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.

Blindness (Mark 8:11-26)

One of the keys to reading the Bible is to notice details in the passage that are unusual, and to then begin to probe why they're there. We say, "That was odd," and then begin to look for clues for why things are different in that passage.

Today is a good example. There are many different miracles in the Gospel of Mark, but none like this one. In verses 22 to 26, Jesus heals a blind man. But something happens that doesn't happen any other time in this Gospel or in any other. The man is only partially healed. Jesus partially heals him, and then like a physician who's checking the results of surgery, asks, "Do you see anything?" Jesus never does that. He never has to check to see if his healing worked. But he does here. Jesus never has any trouble healing blind people any other time. All he has to say is, "Receive your sight."

But surprisingly, this time, the healing doesn't take the first time. The man says, ""I see people; they look like trees walking around" (Mark 8:24). If you're a careful reader then you have to stop and ask exactly what is going on here. And I think you have to conclude that Jesus is giving us a picture of something.

And as we look at this passage and the two preceding events, we're going to see three things. First, we're going to see our spiritual condition. Then we're going to see the two different types of this condition. Finally, we're going to see the cure.

It's very important that you take note of this passage because this is one that will both give you confidence and humble you at the same time. If you really understand this passage, you'll be humbled, but at the same time you'll be filled with hope that God is not done with you yet.

So let's look first at what this passage reveals about our spiritual condition.

As we get to this passage, we're getting near the climax of the first section of the Gospel of Mark. The big question as the Gospel unfolds is: who exactly is Jesus? It's still actually the most important question we face, because if Jesus is indeed God's Son, then it changes everything.

As we come to Mark 8, we encounter two groups of people who are dealing with this question. The first are the Pharisees. "The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven" (Mark 8:11).

At first glance, this seems like an innocent request. There are lots of examples of authenticating signs in Scripture. When Moses went before Pharaoh, God gave him signs like his staff turning into a snake. "This is so that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob--has appeared to you," God said (Exodus 4:5).

Here, though, Jesus reacts very strongly to their request. He sighs, tells them that they won't be getting any authenticating signs, and then takes off and leaves them. It's almost like, at this point, Jesus writes off the Pharisees and says that there's nothing more that can be done with them. He doesn't try to convince them or reason with them. He's done with them.

Why such a strong reaction?

You get a hint as Jesus talks to his disciples about the Pharisees. Jesus says in verse 15, "Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."

This makes absolutely no sense to us, so let me explain what Jesus is saying here. In those days, when you baked bread, you would bake with leaven or yeast so that the bread would rise. You would keep some of the bread containing yeast for the next batch. The problem is that the yeast could become tainted and spread poison when baked with the rest of the dough, and the contamination would spread from batch to batch. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees, and Herod, have a condition that will spread to them if they're not careful.

And then Mark, with some humor, lets us know that it's too late. They've already been contaminated. They think that Jesus is talking about something completely different. They completely miss the point. Jesus identifies the condition in verse 18: "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember?"

It's no accident that Mark follows this with the story of blindness that is hard to heal. What Mark is telling us is this: that the blind man is a parable of the spiritual condition of both the Pharisees and the disciples. The enemies of Jesus (the Pharisees) and the friends of Jesus (the disciples) have exactly the same problem: spiritual blindness. They can't see.

What Mark is telling us is that we are all in the same boat. We all suffer from the same problem. We have a spiritual perception issue. Years ago, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached on this passage and said:

I have no hesitation in asserting again that one of the reasons why the Christian Church counts for so little in the modern world is that so many Christians are in this condition...I believe he dealt with the blind man as He did to give them a picture of themselves. He adopted this technique in the case before us, in order to enable the disciples to see themselves as they were. It goes beyond that, however: it is a permanent lesson always for God's people.

We are all spiritual versions of Mr. Magoo. Do you remember that cartoon character? He was a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of sticky situations as a result of his nearsightedness, compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem. That's exactly our problem too. Not only can't we see, but we can't see that we can't see.

