DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Advent

The With-Us God (Matthew 1:18-25)

Most Christmases, when it’s time to read the Christmas story, I end up reading the story from Luke. It’s familiar to us, and it has a real beauty to it. I’m not used to reading Matthew’s version, but it’s really too bad. Matthew is written from Joseph’s perspective. It’s short and it’s full of meaning.

Today what I want to do is to look at the Christmas story. Here’s what I want us to see from this passage: Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

First: Jesus is unexpected.

Can you see the surprise in this passage? Back then, you wouldn’t date and get engaged and get married like we do today. Your parents would find a spouse for you. How would you like that? And then you would enter into a binding agreement before witnesses that you would marry this person. This would be called betrothal, and once you were betrothed you were in between. You weren’t married yet, but the only way you could end the betrothal would be through divorce. And then a year later you would actually get married.

In this passage we read that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. His parents had arranged the marriage. They had already committed to get married, probably a year down the road. And now all of a sudden before they’re married, Joseph discovers that Mary is four months pregnant. He’s surprised, to say the least. He has a choice. He can marry her as planned and ignore the fact that she’s pregnant and that he’s not the father. He can make this a public matter, and Mary will be disgraced and maybe even stoned to death. Or he can deal with the matter quietly and divorce her. He chooses to do the last when an angel appears to him and stops him in his tracks.

Do you see here: Jesus is unexpected. Jesus is not the result of any human initiative. Nobody thought Jesus up. God took the initiative completely to bring about the birth of Jesus Christ to save his people from their sins.

Jesus has been surprising people ever since. He was unexpected, and he continues to show up unexpectedly in people’s lives even today. I love when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, as he has in many of our lives. We weren’t looking for him. He hadn’t even crossed our minds. But then, through the strangest of circumstances, God takes the initiative and shows up in the middle of our lives. It may be that Jesus is unexpectedly showing up in your life even this morning.

So Jesus is unexpected.

Second: Jesus is miraculous.

Read verse 20 with me:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20)

This is incredible. This would have been a surprise to anyone back then, just like it is to us today. God the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, not as the biological father, but as the all-powerful God who was able to do the miraculous. Jesus is not like the rest of us who were born in the normal way. Jesus was born miraculously. Jesus is not just unexpected; he is also miraculous.

In his work The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes:

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

Why is it important? David Mathis gives us four reasons:

  • It highlights the supernatural nature of Jesus’ birth.
  • It shows us that we need a salvation that we can’t bring about ourselves.
  • It shows us that God takes the initiative.
  • It hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person.

Wayne Grudem writes:

God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ birth was completely unexpected. It was also miraculous. God took the initiative and did the impossible, just like he takes the initiative and brings about a salvation that we can’t achieve ourselves.

Jesus is unexpected; Jesus is miraculous.

Third: Jesus is God-with-us.

Read verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

This is absolutely shocking. The angel says that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, which means God-with-us, or the with-us-God. Matt Woodley writes:

It means that Jesus is God with us as he swims in Mary’s amniotic fluid, wiggles in the manger’s straw, feeds the hungry and heals the sick. Jesus is God with us as he takes the bread in his hands and says, “This is my body broken for you.” Jesus is God with us as he hangs from a cross, gasping for breath and shouting, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He descends into our messy world, standing in solidarity with human sufferers, plunging ever deeper into our pain and apparent abandonment.

Back then, Greeks could never have thought about God taking on a body. One Greek philosopher sarcastically asked, “How can one admit (God) should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet?”

Even today, people struggle with this. A Muslim professor says that he can’t comprehend that God would become small, tiny, and weak. Kenneth Cragg, a scholar on Islam, says that although Muslims have a “great tenderness for Jesus” and they find the nativity story “miraculous,” they still see the incarnation as simply an impossible concept.

But we see here that Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus is God coming to us first as a fetus, then as an unplanned pregnancy, then as a baby, and later a twelve-year-old boy, and then later as a teacher, and then as a condemned criminal stripped naked on the cross, and then as the risen and ascended Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

Matt Proctor puts it this way:

Here's the point … God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, he chose not to stay "completely Other." He got down at eye-level, and in the Incarnation, God experienced what it's like to be tired and discouraged …. He knows what it's like to hurt and bleed. On the cross, Jesus himself prayed a psalm of lament: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).

In your pain, you may be tempted to say, "God, you have no idea what I'm going through. You have no idea how bad I'm hurting." But God can respond, "Yes, I do." He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, "Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help." That is what Christmas is all about.

Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God.

Finally: Jesus saves us from our sins.

We learn in verse 21 exactly what Jesus came to do: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In Jesus we have the solution for our sin problem. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we couldn’t live. And then we went to the cross and bore our sins. And he rose from the dead to give us new life. Jesus is the solution for our sin problem Jesus came to save us from our sins.

You know what it’s like to have someone visit you when you’re not ready. Mike Silva describes when this happened to him:

Most people would be a little embarrassed to have unexpected company when their house was a mess. My family was staying at a hotel in Nigeria, West Africa, one time when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and found a smiling Nigerian gentleman ready to clean our room.

I was so embarrassed! My family had travel bags, curling irons, and crumpled clothing sprawled across our unmade beds. Wet towels were all over the bathroom floor. I apologized profusely, but the young man replied graciously, "No problem, sir. For this reason I have come, to put your things in order."

The Bible says this is exactly what Jesus Christ came to do for us. To put our lives in order! He doesn't demand that we first straighten up our mess. Instead, He offers to clean up for us.

Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins, to clean up the mess we couldn’t clean ourselves. This is the reason that Jesus came.

Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

After returning home from a long tour, Bono, the lead singer for U2, returned to Dublin and attended a Christmas Eve service. At some point in that service, Bono grasped the truth at the heart of the Christmas story: in Jesus, God became a human being. With tears streaming down his face, Bono realized,

The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty … and straw, a child, I just thought, "Wow!" Just the poetry … I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this … Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered … Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.

In Jesus Christ, love found a form. In Jesus Christ, love became something concrete. At Christmas, love was made flesh. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins. It’s the reason we celebrate Christmas today.

The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

Of all the ways to start a book, this isn’t one of them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” I mean, come on. At the start of a book, you have to grab the reader.

Here’s how you start a book. Here’s the first line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” See? Only ten words, and you’re hooked. Another famous book begins with the author’s daring escape from the brutal prison Devil’s Island. Right away you’re in the middle of the action. You can’t wait to see what happens next.

So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy? I bet that many of you are tempted to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But that would be a mistake. The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has an important lesson for us. Three of them, actually. Here they are, and then I’ll take you through each one.

  • The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
  • The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
  • The birth of Jesus includes all of us.

I got all of that from a genealogy? I did. And I hope you’ll see how I did soon as well. So here it goes.

First: The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.

Matthew is a skilled author, and he knows exactly what he’s doing in verse 1 when he begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” We’re supposed to read that and think, “This sounds familiar somehow.” In the Greek, the first two words are biblos geneseos which we translate “the book of the genealogy” - but they are also the Greek title for Genesis. Genesis is the Old Testament book that refers to the creation and beginning of all things. So Matthew plants these words here because he wants us to do a double-take.

What does this mean? Matthew wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of déjà vu. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning.

I went to the mall the other day. Part way through my trip I realized that I had dropped something. What I’d dropped is worth about $100. I began to retrace my steps. I went to mall security and all the stores I’d been in to see if I could find it. But it was gone. I went home feeling good about what I’d bought, but also wishing that I could rewind back to the beginning and be more careful and not lose something that was pretty valuable to me.

Have you ever wished that you could hit the pause button on your life and rewind and go back to the beginning? Have you ever wished you could have a do-over?

Matthew is saying in this verse that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Genesis 1 when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended up. In Genesis 1 and 2, everything is really good. But in Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and then there’s nothing but trouble from Genesis 4 to 11 and beyond.

Do you ever wish that we could pause history and rewind back to Genesis 3 and undo all the damage that sin has brought in the world? There’s good news, Matthew says. That is exactly what the birth of Jesus does. It’s a new beginning. In Matthew 1 the world begins anew. We get to start all over again. We had creation; now in Jesus, we have re-creation. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s the really great news Matthew is telling us. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning. It means that the slate is wiped clean.

And so for all of us who are longing to start again, who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. I don’t know what has happened in your past, but the birth of Jesus marks a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.

Second: The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.

So picture this. You get an envelope in the mail. You open up that envelope, and you find a single piece of paper printed on really nice paper. It has someone’s name and contact information, followed by headings that say “Employment History,” “Education,” and “References.” What do you have? You’d recognize it as a résumé. It’s what we write when we’re trying to give a potential employer some basic information about ourselves.

Picture someone two thousand years ago getting that same piece of paper. They would probably look at it strangely as they tried to figure out what in the world it’s all about.

That’s really what’s happening as we read the genealogy. Matthew’s readers would have been very familiar with this form, and they would have understood its purpose. They would have been captivated by what Matthew wrote. In the ancient world, genealogies did a couple of things.

First, they grounded you in history. I was in England one time when I came across a monument for where the missionary Augustine of Canterbury met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books; it’s another thing to realize that it happened right here. That’s what Matthew is doing as he gives us the genealogy. He’s saying that the story of Jesus is grounded in history. He’s descended from particular people who really lived. It’s not a made-up story. It really happened in time and space.

But the genealogy also served another purpose. Back then it functioned as a kind of résumé. It would tell you who a person is and where they came from. It established your heritage, your inheritance, your legitimacy, and rights. It would establish your legal claim to certain rights and properties that had been passed down through the generations to you. The closest thing I’ve experienced is when I sat with someone at a seminary breakfast in Boston. I asked the person how long they’d lived in Boston; he replied that King George had granted them the land back in the eighteenth century. It was important for him to be able to trace things back. It established who he was and what he was entitled to.

In this genealogy, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline to two specific people. What’s interesting is that promises were made to both of them. What Matthew is doing here is showing that Jesus is the legitimate heir and fulfillment of the promises made to these two particular people, promises that looked like they had been lost forever. Not only does Matthew include them in the genealogy, but he underlines them in verse 1 so that we don’t miss them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

What does it mean that Jesus was the son of David? David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. God had promised David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. That seemed like madness. Israel had no king. Herod was king when Matthew wrote this, and he sure didn’t like the thought of anyone else claiming to be king. You sure didn’t go around bragging about being part of a royal family. But that’s what Matthew does here. He says that Jesus is a son of David. That’s a claim to royalty. Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the king promised to David, the king whose throne is established forever.

But there’s more. He’s also the son of Abraham. God had promised Abraham:

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Here, Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Matthew is making sure that Jesus’ résumé states clearly who he is qualified to be: the promised king, the one who will bless the whole earth.

Matthew is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of two thousand years of God’s promises. All the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

You thought that this was a boring genealogy? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s already told us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But there’s more.

Third, the birth of Jesus includes all of us.

My grandfather used to talk about being descended from pirates. I have no way to know whether this is true or not, but I kind of hope so. The truth is that all of our family trees have some shady characters. But Matthew goes out of his way to include shady characters in this list.

On one hand, you have kings on this list. That’s pretty cool. Matthew is saying that the story of Jesus includes those who have power and prestige and position.

But Matthew gives us the other side as well. It’s clear in reading this list that Matthew has been selective in terms of the people he includes. He leaves some in, and he leaves some out as well. So it’s striking that he included some people that most would have left out. Most ancient genealogies didn’t include women, unless they were famous great women. But Matthew lists four women who are prominent and anything but great:

  • Tamar in verse 3 - In Genesis 38 we read that Tamar acted as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into making her pregnant so that she could continue the line of her husband.
  • Rahab in verse 5 - She was a prostitute and a foreigner who courageously rescued the Hebrew spies.
  • Ruth in verse 5 - She was another foreigner, a Moabite under the Old Testament curse against Moabites found in Deuteronomy 23: “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3). She was a descendent of the incestuous Lot.
  • Uriah’s wife in verse 6 - She was the woman involved in David’s scandalous affair and cover-up.

So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. You have men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles. Jesus is Savior of them all. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people - people like you and me.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther preached a sermon and said:

Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.

That’s great news. Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners.

The genealogy tell us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It also tells us that Jesus is not ashamed of sinners.

Friends, don’t let this genealogy fool you. Don’t think it’s the boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. This is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The birth of Jesus is good news for all kinds of people, people like you and people like me.

Two responses this morning. First, be amazed. It’s amazing to think that God would give us a fresh start, that he would begin to undo all that’s wrong in the world. It’s amazing that he would choose to do this by sending his Son as a baby to be born in Bethlehem. It’s amazing that he would choose to fulfill all the promises he’s made through Jesus. And it’s amazing that he would choose to include messed-up people in all of this. Yet that’s what he’s chosen to do. Worship him this morning. Marvel again that God would choose to do something this amazing.

Second, join the story. I hope you’ve put your faith in Christ. I pray that you’ve had that fresh start through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really pray that you’ve seen all of God’s promises reach their fulfillment in Christ. And I pray that you’ll realize that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.

In his commentary on this passage, Matt Woodley writes:

One day in a hole in the Milky Way called planet Earth, among an odd group of people, Jesus the Messiah came to his people. It’s a true story that reads like fiction. What adventures, dangers and delights will Jesus encounter? And if we follow him, what adventures shall befall us? Where will this Gospel of mercy lead us? Hold on, we’re in for the tale — and the adventure — of our life.

In Whom Do You Trust? (Isaiah 7-9)

If you were to ask me what qualities I appreciate in others, near the top of the list I would have to put one that always impresses me: self-reliance. I love stories of people who dig down deep and persist against the odds and prevail. I'm a sucker for movies like this, and I'm impressed if you're a person who's dependable and self-reliant.

That's why I love the story of the English Victorian poet William Ernest Henley. He fell victim to tuberculosis of the bone at the age of 12. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. It was amputated when he was 25. In 1875, he wrote the "Invictus" poem from a hospital bed. You've heard this poem:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

I love stories like this. Who doesn't like to have that kind of self-reliance and determination to make it on their own terms? The problem is, according to the Bible, that self-reliance could destroy you. And surprisingly it takes a baby born on Christmas morning to teach us that it's fatal to rely on ourselves. Our only hope is to rely on, of all things, a baby sent by God.

Relying On Ourselves

Let me back up a little. This evening I want to give you an overview of a message from God given to someone who was facing this very issue.

The date is 735 B.C. King Ahaz has just begun his reign in Judah. He's young and faced with the threats of Syria and Northern Israel. The question is: how is he going to respond to these threats? Will he trust in God for deliverance, or will he put his faith in other nations?

Listen to what happened. Isaiah 7:2 says:

Now the house of David was told, "Aram has allied itself with Ephraim"; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

When Ahaz - the house of David - heard about the alliance of Aram and Ephraim (Syria and the northern kingdom), he panicked. He didn't have to. In fact, in verse 4 God says:

Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood--because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah.

But that didn't stop Ahaz. He did panic. Tragically, Ahaz chose to put his trust in Assyria, his worst enemy. Essentially he lay aside trust in God and compromised his nation's unique identity. Instead of being distinct and becoming a blessing to the nations, Judah loses its identity and becomes enslaved.

In chapters 7, 8, and 9, God, through the prophet Isaiah, keeps coming after Ahaz: Will you trust in God, or will you put your trust in something else? And hear this: Isaiah says that if we trust in God we will be saved. But whatever we trust in place of God will eventually turn on us and destroy us. Let me say that again: whatever we trust in place of God will eventually turn on us and destroy us.

You get to the end of chapter 8, and it's a pretty dark picture. People are consulting mediums and spiritists instead of God. They end up distressed and hungry, cursing king and God. "Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness" (Isaiah 8:22).

Do you see what God is saying through Isaiah? Self-reliance, and reliance on others, is deadly. It will lead you to put your trust in the very thing that will kill you. It's like taking medicine that actually turns out to be poison. Self-reliance - making it on our own terms - is deadly, Isaiah is telling us, and it will destroy us.

Listen to me this evening. You're not Ahaz, but tonight we all face the same question: In whom do you trust? I've found it easy to put my trust in the opinion and help of others, or in certain relationships we have - our spouses, our kids, our networks. I know some who feel secure when their bank account reaches a certain level. Others - and it's clear this isn't me - are putting trust in maintaining our looks. It's a losing battle against time. Others of us are putting our trust in our resume. Isaiah is asking us to confront this question, and he's warning us: whatever we trust in place of God will eventually turn on us and destroy us.

Relying on a Baby

If this is true, how do we come to trust in God? Twice in these chapters, Isaiah gives us a surprising alternative to trusting in anyone but God. But it's not what you'd expect. In chapter 7, Isaiah challenges Ahaz and Judah to put God to the test to prove that he's reliable, that he will destroy the two kings that are threatening him. Ahaz refuses, probably because his mind is made up. But despite his refusal, God offers him a sign:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

What is Isaiah saying here? The failure of the earthly king to rely on God means that God will send a baby born to a young woman of marriageable age. Before that son is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the opposing kings will be destroyed, but they will be replaced by an even worse invader: Assyria.

Who is this child? There are lots of options. One of the best options is the son that Isaiah had in the very next chapter (Isaiah 8:3). Isaiah names the child "sign-child" which is a pretty good hint that this is a fulfillment of the prophecy! This child being born is a sign that we can trust in God instead of relying on ourselves.

But that's not the only time that the birth of a son comes up. In chapter 9, Isaiah once talks about a baby being born. Isaiah describes the birth of a wonderful child:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David's throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty

will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

God says we can trust him because of a baby born to a young woman, and now God says he can trust him because of a child who will take the world stage, who will be the king to end all kings. He will be "God with us" not only to deal with the Syrians, but he will be a King who delivers us from all threats, and who begins an endless rule of justice, righteousness, and peace. God himself will accomplish this. We don't need to do it ourselves or rely on ourselves; God will do this for us.

Who is this baby? It turns out, actually, to be the same baby as the one Isaiah talks about in chapter 7. You see, chapter 7 probably does refer to Isaiah's son, but it also turns out to refer to an even greater Son who was born. In Matthew 1:22-23 we read:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us").

Jesus is the son who is a sign to us that we don't have to rely on ourselves or to prop ourselves up with things that will destroy us. We can rely on God because his power is enough. And just so we're sure, he sends us the sign of a baby born to a young woman of marriageable age. His name is Jesus.

And the child of Isaiah 9? In Luke 1:32-33 the angel says to Mary:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.

Jesus is that child who is born who will deliver us. He's the one who is sent by God and will save us, since we can't save or rely on ourselves.

Isn't it strange that in contrast to armies and kings, Ahaz is asked to look at a baby? Maybe not. Because we're asked to do the same thing. Christmas is all about the message that it's fatal to rely upon ourselves. Our only hope is to rely on, of all things, a baby sent by God.

Let's pray.

We admire self-reliance. But the Bible teaches us that self-reliance is deadly. It will destroy us. Ahaz relied on kings and armies. We rely on our own strength, our money, our accomplishments, our relationships. whatever we trust in place of God will eventually turn on us and destroy us.

God sent us a sign so that we would know we don't have to rely on ourselves. That sign is Jesus. He is the King who is like no other, and his reign will never end.

Father, may we see Jesus tonight. May we rely not on ourselves but on him. May we put our hope not on human strength or power but in God-in-the-flesh, in the King who came to live and die and be raised again so that we could be saved. It's that King we worship at Christmas, the King who now sits on the throne. In his name we pray. Amen.

At the End of Hope (Micah 5)

One of the best books I've read this year is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It's the true story of Louie Zamperini, a rebel child who became an Olympic runner, and who later became a prisoner in one of Japan's most brutal POW camps.

