Sunday, December 7, 2014


Christmas is a time for happiness. Everyone knows that. You can hear that in the carols that are sung. 'Joy to the world. The Lord is come.' Or 'O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.' You can hear it in that friendly greeting of 'Merry Christmas!' And no wonder. The very first Christmas also was a time of happiness. Listen.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2.8-14)

The theme of the season is happiness. That's why people throw parties to enjoy some good times with friends and relatives. And here I'm just talking about unbelievers. How much more is that the case for Christians? It's a time to celebrate. Jesus has come. He has come to free us from our sins. He has come to rule. Life is good.

Or is it?

What happens after all the celebrating is over, the decorations are put away for another year and life returns to normal? Well, there still are difficult relationships to navigate, health concerns to deal with, disappointments to get over, jobs that are sometimes less than ideal and the list goes on. When the celebrating is over there is still the darkness. You still have all that is included in that one dreadful word: death.

Now, let me be clear before you assume the worst. The goal of this sermon is for you to be happy and to rejoice with great joy. But for most of the people out there, Christmas is an attempt to ignore what day to day life has become for them. It has become an escape from reality. I don't want you to fall into that. I want your joy to be real and your celebration to be full of happiness. But for that to happen we need to ask hard questions. We need to take a careful and honest look at what is.

Let's do that by asking a question. Has anything changed now that Jesus has come? Is life really all that different now? Don't answer that with the proper 'religious' answer. Let's ask it honestly and look for a real answer. Before Jesus came life was hard and people struggled. Has anything changed now that He has come?

That angel thought that something had changed, that something big had changed.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

And to make sure that those shepherds got the point the skies were filled with angels shouting praise to God for what He had just done. They all thought that something big had happened, something that would make a huge difference. The angel really believed it when he talked about 'good news of great joy'.

So, what's the big deal? The key is one word: Savior. Now, that's a church word so let's translate it. How about 'Rescuer'? Actually, in a context like this one, I prefer the word 'Hero'. The Hero of God's people has come. And because of He has arrived things are enormously different. Here's one thing that is different: the situation. The situation has changed.

This is where understanding the big picture is so important. The Gospel isn't about making sure that a handful of people somehow get to heaven later. That's the picture I was taught: individuals rescued from this dark earth to live in heaven after a lifetime of waiting around trying to be nice. But is that what the Bible says? What is the first thing that Jesus preaches once He begins His ministry? 'Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!' The Kingdom of God? And as you read through the first three Gospels this Kingdom is the main theme, not getting a few people to heaven.

So, what's this Kingdom? From the time that Adam first sinned until the day of Pentecost there was no Gospel in the nations of the world. It was limited only to Israel. And that means your ancestors - your Gentile forebears - were all ruled by Satan. God had a tiny outpost in Israel where the light of the Gospel had an ongoing fight with the surrounding darkness. But the rest of the world had Satan as its sovereign. Satan was the king of the world, and he knew it. But that has changed. Jesus has come. By His death and resurrection the Hero of the people of God has conquered Satan and tossed him from his throne. And now, Jesus rules. Now, Jesus is Lord. And that's why Jesus told His apostles, 'All authority on heaven and earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of the nations'. It's because of this conquest that any of you are Christians instead of pagan Gentiles. Our Hero has conquered.

Jesus isn't finished fixing the world. He has amazingly good plans yet to be played out. And the goal of these plans is that there would be no evil. Or to say that differently, that you would have no difficult relationships to navigate, no health concerns to deal with, no disappointments to get over, no jobs that are sometimes less than ideal. No more darkness. The goal of Jesus' plans is that you would never again have to deal with death. Or to summarize all of that, the goal of Jesus' plans is that you would be happy, all the time and forever. And that is exactly what is going to happen.

That's the big picture. Let's take it and return to what it's like after all the celebrating is over. Life has returned to normal. And once again, you're reminded that all is not perfect, not by a long shot. But what do you tell yourselves in that moment? You have a choice. You can think like an unbeliever and just try your best to deal with it. Or you can hope like a Christian. 'Yes, things aren't perfect, but Jesus isn't done yet. Things will be perfect. He promised.' And then, you can remind yourself of how you've already had a taste of what that perfection will be like. God is your Father, Jesus is your older Brother and the all-powerful Spirit is always at your side. You are a part of a community that is working at believing these Gospel truths and is beginning to enjoy some of the benefits. And you are waiting for the day when the Father will keep in its entirety His promise of a perfect place with perfect people, a promise that He began to keep when He sent Jesus to be our Hero. And it is that hope that makes all the difference.

This really is good news of great joy. Something huge has changed. Someone new is King and He is in the process of spreading the blessings of His gracious rule.

So, what does this mean in the nitty-gritty of life? How do we live this? For one thing, it means that we still mourn the evil that afflicts us. It really is all around us. Its power has been dulled, but it still hurts. So, it makes sense to mourn, especially at times. We never minimize the evil. But at the same time, we rejoice. Even in the midst of the evil, we rejoice. Sometimes we do that with tears, but we rejoice. We rejoice in hope. And we do that because we know that Jesus is still busy accomplishing His plan, using even the evil that afflicts us so. And we rejoice in the hope that one day He will be finished and the promise will be completely kept. A new heavens and a new earth filled with re-newed people.

Now, I want you to get this, to feel it. So, to do that we're going to sing. We are going to sing a Christmas carol. We're going to sing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel'. But if this is going to work, you have to sing it in the right way. Don't sing it as if you were the Old Testament people of God waiting for the Messiah to come. Don't sing this as if Jesus has not yet been born. It would have made sense for people like Abraham and Moses and Isaiah to sing this song that way while they waited. But that's not you. Sing it in terms of who you really are. You are waiting like the people of God of old. But you are not waiting for the Messiah to be born. You are waiting for Him to return so that He would finish fixing this place. This song is your prayer to Jesus that He might come again. O come, O come, Emmanuel. That's the first part of singing this Christmas carol in the right way.

Here's the second. You need to see how this Christmas carol is put together. All the stanzas but one are about some taste of evil that we face in the here and now. So, for example, the first verse.

          O come, O come Emmanuel
          and ransom captive Israel,
          that mourns in lonely exile here,
          until the Son of God appear.

Is that not us? Don't you sometimes feel as if you've been captured by your sins? Don't you mourn your exile from your true home? Don't you feel the loneliness that that exile often brings? Don't you - or is it just me? The tone of the verses is dark. And that is part of the reality we live in.

But then, notice the refrain. Everything changes with the refrain. What's this refrain? It's a call to the people of God to rejoice. Rejoice? After listing our troubles and trials? Rejoice? Yes, rejoice. Why?

          Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Jesus will most certainly return. Most certainly. And at that point, His plan to perfect all of this will be completed. Everything will be fixed. No more Satan. No more sin. No more darkness. No more death.

So, when you celebrate Christmas, it's no escape from reality. You acknowledge the dark places of this life. But because of what happened on that night back in Bethlehem the situation is different. Our Hero has come. He has made big changes and is continuing to make changes. And we know that He will return to complete what He has started. He will. This is why we rejoice. And that realistic joy sets the tone of our celebration of Jesus' birth.

So, with all of that in mind, let's sing, in the right way, 'O come, O come Emmanuel'.