Chapel 12.07.2017- Putting Advent, Life, and Christmas in Perspective
Papers and all the rest, so the stress level is getting pretty high around here. But this morning I’d like to help you put Advent, life, and Christmas in perspective. This past Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the whole Advent thing. Advent is an early church tradition of four weeks before Christmas that lead up to Christmas, and it’s a kind of preparation season for Christmas. In fact in the Christian year it’s the beginning of the Christian year. So just like there’s a secular calendar, the Christian calendar begins with Advent and then Christmas and then it goes towards Lent and Easter and then the Pentecost and kinda goes around. And the idea of the Christian calendar is you’re measuring time not by hallmark or by the sports calendar or the academic calendar or the bank calendar, but by Jesus Christ. And so it began with Advent anticipating his coming. And the word Advent simply means coming. So in the early centuries as Christians were reflecting on the birth of Christ, they took time out not so much to celebrate, that was for the Feast of the Nativity or Christmas, but to prepare themselves to fast, to reflect, to sometimes just cut things out of their lives so that they could be focused and ready to celebrate the birth of Christ. So Advent was what kept Christmas on Christmas day, and of course it’s all sort of unraveled over time in the Western world so that Advent season, there are not many people who think about it. Advent season became Christmas season, this long period of focusing on Christmas which became generic holiday season which became the generic shopping season. And it’s kind of all that frantic mess right now, and I think as I’ve been a pastor for years that we need Advent more than ever to help us get our Christmas in order, or we just get, we sink into our stress, and we sink into the franticness of exams and papers if you’re a student or we sink into the frantic running around of consumeristic hedonism in our culture. Advent helps us prepare our heart and make him room. So one of the things I observed over the years as a pastor is that almost every Christmas I would come across people who I’d say, well, how you doing? And they’d say, “You know, “I didn’t have much of a Christmas this year “because X, Y, and Z happened in my life,” or, “Our Christmas was ruined because my daughter got sick,” and they’ll talk like that. And I remember just time and time again where again as a pastor things would happen especially in December, lots in December.
A baby was born to my youth pastor and the baby had severe birth defects and they’re whole life went into a tailspin, or a diagnosis comes to somebody in your congregation that they’re not expecting and they learn about it in December, or my friend Gary, his wife Cindy was dying of cancer and she died about a week before Christmas, or a parent who’s been holding on finally breathes their last right before Christmas, or I remember one time we had a member of our church which is on the other side of town, and they were flying a plane in the Centennial and there was a snowstorm and the plane crashed at Centennial Airport, and so we had the funeral and there was deep grief and it was hard. And I think about even our prayers at CCU this week, we had our prayer meeting in my office on Tuesday and we were praying for a dear friend who’s having heart surgery this week, we were praying for a student whose father is on the verge of death, we were praying for a staff worker whose wife was diagnosed with cancer, we were praying for a mom who’s in chronic pain and a friend who had a stroke in the middle of the night, and that’s just us, that’s not the news. Add the news on to that and then the trouble and brokenness seems to mount if you know what I mean. The fires in California, the sexual harassment, persecution of believers, religious persecution around the world, all kinds of persecution, international tensions, threats of war. Trouble takes no break in the month of December. You know that, don’t you? And sometimes I’ve been struck by that because you’re on a mental track of decking your halls and trying to enjoy the lights and Christmas cards and all those things, and then life happens and you find yourself mumbling, whatever happened to have a holly jolly Christmas? Or whatever happened to Andy Williams’ it’s the hap-happiest season of all? ‘Cause it’s not, it’s not. I remember a number of years ago we were living in Littleton, and most of my kids were in high school, and for some reason that year we had three trips to the emergency room in December, sports injuries, just all kinds of stuff going on. And I remember sitting in the ER and just seeing this room that was a zoo on that particular evening, it was a Friday night. All the beds were full and people were lined up in the halls who had stuff going on. I remember people sick, people throwing up, a guy who was holding his ear that was ripped and there was blood everywhere, a man had been shot, some woman was in there for domestic violence. And this was Littleton Hospital, this wasn’t Chicago, this is Littleton Hospital. All this stuff is going on and we were watching it, and in times like that when you’re getting hit with these waves of trouble, it’s so tempting to think that well, what’s the point? Or it ruins Christmas or whatever. And we forget that we live in an ER world, we live in a broken world created by God who created good but radically fallen and broken. And when you experience that brokenness in December, you can do one of two things, have one of two reactions. On the one hand when you experience hardship, maybe you’re experiencing it right now, you can throw up your hands and say this is ruining my Christmas, why does this have to happen to me? And where is God in all this anyway? And if we’re honest, that’s the reaction of many of us. And sometimes we let it grow into cynicism and bitterness. But there’s another reaction that I’d like to commend to you this morning, another way to respond to the mess of our broken world that we feel especially this time of year. By saying that this stuff really doesn’t threaten Christmas but it actually confirms the message of Christmas if we think about it. It confirms that the world is desperately out of