Dec 25 - Christmas 2016

Christmas 2016

December 25, 2016

 

CHRISTMAS 2016

 

Do you have any idea where we can find the original account of the birth of Jesus, now over 2000 years ago?  Yes, it’s in the Bible, in two so-called Gospels, on with the name of Matthew and the other with the name of Luke.

 

However, even if you’ve never cracked the pages of the Bible and have never read in Matthew or Luke, or have rarely been to church, I would venture to guess that most of you are familiar with what happened when Jesus was born, even if you’ve never read the accounts. 

 

For one, you might be familiar with a nativity scene where Joseph and Mary are in a cave or stable and baby Jesus is lying in a food trough (that’s what the so-called manger is) filled with hay. You only have to look at the front of your bulletin to see another one.  On the overhead is a more stylized version.

 

On the left side you have the wise men from the east who saw a bright star that told them that the new king of Israel had been born, and so they ended up in the little town of Bethlehem bringing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh.  And we don’t know how many there were ... maybe a lot more than the three you see depicted here.

 

On the other side you have shepherds with their sheep who had heard an angel proclaim to them while out in the fields, that the Saviour, the Messiah, had been born in Bethlehem.  So they ended up visiting as well.  I would venture to guess that you’ve probably seen lots of nativity scenes.

 

You might also know about the Christmas story from stuff you’ve watched on TV.

 

Maybe one of those is A Charlie Brown Christmas, where Linus recites a portion from the Gospel of Luke in order to let Charlie Brown know what Christmas is all about.

 

Or maybe you’ve sung or heard sing Christmas carols whose lyrics tell part of the Christmas story.  Just this morning we sang:

 

Angels We Have Heard on High;

O Come Let Us Adore Him;

and

What Child is This.

 

Then there is:

 

Joy to the World,

Hark the Herald Angels Sing,

Silent Night,

We Three Kings,

O Come Emmanuel,

Away In a Manger

Go tell it on the mountains,

God rest you merry Gentlemen,

It came upon a midnight clear,

O Come all ye faithful,

O Holy night,

O little town of Bethlehem, and so on. 

 

All of these relay details of the Christmas story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

 

So even if you’re not familiar with the Bible or the gospels of Matthew and Mark, if you are not a church goer and are only here because it’s a family tradition, I’m certain that you have at least an inkling what the Christmas story is all about. 

 

And if you are not religious, you may be forgiven for thinking to yourself, “A virgin birth, Shepherds and angels, Wise men and a bright star ... as an adult it’s hard to take all of that seriously.” 

 

This may be particularly so, if you’ve never experienced anything that you would consider miraculous in your own life.  Or, if God appears to be silent and absent from your life.  Or, perhaps you are skeptical because you cannot think of any compelling reason why the birth of someone who lived 2000 years ago should be of any significance to you.   

 

However you feel about the Christmas story, there is one aspect that you may not know.  Christmas didn’t begin with shepherds watching over their flocks, wise men following a star, or a young couple that couldn't find a civilized place to have their baby.

 

It began much, much earlier than that, in fact, about 2,000 years prior to Jesus’ birth, that is, about 4,000 years ago.  It started when God spoke to an individual who at the time was named Abram, but you and I likely know better as Abraham:[1]

 

The LORD (lit. YHWH - Yahweh is the personal name of God as revealed to Moses. It means something like, “I am the one who exists.” I want you to keep this in mind because it will come into play again later on when I speak about Jesus’ name.

 

YHWH said to Abram, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  There I will make you into a great nation.  I will bless you and make your name great.  And you will become a blessing .... All the families of the earth will be blessed because of [lit. in] you.”                                                                Genesis 12:1-3

 

What I want you to catch is that somehow all nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. This promise to Abraham was repeated twice more in the book of Genesis.[2]  The wording of the first time the promise is very similar to the passage we are looking at in Genesis 12 (all the nations will be blessed because of [lit. in] him).  However, the second time the promise was repeated to Abraham, it was said a bit differently.

 

You can see it written also on the overhead:

 

“Through your seed [singular] all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”                              Genesis 22:18

 

“Seed” in this case indicates Abraham’s descendants, even though it would have been normal to use the plural of the word for “seed”. Whatever the case, the earth will be blessed, not necessarily by Abraham personally but through Abraham’s seed, his descendants

 

Apparently all the nations of the earth needed blessing.  However, this begs the question, “why did God think that all the nations of the earth needed blessing?” 

