Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Gifts of Christmas: PEACE!

[Rather than an expository sermon based on a single passage of Scripture, I decided today to touch on several passages that have come up in our small group discussions this month, that help us understand the “gift” of peace in the incarnation. SN]

Luke 2:14 (plus various other scriptures)
Introduction:  One of the verses that have stood out to me this year is the word of the angel to the Shepherds in Luke 2:14,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth
peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
When we read the headlines, there seems to be a decided lack of peace on earth: The last week to ten days: a terror attack in Berlin, an assassination in Turkey, war in Syria, atrocities in Aleppo, protests in our own state capitals last week as our electors cast their ballots, the US shockingly abstaining from a U.N. security council vote condemning some of Israel’s settlements… you get the idea. “There is no peace on earth they said!” There is no question we live in a fallen world, and that highlights the real issue, and the real reason for the incarnation.
       The Hebrew word “Shalom” is explained by one scholar as “The state of fulfillment that results from God’s presence.” This is what is expressed in the Aaronic benediction in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you;  25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;  26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” God’s presence means peace to those who are His.
        In its biblical context “peace” relates to the idea that was expressed when God looked at His creation, before the fall, and pronounced it “good,” tov. God who is holy and perfect was in perfect fellowship with his creation, no sin, no separation. There was peace.  Yes, God walked in the Garden with the man and the woman, there was peace, shalom, on earth. That peace was disrupted by the fall which brought death, the curse, and suffering into the world. It meant separation between God and humans, fellowship was broken! In the fullness of time the arrival of the Prince of Peace, according to promise, meant that fellowship can be restored, reconciliation was possible between God and those who would believe, those who would receive the provision that God made for our redemption. Jesus said “I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly!” (John 10:10).
       Last week we read the words of the prophet in Isaiah 9:6-7,  
6 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 Peace7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this
This is the prophetic anticipation of the Christmas event, and it brings us to… 
The Maine* Idea: True peace, lasting peace, peace that transcends the uncertainly of life in this fallen world, is available to all who will trust in Jesus, the one, true Gift of Christmas.
We’ll consider that from three perspectives:
1. The Prospect of Peace was revealed through the ages…
2. The Prince of Peace is the only One who can bring the peace we long for.
3. The Presence of Peace is possible now, because of Him. First then…