Near the end of the book, Louie has survived the war. He's married and he has a young daughter. But his life is a mess. Every night he's haunted by dreams that he can't escape. He wakes up one night from a dream and finds that he's choking his wife. He's emotionally broken and an alcoholic. "He was drinking heavily, slipping in and out of flashbacks, screaming and clawing through nightmares, lashing out in fury at random moments." Eventually his life became completely unbearable. His wife, after doing all that she could to persist, left him. Louie had survived a war, but he couldn't survive the aftermath. He's completely broken.

The reason I bring that up is because I know a lot of people who have the same story. The details are different, but the stories are the same. Having survived and suffered much, they get to the end of their resources and find there is no hope. We're not talking temporary setback here. We're talking a complete and utter collapse of one's life; the complete loss of hope; complete and utter despair.

Complete Collapse of Hope

The passage we read this morning begins with this very situation. Micah 5:1 says this:

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel's ruler
on the cheek with a rod.

Let me set the scene for you. Israel had gone from being a great nation to the edge of ruin. As Micah prophesies, the heyday of King Uzziah's reign is over. Assyria has become a new world power. The old world of relative security is over, and a new world of uncertainty is here, and Assyria is a major threat. The people were relatively wealthy and comfortable, but it all looked like it could come to a sudden end.

So what's the message? You can endure bad news with a little bit of hope. It doesn't even take much hope. God has shown himself more than equal to the challenges that Israel has faced. No matter how bad things may seem, there's always hope when God comes through.

But that's not the message of Micah. Micah actually says that God is against his people. Micah brings a series of oracles against Jerusalem. And leading up to chapter 5 Micah makes it very clear that war is coming to Jerusalem. Nations will approach in battle. They will lay siege to Jerusalem, and according to verse 1, the Assyrians will defeat Israel's leader with contempt. Not only will they defeat him, but they'll strike his cheek with a rod. Being struck with a rod on the cheek was a sign of great humiliation. The news is not good.

This is not the news that they wanted to hear. What makes it worse is that other prophets - false ones - were bringing messages of hope. Micah is saying, in contrast, that the kingdom of Israel is going to be destroyed. They were going to be ruined. Jerusalem was about to face a siege of terror, death, and destruction. It was not good news for Jerusalem.

Sitting here some 2,500 years later, it's hard to get very worked up about the collapse of Jerusalem. But the collapse of Jerusalem is indicative a problem we do face: coming to the place in which everything is lost. For the people of Jerusalem it meant that their identity and security was going to be lost. Everything they knew was going to be taken away. More than that, their aspirations would never be met. Their hopes as a people, as God's people, were lost as they realized that, in a sense, God had turned against them.

For us, it won't be exactly the same. But some of you have reached the point of losing your identity and security and your aspirations. For some of you the story of Louie Zamperini won't be unfamiliar to you. Again, the details of your story are different, but you know what it's like to reach the end of hope.

Some of you are there this morning. You can relate to the story of Louie Zamperini. You've already reached the end. Some of you have experienced the end of a marriage, the end of a career, the end of health, the end of hope. That's exactly the situation that Micah is describing.

What do you do when you come to the end of hope?

Hope At the End of Hope

It's in that contest that we read these famous words in verses 2-4:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.
Therefore Israel will be abandoned

until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,

and the rest of his brothers return

to join the Israelites.
He will stand and shepherd his flock

in the strength of the LORD,

in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.

And they will live securely, for then his greatness

will reach to the ends of the earth.

One of the most significant words in this passage is the one at the beginning of verse 2: "But." What this means is that the hopeless situation is not the end of the story. We're about to see a reversal from a hopeless situation to hope.

And the hope is a person. Most of us are cynical about new leaders. If you've been around long enough, the new guy seems just like the old guy. We've seen changes in government enough to know that it's hard to pin our hopes on someone new.

But Micah says that this king will be like no other. Micah tells us three things about this king: where he comes from; what his heritage is; and what he's going to do.

First: where he comes from. Micah says that this king will come from Bethlehem Ephrathah, "small along the clans of Judah." Of all the clans of the tribe of Judah, the Ephrathite clan around Bethlehem would hardly supply a respectable army unit at times of tribal levy. It was one of the smallest families. Bethlehem was one of the most unlikely places. It was so small, it hardly made the maps. It's the most unlikely place. Yet it's also the place where King David was born. Micah is saying that this king comes from the most inauspicious place, and yet has the most auspicious origins. He's the king from nowhere, and yet the greatest king in Israel's history was also from the same nowhere.

But then we also learn about his heritage. We already have a hint with him being born in Bethlehem. But then you also have a puzzling phrase: "whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." What does that mean?

There are two schools of thought. One is that it's a reference to his ancient origins. It could be a reference to this coming king's connection to an ancient royal lineage that's traced all the way back to King David.

But other people see it differently. They see this as a sign that this coming ruler existed from ancient times, that he existed before he existed in a sense. He didn't just come into existence when he was born; he existed long before his life on this earth began. In other words, he is more than a mere human.

Which is it? From an ancient royal lineage, or preexistent? Yes. We're going to see in a minute that this promised king is from David's line, and yet he is more. He existed before he was born, before this world was made. He is the once and future king.

We've seen where he's from, and we've seen his heritage. Micah also tells us what he'll do. He'll rule over Israel, verse 2 says. He'll reunify the divided kingdom, verse 3 says. At that time Israel was divided into the northern and southern kingdom. Not only will he unify them, he will shepherd them, and they will live securely. And, we read in verse 4, his greatness will reach the ends of the earth. He rid Israel of its enemies, and purge Israel of its idolatry. He is a king like no other.

In other words, at the end of hope, when there is no hope, God will send an unlikely king. And not only will this king save Israel, he'll ultimately be the Savior of the entire world.

Who is this king? In Matthew 2 we read that Magi came from the east in search of a king who had been born king of the Jews. They assembled all the biblical scholars to try to figure out where such a king would be born. The biblical scholars said:

"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
(Matthew 2:5-6)

Do you know what Matthew is saying as he recounts the search of the Magi and the testimony of the biblical scholars? Jesus is that king.

He is from Bethlehem. God in his sovereignty used a census so that Mary and Joseph, who lived 110 kilometers away on foot, would fulfill the prophecy.

He was from David's line. Do you ever wonder what all the genealogies are about? If you read the genealogy in Matthew 1, you'll see that Matthew traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to David. Jesus is born of Bethlehem, where David was born, and he comes from the royal lineage of David.

Not only that, but he is the king who existed and ruled before he was born. His origins were of old, from ancient days. All throughout the Bible, we're told about Jesus who existed before the world began. When God identified himself to Moses, he said that his name was "I AM." In John 8:58, Jesus told religious leaders, "Before Abraham was born, I am!" In his high priestly prayer in John 17, he prayed, "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:5). The Gospel of John begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

And he is the King of Kings. He is seated today at the right hand of God. In Revelation 11:15 the angels proclaim:

The kingdom of the world has become

the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,

and he will reign for ever and ever.

What do we do with such a King? Years ago in England, Charles Simeon said we should do two things as we read Micah 5. First, adore him for his condescension and love. Adore him for coming to earth and humbling himself to become one of us, God in the flesh. But secondly:

Let us submit to his government-- Do we look for salvation through our adorable Emmanuel? Let us not forget that he came to be "a Prince as well as a Savior," a "Ruler" as well as an Instructor. Let us willingly receive him in this character, and cheerfully dedicate ourselves to his service. Let us be his subjects, not in name, but in truth; not by an external profession only, but an internal surrender of our souls to him: let us do this, not by constraint, but willingly; not partially, but wholly, and without reserve. This is our first duty; this is our truest happiness; this is the way in which he expects us to requite him for all his condescension and love; and it is the only way wherein we can manifest our sense of the obligations he has conferred upon us.

When there's no hope, God sends an unlikely King as Savior of the world.

Remember that Louie Zamperini was hopeless. He was suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress. He had slid into alcoholism. He had pretty much lost his family.

But one day his wife was in town. She was staying until she could arrange a divorce. They heard about this new evangelist called Billy Graham. Graham was virtually unknown in those days. Graham preached, and Louie got mad. The next day his wife tried to get him to go hear Graham again. Louie refused, but his wife wore him down. As he was bolting out of that meeting, something happened. God got ahold of him. In a circus tent in downtown Los Angeles, Louie came to know this King, and it changed him forever. The flashbacks stopped. He threw out all his liquor and girlie magazines. The next morning he woke feeling cleansed.

Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt a profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man...In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation.

Softly, he wept. (Unbroken)

At the end of hope, Micah tells us, God sends an unlikely King as Savior of the world, and to be your Savior too.

Where God Lives (John 1:14, Colossians 2:12)

Every year it seems that a fire takes place right around Christmas that pushes a family out of their home. Just today a news article from Massachusetts reads, "6 hurt, 42 homeless, after Holyoke apartment fire." The article says that the fire was started by an electric space heater in a third-floor apartment. We shudder to think about the idea of families being left homeless, especially this time of year.

This evening I'd like to think about this theme of homelessness for just a few minutes, but not the way you'd think. I'm not going to talk about the homeless in Toronto, although that is an important thing to think about. I'm not going to talk about Joseph and Mary being sent to a manger, outside of their normal homes - although that does give us a picture of this theme in a way. Tonight I'd like to talk about the homelessness of God; what Christmas does about this; and what this means for us today.

So let's look for just a few minutes at the big problem: the homelessness of God.

You may never have thought of God being homeless before, but it's actually a big theme in the Bible. Some say that it is the major theme. So let me explain the problem as simply as I can.

The problem is not that God has never had a home here on earth. The problem is that God does, in some sense, dwell among his people on earth, but things keep getting wrecked. I know it's funny to even think of God living or dwelling on earth, but that's exactly what the Bible says that God does. God is meant to live among his people in relationship, blessing them, communing with them.

You see this first in Genesis. God creates the world; he pronounces it good. He creates man and woman, and then he dwells with them in the garden. He sees Adam's needs and meets them; he walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. The garden was supposed to be a home for God, and Adam and Eve were commissioned as his representatives to push back the borders of this garden until the whole earth became the dwelling place of God, and that everyone could enjoy God's presence worldwide.

You know what happened. Adam sinned, and all of humanity and all of the earth become contaminated with sin. This made the earth an unsuitable dwelling place for God, which is why you have all kinds of verses saying that God's glory can never fully dwell on earth.

But you do have, in limited ways, God moving back to earth. God called Israel, and he commanded them to build him a Temple. The Temple became the dwelling place of God. The psalmist wrote of the Temple in Psalm 68, saying that it is "the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever" (Psalm 68:16). You have pictures of God's presence showing up in the Old Testament. You may have even heard one of the terms for this: the Shekhinah, which means the dwelling presence of God, especially in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)

But even this wasn't an adequate dwelling place for God. If you go to Jerusalem today, you'll discover that there is no Temple in Jerusalem anymore. in 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. It was later rebuilt, but God no longer lived there. One of the saddest passages of the Old Testament is Ezekiel 10, which describes the withdrawal of God's presence from the Temple in Jerusalem. Slowly, reluctantly, God departs from his Temple and from his people.

Think about this. This means that earth becomes, literally, a God-forsaken place.

I was trying to think of the best way to capture what this would be like, and I thought of a picture of the Michigan Theater in Detroit. It's a beautiful structure built on the site where Henry Ford built his first automobile. Look at it now. It's got traces of its former glory, but it's not like it's supposed to be. It's a symbol of what was supposed to be, but what now lies in ruins.

So the homelessness of God is a big problem. This world has become nothing compared to the way it's supposed to be.

But then Christmas comes into the picture.

Greek literature has stories about the plight of humanity. The gods looked and saw that something needed to be done. But in Greek thought, the gods were removed, like spectators, looking at the problem the way an audience does in an amphitheater or a stadium. The gods look on and wonder what they can do to help, but they're spectators, looking on from the outside.

But Christmas, according to Scripture, is about something entirely different. It's about God moving back into this God-forsaken world, taking up residence once again.

John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." The word dwelling literally means tabernacled. The Word - the fullest expression and communication of God - has pitched his tabernacle and chosen to live among us, but this time not as a building. You can enter a building and walk around a building and touch a building, but you can't talk to a building. This time God has chosen not to dwell among his people within a building; he's chosen to dwell in a more personal way, as God in the flesh, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.

In Colossians 1 and 2, Paul says something absolutely startling. Paul says that Jesus is the creator and sustainer of the entire cosmos. He holds everything together. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. If you left today and travelled to the edge of the visible universe at the speed of light, it would take you 46.5 billion years. You can't picture how vast this universe is. And Paul says that Jesus holds it all together.

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

As someone has said, he keeps cosmos from becoming chaos. Paul goes on to say that "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him." And then Paul goes on to say something that will blow you away: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives [dwell] in bodily form." (Colossians 2:9)

Do you see what Paul is saying? The One who created this universe, and who holds it together every single day, the One who is God in very essence and very God, took on a human body and became a single cell implanted in the womb of a teenage girl. The fullness of God took on a human body and moved back into the earth.

Do you see how this relates to the theme of God's homelessness? In Jesus, God has moved back into this God-forsaken world. He has not left it abandoned. Instead, he has come in his very flesh so that God himself is present with us in history. Christmas is about the hope we have that God has once again chose to dwell with his people. This world is not God-forsaken after all.

There's more to the story, by the way. Revelation promises that one day God will make his permanent home with us once again.

But let's conclude as we think about what this means for us this Christmas.

First, let's realize what we have in Jesus. The baby born in a manger at Christmas is not a cute baby. He's the Lord of the Universe. We're tempted to look to other things all the time, thinking that we need more than Jesus. When we realize who Jesus is, that changes everything. When you see Jesus, you have seen God. You don't need anything or anyone else. Paul writes: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority" (Colossians 2:9-10). Where do you want to go for anything else? Where else would you turn?

Second, let's stand amazed at how determined he is to make his dwelling place among us. In Jesus we see God's relentless pursuit of his people. He is determined to be present among us to bless. In Jesus he has given himself to us wholly. He has not stood back as a bystander. He has come to earth to establish his presence among us.

This should lead us to amazement and to worship. Downhere sings:

Lowly and small, the weakest of all
Unlikeliness hero, wrapped in his mothers shawl
Just a child
Is this who we've waited for?

Cause how many kings, stepped down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
How many Gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that has torn all apart?
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?

So come, let us adore Him, the God who is not homeless, the God who has chosen to literally move in amongst us, the creator and sustainer of the world who lay in a manger - the One who was born to die so we could live.

The Mindset of Jesus (Philippians 2:5-11)

Every Sunday I stand up here and tell you that the passage we've just read is so important. It's one of the dangers of listening to a preacher: they think that every passage is the most important.

But this morning, this passage is in fact one of the most important when it comes to understanding Christmas. This is one of the richest passages in Scripture about who Jesus is, and in fact what God is like. Somebody has said that it is the greatest and most moving passage that Paul ever wrote about Jesus. If you understand this passage, you will understand not only the meaning of Christmas at its deepest level; you will understand the very nature of God. So it is very important that we look at this passage today.

But there's more than that. Most Christmases, we look at the gospels. The gospels relate the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, about Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men. But this passage is different. Instead of describing what happened at Christmas, it describes what Jesus was thinking at Christmas. If you ask someone what they were thinking when they were born, they won't be able to tell you. They can't remember. They weren't in control of the events, and it's ludicrous to even think about the mindset of someone who's being born.


But when Jesus was born at Christmas, this passage tells us exactly what he was thinking. More than that, verse 5 tells us to "have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had." You can know the very attitude of mind that Jesus had at Christmas, and if you understand this, you will understand the meaning of Christmas, and you will understand the true nature of God, and your life can be changed as a result.

So this morning let's see from this passage who Jesus is; what he did; what this tells us about God; and what this means for us today.

First, let's look at who Jesus is.

Verses 5 and 6 in this passage are some of the most helpful verses in all of Scripture to help us understand who Jesus is. In just a few words, Paul packs a tremendous amount of teaching. Verses 5 and 6 say:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God, 
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage...

One of the most important questions we have to deal with is who exactly Jesus Christ is. I was looking at an American calendar the other day and noticed that they celebrate a lot of birthdays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Washington's birthday, Lincoln's birthday. If you asked what each of these days celebrates, you would hear a little about each of these men and what they accomplished. The bottom line is that Americans celebrate their birthdays because they were great men.

If you asked why we celebrate Christmas, you may expect the same answer: that we celebrate the birthday of Jesus because he was a great man. But Scripture doesn't let us away with this. He was more than a great man. This passage tells us that he was in his very nature God. How you answer this question makes all the difference in the world, and you can't be neutral.

In his excellent little book Basic Christianity, John Stott writes:

The only place to begin is the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth...The crucial issue is this: was the carpenter of Nazareth the Son of God?...The person and work of Christ are the rock on which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, the foundation is undermined and the whole superstructure will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the center of Christianity; all else is circumference.

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, explains how people come to him with all kinds of objections and problems with Christianity. He responds, and he does so very well, but at some point he says to them: the question you need to answer is, Who is Jesus? Because if Jesus is God, and he came to earth and rose again and ascended to heaven, that changes everything. That is such a critical question that every other question fades to the background. You can ask questions about God and evil and the Bible and science, but those are all secondary questions that aren't even important, relatively speaking, until you ask the primary question: Who is Jesus?

We could answer this question in many ways, by looking at the gospels and the historical evidences. But this morning let's focus on this passage, and let me tell you why it's so amazing. The book of Philippians was written within 30 years of Jesus' life. This means that there were still people around who knew Jesus. Sometimes people argue that it took many decades, even centuries, for beliefs to develop that Jesus was God, but here you have a very early claim that Jesus was God.

What's even more, most scholars Paul here is quoting something - maybe a hymn, poem, or confession - that was written before he wrote Philippians. In other words, it predates this book. It was written even earlier than thirty years after the life of Jesus Christ, showing that this is what people believed right from the beginning.

And even more amazingly, this confession of Jesus took place within the Jewish faith. Greeks and Romans may have been comfortable with the idea of a god becoming human, but not the Jewish faith. This would have been blasphemy.

But here Paul says that Christ Jesus was in the form of God. Now we have to look at this carefully. This is one of the boldest claims for the identity of Jesus Christ in all of the Bible. There were two words that Paul could have used here. One means form as we normally think of it, like if I say that you formed an opinion. It's changeable. It's sometimes superficial. That's not the word that Paul used. Paul uses a different word that means "correspondence with reality." What Paul is saying here is that Jesus existed as God, that everything that makes God God was true of Jesus Christ; that in his very nature Jesus Christ is truly God. When you look at Jesus, the true nature of God is revealed, because he is God. This is one of the boldest statements of the Christian belief about who Jesus is, and if it's true, it changes everything.

But secondly, then, let's look at what Jesus (as God) did.

Verses 6-9 say:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being, 
he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death-- 
even death on a cross!

Verse 6 says that he "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage." Some of your translations may say "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." A recent article in England says:

It's time to redefine class. In modern Britain your social position has little to do with what your dad did for a living or where you went to school...We have become a nation of those who enjoy perks, and those who do not. Perks are the little extras that grease your way through modern life - bonuses, expenses, allowances and inflation-protected pensions. The vast majority of the workforce faces higher tax, higher national insurance, higher VAT, shorter hours and frozen pay. But it's so different for a small privileged group - top executives, high-ranking public servants and MPs, who all benefit from these nice little extras whether they do anything to deserve them or not.

It's human nature to grasp at all the perks and benefits that come your way. A Cadillac commercial tells us we should celebrate the success we've earned by buying ourselves a Cadillac. It's our nature to grasp at recognition and honor and money for our own benefit so we can enjoy it for ourselves. One of the strongest characteristics of our fallen nature is selfishness. We love to gratify ourselves. Even our most selfless actions, when we look at them carefully, often have some traits of selfishness hidden in there somewhere.

