Sunday, November 28, 2010

Have a Merely Christmas

Personally, I’m hoping for less than a merry Christmas this year…I would be happy with a merely Christmas. Perhaps it’s just the influence of Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, but I’m longing for the truth of Christmas…plain and simple. I was at a Target the other day with Lisa watching the store make preparations for Black Friday and the beginning of “Merry Christmas.” We were picking up a few things for a get together with friends. “What time are you opening on Friday?” we asked the checker.  "The store opens at 4:00am in the morning," she replied with a sigh. As we all know, lines of people were already forming on Thursday to enter the store the next morning.  Now don't get me wrong, I like to find a good deal too, but I can’t help but think that this whole Black Friday phenomenon is a very strange parody of Christmas. It’s about people desperately trying to get in, to be first in line, to get the best deal, when in reality, Christmas and Jesus' birth is about being invited into the very life of God, not to buy something but to receive God’s greatest gift... but who bothers to get in line for that?  The message of "merely Christmas" is truly astounding, if virtually ignored -- that Jesus was born to bring us into the very life of God… and to show us what that life is like

So, here goes.  In honor of "merely Christmas" I'd like to suggest three astounding things about the life of God that Jesus' birth reveals and offers to us.  (i) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful.  Listen to the words of Paul: "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. 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" (Galatians 4: 4-7).  For many Jews and contemporaries of Jesus, the timing of Jesus’ birth appeared to be no accident.  "When the time had fully come, God sent his Son," says Paul.  It was the fulfillment of God’s plan from the very beginning....

Two thousand years before Jesus’ birth, the Lord solemnly vowed to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). God fulfilled part of one of that promise through Abraham and his seed...and we bless them because of it; but the question remained: How would God fulfill his promise to bless "all the families of the earth" through his people?  As followers of Y'shua (Jesus) we affirm his mission as "the light of the world" and God's blessing to Jews and Gentiles alike. To David the Lord declared through the prophet Nathan: “I will raise up your offspring after you...and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam. 7:12; 13-14). No earthly king ever fulfilled that prophecy; yet it was the experience of the multitudes that through his  matchless life, his atoning death, his victorious resurection, and his indwelling Spirit that the Kingdom of God had indeed come near.

Seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah wrote these words: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a [young woman] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [trans. God is with us] (Isaiah 7:14).” He goes on to predict that Immanuel will come to bring God’s forgiveness as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).  Did Isaiah have a contemporary ruler in view...or was he given insight into a future king and "suffering servant" unlike anything the world had ever seen?  Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord promises to make a New Covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31); and through the prophet Micah we’re told where he would come from: a small town, outside Jerusalem – Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2).  Again, we assert that prophets were speaking of events beyond their immediate made crystal clear in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.  Therefore, when Paul speaks of “the fullness of time” he certainly means the fulfillment of ancient prophecy…but perhaps also the unique time itself in which Jesus was born; a time that seemed just right for the coming of the King…

There was the Roman peace: Never before, in the history of humankind had so much of the world been unified under one basically just government The Romans called it the Pax Romana, and it enabled citizens to travel freely and safely throughout the known world  There were the extraordinary Roman roads which facilitated rapid communication and the spread of the gospel. There was the rise of the Jewish Faith – the belief in one God that had spread throughout the Empire because of the Dispersion (721, 597 BC). There was a universal language. Greek was understood across the Empire, much like English is today. The gospels and letters of Paul were all written in Greek. If God were going to send a Messiah, this seemed to be the time. All this is to say that God is purposeful…that he sent his Son to us in a purposeful way, in fulfillment of his own promises, at a time of his own choosing. And this means that when Y'shua (Jesus) came to bring us into the life of God, that he came to bring us into a life that is purposeful and meaningful...

Do you sometimes question whether there is any rhyme or reason to your life; that your life is like a puzzle that can’t be put back together? God does nothing without purpose. God created this world for a purpose. God sent his Son for a purpose. God made you and me for a purpose. And our life with such a God…if we will trust in him…will be a life filled with purpose (not just in this world, but in the world to come).

(ii) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful…and personal. When it came time for God to reveal himself fully, he could have sent a letter, or an email or a text message. Instead, "God sent his Son, born of a woman" [and] "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” He came in humility. He came as a baby. He came personally. Why? Because God is personal. In fact, he is beyond personal…he is Super-Personal (to use the words of C. S. Lewis).

