The Name of Jesus

Luke 2:21 “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.”

Circumcision was part of God’s Old Testament law. If you were a male, and you wanted to be one of God’s chosen people, you had to be circumcised. Circumcision was a vivid reminder that God had made a covenant, a promise, to these people, and that God had claimed them as his own.

Circumcision was also a vivid reminder that sin begins at the very source of our life–it is passed from parent to child from the very time of our conception. Thus, it must be cut away at its source. Even this original, inherited sin must be removed, before we are acceptable to God.

Jesus had no personal need of circumcision. He already belonged to God. He was already chosen by him in a way which far surpassed that of any other human being. Jesus needed no reminders of our sinful flesh and the need for its removal. He was sinless, because God was his only Father and he was born of a virgin.

But Jesus came to be our Savior. That’s what his name means. With his circumcision, Jesus was saving us. He was keeping this law for us. Here he began his perfect fulfillment of all God’s commandments. Here he began to offer to his heavenly Father the perfect obedience to the law that we owed, in our place–as our substitute.

As we begin our year in Jesus’ name, draw on this comfort: Jesus lived as your substitute. We have the comfort that Jesus was our Savior not just at his circumcision, nor only at his cross and empty tomb. Jesus was our Savior every single day he lived. He still is. Everything he did–every breath, every movement–he did as our Savior.

As you listen to the gospel lessons read in church, as you read them for yourself at home, take comfort! Jesus is doing all these things to save you. He is teaching the pure word of God, performing miracles of mercy, loving people, glorifying his heavenly Father, and perfectly keeping the law, to make up for our failure to do so.

Do you understand what peace will be yours if you begin, and live, your year in Jesus’ name, always aware that he is your Savior? We will still be sorry when we sin, but we need not try to hide or deny them in fear. Jesus’ blood washes every sin away. Jesus’ holy life replaces our disobedient and rebellious lives. Jesus is our Savior, and his holy life and his innocent death for us is all that the Father sees anymore. We don’t have to be afraid.

If Jesus is our Savior, does this not assure us that we can trust God? Can’t we conclude with the Apostle Paul, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” We can be sure that everything our Savior tells us, whether he is identifying our sins, giving us his promises, or instructing us on how to live, he tells us only because he loves us. We can be sure that everything that happens, every obstacle in front of us, happens for our good, because Jesus is our Savior. It’s promised in his name.

Weapons For Our Fight

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”

Is all fighting bad? All fighting is a result of evil in the world, but is it always wrong for us to fight? My parents taught me to try to stay out of fights when I was growing up. I tried to teach my children the same thing. Jesus himself told us to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us, to let the one who wants to take our tunic take our cloak as well.

Not all those who refuse to fight do so because of their lofty moral principles, however. Sometimes people won’t fight because they are cowards and they are afraid of what they might lose. They are unwilling to risk personal sacrifice, not realizing that fighting might be the only chance to preserve any of the good they have.

Those who fight do fight, on the other hand, don’t always do so out of hatred, or a thirst for revenge, or a greedy desire for what belongs to someone else. There are those who fight to protect their families, defend their homes, or prevent the spread of evil. There are the fights, metaphorically speaking, that we fight to survive the challenges life throws our way. For two years my son fought cancer, truly a battle for his life.

Then there are the spiritual battles we fight for the hearts and minds of ourselves and others. These are the battles Paul had in mind in these words to the Christians in Corinth. For these fights God has equipped us with special weapons. We have the power of his word. We have the power of his Spirit working through that word. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). We have prayer, which is “powerful and effective” in the mouth of a righteous person (James 5:16).

We are constantly bombarded with sensible-sounding arguments for why God’s moral standards of the past no longer apply today. We are constantly tempted to think that we can get along without Jesus. We are good people who try hard and don’t much need a Savior from sin, we may think.

But God’s word still confronts the same sins it has been calling out for thousands of years. The gospel still insists Jesus is the only way to be saved, and still promises his grace and forgiveness to all who believe in him, no matter what pretentious human pride has to say.

As we look back at the struggles of the year just ending, we know that we will face battles in the year ahead. Some will be battles for our health or safety. Often hardest to see are these never ending spiritual battles for our souls.

