Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Servant King: "Eyewitnesses of His Majesty" (Matthew 17.1-13)

The first Sunday of the month is my favorite Sunday because it is the week that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Communion. The elements of this custom are on the table – the bread and the wine, or grape juice in our case. We craft the whole service to help everyone prepare their hearts to share in the visible signs of Jesus’ death for sinners. And I always seek to use the passage of the day to point to that, which isn’t hard because the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of God’s people. And the passage our sister just read to us is no exception.

As my son, Ben, got in the car to move to Iowa for his first job, he said to his Mom and me, “Well, I’m goin’ ta find me a corn-fed gal!” And that’s what he did. He married a lovely girl named Rachael whose parents and grandparents are all farmers. Now my father had quite a garden in my youth but I never really talked to a farmer until I talked at length one day to one of her grandfathers. He described plowing fields in the Spring and preparing to plant. On the day you plant, the field looks to most people just like it did before you planted, but you go ahead and water and fertilize. Depending on the kind of seed planted, it may take up to three weeks before you see any visible change. But one day you go out to your field and there are a carpet of little green sprouts. Then the changes begin in earnest and two to four months later, you are ready to harvest the fruit.

Jesus himself taught to think of the truth as a seed that is planted in the heart. In the mystery of germination, all we can do is water and feed that seed; it is the sovereign work of God in the heart to germinate the seed and produce fruit. That’s a picture of the work of God in the heart.

In this story just read to us we see that going on in three of the apostles: Jesus takes his closest followers up a high mountain and there they experience something no one else experiences. But rather than having the full truth of that event dramatically transform their whole experience of life, it becomes like a seed planted that lay dormant underneath the exterior of their lives.

One of the things that convinces me of the truthfulness of the lifestory of Jesus that is written in the four gospels is the clear fact that his followers were so unaware of who they were really dealing with. But he came to change their whole worldview – to change it from being the one they had built themselves in life to one that would allow them to see all of life in a different way. That very slow process is uncovered for us in the gospels.

Now, the gospels weren’t written simply to tell us what happened; they were written to show us how God works and how we can expect that he will work in our lives as well. The forming of a well-developed world view that can stand the test of time and help us to face the storms of life with trust in God doesn’t happen overnight – but ultimately it is God’s work that we participate in as we live the Christian life.

In this event, the disciples were exposed to three truths – three facts about Jesus that, if taken seriously are life-altering, vision-building, and momentous in their consequences. But they don’t seem that way to the apostles. It’s only over time that we can see how these facts germinated in their hearts and produced fruit. 

Jesus took Peter, the evident leader of the apostles, along with two brothers, James and John, who were (we know from other places in the gospels) Jesus’ cousins. They went up on a high mountain and there Jesus was transformed so that he appeared to be shining with brilliant light – not as though a bright light were shining on him but as thought the light were shining out of him. Along with him appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Now, there’s little question that Moses and Elijah represented the law and the prophets, which is one way of dividing up the content of the Old Testament. Moses was the agent of God who delivered the law to the people in the first five books (which are called, the Torah, or Law) and Elijah was the first prophet – the one who appeared before the rise of what we call the writing prophets. He left no written record of his work but it is recorded for us in First and Second Kings.

The first truth they were meant to absorb from this is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets; he is the completion of all that the Old Testament looked for. In fact, at the end of his life, Moses said to the people,
Deuteronomy 18.15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen!”
And the people were waiting for this new prophet. So, the significance of this event is to underline the fulfillment of that promise.
But what does Peter do? He puts them on the same level – “It is good that we are here,” he says. We’ll make some shelters so that you three important people can be out of the sun while you converse.”

Now, this happened six days after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. If the foundation upon which anyone can build the Christian life is a recognition that Jesus is the Savior, Peter had that recognition. At least Jesus said he did in the last chapter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” But that acceptable confession did not mean that he had the full comprehension of the Son of that discipleship would require of him.

Later, Peter would write in his first letter that the prophets of the Old Testament revealed both the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
1 Peter 1.12: “It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
That conviction is what Jesus is building… but at this point, he’s only planting seeds. More of life would have to unfold for Peter before those seeds took root and produced fruit.

But, in that same event, the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and prophets is not all that was revealed. The transfiguration reveals that Jesus is the Lord of glory. That’s the second fact displayed.

Of Moses, we are told that, when he met with God, he would come down from the mountain with his face shining brilliantly. He reflected the glory of God in an evident way that the people could see. God spoke with him face-to-face, we are told. But Jesus’ transformation shows him to be greater than Moses – he is the Lord from glory. What they were allowed to glimpse was the eternal glory of the second Person of the holy Trinity (which the disciples were incapable of understanding at that point); the undimmed grandeur of the living God who was present in Jesus but whose human nature hid it during his earthly life. They glimpsed the King in all his beauty, the one who has always ruled over creation and always will. To use the words of Jesus promise at the end of the last chapter, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son and Man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16.28)

To have insight into this truth is to see into the eternal purpose of God, to see the plan of salvation. This is the unfolding story of the Bible that God, because of his love for sinful people, was determined to save a people for his glory. And in eternity past, the second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, offered himself as the substitute, to come and live and die for those whom called would call to himself. And in time, the Spirit, the third Person, offered to draw them to himself so that, at the proper time, he might save each one.

But, they weren’t ready for that. Instead, the fact that they were in the presence of the Lord of glory, just like the fact that Jesus had come to fulfill the law and the prophets and to bring all things to completion in God’s purposes, was not clear. It was a seed that God planted. It would lay dormant for a time, but as the life of death of Jesus came about, the meaning of this event would dawn in their hearts like the sun rising on a cloudless day.

Later, one of the apostles, would write these words about the eternal plan of God:
1 Corinthians 2.8: “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
Jesus came to fulfill all the predictions and promises of the Old Testament, and Jesus is the Lord of glory.

And, as Peter was saying his foolish words, “Let us build some shelters for you,” the voice of the Father is heard from heaven. And he says the exact same words he said at the beginning of Jesus earthly ministry on that day when John the Baptist baptized him in the Jordan River:
Matthew 17.5: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
This whole passage is just saturated with Old Testament allusions and this sentence in particular.
  • “This is my beloved Son” is a reference to Psalm 2, one of the psalms that particularly points toward the Messiah, in which God says to the anointed king, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” He is the Messiah-King.
  • “With whom I am well pleased” comes from Isaiah 42.1, one of the servant songs in Isaiah. God says of the Messiah, the servant of the Lord, “Behold my servant…in whom my soul delights.” The Messiah is the suffering servant of Isaiah.
  • “Listen to him!” refers to Moses words about the Prophet like him, “It is to him you shall listen!”
  • In other words, God is underlining for them things that they are trying to put together in their minds. They expected the Messiah to come, they believe Jesus is him… but how do they square that with a whole way of looking at life that they had built? How could he suffer? What does this “rising from the dead” mean that he keeps talking about?