But Paul says that Jesus did not grasp at the perks or the privileges of being God. He is God, but he does not use his equality with God for his own advantage. Instead, as God, "he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." This is amazing. John Calvin wrote, "Christ's humility consisted of his abasing himself from the highest pinnacle of glory to the lowest ignominy." He laid scepter, crown, attendants, and throne aside, and as God became human. Paul says elsewhere, "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). Jesus Christ became God in the flesh.

Adam - the first man - was not God, and yet grasped at the privileges of being God. Jesus was and is God, but didn't grasp for those privileges, even though they were his. Instead, he laid them aside and became a servant.

A pastor I know was asked to attend the changing over of the Lord Mayor of London, England. The ceremony dates back to at least the seventeenth century. At the heart of the ceremony is the stripping of the old Lord Mayor of all the badges of office. His mace - the symbol of authority - is stripped off. The Lord Mayor's chain of office is taken from him. He arrives with pomp and ceremony, but leaves like everyone else. This pastor watched all of this and it caused him to think of Jesus who, being in the very nature of God, also became in his very nature a slave - no rights, no privileges, no power, no significance, no status other than one who is there to serve. As God, Jesus stepped from the throne of glory in heaven. As God, Jesus entered the stable as a baby boy and as a servant.

What's more, Jesus became killable. When Jesus became human, he chose the path that would lead to his own death, the death on the cross.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed near her apartment in Queen's New York. She cried out for help. Lights went on, and the attacker backed off. Reports differ on who saw what and what happened, but when nobody came down to help her, he continued the attack and ultimately killed her. For whatever reason, nobody came down.

But at Christmas, Jesus came down. And he came down not at the risk of his life, but at the cost of his life. He laid aside all the advantages of his Godship, and instead, as God, became a slave, choosing the path that would cost him his life.

What does this tell us about God?

If Jesus is the very representation of God, then this tells us something about the very nature of God.

One of the questions I hear sometimes is why God wants us to worship him. People can't understand, because to them it seems selfish, like God needs something from us.

This passage helps us see that at the very heart of God's nature is other-centeredness. God, who deserves all praise and worship and all of the perks of being God, willingly set them aside for the very people who shook their fist at God in rebellion against him.

The fact that Jesus existed as God points us to one of the greatest truths. The Father, Son, and Spirit existed from eternity. This means that before anything else existed, love existed. It means that God is, in essence, relational. The Father, Son, and Spirit have lived in eternal relationship with each other from eternity, in a radical other-centered relationship. They are the opposite of being self-centered. They exist in relationships of mutually self-giving love. "Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. This creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love" (Tim Keller).

As one scholar put it:

The Father...Son...and Holy Spirit glorify each other...At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt, commune with, and defer to one another...Each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. In constant movement of overture and acceptance each person envelops and encircles the others. (Cornelius Plantinga)

The early Christians used to have a term for this which meant something like "the dance of God". It means that we are not the product of blind impersonal forces. It means that at the very center of reality is love. Father, Son, and Spirit have been knowing and loving and deferring to each other from eternity.

What is God like? He is relational. He is self-giving and other-directed.

Philippians 2 tells us that this dance of eternal love has been expanded to include us. It means that God, in the person of Jesus, has moved toward us and encircled us with an infinite, self-giving love - a love that let go of all the privileges that were his, a love that embraced becoming a slave, becoming human, so that we could be part of that eternal dance of love.

When we see Jesus, we see the very nature of God. We see the very nature of this universe. And when we see Christmas, we see the lengths that God went to in order to encircle us in his love.

So what does this mean for us today?

If you see and understand Christmas, you are seeing and understanding what is at the very heart of the universe. Don't rush by this passage. Don't rush by Christmas. Meditate on what this passage teaches us about God. Think about a self-giving God who went to this length to invite us into the heart of love.

Friends, this is a fact to be believed. It may be that until know you've never understood this about Christmas. Today may be the day that you realize for the first time what God is really like, and that when we didn't deserve it God himself came down. God himself became other-centered so that we may be brought into relationship with him. Believe it. Understand who Jesus is. And marvel at it. If Jesus is who he says he is, it changes everything.

Then let this change you. Paul wrote in this passage, "have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had." The more we grasp what Jesus has done for us, the more we will be moved to have the same attitude, the same mindset of Jesus. It will change us from the inside out.

So Father, thank you for this passage. Thank you for showing us clearly that Jesus is God. Thank you for showing us in this passage what he was thinking when he came to earth. He didn't use his position as God for his own advantage. Instead, he was born in human likeness, fully God, fully human, giving up his rights so that he could die so that we could be saved.

I pray that this would help us understand you, and that we would respond in faith. I pray that we would believe, and that knowing this would transform us. In the name of the one who came as a servant, the name of the one to whom every knee shall bow, we pray, Amen.

Coming of Age (Galatians 3:23-4:7)

This morning's passage is not one that we normally associate with Christmas. It's also one that we usually avoid, or at least that we don't read fully, because it's a one that takes a bit of work. But this morning we're going to plunge into it.

As you know, Christmas is all about Jesus coming to earth. It's about the Christian belief that God himself sent his Son. But the question is: why? This morning's passage is one of the most theologically rich passages that explains why Jesus came to this earth. This passage will help us understand Christmas, as well as helping us to understand the problem that Christmas solves.

So let's look at four things from this passage. First: what we want. Second: why we won't get it. Third: how Christmas changes everything. Finally: what difference this makes.

Let's look first at what it is we want.

The place where this passage begins is actually with the need that caused Paul to write this letter. And the need points to something that is deeply ingrained in all of our hearts. Somebody's said that it's the default mode of the human heart. We find hints of it all throughout this book:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. (Galatians 1:6-7)

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? (Galatians 3:2-4)

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)

Here is the basic problem that these people faced. At some level they believed in Jesus Christ and understood what he accomplished through his life and his death. But when it came to being justified before God, they were looking to something else other than Jesus. And this reveals something about each one of us here that we really need to be aware of.

We all long for what these people longed for. They wanted to be able to stand confidently before God knowing that they had been approved and accepted. We long to know that we are okay, that we are loved, that our lives count, that they are more than waves on a beach that are there and then gone with nothing left to show for them.

But we see in Galatians that there is something in us that tries to earn this for ourselves. It's a danger for all of us, even those of us who understand who Jesus is and what he came to do. The default mode of the human heart is self-justification. We think that if we do something that our lives will really matter. Probably nobody put it better than theologian Madonna, the pop singer:

My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that's always pushing me. Because even though I've become Somebody, I still have to prove that I'm Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.

I want you to understand that this includes everyone here today. Everybody drifts toward self-justification. The things we look to are different. We think that if we look a certain way, or achieve certain accomplishments, or get a particular title, then we will be able to stand before God and others and be able to hold our heads up high. One or the greatest dangers is when we do this with God. We think that we can live in a certain way, and God will accept us.

This is the first thing we need to see in this passage: that we are all into self-justification. We all tend to drift toward earning our standing with God and with others based on our accomplishments.

The second thing this passage shows us is that it will never work.

There's something very interesting in this passage. If you know the Bible, you know that a good part of the Bible is comprised of God's Law. You know the Ten Commandments and the other passages in the Old Testament that teach us how we should live. It's very tempting to look at those and think that if we only keep these laws, then God will accept us.

But in the passage that was read this morning, Paul gives us three images of the law to show us that the keeping the law will never make us right with God. We will never be able to obey God enough to be accepted. What are the three images?

In Galatians 3:23, Paul says that the law is like a prison warden, keeping God's people in protective custody until Jesus Christ could be revealed:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.

This is fascinating. If I asked you this morning what your dreams are for 2010, nobody here would say, "I hope that I can spend some time in jail, under guard, in protective custody." But Paul here says that this is exactly the position we're in when we try to justify ourselves by keeping God's law. This is the condition of all the people who lived before the coming of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean? It means that the law is restrictive. It has a restraining influence on us that keeps us from doing the evil we would probably do otherwise. Theologians speak of this as being one of the uses of the law: curbing us from doing what we would otherwise do, putting some restraint on us so we're not as bad as we would be. But it's nobody really wants to live under protective custody.

Paul gives us a second image of living under the law: that of a student under a tutor. Galatians 3:24 says, "So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith." The image Paul uses here is of a pedagogue - a slave in those days who was responsible for a child's care and training. In those days, parents would have one of the household servants tutor children and help to bring them up. They would impose discipline and tutor them, often correcting the child when necessary. But it wasn't a permanent arrangement.

But you see, the problem is that the law can tutor us only so far. It can't do what a parent can do. It can point out our faults, but it can't change us. So it's not very satisfying to think of living this way as well. We need a parent, not just a tutor who points out what's wrong.

There's one more image, and it's the one that we read this morning. It's that of a trustee who oversees the assets of a child before they come of age. That's what we see in Galatians 4:1-3. Imagine that you are rich. You're fabulously rich. But your father has set things up so that you don't receive the assets that are yours until you reach a certain age. You want to go shopping and you have all this money, but the trustee says, "Sorry, you can't have that yet." In reality, even though you're wealthy, you're no better off than one of the slaves. You have to do exactly what the trustee tells you. Paul says that's exactly how we live when we try to justify ourselves using the law. We have to do what the law says, and even though we have a large fortune of blessings that have been promised to us, we're answerable to the guardianship of the law. We're really no better than slaves.

And here we see the problem with how many of us live today. When we obey, we feel good, and we think that God must accept us. But we're trapped because we're never good enough. We wake up grumpy some days. We snap at our kids. We make gestures to other drivers. We carry grudges. We're selfish. We lose our tempers. And the law can do nothing more than keep us from being worse than we already are. It can restrain us; it can point out our faults; but it can't do what we really want it to do. It can't justify us before God.

This is a big problem for us, because this is how most of us live. A young man once said, "It's like a heavenly bank account. As long as I make more deposits than withdrawals, I'm in good shape." But the biblical teaching is much worse than that. The very first time we make a withdrawal, the account goes into overdraft and is closed forever.

The problem is that as long as we're trying to make our own way, and stand on our own two feet before God, we have to realize there's really no hope. We don't have freedom. We're under bondage. The law can hold restrain us and point out where we're wrong, but it can't give us life. It doesn't give us access to the standing before God that we long for.

This is the picture that Paul gives us here. For most of human history, God's people have been underage minors under the guardianship of the law. You can almost hear Paul say, "Why in the world would you want to return to that?"

But then Paul explains the solution.

So third, let's look at how Christmas changes everything.

Galatians 4:4-5 says: "But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship."

For most of history, Paul is saying, people lived under the guardianship and supervision of the law. They were like minors who couldn't access the wealth that was rightfully theirs. They were no better than slaves. But the coming of Jesus Christ marks the coming of age of God's people, so that they receive all the wealth that has been promised to them. God sent his Son at the right moment in human history so we could become sons instead of slaves.

Paul says this happened at the right time. God providentially saw to it that it was exactly the right time for the coming of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. There was peace, the Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace which allowed for the spread of the gospel. There was a common language for communication. There were roads so that people could travel with the gospel. But even more than that, it was the time that God decided that his people should come of age and receive the money that was being held in trust for them.

Paul says that God sent his Son, born of a woman. In other words, God himself became one of us. He is like us in every way, fully human, except with one difference: he has no sin nature. He's born under the law, Paul says, so he identifies with what it's like to live under the law. Unlike any of us, he kept the full obligations of the law in his life, and he took all the curse of the law in his death. He kept all of the law for us perfectly as the representative man so that we are freed from the obligations of the law.

John Ortberg tells the story of a priest who moved into a small village in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For 16 years, he lived there. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

The priest was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: "We lepers...." Ortberg says:

Now he wasn't just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn't just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.

One day God came to Earth and began his message: "We lepers...." Now he wasn't just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together.

Then Paul says explains why all of this happened. He says, "...to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship" (Galatians 4:4). The word that Paul uses here is adoption. In those days, wealthy men - even emperors - adopted men not related to them by blood with the intention that they would succeed them. At the moment of adoption, the son was in all legal respects equal with those born into the family.

Because Jesus came to earth, you have been adopted into God's family. You have the intimacy of relationship with God. You are fabulously wealthy, because everything that Jesus accomplished has been transferred to you. The Bible says that you will share all the glory that belongs to Christ. You are an heir of all of God's blessings. It means that you are loved just as Christ was loved. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

The Father wants to say, more than with his touch than with his voice, good things of his children. He has no desire to punish them. They have already been punished excessively by their own inner or outer waywardness. The Father wants simply to let them know that the love they have searched for in such distorted ways has been, is, and always will be there for them. The Father wants to say, more with his hands than with his mouth: "You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests." (The Return of the Prodigal Son)

We've seen what we want: to stand justified before God; to know that we matter; to hear his well done. We've seen that we can't justify ourselves. But then we've seen that this is the very reason that Jesus came. He became one of us and kept the law perfectly, and took the curse for our violations of the law. His coming marks our coming of age, so that we are now children of God rather than servants.

Let's finish this morning by asking what difference this makes.

Do you notice verses 6 and 7?

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." So you are no longer slaves, but God's children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.

Paul really gets personal here. He says "you" over and over again - you! You are not a slave. You are a true child of God. You are a heir of God's promises. Everything that belongs to Jesus is now yours. You are full-grown sons and heirs of God.

This means you have nothing to prove to God. One of my favorite quotes says, "You don't have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there." (C. John Miller)

If you want to ask what the meaning of Christmas is, that's it. God sent his Son at the right moment in human history so we could become sons instead of slaves. And to everyone who trusts what Christ has done for them, he says, "You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests."

Father, forgive us for trying to justify ourselves. This morning we thank you for sending Jesus. We thank you that because of him, we have come of age, and we are now adopted, and everything that belongs to him is now ours too.

Help us to see that we have nothing to prove. Help us to see that it's not, "I obey, therefore I'm accepted." Instead it's, "I'm accepted, therefore I obey." May we truly understand why you sent Jesus to come into this world. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Spiritual Warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Throughout the past months, we’ve been looking at the book of Ephesians. Ephesians is one of the profoundest books in Scripture that applies the gospel to all of life. Although there are many themes and topics that Paul writes about, the big two are these:
  • God is redeeming all things and bringing them back to unity under Christ; and
  • The church is God’s new humanity, his pilot project in restoring all things
There are lots of things that you can say, but they really boil down to this: God’s eternal purpose in bringing everything under Christ is unfolding just as he planned, and the church is central to what God is doing.As we close Ephesians, I think that Paul is anticipating a danger that we all face. Sun Tzu wrote an influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy called The Art of War in which he said:
All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far way; when you are far away, that you are near. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
All warfare, he says, is based on deception.What does this have to do with us? According to Paul, everything. Paul writes in verses 10 and 11: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”Paul is saying that we have an enemy who engages in deceit and who has all kinds of other schemes. The word schemes there actually has the idea of deceit.In essence, Paul is saying that God’s eternal plan in reconciling all things under Christ, beginning with the church, will not go unopposed. And at the end of Ephesians, he says that there are two things we need to do to respond. First, we have to recognize the nature of our battle. Second, we must use God’s resources in the battle.

The first thing we must do, according to Paul, is to recognize the nature of our battle.

Paul writes in verse 12:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
What does Paul mean here? He’s already given us a hint in verse 11 when he mentioned the taking a stand against the devil’s schemes. What Paul is saying here is that we are in a spiritual battle with God against Satan. We have an enemy who has all kinds of cunning strategies, who will attack us in surprising ways. We will not be able to withstand his attacks on our own. We are in a battle, and we must be prepared.If you go to the average church, you will not hear a lot about this. We talk about our churches as families or hospitals. In most churches, there is more danger of getting bored than getting wounded. In churches where there is fighting, the fighting is infighting. It’s easy to forget that there really is a battle, and that we are participants in a battle. One of Satan’s schemes is to lull us into complacency so that we forget there is a battle.It’s scary enough to think about this battle, but it gets worse. The word that Paul uses is struggle. It’s actually a wrestling term. When I think of battles these days, I think of wars with guided missiles and all kinds of technologies. That’s not the type of war Paul talks about. The type of war we’re engaged in is hand-to-hand combat. We are hand to hand with evil, face to face.And who does Paul say we are struggling with? Not flesh and blood. It’s not that the church does not encounter human opposition, but Paul says that the struggle goes much deeper than that. Paul says that our struggle is with “rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Our enemies are not human, he says, but demonic.We don’t know as much as we’d like to about what Paul describes here, whether he is referring to different ranks of evil spirits. We John Stott notices that they have three characteristics.One: they are powerful. They are rulers and authorities, powers and forces of evil. They do have power. When Satan tempted Jesus, claiming that he could give him all the kingdoms of this world, Jesus didn’t argue. Jesus called him “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). We know that Satan was defeated, but he is unwilling to concede defeat, and has not yet been destroyed. So Satan continues to wield power.Second, they are wicked. Paul says they are the powers of this dark world, forces of evil. Jesus said that Satan is a murderer and a liar from the beginning (John 8:44). Peter writes that he is prowling like a lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Stott says:
If we hope to overcome them, we shall need to bear in mind that they have no moral principles, no code of honor, no higher feelings. They recognize no Geneva Convention to restrict or partially civilize the weapons of their warfare. They are utterly unscrupulous, and ruthless in the pursuit of their malicious designs.
Third, they are devious. They rarely attack openly. They try to catch us when we are not expecting it. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” Satan and the powers of evil do not always attack us openly. They also like to lull us into complacency or discouragement or error. In The Screwtape Letters, the fictional demon Screwtape writes, “Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.” These forces are powerful, wicked, and devious.This is our battle. Paul has outlined God’s purposes in chapters 1 to 5 of Ephesians, and in chapter 6 he reminds us of the existence of a devil who is opposed to those purposes. In a minute, he’s going to tell us how to respond, but first I need to pause here and ask if you’ve really grasped that we are part of this battle against the cunning and powerful forces of evil.Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:
I am certain that one of the main causes of the ill state of the Church today is the fact that the devil is being forgotten. All is attributed to us; we have all become so psychological in our attitude and thinking. We are ignorant of this great objective fact, the being, the existence of the devil, the adversary, the accuser, and his ‘fiery darts’. And, of course, because we are not aware of this we attribute all temptation to ourselves. So the devil in his wiliness will have succeeded admirably. We become depressed and discouraged, we feel that we are failures, and we do not know what to do...
The first thing that Paul says in this passage is that we are in a spiritual battle, and this is our enemy.

But secondly, he reminds us of the resources that we must use in this battle.