 

The answer to that question is really the whole background and reason for Christmas.  Many people may have wondered what that blessing could potentially entail until a prophet by the name of Isaiah prophesied about it 1300 years later, about 700 years before Jesus was born. 

 

The prophet Isaiah, spoke about someone he calls the Servant of YHWH, and points out that this Servant would fulfill the promise made to Abraham about being a blessing to the nations of the earth.

 

 

Listen to me, you distant lands.  Pay attention, those of you who live far away.

 

So here Isaiah is speaking to individuals who live outside of the kingdom of Israel.

 

YHWH called me before I was born, from the womb he called me by name. ... Now, says YHWH, who formed me from the womb to be his servant in order that I would bring “Jacob” back to him, that is, that I would gather Israel to him, ...

 

Jacob was the grandson of Abraham who had received the nickname Israel from God.  Here the prophet Isaiah applies both names, Jacob and Israel, to the nation that descended from Jacob.

 

 ... “It is not a small thing to be my servant in order to raise up the tribes of “Jacob” and restore the remnant of Israel. But I will also make you a light to the nations so that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.”                                                         Isaiah 49:1-6

 

The prophet had the promise of Abraham in mind as he addresses the nations and tells them that Abraham’s descendants, or perhaps just one descendant, the Servant of YHWH, will somehow bless all the nations of the earth by being a light to them and bringing God’s salvation to them. 

 

2000 years after Abraham, 700 years after the prophet Isaiah, around the time that Jesus was born, devout Jews believed that this Servant of YHWH actually is one person, whom they called God’s Anointed

 

The Hebrew word for “God’s Anointed”, is the “Messiah”.  The Greek word for “God’s Anointed” is the “Christ.”  So when you hear of Jesus Christ, it really means “Jesus the Messiah, Jesus, God’s anointed.”

 

When Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she visited her relative Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56).  When she arrived, Elizabeth spoke a blessing over Mary and, in response, Mary replies with a song or poem which is known as the Magnificat.[3]  On the overhead are the closing lines of that song:

 

The Lord has helped his servant Israel;

he remembers his mercy;

which he had promised to our ancestors;

to Abraham and to his descendants [lit. seed, singular] forever.                          Luke 1:54-55

 

Mary clearly understood that her son would somehow bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham 2000 years ago. 

 

After Jesus was born, when he was 40 days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to dedicate him to God, as the Mosaic law commanded it concerning firstborn sons. 

 

An old and devout man by the name of Simeon was in the temple courts when the young family entered.  He was certain that before his death he would see God’s Anointed, that is, the Messiah, or, as Isaiah called him, the Servant of YHWH (Luke 2:26). 

 

Simeon saw the young family enter the temple courts, rushed over to them, took the baby into his arms, praised God and proclaimed a prayer (called the Nunc Dimittis).[4]  Speaking out loud to God he said in reference to the baby Jesus:

 

My eyes have seen your [that is, God’s] salvation that you have prepared for all nations to see: a light that brings revelation to the Gentiles [= non-Jews] and glory of your people Israel.                  Luke 2:30-32

 

Simenon’s words clearly reflect God’s promise to Abraham and is directly linked to the passage in Isaiah that speaks of the Servant of YHWH being a light to the nations.

 

But all of this begs a couple of questions.  How did Abraham, through his descendants, or more to the point, this one descendant, bring salvation to the people of the earth ... and more importantly, from what exactly did the nations needed saving?

 

I would like to answer the second question by referring to myself. From what exactly do I need saving?  For one, I think I need saving from myself.  What I mean, is that there are aspects to my human nature that are not particularly good.

 

I have within me the innate potential to be selfish, spiteful, nasty, angry, lazy, dishonest, demanding, unforgiving, harsh, uncaring, unkind, and a slave to my desires and passions

 

That doesn’t necessarily make me a terrible person, however, there is that within me that causes me to think, do, or say things that under normal circumstances I would condemn in others as wrong, hurtful and destructive

 

In German, there is the expression: I have an inner pig-dog that I need to overcome in order to do the right thing”.[5]

 

Honestly, it’s pretty easy to let the inner pig-dog rule and mess up our lives.  We just need to consistently spend money that we don’t have, more often than not be mean to our family members, be lazy at work, get addicted to drugs or alcohol, or make a whole lot of other decisions that will destroy our health, lead to the breaking up of our relationships, have us end up relatively poor, or make ourselves and others miserable.

