"Where Do We Go From Christmas?"

 

Text - LUKE 2:22—35

 

GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM JESUS TRUE GOD THROUGH ALL ETERNITY AND TRUE MAN BORN IN A BETHLEHEM STABLE, CRUCIFIED FOR OUR SIN, AND RISEN FROM THE DEAD TO PROCLAIM OUR ETERNAL VICTORY

 

      

When the time came for the purification according to the Law of Moses. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present Him to The Lord. They came to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in The Law of The Lord - a pair of two young pigeons.

As Paul wrote to the Galatians (4:22), when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under The Law. In order for Jesus to offer Himself as The Perfect Sacrifice for our sins, He had to live the perfect human life – live perfectly under The Law. Since the time when God sent the death angel to take the lives of every first-born male in Egypt sparing only the first-born sons in the homes of God’s people who faithfully painted the lamb’s blood on the doorpost and lintel of their homes, God’s chosen people were to recognize their first-born sons belonged to God in a very special way. Mothers were required to bring their eight-day old first-born son to the temple to be offered to God for a lifetime of service in God’s priesthood.  The tribe of Levi was called by God to serve in the temple in place of the firstborn sons who were redeemed or bought back with the gift of a lamb or – if the parents were poor and could not afford a lamb – the gift of two young pigeons.  

When Jesus was 8 days old, Mary and Joseph traveled with Him from Bethlehem, where they were staying, to the temple in Jerusalem. Coming up from the south, they saw the magnificent temple complex high atop Mt Zion.  They worked their way through the sellers of wares and mementoes and climbed the huge steps to the beautiful temple courtyard.  As they entered the huge temple porticoes where moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals hawked their wares, Joseph purchased two young pigeons. 

Leaving the porticoes, they entered the large Court of the Gentiles where pilgrims, tourists, Roman soldiers and temple police mingled with rabbis addressing their groups of students and curious travelers.  They moved swiftly to the north to the entrance to the Court of the Women.

 

The Levites who served as priests in place of the redeemed first-born sons received the offering of the two young pigeons by the treasury area in the Court of the Women. 

THE HUMAN TENDENCY TOWARD EVIL

HUMAN SUFFERING

DEATH

Eighteen years ago – as the 20th Century ended and the 21st began - Billy Graham commented on how the 20th Century had truly been the century of scientific advances. Such a myriad of scientific wonders to behold and the 21st Century is bringing even more.

Still Billy Graham reminded all of us that there are three great problems science and modern technology cannot solve:

(1). The human tendency toward evil. Since Adam and Eve yielded to temptation in Eden, greed and selfishness have been an undeniable part of human nature.  Anger, crime, and war never disappear.  And all of us find ourselves doing things we regret doing and wish we had been strong enough not to do.

(2). Human suffering.  It is also part of the human experience that all of us have a share of suffering in our lives — and some of us seem to suffer through most of our lives.  Science can make great strides in alleviating some forms of suffering, but it can never eradicate all suffering.

And (3).  Death.  That ultimate enemy from which no one escapes.

 

 

“THE MIRACLE OF CHRISTMAS”

 

Text - PHILIPPIANS 2:5--11

GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD AND SAVIOUR - JESUS THE CHRIST.

Every year someone approaches me in a store or calls me on the phone to announce “I just read a real important article.  The writer says we shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas on December 25th. He discovered Jesus really wasn’t born on December 25th. The date is all wrong.  We shouldn’t celebrate Christmas.”  I just shake my head – wondering why paper is wasted publishing an article refuting a claim no one is making.

I know of no credible Christian theologian – living or dead – who has said Jesus was born on December 25th.  While we know when Jesus was crucified and when He rose from the dead, no one knows the date of Jesus’ birth. Historically, there are a number of reasons we celebrate Christmas this time of the year - none of the reasons have anything to do with the actual date of Jesus' birth. Christmas does not commemorate a specific day in history. Christmas is far more than that. 

