Grace: Pure Gift

Gift Rows

2 Timothy 1:8-9 “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…”

God saved us and called us because of his grace. The true and full value of grace is seen in its nature as a gift. Referring to God’s work of saving us, Paul says, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time…” Do we really understand what a gift is? Don’t our selfish natures always confuse and tarnish the concept? I have never “sold” a gift to anyone. But I can’t think of many people to whom I have given gifts who didn’t “deserve” it in some way or another. In most cases they had spent years, maybe even a lifetime, paying for my favor, earning the trust and love that made we want to “give” them something. You could say that they purchased my gift on a lay away program, investing kindnesses and friendship instead of money. At the very least they demonstrated that they were good people who would not abuse my charity.

You may remember a grassroots campaign some years ago urging “Random Acts of Kindness.” One of the things that made that campaign so striking, so fresh and exciting, is that a random act of kindness, giving things to people who have had no chance to do anything for us, is so rare. It still is.

On the backside of our giving, our gifts so often come with strings attached. We expect (demand?) some kind of response. Haven’t you felt awkward receiving a gift from someone because you wondered what he wanted from you? Or maybe you have received a gift and felt guilty, because you hadn’t gotten anything for the gift’s giver. Now you felt like you should go out and get him something. We live in this world of “what’s in it for me” or “what’s it going to cost me” because our selfish nature can’t see the sense, or even the possibility, of anything being truly “free.” That’s a serious problem, because in eternity there are only two places that we can go, and only one of them has an admission price (that we must pay), and that place isn’t heaven.

But the undeserved love of God is truly a gift. He laid down no conditions before he gave us this grace. Indeed, we gave him no reason to want to make this gift to us. We weren’t able. His gift of grace is truly free. And once we have received it, he does not demand a response, as though grace were charged to our Visa, and we were going to pay it off over time. Grace does not demand a response, but it does invite one. We can even say that it inspires a response, it compels a response, because the free gift of grace changes all who receive it. It fills them with love that freely gives, just as we have received. We would willingly suffer for the one who gave us such grace, or suffer to share it with others, as Paul invites us to do.

Perhaps the gift nature of God’s grace is clearer to see when Paul says, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” Don’t misunderstand Paul’s words. He is not saying that God’s grace was given to us at some point before creation. There were not millions or billions of years before creation, and then one day God woke up and decided, “I’m going to create me a world, and when it goes wrong, I’m going to redeem it. And when I do, I’m going to save Joe.”

No, in eternity there is no time, no progressing from one moment to the next in the same way we think of it. God always was. And as long as there has been God, his grace has been given to you. There was no “day before” grace. God’s grace–to you personally– is eternal, just like God himself is eternal. It is unchangeable as God himself. You can’t get anything less demanding of something in you, anything more “free,” than that.

Can you put a value on such a gift? The old Motown song sings, “Money can’t buy you love.” And when it comes to God’s love, neither can good works, personal sacrifice, or anything else we can think to give. God has always loved you just because he chooses to love you. You cannot turn this love off, you cannot make it stop, at any cost, no matter what you do. Paul’s reminder that such grace is a gift helps us appreciate its full value.

We Want to See Jesus

Eye Jesus

John 12:20-21 “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’”

Apparently these Gentile converts to the Jewish faith were devout. Although they were not natural born Jews, they had traveled nearly a thousand miles by sea, or nearly two thousand miles by land, to be in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. Both the seas and the roads were dangerous compared to our modern travel. They took their adopted faith seriously.

How had they heard of Jesus? Why they wanted to see him we are not specifically told. They simply make the request. Were they curiosity seekers? Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday created quite a stir. Did they witness the royal welcome the crowds gave him? Maybe they had heard reports of Jesus’ miracle working and hoped to see one themselves.

Were they seekers of a more spiritual sort? Perhaps they wanted an audience with Jesus to ask him sincere questions about God and religion. They were on a quest to find certainty for their faith. Were they seeking salvation?

We aren’t told specifically. We don’t even know whether Jesus granted their request. We do know we share their desire. We want to see Jesus. Isn’t that why we read his words and think about what they mean? We are trying to find him in all this. Why is this still our wish a couple of thousand years later?

