This Child Gives Us Life

1 John 5:9-13 “We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a matter of life and death. I do not mean his own death, though one might wonder how long the infant Lord Jesus could survive in the harsh conditions into which he was born. Infant mortality rates were certainly much higher in his day than ours, and he was born without doctor, nurse, or midwife, or even the relatively sanitary conditions of a home.

I am not alluding to the human neglect and hostility he faced from the beginning. No doubt the residents of Bethlehem failed the test of hospitality and basic human compassion when Mary and Joseph arrived so close to labor and delivery and no one offered them decent shelter. No doubt wicked King Herod’s plot to kill the infant or toddler should have succeeded under ordinary circumstances. Only divine intervention kept him alive.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a matter of life and death for us. The Apostle John promises that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Can we believe that this helpless little baby is our Savior? Will we believe that the infant in the manger is the solution for death, that he is our passport to heaven?

That is why God has revealed these things, not just so that this little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay, will enrich our earthly lives, but so that one day he might bless us all as his dear children, and take us to heaven to live with him there.

For this Child gives us life.

This Child Gives Us Comfort

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

            Christmas seems like a terrible time for tragedy to strike. We want to be caught up in the joy and the merriment of the season, not wringing our hands with worry over the health of someone dear to us. We want the ability to spend freely and the satisfaction of giving liberally, not the anxiety of fighting to make ends meet or keeping our job. We want to celebrate the good things in life, not grieve the death of those we love. We want undistracted bliss, not unavoidable suffering.

            But Christmas also provides the perfect solution for life’s tragedies. It assures us God cares. It assures us he will take care. “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?”

God’s promise to forgive our sins leads to eternal life, and this gives us the comfort that all illness, every injury, and even death itself are only momentary troubles. They will not and can never separate us from our Lord or from his love. God has been faithful to his promise to send the Savior. Christmas marks the keeping of that promise. Won’t he be faithful to his promise to take care of our every other need as well?

            And so, even in the face of tragedy, the birth of God’s Son still gives us tidings of comfort and joy. God still gives us rest, because, as the apostle Paul reminds us, through Christ our comfort overflows. No matter the tragedy we may be enduring at the moment, at Christmas we can still sing God’s praises, because this Child gives us comfort.

This Child Gives Us Hope

Micah 5:2-5 “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. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.”

Society becoming more and more violent; the family breaking down, the ranks of those sliding into a poverty from which they are unable to extract themselves growing by the day; a constant threat of war hanging over the nation’s young people, raising the probability of being called up for military service in an unstable world; despairing people losing their faith, grasping for kind of meaning in materialism, immorality, or strange religions: these were the problems facing God’s people Israel at the time of the prophet Micah.

Sound familiar? What possible glimmer of hope could there be for such a people? Where could they find peace when everything in their world seemed so desperately wrong? Where can we?

God’s promises provided the answer. Through the prophet Micah he promised a ruler who would not deal merely with the outward symptoms of a broken world. He would deal with the root of the problem–the sin and rebellion living in human hearts.

This Savior King would be a true shepherd. He would make it possible for people to live in real peace and security, even when life and everything around them appeared completely beyond redemption or repair. His ruling power would reach to the very ends of the earth. He would give his people hope.

This King would be born in Bethlehem, the prophet tells us. As the people of that day looked ahead to the little town of Bethlehem, we look back to that same little town thousands of years later. There we find the same hope they received. “The hopes and fear of all the years” truly are met in Bethlehem on Christmas night, as the Christmas carol assures us, for Christ is born of Mary. And this Child gives us hope.

Jesus Lights the Way

Isaiah 49:5-6 “And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel for himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

From the very moment that Jesus was conceived, the Lord was putting him together in such a way that he should answer this calling to serve as a light to the Gentiles. Just think of the ways in which Jesus was already acting as God’s servant before he was born. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth after Gabriel announced that she would carry the Savior of the world, Elizabeth immediately rejoiced. She was strengthened in her faith to be in her Savior’s presence. John the Baptist leaped for joy inside Elizabeth because he was in his Savior’s presence. From the very beginning God was using Jesus as his servant.

