My text today for the fourth Sunday of Advent, and for this the day before we celebrate the birth of our Lord – my text comes from Luke’s gospel:
“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)
Today’s message begins a series of two messages that revolve around the acronym I will be creating from the word, ‘Christmas.’ As many of you know, an acronym is a word that is formed from the initial letters of another word or phrase. For example, shoppers often look for BOGO sales, which stands for, “Buy one, Get one [free].”
So, let’s begin with the first letter of the word, “C”, which represents the word ‘Cherish.’ A definition of cherish is to ‘protect and lovingly care for someone.’ Some synonyms are to ‘value,’ to ‘prize,’ to ‘treasure.’
I talked last week about God's passionate love for you. Passionate. It never wavers. It never cools. It never gets warmer. His passionate love for me and for you is forever unchanging.
And as I’ve spoken of many times in the past, the first advent proves that God cherishes us. He treasures us. But let’s make that more personal. The first advent proves to me – Richard – that God cherished me. The manger proves that God cherishes YOU – put your own name in there. He treasures you. You are of unimaginable value to Him.
Sometimes – perhaps many times – it’s difficult to wrap our minds around that truth, especially when we’re struggling with pain or loneliness. I mean, God is omnipotent. Nothing is impossible to Him. So why doesn’t He CHANGE my circumstance?
I don’t know. BUT I do know He did for us the most He even as God can do to demonstrate just how much He loves us. He – in the second Person of the Holy Trinity – He, who shared an eternity past in the holy glory of heaven, left that perfect place to be incarnate in Jesus, and took on human flesh.
And just think for a few moments, the Almighty Creator in human flesh for the first time in all eternity felt physical hunger, and thirst. He knew what it was like to hit his hand with a hammer, to stub His toe in the dark, and to cut His skin and bleed. He knew the emotional trauma of losing a parent and of losing a beloved cousin, John the Baptizer. He knew the pain of rejection by His own brothers who scoffed at His claim of Messiah. He knew what it was like to agonize in prayer during His darkest hour, and yet His beloved disciples slept through it all. He knew what it was like to hear his beloved Peter deny knowing Him.
The Almighty, matchless, incomparable, eternal God did all that and a much, much more. Why? Because he cherished and cherishes you and me. Jesus, who although “He was rich, yet for [our] sake He became poor, so that [we] through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
I could preach an entire series of messages on this point, but I must move on. But before we do, I must ask – “Do you cherish God?” I certainly ask myself right that question even I am now speaking with you, “Do I cherish God?”
I know my own answer. It’s ‘No” – certainly not in the way I WANT to cherish Him. Which is why I often ask God to change my heart in such a way that I WILL cherish the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Please, Holy God, change me so that I DO cherish You. Give me a whole heart to really love you; An undivided heart to seek You.
So now to the ‘H’ in Christmas, which stands for the word, ‘How’ – as in: “How can it be that the utterly holy God would love an utterly sinful sinner such as I?” Oh, I have often pondered that incomprehensible truth. And as I have pondered it, I’ve sometimes thought of the lyrics by Kris Kristofferson, “Why Me, Lord?”
“Why me Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I've known? Tell me, Lord. What did I ever do that was worth loving you, or the kindness you've shown? Lord help me, Jesus, I've wasted it so; Help me, Jesus, I know what I am. But now that I know that I've needed you so, help me Jesus. My soul's in your hand.”
How can it be that God would receive ME – after all the horrible, horrible things I have done in my life before I came to Christ? How? I don’t understand such love, how He could have cherished me before I ever knew Him. How He could still cherish me even AFTER I gave Him my life and sinned in word, in thought, in action in ways that make me most ashamed?
And what about you? Have you ever spent time reviewing your past? Some of you, I am sure, lived a fairly innocent life. You were blessed by God beyond your comprehension to have never been guilty of egregious, terrible, horrible sins. But some of you, like I, have done some things in your life that you shudder even to bring them back to your memory.
So, yes – How can it be that God should love a sinner such as I – and you? I don’t know. And neither do you. But oh! How wonderful is love like His.
Let’s continue moving through the word ‘Christmas’ and come to ‘R.’
For this Advent message, R represents ‘reconciliation.’ A Bible dictionary defines reconciliation as “the restoration of harmony between two persons at enmity with each other by the removal of obstacles that come between them.”
You and I were in an irreconcilable and ongoing conflict between ourselves and the Holy Creator of the universe because of our sins and our sin nature. Nothing could repair our devastatingly broken relationship. Our sinful thoughts, actions, words, and lifestyles all relentlessly merged to create an unbridgeable gap between us and the Holy God.
Enter that first Advent, followed three decades later by the Cross. Why and how did that do what was undoable? I’ll remind you who know the answer, and I will tell you who do not know the answer:
God cherished YOU and me so much that He gave us His only begotten Son, with a vow to you and me that if we believe in Him and in what His work on that cross would do for us – if we only believe with obedient faith in Him, the unbridgeable gap would be bridged, and the obedient follower of Christ would have everlasting life. We can be reconciled to our Holy God. We can be brought into full and complete harmony and union with our Holy God because He – through Jesus – has forever removed the obstacle that stood between us and Him.