For us, the most important fights are the spiritual ones. It’s unlikely we will be invading a foreign country with swords and spears, possibly spilling our blood on a battlefield. Our battleground is more likely to be the office, our homes, or even our churches. Our weapons will be the Word of God and prayer.

The stakes in the fights we face are just as high or higher than any literal military operations. The souls of God’s people hang in the balance. God’s word, especially the gospel, demolishes the arguments that contradict the knowledge of God. It takes our own thoughts captive to make them obedient to Christ. We fight, but we don’t fight unarmed, and we don’t fight alone. Our weapons have divine power. Pick them up and use them in the contests of this coming year.

Glory and Peace

Luke 2: 13-14 “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”

What do you picture when you hear of God’s glory? Don’t you picture a scene of heavenly magnificence? The light emanating from the host of angels is almost blinding. Their voices boom and echo not just with words, but with power. The glory of God led Moses to cover his face at the burning bush, Isaiah to cry out in fear at his call into the ministry, and us to tremble at the thought yet today.

What do you picture when you hear of peace on earth and God’s favor resting on men? Now the image is a very different one, isn’t it? Not a frightening display of God’s power and brilliance, but a tranquil and serene scene, something like that described in Psalm 23, comes to mind. God is gently leading his people to quiet waters and green pastures. We feel safe and at home. The mood is almost hushed.

This contrast between God’s glory and man’s peace finds its resolution in the baby lying in the manger. Nothing brings more glory to God than Jesus. The real substance of God’s glory; what truly brings him honor, praise, and worship; what makes him magnificent and sets him above all things, is not to be found in brilliant displays of light or thunderings of his law. The real glory of God is found in the unwavering love that led him to sacrifice the only Son he had to save us from our sins. The real glory of God can be viewed only in the person and work of Jesus.

Nothing brings us real peace except the person and work of that same Jesus. Only the Savior, who was not only born for us, but also lived and died in our place to set us free, can convince us that we are safe and at home with this glorious God.

Jesus is the glory of God that brings us peace.

Heavenly Identity; Earthly Humility

Luke 2:11-12 “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Take a moment to contemplate the names and titles the angel gives to Jesus: Savior, Christ, and Lord. “Savior” is more than a nice name. It makes of Jesus more than a great role model. The Savior is the one who rescues us. Our lives have been spared from certain death.

“Christ” identifies this child as God’s own chosen one to be our Savior. He is the “Anointed One,” just as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed to serve God’s people in Old Testament times. All Israel was waiting for the one great “Anointed One” God promised to send as their Savior. This title identified Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise.

A “Lord” has power and authority. Jesus, however, is not just “a” Lord. He is “the” Lord. This title touches on his divinity. He is the God in whose hands our lives and all things rest and on whose power we and all people depend.

Does this sound like someone you want or need? Maybe we would prefer to save ourselves, if there is any saving to be done. Maybe, like so much of our world, we are tempted to believe that we must save ourselves. It is too risky to trust our fate into someone else’s hands.

Maybe experience has led us to see that saving ourselves is a hopeless proposition. In spite of my efforts to stop sinning, I don’t. I still want what sin offers, even when I don’t act on it. At the level of our thoughts and feelings, and too often at the level of our behavior, we are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Could we ever set ourselves right with God?

And how long can we stave off death? How many friends and family members do we know that are alive only because medical technology has kept them here? But eventually the doctor and the medicine will fail. We are all going to die, and we can’t stop it. We need a Savior.

We also need a Lord, someone else to be in control. When I try to run things, I only get into trouble. So much of life is more than I can handle on my own. I need someone much bigger, and more powerful, who can see the big picture, do the right thing, and actually get things done.

We need the certainty that this person can be trusted. Politicians disappoint us with their failed promises. Salesmen disappoint us with their failed products. We need someone with a proven track record, a heavenly seal of approval, and that is exactly what we have in the Christ. He bears the heavenly Father’s own stamp of authenticity.

Where do we find him? “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Here is an astounding contrast: Jesus’ heavenly identity and his earthly humility. The Lord and ruler of all the universe, the Savior of mankind, is not sitting on a golden throne in heaven, or even in an earthly palace, but now a baby lying in a manger, in a smelly animal shelter.