There’s a tag-ending on this story – a conversation about John the Baptist and how he fulfilled the Elijah promises of the Old Testament. It only serves to underline how little they understood about these things. But the event was clear in its content: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament; Jesus is the Lord from glory, come to save his people, Jesus must be worshiped and obeyed because he is the Messianic King AND the Suffering Servant.

At the end of his life, Peter wrote his second letter before his death in Rome at the hands of Nero. And at that point, the seeds of this event had germinated and borne rich fruit. Churches dotted the land from Jerusalem to Rome. And Peter wrote this:
2 Peter 1.16–18: 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
Jesus didn’t come to be a flash in the pan. He wasn’t interested in making a momentary impact that got his name in lights for a day or even a year. He wasn’t interested in being famous for being famous, like the Kardashians. Jesus came to save sinners – eternally!

What that meant in the gospels is that he took twelve normal, working people, and he transformed their whole understanding of life. In the process of that, he brought them to faith in himself as the Redeemer. But that faith, at least in the beginning, didn’t answer all their questions or change all their attitudes.

Discipleship for us means the same thing. It starts with faith in Jesus as our sin-bearer, the one who by his death and resurrection has saved us from our sins. But it is meant to grow and develop and bear fruit, over a lifetime. To do that, he plants seeds in us – just like these three disciples. Those seeds like a newly planted field lie dormant below the surface. All we can do it water and feed them – God has to make them grow at the right time.

None of us has arrived. We are all on the journey of discipleship. In a contemporary world, we all have many questions. Questions about sexual morality, marriage, capitalism, justice, the place and power of science, government. What Jesus seeks to do is build within us a fully-developed world view that is capable of fitting all of those issues into a coherent whole so that the answers aren’t just based on how we feel at the moment, or what our friends tell us is right but are based on God’s word and God’s wisdom. And he gives us his word, and his Spirit, and one another to help us to grow in that throughout our lives.

But if Jesus is what this event reveals him to be, then our life is a mere preparation for eternity and everything we are about should have our future in view.

So take the long view of things and water and feed the seeds and let him do his work.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Servant King: "Suffering Before Glory" (Matthew 16.21-23)

Years ago, our leaders developed a list of core values. These are those principles of life that we especially treasure and would like to build into our character and ethos as a church family. They are listed on a hanging in the lobby. Originally, I think they were five and since the early years we’ve added a couple, re-organized them, and re-worded some to what they look like today.
The seventh one reads this way:
MissionThe gospel pattern for life is reflected in giving ourselves for the earthly and eternal benefit of others.
With that sentence, we are saying that the Bible reveals a pattern for life, that there is a basic direction that everyone who is a Christian ought to be moving in their lives, whether they are a mother at home with the children, or they work in the auto industry, or they are a teacher in a school, or whatever they do. And that pattern is to give ourselves for the earthly and eternal benefit of other people.

This morning I want to ask: What does that mean? How is such a pattern of life reflected in a person’s life? Is it really any different than a person who does not confess the gospel but wants to help dig wells in Africa, or alleviate world hunger, or care for AIDS orphans? I think, yes! In fact, he gospel pattern for life is not something that those who do not confess the gospel can ever begin to follow.

Now, it’s difficult to overestimate the significance of the passage that Paul had us look at last Sunday. The point in the ministry when the apostle Peter clearly confessed Jesus to be the Messiah was a clear turning point in the lifestory of Jesus. People had dabbled around the edges of this fact ever since the beginning his public ministry, but Peter for the first time with any real understanding and conviction acknowledged that Jesus was the One promised by the Old Testament prophets, the coming Ruler of Israel, the Savior of the world.

It’s at that point, as we saw last week that Jesus gave to Peter, as the first confessor, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Later, those keys are given to the other apostles, and finally to the whole church in chapter 18. The keys of the kingdom – that which unlocks the door of heaven (so to speak) and allows people to come to God – are nothing less than the gospel itself. By the church’s proclamation of the gospel, whether in a church meeting by a teaching elder or in a coffee shop by one individual believer, is the means by which heaven is opened to those who believe and shut to those who reject it. 
Jesus’ public ministry began with he was baptized. This event happened about two years later and about one year before his final Passover in Jerusalem at which he was crucified. And it is the final hinge on which his lifestory turns as is shown by the paragraph which follows which Clare read to us this morning, which begins with these words, “From that time….” That is, from the point of Peter’s confession, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16.21). All three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – put these two events together.
What you will find when you read carefully is that there are, from this point of confession, three specific times when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. Up to this point, he has referred to it vaguely and indirectly. Now, though he wants them to keep it to themselves, he tells them plainly. And each one does not meet with the reception from his followers that you would expect.

That makes this little paragraph all the more important and all the more surprising in what happens. After this high point of Peter’s confession, of Jesus’ approval of his confession, and of Jesus giving Peter authority in the kingdom, Jesus begins to reveal his future course. Essentially Jesus reveals this: “I’m going to go to Jerusalem, where the religious leaders will arrest and mistreat me, I will be put to death at their instigation, and on the third day, rise.”

Peter, who Jesus has just said, has listened to God who alone could reveal the real nature of Jesus as the Messiah, now pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. We aren’t to imagine that Peter pulls him aside so that his own stupidity won’t be shown to others; he pulls Jesus aside so that he doesn’t have to correct the Lord in front of the others. Peter says, “No way! You are speaking nonsense! That will never happen!”

Now, how in the world can Peter have ever done that, especially after he has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah?

I know it’s easy to read the New Testament and at points think, “These disciples of Jesus are really dull-minded! How could they miss such obvious things?” Let’s take a few minutes and think why that might be. Why did Peter react in such a way?

We have to remember that we have 2,000 years of history behind us and our culture has been shaped by the whole lifestory of Jesus – including his sufferings, death, and resurrection. We have all seen a crucifix with the Savior hanging limply on the cross in the agony of death – many in the room here grew up with one hanging prominently in our home. We have to get before all of that to understand how first-century Jewish people would have thought about the Messiah.