Isaiah tells us how it used to be with us: “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2).
And then the prophet tells us how God removed that obstacle of sin: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:6)
Reconciliation. Adoption. Cherished. That’s what Christmas is all about! But let’s again move on. The next letter in Christmas is ‘I.’ For our purposes today, the “I” represents the Invitation.
Remember what Jesus said to those with ears to hear Him: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Listen. We here all know that Christmas is not about the gifts we give each other, or with the gifts we receive from one another. Christmas is about God’s invitation to participate in His eternal life. Christmas is an invitation to adoption into the holy family of God, the family of brothers and sisters in Christ numbering multiple millions since the first century. It’s an invitation to belong to a family comprised of every race and language and nation and background – multiple millions saved from God's wrath due to them because of their sins – saved from that wrath just like you and I have been saved from the eternal judgment our every sin deserves.
Christmas is an invitation to FOREVER enjoy the beauty of His holiness, the beauty of His love. It is an invitation to be washed thoroughly clean, to be given a new beginning, to be made into a new person in Christ. To watch Him cast our former lives into oblivion and make all things new to us.
No wonder the apostle Paul – formerly known as the religious terrorist, Saul of Tarsus, no wonder St Paul trumpeted: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15)
So, what will we do with the invitation? How do we receive the invitation? We don’t receive it because of our good works, or our heritage, whether Jew or Gentile. We don’t receive the invitation because our parents were Christians, or we give our offerings to missionaries and charities.
Listen again to the former religious terrorist: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. . . and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:4-5, 6, 8-9)
God's invitation to be adopted into His holy family that spans the ages is received by faith – trusting that God is true to His word about His love for us, about His full forgiveness of the penitent, about walking in righteousness, about how we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
The invitation is received in the same way St Luke tells us that the tax collector received it. Listen to these words in Luke 18:10-14:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
So, what have YOU done with God's invitation? How long has it been since you stood or knelt before our Holy God and told Him, “Be merciful to me, the sinner”? If it’s been longer than 24 hours, I urge you to do it right now, in your seats, in the privacy of your own heart. “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
And finally, for today, because of the time, I close with this next letter, the letter ‘S’. Seek the Lord, not only at Christmastime, but with equal and increasing passion throughout the coming year.
Seek Him while He still may be found. The Great Shepherd sought US, as a good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep safe in the fields and searches for the one that was lost. That’s what the first Advent is all about: Searching for the one that is lost.
I was lost. You also were lost. Maybe some of you right now are lost. But now what? Well, Jesus said His sheep know His voice and they follow Him. So, am ‘I’ following Him? Are YOU following Him. Are we SEEKING Him? This Christmas season is yet another good time to seek Him.
Please hear this. Scripture is very clear, from one end of the Book to the other, there WILL come a time when those who had their chance to seek Him and follow Him but chose not to do so, they will at some point no longer be able to seek or follow Him. For example, listen to Proverbs 1:24-28:
“Because I called and you refused, I stretched out my hand and no one paid attention; And you neglected all my counsel and did not want my reproof; I will also laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your dread comes . . . Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently but they will not find me.”
Yes, God is love – but He is not a tame lion, as CS Lewis wrote in his Narnia Chronicles. We need to get away from the pretty Christmas card scenes and remember Calvary where God spent his wrath – His WRATH – against our sin and rebellion and idolatry. Yes, God is love, but He is also a jealous God. Listen to what He tells us through Moses: (Exodus 34:14) “[F]or you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
He will not turn a blind eye when His creation, and especially those who call themselves Christians, He will not tolerate them following after other gods -- gods of wealth, or of power, or popularity, or any other such thing.
God demands of His creatures – you and me – total devotion. And that He has every right to do. We couldn’t even blink our eyes without His permission and enabling.
Seek Him while He may be found.
Let me bring this final point for today to a close and try to answer the question: HOW do we seek Him? My answer may seem terse. Perhaps even brusque. I don’t mean it to sound like that, but this is too important a question for me to give a long and rambling response.
How do we seek Him?
1) Make time for Him. Stop being lazy about OUR relationship with Him. Set a specific time – even if it is only 10 or 15 minutes in the morning AND in the evening – to pray through a prayer list and read a chapter or more of Scripture. And we must not close the Bible without asking ourselves questions such as, “What did I just learn from this passage? What in my life must I change so that I will be more obedient to what I just learned from this text?
2) Through practice, learn to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice when He tells us things such as: Don’t say that; Don’t watch that; Don’t do that. And on a positive side, learn to hear Him when He tells us things such as: Say that; Watch that; Do that.
The first Advent and the Christmas season demonstrate to all with ears to see and eyes to see that God cherishes us. Even when we were dead in our sins, He breathed new life into our souls. He sacrificed Himself through Jesus to reconcile every one of us back to Himself. The manger and the cross remain through the ages His invitation to all men and women to become part of His glorious and eternal family. And the manger and the cross flash like a neon sign from God: “I have sought you. I have bought you with my redeeming blood. Now it is time for you to seek Me while I may be found.”
Next week we will finish this two-part series as we look at the last four letters of the word, ‘Christmas.’