So this is our problem. As we read the story of the blind man in verses 22 to 26, we're supposed to say, "That is a picture of me." It's not only a picture of the enemies of Jesus; it's also a picture of his friends. Every person here is or has been spiritually blind. John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, once said, "There are many who stumble in the noon day, not for want of light, but for the want of eyes." That includes all of us.

So we've seen what Jesus and Mark are telling us about our spiritual condition.

We then need to see that there are two kinds of spiritual blindness.

There is something in this passage that is very humbling. It's that there really isn't much difference between the friends of Jesus and the enemies of Jesus. Both are blind. This means that if you consider yourself to be a friend of Jesus, there really isn't any room for feeling superior. You're really no different from anyone else. One of the commentaries I read on this passage used this title for this passage: "Both opponents and supporters still have a lot to learn." This should give us great humility. Spiritual blindness is not something those people have. It's common to everybody. You're either spiritually blind right now or you have been in the past.

It's important to see this. Being an insider - even a disciple - is no guarantee that you understand. Proximity to Jesus is no guarantee that you have spiritual perception. You can go to church all your life and be spiritually blind as the enemies of Jesus.

So, in one sense, everyone is blind. Yet in this passage we see that there are two types of spiritual blindness. When Jesus confronts the Pharisees, you get the sense that there isn't much hope for that type of blindness. Jesus abandons the Pharisees at this point. Why? It's because they had already seen more than enough to demonstrate who Jesus was. They had chosen to reject Jesus even when the evidence was right in their face. They were already plotting his death. They weren't looking to be convinced. They wanted an excuse for refusing to respond. They had chosen a permanent case of spiritual blindness.

Henry Fonda starred in a 1957 movie called Twelve Angry Men. A young man is on trial for the murder of his father. The twelve jurists walk into a hot, cramped jury room. All but one of the jurists (Henry Fonda) is ready to be done with the inconvenience of this trial. They've heard all they want to hear and seem unwilling to consider the possibility that the young man could be innocent. Only Henry Fonda's character seems sensitive to the fact that something important hangs in the balance--a man's life.

As Fonda's character argues for reasonable doubt, the others don't want to listen. One man points to the unique murder weapon as proof positive of the defendant's guilt. Everyone seems convinced the knife is so rare and the boy's story so implausible that the defendant must be guilty. Frustrated with Fonda as the lone holdout, he says, "Take a look at that knife. It's a very unusual knife. I've never seen one like it." The other men in the room murmur agreement.

"I'm just saying it's possible," says Fonda. One of the jurists steps forward angrily and shouts, "It's not possible!" At that moment, Fonda reaches calmly into his pocket, pulls out an identical knife, pops the blade, and plants it into the middle of the table.

"Where did you get that?" one jurist asks. Fonda responds, "I went out walking for a couple of hours last night. I walked through the boy's neighborhood. I bought that at a little pawn shop just two blocks from the boy's house. It cost six dollars."

Fonda's character alone stopped long enough to take an honest, careful, unbiased look at the evidence. One by one, through honest struggle, all the jurists come to the same conclusion, and a young man facing death is set free. It's possible to make up your mind, just like the Pharisees and just like these jurists, before honestly examining the evidence. If you willfully refuse to see what is right in front of you, there isn't much hope for your blindness.

There's another type of spiritual blindness. You see it with the disciples. They were blind, but you get the sense that there's hope for them. Their type of blindness is almost comical. They're so distracted by temporal things - really, by lunch - that they don't get it. Jesus had fed nine thousand people with next to nothing, and they are worried about fixing lunch for 13. They are so trapped in their own little worlds, with their petty concerns, that they can't see the kingdom of God breaking into history right in front of them.

We can't be too hard on the disciples because we're really not too different. There is something about us that tends to be distracted by our daily needs, so much so that we can't see what God is doing all around us. We miss what God is doing because we're too busy thinking about what we're going to have for lunch.