The religion that is identified in the Old Testament ends its story around 400 BC. There are then about 400 silent years between the close of the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus – silent as far as revelation from God is concerned. During that time, the Jewish people who had returned from exile at the end of the Old Testament story, studied the scriptures very intensely to find any clues as to what God was going to do next. It was during that period that the idea of the Messiah became important to them. God had promised, in numerous events beginning early in their history, that he would send a powerful leader, an “anointed one” (anointed one is the meaning of both the Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ). He will rule the nations with a rod of iron, Psalm 2 says.

Now, in the many passages of the Old Testament that refer to this coming One, some speak of suffering and some speak of rule, authority, power. Generally speaking, those who searched the scriptures understood the suffering to refer to God’s people and the rule to the Messiah. This is true even of Isaiah 53 which seems clear to us about the sufferings of the Messiah. No, they said, the servant of the Lord earlier in Isaiah is the whole people – the people will suffer, the Messiah will free them from their sufferings and establish the Kingdom of God in power.

Making a long and complex story very brief, that was the understanding not only of Peter but of all the apostles, of the Jewish teachers and leaders, and most of the people.

Now, after Jesus died and rose from the dead, believers began to look at the scriptures again. In light of how the Old Testament was fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection Jesus, many of these passages (Psalm 16, Isaiah 53) were seen in a clearer light. The Messiah would first suffer and then reign. In the words of the book of Hebrews, he would come once to “bear the sins of many” and then “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9.28).

To Peter, the idea that the Messiah would suffer was outside of the realm of possibility – it simply was not going to happen. The Messiah was going to reign, not suffer.

Jesus came to put together all of the Old Testament promises and predictions – suffer first, then rule. The reason he didn’t want his disciples to tell anyone that he was the Messiah was because he did not want to hasten the time of his arrest and sufferings. He has much to do in preparing the Twelve to become the foundation of a world-wide movement which would result in the Christian faith being established in every corner of the world. So, after Peter’s confession, we are told, “Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Mt 16.20) but he immediately begins to tell them, “Here’s what’s going to happen.”

So, he begins to inform them, and Peter responds by rebuking him, “This shall never happen to you, Lord!” Peter says. And Jesus turns and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

At the very beginning of his ministry, we are told that Jesus went out in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. If you read about the temptation of Jesus in the gospels, you find that Satan was offering him glory without suffering. “Bow to me,” he said, “and I will allow you to rule the nations. There won’t be any suffering involved.” And Jesus responded, “Be gone, Satan.” It meant, “Get out of my way. I have a course to take that will involve suffering, the deepest suffering ever conceived of. But it will result in my submitting to my Father and bringing about your destruction.”

These words to Peter mean the same thing. They meant, “Get out of my way.” In the same way that Satan offered kingship without suffering, Peter denies the need to suffer.” And Jesus says, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.”

In other words, “A minute ago, you thought God’s thoughts after him; now you refuse to follow God’s way and you listen to the evil one.”

Peter couldn’t accept the gospel pattern of life – struggle now, victory then. Pain now, glory later. Suffering, contempt, shame, and death now; resurrection, rule, and victory then. Jesus showed us, by his life, death, and resurrection the gospel pattern for life. And, I would submit to you that it is just as hard for us to accept it now as it was for Peter to accept it then. Why? Because like Peter, we have been taught that we should look for peace, prosperity, happiness, and tranquility now – that’s our birthright.

Look at it in terms of worldview. The prevailing worldview in the culture is that the problematic things we face – crime, mistreatment, poverty, the abuse of women and children, international conflict… these are just unfinished things that we need to correct. Given enough time, enough money, and enough social progress, we will eventually eradicate these evils. We can do it if we put our minds to it.

The Christian worldview says: These problems only indicate that the real problem is in the human heart. Human progress only means solving some problems in order to create new problems. Consider war between nations: Once groups fought with sharpened sticks and threw stones. Later they stopped doing that and shaped iron swords and javelins to fight. They put those away when they created muskets and canon. Now, all those things are rarely used because we point nuclear bombs at one another. All that hinders war now is fear of what it will do to whole continents; and even that fear isn’t working. Until the heart is changed, there is no hope!

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” says Jeremiah.
  • “Only God” says the Christian. “Only God can understand or cure the heart. You must be born again!”
  • “There is no sickness of heart,” says the world, “just lack of progress.”

That’s what at stake today. And you and I hear only the second one every day.

The gospel alone is the answer. Jesus, by this death and resurrection has conquered sin and death. Those who trust in him alone find, in him, forgiveness, cleansing, peace with God, assurance, and power to live the gospel pattern of life.

Now, what does this mean, this principle that suffering precedes glory, this gospel pattern for life?
Well, first, it is similar to a general principle that most people acknowledge but it’s much more than that. The principle is, “No pain, no gain.” You’ve heard that, and even seen it on tee-shirts at the gym. It’s true that if you want to accomplish anything of value – lose weight, learn French, get in shape, prepare to get a job… whatever! what you put into it will determine what you get out of it. It makes perfect sense for life – any benefit in life has a cost. The gospel pattern for life on the other hand expresses the upside-down thinking of the gospel: If you want to save your life, you must lose it.

In other words, the gospel pattern of life focuses on the unseen. It requires that you acknowledge that this life is not all there is. You can give away now all that you are and all that you have because there will come a time when things are turned around after this life. This is an other-worldly principle the people of this world cannot live by because they do not believe there is another world.

Not only is it not simply the idea that anything of value will require significant elbow grease, but the gospel pattern for life does not in any way promote the idea that Christians should suffer as much as they can all the time. Not at all. We’re not meant to look for suffering, chase after it, or desire it. Most people find that some of life is good, some is bad, and most is routine and monotonous. All the principle asserts is that this IS a fallen world in which suffering is found; you cannot make your way through this world without being touched by it. You can do only two things with that fact.
  • You can pretend that isn’t true – this is the answer of non-Christian thought. This is not a fall world, simply a world that is incomplete. It is our task to complete it, so we shouldn’t pay too much attention to bad things. Everything’s relative they say – in reality there is not evil and good. Just make the best of what you find.
  • Or, you can accept that your life is overseen by a sovereign God and you are part of an unfolding story. Your life is a pilgrimage through a broken world. You are called to be faithful now while you await God’s intervention.

It is not that we should look for suffering – suffering is unavoidable in a fallen world. It is that we long for a better world and, as we pass through this world, we are willing to give ourselves for others because we know what God is seeking to do.

So, it is not simply the “No pain, no gain” principle. And it is not an invitation to suffer or to look for suffering as though there is some benefit in it. But also, and this is important, it doesn’t mean that we adopt the attitude that there is suffering in the world and there’s nothing I can do about it. It would be possible to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world and we await a better world, so our approach should be to hunker down and wait. Why alleviate suffering? You could never stop it no matter how hard you tried! So just worry about yourself. Or, a Christian might say, the only important thing is to preach the gospel, not to feed the poor. Why feed and clothe a person and let them go to hell in the end?