Look at how Jesus served God’s purposes from the moment he was born. The baby Jesus preached no sermons, but his very presence increased the faith of lowly shepherds. He turned them into missionaries, and moved them to praise God. As an infant he did the same thing for old Simeon and Hannah in the temple. Before he could speak a word he was a light to those around him.

There are several different purposes a light can serve. We usually use them to help us see. But in times past there has been another common use for lights. They serve as a beacon or marker. They mark a spot so that we can find it, like a lighthouse marks the shore line or runway lights show where the runway is. 

Jesus served as this kind of light when the Lord called him to bring Jacob back, to gather Israel to himself. Although these people had turned their back on him time after time, God still wanted to gather them to himself. Jesus was the beacon who showed them where to go.

It was never God’s intention to share the Gospel with just one nation. When he chose Abraham’s family as his chosen people, he promised that through Abraham ALL nations on earth would be blessed. Jesus’ light led all nations to their God. 

Not everything Jesus went through to be the light to the Gentiles was pleasant. Isaiah describes him as one who was despised and abhorred by the nation. Throughout his life Jesus was challenged and despised by the ruling groups in Israel: the self-righteous Pharisees, the liberal Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the priests.

By the time Good Friday came, it seemed as if the whole nation had turned against him. His twelve best friends betrayed, denied, or deserted him. Common criminals mocked and insulted him. God himself turned away from the pitiful sight of Jesus on a cross. His death was not a pleasant sight. Isaiah later describes him as one who was despised and abhorred.

But as the last little flame of life in him flickered and failed, at just that moment the light of the world was blazing away, finally making it clear just how God would save all people. His death may have been very humble, but it shows all the world the glory of God’s love. It lights the only way back to the Father, the only way to heaven.

Fighting Our Enemies

Numbers 24:17 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob. A scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.”

People try to be very careful about the words they use to describe their position on some issue or the kinds of things they do. They want to sound positive and optimistic instead of negative and pessimistic. Pro-life seems to sound better than anti-abortion. Physically challenged is preferred by some to physically handicapped.

We find the same emphasis in many of the ways that we describe Jesus’ work for us. Jesus has come to bring us salvation. He forgives our sins. He brings us God’s love, peace and joy. But all of these gifts also required him to do some things which may sound very negative. In order to save God’s children, he had to conquer, crush, and destroy God’s enemies. In order for us to enjoy eternal safety and security in the Kingdom of our God, the Kingdom of Satan and all who follow him must be reduced to rubble.

The prophet Balaam, who spoke these words, and the people of Moab he served were an example of one such enemy that needed to be crushed. They were making war against Israel. In doing so, they weren’t just attacking God’s children. They were attacking his promise of the Savior, who was to be born to this people and born in this part of the world. Even before his birth, as God in heaven Christ saw to it that everyone who opposed God’s plan to save us, including these Moabites, was taken out of the way and defeated.

He still fights for us today. Of course, he would prefer to defeat his human enemies by turning them into his friends. When we were God’s enemies he changed our hearts to make us his children instead. He still slashes away at our own sinful natures, which are still his enemies, reducing their influence on our lives. He still fights countless spiritual battles for us we aren’t even aware of, and he wins them every time. That may not be the image we usually think of when we think of our gentle, loving Savior.

The baby in the manger doesn’t look like a conquering hero. But as we see him in the words of the prophet Balaam, we see him conquer, and the enemies he conquers are our enemies, too. Their defeat means salvation for you and me.

Seeing Jesus

Numbers 24:17 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob.”

Balaam son of Beor wasn’t a very likely preacher of the Gospel. Not only was he a religious mercenary, a prophet for hire who would speak a message from any god people paid him to represent. In this case he had set himself up against the true God and his people. Balak, the king of the Moabites, had hired him to put a curse on Israel as they marched toward the Promised Land. He intended to wipe them out in battle.

