship?
And it’s not just about money – it’s also about our time, effort, & energy? Do I take time off of work to attend this person’s Christmas party? Are they close enough for us to spend Christmas dinner with, or are they more of an “I’ll see you after New Year’s” type friend? Do I travel through a snowstorm to make sure I’m at their house, or if the weather’s too bad do I stay home? What am I willing to give up for this person? What a person is willing to give up, whether it be time, money, energy, effort or anything else… I believe… is at least one indicator of how much love that relationship has.
Little cost, little love. Big cost, big love.
For the last part of our time here this morning I want to talk about what coming into the world cost Jesus, and I want to do it using three important theological words which describe those costs.
The first word is “Incarnation”. One continuing heresy that the church has taught against is something called Docetism which is the belief that God would never stoop to becoming a human. But the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus “incarnated” Himself. That word literally means “in flesh”. Jesus is and always has been God. When He came to earth, Jesus took the fullness of His deity, and not putting anything aside, added humanity to His deity, becoming the God-Man.
In many Christmas carols we use the word Immanuel, which means “God with us”. Jesus came to be God with us. John begins his gospel this way describing the incarnation:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”
And then says in verse 14:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It was by Jesus by coming and dying in the flesh, as a human, one of us, that humanity was able to be saved. He had to be one of us.
The next word is tied to the incarnation. The next word is “Condescension”. God condescended, came down, stooped, to our level. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says it like this,
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
When we kneel down to a small child to get eye to eye, and use simple language to explain something so they can understand, we are condescending to them. That’s Jesus Christ did for us. He had the full glory and power and majesty of God, but chose to bring Himself down to our level and spoke in a way we could understand.
Which brings us to the third word, which is what I really want to park on because it makes the point so well. I said before that love can be measured by what a person is willing to give up for another. The third word is “Humiliation”. We don’t use this word very often, and when we do, it’s often given in a negative sense, but when Jesus came at Christmas, He humiliated himself.
To humiliate someone is to literally make them humble, or lower them in dignity. Most of us have been humiliated at some point in many different ways. This happens to me a lot when I try to play sports or board games with people. I walk in thinking highly of myself, confident in my abilities… and generally walk out humbled and lowered in dignity.
But Jesus’ humiliation was different. He wasn’t humbled by anyone. He humiliated himself. He chose to bring himself down in dignity. He chose how He would enter the world, what the circumstances would look like, who His parents would be, what His life would look like, and how it would end. It was His choice to be humiliated.
Philippians 2:5-7 capture this perfectly,
“Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Humility was a mega-theme in the life of Jesus. From the very moment He was born to his death on the cross, the life of Jesus was marked with humility. We have to remember where Jesus came from, and where He is now, to at least begin to appreciate the humiliation of His condescension and incarnation.
Remember, Jesus is God. Always has been and always will be. He’s no less than God. He is worshipped by angels, proclaimed in the highest, equal with the Father, all powerful, all knowing, all present, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, God.
And yet, he humbled Himself… humiliated Himself… condescended Himself to our level. There has never been any descent like that of Christ’s.
Just consider the choices that Jesus made when He decided to come into the world. He, the King of All, made Himself a subject of Herod – a cruel, despotic, corrupt ruler who would try to kill him as soon as he found out about Jesus.
Consider the circumstances of his birth. The Creator of the Universe, who spoke everything into being, decided to make himself a helpless baby. He deserved to have a royal welcome, the best medical care, silk sheets, a golden crib, a thousand nurses, on a hill, in the Holy City of Jerusalem. But no, Jesus gave all that up.
The place of His birth was no accident. He didn’t accidentally end up in a feeding trough – He placed Himself there. That’s where He wanted to be born. Why? To show us the depth of his love, and set for us the highest example.
As I said, greater cost equals greater love. He gave it all up for us. He didn’t keep one scrap of His glory. There are not many people one that can claim to have had a more obscure, dirty, humiliating birth as the Son of God. He gave it all up. If one of the ways we can know how much a person loves us is by how much they are willing to give up, then Jesus must love us very, very much. The whole story of Jesus’ birth sets us up for the paradox that is His life. Jesus consistently taught us that the way up is down.
“Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5).