That’s not the gospel pattern for life! Jesus gave himself for the earthly AND the eternal benefit of others. He fed hungry people and healed broken bodies – but that’s not all. He didn’t come to feed the hungry… and let them die in their sins. In fact, his miracles and healings are presented in the gospels as proof that he is the very one who will bring in the kingdom in which there will be no hunger, thirst, pain, or tears. Jesus alleviated human suffering AND he preached the gospel.

That is the gospel pattern for life: That we give ourselves for the earthly and the eternal benefit of others. What this means for us as a church is that we are called to both alleviate human suffering AND tell people about Jesus.

You know the little saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll live for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll live for a lifetime.” That little saying encapsulates a great truth. But like all sayings, it is too brief to describe all of reality.
  • The fact is, in a fallen world some men don’t live by the river where they can learn how to fish; some live in an inner city where there aren’t jobs.
  • The fact is, in a fallen world a hungry man won’t be able to concentrate on learning how to fish until his belly is full – so sometimes you have to give him a fish so that you can teach him to fish.

We do both! Sometimes we go to Houston and help with hurricane rebuilding (as some are going to do next month) and we may not have the opportunity to preach the gospel. Sometimes we go to Albania and all we do is preach the gospel. Sometimes, we go to Upper Peninsula Bible Camp and we do both.

The second thing this means for us if we are Christians is that we must be willing to be misunderstood and falsely accused. So many Christians today are afraid of being misunderstood today and being despised and ridiculed.
  • If we question some of the contemporary moral values of our society, we are called homophobic or transphobic.
  • We are said to hate women if we don’t support every aspect of reproductive rights as they are presently held.

Well, arm yourself with this: Peter, who rebuked the Lord, came eventually to fully understand this and to live by it. He wrote 1 Peter as a result. And in that book, he told us that the gospel pattern for life says that you will, if you are faithful to God and the scriptures, sometimes be misunderstood and falsely accused – we have a living example in the sinless Son of God, who “committed no sin, neither was any deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2.22). But he suffered. If we follow the gospel pattern we will sometimes have the same experience. Because Peter said, 
1 Peter 2.21: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Covenant Renewal Celebration (Hebrews 10.19-25)

It has been my custom for the past several years to start the year with a covenant renewal celebration. When I first did this I meant it in the sense that every time a church gathers around the Lord's Table, they engage in a covenant renewal activity - that's how holy communion functions. But in 2016, we established a church covenant and now, at the beginning of the year, we can see this first Communion Sunday as a time to reflect on and re-affirm our commitment to one another in our church covenant. 

This morning, I am going to direct my comments to the covenant members of the church – those who have signed the church covenant and committed themselves to this fellowship of Christians to be participants in our life and ministry together. I know many are present who are not covenant members; you are all invited to listen in, and  I’m sure there will be much you can gain and appreciate from what I will say. Yet I am speaking directly to the members.

I would like to begin in an unexpected way this morning, by reminding you of the tabernacle. This is a picture of the tabernacle – the large tent of worship the Israelites were commanded to make in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula in the 15th century bc.

This tent-structure was inside a large enclosed area where worshipers would gather. God himself commanded that Moses have the Israelites construct this moveable, semi-permanent tent; in fact, he gave him explicit instructions to “build it according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Exo 26.30, etc.). In other words, as the New Testament indicates, this tabernacle was simply an earthly copy of a heavenly original – the true “holy places” are in the presence of God where Jesus Christ now intercedes for us.

Now, the tabernacle had two rooms – the outer one was called “the holy place.” This was the room containing a table with twelve loaves of bread called, “the bread of the presence,” and it contained a brilliantly lighted lampstand with seven lamps (like a menorah today among the Jewish people), and the golden altar of incense right in front of the thick curtain that separated this room from the inner room called, “the most holy place.” In this completely dark inner room was only one price of furniture: the ark of the covenant. This was a golden chest with a shining gold top over which two angels hovered. This was the "footstool" on which, in the imagery of the tabernacle, the living God rested his feet from his dwelling place in heaven.

Into the holy place, the priests could go every day to maintain the lamps, to burn the incense, and to refresh the loaves. But into the most holy place only the high priest could go on only one day of the year to sprinkle the blood of an atoning sacrifice on the ark of the covenant - on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

The tabernacle represented the presence of the holy God with his chosen people. They knew he was Lord of all and could not be contained in an earthly building. But they also knew that he promised to dwell with and among his people in a unique way – protecting them, providing for them, and guiding them. God himself designed this place and everything inside of it for the express purpose of revealing his holy presence and inciting his people’s heartfelt worship and awe. God filled the heavens and the earth but, in a unique way, he dwelt among his people in the tabernacle. 

That is the image that you are to have in mind when you read this passage. Read again:
Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10.19–21).
The tabernacle of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai was only a shadow (the writer of this letter says) of which Jesus is the reality in heaven. That is what the writer has been endeavoring to show in the whole book up to this point. Now that Christ has come, we who believe have the reality of what the former people of God had only in a suggestive, representative form. 

This letter was written, we can gather, to a house church in the city of Rome around 50 ad. This small group of people – less than thirty or forty, most likely – had come to faith in Christ out of the Jewish people in the capital city. They had experienced new life in Christ, had been visited by the representatives of the apostles; they had suffered for their faith at the hands of the both the Roman government and even more from their former friends and families in the Jewish synagogue; and they are weary. In their discouragement, they are being tempted to give up Christ and return to their former way of life. The writer writes to encourage them hold fast to Christ, to not give him up. He informs them of the privileges of their new status in Christ and he warns them of the consequences if they turn away from him.

And this passage is one of the high points of application in the book - it actually introduces the fourth warning, though we're not going to go that far. This whole paragraph is like an “If/then” statement. Only the “if” is a certainty, translated “since.” Since we have the reality of what was only pictured in the Old Testament, since we have the reality of what the tabernacle was, since we have the actual presence of the holy God, since we have the truly atoning blood, since we have the great high priest… then here is how we should live, these are the conclusions. Look at your Bible, there are three conclusions:

Verse 22: “let us draw near…”
Verse 23: “Let us hold fast…”
Verse 24: “let us consider…”

These three exhortations tell us what it means to live as God’s people in light of all that we have in Christ. These instructions are as necessary for us today as they were for the early believers in Rome. 