He entered our world as a baby at a time when there were no neo-natal units in the hospital full of life-saving equipment, before there were immunizations to ward off life-threatening childhood diseases, before there were antibiotics or sulfa drugs or baby monitors or even so much as a baby aspirin. He was born, not in a hospital, or a house, nor the relative safety and cleanliness of a car, but in a stable where animals ate and slept. Our Savior, our Lord, our Christ put his life at risk by becoming a little baby and entering our dangerous world in a stable.

What started as a danger would end in death on a cross. Strips of cloth and prickly hay would give way to stripes from a whip and piercing nails. All this to make good on the angel’s promise, “a Savior has been born to you,” a Savior from sin and death. This contrast between heavenly Savior and lowly manger only grows as he moves from stable, to cross, to tomb.

The Servants of Christmas

Luke 2:8-10 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Take a moment to consider the identity of those who play the part of servants, and those who are served in this part of the Christmas story. The shepherds look like likely candidates for the part of servants. As you may know, the position of shepherd did not enjoy much honor or respect in Jesus’ day. In part this was their own fault. An increasing number of them had given in to thieving from the very flocks they were supposed to be watching. Many of them had become lazy, according to ancient writers.

In part their reputation was due to the pride of their more sophisticated countrymen, who made their living more by wits and cleverness than by hands and hard work. That tendency still exists today, doesn’t it? Those whose learning and education have paved the way to a higher standard of living look down on those who still sweat and get their hands dirty to earn the bread they eat. The urbane and cultured see themselves as better than those who lack similar skills to succeed.

Nonetheless, these shepherds were no worse than the self-righteous, self-important people who occupied the “higher” levels of society. Better a faithful shepherd than a proud merchant, accountant, priest, or teacher of the law, no matter how lowly the shepherds appeared.

The angels, by contrast, were creatures of unearthly glory. Scripture tells us that angels always enjoy the privilege of seeing God’s holy face. No man can see that and live, at least not yet. Never lazy, dishonest, or proud, angels are completely holy and free from sin. Here the glory of the Lord himself accompanies the angel’s visit. In the presence of such a glorious, holy creature, the shepherds are filled with terror, just as every other human who ever came face to face with an angel in the Bible.

Now, here is the twist for us to ponder: The angels come as the servants. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’” The angels come to serve the shepherds, not the other way around. In general, this is in keeping with God’s purpose for his angels. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” Here they are God’s message boys, sent to bring good news to sinful men immeasurably less holy, less deserving of God’s favor, than themselves.

Why should this be? Doesn’t this suggest to us the treasured place we have in God’s heart? Not just these shepherds, but all of us who hear the angel’s message are honored to be so esteemed by God that he would send this announcement by way of his holy angels. Years ago I remember seeing an old invitation on my grandfather’s desk. It was an invitation to a presidential inauguration. Later I learned that it was part of a mass mailing and didn’t really get one in anywhere. Needless to say, my grandfather hadn’t gone. He wasn’t high enough on the president’s lists of friends and supporters to receive the kind of direct invitation which could have given him access to the special events.

But you and I and these humble shepherds are so high on God’s list. He doesn’t mass mail the announcement. He sends his personal representatives, the angels, to serve the shepherds and us with the Christmas good news, full of higher honors still.

What’s In A Name…?

Luke 1:31-32 “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Ordinarily naming a child is something parents put a great deal of thought and discussion into. Maybe the discussion between mom and dad even gets a little tense if they have trouble agreeing on a name. Though we may focus on the sound of the name more than its meaning, naming our children is still meaningful for us. We wouldn’t blame Mary if she was disappointed that she did not have the privilege of naming her first born.

But the name God had chosen was meaningful in the extreme. Jesus, which is the same as the Old Testament “Joshua,” means “the Lord saves.” The angel later explained to Joseph that this was no coincidence. The Lord did not choose this name merely because it sounded nice. “He will save his people from their sins.” The name of Jesus was, and still is, a reminder of his mission and purpose. For those of us who know its meaning, “J-E-S-U-S” preaches God’s grace, the good news that the Lord has saved us from our sins, every time we hear it.

The gracious truths contained in this birth announcement didn’t end there. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” This was a child of distinction. The title “the Great” is not attached to great leaders lightly. In the recorded human history of every nation and empire, perhaps just over 100 people have received the moniker. Few nations have more than one or two “the Greats” in their story. Fewer still have one who is universally recognized–people like Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, or Charles the Great (better known as Charlemagne). We’ve never given the title to an American leader.