joint. It confirms that the world desperately needs a savior. It confirms that the world is broken so bad and we can’t fix it ourselves ultimately. With all our digital wizardry and biotech prowess, we still remain vulnerable, that we desperately need God to break in and help us in our ER world. And friends that’s exactly what the Bible says happened in that first Christmas. God broke in to an ER world as part of the phase one of a divine rescue operation. He sent his son to save us. Now just in case you’re not fully engaged with this brokenness, for Scripture says right at the beginning that the world’s brokenness can be traced back to humanity sinning against God, rebelling against him, and that original rebellion was like an earthquake. And it took place in a place called Eden, that was its epicenter, and sin entered the hearts of human beings and then everything started to fracture, everything God spoiled. There’s lots of mystery about it, but the brokenness, it extended to our relationship with God, that became broken when Adam and Eve sinned. And there was brokenness in relationships that came front that. And there was brokenness between men and between women. There was brokenness between humanity and nature. There was brokenness inside of ourselves.
And so as you read through the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, you hear this groaning and this longing, the Jews in exile, they knew of this brokenness and they cried out, and they asked God, how long until you send your redeemer? And then of course the Jews in Judea at the time of Christ and the time of Caesar Augustus, they cried out under Roman oppression and said God how long till you fix this? How long till you fix this? And I don’t think the gospels and what we read in the gospels about the birth of Christ will make any sense to us until we come to grips with that brokenness. And sometimes especially when you’re young, you haven’t felt the brokenness or experience as much of it, but some of you have, but if you look closely, it’s there. And only when you account for that brokenness does the good news thunder when you open your New Testament and read the early verses. So I’d like to open to some of these Scriptures and just look at about five passages, five verses really, the beginning of Matthew, Matthew 1:1, Mark 1:1, Luke 1:1, John 1:1, and just read them in light of what I’ve been talking about. So if you read them without thinking about the way that the world is, then you’ll just run over them and you’ll miss them, and what is there, you’ll be oblivious to it. But let’s take for example Matthew 1:1, the first gospel which answers the brokenness. Have you ever noticed how it begins? It just begins, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” And you read that and you say, oh boring, a genealogy, let me get to the good stuff, let me move on. Alright, remember Matthew, probably written by Matthew Levi, a tax collector who became the disciple, was converted, and he writes and composes it probably in Hebrew about the long awaited Messiah, and so he’s setting it up, but what we miss is the way it begins in the Greek, it’s Biblos geneseos Iesou Christou, that is a book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, in other words there is a distinct reference back to the very first verse of the whole Bible in Matthew 1:1 to say, yes, you know the original genesis that took place, but something brand new is breaking into our world in Jesus Christ. I never saw that until I looked at it in the Greek and it was there in your face. The first book of the New Testament is saying that we’re gonna experience a new genesis, the beginning of a reversal with the arrival of Jesus Christ. Think about that. It’s pretty stunning. So that’s how the New Testament begins. New genesis in Jesus, why? Because we desperately need one. Who is he? Well, he is Jesus, which means Yahweh saves, saves us from our sins. He is Christos, the Christ. Christ is not his last name, like Jesus Christ, Mary Christ. It’s the promised one. So he is the one who saves from God, he is the promised one, he is the son of David in the royal lineage who will establish David’s throne, he is the son of Abraham who will fulfill God’s covenant promises to Abraham. Later on he says he is Immanuel, God with us. That’s who is coming. Take heart amidst the brokenness. And then you go to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, and maybe you’ve never seen it. Mark begins a little different. So Mark starts out and Mark 1:1 reads, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, the Son of God. A little different. John Mark was Peter’s younger associate. Peter was probably his main source for all the information that he has here. John Mark begins by talking about this is his coming is incredibly good news, the beginning of the Gospel. And some scholars say there’s also here a reference back to Genesis 1:1 even though the Greek has a different word. God’s saving intervention on behalf of his people. Well, the good news about what? About Jesus the Son of God. He’s not merely the son of David and the son of Abraham, he has a unique relationship to the eternal Father, God. And Mark picks it up in verse 14 and 15 where he tells us what that good news is, it’s not just that he is the Son of God, but that he came and he came proclaiming the good news and the good news was the time has come, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news. In other words there are other kingdoms that dominate our thoughts and we think they’re everything, they will pass away, but there is an eternal kingdom that’s breaking in and it’s gonna endure longer than the kingdom of Caesar Augustus who was also known as lord and god in his lifetime. And this king is Jesus, the Christ, the Lord. And when Mark wrote that, he probably was deliberately referring to him as Lord in contrast to Caesar Augustus who will pass away. It’s interesting, in Mark’s gospel too there’s no birth account. Mark kind of gets to the cross really quickly. All the gospels eventually get to the cross and resurrection to remind us that the birth isn’t the end of the story. The birth is connected to his life, death, and resurrection, and that the work of Christ and especially his sacrifice of atonement to take away our sins is the reason why he came.