I. The PROSPECT of Peace, revealed through the ages to the prophets…
       We read a promise in Isaiah 26:3-4, the prophet seems to speak first to the Lord, then to the people…
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.  4 Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Here the words of the prophet show that peace, perfect peace, is possible for those whose “mind is stayed” on the LORD, those who trust the Rock of Ages. The hymn writer no doubt reflected on these verses: “Stayed up on Jehovah, hearts are truly blessed, finding as He promised, perfect peace and rest.”  It seems that some of the Jews of Jesus’ time made the connection between the coming of the Messiah, and the promise of peace. We read in Luke’s account of the triumphal entry, in Luke 19:37,38, a detail we don’t see in the other gospels…
37 As he was drawing near- already on the way down the Mount of Olives- the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen,  38 saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
The Pharisees wanted Jesus to rebuke the people, but Jesus allowed their words, in fact He said if they were silenced the rocks would cry out. Even so, He wept over the city, He knew that the people did not understand what would need to happen for true peace to be made possible… “…Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:42).  The people spoke of peace, but they didn’t understand. Jesus held forth the prospect of peace, but it would not be the mere absence of war or oppression. It would be much more, the possibility of the shalom for which we were created, the peace that can only be experienced in the presence of God. Remember Jesus teaching his disciples in the upper room, preparing them for life and mission in the world without His physical presence. He began and ended the upper room discourse in John with a promise of Peace,
26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid…” (John 14:26,27).
And then, in John 16:33 we read,  I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." The disciples were about to go through a heart wrenching and confusing series of events. By now they were coming to grips with the fact that Jesus was no mere man, that He was the One for whom the nation had been waiting. He was the Prince of Peace spoken of by the prophets! But suddenly their hopes would seemingly be dashed as he is arrested and scourged, and nailed to a Roman cross. He chose to endure such hostilities at the hands of sinners against himself, to make a way for us to experience true “peace.” That is what we long for, “True peace, lasting peace, peace that transcends the uncertainly of life in this fallen world, peace which is available to all who will trust in Jesus, the one, true Gift of Christmas.” The prophets held up the prospect of peace, and pointed to…
II. The PRINCE of Peace is the only One who can bring the peace we long for.
Paul explains in Colossians 1:19-22 who Jesus is, and what He came to do,
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,  22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him
Don’t miss what he is saying, God became a man to reconcile sinful humans with holy God—to make “peace” through the blood of his cross! He came, he chose to come, knowing what would happen. That is the motivation behind the historical truth that “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). Billy Graham described the wonder of it,
Christmas is not a myth, not a tradition, not a dream. It is a glorious reality. It is a time of joy. Bethlehem’s manger crib become the link that bound a lost world to a loving God. From that manger came a Man who not only taught a new way of life, but brought us into a new relationship with the Creator. Christmas means that God is interested in the affairs of people; that God loves us so much that He was willing to give His Son
The writer to the Hebrews explained it in Hebrews 10:3-14,   
3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year.  4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure...  10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,  13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.  14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
We read more about that in Ephesians 2:14-17,
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility  15 by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.  17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”
For Jew and Gentile alike the way to peace is through faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. That is true peace, lasting peace, peace that transcends the uncertainly of life in this fallen world, and it is available to all who will trust in Jesus, the one, true Gift of Christmas. That brings us to the last point I want to touch on…
III. The Presence of Peace is possible now, because of Him.  Remember how we started, talking about The Hebrew word “Shalom” as “The state of fulfillment that results from God’s presence.” So “peace” relates to the idea of re-establishing God's design for creation, before the fall, when He pronounced it “good,” when God was in perfect fellowship with humans.  God walked in the Garden with the man and the woman, there was peace, shalom, on earth. That peace was disrupted by the fall but the coming of the Prince of Peace, according to promise, according to God’s plan, means that fellowship can be restored, reconciliation between God and those who would believe. Now the prophets did speak of a Day that would come, when there would again be peace on earth. For example we read in Isaiah 2:2-4,   
2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,  3 and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
A few chapters later the prophet gives a glimpse of a future age that would seem to be a return to Eden, a day when…
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.  9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea… (Isa 11:6-9).
That age, when the curse will be undone, and the creation, which is now groaning, waiting for the completion of God’s plan, will be made new, is still future.  Even so, if we know Him, He is present with us, and His presence means peace can reign in our hearts. So Paul can say in Philippians 4:5-9,
5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;  6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me- practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Notice, “The Lord is at hand…” It is His presence that means peace to His people. So even in the midst of hardship and suffering, even when it makes no sense from a merely human perspective, we can have peace, the peace of God, because we have peace with God.  There is a third aspect of “peace” that flows from this which I heard in a devotional this week: since we have peace with God, and the peace of God, we also can be, and are called to be peace makers – seeking first of all to be servants of the Prince of Peace, embracing the mission of urging those around us to be reconciled to God! There is much turmoil in the world, but Christmas means PEACE to those who will receive Him.
What is God saying to me in this passage? True peace, lasting peace, peace that transcends the uncertainly of life in this fallen world, is available to all who will trust in Jesus, the one, true Gift of Christmas.
What would God have me to do in response to this passage? Go to your own people, to your oikos, to your family and friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you! Peace with God is good news, too good for us to keep to ourselves!  The price has been paid, and think about this: God would use us to extend the gift of forgiveness and life to those around us! In Him we can have peace. And the peace of God is something that people are desperately seeking, though many of them just don’t know it. The shepherds heard the word of the angels, the promise of “peace on earth,” and when they saw the child, they went out and spread the word to all who would listen! The Good News of peace was too much to keep to themselves!  Share with those in your sphere of influence the message of Christmas, and the peace that is available in Jesus.   AMEN.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Shepherd and the Lamb

[This first person monologue is essentially what I used during as a Christmas message in 2014 and 2015, with some small changes. It tells the Christmas story from the perspective of one of the shepherds who were there...]