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
“Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
He didn’t give himself an attractive body that everyone would immediately love and trust. Instead, Isaiah 53:2 says,
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
What would we have done in his place? Set up some advantages, right? Made it a little easier. He didn’t. He humiliated Himself over and over out of love for us.
We would have chosen an easier life with more resources, good friends and a decent house. Isaiah 53:3 says,
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Throughout his life he was mocked because of how he was born. When people heard that he was from Nazareth they made fun of him. Some scholars even say that the Pharisees even mocked him for being conceived out of wedlock (John 8:19,41).
During His life He could have used His amazing teaching abilities, influence and power to get anything He wanted. He could have been the best salesman, politician, lawyer or celebrity ever known. Instead when someone asked him where he lived he answered them,
“Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”” (Matthew 8:20).
Celebrate the Love of Jesus
Why would Jesus do this? Why humiliate Himself? First, to teach us how to live… but also to prove His love for us. Much cost equals much love.
So my encouragement to you this week is to remember and celebrate that God loves you – He proved it in his Humiliation, God is with you – He came in his Incarnation and remains alive today, and God is for you – He provides for us Salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Advent Wreath
Over the next month we will be been celebrating the season by using Advent candles to mark the weeks preceding Christmas. I’ve appreciated doing this over the past years because I believe they are a wonderful tool to remind us about what Christmas is all about. The Advent wreath is rich with imagery that reminds us that Christmas is about Jesus – and not just Jesus, the baby in the manger, but the story of Jesus which encompasses the whole gospel.
Some traditions have different colours and meanings, but they all contain a round wreath and candles — sometimes four, sometimes five, and sometimes more. Historically, there is some evidence to suggest the round wreath with candles predates Christianity, and, like many Christmas traditions, was adopted by the church sometime in the Middle Ages.
The wrath is made of evergreens to signify the continuous life we have because of the coming of Jesus. They are shaped in a circle which looks like a Laurel – which was a woven branch worn on as a crown to mark someone as a victor (like in the Olympics) or someone of great honour (like when you see an image of Caesar). So it symbolizes Christ – immortal, victorious, worthy of praise, giving us everlasting life.
On our wreath are five candles, representing the four weeks of advent and the coming of Jesus at Christmas. The smoke rising from them symbolizes our prayers. The light represents Jesus. Three candles are purple, one is pink, and one is white – each have their own meanings, and traditionally, these were the same colours worn by the priest as he presided over Mass.
The Christ candle, which we light on Christmas Eve, is white and at the centre of the wreath. The outside candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace surround the Christ Candle to remind us that all of those things are ultimately and perfectly found in Christ.
What I appreciate most about the season of Advent is that instead of jumping straight into Christmas, our forefathers set aside four weeks where all believers could take some time to practice two important things that we don’t normally do unless we have to: Wait.
As a culture we aren’t very good at waiting. In fact, we’ve almost turned waiting into a dirty word. Consider how the commercial industry begins the Christmas season. While the church is saying it’s time to slow down and reflect, to pause and prepare ourselves for celebrating the amazing story of the coming of Jesus Christ… to take a whole month to get our homes and hearts ready… to meditate over one aspect of the gospel for an entire week – one whole week on the Love of God, another week on what it means that Jesus is the Prince of Peace… everywhere else seems to be ramping us up with as much commercialism, noise, and craziness they can.
The unofficial inauguration the season is called “Black Friday” which is essentially an all-night shopping spree. And even that they couldn’t wait for this year as they pushed the sales back into the week prior!
“Don’t wait… get it now. Don’t even wait until the store opens! Go ahead and camp outside and we’ll open extra early so you can stampede over people to be first to get what you want. Stay up all night on Sunday, sitting in front of your computer so you can get the best of Cyber Monday. And since you probably won’t get what you want for Christmas, and it’s so far away – use this as a day to buy things for yourself!”
Not exactly the “true meaning of Christmas”, is it? Advent is a time where we remember that being first, getting the most, and filling up our homes and credit cards isn’t what Christmas is all about. Advent tells us to stop, listen and prioritize what really matters: our relationships with Jesus and with each other. Those relationships aren’t built at the pace this world wants us to move – true love requires time and patience.
I know my kids are learning this. The tree is up, lights are going on houses, the Christmas music is playing, the schedule is filling up … they know Christmas is coming. The countdown to Christmas Eve – the day they get to open one present after the Candlelight service – has begun. So my encouragement this season is to ask you to practice waiting, practice not getting what you want when you want it. To slow down, evaluate your priorities, reawaken the lost art of waiting.