Verses 10 and 11 say, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes.” And then verse 14: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”If you’re scared by the idea that we are in a spiritual battle, that we’re in hand-to-hand combat with spiritual powers that are powerful, wicked, and devious, then you’re smart. Left to ourselves, we’re both overpowered and outmaneuvered. We don’t stand a chance. But Paul reminds us that we haven’t been left to our own resources. He says, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God.”What we see here is that Paul gives us an image for the whole Christian life as spiritual warfare. And the way to respond is to use the Lord’s resources: the Lord’s strength, the Lord’s power, and the Lord’s armor. God supplies all that we need in this battle, and it’s more than enough.We could spend weeks unpacking what’s in these few short verses. Martyn-Lloyd Jones took 26 chapters - 736 pages - to unpack the passage that we’re covering this morning. One day I hope to return and cover this passage in more depth, looking at the various pieces of armor that Paul lists for us.But I want to especially highlight one thing that we sometimes miss when we read this passage. Whose armor is this? Verse 13 tells us that it is the armor of God. I don’t think this simply means that it’s armor that God provides for us. It actually goes much further than that. The prophet Isaiah gives us a fascinating picture of God who is offended by sin. He looks around to see if anyone is able to do anything about it, but there is no one. So here is what God does:
He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. (Isaiah 59:16-17)
This is amazing. God himself puts on armor and goes to battle against his enemies. What does this mean? It means that the Jewish people came to understand that God himself would intervene in this world and on behalf of his people. God himself would come and win victory over evil.And that’s exactly what happened. God himself came in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus gave us images of his victory over Satan. For instance, he said that Satan is like a strong man who has been tied up, and his house is being plundered. He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). In other words, Satan is being defeated. His authority and power has been broken.And at the cross, God struck a fatal blow against the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of “this present darkness.” Paul tells us in Colossians that Christ “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). And Jesus now sits at God’s right hand, having struck a fatal blow against Satan and all evil powers.But - and this is important - Satan is fatally wounded, but he’s not dead yet. His defeat has been accomplished, but he’s in his dying throes. He still continues to send his flaming arrows our way. You may have seen a hockey game with a lopsided score with the clock running out. The losing team has no chance of winning, but there’s bad blood between the two teams. Fights break out in those dying minutes of that game. There’s no way the losing team can win, but they can make it miserable. Satan is like that. He’s been defeated, but he’s still fighting in the dying minutes of the game.So, Paul says, we must strap on the armor that belongs to God and take our stand based on what God has already done for us in the gospel. We’re to put on:
  • the belt of the truth revealed in the gospel;
  • the breastplate of God’s righteousness - putting on “the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24);
  • the shoes of readiness to tell others about what God has accomplished through the gospel;
  • the shield of faith, which means we latch onto God’s promises in the middle of the battle;
  • the helmet of the salvation we have received from God - to live in light of the fact that God has rescued us from death, wrath, and bondage through his salvation; and
  • the sword of Spirit, which is the word about the gospel that comes to us through the Spirit’s power.
Together, God has given us six pieces of his armor that all come back to the gospel. What he’s given us is enough, and yet we have to take up each piece of armor and stand confidently against all the powers of evil. God’s provided the armor; we just have to use it.So, Paul is saying, we face a spiritual battle against enemies who are powerful, wicked, and devious. And the only way we can stand against the enemy is to use the Lord’s resources. We can’t rely on ourselves. If we do, we’re dead. Jack Miller wrote:
What we fail to see is that reliance on people, their capabilities, their keeping their promises, is a demonic faith, a cooperation in heart with the powers of darkness. We join the enemy, Satan, when we fail to rely on the promises of God to move on our behalf.
Satan’s strategy is to get us to rely on ourselves or to lose confidence because of his evil power. But Paul says we must stand against Satan because we are relying on God’s power and the gospel. “Satan is no match for my Jesus. No match at all. One word from Jesus and the whole host of hell must flee” (Miller).Paul closes with an appeal for us to pray. “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people” (Ephesians 6:18). Paul says this is how we are to pray: at all times, with all kinds of prayers, with all perseverance (“always keep on praying”), and for all of God’s people. This is compared to how we normally pray: sometimes, with some prayers, with a little perseverance, and for some of God’s people.Theologian John Frame writes:
Our only offensive weapons are the Word of God and prayer. This may seem a puny arsenal to the rulers of this world, but God tells us it has more power than any of those rulers. People sometimes say mockingly, “Well, we can always try prayer.” But God’s weapons are more powerful than anything in the mockers’ arsenal. A gun will subdue a man, but only the sword of God’s Word, wielded in prayer, will subdue Satan. (Salvation Belongs to the Lord)
Somebody else said, “The devil trembles when he sees the weakest Christian on his knees.” When we are prayer-less, it shows that we are relying on our own power and have not put on the armor of God. But when we recognize the conflict we’re in, and when we respond by using God’s resources through prayer, then we will be be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.Lloyd-Jones said, “There is nothing that is more urgently important for all who claim the name of Christian, than to grasp and to understand the teaching of this particular section of Scripture.” There is nothing more important than understanding the nature of the battle, and understanding the resources we have in the Lord to respond.This is why the two most important things we can do as a church are to continually dwell in what God’s Word tells us about the gospel, and then to rely on the Lord’s power through prayer. Everything else flows out of these two. Without them, nothing else matters.So friends, be strong in the Lord. Understand what we’re part of: we’re part of what God is doing in uniting all things in Christ. Realize that this will not go opposed. Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.Let’s pray.
Father, some of us have not realized the type of battle we’re in. We are in a battle that we cannot win if we rely on our own strength. Yet our battle is against a defeated foe, and we cannot lose the battle if we use the resources that you have provided for us.Forgive us for relying on our own power. I pray that we would not only grasp the resources that you have provided for us through the gospel, but that we would use them as we pray.May every person here understand what Jesus Christ has done to save us from sin and death, and to reconcile us to God and to each other. May every person here repent and put their hope in Jesus. And may we as a church massage the gospel into all of our lives, and rely on your power. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Christmas Conflict (Revelation 12)

If someone asked you to tell them the Christmas story, you'd have options. You could tell them about an unwed pregnant teenager, or of angels appearing to shepherds, or of Persian astrologers who understood more than Bible scholars. You could speak of Simeon and Anna in the Temple. You could even put on the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which we're reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, in which they end up reading from Luke 2:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12 KJV)

But you probably wouldn't tell someone the Christmas story that we just read.

I'd like to look at a very different account of Christmas morning. We're going to see three things tonight as we examine the story: the backstory of Christmas, the conflict of Christmas, and what this means for us.

First, let's look at the backstory.

Revelation 12:1-2 says:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

I know what you're thinking. This isn't like any Christmas story you've ever heard before. Can we go back to the story of shepherds and wise men? But this is important. Here you have, in two verses, the whole of the Old Testament in a nutshell. John is writing in very figurative, mythical language, and it's full of meaning.

Who is this woman? It's a strange description: she's clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of stars on her head. That's like no woman I've ever seen. But there's a hint. The people John was writing to would have remembered the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. Joseph had a dream one day which didn't endear him to his brothers. He told them, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me" (Genesis 37:9). You see the similar language - a sun, moon, and twelve stars including Joseph?

Looking at the imagery, we see that this woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary; it's actually the nation of Israel. The number 12 suggests that this woman represents God's people, from whom came the Messiah.

Here you have in two short verses all of history up until the birth of Jesus. You have a sense of promise. If know somebody who pregnant, you know what it's like to feel expectation and hope. There is a sense of longing and counting down. We buy gifts, and mark the calendars. We wait, we long, and we hope.

This is exactly what happens in the history of Israel. God promises that he will send the Messiah through Israel. This begins in Genesis 3, and continues with Abraham, through whom God promises to bless the entire world. You see this all through the Hebrew Scriptures, in the psalms and in the prophets. You see expectation and hope. Amazingly, in John 8, Jesus says to the religious leaders, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). What is Jesus saying? What does Jesus mean that Abraham saw Jesus and was glad? He's saying that Abraham had prophetic insight, and was filled with expectation and longing for Jesus. All of the Hebrew Scriptures point to him.

But then we see that there is not just longing and hope, but also pain. "She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth." Here you get a sense of the pain and pathos of God's people. If you know anything about pregnancy, you know that it involves not just hope and expectation, but also pain. There are sleepless nights and there's indigestion and all kinds of other problems, so I'm told. And so it was with Israel. It's why the story of Israel is not always a happy story. We're going to see one of the reasons why in a minute.

This is the backstory of Christmas. The story of Mary and Joseph and the baby is not a random event. The birth of Jesus is the story of all of the Hebrew Scriptures. You can trace the origins right back to the beginning of time. All of history prior to this time points to the coming of this child.

This is the backstory of Christmas.

Second, let's look at the conflict surrounding Christmas.

Let's read verses 3-4:

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. (Revelation 12:3-4)

If the first two verses didn't overwhelm you, then this one will. Now we have a picture of this enormous dragon. Remember that John is writing in highly figurative language. What is he saying?

If you picture the setting of Jesus' birth, you likely picture a serene, quiet night with a baby lying quietly in a manger, sheep bleating, and Mary and Joseph looking contentedly at their baby. We probably think of songs like:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

But behind the scenes, Christmas was nowhere as serene as that. Behind the scenes, a war was waging. This war is all throughout the Old Testament. If Israel was like a pregnant woman, through whom the Messiah would be born, then it makes sense of how often Satan attacked Israel and tried to destroy her. If Satan destroyed Israel, then he would have wiped out the line through which the Messiah would come. So Pharaoh tries to kill all the male babies, but Moses is rescued from the Nile. Haman plots to kill the Jews at the time of Esther. If Israel's wiped out, the Messiah cannot be born.

It's a conflict that continues in Jesus' life as well. It's amazing how many times Jesus' life is threatened in the gospels. Herod tried to kill all the male babies in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders frequently plotted to kill him all throughout the gospel. God had spoken centuries earlier of this conflict: "He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15). Christmas is a battle.

What happens in this battle? Surprisingly, this passage skips right past his life and tells us what happened after his death and resurrection when he ascended to God's right hand:

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who "will rule all the nations with an iron scepter." And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:5)

The child who was born at Bethlehem, John says, is not just a baby. He is the one who rules all nations with an iron scepter, and who is enthroned with God.

Do you know what this means? It means we can't sentimentalize Christmas. When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God. They liked the sentimental picture of Christmas, but they didn't like the battle.

Philip Yancey comments:

As I thumb...through my stack of Christmas cards, I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

You'll probably never see a Christmas card with a picture of a dragon trying to devour Jesus the minute that he's born. That Christmas card just wouldn't sell. The birth of Jesus was a pivotal moment in the battle between God and Satan, and Jesus triumphed. It's not a tranquil story; it's a battle. It's about battle, but it's also about conquest and of victory. It's a story that we should never tame.

But then let's look, finally, at what this means for us.

I think you'll agree that this isn't your typical Christmas passage. But I chose it for a reason. I think we need this story of Christmas.

For one thing, it puts Christmas in its context. If you only focus on the stories of the manger and the shepherds and the magi, you're only getting part of the story. It's an important part of the story, but it's a tragedy if that's it. This passage reminds us that Christmas is part of a much larger story that stretches back throughout history. It's also a story that takes us to the cross.

If you celebrate the baby who is born at Bethlehem, then also celebrate the larger story of what God is doing. Revelation helps put Christmas in the larger context of the storyline of Scripture. It helps us remember that the manger is part of a larger drama, one that's important for all of us to remember. It's a story that includes us.

Second, it reminds us of who wins. John was writing to Christians who knew the story of Jesus born in the manger. Their problem is that they were facing all kinds of problems: false teaching, persecution, paganism, and immorality. How does the Christmas story help you when your life is filled with all kinds of pressures and troubles? John reminds them - and us - that we are caught in a cosmic struggle, and that the baby who is born in Bethlehem wins. He rules the nations with an iron scepter. And if you read on, you find that Satan loses. He is active, but his time is short. Revelation reminds us of who ultimately wins.

Finally, it calls for a response. If a baby's born, it doesn't call for too much of a response. You can admire the baby, give a few gifts, and then hand the baby back. It's not your problem. A baby doesn't call for much of a response. And if we only see Jesus as a baby, then it doesn't have much of an impact on our lives.

William H. Smith wrote:

Most of us also have not come to terms with the baby in the manger. We sing, "Glory to the newborn King." But do we truly recognize that the baby lying in the manger is appointed by God to be the King, to be either the Savior or Judge of all people? He is a most threatening person.

Malachi foresaw his coming and said, "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap." As long as we can keep him in the manger, and feel the sentimental feelings we have for babies, Jesus doesn't disturb us. But once we understand that his coming means for every one of us either salvation or condemnation, he disturbs us deeply...

That baby was born so that "he who had no sin" would become "sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The baby's destiny from the moment of his conception was hell—hell in the place of sinners. When I look into the manger, I come away shaken as I realize again that he was born to pay the unbearable penalty for my sins.

That's the message of Christmas: God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, man's sin has alienated him from God, and man's reconciliation with God is possible only through faith in Christ...Christmas is disturbing...

Only those who have been profoundly disturbed to the point of deep repentance are able to receive the tidings of comfort, peace, and joy that Christmas proclaims.

Let's pray.

Father, we thank you for this perspective on Christmas. It's different than the one we're used to, but it reminds us of what was happening at Christmas behind the scenes. It reminds us of the victory that Jesus won, and the confidence we can have no matter how bad things seem to be.

Keep us from sanitizing Christmas. Thank you for the work that Jesus came to do. May we respond in repentance and faith. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

The Hearts of the Fathers (Malachi 4:4-6; Luke 1:17)

We've been in a series the past few weeks called Far As the Curse is Found. We've been looking at the promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures of someone who would one day come, and as the hymn says, make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

So we've seen that Jesus' birth is:

  • the promise of a descendent of Eve who would destroy all the works of Satan
  • a sign that God is in control and has not abandoned this world
  • the arrival of the king we've always longed for, the king who will reign over the entire world and will never let us down

Today we're going to look at one more prophecy, and it's a surprising one. At the time this was written, it really seemed that all the old prophecies were just a big pile of hurt. The Jews had now returned from exile. The prophets had encouraged them to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. They promised God's blessing. God promised that the rebuilt temple would be greater than the former temple; that God himself would return in mercy; that entire nations would turn to the Lord and become his people; and that there would be a new day of peace and prosperity.

But eighty years had passed. The temple was rebuilt, and it wasn't anywhere near as good as the previous temple. God had given them glowing promises, but these predictions must have seemed like a mockery. The economy was tanked. The land wasn't fruitful; there was drought, pestilence, and crop failure. The kingdom was a fraction of what it had been under David and Solomon - maybe 20 miles by 30 miles. That's just about twice the land mass of Toronto - not exactly small, but not exactly a great kingdom either. And there was only a population of about 150,000 people. And instead of nations flowing to be taught at Jerusalem, the nations were in control of Israel. They were no longer an independent nation, and there was no longer a Davidic king. God really didn't seem to be present in Jerusalem, and instead of spiritual vitality things seemed, well, dead.

In other words, all the things that we've talked about - that Satan's works were going to be destroyed, that God was in control, and that a king would come to set things right - none of them had happened. There was every reason to be discouraged. They may not have been in exile anymore, but they might as well be. All the promises had not yet come true.

It's in this context that we receive another promise of how God will set things right. In the middle of this hopelessness, Malachi prophesies that the Day of the Lord will come. The Day of the Lord, by the way, means the day that God will settle accounts and will finally triumph. It will be the day that God finally settles things. But Malachi says that before this day will come, he will send Elijah the prophet (Malachi 4:5). This is why today, Jews still leave an empty chair at Passover in the hope that Elijah will come. They still pray that the prophet Elijah will return.

And read in verse 6 what Elijah will do when he comes. I think you'll find something surprising in what it says: "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (NIV). Did you read that? He said that before God ultimately triumphs, he will send a messenger who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children.

Now let's pause here and fast-forward a few hundred years. Right before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. The angel explained that he and his wife would have a child named John. Listen to what the angel said:

Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (NIV)

So here's what the angel is saying. That messenger, Elijah - the one who is going to come before the Day of the Lord, before God's final triumph - is now being born, an d his name is John the Baptist. You see, it's not literally Elijah who comes back; it's somebody else just like Elijah. And before God triumphs, this prophet is going to do two things:

  • turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
  • and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous

I kind of saw the second one coming. I don't have a hard time thinking that a prophet would have something to say to the disobedient. But I wasn't expecting anything about the relationship of fathers and children. So what I want to do today is to look at just two things: first, to look at the scope of what God is doing in sending his Son; and secondly, to look at how we live in response.

The Scope of Redemption

Why did Jesus come? We've already seen some of the answers. It's much bigger than we usually think. He came to save sinners from their sins. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). This was very big news to the people who were drawn to Jesus, and it's still good news today. For two thousand years now, people's lives have been changed by Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we didn't. He bore our sins at the cross. He died the death that we should have died, and he rose again to give us new life. And in what's called the great exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness, and in exchange took all of our sin. He's made this available to anyone who comes to him and believes. This is why Jesus came.

I don't want to minimize this at all. I don't know how you could minimize something like that anyway. But I do want to say that there's more. It's much bigger than that. Jesus came to redeem and restore all of creation. Neil Plantinga puts it best:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn't content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn't content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too...

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans...The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed - every last person, place, organization, and program; all "rocks and trees and skies and seas"; in fact, "every square inch," as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is "a theater for the mighty works of God," first in creation and then in re-creation. (Engaging God's World)

That's why we've been doing this series. The Old Testament is full of the reasons Jesus came, and we've been looking at them. It's huge. He came to destroy the works of Satan, to be a sign that God hasn't abandoned the world, and to reign in power as the king who brings peace to this world. Everything that sin has wrecked, Jesus came to fix. As the carol says, "He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found."

If that's how big it is, then Malachi and Luke help us remember how small it is. It's also about the hearts of fathers toward their children. Before Jesus came, God sent a messenger to begin to prepare people for what Jesus was going to do, and this messenger had such an influence on people that the very nature of relationships within the family was changed. When people are changed vertically (with God), it also changes their relationships horizontally, with each other. It would revolutionize the way people lived in their homes. Fathers would awaken to their parental responsibilities and re-prioritize their lives.

The message of John the Baptist was that God was intervening in history. The long-awaited dominion of God, a dominion of peace and justice, was breaking into time and space. God is on the move, and preparations are necessary. What God is doing is as big as setting the world right again, and as small as changing a father's heart so that he cares for his children again. It's as big as the whole world, and as small as an individual family.

How Should We Live?

I want to close by asking how this should change our lives. John the Baptist asked people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We live on the other side of the cross, and we have an advantage: we know the grace of Jesus Christ. We've been enabled by the Spirit to obey. Through Christ we've learned about God as a Father who cares for his children, and we've received grace so that we can care for ours.

In Roman times, when Luke wrote this, fathers were much stricter than mothers. They were known to often be excessively harsh.

In our day, fathers tend to be absent more often than mothers. We can be so busy with our lives that we effectively ignore our children, giving them the leftovers. Even when we're home, we're not really home. Our minds are always on the next email or meeting.

Sometimes we can be too harsh. Paul talks about the danger of exasperating our children, making them feel like they can do nothing right. We can be emotionally distant, expressing nothing but disappointment and disapproval.

We serve a God who is restoring the entire world, defeating the works of Satan. He will one day banish all diseases and death. But even now he's changing father's hearts so that they really care for their children, and are no longer distant or harsh. This is exactly what can happen in your family, not just this Christmas but always.

So let me pray for you right now. Let me pray that you will know Jesus, and not just know him but everything that he has come to do. We look forward with anticipation and hope to all he will do. I pray that you will know him this Christmas. And as he changes us, I pray that he will turn our hearts (not just our actions) to our children. Let's pray.

One Who Will Be Ruler Over Israel (Micah 5)

No matter what you think about politics, it's been an interesting year. In the United States we've had one of the longest and most interesting presidential elections in years. And no matter what you think of the president-elect, you have to admit that expectations are pretty high for his presidency. In a congratulatory letter, French President Nicholas Sarkozy writes, "Your election raises in France, in Europe, and beyond throughout the world, immense hope." In fact, expectations are so high that the president-elect has tried to lower expectations, telling people that it's going to take time, that we need to think of the first thousand days of his presidency more than the first hundred days.

It's even been interesting in Canada. This past week, the Liberal Party of Canada will formally appoint its new leader. He has been called "the great Grit hope." A recent article said, "For many Liberals, qualities like this are a hopeful sign the party can rebuild after falling to a historic nadir in the Oct. 14 election. And for many Canadians, the 61-year-old Ignatieff is a statesman who could build the country's reputation on the world stage."

Not everybody is as excited about Obama or Ignatieff, but we have to admit that the phenomenon reveals something that is true of us as well. There is something within us that longs for a person of greatness to lead us. I realize that we're all cynical because we've been burned so many times, but there is something within us that longs for somebody to rise up and set things right, to inspire us, to give us hope, and to bring about - to borrow a tag line - change that we can believe in.

You even see this in movies. In Prince Caspian, a prince blows a magic horn, trying to summon help. The Narnians know they need help from Aslan or the Kings and Queens of Narnia. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is crowned King, heralding the new age of peace and the triumph of good over evil. And in the legend of King Arthur, the legendary British leader is buried beneath a tombstone that says, "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king." In other words, he's the former king, but he's also the future king that we hope for.