Call me Yitzak, Yitzak ben Yehuda. I am a humble shepherd, as was My father, and his father before him. I am a son of Abraham and a follower of Yeshua ha meshiach, Jesus, the Christ… I am what I am by the grace of the Most High – that is really the Story I have come to share – the story of His Grace!  God has acted in history of our good—but I am getting ahead of myself—I am old now, fourscore, 80 years?... but I come today to tell you of a night many years ago, I was but a boy... Well, my 10th birthday had passed, in my culture, I was nearly a man, it was time to work, time to join my father and the other men in the fields! All I ever wanted was to be a shepherd.
     Yes, I know that we shepherds are not the most respected of people… especially by the pious Jews...  People say we smell like sheep... [sniffs himself, and then shrugs]. I say is that such a bad thing?  If I didn’t like the smell of sheep I wouldn’t be a shepherd! It is true that it has always been difficult for us to be observant Jews—we need to be in the fields taking care of the flocks—how can we get into the city for worship and sacrifice?  Of course that has changed for everyone, since the Temple was destroyed last year, almost 40 years after our Lord’s departure…  There would be no more sacrifices! Most of us Shepherds are not educated... few of us learn letters, but then why would a shepherd need to read?  But even those who can’t read can still hear the Word of the Lord, and learn it, and hide it in our heart...
ybev.yO lAdG" rAa War" %v,xoB; ~ykil.hoh; ~['h'
~h,yle[] Hg:n" rAa tw<m'l.c; #r<a,B.