That’s good practice for building our relationship with God because He doesn’t work on our schedule, but instead invites us to step outside of our agendas and live by His timetable instead. He loves to teach us patience, because He is patient.
I know our temptation is to start ramping up, but let me encourage you to relax this season. To evaluate the motivations, to ask Jesus to set your heart and mind on what matters this year. To worship Jesus and care for people first – before worrying about the trappings of Christmas.
You Are Loved
So, to prepare you for this season, I want to do something a little different and give you something to think and pray about. Next week we are going to start a series based on the book I just gave you where we are going to explore “The Purpose of Christmas”. I’m hoping that we can all read it together – it’s short, interesting, has lots of stories, only has 4 chapters and has lots of pictures, so we should be able to do this – and meditate on the true meaning of Christmas.
But this week I want to whet your appetite by setting up the Christmas season with the reminder that you are loved – first through scripture, and then with a story.
The Amplified Version of John 3:16 reads like this:
“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.”
You are “greatly loved and dearly prized” by your Father in Heaven. So much so that He “gave up” His Son for you – to die in your place so that you could be with Him forever.
Romans 5:1-8 tells us that Jesus came to earth on purpose, to save us, even when we didn’t deserve it. That anyone who would believe that they are a sinner in need of a Saviour, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and then was resurrected on the third day to save them from that sin, would be saved. The free gift of salvation that cost so much. Let me read that to you:
“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. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 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 man, though for a good man 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 the love that Jesus has for you. He didn’t just come to save “the world” in general, but you in particular. Not everyone will be saved, but He gives everyone the opportunity to be saved. He created you, designed you, knew you before you were born, picked your parents, your skills and talents, gave you gifts and hopes and dreams, and then invited you into a long-term relationship with Him so He could pour out His love for you, give you a purpose, build you and transform you into the image of Son Jesus Christ.
And nothing can take you away from Him. Romans 8:38-39 says,
“…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In this world, distance and death can separate us from our loved ones… but there is no distance – not even death – that can separate you from the love of God. There is no cavern into which you can fall that He cannot pull you out of, there is no darkness to deep that He cannot shine His light in. No temptation that He will not help you in. No fear He will not give you the strength to overcome. No need He will not fulfill. The world may come against you, and foes may assail you, all of creation may try to push you away from Him, Satan himself may try to drive a wedge between you and Him – but He will never, ever let you go.
The King and His Son
To close this morning I want to tell you a story that illustrates the kind of love God has for you. I heard this illustration used by a pastor named Steve Brown and was moved by it and want to pass it on to you to, hopefully, help you understand Christmas a little better. Please remember that this is an illustration, so it isn’t perfect, but I do hope it’s helpful.
There once was a king who loved being king. He liked sitting on the throne and making decisions; he liked living in the castle, he liked the symbolic functions of his office, he liked visiting the towns and villages of the kingdom and meeting his subjects, he liked the authority and power because he could use them to help his people.
Not only did the king like being king, but his people throughout the kingdom praised him for ruling so benevolently and wisely. The people knew they could trust their king to do the right thing for them and for the kingdom, and they were right. Because of the king’s wisdom, the kingdom was prosperous and peaceful.
When the king’s son was born, the people put on a great celebration. Now there was an heir! The people knew the king would be a good father and that his son would someday be as great and wise as his father. The king loved his son more than his own life. His greatest joy was to spend time with his son. Each evening after the day’s duties were accomplished, the king would go out into the formal gardens and play with his son. The thought of those times with his son often made the hard task of ruling a little easier. Sometimes when he faced a difficult decision or had to settle a dispute or complete a project, the king would think, when this is over, I can be with my son, and he would smile.
One day the king’s son got lost. It was one of the most tragic days that had ever passed in the kingdom. He didn’t mean to get lost. He loved his father as much as his father loved him.
But one day his father had a particularly busy day and was late for their daily meeting in the castle gardens. So the boy decided to explore…. It happened before he knew it. He was just walking and thinking about his father when, looking up, he found himself in the forest behind the castle. Nothing looked familiar! At first he was calm because his father would come soon and find him, but, as he waited, he began to panic. In his confusion he began to run away from the castle. His clothes caught on broken limbs and tore. A couple of times he fell in mud holes, and once he cut himself on a jagged rock.