May it not be for a warm, cozy feeling with no real, lasting impact on my heart or life. It is possible to seek him without pondering my depravity–desiring no encounter with God in the face of Jesus, enjoying no sweet taste of his grace. Then we have come to see Jesus not so much to worship him as to use him as a pleasant diversion. He becomes an interesting pastime. Jesus as a pleasant distraction, a curiosity, is a subtle example of what God had in mind when he commanded, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” It is a vain, useless, and evil thing to reduce the Savior of the World to little more than a good feeling or a happy way to pass the time.

But what if we want to see him because of a deeper, more desperate need that haunts our souls and troubles our consciences? Maybe we manage to hide our mean, twisted selves from the mutual admiration society we have gathered around us. But we haven’t been able to hide it from ourselves. And we haven’t been able to hide it from God. When we consider what God knows–every curse whispered under our breaths, every hateful urge we have choked back, every lustful glance, every perverted daydream– we know our situation is critical. Our sin-sickness is terminal. We want to see more than an entertaining sideshow, then. We want to see a gracious Savior, a heroic and self-sacrificing Champion, who can bring forgiveness where there is sin, life where there is death, and heaven where there is hell. There is no deeper reason for our desire to see Jesus.

That is why the Jesus we see is such a find. Do you know how he responded when he heard the request? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Does that seem like a strange response? What is Jesus saying?

This was Passover week, the last Passover of Jesus earthly life. In just a few days he was going to give his life on the cross in the greatest demonstration of God’s love. This is his great glory. Seeing Jesus there, you see God himself loving you all the way to dying for you. Even more, he carries your sin for you. He suffers your hell for you. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” When this is how we see Jesus, then we understand why he is such a find.

Garrison Keillor tells the story of gathering around a long dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving with his extended family. “Then the hostess made the mistake of calling on Uncle John to pray. Everybody in the family knew that Uncle John couldn’t pray without talking about the cross and crying. And if there is one thing that makes people nervous, it’s listening to a grown man cry. Sure enough, Uncle John prayed, talked about the cross, and cried. Meanwhile the rest of us shifted nervously from one foot to the other and longed for the prayer to end.” Keillor ends his story observing: “All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it.”

Nor have we when what draws us to see Jesus in Sunday’s sermons, or our personal Bible reading, is the Jesus who loved us to death on a cross and saves us from our sins.

Enjoy the view.

The Case of God vs. People

Gavel 2

Micah 6:2 “Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.”

There is something about the words “I’ll sue” or “I’ll see you in court” that gets a person’s attention. The prospect of going to court to settle the issue fills people with dread. When the subpoena or the summons to court is finally issued, you know the person on the other side means business.

Through the prophet Micah, the Lord delivered his subpoena to Israel. He meant business. For centuries this people ignored his warnings and complaints. They didn’t take his word seriously. But God won’t be ignored, and if he has to make a federal case (so to speak) to get their attention, that’s what he will do.

The role of prosecuting attorney is not one the Lord relishes. In other places in Scripture he refers to himself as our Defender. He sent his Son Jesus as the defense attorney, the Mediator, who speaks on our behalf in God’s court of law. He likes to be on OUR side.

But here the prophet clearly says, “…the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.” The Apostle Paul once asked the question, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Turning it around, the question might well be asked, “If God is against us, who can be for us?” If God is so angry, accusing, taking up the other side, what help can there possibly be for us? Who could possibly get us out of such a mess? Our God is a consuming fire. No one wants to find himself on the other end of God’s accusing finger.

A look around the rest of the book of Micah helps us understand the details of the Lord’s charges. While all the peoples around them worshiped other gods, and their religions included exciting things like human sacrifice and dirty sex, Israelite worship was always the same old routine: sacrifices, prayer, psalms, and Bible readings God had given them. While Israel had been given a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of opportunity, the Lord had put a curb on their greed by regulating their business practices. Instead of letting them build real estate empires, land was to remain in the family to whom God had first given it. Accurate weights and measures were commanded to protect the unsuspecting poor. God wanted his people to value justice and fairness more than “success.”

When these “burdens” became too restrictive for them, God’s people simply threw them off. They did their own thing. Satisfying all their cravings became more important than pleasing their God. They needed to hear God’s charges and the Lord’s plea for them to change.