So all the gospels run to the cross and resurrection, but in Mark he doesn’t give us like Matthew and Luke, the details of his birth, he just sort of moves forward and saying this was prophesied by Isaiah, Isaiah’s great hope there would be a new exodus, and he quotes Isaiah in verse two and three, “Prepare the way of the Lord “for this one who’s coming. “Make straight his paths. “Prepare for his coming.” Take heart at his coming even amidst the brokenness. That’s Mark 1:1. Well, then you go to Luke 1:1. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the first verses of the Gospel like this, but it’s kind of striking when you do in light of the brokenness. Now Luke takes a very different approach. So Matthew begins with a new genesis and Mark begins with good news of the kingdom that’s breaking in. When you get to the beginning of the gospel of Luke, it goes like this, “Many have undertaken to draw up “an account of things that have been fulfilled among us “just as they were handed down to us “by those who from the first “were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. “Therefore since I have carefully investigated “everything from the beginning, “it seemed good also to me “to write an orderly account for you, “most excellent Theophilus, “so that you may know the certainty “of the things that you have been taught.” Now according to unanimous early church tradition, this is Luke who’s writing, the author of Luke and Acts, a companion to Paul, a second generation Christian, a physician but also who takes a great interest in history, he’s very careful about getting things right. He was probably still talking to some of the eyewitnesses who interacted with Jesus. And Luke starts his gospel very differently as if to tell us it really happened, it was history, I’ve checked out the sources, I’ve talked to the people who have seen him and touched him and heard him. And the question keeps coming up in the first chapter of Luke, whether to Zechariah or Mary, how can I be sure? That was Theophilus’ question as well, how can I be sure? And Luke answers you can be sure because it really happened. I’ve checked this out and I’m passing you on all this information. This wasn’t fantasy, this wasn’t legend, this is not myth in the sense of myth as fiction, it didn’t really happen. I don’t know if you have ever looked at the life of C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. I love reading these guys and they were incredible writers, they wrote incredible fiction and nonfiction. And it’s fascinating how C.S. Lewis came to faith ’cause he was a hardened skeptic, he was an atheist, and he had gone through World War I as did Tolkien, and Lewis was just convinced that the stuff about Jesus was all myth, and then he started talking to Tolkien who he dealt in myths, I mean that was his subject of study at Oxford, and Tolkien says, look, this isn’t the language of myth. This is only myth in the sense that it is deeply embedded into the history and the fabric of everything including nature and it really happened. And it was through his conversations with Tolkien that C.S. Lewis woke up to the possibility that Jesus was more than a legend or a fanciful story, but that he really came and he really was the Son of God, and he is really someone to be reckoned with. So that’s pretty much what Luke is saying in answer to the brokenness. I want you to know there’s good news and it really happened. He is really a savior for all people, and that’s the focus of Luke’s gospel, not to the Hebrews but to all the nations. Well, what about John 1:1? So that’s the fourth Gospel. So Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. You come to the beginning of John 1:1, and John just, he kind of blows your categories. He begins, he goes way back, he says, “In the beginning was the Word, “and the Word was with God, “and the Word was God. “He was with God in the beginning.” And you’ve read that before. Shock. John goes back prior to creation, before Genesis, and he says this Logos, this eternal word is the preexistent Son of God, the eternal Son of God who is with the Father at the beginning and before the beginning. And then John goes on a little later in verse 14, and he says, “And this Word became flesh “and made his dwelling among us. “And we have seen his glory.” This Word became flesh, it became incarnate, it became pink crying flesh, in Bethlehem, he showed up.