First, verse 22: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Let us draw near…to what? Well, in the imagery of the passage, we are to confidently enter the most holy place at the bidding of our great priest who is over the people of God. That which only the high priest could do and on only one day, we can do at any time in our spirits as we take the hand of Jesus (so to speak) and follow him into the presence of the Father. 

And because of that, he draws a picture of our condition both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we have “our hearts sprinkled clean from evil conscience” (v 22). This is, according to Ezekiel 36, the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing that is like the rain, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean,” promised the Lord of what the new covenant would bring. In Christ, we have in reality what the Old Testament saints had only by faith, the full forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of the conscience from guilt. This is God's inward work in the life of one who trusts in Christ alone.

And, the writer of Hebrews adds, “and our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the outward work of cleansing that is based on the first, inward work. In response to his grace, we confess our faith when we are baptized, which is  our symbolic acknowledgment of what God has done inside of us.

Since, this is true (the writer tells us) we should draw near to God in worship demonstrating our devotion to him with hearts of intense submission to him and recognition of his worthiness. That’s first, “let us draw near.”

And, second, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” (verse 23) “for he who promised is faithful.” Sometimes when we celebrate the Lord’s supper we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism. That is not what this confession is about. This is about the basic confession that any other confession is based on. This refers to the confession that is made in baptism.

You see, baptism is the foundation of the Christian life. In baptism, a person gives a personal expression of faith – Christ has saved me. But, baptism is also called, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God" (1 Pet. 3.21). In baptism, a believer confesses faith in Christ AND submission to Christ. That confession, whether or not the words are used, is summarized by Paul as, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” So, any time a baptized Christian is called upon to confess his or her faith, it is simply an extension or a confirmation of that basic confession they made in baptism. Any confession of your faith – in church, at work, to your children – is simply a re-statement and a confirmation of your baptismal confession. Hold on to it, he says, don't let it go!

It is our faith in Christ he is urging us to hold fast. These believers were in danger of slipping away – many are today. “Hold fast your confession” he says.

So, “draw near in true worship,” and “hold fast your confession,” he says to us.

Finally, verse 24: “let us consider how to stir up one another to faith and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

This follows on the first two: If we are to draw near and hold fast, we are going to need the support and encouragement of our fellow-Christians. So, it is the responsibility of each member to consider how to stir up others to live for Christ, and it is the expectation of each member that as he or she does that, they will be stirred up as well by the others. Without it, we become weary, dull, sluggish, careless, and cold.

Those are our responsibilities: Draw near, hold fast, stir up.

But let’s note something about this passage, in fact, something about this whole book that is easily overlooked. The writer speaking to a church, that is, not the leaders but the members. When you read this book, you don’t even know that there are leaders until the last chapter and even there he doesn’t address them. There, in one sentence, he summarizes that responsibilities of the members to them their leaders:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17).
Why is the focus on each of the believers not on those who have some spiritual responsibility for them? It is because leaders are given for the well-being of the church, not for its being. What I mean is that a church exists wherever true believers come together to worship and witness in a community; leaders – elders, pastors, ministers – are given to prosper the church. They aren't given to make up the church. Ultimately, I am only one of the members of this church, as are all the elders and staff. The church is the people, not the leaders.

That means, you members are responsible for this church – not me, not the elders, as though we could somehow lead it effectively ourselves without your participation.

Look at our church covenant which is inside your bulletin today. In one sense, this is also simply an extension of our individual baptismal confession. When we individually say, “Jesus Christ is Lord” at our baptism, we obligate ourselves to live according to his gracious rule which he communicated in his teachings in the New Testament. He said, “Go and make disciples, baptizing them… and teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” All the covenant does is summarize his teachings so that we can commit ourselves to them. 

May I summarize the covenant? None of it should surprise a Bible-reading person or be considered an unrealistic demand.
Introductory Conviction (first paragraph): We affirm that God has saved us by the gospel… So here’s what we intend to do:
Then there are seven bullet points: 
  1. Wwill walk together in Christian love, as brothers and sisters doing for each other what we should…
  2. We will hold marriage and singleness in honor as God commands - faithfulness in marriage, chastity in singleness…
  3. We will seek to bring up our children in the Christian faith… 
  4. We will worship together and alone…
  5. We will strive to live carefully in the world…
  6. (Let’s camp on this) “We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.”

This point isn't given to the elders... except insofar as they are members. The members are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry. All of the members! Those of us who are elders and pastors ought to do this as well, because we are members. You are responsible to maintain a faithful, gospel ministry in this church.

My four children were home over Christmas - with their spouses and children and of of the things that go along with them. We had a great time... and Laura and I were happy to see them wave to us our of their rear view windows when they drove away! But I had occasion to do a lot of reflection this Christmas. 

On one hand, about three weeks before Christmas, we learned that Laura's mother has cancer and is dying. I am one of those privileged souls who knew that my parents-in-law loved and respected me and I felt the same about them. Margaret, Laura's mother, is the last of their parents and for us, the last of their generation. 

On the other hand, in our house we had these grown children who grew up in that house. I had to remind myself that I'm not longer the parent of small children; I can't tell them what to do anymore. My only responsibility is to spoil the grandchildren and feed them candy. 

Family's change! That's the nature of family. Nothing remains the same. 

Our church is a family. And it is changing. is changing. One thing about our church family makes change difficult. We have always had a long-serving staff team. Right now, there are eight staff people listed on the back of the bulletin: Two of us (Clare and I) have been here for over thirty years; two more (Paul and Mary Kay) have been on staff for nearly twenty years; and two more, grew up at the church before joining the staff. (The other two we accepted in from outside!). That's a good thing and it provides real stability to a church. But that kind of stability makes change difficult. 

Last month, our music minister, Brandon, and his wife, Katherine Bellanti moved to Boston. We’re in a process of looking for a replacement. That change is hard. But there are more substantial changes coming.

Next month, mid-month, Clare Holden will leave our staff. Some of you know, Clare has been to me like the sister I never had – faithful, hardworking, with the gift of service, she helped to create the administrative structure that has allowed this church to ministry faithfully. She took on responsibilities that allowed us as a church to focus on small groups, relationships, teaching, and not on arguing about finances and colors of paint. I can't imagine not having Clare in the office next to me! Clare’s retirement will not be a big change for most of you – she’s never had a prominent, up-front, kind of stature in the church. She’s had a quiet, behind-the-scenes, skeletal stature. You don't see a skeleton, but do you know what happens when you remove a skeleton from a body? You have a puddle on the floor! 