We want a king, a president, a prime minister, a leader, who can inspire us.

But worse than that, we're also angry at ourselves for wanting greatness for a leader. We want to believe, but we can't believe that we're falling for it again. So when the stock market crashes, layoffs are rampant, roads are crumbling, and debt and taxes are on their way up, we can't imagine that the next guy will be any better than the last guy, but we still keep on hoping.

So what do we make of all of this? Today I'd like to look at a passage of Scripture written 2,700 years ago at a time of crisis, and consider three things before we come to the communion table. One: why we're right to be cynical. Two: why, on the other hand, we're wrong to be cynical. Three: what this means for us this Christmas.

One: Let's look at why we're exactly right to be cynical about leaders.

Micah 5:1 says:

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel's ruler
on the cheek with a rod.

In the decades before Micah wrote this, the Assyrian empire became a world power. The Assyrian empire was scientifically advanced. In fact, they were the first to divide hours and minutes into sixty, which has continued to today. It was a time of industry and knowledge.

Assyria became a superpower, and their armies swept through the Mediterranean seacoast. There was no stopping them. They were the first imperial empire in history, and ruled a vast area with a combination of careful organization and systemic brutality. Entire cities were destroyed, and their populations were either deported or massacred as examples to others. Their kings wrote of impaling and burning people, cutting off noses, ears, and fingers. You did not want the Assyrians attacking you.

But as we read verse 1, we discover that this is exactly the situation that they are facing in Jerusalem. A siege is being laid against the city, and we read that Micah calls them to "muster your troops." But it's not looking good at all, because Micah also predicts, "They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod." This is humiliating and horrible news. The leader, the one who is supposed to deliver Israel, is instead defeated and humiliated. The current leader is weak and embarrassing. Micah does not predict good news. He predicts that the siege is going to end in defeat for Israel, and that Assyria will be victorious. Their salvation will not come from the hands of their own king.

So what actually happened? In 701 BC, the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem. They engaged in psychological warfare, getting the people to question their leader, and intimidating the people with their taunts. The residents of Jerusalem had every right to be scared, because the Assyrians had a pretty good win record. We read in 2 Chronicles that God did miraculously deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian army, and that in a single night the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians.

But we also read that just over a hundred years later, in 587 BC, Jerusalem fell after a 30-month siege. Because of famine in the city, resistance was pretty much non-existent. The king was blinded after being forced to watch his sons being killed. Jerusalem was captured and burned and its walls razed. Most of the population was deported and the remainder, mostly rural peasants, were left behind leaderless. The ruling line of David disappeared, and the temple was destroyed. Israel seemed ended forever.

So it's bad news for Jerusalem, and the leaders aren't going to be much of a help. In fact, the leaders are part of the problem. Earlier in Micah, at the start of chapter 3, the prophet gives a scathing rebuke to the leaders. He accuses them of abuse of power using some pretty graphic terms. The way the kings and leaders are treating their people is as brutal and damaging as cannibalism, he says.

What Micah is telling us is that, at least in his time, leaders had become corrupt. The temptations of power had gotten to them. Leaders often have this drive to succeed, to get ahead. This can easily lead to a lust for power, and ultimately to self-interest. Micah is clear that the solution to the crisis they faced was not going to be their leadership. And lest we think that we are better, we are not immune from the same temptations. It's why God warned Israel against even wanting a king. The prophet Saul warned Israel that they would one day regret wanting a king. "You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day" (1 Samuel 8:18). We want leaders, but they're never what we hoped they would be.

In fact, there's only one way to overcome the inherent weaknesses that we have as leaders and potential leaders: to own up to our shortcomings. Dan Allender says that the more we try to hide our weaknesses, the more controlling, insecure, and rigid we'll become. It will destroy us and damage those around us. It's only when we admit that we're so sinful that we will likely destroy everything we lead, that God begins to give us the grace that we desperately need.

Just to make it clear: our biggest problems are way too big for any leader to solve. Too big for any president, prime minister, party leader, pastor, or author. We need more than what any mere person can offer. But then Micah gives us hope, because there is a reason to hope.

Two: God will provide the king we long for.

He writes in verse 2:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Micah tells us that even though Jerusalem will be conquered, and even though the king will be struck on the cheek, a king will come who meets our deepest expectations and longings. And he will come from the most unlikely of places: not Jerusalem. You can't trust the kings who are born in Jerusalem, in the centers of power. These kings always failed. This king will come from Bethlehem, a town so insignificant that it's scarcely mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. But from the most insignificant place will come the most preeminent person, a ruler who is coming in the future, and yet is from of old, from ancient times. He is the once and future king.

This king will not come soon enough to help with the siege. Verse 3 says:

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

But when he comes he will do more than even King David was able to do. Verse 4 says:

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

This is a king who will rule not just Israel. This is a king whose reign will reach to the ends of the earth. As the previous chapter tells us, nations will flow to Jerusalem, but not with armies.

Many nations will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths."
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
(Micah 4:2)

This sounds, doesn't it, like the legends of a king who will set return and set things right: the Kings and Queens of Narnia, Aragorn, or King Arthur. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, went out for a walk in Oxford one day near Magdalen College on a path named Addison's Walk. At this point, C.S. Lewis was not a Christian. They began to talk about the ancient legends. Are these ancient myths just stories, or do they express some deeper truths we hardly know how to express?

"But myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver," said Lewis. "Myths are not lies," Tolkien countered. The myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. The story of Jesus Christ, Tolkien said, is much like the other myths, with one key difference: it really happened. Lewis came to realize that the story of Jesus is "the most important [story] and full of meaning." And soon afterwards he became a Christian.

You see, all the other stories - of the return of the king, of the once and present king, of kings and queens who will return to vanquish foes and bring peace - all of these stories are echoes or shadows of the true story of Jesus Christ, with one difference: the story of Jesus actually happened.

In Matthew 2 we learn that this promised king is Jesus. Herod asked his scholars where the Messiah was to be born, and based on Micah they told him in Bethlehem. The king that Micah spoke of is the king we worship at Christmas.

What does this mean for us today?

It means that we have a lot in common with the people of Jerusalem in Micah's day. We are not under siege by a foreign army, mind you. But we have our problems: economic, political, medical, personal. We have car companies threatening bankruptcy, the Bank of Canada warning of severe economic turmoil, politicians being charged with corruption. At the same time we have movies becoming more popular. Movies are recession-proof, some are saying, because, as one person puts it, "it gives you an escape from all the stress."

We're longing for someone to provide the answers for these problems, or at least to get some relief from them. Micah tells us where to look for hope: not to our politicians, not to our economists, not to the movies (although you can enjoy your movies), but to a king who is born in the most unlikely of places, whose reign is from old, and who shall be great to the ends of the earth, and will be their peace.

Just as the people under siege longed for this king to come, so we long for this king to reign. We're longing for the story to unfold of which all the other stories are only a shadow. The new heavens and new Earth are coming in which "everything sad is going to come untrue."

It also takes the pressure off of us. Martin Luther was friends with Philip Melanchton. Melanchton would occasionally worry a bit too much, one time in particular about the situation in Germany. Luther chided him, saying, "Let Philip cease to rule the world." We don't need to worry. Luther explained, "It is none of our work to steer the course of providence, or direct its motions, but to submit quietly to Him who does." There is a king who reigns, and that king is not us.

Most of all, this points us to Jesus, the most unlikely of kings who came from the most insignificant of places. Micah said that he would " shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD." Jesus said that he is the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. It's only the most unlikely of kings who would die for his people, but this is the king who will reign. When we see Jesus as the true king that all the other stories point to, we can say with C.S. Lewis, "I have just passed from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ."

We thank you today for the king born in the most insignificant of places, a ruler whose from old, from ancient days. We thank you that he will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord; that he will be great to the ends of the earth; and that he shall be their peace.

We long for this once and future king, and so we pray, "Even so, come Lord Jesus. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

And we come to his table now as we look back on his death for us, and as we look forward to his reign over all the earth. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Ultimate Hope (Isaiah 7)

Hopelessness

I don't know if you have ever experienced hopelessness. I hope not. Hope is the belief that no matter how bad things are right now, that the situation isn't permanent, and it will get better. Hope is what keeps us going when times are tough.

The only problem with hope is reality. It's hard to maintain hope in a world that can suck it right out of you. I looked up quotations on hope this week, and most of them were depressing. "Blessed is the man who expects nothing" (Alexander Pope). "He that lives on hope, dies fasting" (Benjamin Franklin). "Hope is merely disappointment deferred" (W. Burton Baldry). The message of these quotes is that you can hope if you want, but it's probably not going to get much better. It's best to come to grips with reality rather than imagine that things are going to somehow improve.

So I can think of some times when I, or people close to me, have given up hope: in the middle of depression, marital conflict, joblessness, sickness, or overwhelming pressure. But if you've experienced what it's like to give up all hope, you know that it's not at all a good thing. Hopelessness can almost kill you. Some would say it does.

The people we're going to look at today had given up hope. Here's the problem we're going to have: our problems seem huge, but the problems that people had long ago and far away seem like nothing. It's like a few years ago when I was sitting in a Starbucks on Yonge Street reading about William Lyon Mackenzie. Do you know him? He was a member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly and the first mayor of Toronto. In December 1837 he decided the time was ripe to march on Toronto. It's called the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern or the Bar Fight. He marched from a tavern near Yonge and Eglinton down to around College Street. It seems tame to read the history. I sat in the Starbucks and looked out at Yonge Street and tried to imagine the 700 rebels on their way to an ambush. If you work at it, you can almost hear the yelling and smell the gun-smoke. It's anything but tame. This stuff really happened.

I want you to work with me this morning to try to understand the situation that King Ahaz faced 2,700 years ago. I realize I'm asking a lot, because none of us are kings, and we can't imagine what life would have been like for him back then. But let's give it a try. With a bit of work, we may be able to hear the sounds and feel the tensions.

Ahaz became king of Judah, the southern half of what used to be Israel, when he was twenty years old. He couldn't have become king at a more difficult time. I've already mentioned that Israel split into two kingdoms. This happened after the reign of King Solomon. This wasn't the way things were supposed to be, and it was certainly not what God had promised centuries earlier.

It got really bad, because a number of powerful forces formed a coalition against him. Sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it? A leader dealing with a coalition of hostile powers. Damascus and Israel joined forces to try to get rid of Ahaz, so that the nation of Judah would join their alliance against Assyria, which was quickly becoming a world power. Now try to picture what this would have felt like. Assyria on one side, and your Israel and Damascus on the other, and Ahaz being squeezed in the middle. When this happened, Ahaz had just begun his reign. So he was young, inexperienced, and he was facing the battle of his life. What do you think he felt like?

We don't have to guess, because Isaiah 7:2 tells us. "Now the house of David was told, 'Aram has allied itself with Ephraim'; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind." This was a big deal. When this brand new, young, and inexperienced king realized that two nations had joined forces against him, he was shaken, and so were his people, like trees in a windstorm. This was not good news. This coalition had already devastated the towns leading right up to Jerusalem, and now they were there wanting Ahaz gone, so they could put their own king in place.

What do you do if you're King Ahaz? Twenty years old, inexperienced, scared out of your mind, and leading a country that's completely demoralized. We're going to look at what he did in just a minute, but we need to first try to put ourselves in his place.

Does he try to negotiate with Syria and Israel? It doesn't look like they're interested in talking. Does he try to get Assyria to come to his defense? After all, Assyria is really what it's all about. Assyria could easily squash Syria and Israel on behalf of King Ahaz - but there would be strings attached. It would probably mean that Judah would come under their control, and Ahaz would become a vassal king, like a puppet.

Does he try to stall? You can only stall so long when you have an army right outside the city walls.

Does he just trust God? That's some of the advice that he received, but it's not so easy to just trust God when you have an army beating down your door.

I hope you sense the tension that this young king is facing. It's not an easy situation. Nobody here has been in exactly this same situation, but many of you can guess how he must have felt based on how you've felt when your back has been up against the wall with nowhere to turn. You know the position of hopelessness. You may even be able to relate to the phrase that Isaiah uses to describe his hopelessness: your heart shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. You know what it's like to lose all hope.

The question is: what do you do?

Hope

It turns out that Ahaz had an advantage that we don't have. Ahaz had prophets, messengers who spoke on behalf of God and reminded them of his covenants. One of them was a man named Isaiah. It's in the middle of this national crisis that Isaiah shows up with what looks to be a surprising message of hope in some of the darkest situations possible.

You can already see this in what we've read so far. Did you notice what he said in Isaiah 7:2? "Now the house of David was told..." Isaiah could have said "the royal court" or "King Ahaz," but instead he said "the house of David," and for a reason. He's reminding Ahaz of God's covenant with David. God had promised to David, "Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). Isaiah is reminding us that God has not been silent, and that there is no reason to lose hope no matter how bad things might look. God himself has promised that he will preserve the royal line of David.

God commissioned Isaiah to remind Ahaz of these promises. We read in verse 4: "Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah" (Isaiah 7:4). God then went on to promise that within 65 years, Israel would be shattered from being a people. It happened too, by the way. Within a decade or so, Israel fell to Assyria. Within 65 years, the northern kingdom of Israel looked completely different because of all the foreign settlers. 2 Kings 17:24 tells us: "The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns."

As hopeless as the situation looked, things weren't as bad as they looked. God reassured Ahaz that he was still in control, and that his promises still stand. This was actually an opportunity for Ahaz and Judah to trust God and claim his promises. But verse 9 ends with a warning: "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all."

One of the worst things I can do at this point is to tell you, "See, you don't have to worry about any of your problems." You are not King Ahaz, and I don't want to pretend that your situation is exactly the same. But it may be more alike than you think. Remember when I said that Ahaz had an advantage because he had prophets? Hebrews tells us that we have something better than a prophet: we have Jesus. And not only that. We have Scripture. We have a record of God's promises. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, all of God's promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

And, in essence, we all face the same test that Ahaz faced. Will we trust God in our trials? We face a choice when we run into crises, and the choice is between independence or trust. Make no mistake: the Bible never promises that we will be spared trials.

But when the trials come, we have the choice of trying to handle them on our own, or in trusting God. Trusting God doesn't mean that we become passive, but it means that we pray, look at Scripture, and put our trust in God's sovereignty despite not understanding what's happening. It means that we turn to his promises, that we lean on him in prayer. It means that we rehearse Scriptures, reminding ourselves that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35), that God will look after our needs (Matthew 6:25-34), and that we can cast our anxieties upon him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

Someone has written a book When People are Big and God is Small. There are times that people look big, when circumstances seem huge, and God looks small by comparison. This is what Ahaz faced. At the moment of crisis, God looked much smaller than the opposing armies. He wasn't sure God could handle it, so he lost hope. We face the same question. When facing problems, when facing trials, will we see the problems as bigger than God?

I'm not sure how we will respond, but I know how Ahaz responded. We read in 2 Kings:

Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, "I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me." And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. (2 Kings 16:7-8)

Rather than turning to the LORD for help, he turned to Assyria, and become a puppet king. He actually gives up the gold from the temple as payment for the king of Assyrian to come to his aid. We read in 2 Chronicles 28 that Ahaz failed as a king:

The LORD had humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had promoted wickedness in Judah and had been most unfaithful to the LORD. Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came to him, but he gave him trouble instead of help. Ahaz took some of the things from the temple of the LORD and from the royal palace and from the officials and presented them to the king of Assyria, but that did not help him.

In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the LORD. (2 Chronicles 28:19-22)

I think this passage is very revealing: "he gave him trouble instead of help." When we hit crisis and don't turn to God, we turn to other things, thinking they will help. They may help in the short term, like Tiglath-Pileser did, but in the end they lead to bondage. They take us farther away from God and, in the end, they give us trouble instead of help.

Before we move on, I want to notice that even in the middle of this crisis, even as Ahaz refused to call on God, God still continued to offer hope. We read in verse 11 that God offered Ahaz a sign to help bolster his sagging spirits. Ahaz responded by turning God down, but even then God offers hope. In verses 14-16 he says:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

This gives me a lot of hope. Even in the middle of doubt on the part of King Ahaz, God continues to reach out. He gives Ahaz a sign that God will spare Judah: a child would be born, and this child would symbolize God's presence and protection in Judah. In the very next chapter, Isaiah records the birth of his own son. In both cases, God makes a promise that before the child is old enough to know right and wrong, or even to say father or mother, that God would deal with Israel and with Syria.

What patience on the part of God. And what a reminder to us how God cares for his people. We can have the same confidence in God no matter how big our problems, no matter how hopeless things seem. As the writer to the Hebrews says:

God has said,
"Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you."

So we say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can human beings do to me?"
(Hebrews 13:5-6)

Ultimate Hope

We could end the sermon here, except that this passage isn't just about Ahaz's situation. It's also about another baby born centuries later. We read in Matthew 1 that the Lord appeared to Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, and said:

Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us"). (Matthew 1:20-23)

Isaiah's son was the immediate fulfillment of the promise that God gave Ahaz, but Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise that he will never abandon his people. He is not just a symbol of God's presence and protection; he is the reality of God's promise and protection, here in human flesh. Jesus is God's sign to us that we never have to think that our problems are bigger than he is, that we never need to lose hope.

This would have been very good news for Mary and Joseph, who lived at a time in which Israel was under foreign rule. It meant that God had not forgotten them, and that he would always keep his promises.

So I don't know if you ever lose hope. I don't know if you're ever in an Ahaz situation, in which the problems look bigger than God. Jesus is God's reminder that he will keep his promise, and he will not abandon his people. Ever.

Thank you that foreign armies camped against your people are no match for your promises. Thank you that you put up with us even when we doubt. Thank you most of all that you have given us a sign, whose name is Jesus Christ, to remind us that you will keep your promises, that you will save your people, and that you will never abandon us. In his name we pray. Amen.

The Reason the Son of God Appeared (Genesis 3:15, 1 John 3:8)

One of the biggest questions in life is: what is wrong with this world? This comes up in many different ways. In theology, it's called the problem of evil. It raises the question of how evil and suffering can coexist with God.

Sometimes it comes up as a philosophical question. When the Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsed on August 1, 2007, killing thirteen people and injuring 145, people asked why God could have allowed that to happen. Or, when an earthquake and tsunami hit in 2004, killing more than 225,000 people, a lot of us wrestled with how the goodness and power of God intersects with a natural disaster of that magnitude. How could a good and powerful God allow this to happen?

But sometimes it's not a philosophical question; it's a personal one. I once went to McDonalds. I was starving. I looked up at the pictures of the hamburgers and ordered one, but what came looked nothing like the picture. It looked like some high school student who really didn't care had thrown it together, which turns out to have been the case. I expected what I saw in the picture and ended up with reality.

That's exactly what it's like in every area of our lives. A couple falls madly in love with each other, but they soon discover that the reality of their marriage doesn't match the picture they had on their wedding day. A couple has a child, and they discover a few years in that their child is a sinner whose favorite word is "no!" For the first time they come to understand the term "the terrible two's." Even worse, in a few years that child discovers that her parents aren't as good as she once thought either.

You start a new job, and within a few months you find that your boss is passive-aggressive, that you really have enough work for two people, and that Joe in the next cubicle thought he should have been given your job.

In every area of life, we expect the hamburger we see in the picture, and we end up with reality instead. There is something fundamentally wrong with this world.

So today I want to ask why this is so. And then I want to tie this into Christmas, since it's the first week of Advent. But the place to begin is with understanding why we have this problem in the first place.

Made for the Garden

Someone has put the problem well:

We all deal daily with annoyances. The first motorist in a green arrow left-turn lane is often some dreamer who lurches forward like a startled hippo just after the arrow has come and gone...We toss sixteen socks into the dryer but get only fifteen back... (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.)