You and I are not above the temptation to turn God’s blessings for us as his people into burdens. What greater blessing has the Lord ever given us than the sacrifice of his own Son to pay for our sins? It is his supreme gift, the greatest evidence of his love for fallen children. And yet some Christians find the idea that the only saving faith is faith in Jesus a burden. They want to throw off this burden of “narrow-mindedness.” They want to appear more open-minded.  They desire to be seen as accepting the other world religions, which lead people away from grace. And what about our own worship? Do we find ourselves craving only the new and novel, or judging worship only by the standards of our own musical tastes, as if my own ego was the center of worship on Sunday morning instead of the Savior who loved me so much he died for me?

Like Israel, we have been blessed to live in a land which, if it is not flowing with milk and honey, is filled with fruited plains and amber waves of grain. But can’t we say that our flesh finds it a burden when the Lord places opportunities before us to use that wealth to support all the work he has given his church to do, to help the poor among us, to support the government under which we live, instead of using it all to feather our own nests? Echoes of his charges against Israel still apply to us today, and the Lord still pleads his case for us to change.

Thank God that in his court Jesus is still our Advocate, the One who speaks to the Father in our defense (1 John 2:1). Through faith in him God’s repentant people approach God’s throne in confidence, and receive mercy and grace in their time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Waiting Patiently

Rain Plant

James 5:7-8 “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the fall and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

James does more than tell us how to act. When we hurt, when we aren’t being treated right, or when something isn’t working right, we want a change! If things weren’t ever going to change, we would despair. We need something to hold on to. We need something to give us hope. We need something that makes patience possible.

James finds that something in our Lord’s second coming. He compares our patience in light of Jesus’ coming to a farmer’s patience waiting for the harvest. Farming is a risky business no matter where a person lives. There are so many things beyond a farmer’s control. Nowhere was this more true than in the Holy Land. When God led Israel into their new home, he told them that farming there would not be like farming in Egypt. Egypt relied on the annual flooding of the Nile River and the human ingenuity of irrigation systems to make the crops grow. Farming in Israel was somewhat unique because this dry part of the world relied upon two rainy seasons for its water. The farmer could plow and plant, but every year his harvest still relied on the Lord to send the former and the latter rains–the fall rains and the spring rains described by James. The harvest would come, but in the meantime the farmer was left with only two things to do–trust in the Lord and wait patiently.

Jesus’ second coming is like our harvest for two reasons. It marks a beginning and an end. It marks the beginning of all the rich rewards God has promised us in heaven–the glory, the perfection, the beauty, the plenty, the power, the reunion, the life, and especially the love. It marks the end of all the things that require us to live with patience now–the tears, the pain, the failures, the worry, the shortages, the sin, and especially the death. It promises us things are going to change. It enables us to trust in the Lord and be patient.

Our Savior’s second coming often occupies the attention of God’s people. Here James is teaching us that it is not just about our future. It is about our life every day. It is something for us to ponder and keep before our eyes all the time.

Why? None of us has life easy. We may look at someone else’s life with envious eyes and long for what they have. We do this just because we don’t always know what lies behind their smile on Sunday morning. But this promise of Jesus’ coming is part of how God’s people cope with life the way it really is. If we understand it, and believe it, it is a source of patience for our less than perfect lives with our less than perfect churches in our less than perfect world. The changes we all long for are coming. The better life and better things to come are on their way. In the meantime God says, “be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

Your Father Knows

Sparrows

Matthew 10:29-31 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Sometimes we suspect God doesn’t care about us anymore. Is he really there? Does he really watch? If so, why am I stuck in this job with a mean manager and creepy coworkers? Why hasn’t he done something about my family’s unending drama? Why do I feel so alone so much of the time?

The Lord doesn’t answer all our “whys”. But Jesus makes it clear he is always aware of what is going on, and he always cares. Whether we can see or feel them, Jesus presents promises for us to grab and hold: He knows every bird on earth and what happens to it. My parents once had a cardinal in their yard that flew into the window time and time again. The bird would see its reflection in the window and think the reflection was a rival bird. God was aware this was happening. Each spring there are huge flocks of some sort of black bird that gather in the trees around our neighborhood. The Lord knows every member of those flocks. It’s not just because he is curious, or a bird watcher, or a member of the Audubon society. He has a care and concern for every part of his creation.