Decades ago – when I was writing my weekly column – I wrote one about the two holidays we celebrate each December – Christmas and Winterfest.  Today when a festival called “Christmas In July” has become so popular and the secular Christmas celebration begins when the children have barely stopped “trick or treating”, the distinction between the two December holidays has become increasingly indistinctive. 

     

Christmas is really our Christian celebration of the greatest miracle in all of human history. That miracle of miracles is God’s total love for us – God loving all humanity enough to come into the world God created as the vulnerable flesh and blood Christ on our behalf and for our eternal Salvation.  God entering our world as the vulnerable flesh and blood Christ is to Christian believers the beginning of the most wondrous event in all of human history.

The best explanation of the meaning of Christmas, for me, is contained in words which God spoke through the Apostle Paul in his EPISTLE TO THE PHILIPPIANS -  Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men: And being found in human form, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus.  Believe totally and completely in God as Jesus Himself believed totally and completely in His heavenly Father. Believe totally and completely in God's Plan of Salvation as Jesus totally believed and lived that Plan of Salvation - even when it meant suffering and dying on the cross.  Love God, ourselves, and each other as Jesus did and does.

Christmas celebrates the miracle of God's Love for us.

Why should we be amazed that, through the virgin birth, God became the vulnerable flesh and blood Christ – was born in the likeness of men and found in human form?  With God, nothing is impossible.   If God wants to do something, of course, He can.  That's basic to God being God.

 

 

“GOD’S VOICE, OUR WILDERNESS”

 

Text - MARK 1:1—8

 

GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR CRUCIFIED AND RISEN – EVER PRESENT LORD AND SAVIOR – JESUS CHRIST.

 

In the 39 years since I studied in the Holy Land, I have shared this picture with you several times. Advent’s Divine Message of fulfilled Hope still shouts from that wilderness.

The Greek noun, "ϊρημος" means “desert wilderness”. As an adjective "ϊρημος"  means “solitary, lonely,  desolate, uninhabited”.  The word has come into our language as “arid”, but the many shades of meaning in the Biblical  ϊρημος certainly fit the Judean wilderness.  Once you’ve experienced that wilderness, it  becomes permenantly etched in your mind’s eye and has ever remained for me the ultimate and joyous symbol of  our Ultimate fulfilled hope being loudly proclaimed in the place where otherwise there is no hope. It sparks our anticipation of celebrating God’s entrance into the world as the vulnerable flesh and blood Christ and the eternal dimension He gives to our lives.

There are absolutely no natural resources in the ϊρημος - no way for edible plants to grow or for human beings or animals to survive even on the most primitive levels of existence. 

Mentally and spiritually ϊρημος is unforgetable – “precisely because a person cannot by himself or herself  live there. It is in the place where people have to choose whether they will put their trust totally in God or whether grumbling and impatient at having to depend only on God’s Grace, they return”³ to an unsatisfying status quo whose only benefit is familiarity with it.

For those who do not know Jesus, life itself is a barren wilderness.

 

In the year 26 A.D., much of the talk around the Holy Land was about a thirty-year-old preacher named John or, as many recognizing him from Isaiah's prophecy, THE VOICE OF ONE CALLING IN THE WILDERNESS.

1500 years before, the ancestors of the people now flocking to hear the fiery young preacher had lived in a wilderness like the one that surrounded his outdoor church — wandering there with nothing to guide them but God’s Own signs — living there with absolutely no water, no food, no shade except that with which God miraculously provided them.   Those ancestors had lived there in that wilderness for forty years and, during that time, God’s people had been taught by God what it means to trust in God for everything.  They weren’t able to buy groceries in a supermarket or even gather them from their own gardens. They certainly weren’t able to find them growing wild in that wilderness.  Every meal came to them as a twice daily miracle from God.  Water came through yet another daily miracle.  God lovingly and faithfully even gave them the ultimate blueprint and guide for living these temporal years in The Ten Commandments.

 

 

GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR … JESUS THE CHRIST. 

    

The first rays of sunshine announced the dawn of another day as Simon ben Judah, Aaron ben Khalil and three other Pharisees began to walk northeast across the Holy City on a mission for the high priest. Exiting the city, they hurried across the Kidron Valley and over the Mount of Olives.