We all face annoyances. But below those annoyances is something even more serious: regrets. Regrets about decisions we made that have locked us in to a career we don't enjoy. Regrets about mistakes we've made, and memories we wish we could forget.

Even deeper than annoyances and regrets is the sense that this is all that there is, and it will be gone soon as well. We look in the mirror and realize that we are aging. Someone's said that we only walk through the valley of death once, but we walk through the valley of the shadow of death our entire lives.

You're probably no stranger to feelings like boredom, anxiety, restlessness, shame, and guilt. You can't escape the sense that we get that everything is supposed to be different here. There is something fundamentally wrong with this world.

Why is the world like this? Scripture tells us that it hasn't always been so. In Genesis 1:1-2 we're introduced to an earth that is formless and void and dark. But then God speaks, and he brings light, order, and life to the world. And he continually pronounces that what he has made is good. And as the pinnacle of creation, he creates us in his own image, male and female, and then we read: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Then God took a day for rest and enjoyment of all that he had made, because all of it was very good. This is the way it's supposed to be: very good, a place in which we feel at home.

We read in Genesis 2 that God placed Adam and Eve this is a place of luxury and pleasure. It's like a royal park. It's a place of abundance, in which all the trees are both nice to look at and good for food. It's like a divine sanctuary where humanity can enjoy all both God and all that he created, including each other. And God gives the command to work the garden and keep it, and not only to do this but to fill the earth and have dominion over it. In other words, to take the Garden and spread it throughout the entire earth, so that the whole world is like Eden. This is the world that we were created for.

This is behind all of our unmet longings and our desire for the world to be more than it is. We were meant for Eden, but we don't live there. The world is not what it was supposed to be. We have to ask: what in the world happened?

The Vandalism of Shalom

According to Genesis, something went very wrong with the world, and it had tragic consequences. Sin entered the world, and as a result of sin, the world has become a broken place. It's no longer what it should be. It's no longer the world that we were made for.

A couple of weeks ago in a study I'm leading, somebody asked why sin is such a big deal. Why did it have such an effect on the world? If your child knocks a cup over at home, and pieces of glass go flying all over the kitchen floor, you don't say, "Well, that's it. The whole house is coming down. This place is a wreck!" No. You get out the broom and you clean up the mess. Why can't God do the same with sin? Why did it change everything?

I don't think Adam and Eve knew what they were unleashing when they sinned. A couple of weeks ago, my young nephew found something on a hotel room floor and stuck it in his mouth. That's what toddlers do; they stick everything in their mouths. Nobody knows what it was, but within minutes his face started to get blotchy, and a rash began to spread over his body. He's fine, now, by the way. My nephew has one thing in common with Adam and Eve: they never imagined what they were unleashing when they ate what should never have come close to their mouths. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they came to know evil experientially, and it wasn't just a cup that had fallen to the floor that could be swept up later. Their act of defiance and rebellion changed everything.

It changed their relationship with God. Adam and Eve were meant to govern the earth on God's behalf. Instead, they rebelled against God and instead obeyed one of his creatures. This went beyond disobedience. This was treachery.

It also changed their relationships. Up until that time, there had been no discord. But when sin entered, they began blame shifting.

It changed their relationship with evil. You can know about evil, but it's another thing altogether to experience it. Once they tasted of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, something inside them had changed. They had chosen their own way over God's, and now knew evil by experience. They had tasted it. And for the first time, they also knew shame and guilt.

But it gets even worse, because what they did actually affected the entire world. Up until this point, the world was in a state of shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word that means absolute wholeness - "full, harmonious, joyful, flourishing life" (Tim Keller). Shalom means:

...universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight - a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. (Cornelius Plantinga)

Shalom is God's design for this world. But when Adam and Eve sinned, the shalom of the world was destroyed. One theologian says that sin is actually the vandalism of shalom. So when Adam and Eve sinned, they did much more than slip up. Their sin changed everything, and the world changed instantly.

Tim Keller puts it this way:

We are told that as soon as we determined to serve ourselves instead of God - as soon as we abandoned living for and enjoying God as our highest good - the entire created world became broken. Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God's shalom - physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, culturally. Things now fall apart. (The Reason for God)

This explains why we feel the way that we do. This is the reason why the Big Mac doesn't look like the one on the menu. It's the reason why your marriage, children, and job have let you down. You were made for the garden, but instead we live east of Eden, banished from the garden in which we were made to live.

The Gospel in Advance

But even in the story of the vandalism of shalom, there is a note of hope. God says to the serpent in Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.

Right as the world falls apart, and as God explains the consequences of what's happened, we also have this note of hope. The traditional interpretation of this verse is that the serpent would be defeated by a future descendant of Eve. That descendant would crush the head of the serpent, but not before the serpent struck his heal. But the victory would go to the descendant of Eve, because being crushed in the head is far more serious than being stricken in the heal.

This verse has been called the "protoevangelium" which means the first announcement of the gospel. It is the announcement that although the serpent has succeeded in causing Adam and Eve to vandalize shalom, that the serpent would one day be defeated by a descendant of Eve. This is what gives us hope that the world won't always be this way.

According to the prophets, this descendant would do far more than crush the head of the serpent. Isaiah spoke of a day when the Messiah would come and restore all of creation to a harmonious state like the Garden of Eden before sin. He would reintroduce shalom to the world:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper's nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:6-9)

The prophet says that the world that we long for will one day be here, and all will be restored to the way that it should have been.

Who is this person, this descendant of Eve, who will one day set the world right again? Who will take this broken world and make it into what it should be? Who will crush the serpent's head?

Hebrews 2:14 says that because we are human, "he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil." It's Jesus who breaks the power of the serpent, who holds the keys of death.

1 John 3:8 says, "The devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." Everything that the devil accomplished in the Garden of Eden is undone through Jesus Christ. This is the reason the Son of God appeared: to destroy the devil's work.

You don't normally see this verse on a Christmas card, so I'll read it again: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." In other words, everything that the devil accomplished in Genesis 3 - the destruction of shalom, our separation from God, our estrangement from each other, our banishment from Eden - will be undone by this baby that was born in Bethlehem. Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and to restore shalom to this world. Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and restore the world to what it should be.

What does this mean for us? I hope this makes you long for Jesus. If you think that Jesus is just some nice story from long ago, then you don't know who Jesus is. Jesus has come to set things right, to restore this world to what it should be again. I hope that makes you long for him. I hope that leads you to worship him. I hope that you surrender your life to him.

I also hope that you see that Jesus came to do more than save us on a spiritual level. I want to be careful here. He did come to save us spiritually, to rescue us from alienation from God, and to bear our sins so we could be forgiven. But that's not all that Jesus came to do. He came to set everything back to the way it should be.

C.S. Lewis said:

Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world–that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colors and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God 'made up out of His head' as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.

Finally, I hope this makes you long for heaven. To quote C.S. Lewis again, all the adventures we have ever had will end up being only "the cover and the title page." We will one day begin "Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and restore the world to what it should be.

He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

Let's pray.

Father, thank you for Jesus. Thank you that he is setting this world to what it should be once again. Help us today to long for him, to worship him, to see the scope of his work. So, your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

How to Know if You Understand Christmas (2 Corinthians 8:1-15)

This morning I'd like to take a few minutes with you to look at how you can know if you really understand Christmas.

The fact that you're here in church a couple of days before Christmas probably means that you understand the facts about Christmas. Most of us know a lot of the Christmas story found in the Bible: that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she had a son before she ever had intimate relations with a man; that angels appeared to various people to tell them about the significance of this birth; that eastern astrologers came to pay homage to this baby born in a feeding trough. But just because you know the facts of Christmas doesn't mean that you really understand Christmas.

If you don't consider yourself to be someone who understands or buys into this, then that's okay. But it's not fair to give you this test, even though I'd love for you to listen because what I'm about to describe is what you should expect of people who follow Jesus Christ. So I invite you to listen and to think about it and consider if what I'm going to say makes sense if you believe what Christians say about the Christmas story. You can even hold us accountable.

I want to talk very briefly about a simple test that we can all give ourselves to see if we understand Christmas. It's found in the passage that we just read in 2 Corinthians 8. Let me give you the test, and then explain where I got it from.

Here's the simple test: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor.

Let me say that again: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor. If you understand Christmas, you will be generous with the poor. If you aren't generous with the poor, it shows that you don't understand Christmas at all.

That's a pretty audacious statement to make. Let me give you a bit of background. The church that Paul writes to, the church in Corinth, was a relatively wealthy church in a world in which a lot of people didn't have very much. When Paul wrote this letter, there was really no such thing as a middle class. Just over 1 out of every 10 people lived well. 70% of the population in the Mediterranean at that time was at or below the subsistence level - most of them below. When Paul wrote this letter, "dirt poor" was not just a saying. Most of the people in that day were literally dirt poor. One writer who lived around this time described it this way: "Toiling and moiling from morning till night, doubled over their tasks, they merely eke out a bare existence."

When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, there was a special need among the Christians in Jerusalem. We don't know why. It could have been a result of persecution or bad harvests. All we know is that things were in bad shape, and the church in Jerusalem needed help.

So Paul faced the same situation that we face today. We are, in a lot of ways, like the Corinthians. We may not feel like it, but we are the "have's". For whatever reason, we live in a country where there is lots of opportunity, and we have a lot compared to the rest of the world.

Paul was trying to raise money to help, just like we're trying to do for the water project. Others are in need. In Paul's day, the need was for money to help with food. Today, the need we're focusing on the need for water for the 1.1 billion people who don't have any clean water. If you took the number of people who are in this building right now and multiplied it by 200, that is the number of people who are going to die today from water born diseases.

How do you raise money among the relatively rich to help those who have next to nothing? It's interesting what Paul doesn't do.

He doesn't once mention money. In this entire passage he doesn't use any of the Greek words for money. It's unbelievable. Money isn't the issue.

He doesn't whip up human sympathy for a project. Nothing wrong with talking about the suffering of people as a way to highlight a need, but he doesn't do that.

He doesn't make people feel guilty that they have money that others need.

And lastly, he doesn't encourage them to give so that they'll gain social prestige or get anything out of giving.

Here's what he does. He reminds them of God's grace. He says that if they really understand God's grace, then generosity is the necessary outcome. Christian giving is more than a display of compassion. It's more than a readiness to help those in distress, as good as that is. Christian giving is always a response to God's grace, demonstrated in the Christmas story. If we understand, really understand, the Christmas story, we'll respond with generosity to those in need. If we aren't generous to those in need, it shows that we don't understand Christmas at all.

Just a few highlights from this passage. In the first 7 verses, Paul describes a group of churches that did get it. They were the churches of Macedonia, that included Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. You know what's interesting about these churches? Verse 2 says that they were experiencing a severe trial and extreme poverty. These churches weren't generous because they had a lot. They were generous and gave beyond their abilities and beyond expectation, and actually pleaded with Paul for the privilege of giving, because of "overflowing joy". They didn't just give money; verse 5 says that they gave "themselves first of all to the Lord," and this resulted in generosity.

What causes a group of poor people to plead for the privilege of giving beyond what is reasonable or expected to help other people? There's only one expectation: they understood God's grace.

Then in verses 8 to 15 Paul turns to the relatively rich Corinthians and says, "Isn't it about time that you completed your collection to help the poor in Jerusalem?" But he doesn't appeal, as I said, to sympathy, or to guilt, or to prestige. He doesn't even mention money. What he does mention is Christmas, because he knows that if you really understand Christmas, then radical generosity is the necessary outcome.

Read verses 8-9:

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

What will make us generous? Verse 9 tells us: really getting Christmas. When we really understand that the Lord Jesus Christ gave up the riches and glory and honor that was his in heaven, gave all of that up, and came to earth and lived poorly, humbly, and died shamefully for our sakes; when we grasp that the pre-existing Lord of glory became poor by choosing to accept our earthly life; when we really understand Christmas, how could we not follow his example and be generous? If Christ gave up that much for us, how could we not give up mere money to help others in need?

J. B. Phillips tells the story of a young angel being shown the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. The little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored.

He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What's special about that one?"

"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."

"Visited?" said the little one. "you don't mean visited by

Relational Giving (2 Corinthians 5:11-21)

We're in this series called The Advent Conspiracy. We are one of over a thousand churches working to recover the scandal of Christmas by entering the Christmas story and asking the question, "How can we worship Jesus more?" We've been talking about some of the themes like:

  • spending less so that we make room to say yes to Jesus in our lives
  • giving more - giving relational gifts, because God gave us a relational gift - his own Son
  • loving all - believing that with the money we save by giving relationally and resisting the empire we can, in turn, re-distribute the money we saved to the least of these in the world

Next week we're taking an offering with the money from celebrating Christmas differently. All of this money is going to go to Living Water International. They're going to use this money to help some of the 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water in this world. But this isn't an extra thing we want to tag onto an already stressful Christmas. The idea isn't to buy all the gifts you'd normally buy and then drop a little extra in the offering as well. Instead, we want to celebrate Christmas entirely differently and enter into the story of Christ coming to this world.

There's a new movie out by Morgan Spurlock, the guy who directed and starred in Super Size Me, called What Would Jesus Buy? In the movie they did some interviews. In one of the interviews, a woman admitted to applying for all kinds of credit cards behind her husband's back. They interviewed her husband and he said, "No, we don't have any credit cards." She had all the credit cards maxed out when they arrived in the mail for Christmas. What she said was, "My kids are going to have all of these things because I never got them and because I love them that much."

There's another story of a man who went out when the Playstation 2 came out that Christmas. There was a mad rush to get them, and someone pulled out a gun and shot him. He had two Playstation 2s, bullet wounds. Someone got down to help him out. As he lay there he tried to pull the credit card out of his wallet as he said, "Go buy these for me."

We hear these stories and think that it's crazy, and it is. Something pure and universal like parental love somehow at Christmas gets reduced to loving enough to go into debt or even to take a bullet to buy our kids stuff. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors who came up with the idea of Advent Conspiracy, says, "This thing called love that you can't put a price-tag on has been reduced so that you can." (Rick McKinley).

Entering the Christmas story means that we stand back a little and ask, "Is that the story that we're invited to enter this Christmas?" Ultimately, Christmas is not about the gifts that we buy for each other. Christmas is about a relational gift.

At Christmas we celebrate that out of all the things that God could have given us, God gave us the most costly gift - something so valuable you can't put it on a price-tag. God gave us himself. As we enter this story, we have to ask ourselves, "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?"

We just read a passage written by the apostle Paul in which Paul explains the essence of the gift that we have been given. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18, "All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ."

Reconciling is when someone does something between enemies so that they become friends again. Jesus came as a person which is in itself a relational gift, but he also came to restore the relationship between us and God. He restored the ultimate relationship and he did so by coming himself at Christmas as a person, as one of us.

There's a movie called The Straight Story. It's about a 73-year-old man who has a broken relationship with his brother, Lyle. They haven't seen or spoken to each other in over 10 years. One day Alvin learns that Lyle has had a stroke, and he determines to visit him and make things right.

Alvin hitches a makeshift trailer to his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out on a 500-mile trip. He camps out in fields and backyards made available by hospitable people he meets along the way. Slowly but surely, Alvin perseveres and reaches his brother.

He steers his riding mower down a dirt road and finds a run-down wooden shack. Alvin climbs off the mower, shuffles slowly toward the house, and calls out, "Lyle! Lyle!" There is no response. The look on Alvin's face shows his fear: perhaps he's too late. Maybe Lyle has died in the six weeks since he began his journey.

After a lengthy pause, a voice from inside the shack calls, "Alvin? Alvin?" Lyle appears at the front door holding onto a walker. He invites Alvin to come onto the porch, where they silently sit. Alvin nervously looks at his brother, while Lyle studies the riding mower and makeshift trailer. Eventually Lyle says, "You came all this way on that just to see me?"

Alvin's smiles with tears in his eyes and says, "Yep!"

That is like the Christmas story. We were enemies of God. There is nothing that we could do. We were dead. Then we look at the manger, which was a feeding trough for animals, and see the baby who is the Son of God and say, "You came all this way for what?"

We then look at the cross, in which that same God-man died for all, and we realize the extent of what God has done to reconcile us to himself.

This is the ultimate relational gift. Because of our sin, we were enemies of God. We could do nothing about it. All the religion in the world couldn't help. God took the initiative and sent Jesus - Immanuel, which means God With Us, so that we are no longer enemies with God.

The question I want to ask is: how do you celebrate the fact that God has given us the ultimate relational gift? There is something strange, isn't there, in celebrating God's relational gift by going into debt to buy stuff that we won't even remember in six months

World Vision did a study in the United Kingdom. The study found that Britons waste over $4.5 billion every year on unwanted Christmas presents, and almost a third of them wind up being sold online after the festive season. We're buying all this stuff that ends up on eBay. The study also showed that more than a quarter of Britons cannot remember what anyone bought them for Christmas last year.

Is there a better way to celebrate the ultimate relational gift?

Paul says so. In 2 Corinthians 5:18 and 19 he says that God has given us both the ministry and the message of reconciliation. Our job, in other words, is to be relational gift givers as well, bringing people back to God. It's like, Paul says, God is making his appeal through us: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20). Because we have received the ultimate relational gift, our whole lives become relational gifts to others. Because Jesus given us a relational gift, we have become relational gift-givers.

Our job, in other words, is to share this relational gift of Jesus Christ with everyone, to let them know that God has taken action by sending his Son to reconcile humanity to himself.

A little earlier I asked "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?" What would it look like if Christ-followers in the thousand churches that are part of the Advent Conspiracy said, "We may shop and give gifts this year, but we're not buying into the hype. We're not going in debt and we're not putting a price-tag on love." What if we shopped and gave relational gifts that echo and express the ultimate relational gift that God gave to us?

In your bulletin there's a list of relational gift ideas. I think it's interesting, by the way, that the theme of relational giving is summed up in two words: "Give more." Giving relationally involves spending less money, but it means giving more, not less. It means giving of yourself rather than just giving junk. The purpose isn't the gift itself. The purpose is the giving of yourself to others, especially as you love others in Jesus' name.

The ultimate purpose in all of this is to worship more. We want to enter the Christmas story and worship more by spending less, giving more by giving relationally, and loving all, including the least of these, because Jesus says that by loving the least of these we are loving and serving him.

You may be thinking of all the bad things that happen if we give relational gifts to each other in just over a week. You can picture my kids opening the gift that I've crocheted for them. But listen to this audio clip from Clark Blakeman, who describes what relational giving meant to his family last year.

[audio clip]

Let me give you a couple of other examples of relational gifts. A granddaughter bought an $8 package of coffee to be shared with her grandmother, so the grandmother could share with her stories of her life and growing up. Another example was a father, who instead of giving his son an X-Box, gave him a baseball glove and pledged to spend more time playing catch with him. We do this because we worship a God who gave us a relational gift. God gave us His son. This is an incredible opportunity to reclaim the heart of what matters most as we learn together to give gifts of meaning instead of simple material gifts.

Clark talked about having the awkward conversations with his family at the beginning of the Advent season last year. I encourage you to do the same this week. Let's work together as families to say how can we check out of some of the craziness of Christmas so that we really enter the Christmas story this year and spend less, give more, and love all because we want to worship the one who has given us the ultimate relational gift. Let's pray.

Father, prepare our hearts for what you want to do through us. Thank you for giving us the ultimate relational gift. Thank you for sending your Son. I pray that you would make us relational gift givers who most of all offer the message of reconciliation to others, but who also give of ourselves this Christmas to celebrate the one who gave himself. In Jesus' name. Amen.

A Clash of Kingdoms (Matthew 2:1-18)

If you've been with us recently on Sundays, you know that we've been looking at an important but rather depressing book of the Bible. Last week we looked at one of the most disturbing stories in all of Scripture. You have this sense that you're glad it's over.