 

That’s what I need saving from.  My inner pig-dog. However, that’s not to say that, if in fact God saves me from the worst parts of my human nature, that I will never give in to the temptation to act on bad thoughts, attitudes and feelings. 

 

But I know myself.  I know my short-comings, my foibles, my mistakes and my sinful tendencies.  And I know that, if God was NOT a part of my life and my thoughts, I would be so much worse and so much worse off

 

According to old Simeon, YHWH’s servant, his Messiah, is to bring light to the world.  Light is something that allows us to see and therefore navigate when it is dark and black. 

 

The light of the Messiah is to be like a flashlight or a compass in that he somehow helps us to move in the right direction, to stay on course, that is, to put our lives on its proper course. 

 

You see, there is no app that will alert us or tell us when what we are doing is wrong. And, over time, our own conscience can and will become tarnished or damaged over time.

 

The compassion for others that we had as children fades away. We become much more adept at finding reasons, excuses really, why we can compromise our conscience ... and when we do it often enough, it dulls and then falls silent altogether. 

 

This is especially true when we experience trauma in our lives or when we simply assimilate the values of our society, even if these values are morally questionable. 

 

And, as Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, when society’s or one’s individual moral compass isn’t working there will be:

business without ethics,

pleasure without conscience,

politics without principle,

science without humanity and so on. 

 

So all people in essence need saving from themselves, from their inner pigdog.  And they need a proper moral compass.

 

During the last three years of his life, when he had gathered a following around himself, Jesus told his followers that after his death and resurrection, and because of it, God will send them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, whom Jesus called the Spirit of truth. 

 

This is what Jesus told his disciples about God’s Spirit:

 

When the Spirit of truth comes to you, then he will guide you into all truth.                                    John 16:13

 

So Jesus in fact promised that one of the ways that he would “save” humanity is to give them a renewed moral compass by sending and having them receive the Spirit of God.

 

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, told them that people can either be controlled by their sinful nature or by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, who comes to live within those who believe in Jesus as the One who would bring God’s salvation to the world.

 

Do not copy the behaviour of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.                                              Romans 12:2

 

Things change when our thinking changes.  I grew up in a single parent home, and when I was about 15 or 16 I had an “aha” moment.  If I remember correctly, I was in the front yard reluctantly doing some chores, listening to my friends playing road hockey in the cul-de-sac just around the corner, feeling sorry for myself and totally out of sorts.  Why couldn’t my mom be less demanding ... like the parents of my friends.  

 

I’m not sure why, but for some reason something struck me at that point.  I realized just how much my mother had sacrificed for my sister and I, how much she had to put her own life on hold, how much she had to give up on her own hopes and dreams, in order to look after us.  

 

And while that didn’t make the chores any more enjoyable, it changed my whole perspective. And instead of whining and complaining and dragging my feet, I became more diligent in doing the things she ask me to do.

 

I experienced a change of mind, a changed thought patter.  Paul wrote that this will empower the believers in Rome, to stand up to that which is bad within themselves and to make the right choices for their lives. 

 

He writes something very similar to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia (what today is Turkey).  Paul then wrote to his readers that they will recognize the fact that they are thinking differently because of the positive changes in their lives

 

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives.  Then you won’t keep doing what your sinful nature craves.  It wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. ... The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: (greater) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

                                        Galatians 5:16,22-23

 

Of all of the fruit he lists, and it is not meant to be a comprehensive list, “love” stands out to me because when we truly love, it becomes a lot easier to be patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle.

 

Let me illustrate Paul’s point about the fruit of the Spirit with the example of real fruit.

 

Maybe you have a fruit tree in your yard ... an apple tree or a plum tree or a fig tree.  Now, an immature tree will not bear fruit.  But once it is a couple of years old, there is the expectation that the tree would at least start to produce some fruit.  And eventually, a mature tree will, under normal circumstances, and especially if it is pruned and watered, produce a good crop of fruit. 

 

This is kind of how it works with the Holy Spirit.

 

Now many people misunderstand Paul.  He wasn’t saying that those who have the Holy Spirit will be wonderful and perfect people overnight, that they will be perfectly self-controlled and kind and gentle and loving. I wish it was so, but it isn’t. 

 

When God is part of our lives, he DOES in fact speak to our conscience in order to bring about the development of the so-called fruit of the Spirit.   And we have the ability to consciously do the kind of things that will further and encourage the work of the Spirit within us ... by speaking to God, thinking about him, being thankful for everything, spending time with those who also produce the fruit of the Spirit, recognizing that God can use even the difficulties of life to make us into better people, and so on - the pruning and watering.   

