Inspired by a sermon By Pastor Jason Cook at Fellowship Bible Church, Roswell, GA 4/18/2021
Christmas day Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.
On this side of heaven, the conjoined deity and humanity of Christ is impossible for finite human minds to understand. It was too much for Jesus’s siblings and his hometown (Mark 6), and they knew him. It was too much for the disciples who abandoned him, even though they had been his closest companions for three years (Mark 14). After his resurrection, some people began to understand, albeit imperfectly (Acts). Throughout history, people have tried to comprehend the unity of the God-head made manifest in a human baby as he grew, like any other boy, into adulthood. The best scholars just admit, as Luther did, that the humanity of God is beyond our ability to understand.
Why did he come? Why was it important for the Creator of all things to take on flesh, to become one of us? Because God promised he would be our salvation. Vance Pitman, in his 2020 Christmas Eve service, offered a succinct explanation here. Erick Erickson dug a little deeper into the prophecies on his Christmas radio show, which should appear on his podcast in the next few days. Most simply, Jesus came for us.
For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people for His own possession, eager to do good works.Titus 2:11-14
So, what’s next? This first Advent for our salvation and reconciliation with the Creator is part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Jesus, Himself, told the rest of the story in Mark 13. The prophets spoke of the Messiah coming, not as savior, but as judge and King of Glory. This second coming, for which we now prepare, will be beyond our wildest imaginings. “Who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty…the LORD of Hosts, He is the King of glory” (Psalm 24). Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus tries to capture that day. On that day, Jesus will descend from heaven with a blast of the shofar, and the whole world will see His glory. There will be no mistaking Him for anyone but who He is. The first coming of Jesus was for our salvation. The second will be for His justice and glory. And we who have believed at His first coming will join the “great multitude, that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 9-17).
Now and forever, we gather in awe and wonder at the inexplicable love the Father has lavished on us. He came, wrapped His deity in our humanity so that He could fulfill the law and the prophets for us. He came as the suffering servant, the One who bore the consequences of sin for everyone, regardless of whether we choose to submit to His sacrifice on our behalf. He defeated death, returning His followers so they could see Him in His fullness. He ascended to heaven, where He sat down as the King and High Priest. FOR us. We have reconciliation with God because of Him. And reconciliation becomes rejoicing when Jesus comes again to rule.
King of the Earth
Sing a new song to the Lord;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to Yahweh, praise His name;
proclaim His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonderful works among all peoples.
For the Lord is great and is highly praised;
He is feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before Him;
strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of His name;
bring an offering and enter His courts.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness;
tremble before Him, all the earth.
Say among the nations: “The Lord reigns.
The world is firmly established; it cannot be shaken.
He judges the peoples fairly.”
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and all that fills it resound.
Let the fields and everything in them exult.
Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy
before the Lord, for He is coming—
for He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness
and the peoples with His faithfulness.
Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)
O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight. With the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever, Amen.
Often pink, the third candle represents Mary in many Orthodox traditions. Other traditions call it the candle for Joy. Either symbol works; Mary’s joy expressed in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) sets the standard for how we should respond to God’s working in our lives, even when we don’t fully understand His ways.
The prophets were clear about the signs of Messiah’s Incarnation, including that a virgin from the lineage of David would conceive a son and call him Emmanuel. Seven hundred years later, angels began to visit those who would play key roles in how God would become man and make joy possible for us.
The first angel appeared to Zechariah (Luke 1). Of the three visitations in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Zechariah should have been the least surprised by his celestial visitor, yet he was rendered speechless, literally. Zechariah had been a priest for decades. He was actually at the altar, probably the most religious place he could be. He knew the prophecies better than most people, but when saw the angel, he didn’t immediately rejoice that the prophecies were about to be fulfilled. Instead, he was troubled and questioned the angel’s words. How could he and his wife, Elizabeth, conceive a child in their old age? It was impossible. Even when the angel revealed that he was Gabriel, the archangel who spoke to the prophet Daniel, all Zechariah could do was stand there, mute in disbelief.