That's us, but there's hope. Jesus doesn't give up on the disciples. He asks them questions to lead them towards what they need to see. Gradually, and with great difficulty, they will see. There's hope for these disciples. They will eventually see.

That's why I love that Jesus healed the blind man in two stages. If Jesus had left him only halfway healed, he would have spent the rest of his life saying hi to trees and chopping down people. This should give us confidence. Even if we aren't there yet, even if we can see only part way, we can know that God isn't done with us yet. We will see clearly. Jesus can heal even the most difficult cases.

John Calvin puts it this way:

No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success...Our labour is not lost when today is better than yesterday...If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of the flesh we are admitted to the full fellowship of God.

These are the disciples that have been chosen by Christ himself. They still don't get it, but they will. I told you that this passage humbles us, because we realize we aren't so different. We're all blind. But it should also encourage us, because Jesus will not leave us halfway blind. He will complete the work that he's begun in us.

So you really have two kinds of blindness here. I'm afraid that there isn't much hope for the first kind of blindness. But the story of the blind man, healed in stages, gives us hope that if Jesus has started to heal our blindness, then he will certainly finish his work.

So what, then, is the cure?

I want you to see this morning how encouraging this passage is. If you ended at verse 21, you'd be discouraged. The question that Jesus asked - "Do you still not understand?" - would be an open question. But the passage doesn't end there. The passage ends with a picture of someone who is blind seeing. It may be slow, and it may come in stages, but some who are blind now will one day see clearly.

This morning there is hope for those of us who can't see. There isn't hope if you're like the Pharisees. If you are looking for excuses not to believe, willfully turning your back on what you know to be true about God, then there is not much hope for your blindness.

But if you can relate to the disciples, there is hope for you. You may be distracted by immediate needs. You may find that you are falling flat on your face. Spiritually speaking you may find that things look as clear as they did for this blind man part way through his healing. People look like trees. But be thankful. If you have the smallest insight spiritually into the gospel, that is evidence that Jesus may be at work in your life restoring your spiritual eyesight so that you can see.

I'm going to close this morning by giving you some advice from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who preached a famous sermon from this passage. It's found in his book Spiritual Depression. He describes those who are half-way healed: "They seem to know enough about Christianity to spoil their enjoyment of the world, and yet they do not know enough to feel happy about themselves." He says that the good news is that nobody has to stay in this condition. Lloyd Jones offers some advice if your spiritual eyesight is lacking and you'd like to be healed.

First, he says, avoid making a premature claim that your blindness is healed. In other words, face up to reality. What a tragedy it would have been if the blind man had settled for seeing men as trees permanently. It would have been a big improvement, but it wouldn't have been enough. So don't settle for where you are right now. Admit that you have need to see better than you do.

Secondly: don't be discouraged. You're going to probably get frustrated. Lloyd-Jones says:

Such people come often come to me and say that they cannot see the Truth clearly. In their confusion they become desperate and ask, "Why cannot I see? The whole thing is hopeless." They stop reading their Bible, they stop praying. The devil has discouraged many with lies. Do not listen to him.

When Jesus asks, "Do you see?" answer honestly, but don't be discouraged.

Finally, come to Jesus. Submit to him and trust him to heal your spiritual eyesight. Jesus is our only hope; he will not leave anything incomplete.

Do you believe that the Son of God came from heaven and lived and did all that He did on earth, that He died on a Cross and was buried and rose again, that He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit, in order to leave us in a state of confusion? It is impossible. He came that we might see clearly, that we would know God...

Come to Him, come to His Word, wait upon Him, plead with Him, hold on to Him...[and] You will be able to say, "I see, I see in Him all that I need and more, and I know that I belong to Him."

Let's pray.

Father, this passage humbles us, because we see our problem. But it gives us confidence, because you know how to deal with our problem. Thank you that we can be "confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).

We plead with you to heal our spiritual blindness. Let us see Jesus, and to see in Him all that we need and more We pray in his name. Amen.