Balaam hoped he could manipulate the Lord into letting him speak the curse and collecting the fee. He had no true faith in God. He only thought that he could control the Lord for his own selfish purposes. God turned the tables on him. Balaam ended up being the one under control, serving God’s purposes.

Whether he appreciated it or not, Balaam got a glimpse of our coming Savior’s glory, a glimpse he was privileged to share with everyone else. Balaam saw him here. This was not Joshua or Aaron or Moses or any other leader of the time. What Balaam sees is not now, and not even near. What Balaam sees is over a thousand years away, in a stable in Bethlehem, on a seashore in Galilee, or on a cross outside Jerusalem.

But did Balaam really see? We are told later in the book of Numbers that when he failed to curse Israel for King Balak, this same man devised another way to turn God against them. He suggested using the women of Moab to tempt them into worship of Baal and sexual immorality. After all God had gone through with Balaam, after all Balaam had seen, he still couldn’t put his vision of Christ together with faith. He saw him with his eyes and with his mind, but he never saw him with his heart. He remained his enemy to the end.

Isn’t that all too common a problem as Christmas approaches– People see the newborn Savior with their eyes, but not their hearts? Millions will file past manger scenes in shopping malls or drive past them in front of churches or homes. Often, their reaction will be nothing more than “how cute,” or “how sad,” or “how poor.” A thousand secular choirs will sing “Silent Night,” or “Away in a Manger,” but how many will see their Savior from sin hidden beneath the sentimental music?

We need to be reminded, too. The baby in the manger is not just a Christmas decoration. He is Christmas itself. Our Savior IS now, and he IS near. At this moment, we see him in Balaam’s prophecy. This Christmas, let us see him in our worship, our carols, and our entire celebration of his birth.

What God Wants for Christmas

Hebrews 10:8-10 “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Bulls and sheep and pigeons were just dumb animals. Their sacrifice made them just another piece of meat. Jesus was the God-man who came to do God’s will. That’s what God really wanted. He wanted someone to do what he says. He wanted someone to love unconditionally, even when people were nasty to him, just like he loves the world. He wanted someone to tell the truth, even when people don’t like it, because they need someone to stop them from destroying themselves. He wanted someone who understood that doing his will was a life of living for others and finding joy in taking care of their needs.

God wanted that someone to sacrifice his life for everyone else, not just to make a statement, not just to teach a lesson, not just to deliver a message about the horrors of sin or the richness of God’s grace and love. He wanted that someone to sacrifice his life for everyone else to make them holy, to remove their guilt, to pay for their sin.

Jesus was the God-man who came to do God’s will, “and by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Jesus came to be a sacrifice. Let’s not lose sight of this at Christmas in the midst of all the other messages and meanings of the holiday. From the moment he was born, Jesus’ purpose was to die.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, our holiness is an accomplished fact. That is something we have trouble getting used to. If I were to ask you if you are perfect, I suspect that you would deny it. You know that you still sin. But you truly are perfect right now. You are a saint. You are holy, not because you have stopped committing sins, but because every one of those sins was forgiven when Jesus let his body become the sacrifice that satisfied God’s justice. We are God’s holy people, now, because Jesus was the effective sacrifice God wanted for us all.

What do you want for Christmas? If the answer has mostly to do with electronics, toys, clothes, or even a new Lexus with a big bow on the top, you are aiming too low. God wants you to have what he wants for Christmas: the peace and holiness of a Savior who sacrifices his life for you. It’s what he’s giving again this year.

What God Doesn’t Want for Christmas

Hebrews 10:5 “Therefore, when Christ came into the world he said: ‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am– it is written about me in the scroll– I have come to do your will, O God.’ First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made).”

It has become one of the standard questions of the season. In fact, considering all the emphasis on presents and gift-giving, it captures the secular view of Christmas quite well: “What do you want for Christmas?” A few altruistic people may rise above their personal desires and answer something like, “World peace” or “An end to hunger.” A few well-to-do people will decline the offer and insist, “I don’t really need anything.” But most of us are happy to indulge the questioner with a list of some sort to make their holiday shopping a little less difficult.