The climb up the western slope was strenuous and they reached the top   out of breath.  Under a solitary tree, they rested and drank sparingly of the water each carried. 

        

To the north - on their left - Abraham ben Isaac was taking advantage of an early morning breeze to do some threshing.  Yesterday, he had stacked newly-harvested stalks of wheat on a limestone platform atop a small hill.

At first light, Abraham rolled over the stalks with a threshing sled made of pieces of wood into which holes have been drilled and filled with pieces of basalt rock.  The weighted sled crushed the mixture of wheat and chaff on the hillside ground.

With a mild morning breeze moving across the hill, Abraham used a winnowing fork to throw the piles into the air.  The soft breeze carried the extremely light chaff to form new piles which were gathered and burned. The chaff has no other purpose than as fuel for fires.  

The heavier wheat fell back to the ground forming piles that were gathered and prepared for the making of bread. 

 

Barely past the Mount of Olives is Behurim. When David’s son Absalom rebelled against him and forced him to flee for his very life, David had fled with his head covered (a sign of mourning) and his feet bare (a sign of total humiliation) – weeping uncontrollably as he went.  As he passed under Behurim, relatives of the former King Saul cursed him and hurled rocks, dirt, dust and human waste upon David and his party.

Four hundred years after David journeyed his “Path of Defeat”, Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, fled across this same path fleeing the horrors of a starving and totally devastated Jerusalem.  He made it all the way to the Plains of Jericho.  There, by order of King Nebuchadnezzar, he was forced to watch as his two sons were executed, then he himself was blinded and dragged in chains to Babylon.  The kingdom was destroyed – the people carried off into exile on the “Path of Defeat” in 599 B.C...

 

 

Ready?  Wait!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.  AMEN

I like using the words of St. Paul at the beginning of my message.  It is the first thing I type into my manuscript, and the words have the effect of centering me.  Grace.  Mercy.  Peace.   We know that there is no grace in the news of the day, that’s for sure.  I don’t want to begin there! There’s not much of mercy from people we meet.  Make a mistake and you’ll likely hear about it --- from anyone and everyone.  Peace?  We look around, and peace as we think of it may be hard to find.  Grace, mercy and peace all come ---  they come on this day and in this place --- from God and His Son, Jesus Christ.  And God’s grace and mercy and peace are the foundation for our hope.  There is no other.  There will be no other.  

We begin the Christian year today – the First Sunday in Advent.  And beginning, we look forward, not backward.  The words of Jesus in our Gospel propel our thoughts into the future.  Setting the stage for this teaching is pretty simple.  Jesus has left the crowds behind and has this conversation with four of His disciples --- Peter, James, John, and Andrew.  These disciples were the first to be called to follow Him, and the first three, Peter, James, and John, have formed a kind of inner circle among the disciples of our Lord.  This particular conversation has earned the title of “The Little Apocalypse”.  We listen in particular to the last part of it, but it began with Jesus telling them of the destruction of Jerusalem that would take place; strengthening them for their own trials that were to come; and, warning them of false messiahs and false prophets that would appear in the latter days.  Then Jesus says,:

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.   And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.   And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.  

How do we take this in?  The imagery would have been familiar to these faithful Jewish followers.  The word pictures come from the prophets:  Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Zephaniah, and Zechariah.   They all spoke using similar imagery.  Alarming as it may seem, we should remember that prophetic imagery was not always meant to be taken literally, especially apocalyptic symbols.  God intends that His people will look for His power and might to be displayed, and be ready when the Lord comes again, which we indeed associate with the last days.  Of course, the world will not recognize God’s display of power, and Jesus comforts those disciples and us that He knows us, calls us the elect, and will gather us to Himself.   His Holy Spirit will alert us.  This has been God’s plan from the very beginning.  His plan has not changed.  No matter where we are --- whether still on earth or already arrived in heaven.  The Lord wants us to be with Him forever.  Jesus continues:

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