Her retirement is a profound loss to the staff of the church, mostly me. But that's how families' work - they change. 

And those changes will continue to happen. Someday, I’ll retire. Another, either from our staff staff or from outside, will take my role. Part of my responsibility is to help you face that as covenant members ought to.

You are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church - even as the church changes over time. How to you do this? The covenant states at least some of the ways. 

First, you will do that "by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines." As you  come to worship, read the Bible, participate in small groups, involve yourself in ministry, and build life-altering relationships, God will shape you to be the kind of Christians who know the gospel and love the gospel. 

Second, the covenant says you maintain that by contributing to the ministry of the church. "We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.” Those are the three things churches are meant to do - your support in doing that is what allows us to be a gospel-centered church. 

Third, let me add what is found elsewhere in the covenant - you must pray for the church, for its leaders, for God's guidance and protection, and for the effectiveness of the gospel in people's lives. 

As we stand and re-affirm the church covenant at the beginning of this new year, let's keep these things in mind. We are members of a living church, a lampstand in the heavenly tabernacle, and a shining light in this community! 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas 2017: "The Promise-Keeper" (Genesis 3.15)

At the end of sixth grade, I had a fight with my best friend, Larry Miller. After some event at school, some long-standing conflict that I don’t remember came to a head, and we fought it out outside the school – my first and last fist-fight. We smacked one another until we were both tired, crying, and bruised, and went our separate ways.

As we move through life, everyone sometimes learns that relationships end. Sometimes relationships end with conflict and pain; other times, they end simply because you start to move in different directions in life or you literally move away from each other and don’t maintain the relationship. As a pastor, I’ve also helped people through the end of relationships at times – sometimes by trying to bring reconciliation but not being able to; at other times, simply as a friend who is helping someone seek to heal from the end of a job, or a friendship, or a marriage. 

The Bible opens with the failure of a relationship – the relationship between God and human beings. The Bible opens with the creation of the first two people by God; it moves on to the story of how the first two humans turned their backs on God at the instigation of a serpent, who is transparently, in the biblical text, a front for some malignant power. The rest of the Bible’s story is about what God does to mend that relationship.

I don’t need to retell you the whole story: The first two humans listen to the voice of the serpent who tells them that God is simply trying to keep them from something good by forbidding them from eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They take the fruit, and by that they show that they are now going to listen to the serpent rather than God to learn how life works.

But God comes and looks for them to enjoy fellowship with them in the garden, but they hide themselves from him. 

Adam says, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.”

God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten the fruit of the tree?”

Adam says, “The woman who you gave to be with me….” (The first whining blame-shifter in the Bible!)

Eve said, “The serpent…” (The second whining blame-shifter)

What follows are called the oracles of curse. They go in reverse order from what has just transpired. First, the serpent; then the Woman; then the Man. Only the serpent is cursed directly; the man and woman find that the sphere of their greatest responsibility in life is now cursed.

We only want to look at the curse on the serpent. Look at verse 14:
“Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
This is the personal consequence for the serpent. Liberal scholars tend to see in the Bible only individual units of material – they don’t believe the Bible comes from God and tells a story. So, they read this as an ancient story that explains why people don’t like snakes. Period. But that doesn’t seem to explain the place of these words in the event that has just happened. Some believe this is saying that before the fall, snakes had legs and after the fall, they had none. The text doesn’t actually say this – this is simply a statement of the low state of the snake in the scheme of life and the fact that the snake or serpent becomes, throughout the Bible, a symbol of evil and degradation.

But it’s the next part we want to explore. Following upon the fact that the snake, by nature, slithers along on the ground without any limbs, comes these words which contain the seed promise of the serpent’s ultimate defeat – in fact, they are the first promise stated in the Bible:
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
      and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel.”

Twenty-seven words in English; only 15 in Hebrew. Now, this is a brief and enigmatic statement – so short and succinct that it appears to be a prediction of some distant event. The participants represent more than themselves: they are people and forces in conflict until some distant “offspring” appears. There is in this verse a puzzling yet important vagueness: Who is the “offspring of the woman”? It seems obvious that the purpose of verse 15 is not to answer that question but to raise it.” It takes the rest of scripture to answer it. I’d like to answer it this morning.

Let’s break the verse into two parts – in the text they are divided by the semi-colon. The first part reads, again:
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.
The fall has just occurred. Tempted by the serpent, the first humans have sinned. They have sided with the serpent against God, determining to be autonomous, to make their own way through the world. And what these words predict is that, because of the fall, there will be a constant struggle within every human between good and evil.

Remember, the cause of the fall was the desire to know good and evil. God told Adam: “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2.17). And the serpent said, “God is withholding something from you because he wants to keep it to himself – you will not surely die.” The fall was an act of rebellion, a siding with the serpent.

And now, after the fall, they will know good and evil. In part this knowledge is personal experience – they won’t just understand the different between good and evil; this will personally experience it. And even more, they will desire the good, but they will find that they will do the evil.

With this event, the humans – Adam and Eve and all who have descended from them – fell under the sway of the evil powers of the universe. The serpent represents the evil one and, as the story unfolds, we find clearly that he is, as it says in Revelation 12, “…that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12.9). And there we have been held till this day.
Here’s what we read in Eph 2.1:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2.1-3)
With the fall, all the race fell under the sway of the evil one and exists there until this day. We have been captured by the malignant powers of the universe, the devil and his minions. Humans become the dupes and stooges of evil.

Now this doesn’t mean that every human being is as evil as possible or that we are incapable of ever thinking good thoughts, desiring to do good and to be good. It means that we are incapable of actually doing good for the right reasons so that all of our righteous actions are stained by sin in the sight of God as Isaiah said so clearly.

And what was the promised outcome of their disobedience? “You will surely die…” this happened when they sinned. But they would have had little idea of what this meant; they wouldn’t immediately grasp that death is first spiritual and only later physical. But the first inkling comes in the next chapter when Cain murders Abel. Imagine the grief the first parents felt – “we weren’t created for a world like this; it was not like this when we walked in fellowship with God in the garden.”

Because of the fall, there is a constant struggle within every human between good and evil. We conceive of good – in life, in society, in family. But we cannot carry it out in any consistent way; we always twist the good into some self-serving end, as our political parties inevitably show us, because of sin. Why is it so frequent that old people are disillusioned, angry, and cynical? They hoped for so much more! And they find that, in the end, they are not what they hoped and life is not what they envisioned. Make this world your all, and that is what you will find.

In the midst of the statement of the consequences of the serpent’s work, in the midst of the curse, comes a surprising promise.
 “he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel.”