Six months after visiting Zechariah, Gabriel made another trek to earth, this time to visit a poor girl in a small, unimportant town. She knew the words of the prophets, but had no formal training in ministry. She was young, perhaps as young as 13, so she had no grand responsibilities. She was betrothed, and she had no illusions about her future as the wife of a laborer, forever insignificant. She, too, was troubled when Gabriel appeared, but her question, “How can this be?” was not out of disbelief, but rather a question of clarification. Her faith prompted her to trust the work of the Lord, as impossible as it seemed to be. She had to have known the trouble that would come of her position as a poor, unmarried, pregnant girl. She had to have wondered how her betrothed might respond. She knew the law well enough to know that she could be stoned for infidelity, even though she had not been unfaithful. Ridicule and shame would be the least of her concerns. But Mary did not dwell on the possibilities of future distress; she focused on the unchanging character of God. Unlike Zechariah, she believed the words of the heavenly messenger.
Mary traveled to Judah to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth, a trip of about 100 miles. She had time to think during the journey of four or five days. While it is impossible to know exactly what she thought, she had to have pondered the prophecies of the coming Messiah in awe and wonder that the time had come at last and that she would play a role. Elizabeth corroborated Mary’s thoughts when she exclaimed that Mary was indeed the mother of the Lord. Mary’s heart overflowed with joy, saying,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.Luke 1:46-55
I do wonder what Zechariah thought about this young cousin who understood the prophecies and the character of the Almighty better than he. In the three months Mary stayed in Judah, surely Zechariah watched and wondered how his life might have been different if he had responded to Gabriel with trusting confidence the way that Mary had.
The third angelic vision wasn’t in a temple or in broad daylight. This message came through a dream. Joseph, betrothed to Mary, was a good man. Matthew called him just, a man who knew and abided by the Law. Still, when Mary returned to Nazareth pregnant with a child that he knew was not his, he had to consider his choices. His reputation as a godly man was at stake, and how could it be that his Mary was carrying God in her womb? He struggled with the decision, and, to spare her life and shame, he resolved to quietly divorce her. Resolution is not a decision arrived at easily, and Joseph must have wept during his prayers about what to do. When he slept, he had a vivid dream. Gabriel again entered the story, telling Joseph that Mary was indeed the mother of the Messiah, and that he, Joseph, had been chosen to raise the child in the ways of the Lord. Why in a dream instead of a visitation? The Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps since Joseph was a godly man who prayed over the decision he had to make meant that a vision was all he would need. If his relationship with the Father was sufficient for him to be the caretaker and provider for the Messiah and His mother, perhaps he was in tune with the will of God already. What the scripture DOES tell us is that Joseph obeyed, without question. He married Mary, kept her pure so that Jesus would be born uncorrupted by human flesh, and named the baby, Jesus, just as the angel in the dream had instructed.
Three individual angelic visits. Three different responses. And ultimately, three reasons for joy. Zechariah’s penance was nine months of silence, but as soon as he wrote, “His name is John,” he was able to speak. His first words were words of joy that proclaimed the coming of the promised Redeemer. His praise resonated with the prophecies, the promises, and the mercy of God. Mary’s joy seemed to be part of her character as she acquiesced to the will of God. And Joseph, the one who so often gets overlooked in God’s salvation story, Joseph’s joy had to be complete when Mary delivered a perfect son according to the words of the angel in his vision. Neither Zechariah, Mary, nor Joseph could have imagined being center stage at the Incarnation. They did not understand how God would use an infant to bring salvation. They trusted, with confident expectation that, because they were in the middle of God’s will, He would work through them.
God is at work. God is with us. The people around us need Jesus more now than ever. If we fall into Zechariah’s worry about how God will work out His will through us, we may as well be mute. To respond with joy as Mary did to things we don’t understand is hard, but when we obey anyway, like Joseph, we will find joy.
