Today is the third Sunday of Advent. And as I have done for the last two Advent Sundays, I am today focusing our attention away from the Baby in the manger and the pretty Christmas card scenes and TOWARD to reason for the season – God's love for mankind and His offer of eternal salvation to sinners – even the worst of sinners.
I like to remind myself of St Paul’s words to Timothy: (1 Timothy 1:15-16) “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
My text for today as we draw nearer to Christmas day is from the first chapter of Genesis, and the first chapter of St John’s gospel. Here are the first verses of Genesis one: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”
And now to John’s gospel: (John 1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth . . ..”
Christmas did not begin with the birth of Jesus. Long before the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and fertilized her ova, and long before Mary laid her newborn baby in that manger, surrounded by the pungent odors of animal urine and feces – even long before these things, Christmas had already begun. Indeed, even before ‘God created the heavens and the earth,’ Christmas was already in the mind of God – as was Calvary.
Of course, no one can know what went on in the ‘mind’ of God (to use human expressions) – no one can know what went on during the self-council of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what we DO know is that Jesus is the Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us.” We DO know that “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”
The Holy Spirit reiterates John’s message about Jesus through St Paul to the Christians at Colossae: (Colossians 1:16-17) “For by Him [Jesus] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions 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.”
Said another way, and to emphasize the point, God created all things through Jesus. All things. Angels. Planets. Suns. Earth, with all its oceans and mountain ranges and creatures – including Mary and Joseph, and the animals surrounding the manger. All things, including the tree that was used to make that manger, and the tree that was used to form the cross on which Jesus hung and died.
No, no one knows what went on in God's mind during that self-council of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but speculate with me for a few moments because Scripture gives us enough clues that we can extrapolate what might have happened there.
Scripture tells us again and again, “God is love.” (For example, see 1 John 4:8, 16). He is the very definition of love. It is from His love that mercy and grace flow not only to the beloved, but to the whole world (e.g. John 3:16).
We all understand love and what love does. Love wants to share itself with the beloved. Parents want to share their love with their children. When a man and a woman fall in love, they want to share their love with each other.
And so – again to speak in human terms – I think it safe to speculate that in the mind of God – who reveals Himself as the triunity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – God wanted to share his love beyond Himself. But He could not do that until creation occurred.
However, as we all know at our ages, TRUE love involves risks. For example, true love hopes the beloved will reciprocate that love. But for love to be reciprocal, the beloved has to desire to love the lover. And the beloved cannot reciprocate love unless he or she can choose to walk away from the lover.
Parents understand that risk. We hope our children will grow to love us as they – and we – get older. But how often does it happen that grown children choose to not reciprocate that love? Far more often, I think, than used to be the case. I know of many, many parents whose children have essentially divorced themselves from them. I suspect some of you know firsthand what I am speaking about.
Married couples also understand the risk of sharing love with one another. With heart-shaped stars in their eyes, they kneel at the marriage altar. But how often do those stars dim and one spouse no longer reciprocates love? And without a true repentance, that marriage is headed to disaster.
Well, what does it look like when we reciprocate love toward God our lover? Scripture answers that question in simple and clear terms. For example, Jesus said: (John 14:15) “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And John wrote: (1 John 5:3) “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”
Spouses in love with each other know that obedience to their marriage vows is not at all burdensome. What vows? Well, here is an example of Christian marriage vows: “I now take you to be my wedded wife/husband, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy relationship of marriage. I promise to love and comfort you, honor and keep you, and forsaking all others, I will be yours alone as long as we both shall live."
A husband who loves his wife never considers it a burden to keep his vow to remain faithful to his wife. Nor does a wife think it a burden to stay faithful to her beloved husband. If such vows WERE seen as burdensome, then it is accurate to say they do not have a loving relationship.
And in the same way, if we consider obedience to God to be a burden, then we need to check ourselves. Do we really love the One we profess to love?
But let’s move on. Besides the risk of not receiving a reciprocal love from His beloved, God also foreknew of another risk He would take when He created humanity. That risk involved how to reconcile His utter holiness and justice with His unbending mercy and grace. What do I mean by that?
The infinitely holy God knew long before He created Man and placed him in the Garden that it would not be long before they corrupted themselves. And so, the question (again, using human expressions to attempt to even remotely understand God), how was He – whose holiness burns hotter than ten thousand suns – how could He receive into His eternal presence sinners such as you and I who reek of rebellion and self-centeredness? How could He receive sinners into His staggering holiness when we could not survive longer than the blink of an eye in His presence?
Well, here we come to the first Advent. Enter Jesus, the man who is at the same time almighty God incarnate. Jesus, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus, born like every other baby, but unlike every other baby, was conceived in the Virgin’s womb by God the Holy Spirit. Jesus, who lived a sinless life and gave Himself as an offering to God for our sins. Jesus, who willingly received in Himself the full wrath of God on that cross for our sins.