Eventually the little boy wandered into one of the villages of the kingdom. To be perfectly honest, by that time he looked more like a beggar than a prince. The little boy would go up behind someone, grab his coat, pull on it and say, “Mister, I’m the king’s son. Would you help me get home?”
“Sure you are, kid.”
“But you don’t understand”, the little boy would say to another. “I got lost, and I can’t find my father.”
Most folks simply ignored the little boy, and those who didn’t ignore him laughed at him. Pretty soon the little boy was forced to beg for pennies just so he could buy bread to keep from starving.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king spent a sleepless night looking for his son. He looked everywhere he knew to look, but the boy was nowhere to be found. By morning the king suspected that someone had kidnapped his son and feared that he would never see the boy again.
The king called all his armies together, told them what had happened, and send them into the kingdom looking for his son. He offered great rewards to anyone who could give him information leading to the discovery of his son. But to the king’s great sorrow, the little boy was not found.
Hours blended into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. The little boy was no longer a little boy; he had grown into a strong young man. At first he really had thought he was the king’s son, but so many adults had told him differently that he began to think maybe it had to be a dream. After all, adults knew those kinds of things. As the years passed he forgot about the castle and about his heritage. It didn’t take so many years to forget about the dream altogether.
Then the young man began to run with the wrong crowd. Murder, stealing, rape—nothing was beneath them. But he was still a prince. If you are a prince (even when you don’t know it), it shows. Eventually the young man became the leader of the gang. He surpassed all of his friends in his unlawful acts and spurred them on to even greater acts of lawlessness. Years after he had left the castle and his father, the king’s son had become the most wanted criminal in the kingdom.
Then one day, through a rather complicated set of circumstances, the king found out that his own son was the kingdom’s most wanted criminal. At first he couldn’t believe it, but the more he checked, the more it became clear that he had found his beloved son, and when the authorities finally found him, the king faced a terrible dilemma.
The king loved his son, but he was also fair and just. He knew that if he released his own son who had committed terrible crimes, he would need to release all the others who had committed crimes. That was unacceptable.
And so the king’s son was arrested and brought before a judge who condemned him to be executed for his crimes. The verdict was just. The king’s son was thrown into a dungeon beneath the castle where he had once lived to wait for his execution.
On the night before the young man was to die, the king made his way to the prison beneath the castle. Opening his son’s cell, he walked in and sat on the bunk across from his son. The king sat there a long time looking at his son before he spoke.
“You are my son.”
“Someone told me.”
“Have you ever wondered, over these years, about your parents?”
“Sometimes, but I had a good life, and it wasn’t that important.”
“Well, I have never stopped wondering about you, where you were and what had become of you. You have never been out of my mind and heart.”
The king continued, his voice trembling with emotion and tears running down the age lines in his face, “My son, I loved you with a great love, but you became lost. I did everything I knew to do. I sent out my soldiers; I offered a great reward; I have never ceased to search for you. But now it has come to this and tomorrow you are to die. But, son, I have decided to allow you to go free.”
With those words, the old king got up and walked out of his son’s cell into the crisp night air. The young man went over to the cell door and tested it. Well, what do you know?, he thought, that old man left it open.
The king’s son grabbed his coat, threw it over his shoulder, and with a cynical smile spoke aloud: “That stupid old man! He thinks because he has set me free I will come back to his castle and be his lackey. Well, he is more senile than I thought.” And with that, the young man ran up the stairs and disappeared.
Some two weeks later the kings’ son found out what price his freedom had cost. On the day of his scheduled execution, the requirements of the law had been met. It was his own father that had taken his place before the executioner the next morning, and had literally died so that his beloved child might be free.
You probably have some questions: What did the son do? Did he return to the castle and become king? Did he even care about the price his father had paid for his freedom? Did he decide to obey the law?
I’m not sure because, you see, you are the son and I am the son.
At the very heart of the incarnation [of God becoming man], at the very heart of God himself lies a cross. That is the true meaning of Christmas: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…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 Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2,6) “And they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23)
For us, God took on flesh, coming to earth as a baby…. But the baby didn’t stay that way. For us, the wood of the cradle became the wood of the cross… because of God’s great love.