Jesus’ greatness dwarfs them all. He is “Son of the Most High”– not a child of God in the same sense we are all his creation. Jesus was and is the unique, one and only, divine Son of God. He was truly and fully human as the child of Mary. But now Luke’s mention that she was a virgin looms large. No human father was involved. This was God’s method for placing himself into our world. Mary’s body was God’s tool for becoming one of us to save us.

Is that a forgotten facet of God’s grace? The truth that this Jesus is God come to earth to save us is more than a theological fact to be learned. It is a gracious truth for our comfort. It would be disturbing, would it not, if God, safely watching from a comfortable distance, had tapped someone else to suffer hell and sacrifice his life to pay for mankind’s sins,? It would be only just for us to suffer for our own sins. But why should one of us be punished for everybody else? What good could that even do? The very suggestion leaves some people questioning God’s fairness.

Jesus was one of us, but he was more. He was the Son of the Most High. He was God clothed in human flesh. This is how much your God loves you. He doesn’t send someone else to save you. He does it himself. He doesn’t send someone else to pay your debt. He does it himself. He doesn’t send someone else to suffer the sentence for your sins. He does it himself.

Yes, God saves us through a substitute, and that might not seem fair. But he makes himself the substitute. He satisfies his own demands. The divinity reflected in Jesus’ names and titles is further proof of the bottomless grace and mercy of our God.

Season’s Greetings

Luke 1:28-30 “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.’”

“Greetings, you who are highly favored!” Not, “Greetings, you who are pure and sinless!” Not “Greetings you who are worthy in every way!” Not, “Greetings you who are finally getting what you deserve!” It is more like, “Greetings you who are receiving a special favor!” Behind the angel’s address of “highly favored” is the word we usually translate “grace.” It wasn’t so much a description of Mary’s personal character. It is more like: “Mary, you are the object of God’s grace. In spite of your sins and imperfections, God has forgiven and loves you.” That’s the way that God deals with his sinful people on earth, with the grace of his forgiveness and love. 

That grace is further expressed with two promises. “The Lord is with you.” The Lord isn’t just pulling for you from a long way off up in heaven, cheering you on and hoping you do well. I appreciate that I have friends and family all around the country who wish me well. In the last few weeks I have been getting a lot of their annual cards and letters telling me so.

But that kind of moral support only goes so far. In his grace, “The Lord is with you.” He is at your side. He has rolled up his sleeves, and gotten his hands involved your life–being a help, making a difference, and, particularly where it comes to faith and salvation, getting the job done himself. Mary’s new insight into just how much that meant was just moments away.

Then the angel gave this assurance. “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.”  One of the greatest consequences of finding God’s grace is the end of fear. You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to be afraid of guilt. You don’t have to be afraid of death. You don’t have to be afraid of hell. You don’t have to be afraid of anything. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” And if we have God’s grace, like Mary, then God is for us. Don’t be afraid.

The impressive thing about the angel’s greetings was not the woman who received them, but the promises of grace they contained. Let that same grace stand behind all the greetings of those who know what we celebrate this Christmas season.

Worthy to Serve Him

Luke 1:26-27 “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

On many levels, Mary’s personal resume was unimpressive. She was from Nazareth, a town in Galilee. You remember the words that Nathanael once said to Philip about this little town? “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It had a reputation a little like parts of Appalachia in our country–relatively poor, working class at best, not the most educated people in the world, certainly not the center of society, progress, or power.

Her station in life was a virgin engaged to be married. At least she had lived a respectable life so far. She was a young lady of solid morals and proper self-control. In our time, far too many people would consider that a strike against her. Like most brides-to-be, she probably had big plans for her wedding. Jewish weddings tended to be elaborate celebrations when they could afford it. It doesn’t seem that the wedding turned out quite the way she had been planning it.

Overall, she was an ordinary girl from an ordinary town. Most would expect her to live and die without anyone ever taking notice. No one ever expected her to get her name in a history book or carved on a monument.

But have you noticed that God likes ordinary people for his big plans? What did Paul tell the Corinthians? “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong.”