hä`äm hahölkîm BaHöºšek rä´û ´ôr Gädôl yöšbê
Bü´eºrec calmäºwet ´ôr nägah `álêhem
Oh, you don’t speak Hebrew? Excuse me my Gentile friends! Let me translate into your strange tongue: “The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined.” Do you recognize the words of the great prophet, Isaiah? Seven centuries before the Master’s birth He spoke of the coming of the Light of the World! Did he know that the Light would be both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb?
       Yes, for centuries shepherds have been at the heart of Israel’s faith...  The fathers were shepherds were they not?  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… Moses himself tended sheep—ahh, and this is the heart of the matter—when God was hardening the heart of Pharaoh, he told the people through Moses to sacrifice a Lamb, a spotless Lamb—and to put the blood over the door and on the door posts... It meant life in that home instead of death...
       I am a just shepherd, and like my father and his father before him I tend my sheep in the fields around a small and humble hamlet in Judea.  The name of our town means “House of Bread,” “Bethlehem” you call it... a small place but with a great history...  Our father David was from this same village, he too tended sheep you know, on these very hills... Ahh, the City of David… The great prophet Micah spoke of this place when he wrote centuries before the Master’s birth…
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the clans of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting."
This would be the place from which the Messiah would come… The Promised One, the Son of the Most High… the Son of David for whom we had been waiting for so long.  [Looks aside with a sneer of disdain] We were under the thumb of Rome even in those days, we needed our Rescuer, we were looking and waiting for the Hope of Israel. So much we did not understand…
     It was a quiet and cold night 3 score and ten years ago… can it be that long, 70 years? It seems like yesterday…  We were in the fields taking care of the sheep with my father and a few other hardworking, humble shepherds.  It was a clear night… how I love such nights, the Heavens truly declare the glory of God! Oh, so many stars!  I tried to count them more than once but I always ran out of numbers long before I ran out of stars! (I wasn’t the brightest candle in the Menorah!). It wasn’t a dream… I was laying on the ground, looking up at the marvel of the heavens… Suddenly, a glorious sight, I can hardly describe it even after all these years… There suspended above us in the sky a shining angel of the Lord!  I was already laying on the ground, but we all knew we were in the presence of holiness!  My father and the men with him fell to their faces in fear before that powerful creature from heaven…  Why was he here... what had we done... what did this mean???    And then, the incredible Word…
Fear not…” Fear not?  How could we not be afraid at such a glorious sight?  Though his voice was powerful, at the same time his words were comforting, calming, peaceful.  And you know, somehow, immediately, I was not afraid.  But he went on, and his next words brought a message that our people had longed to hear for so long… He said,  “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Christ the Lord… Messiah had come? Messiah had come!
For centuries our people had looked for the coming of the promised One… It was our “blessed hope” at that time to be sure.  Messiah! The prophecies had started almost from the beginning… from the time of the Fall…  Adam and Eve sinned, and brought death and the curse upon humanity… But even then God promised a Seed, a Rescuer who would crush the Serpent’s head…  And God gave them skins for a covering… Think of it… the Author of life, God himself, killed one of his creatures, shedding its blood, to provide a covering for the man and his woman… Yes, they learned quickly: sin would require a price, a life, it would require blood… The hope of a savior, the messiah, took many shapes in the Scriptures… The sacrifices yes, also… The great prophet Isaiah spoke of a suffering Servant when he said,
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  3 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.  4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth… (Isa 53:2-7).
Like a sheep…He, the Messiah, the King, the Good Shepherd, He was also the Lamb…  The Servant, the sacrifices, another strand of our hope was the promise made to David. He was promised a Son, an ideal Son who would have an eternal reign, and who also would be called the Son of God… Yet… who also would be a rejected, righteous sufferer.  This cord of three strands, the Lamb, the Servant, the rejected King was woven through the fabric of the Scriptures… How could they come together? When would the promised One arrive?     The Angel announced that day, to us, the joyous news…
TODAY, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you… He is Christ the Lord…”   
Messiah!  Could it be true?  Today?  Generations before had longed for this day, and now it had come!  The Son of David, the Servant, the Lamb, my King, he was here!
   But what did the angel say?  Could it be true?  “Onto YOU has been born a Savior…” To us?  Including humble shepherds like us?  We were not the pious ones, the tsaddaqim! We were not the religious elite!  We were not aristocracy or royalty, we were not powerful or influential.  Could it be he came for the meek? Could it be he had come for sinners?
       I must say that it didn’t strike me at that moment on that starry night, but for many nights afterward I heard my father and the other men speculate, “Why did the angel bring this news to us?” Why not the priests, or the Scribes?  Only years later did it dawn on us… we were in those fields caring for the sheep, animals destined for Temple Sacrifice.  He was THE sacrifice, God’s Lamb, who would take away the sin of the world.  It was as though the angel was saying,     “Why are you here watching over these lambs? Get down to Bethlehem and see the Lamb of God!”