 

But the opposite is true as well.  We can refuse to listen to the voice that is calling us to be better and more caring and gentler.  We still have the ability and power to choose to ignore God or his work in us.  It is much like turning off a flashlight in the night or refusing to look at a compass, or, to use the analogy of a fruit tree, of simply not watering or pruning it. 

 

But this should happen only infrequently.  So when someone claims to have God in their lives but does not produce any of the fruit of the Spirit, remaining angry and bitter and joyless and mean, then this is a sign that something is drastically wrong.

 

In the case of the apple trees on the overhead, it is either root disease or blight that have caused them to be unproductive. And who knows what rot or blight can take a hold in a person’s heart and mind that even though there is a claim to follow God, there is no fruit.  By the way, Jesus had some pretty hard things to say in the case of the Pharisees where he did not see good fruit.

 

Now you may not be religiously inclined and think to yourself at this point:  I don’t have a problem. My moral compass is just fine, thank you very much. I am a good and responsible person. I have a clear conscience. I’m successful at work, doing well in my marriage, and alright with the law. In fact, I’m happier than most of the people around me. 

 

Now, I’m not at all disputing that people who have nothing to do with God can live relatively happy lives and do good.  But “a clear conscience may”, as Mark Twain said, “be a sure sign of a bad memory.” 

Or it may mean that we can live quite successfully despite the ethically wrong decisions we have made and continue to make. 

Or, like I’ve said previously, it may simple be that our conscience is cauterized to the point we no longer feel bad about the wrong things we in fact think, say and do.

 

Coming back to myself, I said that I need to be saved from myself so that I can live life the way I was meant to live it.  But there is another way that I need to be saved.  I also need to be saved from the consequences of my bad choices

 

By that I don’t mean that people need to be saved from heart disease because of their poor lifestyle choices, or that they need to be healed from cancer because of their bad nicotine habit, or need to receive a new liver because of their alcohol consumption.   

 

What I mean is that I need to be re-connected to God because my wrong choices, what the Bible calls “sin”, have separated me from God. 

 

Now the Bible tells me that Jesus decided that he would be the sacrificial lamb to make that possible.  That he would be the one who would die in order to remove any outstanding debt that may remain as a barrier between myself and God

 

For some of you that might be a really strange concept. And in some ways it is. For a moment think of a court of law.    

 

Let’s say, that you’re young - perhaps 18.  You recently got your drivers’ license and, after drinking, you take the family vehicle out for a spin.  You drive incredibly reckless and ended up causing an accident in which someone was seriously injured. 

 

At court you were convicted and fined $ 5 million, to be paid to the injured party.  The problem is that you do not have the $ 5 million.  Nor do your parents. So now you’re facing a lengthy jail term.

 

Now imagine, that the judge had a son who happened to be sitting in the courtroom during the trial.  The sons stands up and proceeds to write a cheque for $ 5 million and gives it to the plaintiff.  And the judge, because he sees that his son is using his own, the judge’s own, cheque book, knows that the cheque is good, it won’t bounce.  As a result, the judge tells you that you’re free to go.  You don’t have to pay the fine and you don’t have to go to jail.   

 

But the judge continues:  “Now that my son has paid your debt, I want to adopt you into our family so that you can hang out with us for the rest of your life.” 

 

This story may seem far-fetched, but that is what Isaiah meant when he prophesied that the Servant of YHWH would bring the people from the furthest reaches of the earth to God. 

 

I need saving from myself, from my inner pigdog, so I can become a better person.  And I need saving from the consequences of my bad choices, in essence, my separation from God - both in this life and the life to come. 

 

And that in essence is what lies at the heart of the Christmas story.  So let me return to it briefly.  The angel Gabriel not only appeared to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus, but at a different time also to her fiancé Joseph.  In both instances, they were told that they should name the baby that would be born Jesus. 

 

You will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus.                                                           Luke 1:31

 

Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.         Matthew 1:21

 

In the case of Joseph, the angel explains why the child was to be called Jesus ... because he will save his people from their sins.  But how does Jesus’ name relate to what he would accomplish?

 

Jesus                  = Gk for the Heb. Yeshua (or: Joshua)

Yeshua                = shortened from Yehoshua

Yehoshua            = combination of Ye + Hoshua (or Ye

+ Hosea)

Ye + Hoshua        = short for YHWH + Hoshua

 

Remember when I mentioned that YHWH is God’s personal name as revealed to Moses?  “I am the one who is” “I am the one who is there”  “I am the one who truly exists.” 