(Story adapted from Key Life Magazine – Christmas/Winter 2009, Volume 24, #3 Pg 8 & 11)
I shared this devotional at a Christmas Eve Service last night:
Over the past month both our churches have been celebrating the season of Christmas by using Advent candles. They are a wonderful tool to remind us that the story of Christmas doesn’t just surround the baby in the manger, but encompasses the whole gospel.
I’ve been preaching a sermon series where each week we’ve gone over a different theme that the candle represents. Today we lit the Christ candle at the centre of the wreath. The outside candles, which represent Hope, Love, Peace and Joy, surround the Christ Candle to remind us that all of those things are ultimately and perfectly found in Christ. Without Him at the centre, none of those things are truly possible.
The Advent Tradition
The church has kept the season of Advent for hundreds of years. The idea is that instead of jumping straight into Christmas, the forefathers of the church put together four weeks where everyone could take some time to practice two important things that we don’t normally do unless we have to: Waiting and Preparing. To hone these disciplines so we can learn more about God, His Son and ourselves.
As a culture we aren’t very good at waiting, are we? In fact, we’ve almost turned waiting into a dirty word. Consider how the commercial industry begins the Christmas season. While the church is saying it’s time to reflect, pause and prepare ourselves for celebrating the amazing story of Jesus Christ… to take a month to get ready… to meditate over one aspect of the gospel for an entire week… everywhere else seems to be ramping us up with as much commercialism, noise, and craziness they can. The inaugurating the season is called“ Black Friday” which is an all night shopping spree.
“Don’t wait… get it now. In fact, don’t even wait until the store opens! Go ahead and camp outside and we’ll open extra early so you can stampede over people to be first to get what you want. Then you can stay up all night on Sunday night so you can be there at midnight for the beginning of Cyber Monday, another sale to begin the season.” Most people aren’t even buying presents for others, but are actually buying for themselves!
Not exactly the “true meaning of Christmas”, is it? Jesus teaches us that being first, getting the most, and filling up our homes and credit cards isn’t what life’s all about. Instead Jesus calls us to stop, listen and prioritize what really matters: our relationship with Him and with each other. And that can’t be done at the pace this world wants us to move – it requires time and patience.
So, I hope you’ve had a chance to practice waiting lately–that you’ve embraced not getting what you want when you want it, but having to wait for it. I know my kids are learning this… as they look at the presents under the tree… they know Christmas is coming… counting down the days. We let the kids open one present on Christmas Eve, so we’ve been getting the countdown for a long time now… 30 more days until we get to open a present… 10 more days… 3 more days…
That’s good practice for building our relationship with God because He doesn’t work on our schedule… but instead invites us to step outside of our agendas and live by His timetable instead.
So I hope you’ve been able to slow down, evaluate your priorities, and reawaken the lost art of waiting. And if you haven’t then let me encourage you to do that tonight. Instead of ramping up for tomorrow, just relax tonight and embrace the concept of Christmas EVE… the day before the day. Why did you come here tonight? What is at the heart of your celebration? Consider those around you and how you’ve been caring for them over the past days. Have you been pressuring them to live by your agenda or have you been able to take this “holiday season” and actually have it be just that… a “holiday”. A holy-day, set aside to be different and special. It’s never too late to learn to wait.
The other thing Advent asks of us is to Prepare. Each week we have a different candle to light, and a different theme to ponder.
The first candle was Hope and for 7 days we were invited to ask some big questions. Where does my hope lie? When things around me and inside me are falling apart, what do I look to in order to gain strength, and does it work? What do I think about the life-path I’m on right now? Where is it leading me? Is the path that I’ve chosen going to lead to a better place, or have I settled for that I know in my heart will ultimately reduce me to rubble?
And where is God in all of this? The week of Hope is meant to help us prepare our hearts to realize that if our hope is built on anything other than the foundation of the person and work of Jesus Christ, then it will fail us. To not have our hope in something temporary, but in a living hope that is assured because of a living Christ As 1 Peter 1:3-4 says, “3 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.”
The second candle was the Love candle. We are invited to prepare our hearts by pondering our need for Love, what our desire for love leads us to do, and where our love comes from. Many here today have a love deficit in their hearts. You don’t feel loved. You can’t remember the last time your heart was bursting with the knowledge that you are loved… not because of what you can produce, or a gift you’ve given, or something you’ve done… but just because of who you are.