A couple of notes on this. The first enigma about the curse is first the word “offspring” and second the word “bruise.”

Offspring is actually the Hebrew word “seed.” Many of you may be using a Bible that translates this “seed.” This word is word in which the singular and the plural are the same – offspring or seed can refer to one person or to many. And it becomes an issue in this passage: is the promise talking about one descendant of the woman or whole generations? The text leaves that open.

And then, the word bruise. This word simply means to “strike a heavy blow” as in “He hit him with a hammer.” The word itself doesn’t tell you whether the blow is fatal, merely that it is substantial. The same word is used of what the serpent will do to the offspring and what the offspring of the woman will do to the serpent.

What makes this clearer in this passage is the location of the blow – “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”

Imagine hearing of a soldier in warfare. It is reported that he was struck with a bullet from a high-calibre rifle. Now much of the outcome is going to depend on where he was struck. If it says he was struck on the foot with a bullet from a high-calibre rifle, you know that the wound is significant but, by itself, not likely to be fatal. Such a bullet may obliterate his entire heel which will cause a debilitating wound. The soldier may lose his foot; if not, he will certainly require many surgeries, over many weeks or months, with a long recovery. He may never walk again, and if he does, it will be with a limp.

However, if he is struck, the report says, in the head, you are dealing with not a debilitating wound, but a deadly wound.

That’s what’s pictured here: The serpent will strike at the Offspring’s heel (as snakes are apt to do, because that’s generally how far they can reach) and it will bring a significant but not deadly wound. The Offspring will strike the snake with his heel – that is, he’ll stomp on him. And that will crush his head. A deadly wound.

The basic promise is: The offspring will destroy the serpent and in the process be wounded himself.
Here’s the meaning: God promises to destroy the curse-bringer through the descendants of the woman.

Stephen Dempster says this: “In light of the immediate context, the triumph of the woman’s seed would suggest a return to the Edenic state, before the serpent had wrought its damage, and a [seizure] of the dominion of the world from the serpent.” There’s the promise.

Now, let’s ask: How would Adam and Eve have heard this promise? Forget all the intervening history, the growth of civilization, the rise of the people of God, and all that. They were the first to hear this promise. It was spoken in their hearing.

Well, the next thing that happens is the birth of Cain, Genesis 4.1, and Eve says exuberantly, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” They would have thought he was the Offspring! But he proves himself not to be by his murder of his brother. Next, Genesis 4.25, the birth of Seth. Eve says, “God has appointed for me another offspring (there’s the word!) instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.
Or move ahead in the biblical story. How would Israel later have understood this as they wandered in the desert? Well, the promise was clearly given to Judah, one of the sons of Jacob – he would rule. But Judah proved incapable of fulfilling the promise.

Or, later, when Israel entered the promised land, how would the people of God have understood this promise? Well, David, of the tribe of Judah was appointed as king and he established the kingdom. But he didn’t reverse the curse, in fact, he was caught in it himself. But then, they looked to the descendants of David, also the offspring of Judah. But again, failure!

When Israel was exiled for their sin from the land and cast into foreign nations, how would they have understood this? The prophets, who preached during that time look to the faithful remnant who would return to the land. They would crush the serpent’s head. But, though the remnant returned to the land, their hearts were not yet faithful.

How about the remnant who returned and lived in Palestine from the close of the Old Testament until the birth of Christ? Well, they searched the prophets and longed for God to fulfill his promises, they looked for the Messiah, that is, the Davidic king who would come and restore them to their favored position among the nations.

And how does the New Testament look for this promise? It is centered on Jesus Christ, David’s greater Son.

·        He was, as Paul said, “Born of a woman.” No one has ever been born who was not born of a woman, but the usual phrase in the Bible is that a person was the son or daughter of a man – but, the virgin birth is the proof that the fulfillment comes through one who is the fullest respect “born of a woman” in fact, without male involvement.

·        He was of the tribe of Judah and Jacob’s blessing predicted. He was of the lineage of David, as God predicted through Samuel.
      He gathered, as the prophets’ predicted the truly “faithful remnant” – those whose obedience was both internal and external, in his apostles and later in those believers that they gathered into churches.
·        And Paul makes a final statement of the Offspring to the church in Rome (Rom 16.20):
     For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.  The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
      The promise, stated in such simplicity and almost enigmatic in its meaning has grown in meaning and in significance. The promise made right after the fall is fulfilled in Christ and still awaits its final and complete fulfillment when Christ comes with his people to establish the kingdom of God on the earth. 

The offspring, the “seed” is both singular and plural. It is Christ who fulfills the promise, just as we are told that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2Co 1.20). And those who by faith are united to him will with him be a part of the final accomplishment of God’s purposes to overturn the curse and return the garden.

In sum, when we celebrate Christmas, this is what we celebrate – not simply the birth of a child in long-ago and far-away Palestine (though, thank God, that is how it happened!); not a child lying helpless in the arms of his mother (though, wonder of wonders, for a time God reduced himself to such a place!). Not shepherds and angels (though, yes, heaven met with earth to rejoice at that great event.

But those are just little pieces of the story. What we celebrate is that the living a true God showed himself to be the Promise Keeper. Exactly what he promised in the beginning – that the Offspring of the Woman would destroy the ancient Enemy of the human race. And all who trust in him and in him alone become a part of the people of God who will share in the final crushing the Serpent’s head.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas 2017: He Will Save His People from Their Sins (Matthew 1.18-25)

People speak today of a ‘war on Christmas.’ It is more appropriate to acknowledge that the war is on religion, it is on belief in God, any god. And, because Christian faith was the religion that shaped the Western world, the war in America is primarily on Christian faith – all Christian faith. Since we are about to celebrate the Christmas, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect together on how we should think and act this year.

Now most people are aware that Christmas was not celebrated in the early church. There is information in the New Testament about the birth of Jesus Christ but there is no evidence it was a subject of much thought to the first Christians – it was only in the fourth century that the church decided to celebrate his birth on December 25. By doing this, the growing Christian movement replaced the feast of the Winter Solstice in the Roman pagan calendar. The Winter solstice is ‘the shortest day of the year’ and was called the feast of the invincible Sun because it is the day on which the amount of daylight begins increase each day. This was celebrated in most ancient cultures which were all based on the seasons of the year. I’m not sure that was a wrong choice but it did lead to some unfortunate consequences. Since it was for centuries considered a season for celebration, usually accompanied by drinking, feasting, and relative freedom from work, that part of it became a part of the Christmas celebration as well. And that tension – between celebration of the birth of the Savior, and celebration of life and freedom – has remained a part of the celebration of Christmas ever since.