What if we were to take that question and address it to the ultimate gift-giver? What if we were to ask God, “What do you want for Christmas?” The author of the book of Hebrews uses another Scripture text to explain one thing God explicitly doesn’t want for Christmas. He quotes the words of Psalm 40. “Therefore, when Christ came into the world (that’s Christmas, isn’t it) he said: ‘Sacrifice and offerings you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.”

Perhaps it seems strange that God wouldn’t want the very sacrifices he had commanded. Sacrifices occupied such a large part of Old Testament worship life. Cain killed his brother because he was jealous that God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of sheep. God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac, then he substituted a ram for the sacrifice to spare the boy. The law of Moses required sacrifices to be made in response to all sorts of events in life: child birth, harvests, healing from disease. Sacrifices had to be offered after people committed certain sins. Animal sacrifice belonged to each national holiday. On a daily basis priests presented morning and evening sacrifices at the temple. The blood of animals flowed like a river from the temple, all at God’s command. If God commanded all this killing, how could he not desire it?

For you and me, perhaps something seems stranger still. Why did God order all these sacrifices in the first place? They seem so foreign to the clean and sanitary worship we experience. We come to worship to hear God loves us, to sing our thankfulness, to ask for his help, to grow in our understanding of his will. You think the babies sometimes get noisy at church? How about the commotion of sheep and calves and bird cages? You think it can get a little stuffy if an air conditioner isn’t keeping up? Imagine the smell of farm animals butchered by sweaty priests.  For people who demand worship that’s relevant, music we like, and a message we can understand, we might wonder what the Lord hoped to accomplish.

It’s not as though he needed the sacrifices for himself. “I have no need for a bull from your stall or goats from your pens…If I were hungry, I would not tell you….Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalm 50:9, 12, 13). It’s not as though God found some sort of morbid pleasure in seeing all these dear animals that he himself had created die. “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD.  “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.”

God demanded sacrifices he did not desire, and offerings that did not please him, not for himself but for the benefit of his people. The constant killing delivered an unmistakable message. It impressed on them the utter horror of sin. Think that sin is no big deal? Each sacrifice repeated the mantra: “The wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is death.” They had on their hands the blood of the animals that showed them what should have happened to them. As the author of Hebrews says earlier, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.”

But in that same sacrifice, there was also an unmistakable message of God’s love and forgiveness. Every sacrifice was a reminder that I, the real sinner, have been spared. Every sacrifice was an example of God treating me better than I deserve. I can rejoice to be alive, and enjoying another day of God’s goodness and mercy, unlike this animal whose life has just ended at my hands.

The sacrifices didn’t serve God. They served his people. But he desired their end because Jesus came with a better sacrifice for us all.

The Road Home

Isaiah 35:8-10 “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”

We are all on a journey home. A room is reserved there already. A place has been set at the table. Jesus is holding our spot. But we aren’t there yet.

There is only one way there. Isaiah calls it “the Way of Holiness.” Don’t misunderstand the title. The holiness doesn’t come from us. Christ made this way, and he made it holy, when he came the first time. His cleansing blood spilled down from the cross erasing sins and washing souls and giving the whole world a bath in the forgiving grace of God. Those on the highway are the people who make this their holiness, this their way home. They are the people who have traded their sin for Christ’s holiness by faith. They are no longer trying to find their way by their own tainted works. They have given up on trying to pay their own way. That is why Isaiah can say that the unclean and wicked fools won’t be making any trips on this road.

The road, the way, ends in more joy than we could ever have imagined, more than we might even believe is possible: “No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” That is much more than optimism, idealism, good possibilities. That is God’s good promise. He offers more than the prospect of good things to come in spite of the bad things and the sad things today. These things will be: no dangers, no obstacles, only the Lord’s redeemed, making their way home.

This way home, the Way of Holiness, the road to Zion ends in songs, and gladness, and joy unspoiled by today’s sorrow or sighs. It brings us all the way to the realization, the fulfillment. Longing is replaced by living. Hoping is replaced by having. Christ coming has become Christ here.

But today, we wait. And we believe. And we are confident, because we know that he will come.