After the service somebody came up to me and asked, "What are you preaching on next week? I hope it's going to be a bit lighter than this." I thought for a minute and realized that we're talking about Herod's slaughter of the children two and younger in Jerusalem. I promise you it will get lighter, just not this week.

N.T. Wright, a prominent bishop in the church of England and one of the top theologians in the world, was preaching at a big Christmas service, and a well-known historian attended. This historian was well-known for his skepticism towards Christianity, but his family had persuaded him to attend the service.

Afterwards, this historian approached N.T. Wright with a big smile. "I've finally worked out why people like Christmas," he said.

"Really?" said Bishop Wright. "Do tell me."

"A baby threatens no one," the historian said, "so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all."

That historian may not have read the Christmas story of the Bible. At the heart of the Christmas story is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village of young children to try to get rid of him. He is most definitely a threat to the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that are in direct competition with his reign.

The passage we read today presents us with a conflict that becomes a major theme in the life of Jesus. It's a theme that continues today.

On one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus. What is possibly threatening about a baby? What is threatening is that even a baby is a threat when that baby is a king who will possibly dethrone the reigning powers. When a baby is born who is a rightful heir to the throne, and the person on the throne is a poser, then it makes sense for the illegitimate monarch to be threatened.

King Herod was such a ruler. Herod, otherwise known as Herod the Great, had overcome all kinds of competition and obstacles to become king of Judea. He was famous for his building projects including the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was absolutely stunning, as well as theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, and fortresses. If you go to Israel today, you can still see remnants of what he built.

Some people think that he was one of the richest men to ever have lived. Although he had faced many threats to his power, we was able to overcome them all because he was both ruthless and powerful.

Why would a man who accomplished so much be threatened by a baby? There was a problem with Herod - actually a number of problems. Although Herod considered himself to be Jewish, he was not a descendant of Jacob; he was a descendant of Esau, or an Edomite. God had told Jacob in Genesis 35:10, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob: your name will be Israel." But Isaac, Esau's father, predicted that Esau's descendants would serve Jacob's (Genesis 27:40). The Israelites in Herod's day did not believe that Herod had any right to the throne in Israel because they did not consider him to be Jewish. In 40 BC, someone took the throne away from Herod, and Herod asked Rome to help him. So he was elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, took back the throne, and consolidated his reign for another 34 years.

So when ancient astrologers show up from the east - the east, by the way, was where Herod was most exposed to foreign threats, and these astrologers were connected to power - when these astrologers show up and announce that a king of the Jews has been born, Herod has every reason to be threatened.

There are lots of theories about what exactly the astrologers saw. Barth mentioned to me last week the work of one astrologer. Evidently they can go back using computers now and recreate the arrangements of the planets on any given date. Supposedly in astrology that day Aries was a symbol of Judea, and Jupiter was and is connected with royalty. Ancient astrologers believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter. This would signal the birth of a great new king in Judea. On April 17, 6 BC, Jupiter was eclipsed in the east. A Roman astrologer described the conditions of that day as befitting the birth of a "divine and immortal" person.

This seems to make a lot of sense. No matter if you and I buy into this theory, something like this happened. Well-connected astrologers saw something that made them believe that an important king had been born in Judea. We read the results in verse 3: "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."

You don't want a man like Herod disturbed! He had no problem killing anyone - friend, family, or foe - to keep his grip on power. He had executed dozens of people who had been threats, including his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, and uncle.

We read that all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod. Why were they troubled? For sure they knew what happened when Herod got disturbed. When Herod was unhappy, everyone was unhappy. But I think it was probably more than that. You're talking about people in positions of power in Jerusalem, religious leaders who had aligned themselves with Herod. If his power base was threatened, so was theirs. They knew they were all in trouble if a rightful king had been born, the true king of the Jews.

You see, Christmas is about an extraordinary king who poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. The baby Jesus is a threat.

And this is a theme that continues all throughout the gospels, including this one. You have the blind and the lame and the powerless people coming to Jesus, but the powerful elite indignant. You have the most powerful religious leaders of his day condemning Jesus of blasphemy. In Luke we read that Herod's son, who took over part of his father's territory, ridiculed and mocked Jesus before his death. Jesus has always been a king who is a threat to the ruling kingdoms of this world.

That's true even today. About a year ago, a group of pastors got together. They actually began talking about how much they hate being pastors at Christmas.

You would think that a season that's all about one of the greatest theological truths - that God became flesh in what is called the incarnation - means that Christmas would be a great time to pastor. But the pastors had a sense of competing with stress, thoughts about the mall, what people hadn't bought yet, and how much debt they're going into for this great truth called the incarnation.

There's a stream of passion, consumerism and chaos that is contradictory to the message of the Gospels. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors in the group, observes, "There is a point where you want to just throw up your hands and say, 'Let's quit talking about Christmas from the Bible. Let's just talk about spend more. Let's cancel church for the Christmas season.' That probably would be easier for people. Then you realize that's stupid."

The pastors began to conspire together to enter the story of Christmas: not just teach about it and sing about it, but enter it. They thought: When Christ came to earth, he came as king. It threatened the king at the time and his empire. Although Christ comes in weakness, there is a true threat in this baby. He is subversive. He is a threat to the kingdoms and the powers that be in this world.

They began to ask if Jesus was still a threat to the powers of this world, and they began to realize that there is a rival kingdom to Jesus, but it's a kingdom that we often get sucked into.

When we worship at Christmas, we often bless the kingdom, and buy into consumerism and chaos. This seems contradictory to the Christmas story. While we are not living under Herod's reign, there is another empire of consumerism and materialism that threatens our faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus brought with him such an extraordinary kingdom that is counter-culture to the kingdoms of this world.

Part of saying "yes" to Jesus means that we say "no" to over-consumption. We say "no" to these things so we can create space to say "yes" to Jesus and His reign in our lives. We want to live as subjects of the extraordinary king who is a threat, because there is a baby who is a king and who is a threat to the powers that claim to hold power in our lives. There is still a clash of kingdoms going on today.

So on one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus, and the empire striking back. Sorry, couldn't resist. But on the other hand you have those who recognize this king's reign and accept Jesus as king. In verse 11 we read that these eastern astronomers came to the house, bowed down, and worshiped Jesus. They paid him homage, and presented him with the most valuable, transportable, and marketable items of the day, items that were ideal for sustaining Mary and Joseph in another country as refuges as would happen after these events.

Who would expect astrologers to be the ones to pay homage to Jesus? The most unlikely people became subjects in this rival kingdom - something that is still true today. It's always the most unlikely people.

I know what you are thinking. You may be thinking, "Are you going to tell me that if I buy gifts at Christmas that I'm just like Herod?" No, that's not what I'm going to tell you. If I did that I would be guilty of a new type of legalism. There are lots of people who don't give gifts at Christmas who are under Herod's rule, and I'm sure there are lots of people who give gifts who properly worship Christ at Christmas.

What I am going to tell you is this: a king has come, and that king is a threat not just to Herod thousands of years ago. Actually, what Herod faced is what every person who encounters Jesus Christ eventually faces. He is a threat. Our kingdoms may not be as big or as impressive as Herod's, but every person here - me included - has stuff they are trying to protect. They're good things, like family, accomplishments, relationships, position. These are good things, but we have this tendency to make them ultimate things. And when we make them ultimate things, they then clash with the kingdom of God, the kingdom that was proclaimed when the baby king was born in Bethlehem.

We are all Herod, trying to desperately hold on to good things. But here's the thing. Historians tell us that as these events took place, Herod was dying a painful death. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod's final illness was excruciating. Within three years of Jesus' birth, Herod was dead. The crazy thing is that Herod was desperately trying to hold on to a kingdom that wasn't his to keep anyways.

The question that we face this Christmas is that as we understand that a king has been born, and that this king, because of who he is, can ask anything of us - what is threatening about that? Where do you go, "I'll follow Jesus, but I need to protect that." In other words, what good things have you made ultimate things?

The real question this Christmas is whether you will lay aside your idols, your kingdom that won't last anyway, and worship the child who was born whose kingdom will last forever.

And by the way, could it be that the way that we answer this question will also change our buying and spending habits and the way that we celebrate the arrival of that king? How do we live every area of our lives in light one of the greatest events in history - the arrival of God in human form as king? That's the question that this story leaves us to wrestle with.

By the way, there is no way to give up our kingdoms unless we're captivated by a better kingdom. In the 1800s a Scottish preacher wrote a paper called "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection." He made the point that the only way to get rid of something that your heart loves, that you must have, is to have that affection expelled by an even greater affection. Have you ever wanted something until an even better model comes along? All of a sudden you can't be bothered with what, a day ago, you used to have. This also works spiritually. The only way you can be free of the love of your own little kingdom is to become captivated by the love of an even greater kingdom. The love of God's kingdom has expulsive power. Only when you give yourself to a better king will you be free from becoming a Herod, desperately holding on to what we can't keep anyway.

The only way we'll be able to give up our kingdoms and worship the true king is if we are captivated by the beauty of that king - the One announced by angels and stars, worshiped by shepherds and astrologers, loved by the powerless but hated by the powerful, crucified and rejected, and yet bearing our sins, risen again and reigning at God's right hand. When we really see him, that will change everything about how we live and who we worship.

Let's pray.

Father, our prayer is that you would let us see Jesus. We confess that we are like Herod naturally. We don't have kingdoms like his, but we naturally see Jesus as a threat and we want to hold on out of fear of what we will have to give up.

But this Christmas let us see Jesus. And let us worship him. May we truly experience the power of Jesus coming to this world, and may that free us from all competing kingships. May that change the way we celebrate even Christmas.

Let us survey the king lying in the manger. Let us survey the wondrous cross. And may it change how we worship this Christmas. In Jesus' name, Amen.

A Subversive Christmas (Luke 1:46-55)

Part One: A Time of Waiting

I don't know what kind of year 2006 has been for you. For some it's been a year of blessing. You may have had a child, or moved to a new house, or started a new job. For whatever reason, things may have gone especially well for you this past year, and as you celebrate Christmas tomorrow you can look back and say, "This has been a good year. God has been good."

But I know that for some of us, 2006 has been a year that we will not soon miss. I talked to someone recently who has been through difficulty. They observed that as others became aware of some of their circumstances, they've been surprised how many have said, "I know, I've been through that too." As we sit here together, you and I have no idea what others around us have been through with our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships. It's hard for some of us to come to Christmas and New Year's without feeling a little bit of pain, a little bit of regret, for what might have happened over the past year.

Some of us have experienced the feeling that no matter how good or bad it's been, the circumstances of our lives have been out of our control. Have you ever been through a difficult time, and it's felt that anything you do to try to make things better ends up backfiring on you? You get to the point at which you just lift up your hands and say, "All right. I can't do anything to make this better. All I can try to do is hold on until it's over and hope that I make it through to the other side."

The reason that I bring all of this up is because I want us to look at the Christmas story in a different way with you. Many of us know the story quite well: shepherds and angels, Magi and gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know the songs and the events quite well. Today, though, I don't want to just look at the Christmas story. I'd like us to find our place in the Christmas story, to make the story our story in a way that's never happened before.

The past couple of weeks, we've been looking at what the world was like when Jesus was born. For some in Jesus' day it was the best of times. The world was ruled in that time by Caesar Augustus. The entire world was united under one ruler and was enjoying an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Augustus celebrated his only life by calling himself the son of a god who brings peace and salvation to the world. He called himself a savior. The economy flourished under his rule, and you could travel and communicate like never before. Caesar Augustus promised the world, and for many people who were alive that day, he delivered.

We've also looked at Herod, Caesar's puppet king in Judea, the land where Jesus was born. Herod's day was the golden age for many of the ancient buildings people go to see in Israel today. He built massive buildings. It was said that you had never seen a beautiful building until you had seen the Temple that Herod had built. Herod was perhaps the richest man who has ever lived, acquiring massive wealth and power. For those who were connected with Herod and who were spared his paranoia, life could be very good.

But maybe some of us today don't find our stories in the Christmas story as we read about the accomplishments, power, and wealth of people like Caesar and Herod. Because for some who were part of the Christmas story, it was not the best of times. It was the worst. It was a time of longing and pain and even of despair and doubt.

People of faith who lived in Israel at that time knew God's promises. They knew that God had given them the land where they lived, and had promised to bless those who blessed them, and curse those who cursed them. But as they looked around, they found it hard to imagine how things had gone so wrong.

The Roman rule, despite the era of peace, was bad news for these people who were not experiencing what God had promised. When Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world for tax purposes, that was not a good thing. It wasn't what God had promised, but Caesar's kingdom looked all powerful. There was nothing you could do.

Taxation rates were 70 percent and up. Some guess that people were being taxed up to 90 percent. People in that day were struggling to make enough to pay their taxes and provide for their families. They were going into debt to try to make it by. Some were losing their properties that had been in the family for generations, that had been part of what God had given them when they entered the land he had promised to them. The rich kept on getting richer, but there was little hope for the common man or woman.

Injustice was a way of life. The tax collector had to take Caesar and Herod's share, but he could take whatever he wanted for himself. Those who had the misfortune of coming to Herod's attention could be slaughtered for no good reason at all. You could be one of the thousands of people who were killed by Herod. Or you could be one of the tens of thousands who worked for Herod directly - brutal work for next to nothing. Or one of the hundreds of thousands who gave almost everything they made to a paranoid and egotistical king.

The people of that day were hungry, downtrodden, and discouraged, and there was little they could do. There was no way for them to fight the system. A group called the Zealots tried to do something about it by taking matters into their own hands and rebelling by force, but they just made things worse.

You can sense the despair and fatalism. Will Caesar and Herod always be on the throne? The rich keep getting richer, the paranoid more paranoid. There would have been a profound sense of doubt. People would ask, "God, if you're so powerful, why is Herod still on the throne? God, if your Word is so reliable, why is Caesar in charge?" A whole nation of people is waiting.

You may find yourself in this story today asking similar questions, expressing similar doubts. God, have you forgotten us? God, if you're in charge, why the cancer? Why the divorce? God, how long? Why am I going through all of this? Why does it seem like you're not in charge?

So I want to ask you to find yourself in the Christmas story this morning, in the longing and the waiting and the questions and even in the doubt. Where in your life are you struggling with despair, longing to provide what God has promised? Where do you have questions, and you're longing for God to come through? I'll invite you to take a few minutes and find yourself in the Christmas story, in the sense of longing and waiting and questioning and wanting more, wanting what God has promised.

Part Two: A Time of Revolution

It's in a time of waiting and injustice and discouragement and despair that an angel appears to a young peasant girl, just 13 or 14 years old, and says:

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. (Luke 1:31-33)

The young girl's name is Mary. In a time when Caesars and kings and generals have all the power, the angel does not appear to Caesar or to Herod or to a general or a noble. The angel appears to a young girl and says that a king is being born, that Caesar and Herod is going down, and that a baby will be born who will reign forever and ever, not just over Israel but over the entire world.

Mary has some questions about how this will happen, but she accepts the angel's answers. She says to the angel, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:28). As soon as the angel left Mary, she hurried down to the home of her older relative, Elizabeth, to share the good news. Elizabeth, too, was going to have a baby. The moment that Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, she bursts into poetic blessing over Mary. Elizabeth confirms that Mary is pregnant with the Son of David, the Messiah, the king that all Israel has longed for. And Mary echoes back with a song of her own:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great thingse for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors." (Luke 1:46-55)

It's an amazing song. It's amazing first because it's chock-full of Scripture. Every word is full of meaning. Mary has immersed herself in the stream of Scripture and understands what God is doing in the world.

What's really amazing about this song is that it is revolutionary. Mary sings a song of triumph that at a time when Caesar and Herod and injustice and despair were on the throne, a king has been born and this king will establish justice and reign forever. A baby is being born, and Caesar is going down and Herod is going down. It's a subversive and a revolutionary song.

When Mary announces, "He has brought down rulers from their thrones" she's saying something about Caesar. "He has sent the rick away empty" sends a message about Herod. But God through Jesus is lifting up the humble, filing the hungry with good things. Mary was more than a sweet, humble, quiet girl. She is a rebel, a revolutionary, a social protester. God was using her to set loose the power of God and the good news of his kingdom and to bring down injustice and oppression. One historian has called this the most muscular poem in all of ancient literature, and it was sung by a young peasant girl.

This song tells us that God is not divorced from history. God does not just live in the spiritual aisle of the grocery store. God has power over the powerful over our world. "The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth" (Daniel 5:21). He's not only concerned with getting people to heaven. He's also launching a political and economic revolution. For those of us who long for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and also an end to injustice and for things to be set right, Jesus is the king. And he will reign forever and ever.

So Caesar and Herod don't have the last word. Cancer and divorce and injustice and suffering don't have the last word. God has the last word. And God did not send his Son to just reign over the religious part of life, the church part. God sent his Son to set all things right. And his reign has begun, but one day it will be fully here. God himself will be with us and be our God. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

If you're longing for that, Mary has good news for us. A baby has been born. Caesar and Herod don't have the last word. God has the last word. That's what Mary celebrated, and that's what we celebrate at Christmas.

Part Three: A Time for us to Ponder

You and I have the privilege of knowing what God is doing in the world. We, like Mary, have been let in on the secret. Mary physically carried the good news within her body for nine months, and after that we read that Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Mary is doing more than remembering, like a mother might do as she thinks about the birth of her child. She is trying to put things together here. She is treasuring up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.

My prayer for you is that you would take these revolutionary and subversive words about the reign of Jesus Christ and that you would likewise treasure up all these words, and ponder in your heart what they might mean for your life.

I pray that those of you who are longing for a fresh start would come to Jesus, who was born to "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).

May those of who who are crushed under a weight of oppression and injustice and suffering ponder the one who came to topple unjust rulers from their thrones, and to lift up the humble and to fill the hungry with good things.

And may we remember that a baby has been born, not just to occupy the religious department of our lives. A baby has been born who is king over all the world, and "he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:33).

May you treasure and ponder these words, and may they change not only your life, but the lives of everyone around you. May you, like Mary, carry the subversive message of Jesus.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)

Two Kings (Matthew 2)

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. The reason we did this was to remind ourselves that Luke wasn't just writing a nice story about the birth of the baby. He was subverting the rulers of his day. Luke was writing a dangerous story.

Caesar Augustus, the emperor of that day, inaugurated a twelve-day Advent celebration in 17 BC to mark the beginning of a new age. He called himself a son of god, a savior who brought peace to the world. Luke comes along and says that it is Jesus, not Caesar, who is the real Son of God, the Savior who brings Good News of peace to the world. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Today, I'd like to enter the world into which Jesus was born once again. To really understand the birth of Jesus in the Bible, we need to understand a little about that world. Next week we're going to put all of this together by looking at Mary's song, the Magnificat, and its radical message for the world.

Matthew 2:1 says that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod." The question is, who is King Herod?

Back in that time, the whole world was united under one man, Caesar Augustus. He ruled a vast area, all the way from Britain in the west to India in the east and down into Africa. It's impossible to rule that big an area on your own. It would take months to travel from one part of the kingdom to the other. So Caesar appointed kings to rule over portions of his kingdom. The king over Israel was a man named Herod. He started out as military governor over Galilee in 47 BC and became king of Judea in 40 BC.

So what was he like? Well, he was called Herod the Great, and for a good reason. As someone has said, "He was 'great' in everything he did, whether it was good or bad." As I researched his life, I came back to three words: accomplishments, power, and legacy. So let's talk for a few minutes about each of these as the backdrop for the birth of Jesus.

Accomplishments

To start out with, Herod the Great was a man who accomplished much. His greatest accomplishments were his rise to power, which we'll look at in a minute, and his building projects, and his wealth. It's been said that people go to Israel today searching for Jesus, but there is significantly more physical evidence of Herod than of Jesus even today.

Herod was a visionary builder. All of his buildings were strategic, part of his effort to win support and to stay in power. The last Temple that ever stood, the one that Jesus would have known, was called Herod's Temple. Here's a picture of what they think it might have looked like.