There is no part of creation he cares about more than you. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. You and I might pay more attention to our hair than we need to, with all the different shampoos, conditioners, dyes, combs, brushes, and curlers we use. But the Lord knows us so intimately that he knows every single hair. He knows which ones aren’t quite as colorful as they used to be. He knows which ones aren’t attached quite so firmly as they once were.

Of course, his big concern is not birds, or hair. Jesus tells us this to assure us that in every way he cares for you, all of you. He never gave his life for birds. But he loved you so much that he suffered in your place for your sins and died to give you forgiveness and set you free. Not because you and I are so good, but because he loves us so much, we are worth more than many sparrows. So don’t be afraid. You’ve got God’s attention. More than that, you have his heart.

Not Above Our Master

accuse

Matthew 10:24-25 “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!”

Not everything about Jesus’ ministry was all chuckles and grins. The people of his home town tried to throw him off a cliff. The Bible experts of the day and the church leaders challenged his teaching, questioned his credentials, and tried to ruin his reputation. Jesus wanted his disciples to realize that they could expect opposition, too. “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”

Consider the relation between these twelve men and Jesus. Jesus calls them his students, more literally, “disciples.” A disciple is a learner, a follower. He is devoted to more than a set of teachings. He is committed to the teacher himself. These men were attached to Jesus. That would never change for the rest of their lives. They would always be his disciples, and he would always be their teacher.

Jesus also calls them his servants. The kind of servant he means is not a mere employee, free to quit and work for someone else whenever he wants. This kind of servant is a slave. And he will always be one. That reflects our relationship to Jesus, too. Once he makes us his servants, we remain his servants, and he our master, forever afterward.

So what’s the point? Neither a disciple nor a slave is above the teacher or master. They don’t take the teacher’s or master’s place. They certainly don’t expect to be treated as if they were vastly superior. They aren’t destined for a life of greater honor, privilege or ease. At most, they might look forward to a life something like that of the teacher or master. “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.”

Jesus wasn’t in heaven yet. Neither were the Twelve. Neither are we. While we follow Jesus on earth, we can expect the same kind of treatment Jesus received here. If we are like Jesus in the things that we say, and the things that we do, then we can expect to be like him in the way others will treat us, too.

Sometimes they aren’t very nice. “If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” “Beelzebub” was not a compliment. The name means “Lord of the flies.” It suggests that the person is Lord of the place where flies are most often seen: “Lord of the manure.” From ancient times the Jews used the term as a title for the devil. Thus Jesus’ enemies were not suggesting he was stupid, or strange, or worthless. They were saying that he was evil. We might compare using this title to calling someone “Hitler” today.

It’s not hard to see that Jesus’ warning holds true, is it. Should it surprise that many consider the Christian message not just strange, or stupid, but evil? “How come you Christians are so mean to people with different ideas about sex and marriage, and tell them that what they are doing is a sin? Why are you so hateful and prejudiced against them?” “Hate” is never a Christian attitude. But is it hateful to warn someone about their sin and its consequences? Or, if there are negative consequences, is it really a loving thing to do? “How come you Christians are so arrogant and narrow-minded and think that you are the only ones going to heaven? Everyone worships the same God. People just call him by different names.” But are we just “narrow-minded” when we try to convert people from religions in which people must live in constant doubt of heaven and must pay for all their own guilt? Is it just arrogance that leads Christians to introduce people to Jesus, the only God who loves them to death? They called Jesus “Beelzebub,” the prince of demons. If you let your Christianity be known, don’t be surprised if they call you mean, intolerant, hateful, evil, or worse. Your Master was called things like this. You and I will, too.

But don’t forget the kind of Teacher and Master you follow. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet…” (John 13:13-14). “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Our Master served us to the point of dying to save us. We lose nothing by following him to the end.

Jesus Is Everything

A to Z

Revelation 22:13 “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

The first two words with which Jesus describes himself in this verse are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. We would say the “A and the Z.” With these terms Jesus is speaking of his eternity, but he is saying so much more than that. He is also telling us that he is our everything. If we have Jesus, we have it all. There is nothing more we could want. Jesus himself is the focus, purpose, a sum, and substance of all human history. Jesus himself is the fulfillment of all of God’s saving work. If you have him, then there is really nothing beyond him worth having.