 

So Jesus is short for YHWH + Hoshua

 

YHWH + Hoshua   = YHWH salvation (or: YHWH saviour)

 

The meaning of the name “Jesus” = YHWH’s salvation (or: YHWH is salvation).

 

The reason for calling Jesus, YHWH’s salvation, is because he would be the one who would bring about God’s salvation ... and, as the angel foretold, in particular “from their sins,” that is, from their propensity to sin and from the consequences of their sin.

 

In essence the whole message of the Bible can be wrapped up in this one truth. It is why the angel (of the Lord) who appeared to the shepherds that very first Christmas, told them:

 

I am bringing you good news of great joy which will be for all nations. To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.             Luke 2:11

 

The shepherds would immediately have known that the angel of the Lord was referring to the seed of Abraham, the Servant of YHWH, who the prophet Isaiah spoke about, God’s anointed who was to bring about the salvation of the world. 

 

Jesus is God’s salvation.  Which is why we have so many verses in the Bible that make that very point.  Let me just show you four of them on the overhead:

 

God sent his son into the world - not to condemn it, but to save it through him.                      John 3:17

 

God showed his great love for us by sending the Messiah to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:8

 

Through Jesus we have access to the Father by one Spirit.                                          Ephesians 2:18

 

The gift of God is eternal life in the Messiah Jesus, our Lord.                                              Romans 6:23

 

So at Christmas time we look at a couple with a little baby boy for whom there was no room in the inn.  Maybe we see wise men from the east bearing gifts or shepherds coming from the fields.

 

But behind it all, is a promise that was made to a man named Abraham ... that through his descendant the whole world would be blessed. And Isaiah tells us, that the whole world needed the event of the first Christmas. 

 

So when I think of Christmas, I think of the magnitude of God’s love for me, and not only for me, but for the people of all nations. 

 

The events surrounding Jesus’ birth may be unbelievable for some, but for me instead they are remarkable.

 

I believe that the birth of Jesus is remarkable because it fulfilled the promise made to Abraham.

 

I believe the story of Jesus’ birth is remarkable because it fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah.

 

I believe the story of Jesus’ birth is remarkable because, as a result, it allows me to move beyond my past and my short-comings and my mistakes, and be a better person.  Yes, I blow it, but I don’t give up on myself.  And I know that I am significantly better than I would be without God in my life. 

 

I think the birth of Jesus is remarkable because it gives me the hope of not only going through this life with God, but also of having my soul continue with God in eternity.

 

So what difference does it make if you or I believe that God loves us more than we can ever know or imagine?

Will the love that God has for us find expression within us and to those around us?  In fact, isn’t that what the so-called fruit of the Spirit are all about? 

 

If we are sensitive to and responsive to work of the HS within us, then our love will not confine itself to empty gestures and meaningless words.  It will show itself in our concern and care for each other is.  And the kind of love that God wants to flow from our lives will keep our relationships intact long after the most amazing Christmas gifts have worn out or have been broken.

 

Pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, flowers will wilt, cards will decay, clothes will tear, cars and 4 K TV’s and smart phones and I-pads will wear out, break and become obsolete.  But giving the gift of love and compassion will endure throughout our lives. 

 

Because truly love and compassion and concern and kindness and joy ... those are THE best gifts that we can give this Christmas time. 

 

So I close with apples at Christmas, to remind us about the fruit that God wants to see grow in our lives.

 

WHAT WILL I DO TO ALLOW GOD GREATER ACCESS TO MY LIFE SO THAT HE CAN HELP ME BE A BETTER AND MORE LOVING PERSON?

 

 

[1] The first part of the promise to Abram, that his descendants would be so numerous that they will turn into a great nation ... or multitude of nations (Gen 17:4), led to his name change from Abram (which means “exalted father”) to Abraham (which means, “father of a multitude” - Gen 17:5). Nations could be in reference to the descendants of Ishmael, and, in the case of Isaac, both the nation of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, and Edom, the descendants of Esau.

[2] Gen 18:18; 22:18; cf. same promise made to Isaac in Gen 26:4 and to Jacob in Gen 28:14.

[3] Thus named because the Latin version begins with that word (My soul magnifies ... = Magnificat anima mea ...). Used in RC liturgy.

[4] Thus named because the Latin version begins with those two words (Now Master ... = Nunc dimittis ...).  Used in RC liturgy.

[5] Der innere Schweinehund der überwunden werden muß.