We need to be prayerful. Joseph was not an academic, but he knew the Law, he trusted the Almighty, and his connection to God through prayer led him to obey the angel without a single question. Zechariah, the most educated of the three, questioned the angel in doubt. Mary questioned the angel for clarity. Joseph just got up and did as the angel commanded him. We need to be so in tune with the Lord that we see what He has for us to do and we act on it. The prayer above asks Jesus to help us turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. If the joy at the beginning of our Savior’s life is any indication, we can be confident that He will be at work in us until that work is complete (Philippians 1:6).
From a time of thanksgiving to the wonder of the Incarnation, this time of year is set apart from the rest. It is an opportunity for introspection and reflection. What are the most important things?
If 2020 hasn’t done anything else for our benefit, it has given each of us ample time to sort through our hearts and minds along with our closets. We have had time to sort through the clutter of whatever it is that robs us of joy and peace. We might have learned how important and powerful community is. We had a chance to disentangle from commitments that filled our days but did not satisfy our spirits.
All the clearing out and cleaning up made space to deeply consider the mystery of our Creator. We can fully meditate on the universes He created and be humbled by His provision of a planet that perfectly meets our needs. That meditation should renew in us an attitude of stewardship so that our descendants can enjoy the vast beauty of our earthly home.
More significantly, we have a cleared out space in our heads and hearts to wonder in awe of God’s great love. His is a love that not only provides for our physical needs, but also for the needs of our eternal souls. The Incarnation: the Creator laying aside his divine power for a time, limiting Himself to the human form, with all its sorrows, sicknesses, and isolations. Why would the God who made us choose this path of humiliation? It is a good question to consider as Advent approaches.
I am calling this the Psalm of “no matter what.” As I read it this morning, all I could think was that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). In this psalm, David lists all the ways God is with us no matter what.
Verses 2-3 No matter what, God knows exactly what is happening to and around us.
V.4 No matter what, we have access to the temple of God.
V.5 No matter what, God will protect us.
V.6 No matter what, we can choose joy.
Vv. 7-10 No matter what, God will not abandon us.
V 11. No matter what, He will teach us
V. 12 No matter what, God is GOOD.
V. 13 No matter what, we can be strong in the waiting.
Wow! Of whom shall we we afraid indeed? (Psalm 27:1; Romans 8:31)
“Hope does not put us to shame.” (ESV) What does that mean? Why should hope be shameful?
I pondered this notion until I realized that it happens all the time. Social media posts about prayer become targets for ridicule. Hopeful people are sometimes treated like they don’t know or don’t care about human suffering. Sharing good news gets contradicted by “but what about.”
The hope here is not a blithe Pollyanna response to life and its hardships. It does not ignore the realities of suffering. It does not belittle fear. It understands that people can be cruel, bigoted, and unjust. However, this hope DOES allow us to recognize God at work.
This hope allows believers to act in love in spite of the evil around us. Hope encourages us to reach out to those who suffer with compassion. Hope lets us come alongside others and walk with them through the challenges of living in this world.
In short, hope produced by character through enduring suffering with joy opens the way for God to work in us and through us for His glory. How? He works in and through because we are grounded in His love instead of our fear. God’s love pours into our hearts and we act out of His love.
Rejoice in suffering. Now that sounds fun. Don’t we have enough to deal with right now with pandemic and racism and Zoom fatigue and hurricanes and wildfires? And we have to be joyful about it?
In a word, yes. We don’t need to be happy about suffering, but we can choose joy over anger, bitterness, and dwelling in misery. Suffering has a role to play in our lives. The most important thing suffering can do is drive us to the Father (James 1:2-5). That alone should be a sufficient reason to choose joy in the middle of the mayhem.