He chooses a shepherd, like David, to be a king. He chooses fishermen, the kind of guys you would see on the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, to found his religion. He makes them the leading educators, administrators, and promoters of Christianity. He chooses a teenage girl planning her wedding for the awesome task he is about to announce. God likes ordinary people for his big plans.

Do we become too concerned about being extraordinary to serve God’s plans for ordinary people like you and me? God doesn’t care about how high we rise in the eyes of the world. He doesn’t care about greatness in the public eye. Our designs for greatness get in the way for his real plans for us too often. They usually have more to do with our pride than God’s will, and God has no use for prideful people. That’s why hell is full of them.

Or do we fall into an opposite sin? We excuse ourselves from service because we feel we are nothing special. We say something like this (you fill in the blank): “I’m only a …” What was Mary? What was David? What were the disciples? Do you think people would have gotten tongue-tied while meeting them, like some nervous fan who meets a movie star? They were ordinary people who listened to what God told them. Our ordinary status is no excuse for shirking our responsibility when God comes calling and opting out of serving in his plans.

Doesn’t Mary’s very ordinariness underline the truth that God’s plans for her were based on his grace? What the angel was about to tell Mary was a gift, not a paycheck. She hadn’t earned it by distinguishing herself. She received it because God loved her, like he loves us all, without conditions, in spite of our flaws. God’s grace not only frees us from our sins. It qualifies us to serve him. If we understand ourselves properly, it is the only thing that does.

Salvation from Our True Enemies

Luke 1:69-72 “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us…salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us–to show mercy to our fathers…”

Sin, Satan, and our old Self–these are the true enemies from which Jesus comes to bring us salvation. These are the true source of our miseries. We may think that much of it is just “natural.” Hurricanes are just part of the natural weather cycles and patterns. They cause a lot of misery, but they are just a random act of nature. Diseases, like the kinds that land us in the hospital, or obligate us to a life of taking pills, are just a natural part of being human, especially of getting older.

But this stuff isn’t purely “natural.” It is the result of sin. God subjected his whole creation to frustration as a result of sin. It doesn’t work right anymore. God uses these things as a reminder that our own hearts and souls aren’t right.

Much of our misery is self-inflicted, because sin leads us to ignore God’s commands. Disobeying our parents leads to spankings, or being grounded, or far worse things later if we don’t learn our lesson. If we fail to control our tongues, we may say something to a friend that ends a friendship, to an employer that ends our employment, to a spouse that ends a marriage, or at least lands us on the couch for a few nights. When we forget the Sabbath Day instead of remembering it, we carry our guilty burdens alone, and we live life less and less aware of God’s presence or promises. We could multiply examples for all the commandments. But the greater misery is that sin, and Satan, and our Old Self lead us down a path away from God that ends in the eternal miseries of hell.

So God looked down on our world from heaven above, and this is what he saw. Much of the world was unaware of the source of their miseries, or of the greater miseries awaiting them. They were like chickens in one of those huge operations you can sometimes see from the road. They live in a cage all day long, and eat the food they are fed, mostly unaware that life could be any different. And when the day comes that the cage door finally opens, they don’t even realize the fate that is waiting for them. They will land on someone’s dinner table in just a few short days.

If people do have some sense of their predicament, and how helpless we are, life is a frantic but futile attempt to avoid the eternal fires ahead. They get busy trying to do good, trying to pay for their sins themselves, unaware or unwilling to believe that this just can’t be a do-it-yourself project. Based on human attempts, human activity, “…the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough–that he should live on forever and not see decay,” the psalmist teaches in Psalm 49.

So God looked down, and what he saw moved him. It moved him to mercy. He came with more than relief for the irritations and annoyances that plague our body and life. Mercy led him to rescue our souls. “Salvation” Zechariah sings in his song from Luke 1. The guilt of our sins was crushing our souls to death, so Jesus came and lifted the burden. He relieved us of the heavy load and carried our guilt himself. He gave up his life so that we could be free from the consequences of our sins, and enjoy a new life infinitely better than the one we deserve.

The fear of our future was choking our faith. So Jesus changed that future from a hellish one to a heavenly one. The fate we feared has been replaced with God’s favor, and we have the confidence to approach God secure that our souls have a safe home with him forever.