And in doing so, God's justice against sin AND His mercy toward His beloved sinners could meet together at the same time and the same place in history. That place, of course, was Calvary’s hill.
But there is yet more: When God spent His wrath on His Son for OUR sins, we who believe in Christ Jesus are now counted by God to be as fully righteous as His Son. Listen to St Paul tell it (2 Corinthians 5:21): “[God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
There was even yet ANOTHER risk God knew He would run when He created Mankind. He knew that most men and women would choose to walk the broad road through the wide gate that led to their destruction.
Think for a moment how that realization must have horribly grieved the Great Lover of our souls! He who created us for the sole purpose of sharing His inexpressible love with us – He knew from the beginning of creation who and how many of His beloved creation would walk away from Him.
Listen to God speaking through Moses: (Deuteronomy 5:29) “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!”
And listen to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:42): “If only you had recognized on this day what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden from your sight.”
Don’t you think God mourns over those He created to love choose to walk away? Don’t you think God will weeps over you and me when if we should ever choose to walk away?
THAT’S what the manger is all about. Christmas is all about God loving us so much, that even while we were willful sinners, He became incarnate in Jesus, to be born in a stable and three decades later to die in our place.
God speaks though the apostle John about those who walk away from His love – and what their relationship with the Creator actually is: (John 1:11-13) He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
This is a crucial, crucial point that many in pews and in pulpits miss. God created all humanity, BUT he is not Father to all humanity. He is the Creator, yes, but He is only Father to those who have received Christ as their Lord and who LIVE in such a way as to demonstrate that Christ is their Lord. It is only to them that God gave the right to become children of God. It is only those who received Jesus as their Master whom God adopts into His family.
It is a devilish lie, a lie intended by Satan to seduce into the Lake of Fire all those who like to think to themselves that they are God's children, but who are, in reality, not His at all – which adds weight to the words the Holy Spirit guided Isaiah to write seven centuries before Jesus lay in that manger: (Isaiah 53:1) “Who has believed our message?
On this the third Sunday of Advent, with the celebration of Christmas now only eight days away, I must ask you – and you must ask me: What do YOU believe about the message wrapped in the manger?
For example, do we believe about Jesus what Isaiah wrote of Him 700 years earlier? (Isaiah 9:6-7) “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
Do we believe that the Baby in that place surrounded by animals and their odors – do we believe He is Mighty God and eternal Father? Do we believe that Baby is the only One who brings peace to a life?
Do we believe Jesus is the ONLY savior – and that all who follow Judaism, or Buddhism, or Islam, or ANY other faith or non-faith – they are all destined for the Lake of Fire unless they turn to Jesus? Do we believe the message that the Christian faith as taught by the apostles is the only faith that will open to us eternal life?
Do we believe the message wrapped in that manger is as the apostle Paul proclaimed: (Philippians 2:10) “[A]t the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that EVERY TONGUE will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”?
Every knee. Every tongue. Every angel – including the fallen angels we know as Satan and his demons. Every knee. Every tongue. Mine. Yours. Our parents. Our children. Every leader of every nation that has ever existed. Every religious leader who has ever lived – regardless of their particular religion.
Do we believe without hesitation that before they enter either heaven or the Lake of Fire that everyone will bend their knee and make that confession of Jesus as Lord?
These are not insignificant or incidental questions. I recently heard a sobering comment by Alistar Begg, a pastor out of Cleveland. He said, “Careless pastors make their congregations vulnerable to predatory wolves.”
Listen, please. It was of God's passionate love for YOU and me, that He planned that first Advent. And because He knew how easy it would be for His beloved to be deceived by the supernatural enemy we know as Satan – because God knew how easily seduced we can be, He gave to the Church – which is the Body of Christ: (Ephesians 4:11-14) “[S]ome as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers . . . .”
Why did He give us those gifts? Paul continues in the next verse: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God . . . . As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Listen, my brothers and sisters! Please listen. There be predatory wolves all around us: In pulpits, writing books, leading worship, speaking at conferences, knocking on doors, leaving brochures in supermarkets and on mailboxes. You will know them by their answers to the questions I just asked. Who do they say is the Baby in that manger? What do they say about Calvary and the reason Jesus died? What do they say about the empty tomb? What do they say about eternal judgment?
There be predatory wolves out there. And wrapped in that manger is the ONLY right answer to the cry of every heart longing to see eternal life. That’s why the Great Lover of our souls became a Baby, who grew to be a Man and take our sins on Himself so that all who trust Him for forgiveness and eternal life will live with Him forever.
Once more, as it is written: As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
And in that manger, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.