     Thirty years later, as he presented himself to John the Baptizer to begin his public ministry, John saw him and said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The blood of our sacrifices could not take away sin—the blood of bulls and goats or the ashes of a heifer could not sanctify those who were unclean… a perfect sacrifice was needed, one of infinite worth… The Eternal Son, Emmanuel, God with us—The Lamb had been born! How could we imagine that one day, His precious blood would be shed?
       The word the Angel spoke was more than we could imagine… “This will be a sign for you… You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Where? In a manger?  The Messiah?  Our King and Savior? The Great I AM, now incarnate, in a humble stable, his first bed, an animal’s feeding bin?
      Suddenly, there was with that Angel a multitude of Angels, the hosts of heaven, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."  Peace!  How long we had waited for it.  God’s favor had truly rested on us. Simple people, and yes, sinful people… But God chose us to receive the Good NEWS, he chose us to be his own, to be his witnesses, even to be his messengers…
     We hurried to town, and found them… exactly as the Angel had said: Emmanuel… A baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger… Have you held a newborn baby?  So weak, so fragile. Think of it-on such a slender thread as the feeble throb of an infant life, the salvation of the World should hang.
  Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.”
 His first bed in this cold world a feeding bin, his first shelter, a grotto used as a shelter for animals.  But his name told the story: Yeshua, Jesus, the Savior.
     We shouted to whoever would listen that Messiah had been born. The Rescuer was here, the Lord had come, let earth receive her King! But, many had shouted that before—who would listen to a handful of Shepherds?   
       We were the first, but not the only ones that received a revelation that the Messiah had come. Sometime after His birth the Magi came from the East to see the new born king, they offered Him gifts and worshipped Him, and then left by another way to return to their own land.  What followed next was the most horrific experience our village would ever know. That madman Herod!  We had no warning, Herod’s soldiers stormed into town, ripping babies and toddlers from their mothers’ arms... slaughter... every male child under 2! Oh the wailing! The unspeakable grief! They could not be comforted. The pain of violently losing a Son…  Do you know it?  God does... [pauses, looks downward and sighs] …but His time had not yet come.  We later learned that Mary and Joseph had escaped with the Son to Egypt. Only after Herod died did they return to his family’s home in Nazareth.
       You know the rest of the story… He grew up as did I, and for years, we heard almost nothing more about him.  It was only later that we began to hear reports of a rabbi who taught with authority… a prophet, miracle worker and preacher.  When I heard the stories, I was sure it must be Him.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, cured lepers, cast out demons, gave sight to the blind, he even raised the dead! When I heard his name, Jesus, there was no doubt.  The name his parents had given him that night in Bethlehem! We thought he would soon assume the throne of David and establish his kingdom.  Even we, the shepherds, forgot what the Lamb had come to do.
       He entered Jerusalem that last week… At first to cheers, “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. The King of Israel!” A week is such a short time… the days pass quickly… Then it happened. Betrayal. Denial. Scourging. A crown of thorns pushed down on his holy brow. The cross. Darkness.  How could they do it?  Why did he let them
       We should have known: “Without the shedding of blood, there could be no remission of sins.”  There was sadness and confusion among us for three days.  What had happened?  What did this mean?  Three days later, all doubt was removed forever! The tomb was empty!   He appeared, first to Cephas, then to the 12, and on one occasion to over 500 of the brethren at once!  I have spoken with those who were there—they saw him, and touched him, they even ate with Him—he is alive! He is the resurrection and the life… the Way, the Truth and the Life!
       For forty days he appeared to His disciples and taught them about the kingdom. The time came for him to return to heaven… The disciples then asked Him: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The Master is so patient with us! He didn’t rebuke them, like a Shepherd guiding a lamb that was wandering he simply “redirected” them. It wasn’t a stupid question, it was just the wrong question!  Rather than ask “when?” the kingdom will come they should have asked “what shall we do until that day?”!
        He said they were to wait for the Comforter to come, the Spirit who would empower them, then they would be His witnesses starting in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth!  When He finished speaking, before their very eyes, He ascended into Heaven!  As they stood, gazing heavenward, an angel spoke:  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing upward? This same Jesus, who you saw go into Heaven, will return in like manner! HE WILL RETURN!  Now, in faith, we wait.  Our beloved brother Paul said in a letter to Titus,
11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12 teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14)
That is my hope, that is how I must live.  And you?  Have you put your hope, your trust in Him? He is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who laid down his life for the sheep…
       Yeshua, Jesus, there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved. Are you looking for the Blessed Hope, the glorious appearing of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ?  As surely as he came the first time, in fulfillment of Scripture, he will come again, according to his promise.  Are you waiting? Is He your Blessed Hope?    Good.  How will you live until he returns?  Your trees and lights and decorations are beautiful. But even more beautiful is this truth: The Word was made flesh, and lived for a while among us… and, …as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name. Do you know Him? Have you received the true gift of Christmas? Will you follow Him? During these days of celebration, tell someone you know and love about the Gift the Father offers them!