For over 1000 years, Christmas was just one of the days of the church year, an important day, granted; sort of a high holy day, but it was not a family celebration as we know it now. But the pagan festivities continued, which the church, with varying degrees of effort, tried to suppress.

During the reformation, in the 1500’s, many leaders were convinced that the church should only recognize those holidays found in the New Testament. They taught that the only true ‘festival’ is the weekly gathering of Christians on the first day of the week, which they called, “The Lord’s Day,” or, “the Christian Sabbath.” But people never really bought it – certain times of the year were, by the custom of centuries, thought to be important to maintain and a winter-festival like Christmas was one of them. But the Reformed churches, and later the Puritans, never really succeeded, although one of the victories of the Reformed churches was a great decrease in the ‘cultural celebration” activities like drinking, partying, and immorality. That lasted from about 1500 until 1800. 

But Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas with the kind of fervor we see today really until the 1840’s. What we think of as “Christmas” started with the influence of one, well-known, person named Charles Dickens. Most of us have heard of his little book, “A Christmas Carole.” What most people don’t know is that – when he was strapped for money with a rapidly growing family, he wrote that little book in addition to the book “David Copperfield” which he was writing at the time, simply to produce some income. Dicken’s books were produced “in serial.” That means, he had to produce about 70 pages of material a month which came out in magazine form. In the day before television, this was the equivalent of the ‘sit-com’ or the ‘dramatic crime shows,’ like “Law and Order” that we have today. He wrote them to come out over a twelve month period which explains why all of famous novels are about 850 pages!

But his little Christmas book was so immensely popular that he did that for five years. Between 1843 and 1847, he wrote, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘The Chimes,’ ‘The Cricket on the Hearth,’ ‘The Battle of Life,’ and ‘The Haunted Man.’ They all pictured Christmas as a time of feasting, singing, family happiness, gift giving.

Now Dickens had a very sentimental view of Christianity – it’s sole purpose is to uplift people to be better, kinder, and more giving with each other. And the view of Christmas for one of the most popular authors in the world, a true world celebrity, was infectious. The modern idea of Christmas was born.

Let’s add to that the great change that was brought into Western Culture by the enlightenment in the 1700’s. This was a cultural movement, at first primarily in the universities of Europe that stressed skepticism of religion and the general ideas of tolerance, individual liberty, and the scientific revolution. The result was a slow, two-hundred-year erosion of confidence in the Bible, and trust in religious authority which finally accomplished its aim by seeping into all levels of society by the end of the twentieth century so that undermined Christian faith. We are now reaping the bitter fruit of that as the majority of people in the Western world have abandoned even the vestiges of the biblical world-view that was once the predominant world-view of our country.

With that, we have come a full circle by returning to the point when Christians first married Christmas to the feast of the Winter solstice in about 350 ad. The tables have been turned, and the Christian attempt to pre-empt the pagan religious holiday has been repaid by the pagan attempt to re-establish the general cultural Winter festival in place of the Christian celebration of ‘Christmas.’
If it is true that “History is written by the winners,” the ascendant philosophy of our day which is Secular Materialism or Secular Humanism or whatever name you want to give it is re-writing history to say that Christianity was a dominant philosophy for a time but its time is up. So now, we are told we must say “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas,” and we can celebrate Christmas by watching Elf or the Polar Express, setting up a tree with lights, and drinking egg nog – none of which contain any element or reference to Christian faith or the birth of Jesus Christ.

So God’s word to you this morning is “Let the pagans have their holiday.” Lay down your arms and give up the fight. There never was a fight to begin with.

We celebrate the birth of Christ because it is revealed in the Bible. Only two of the four gospels give information about the birth of Christ, Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t focus on it, though the fact of the virgin birth is referred to in a rather obscure, though clear way in the Gospel of John. Matthew gives the story of the birth as it impacted Joseph which Luke seems to contain the eye-witness testimony of the mother of Jesus.

And it’s a good idea for us to celebrate what originally was called “The celebration of the Nativity” (which mean birth). Even though we don’t know exactly what year it occurred or what season of the year, December is as good a time as any. And it provides us an opportunity to consider the impact of his birth ourselves, to teach our children about it, and to use the occasion to teach people about the origin of our celebration.

This passage that was read for us gives the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph, the step-father of Jesus. What Mary had been told by the angel so many months before, that she would bear as an unmarried woman by the action of the Holy Spirit, and she would bear “the Son of God,” Joseph would learn only later. Joseph, this tells us, was a just man and didn’t want to publicly disgrace Mary by an open divorce – this would reveal her as a woman who had been unfaithful to him during their betrothal. We are told that he was a just man, and this doesn’t mean he was a compassionate or merciful man (though he was). Just or righteous in its Old Testament meaning indicates that he was faithful to God and observant of the law. He could not in good conscience marry Mary – to go ahead with the marriage was to take the blame on himself as though he had violated the betrothal by impregnating her before the formal marriage. But the law allowed for a private divorce before two witnesses. His planned course would have left Joseph’s conformity to the law and his compassion intact. But, so the angel instructs him to take her as his wife, which meant taking the responsibility for her pregnancy on himself in the eyes of society.

But the central point of the story, and the one important for us this morning, is verse 21:
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
This incredibly important sentence ties together the Old Testament and the New Testament. "She will bear a son" takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, when the first woman, Eve, is given the promise of the gospel — a woman, a daughter of Eve, will bear the promised seed who will crush the serpent’s head. The daughter of Eve now bears the promised Seed who is from God, the one who is ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit.’ Joseph is to name him “JESUS,” which is an Old Testament name – Joshua (Jehoshua) in its long form, or Jeshua in its shortened form – which means “Yahweh” (the name of God”) “Yahweh Saves. Why? Because he will save his people from their sins.
Interestingly, the angel doesn’t explain the etymology of his name (like I just did). He doesn’t refer to the two key Old Testament people with the name Joshua – the successor of Moses, Joshua, the one who led the people into the promised land at the beginning Old Testament history, and the high priest, Jeshua, at the end of the Old Testament history who accompanied the descendant of David, Zerubbabel who led the people back to the land.

Instead, he refers to a psalm that promises that “He (the Lord) will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps 130.8). It reminds us that God’s aim is the redemption of individuals, the salvation of his people. This is why he came. As Jesus says about himself in this same book, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20.28).
So, let the pagans have their Christmas. Let them continue to press their attack on any expression of Christian values in the public square – but don’t you suppress your commitment to Jesus Christ.  

And remember why he came – ‘he will save his people from their sins.’