The Christian understanding of God as trinity was not invented by the early church, it was the result of the disciples’ real life experience of the One True God, whom they found to be physically present in the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the gift of his Spirit. Now, why does it matter whether God is personal or impersonal, triune, or not? It matters…because how we see God greatly impacts how we see ourselves and other people. A godless world produces godless people. A God-filled world, produces God-filled people. How we see God also impacts how we envision our future. Distorted ideas about God can lead to distorted ideas about our future...
Some believe “nothing” created this world and so “nothingness” is our future. Others take a step back from this extreme and say, “I believe in God but not a personal God.” And what they usually mean is, “God is impersonal if there is a God at all” -- that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be "absorbed" into God; something like a drop of water that falls into the Ocean. “But of course,” (as Lewis says) “that is the end of the drop.” If that is what becoming part of the life of God is like, it really means the end of our existence altogether, the end of our individuality, the end of our personality. But Christians have a very different view of what entering into God’s life will be like. It is not like a drop of water disappearing into an infinite ocean… it is actually something like what many of us experience around the table on special holidays, or long to experience more fully…it’s like being invited to sit down at a great banquet table with those you love and who love you.

I heard about an elderly man in Phoenix who called his son in New York and said, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough." "Pop, what are you talking about?" the son asks. "We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her." Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts. "I'll take care of this." She calls Phoenix immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing till I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing." The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "They're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares. Now what do we do for Christmas?"

When I was a boy, my family would drive out from the valley on Thanksgiving to spend the day with my mom’s sisters and family. Their house was on top of a hillside that overlooked the ocean, and I never tired of looking at its beauty… but what I longed to be part of was my family, to sit at the table, to experience the joy of those relationships. Joining the life of God is like being welcomed into a great circle of love. And Christians can say this, because we believe God is a circle of love, a trinitarian family of loving persons. For some of us, feeling closeness in our families was not possible. Due to bitter division or unresolved anger, we felt distant from our parents or siblings. Our home didn’t feel like a “circle of love” but empty, cold, and unwelcoming. Friends, we were created to share in the loving fellowship of the three-personal God. Can we truly be part of this fellowship, this circle of love? That’s Jesus’ prayer for us! For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).

(iii) When God acted in “in the fullness of time…” it tells us that God is purposeful. When we read that “God sent his Son,” it reminds us that God is personal. And when Paul says that we were adopted in Christ “no longer slaves but God’s children” it means that God is merciful. Paul writes: “God sent his Son…born under the law to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship… So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.”

Now a slave obviously has no freedom and no hope; but God’s mercy is revealed in this way…that the Son of God was willing to be born into a world where he would be treated like a slave (crucified on a Roman cross) so that we who are slaves to sin might be treated like God’s sons.  In the first century, there was more than 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. People of that day could no more imagine a society without slaves than we can imagine a society without electricity. Today…slavery may not be as visible, but it is just as real…

If you have something in your life which is master over you…you are a slave. If you’ve always got to have more stuff, or better stuff, or bigger stuff to feel OK about yourself…you’re a slave. If you’ve got to drink something, smoke something, or snort something to survive each day…you’re a slave. If you can’t control your anger or let go of grudges…you’re a slave. If you’re living in the fantasy world of internet pornography, you’re a slave. If you spend so much time at work that you’re neglecting your family… you’re a slave. If you’re dominated by fear and worry, you’re a slave. And if you’re unwilling to admit that you’re a slave to anything…you can bet your a slave to something...beginning with arrogance and pride.

I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, a devout follower of Christ and president of International Justice Mission, whose life was changed when as a gov’t worker, he was sent to Rwanda following the war between Hutus and Tutsis that led to the deaths of millions. As a result he dedicated his life to rescuing the most vulnerable members of society from slavery and violent oppression. In a speech delivered to the White House, one of his co-workers said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized everyday, our work will always be about the one….The one girl deceived…The one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.” That’s a perfect picture of God’s mercy, God’s unrelenting love for each one of us…who sent his Son not only to free us from slavery, but to make us part of his family, heirs of the grace of life, life abundant and life eternal.

It’s not Black Friday…it’s the first Sunday of Advent; and probably because it’s merely Christmas around here, Christmas plain and simple the lines at the door of our church were a bit shorter (and a whole lot quieter) than they were at Target the other day….But my prayer is that this Christmas will be the season in which you do walk through the open door, and invite a few others to walk through that door with you…knowing that as you place your trust in the Child who was born in Bethlehem’s manger…you too can be part of God’s life… you can be part of his purpose and plan …you can know his mercy and amazing grace…and you can be part of his continuously expanding circle of love, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… forever and ever. Amen!

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