Martin Luther once commented, “When Christ was entrusting the ministry to Peter, He asked him three times whether he loved him. For He knew and saw that no one can be a true preacher or a Christian unless he loves Christ with heart and soul. But how can a person have such love for Christ unless he first believes that he has everything in Him, unless he is convinced beyond a doubt that Christ is his Treasure and Savior, his Life and Comfort?” Jesus’ words convince us that he is our treasure and Savior, that we DO have everything in him. They move the church to love him as his bride, to pray that he would come and be our groom.

When Christ’s love for us creates a heart of faith that loves him in return, that changes our lives in many ways. In fact, life is never the same. His love living in us changes the way we look at what we own, changes what we think is important, changes how we spend our time. It changes things so simple as leading us to think of him and ask his blessing each time we eat. Sometimes it changes things so serious as what career path I will follow for the rest of my life.

But as much as anything, it simply makes us want to be with him. You know that he still comes to us to be close to us in his word: in preaching, studying, reading, and singing. That’s why we turn to our Bibles for comfort when life has dealt us a blow, isn’t it? You know that he comes to meet you in those promises that he is your Good Shepherd, that nothing can separate you from his love, that you can cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Still, this can feel like a long-distance relationship. We long to be closer still. Just before Jesus described himself as the Alpha and Omega he promised, “Behold, I am coming soon!” That gives us a thrill. And it moves us to pray with the Apostle John the last prayer in the Bible, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Born Just Like Us

Born

Galatians 4:4-5 “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law…”

I was present at the birth of all four of my children. I wouldn’t want you to have the impression I think their births were anything less than a miracle. Who can fully appreciate the privilege God gives parents of being part of his creative power— that we should have a part in bringing a new life into existence that nine or ten months ago didn’t exist at all?

But childbirth is also something of a messy affair, isn’t it. At the birth of one of my children I remember fussing about tearing one of the paper coverings they give fathers to wear in the delivery room. The doctor and the nurses all told me not to worry: there is nothing particularly clean or sterile about the natural delivery of a child. It’s actually a rather “germy” event.

Like my children, like each one of us, when God sent us his own Son, he was “born of a woman.” Is the great humility and condescension of our Savior in his birth lost on us today? If all Jesus wanted to do was become a human being, there are more majestic and glorious ways in which he might have done so. He could have fashioned a body for himself something like the way God first made Adam at creation. Perhaps he could have even chosen something more precious like gold or gems from which to make that body, rather than the dust of the earth.

But God sent his Son to be one of us, not some other super race of human beings. He so loved us that he accepted the lowly process of child birth, and the lowly life of ordinary people, and a lowly death with common criminals. The depths to which Jesus was willing to sink to save us defies human description. Some have tried to illustrate this with stories like that of a man who had magical powers and became an ant to warn other ants to stay out of houses or they would be killed. But the difference between the holy Son of God and this sinful human race is far greater than the difference between people and ants, or worms, or other lowly forms of created life. And Jesus did so much more than warn us. He was so fully human that he lived our life and he died our death. His love led him to become just like us.

Another example of his full humanity is that he was “born under the law.” As the Son of God, Jesus was above the law. We have no right to take the life of another person, but God oversees the death of every one. We must obey the law not to steal, but everything already belongs to the Lord. Before his birth, Jesus had always been above the law.

But when Jesus was born, he placed himself under the law. He obligated himself to keep it. He subjected himself to all its warnings and threats. He gave up his freedom and put himself under the rules and requirements of God’s 10 commandments.

He did so “to redeem those under law.” When you and I hear that Jesus has redeemed us, we usually think of the price that he paid on the cross when he gave his own life for our sins. And that is certainly part of our redemption.