       Baruch ha shem AdonaiYeshua, ha Meshiach! Blessed be the Name of the Lord!  Jesus, the Christ.  Shalom! Peace!  Go, tell your people what the Lord has done for you!

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Gift of Christmas is Jesus

[This week is the Family Christmas Program at Boothbay Baptist Church, so there will be skits and music in place of the sermon. The following short devotional will be used to close the service.]
Isaiah 9:6-7 says,
For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”
I’d like to focus on two of the titles that were given to the Child who was to be born: Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. The first one tells us who He was, the tells something about what He came to do.

       First, notice the Child is called “Mighty God.”  We celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we need to remember who He is. How could any human baby have such a title? God the Son, the eternal Son who shares all the attributes of the Godhead with the Father and the Spirit, took upon Himself a human nature. Remember how Paul said it in Philippians 2:6-7,  

“…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Out of ivory palaces, into this world of woe… He chose that, He did it willingly for us. God became a man. John starts His gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Then in v.14 he says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” He came in such a humble way, taking a human nature, born as a baby. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate deity! Born of man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!

       Secondly, notice that He would be called “Prince of Peace.” In the first verses of Isaiah 9 the prophet spoke about the darkness and death that dominates in this fallen world, but also of the promise of a Light shining in darkness which would bring Joy to the world (Isa 9:1-3). The One who is “Mighty God,” God incarnate, is also “Prince of Peace,” i.e., “The Prince of Shalom.” His reign would be marked by the presence of God and the blessings of Kingdom life for which we were created. Notice verse 7, “Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end…” Remember the words of the angel on the night of His birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men…” The idea isn’t an immediate end to conflict in the world… that surely hasn’t happened! It does mean that humans had been offered a path to reconciliation with God: by grace, through faith. The enmity and separation caused by sin has been undone for all who will believe in Him, recognizing who He is, trusting in what He did for us. Because we can have peace with God we can experience the peace of God.

       The church father Augustine said it eloquently in one of his sermons…

The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day for his human birth. On the bosom of His Father he existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly mother, He entered upon the course of years on this day.
The Maker of men became man that He, the Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; the He, the judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, discipline, might be scourged by whips; that He the foundation, might be suspended on a Cross; that courage might be weakened; that security might be wounded; that Life might die…
To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands had done nothing to deserve those benefits…”

That is the Gift of Christmas, “The wages of sin is death [that is what we deserve], but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He is offering you the gift… will you receive it? It is as simple as ABC, Admit you are sinner, Believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for your sins on the Cross, and Confess Him now as your Savior and Lord.  Receive the Gift of Christmas that He is offering to you!    AMEN.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent: The Gift of Love - I John 4:7-11