Paul added that suffering produces endurance. As a runner, I get that. I suffer through long runs on hot and humid days so that I get a stronger and faster and able to go a little farther than ever before. Look at how much we have learned the last six months. We have not gathered together at church or small groups, but we have learned to stay connected in other ways. I look forward to attending services as much as anyone, but I also see the value of having to be intentional in community. When social club church is shut down, deep and powerful ministry can be unleashed.
Suffering isolation teaches us how much we need each other. We can endure almost anything together, but when we must fully rely on the Father we witness His faitfulness in new and exciting ways. That should motivate us to choose joy.
In choosing joy, we need to come alongside those who struggle in the hard time. We can use technology to send a quick message. We can make a phone call. We can mail a letter. We can order groceries or flowers or any number of things online and ship them to the people we know who need a hug. In enduring hardship with joy, we have an opportunity to be the light in the darkness that Jesus calls us to be.
We have peace with God because Jesus is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:9.) What does this mean? It means we have ACCESS to grace and JOY in hope no matter what our circumstances may be.
We stand on a foundation of salvation because Jesus did the work on our behalf (Titus 3:5.) Our faith means we have unfettered access to the very throne of the Creator in both good times and hard times (Hebrews 4:16.)
We are justified, not by what we do, but by faith in the grace of God (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8-9.) Hard times happen to everyone. Sometimes, like with a pandemic or natural disasters, the hard times are shared by communities. Other times, the struggle is an individual one where suffering seems magnified because the world keeps moving forward. Isolation increases suffering.
In faith, however, we have hope because we can be assured that God is with us. That hope gives us the freedom to rejoice, even in the worst of times. Grace to faith to hope to joy: this is the progression of the believers’ mindset in all times. In good times and hard times, God is with us.
We are justified by faith; Jesus did the work. What a beautiful reminder that we can rest in knowing our salvation is already worked out for us. In this ever changing world we can have peace with God, not by our own doing, but because Jesus did.
Today is Labor Day. It is a good day to remember Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.”(ESV). The Voice paraphrase says, ” Be still, be calm, see, and understand I am the True God.” The Passion translation interprets the Hebrew as, ” Surrender your anxiety! Be silent and stop striving and you will see that I am God.” The Message hits the point home, ” Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”
We all need the reminder that it is by grace we are saved and by faith we are justified. We don’t have to earn our way into God’s love; He loved us first.
For many of us COVID19 quarantines are beginning to lift. More people are out and about, some businesses are reopening, and churches are making plans to start modified gatherings for worship. For some people the reopening of society is a relief; for others it represents a new kind of uncertainty. The cultural narrative changes almost every day: wear a mask or not, dine in at a restaurant or not, return to school classrooms or not. When the experts are divided, the opinions of non-experts become battlegrounds for argument, mud-slinging, sweeping generalizations, insults, and fear-mongering. The cultural narrative also infects the Church.
We are human. We fail to consider the impact of our words. We lose patience when we feel like we are not being heard or understood. We lash out in frustration with those who disagree with us. Real life can be aggravating. It’s real enough under normal circumstances, but aggravation seems to be elevated when our communication is limited to social media, text, and the occasional video chat meeting.
When we find ourselves consistently feeling annoyed with other people, it may be time to refocus our attention. The psalmist in this section is in the middle of an affliction, insulted by the indolent, and indignant about the evil he sees. He doesn’t wallow in self-pity or frustration. Instead, he turns to the unchanging promises of God. The Word gives him life and hope, and comfort.
Hope and blessing (joy) are inextricably woven with focusing on the Word of the Father in hard times, uncertain times, and in pleasant times. No circumstance changes God. No wickedness or folly of humankind changes God. God’s unshakable promise gives life when we sing His statutes and keep His precepts. When our focus is right we are able to be kind in our words to each other. We can avoid being part of the uncertainty that induces chaos. We can keep our mouths shut when we should and we can avoid feeling insulted by others. Our source of validation is Jesus. We can be confident that He is the same no matter what is happening on earth. His Word is enough.