To those people, let me tell you this: You’re right. You don’t get the love you deserve from the people around you. You are worth more and should be valued for who you are… not just for what you can do for people. But people can never do that for you. Maybe temporarily, but there is no human who can give you the kind of love you need.
That’s why it’s so important to know that God loves you. There’s nothing you can give Him that He doesn’t already have. There’s nothing you can do for Him that He can’t do better. There’s nothing He needs from you because He is perfectly sufficient. And so, His love for you is a matter of choice, not self-interest.
He designed you before you were born, wrote out your future, gave you experiences that shaped you into who you are, and has promised to walk with you throughout your life. He wants to be with you because He loves you. He loves you so much that He couldn’t leave you stuck in your sin, but traded His life for yours, and now invites you into a relationship with Him so that you can know Him even more. In Him is where love is truly and completely found.
In the third candle was Peace – something we all desperately want, but none of us can find. That’s because peace isn’t found in our circumstances… but in a person. You may think that you can do something today to have peace tomorrow, but it won’t work. You can save and plan for years… enough money to buy your own island, move there, and bring only your favourite people… or go all by yourself… and you still won’t find perfect peace there.
Jesus came into the world during a very difficult time in Jewish history. His life never got easier, but only harder, busier and more complicated. And yet, He had throughout it a supernatural peace because of His relationship with His Father. He now invites you and I to share that peace. So that no matter where we are, or what we’re doing, we can know peace. Isaiah 9:6, a prophecy about the coming of Jesus says, “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.” He is the only one qualified to bring us true peace.
And finally, when we lit the final candle we pondered the theme of Joy. We sing about it in many songs! Joy to the world, the Lord is Come. That’s the whole message of Christmas! We say Merry Christmas because it means “Have a Joyful Christmas”! Because there is no better news than that because of the coming of Jesus Christ, the blind can see, the lame can walk, the captives can be set free, and anyone who believes in Jesus Christ can spend eternity in the presence of God. This is a season of Joy!
Jesus gives to us the greatest joy, and in turn we give that joy to others. I hope that’s what you’re feeling tonight. Joy because of a relationship with God where you know He loves you… because of the Hope that He has given you… all because of His Son, the Prince of Peace.
That’s a cool video. The reason I like it so much is because it expands our understanding of Christmas. It gives meaning to the simple Christmas story we have just seen acted out for us. It takes us far beyond the nativity scene, the baby in the manger, the shepherds and the wise men… far beyond the trappings of our modern season, with the lights, and bows, and carols… the family, food, friends, shopping, hustle and bustle… and reminds us that the season of Christmas is about so much more.
The Meaning of Christmas / Life
If someone were to ask you “What is the “true meaning of Christmas?” what would you say? Or how about the bigger question, “What is the meaning of life?” Or more personally – what is the meaning of your life? That’s a tough one, isn’t it? The answer seems to be almost ethereal… unreachable… like trying to grasp a handful of steam. A lot of people have tried to answer that… everyone has tried to answer that.
People are thirsty for meaning. They want to know why things happen. Some people call it the metanarrative, the story, of this world – and not just the story of the world, but the meaning, the “why” of their individual lives. And it seems that this is the time of year that people think more and more about the idea of meaning. And I believe that the true meaning of Christmas helps us find the meaning of our lives.
We’ve heard the phrase a million times in every movie, TV show and newspaper article about Christmas… everyone is looking for the “true meaning of Christmas.” It usually has something to do with generosity, or family, or reconciliation of relationships… and as great as those things are… that’s not it. And we all have an answer to the question of the “true meaning of Christmas”, even if we can’t put it into words.
For some, the “true meaning of Christmas” is getting presents… not the noblest of sentiments, but at least their honest.
For some, the “true meaning of Christmas” is to get time off work. For others, it’s an excuse to shop and spend money. Others would say that it’s all about getting together with family. Still others believe that the “true meaning of Christmas” is found in all of the Christmas rituals and traditions that get brought out… baking cookies, turkey dinner, skating on the ice, decorating the tree, and remembering Christmases as a kid.