I love this stained glass window. I don’t know, I got it on my screen. Can we put it, put it right up here briefly? If you go to Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church where I used to serve as senior pastor, there’s this series of Christ windows and this is the Bethlehem window, and it was always my favorite one because you have Mary, you have the baby, and you have Joseph. And if you look at it really closely, Joseph’s got this just incredibly quizzical look on his face like I have no idea what’s happening but this is really strange. And that’s kind of John’s tone here. This is strange, this is awesome, this is unusual, this is heaven breaking in and we have received because he is our light and our life, this Word, he is the light and life of people. We have received grace upon grace through him. Or as the NIV puts it, “one blessing after another, “grace and truth through Jesus Christ.” You’ll never get the stunnedness of these announcements again until you reckon with the brokenness, but when you do, then you’ll come back to the fact that Christmas is a new genesis in Matthew, and good news of a new kingdom in Mark, and it’s presented as something that truly happened in Luke, and it’s presented as something that’s life giving and very deep in the gospel of John, that glory came to this earth in this first great interruption from eternity in the time in Jesus Christ, and that’s good news. That’s good news for people who are going through hard seasons and rough stuff, because Immanuel, he’s Immanuel, God with us. He’s a king, he’s doing something new. His kingdom is only going to grow. That’s good news of great hope. One of the Christmas traditions of the Sweeting Family through the years, we did lots of things, we had lots of traditions, but one that we’ve done for many years is we go to a hospital or a nursing home as a family, we bring a couple other families and we sing Christmas carols. And we do so and especially when we’re in cancer ward, it’s really significant because there are people there, it’s usually Christmas Eve or the day before Christmas Eve, and people there are just wondering what’s gonna happen to my life? And you’re able to sing hope that there’s hope, there’s someone who comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. And you see that they don’t have much hope but there’s a light that you can shine and it’s always just deeply meaningful because you see the contrast of brokenness and deep need and the glory and the wonder of a savior named Jesus Christ. See, we forget, just like if you’re looking at a diamond in a jewelry shop, you only see the diamond clearly when you throw it on a black cloth, a velvet cloth. And when you have that black velvet cloth, then you can see the brilliance of every little angle, but if you forget the black cloth, you kinda think, ah, it’s just a stone, it’s not much. And we kinda do that with Christmas. We approach the diamond, we forget the black cloth, or we just are very unreal. You think of all the Christmas cards and smiling faces and ginger houses and all this stuff, I mean it would be more realistic if our Christmas cards depicted the chaos of the emergency room in the front of it or a bomb shelter in Boston with the Scripture of gospel hope. That would be more according to the tone of the New Testament. And it’s only when we change the scenery and make it more realistic that the joyful news of God’s redemptive visit hits us like the stunning fantastic news that it is.
I’ve read Devotional by John Piper this week, and he had this very striking line, he said, “Christmas is an indictment before it’s a delight.” Meditate on the fact that you need a savior, it’s an indictment saying we’re living in sin, we’re all affected by it, we’re all broken. It’s touched every one of us, we need a savior. If you don’t need a savior, you don’t need Christmas. “And Christmas will never have its intended effects,” says Piper, “until we feel desperately “the need of a savior.” Well, there’s one other verse I wanna take you to as we close, and that’s the last verse of the Bible, of the New Testament. Again something so obvious that we miss. It’s Revelation 22:20, the next to the last verse, and it simply says, “He who testifies of these things “says I am coming soon. “Amen, come, Lord Jesus.” So that’s how the New Testament ends. It begins by saying there’s a new genesis taking place with the coming and the birth of Christ. It ends saying he is coming again and he will make all things new. He will bring a finality to his restoration. There will be another interruption of eternity into time, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. And right now we live in between his first coming and his second coming, or his first Advent and his second Advent, which is why by the way Advent is not just about preparing for Christmas, it’s preparing for his coming, reflecting on his first coming but looking forward to his second coming, awaiting that glorious day, and meanwhile what do we do? We long, we groan, we wait, we trust, we sing like the ancient caroler, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. We live between these advents and it’s hanging on to the message of Advent, his coming, his comings, that lifts us and carries us. So I don’t know what’s going on in your life right now or your family. I guarantee something is. But I do know that Advent and Christmas not only address your crises but they bring fantastic hope and that he will sustain you. I love the words in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe written by C.S. Lewis. It goes “Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight. “At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more. “When he bears his teeth, winter will meet its death. “And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.” Well, may the Lord fill you with hope during this season. In the middle of finishing your exams, in the middle of the stress, and most likely in the middle of brokenness that you’ll either see or feel all around you, may the hope of Jesus lift you and carry you.