But Jesus started paying the price of our freedom from sin and hell long before he was crucified. Look at his life under the law already in Luke chapter 2, where the Christmas story and Jesus’ childhood is recorded. You and I may gripe about our government at times. We strain against God’s command to be subject to the governing authorities. Jesus, while still in the womb, is under the authority of the government as his parents make the trip to Bethlehem dictated by Caesar Augustus. On the eighth day he feels the knife of circumcision in obedience to the law God gave to Abraham. After 40 days he is presented in the temple with the appropriate sacrifices for a first born under the law of Moses. Countless are the times you or I rebelled against our parents when we were young. But when Jesus’ parents foolishly leave him behind in Jerusalem at the age of 12, he does what any obedient child should do: he finds the safest place in town at the temple and he stays in that one location until his parents find him. Afterward we are told that he continued to be obedient to them.

Do you see what he is doing? He is paying God the life of love and obedience that you and I owed him. He is setting us free from our debt, taking care of the obligation to keep God’s laws that makes us acceptable to him. This is an important part of the mission for which God has sent us his own Son. This is why we are thankful that Jesus was born just like us.

Good Timing

Time Middle East

Galatians 4:4 “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”

Some might be tempted to question Paul’s intelligence when he asserts, “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son…” This was good timing? God chooses the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy to coincide with a government mandated journey of over 100 miles, quite possibly made by this young couple on foot? I remember our family going camping just 25 miles from home when my mother was 8 months pregnant, and that was with all the modern amenities of travel by car. It may have been the low point of our camping experience. Jesus is born when the inns of Bethlehem are filled to overflowing because of the census, and Joseph, who as a carpenter could otherwise provide for his family reasonably well, is forced to take his wife to a stinking shelter for animals for labor and delivery? There is no doctor or mid-wife to assist? What does a carpenter know about these things? Perhaps we could forgive Mary and Joseph if God’s timing seemed a little less than “full” to them.

Then we remember that when God sent us his own Son, he sent him on a mission, with a purpose. Over the centuries the Lord had made dozens of prophecies in anticipation of this birth. As the years rolled along, he quietly drove the course of history so that one by one these prophecies could be fulfilled. In fact, this little excursion to Bethlehem neatly fulfilled one of the promises God had made about location of his Son’s birth. “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).

When we look beyond this little family, what about the timing for the nation of Israel, or for the greater world around it? Politically and spiritually, Israel was at another low ebb in its history. The nation had lost its independence to the Empire of Rome, and for all practical purposes the throne of David had disappeared. There was still a little remnant of true believers in God’s promises of a Savior from sin, but in the hearts of most there was a full scale rebellion going on. It showed itself in a religious formalism: going through the motions of their faith in an outward way for traditional reasons. They looked pious on the outside, but there was no love and no sense of need for God within. In others it showed itself in a general disinterest in the faith and slide into immorality. Does this seem like a strange place for God to send his Son? Does one send a baby to quell a rebellion?

But then we remember that God sent us his own Son on a mission, not to save the state of Israel from the shame of political insignificance and foreign control, but to save the people of Israel, and the people of all the world, from the shame of sin and unbelief. Roman roads and the law and order that the empire maintained were superior ways for taking Jesus’ message of faith to the world. And the work of a Savior is not to congratulate the spiritually strong, but to heal the spiritually wounded, strengthen the spiritually weak, and to raise the spiritually dead. What better time for the doctor to arrive than when the waiting room is full? When God sent us his own Son, the time had fully come.

Does God’s sense of timing at Christmas offer us any comfort today? This past year has seen more than its share of troubles: terrorist attacks and mass shootings, celebrity scandals, political unrest, the threat of war, and the countless daily irritations with which we have had to contend. Is anyone running this show? Why this? Why now?

Then we remember that the one who sent us his own Son has a plan and a purpose for each of us. Ultimately that plan has less to do with making us comfortable here than it has to do with getting us out of here. From where we stand, we do not share God’s perspective, his long range view, and his timing is difficult to understand. When we get the pieces of the puzzle that makes up our lives one at a time, we cannot see the completed picture on the box our Lord is looking at. But then among the many other promises of Christmas we find this one: God doesn’t sit in heaven waiting for things to fall into place, hoping he will find just the right situation to carry out his plans. He drove the course of history for thousands of years, he directed the rise and fall of entire empires, to make sure that the setting into which he sent his Son to save us was just right. He who so loves us, who worked so hard and labored so long to save us from our sins, continues to direct the times and events that work toward our salvation today.