For Christians the “True meaning of Christmas” is the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The reason we celebrate Christmas is to celebrate Jesus. Who, I can say without overstatement, is most influential person in all of human history. In fact, I’ve heard it said that human history revolves around Jesus. It is by knowing and understanding Jesus that we find meaning for what is going on around us. He gives meaning to all that happens, and it is through a personal relationship with Him that things start to make sense.
An Innkeeper named Wally
I want to tell you a story about a little boy named “Wally”. Wally was big for his age–seven years old. Everyone wondered what role the teacher would give him in the annual Christmas play. Especially considering the fact that he was also a slow learner. Perhaps he could pull the curtain or light the lights. To everyone’s surprise the teacher gave Wally the role of the innkeeper. The boy of course was delighted. After all, all he had to learn was one line: “There is no room in the inn.” He had that down in no time.
Then came the night of the program. The parents took their places. Every seat was filled. The children entered singing “Oh come all ye faithful.” The lights dimmed. A hush moved over the audience. The curtain opened. Mary and Joseph entered the stage and walked up to the inn. “Please sir, my wife is not well. Could we have a room for the night?”
Wally was ready for his line. He had rehearsed it all night. He began, “there is…” and he hesitated. He started over again. “There is…” and again his mind went completely blank. Everyone was embarrassed for him and poor Wally just didn’t know what to do. Joseph thought he would improvise and started walking away toward the stable on stage left. Seeing him walking away Wally in desperation called out: “Look, there’s no room in the inn… but there’s plenty of room at my house, so just come on home with me.”
Isn’t that a nice little twist on the familiar story? Over the years the characters in the Christmas story have become very clearly defined for us. King Herod was a villain and the wise men were heroes. The shepherds were heroes and the Innkeeper–well, how do you see the innkeeper? In our minds eye, we envision him as a crotchety old man with a night cap on his head sticking his head out a second story window and tersely shouting: “Take the stable and leave me alone”.
But maybe the innkeeper has just gotten some bad press. Was it his fault that the inn was built with twelve rooms instead of thirteen? Was it his fault that Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that the entire world should be taxed, and that they would all come banging on his door? Was it his fault that Mary and Joseph were so late in arriving? If they would have come a couple days earlier… then maybe he would have had a room and he could have been a hero too!
I want to redeem our poor innkeeper tonight. Consider that on that crazy, busy night in Bethlehem, when the entire Roman world was astir, and everyone was clambering for a room… the Innkeeper made room for a very tired man and his young, frazzled, uncomfortable, very-pregnant wife. He made room – he found space – he figured out how it could work.
I believe that discovering the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning of life, comes down that same thing: making room. If the birth of Jesus is the true meaning of Christmas… and ultimately the one who gives meaning to life… then are we prepared to make room for Him in our lives?
And as we make room, Jesus comes in to the place we give Him – however small… however dirty… however humble… and He blesses it, and miracles occur. Just like in the innkeeper’s stable, God took the room, as small as it was, as dirty and humble as it was, and made miracles happen. He brought the Saviour into the world.
Perhaps you are looking for a miracle in your life. Perhaps there are things in your life that you want to see fixed. Maybe there are broken relationships, economic problems, addictions, fears, stresses and anxieties that are overwhelming you. Maybe you have been seeking comfort in places that have been only making you feel worse. Maybe your heart is so full of hurt or pain or anger that you don’t know how to deal with it, and though no one sees it, every day is a struggle not to collapse under the weight of it… to lash out and hurt others… or to give up.
Maybe you are searching to find out the meaning of all of the things that have happened to you in your life. Maybe you don’t feel an urgency, but when you take all the pieces of your life so far, you just don’t know how they fit together. What is your purpose? Where is your life headed? Are you seeking hope, joy, peace, love, and meaning this evening?
To you I give the example of the Innkeeper: he made room. Make room for Jesus. Yes, He wants the whole of your life. He wants to change every part of you. He wants to completely forgive you and renew you, and promises to do so, but He’s willing to start with whatever place you want to make room. He will bring miracles there. He will shine light there. He will show you meaning there.
Make room for Jesus today by talking to Him in prayer. Make room tomorrow by opening the Bible and reading the Christmas story. Make room this season by remembering and reflecting on why He came and what He has done for you. Keep making room, and giving Him a little more room when He asks for it.
I promise that if you make room for Him, He will work miracles there and show you the peace, love, joy, hope and meaning that you long to see.