Advent: The Gift of Love
I John 4:7-11
Introduction:  Our Advent theme this year is the Gift, and “gifts” of Christmas. The gift is JESUS, and the gifts we are talking about are perspectives on what we have been given in Him. Last week we were reminded from Paul’s letter to Titus that Christmas means hope for those who trust Christ. Now this week, we consider “The Gift of Love.”  “I love Christmas,” many will say, “Especially the parties and presents!” That is not what we have in mind. Love for our families is certainly something we should cherish, but even that is not the most fundamental connection between love and Christmas. It’s a revelation of God’s love for us.
       I’ve actually heard people say, “Why do you people have to ruin Christmas by making it religious?”! That kind of thinking is what is behind the “Happy Holidays” greetings that have displaced Christmas for many. We are not making it religious, other than affirming that we are celebrating the historical fact of the Incarnation of Christ, and celebrating what that means to us. Today we’ll consider the Gift of Love in the Christmas story. It is not primarily about our love for God (though that should be our response), but rather God’s revelation of His love for us in sending the Son.  There are a lot of Scriptures we could turn to consider “The Gift of Love.” Matthew and Luke are the two gospels that give us the most detail about the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus. John’s Gospel starts in eternity past but really emphasizes the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (1:1,14). It’s John that tells us so explicitly why He came, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son...” (3:16).  As I considered this theme I decided to start with John, but rather than in His gospel, in his first epistle. I counted some 46 times in five chapters that John uses the word “love,” either as a noun or as a verb, in this little letter.  A favorite verse of mine is one at the center of the passage we’ll look at today: I John 4:9. We memorized it as a family doing our devotional advent readings together through the years. The NIV translation says: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” That brings us to…
The Maine* Idea: “Christmas” is how God showed His love among us: He sent His Son to give us life! Let that move you to love Him and to love one another.
I. God has revealed his love to humans: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us…” (v.9). THIS is how God showed His love… The omnipotent Creator of the Universe, the One who is all powerful, all knowing, so Holy that He is of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity, revealed Himself to fallen humans. He is a loving God. Immediately before our passage, in I John 4:7,8, we read…
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Not only is love, in its purest sense, an intrinsic aspect of the nature of God, v.9 tells that God “…made manifest…” or revealed His love. He showed us His love, He has chosen to reveal His love to humans by intervening in human history.
             Karl Barth, a famous and very influential German theologian, said that the most profound theological truth he learned in a lifetime of study was, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” God loves us, and God revealed that love so that we could see it and understand it.  God involved himself in human history – this is counter the view of “deism” that pictures the universe as a giant machine that God set in motion, but in which He does not involve himself today.  The truth is that God has revealed himself to us in history, and through His Word.
            In our passage, I John 4:9 is telling us that Christmas manifests or “shows” the love of God.  The verse before says “God is love.” What does that mean? Well we know what it looks like.  It looks like a manger in Bethlehem, a baby wrapped in rags, no room, no comforts, “nowhere to lay his head.”  Ultimately, it looks like a cross on a hill, nail pierced hands, a crown of thorns, a pierced side.  “In this the love of God was made manifest among us…” He could have sent a letter (and He did), He could have come for a visit and taught us the truth (and He did), He spoke to us and lived for a while among us, but he went much further, He did the unimaginable.  Christmas is how God showed His love among us: He sent His Son to rescue us, to give us life. It should motivate us to show our love for him and for one another.
II. God revealed his love to humans by sending His Son into this sin cursed world “…that God sent his only Son into the world…” God sent his Son to die for us—
             This is what manifested [revealed, showed forth…] God’s love.  Remember Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, Justin preached on that a few weeks ago.  Abraham obeyed God, and raised the knife to slay his son, his beloved son, the son of promise. God intervened and the angel said, “Now I know you fear God…” His action demonstrated his heart. Words are easy, actions speak louder than words. Husbands, love you wives. Its more than just “saying” “I love you” now and then.  Do you give her time, are you willing to listen, do you desire her good even before your own?  Christians, Jesus said, more than once, “love one another.” You might think, “I love everyone, I just want nothing to do with most of them!” If faith without works is dead being by itself, love without works is not biblical love.    God showed us his love. He concerned himself with us. He sent His Son, to die for us. Paul says, “…He spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all…”
        God visited us. Remember in Matthew’s account Joseph was reminded of the words of Isaiah, “You shall call his name Emmanuel.” Which means, “God with us.” Paul said in Philippians 2, “Though he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of man.”
             Think of that: God the Son came not just for a visit, but knowing what would happen. He came to die for us. This is the profound truth expressed in the most famous verse of scripture, John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Romans 5:8 makes it clear that God’s love is not earned or deserved: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
        That is the story of Christmas, “the Word was made flesh and lived for a while among us…” His life, and His death, revealed God’s love and accomplished salvation for all who would believe.  Christmas is how God showed His love among us: He sent His Son to give us life. It should motivate us to show our love for him and for one another.
III. God revealed His love to humans by sending His Son into this sin cursed world to die so that we could have life:  “…so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”   God loved us so much, that he sent His Son to die for us so that we could live—“…that we might live through Him…” THAT is what love looks like.  Obviously John is talking about eternal life, life with meaning, the abundant life of blessing and purpose that God created us for.  Most importantly, a life in relationship with our Creator.  We can experience that by grace through faith, because of what Jesus did for us. We read in John 10:10-11
 "The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