The Temple that had stood for the past few hundred years was small and humble, nothing like the original Temple that Solomon had built. In 20 BC, Herod announced that the Temple would be torn down and replaced with something truly magnificent. Few people believed him, but Herod went to work.

The problem that he had was that the Temple Mount wasn't large enough for what Herod wanted to build. So, Herod essentially built huge retaining walls and underground vaults to create a bigger surface upon which to build. He turned a normal mountain with steep declines into a giant rectangular platform. The Western Wall or Wailing Wall is part of that project and it still stands today.

Herod's Temple was one of the biggest construction projects of that time, and some have compared it to one of the seven wonders of the world. The Temple itself was made of marble, not local stone, and would have gleamed in the daylight.

When the original Temple had been built, the Bible reports that "no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built" (1 Kings 6:7). Some think that this was the case when Herod rebuilt the Temple as well, which means that the stones would have been moved from elsewhere.

Now this is amazing. The stones that Herod used to build the walls around the Temple are called Herodian Stones. They are all different sizes, but most of these stones are about five feet tall. The largest stone they've found so far is 44 feet by 11 feet and weighs 628 tons. That's the weight of 465 cars. What is truly amazing is that today's best cranes can only lift 250 tons. They still haven't figured out exactly how they were able to move stones this huge in place.

You'll remember when Jesus and the disciples saw the Temple. One of the disciples said to Jesus, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" (Mark 13:1). The rabbis of the day stated, "He who has not seen the temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building."

But the Temple wasn't the only building that Herod built. In the middle of the wilderness he built a fortress called Masada. He built a wall with thirty-seven high turrets around the summit of the mountain and a casemate wall around the entire summit. This was a huge undertaking, since the summit was 600 meters long and 300 meters across at its center.

Herod didn't design Masada merely as a fortress, but as a royal stronghold with spacious palaces, a bathhouse with the all conveniences available at the time, and a number of smaller palaces, apparently for housing the monarch's relatives. The most amazing is the northern palace, which appears to dangle over the precipice.

Now, you see what the area is like. It's one of the most arid places in the land. You get thirsty just looking at the terrain. But Herod built what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art bathhouse. How did he get water? He also built twelve enormous cisterns, which collected the floodwater that flowed toward Masada. Together the cisterns could hold 40 thousand cubic meters of water, enough not only for drinking but also for the swimming pools, the bathhouses, and agriculture. Beasts of burden carried the water from the cisterns to the top of the mountain on special trails. He also had huge storerooms for food.

I could go on about other places, but I'll just mention one more. Herod needed contact with the Roman world for military support and for trade, so he built Caesarea as one of the most spectacular seaports of the ancient world. The harbor was built using materials that would allow the concrete to harden underwater, and was built to accommodate 300 ships. Caesarea had a large theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and a massive temple to Augustus. The city was almost completely covered with imported marble. It had an elaborate sewer system designed to be cleansed by the sea. He built an aqueduct to precise specifications to bring in fresh water from over ten miles away. The place is an engineering marvel.

The Roman historian Josephus writes, "The king triumphed over nature and constructed a harbor larger than the Piraeus [the port in Athens]...Notwithstanding the totally recalcitrant nature of the site, he grappled with the difficulties so successfully, that the solidity of his masonry defied the sea, while its beauty was such as if no obstacle had existed."

So you get an idea of why Herod was called great. We haven't even talked about Herod's riches. Herod financed all of this through exorbitant taxes that made life unbearable for the average worker. He had tremendous wealth and he controlled major trade routes. Some have suggested that he may have been the richest person who ever lived. Those are just some of Herod's accomplishments.

Power

So what about Herod's and his hold on power? I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Herod would stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power. When he became king, he executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who had resisted him. (The Sanhedrin was the body of leaders who ruled over the nation of Israel.) He appointed the high priest, but when the high priest got a little too popular, Herod invited him over, filled him with wine, suggested that he go for a little swim, and then drowned the man.

Hundreds of friends and family members, along with supporters of his adversaries, were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations. Augustus joked that it was preferable to be Herod's pig than Herod's son, because as a nominal Jew Herod had at least some scruples about killing pigs.

Herod eventually came down with a debilitating illness. Before he died in his palace in Jericho, he feared that nobody would mourn his passing, so he came up with a plan. Josephus writes, "He got together the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation, out of every village, into a place called the Hippodrome, and there shut them in." He then gave orders that upon his death, all the Jewish leaders be killed, so that there would be mourning upon his death instead of rejoicing. Herod was a tyrant, so much so that the Biblical story of Herod killing all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem wouldn't have hardly been noteworthy compared to his other actions to hold on to power. Injustice was just part of life under Herod.

Herod didn't have to fear an uprising from the west, because that was where Rome was. Herod was afraid, however, of an invasion from the east. It's in this context that Matthew writes, "Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him'" (Matthew 2:1-2). And it's probably a bit of an understatement when Matthew continues, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3). Disturbed was only the start. He would have been alarmed at the prospect of the new-born king usurping his rule and killed the babies in Bethlehem. It was a savage act, even though the numbers are probably less than we normally think - perhaps as few as 5 or 6. Herod wouldn't put up with any rivals.

As you hear about Herod, you get a sense of why the people would have longed for deliverance. They lived in a time of powerlessness and injustice. They were being taxed far beyond what they could afford and could barely afford to make a living. Herod lived with unrivaled power and it looked like things would never change. It's in this context that a baby is born in the shadow of one of Herod's fortresses in a little place called Bethlehem.

This means the Christmas story is for people who, like those that live in Herod's day, are longing for deliverance. Herod is no longer around, but there are many today who know what it's like to be powerless, to long for freedom from injustice and deliverance from evil. The birth of Jesus is for people who long for Herod to be overthrown and for justice and freedom to reign.

There's one area in which I think we have a lot in common with the people of that day. It would have been incredibly hard for people back then to put their faith in Jesus because every appearance said otherwise, just like today. You know as well as I do that it sometimes takes a massive amount of faith to believe that Christ's kingdom is more powerful than the kingdoms of this world.

How can someone believe that the Messiah is in a manger while Herod sits in power in a fortress? How could they believe that, contrary to appearances, it's not Herod who is in power but the boy in a stable? It takes eyes of faith to see God's reality, contrary to appearances.

A ministry called Follow the Rabbi says this:

Today it may sometimes appear as if Jesus is not at the right hand of God, Lord of heaven and earth. Look around you and it may seem as if the evil descendants of Herod (the followers of the devil) are the dominant power. In times like these, just as in Jesus' day, God asks us to commit to and live by the reality that Jesus is Lord. Be encouraged. Evil may appear strong, but God is in control. Herod appeared all-powerful, but God was in the manger.

Legacy

The last area I want to look at is Herod's legacy. Herod was, well, great. He ascended to the peak of power and accumulated unimaginable wealth. He had tremendous influence. He controlled major trade routes and built cities and buildings to show his power. There are few people who have accomplished more than Herod.

But even the accomplishments of a man like Herod don't last. Despite all of his glory, the buildings and cities he built for himself now lie in ruins. He is remembered today as a violent and egocentric man. All that remains of his life are massive ruins and a bad reputation. He lived for no higher purpose than himself and his own glory, and everything that he lived for is, well, history.

But there was another builder in Jesus' day. He was born in the humble birthplace of Israel's greatest king. He was born among animals. He grew up in obscurity and was mocked as an adult for his humble background. He never built any buildings and never had any official power. He too was called King of the Jews, but only in jest. And long after all other kings and kingdoms fall, his Kingdom will never end.

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign forever and ever.

What Jesus built, and what his followers continue to build upon, will last forever.

So let me pray for you this morning.

Father, I pray for those of us who long for deliverance. We're tired of Herod's reign. We're tired of the injustice, the cruelty, the powerlessness, the pain. We need a new king. We long for the reign of Jesus. And so we pray, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Father, give us eyes of faith so we can see your reality. Help us to see that despite appearances, Herod is not supreme. May we understand that "the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes" (Daniel 5:21). As we live under the kingdoms of this earth and their apparent power, may we have eyes of faith to see the Kingdom of God and the King who sits on the throne. Herod eventually dies, but your Kingdom just keeps going.

And Father, may we understand that what Jesus built, and what his followers continue to build upon, will last forever. Thank you that a baby has been born, and that cancer and divorce and unemployment and death don't have the last word. God has the last word. It's in Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)

Two Empires (Luke 2:1-12)

At a church I used to pastor, we had a big sign that said: "Jesus is Lord" at the front of the auditorium. I liked the sign and I agreed with it, but I'm not sure that I ever really gave it much thought.

One day I was part of a community group that met at that church. A board member came upstairs and walked by the sanctuary and stopped dead in her tracks. She read the sign, "Jesus is Lord," and shook her head. She couldn't believe it.

"Lord" means someone having power, authority, or influence, such as a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. It can mean master or ruler, and it brings back memories of the feudal system. It's hierarchical and patriarchal, and when you think about it it's a little offensive. It was the first time that I'd ever realized how offensive it is to say, "Jesus is Lord."

Saying "Jesus is Lord" is dangerous. It's even more dangerous to live like you believe that "Jesus is Lord". When the angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus was born, this was at the heart of what they said. Luke 2:10-11 reports what the angels said: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." What does this mean for us?

Well, it's subversive. Today I want to look beyond the Christmas story to the back story. If we understand what it means to say "Jesus is Lord" for our lives today, we need to understand a bit of history. I invite you to walk with me through a bit of a history lesson and what it means for us. Please open your Bible and look with me at Luke 2.

The Roman World

Luke 2:1 says, "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." Now stop there. We usually run ahead to verse 2 and to the story of the shepherds and angels. We could have done this back in Luke's day because everyone knew what Luke was talking about. Let's stop here for a minute, though, and ask: what is Luke saying in this verse? Who is Caesar Augustus? What's the census for? And what does he mean when he says "Roman world?" Luke is the only Gospel writer who relates his narrative to the dates of world history and he mentions Caesar and the Roman world for a reason. What is Luke saying?

The Roman world at that time was unprecedented in its size. It was not just a world power; it was the only world power at the time. It covered virtually all of the known world except for little-known kingdoms of the Far East. The Roman world stretched all the way from Britain to large sections of Europe and the Mediterranean and parts of Africa. Or, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates, all the way down to the Sahara. It was one huge empire, a virtual dictatorship under the reign of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus.

How did Rome get to control the whole world? Two ways: alliances and wars. Both the alliances that Rome made and the wars they won were due to two main reasons: Rome's overwhelming military might and financial power. They didn't just conquer cities; they destroyed them. The Roman Republic was a military machine. Before the emperor that Luke mentioned, enemies were not conquered; they would be slaughtered. The power of the Roman government was uncontested.

Around the time that Jesus was born, Roman rule was still on its upswing. It would reach its peak in another hundred years, so it was not only powerful but it was increasing in its power. The Roman rule was absolute and it was more powerful than anything than we have experienced.

So that's what the world was like at the time. The world had one global power that was uncontested and getting even more powerful. Jesus was born at a time when you couldn't even think of challenging the power of Roman rule.

Caesar Augustus

Luke mentions the emperor at the time: Caesar Augustus. Who was he? Augustus was the first and arguably the greatest Roman emperor. His accession to power marked a new era in world history. The Roman Republic was replaced with an imperial form of government. Caesar Augustus expanded the empire to include the entire Mediterranean world. He established a period of Roman peace called Pax Romana and brought in a golden age of Roman literature and architecture. The vast Roman world, populated by all different races and cultures and religions, for the first time came under the rule of one state and one man.

So how did Augustus become so powerful? Well, his real name was Octavius. He was only 19 when his grand-uncle Julius Caesar was murdered in the Ides of March in 44 BC. You know about this event: "Et tu, Brutus?" Octavius was smart. Like a statesman he ruthlessly steered himself through intrigue and danger and a bloody civil war. Eventually he had no rivals. The last one to be defeated was the famous Mark Anthony, who committed suicide after being defeated in battle. Octavius was the last one standing and he took charge.

At the time, they didn't really know what to name him. They wanted to come up with a name that would describe the position of a new ruler over a new worldwide power. Octavius turned down the title dictator, probably because he remembered what happened when his grand-uncle was dictator. They eventually decided on the name Augustus, which means "exalted one." He became commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the empire.

A few years later, he was given powers as the permanent representative of the people. Under his his 40 plus year reign, he brought order out of chaos. He discharged a large part of the army and ushered in an era of peace. He restored confidence in the government, replenished the territory, ran the public works with efficiency, and promoted peace and prosperity. When the economy tanked, Caesar Augustus would pay for free grain out of his own pocket and feed the empire. He erected public buildings at his own expense. He reformed taxes to make them more fair. It was said that Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. What he left behind lasted hundreds of years. Caesar Augustus was a huge deal.

Augustus had learned a lot from Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated. He wanted to avoid his predecessor's mistakes. So he mostly discouraged emperor worship, but he did accept the title Pontifex Maximus which means highest priest, or head of all worship. He insisted that people see Julius Caesar as a god and didn't discourage the building of temples dedicated to himself. He wrote his own obituary which recounted the greatness of all of his achievements, and ordered that this obituary to be engraved on two pillars in front of his mausoleum in Rome.

Here's where it gets interesting. Augustus Caesar proclaimed that he had brought peace and justice into the whole world. He declared his dead adoptive father to be divine, and styled himself the "son of god." Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; people told stories about Rome's rise to greatness. Augustus, it was said, was "savior" of the world. He was king and lord. It was said that his birth had been announced by a star. His birth had been called good news or gospel. Increasingly, people worshiped him as god.

In later years, subjects were required to confess each year that "Caesar is Lord." If they made that claim, they could practice whatever religion they wanted, as long as they proclaimed that Caesar was the ultimate authority whom they obeyed. If they didn't make that confession, the penalty could be death.

Rome's gospel was all about Caesar Augustus for the world. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially declared to be a god. He was called a savior because he ended bitter civil wars and created the peace of Rome. The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a "son of [a] god," saved Rome and brought peace to the world.

When Luke goes to write the account of the birth of Jesus, he begins by setting the events in the context of the reign of Caesar Augustus. It's not an accident. Why? What is Luke trying to do? There's a reason why Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Luke is contrasting two gospels: the gospel of Caesar and the gospel of Jesus.

Scot McKnight says:

Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome's gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world.

Don't forget that as Luke writes this, and the Gospel of Luke is distributed throughout the Roman empire, the Caesars are still reigning. The account of Jesus being born as a Savior, of Jesus as Lord, would have been subversive. This document was dangerous. Luke was risking his life by writing it. You would be risking your life by holding it. It's a dangerous thing to believe in the Gospel of Jesus when it subverts the gospel of this world.

Subversive Gospel

We can never forget the subversive nature of the Gospel announced by the birth of Jesus Christ. It was subversive back then and it is subversive now. Luke took on the false gospels of his day, and the Gospel of Jesus continues to take on the false gospels of our time too.

It's remarkable in many ways how similar our times are to the time in which Jesus was born. We live in an unprecedented period of prosperity. I know that we don't self-identify as rich, but by any objective standard we are loaded. We enjoy a standard of living that kings and queens of yesteryear could only dream of. We are richer than the vast majority of people who have lived throughout history, and here in Canada we are richer than most of the world. We are enjoying a period of prosperity much like that enjoyed in Jesus' time, although we'll see in a couple of weeks that not everyone back then got to enjoy the prosperity.

We also live in a period of common culture and globalization. Back then, Rome took over the world, except for the East. Today, you can go all over the world and order a Starbucks. You can vacation in Mexico and eat at Pizza Hut every night if you want. We trade and do business all over the world, just as happened in the days of Caesar Augustus.

Our world also has a gospel, or actually a number of competing gospels. I was thinking about how to summarize our gospels and I came up with three phrases: freedom, prosperity, and self-improvement.

We believe in freedom. Our foreign policy is built around defending freedom and even spreading freedom to other nations. We talk about defending our freedom. I'm old enough to remember when they passed the law that we had to wear seat belts. Remember the complaint? "They're taking away our freedom."

We also believe in prosperity. It's ironic. We have unprecedented prosperity. We face the problem of having too much stuff, all of it needing room in our crowded houses. Sometimes we look around at our house and think we can't possibly bring another thing home. We live in a bungalow. But then there's always another trip to Costco. We live in this resource-rich world with too much and limitless opportunities to upgrade not just the kitchen and the bathroom, but also the laundry room and the garage. But we also live lives that are stretched to the limit by this prosperity. We believe that with freedom and money, it will be possible to experience happiness.

Then we also believe in self-improvement. We believe that if we really apply ourselves, we can get ahead. And we do. Put all of this together and you have a lifestyle that promises good news, peace, and salvation. And there really is no alternative to this lifestyle of liberal capitalism and a free-market economy, is there? There are other options out there, but none of them that look any good. This is the only game going, and it looks like it leads to the better life.

So we have an gospel that promises peace and good news and salvation. And the Gospel of Jesus is just as subversive to our gospel as it was to the gospel of Caesar Augustus way back then.

Question: What is Luke doing by setting the story of the birth of Jesus as a story of two empires? What is Luke doing here?

Caesar Augustus was great, perhaps the greatest emperor who ever lived. There has rarely been a person with so much power and so many accomplishments. Yet, Luke seems to be saying, the greatest event of the age of Caesar Augustus was not any of his accomplishments. The greatest event of this age was the birth of Jesus in an obscure village of maybe 200 people a few miles south of Jerusalem. And maybe the most significant news today is not that a spy was poisoned with radiation in Europe or that Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership. Maybe the most significant news today is that a baby has been born in the town of David, who is a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Maybe Luke is contrasting the way that God works by contrasting these two empires. In the ancient world, if anyone asked if there was a more important person than Caesar, the emperor and ruler of the Roman empire, the answer surely would have been no. His kingdom was undisputed. But in the birth of Jesus, a new kingdom is revealed, a kingdom of seeming insignificance, weakness, and vulnerability. The confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world began, and it looked like no contest. But within a short time, Caesar's successors in Rome heard about Jesus and took steps to eliminate his followers. Within a few centuries, the Emperor himself became a Christian. N.T. Wright says, "When you see the manger on a card, or in a church, don't stop at the crib. See what it's pointing to. It's pointing to the explosive truth that the baby lying there is already being spoken of as the true king of the world." Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord.

Maybe Luke is telling us that Caesar can never really offer what people are looking for. Caesar ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. His reign was a huge success. But not even Caesar Augustus could be what he had promised: the son of a god, a savior. And maybe the empire today is equally great. There is no doubt that we live in a system that offers us unprecedented prosperity and opportunity. But the world can't offer us what it promises. It can not offer us what we really need. Luke knows this, and he recounts the words of the angel: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

Some of us have been through experiences in which we realize we need more than the empire of this world can offer. You know what it's like to be at the end of your rope, and Caesar has nothing more to offer you. That's when you long for a different empire, a different Savior.

Long after Caesar Augustus has been all but forgotten, long after his buildings lie in ruins, long after he died and he remains dead, Jesus lives. "Of the increase of his government and peace," Isaiah says, "there will be no end."

So what's Luke saying? That there are two empires: the one that we see, that promises everything, and that looks unstoppable; and the one of Jesus, that shows up in small places and looks like nothing, but is the kingdom with the power that will change this whole world. One empire that looks like it's everything but now lies in ruins, and one empire that began in insignificance but is growing and increasing even today.

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Which empire do you serve? People couldn't imagine that what Caesar Augustus accomplished would one day be merely an article in the encyclopedia and some long-forgotten ruins. Caesar was successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams. You can't compare the accomplishments of anyone today to what Caesar accomplished.

Caesar is dead, but human empires remain, built with human hands. They tell us that they are in control, that they can provide us what we really need, that they are our savior.

But:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)