             Jesus is talking about more than his desire that we have biological life, that our heart keeps beating our brain waves functioning normally. He is talking about more than the idea that we’ll live a long time, or even forever. He is referring to a quality of life that goes beyond the momentary flicker that is this world. He is talking about the abundant life of blessing, life with meaning in fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer. He is talking about the life that we were created to enjoy. Jesus came, and demonstrated God’s love, by laying down his life so that we could have that kind of life.  We can hardly understand what it cost, he did it for us. The love parents have for their children can be a picture of God's love.  I came across a story I may have shared before of a parent’s love…
A thirty-six-year-old mother was discovered to be in the advanced stages of terminal cancer. One doctor advised her to spend her remaining days enjoying herself on a beach in Acapulco. A second physician offered her the hope of living two to four years with the grueling side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She penned these words to her three small children: “I’ve chosen to try to survive for you. This has some horrible costs, including pain, loss of my good humor, and moods I won’t be able to control. But I must try this, if only on the outside chance that I might live one minute longer. And that minute could be the one you might need me when no one else will do. For this I intend to struggle, tooth and nail, so help me God.”
She knew the cost, but for the sake of her children she made a choice. Jesus knew the cost when in the counsel of the Godhead the plan of redemption was formed in eternity past. He knew exactly what he was doing, when he left the Father’s side, and took a human nature, to be born of Mary. He loved us that much. This is how God showed His love among us…
             He “sent” His Son. The word “sent” in verses 8 and 9 is the verb that is related to the word “apostle,” one who is sent on a mission. The Father sent the Son on a mission: to be a sacrifice for sinners. The word “propitiation” is related to the word translated “mercy seat” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint [LXX]) and in Hebrews 9:5, Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat...” [hilasterion].  The mercy seat was the place of “atonement.” The Son was sent as a “propitiation,” as an “atoning sacrifice.” The word translated atonement here in I John 4:10 occurs only one other time in the New Testament, also in 1 John, in I John 2:2, “He is the propitiation for our sins…” In the LXX, such as in Ezekiel 44:27, it is used to describe the “sin offering.” John is saying that God showed His love by sending His Son to be the one and only sin offering for us, the perfect sacrifice which all other sacrifices prefigured and anticipated. The babe in the manger was the Lamb of God who would take away the in of the the world. Christmas is how God showed His love among us: He sent His Son to give us life. It should motivate us to show our love for Him and for one another.
IV. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…” (v.11).  Remember Alexander MacLaren’s words, “Love is the only fire hot enough to melt the iron obstinacy of a creature’s will.”  God not only told us what to do, He showed us how to live. As we celebrate the demonstration of God’s Love in the Gift of Christmas, will you allow His Spirit, to melt your heart with the truth of His amazing grace? “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the children of God—and such we are!” (I John 3:1).
       Some of you are old enough to remember the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. The North Koreans claimed the spy ship entered their territorial waters, and captured the ship and its 82 surviving crew members (one was killed). Over the next year the men were brutally treated.
At one point a group of men were made to sit around a table for hours. Finally the door was flung open and a guard brutally beat  the man in the first chair with his rifle. The next day, as each man sat in his place, the door was thrown open and the man in the first chair was beaten again. On the third day it happened again, the same man being beaten. The next day, knowing the man couldn’t survive another beating, a young sailor took his place. When the door was opened the guard automatically beat the new victim senseless. For weeks, each day, a new man stepped forward to sit in that horrible chair, knowing full well what would happen. At last the guards gave up in exasperation. They were unable to beat that kind of sacrificial love.
        Jesus took the chair for us, knowing what would happen, knowing that it would not be just a brutal beating, but a horrible death.  Because He loved us, we should love one another. God showed us His love. Love shows itself in actions.  That starts in your oikos, that small group of people that see you all the time, the people God has strategically placed on the “front burner” of your life.  Do your actions show love? John said “If God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” In the early church Christians were marked by their love for one another, practical love that could be seen. The unbelieving second century Greek writer Lucian said,
“It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] put it into their heads that they are brethren.”
            The African church father Tertullian said the same thing from the perspective of a believer,
It is our care for the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Look!’ that say. ‘How they love one another! Look how they are prepared to die for one another!’”
That means reaching out to one another and being involved in each other’s lives. That means putting the needs of others before our own. In the context of the church it means living like the family we are: forgiving, helping, encouraging, building up one another, sometimes confronting one another. As we interact with the world, it means showing Christ’s love by being intentional about developing relationships with those in our sphere of influence, at work, at the Y, in school, with our neighbors. It means loving them enough that we are willing to risk rejection, but because we love them, we seek opportunities to speak the truth, and to tell them about the hope we have found in Jesus.
What is God saying to me in this passage? Christmas is how God showed His love among us: He sent His Son to give us life. Does that stir a response in you? Does it motivate you to love Him in return, and to love one another?

What would God have me to do in response to this passage? Have you made a conscious effort to keep the love of God demonstrated in the incarnation at the forefront of your Christmas celebration? It’s not all about our traditions, it’s all about Jesus. God showed us His love. He reached out, and got involved in our story by bringing us into His story, even though it cost Him so much. Think of the love that took! Do we love Him in return? And this is harder: Do we love one another? It’s not just what say we have in our hearts. It means having the mind of Christ, being willing to “look out not only for our own personal interests, but also for the interest of others.” This month some show that by delivering Christmas baskets to those who serve us in our community. Others will reach out to those in the nursing home singing and visiting and bringing some cheer.  Many others have helped with gifts to some with needs. Some will make visits and invite folks over, and bake cookies for neighbors.  Perhaps the greatest act of love is to pray fervently for those in your sphere of influence, and to look for every opportunity to point them to Jesus.   As we saw in 1 Peter 3:15-16  “…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you;  16 yet do it with gentleness and respect…”  That is love!   Think about that, Amen.