Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

Paul Harvey tells the story about a family on Christmas Eve. Mother and children went to the Christmas Eve service, and the Father stayed home. Suddenly, he heard tapping on the window. It was a bird flying against the glass of his window trying to get out of the snow into the warmth

of his home. The man had compassion on the bird, and he went outside, hoping to bring it in.
As he approached the bird, the bird just flew against the window even harder. Pretty soon, the bird flew into the bushes below the window, half frozen, yet too afraid to be caught by this huge man. The more he tried to reach for the bird, the more the bird flew frantically into the snow and thorns of the bushes.
After a few minutes in the cold and seeing the bird continue to injure itself, the man yelled out in frustration, "Stupid bird, can't you understand that I'm trying to help?" The man paused and thought, "If only you understood you wouldn't fly away … if only … if only I could become a bird, and get you to understand."
God's Son came in human form that we might understand God's plan for us, that we might understand from where we have come, that we might understand how we could be restored to God.
Today we meet God in his humanity. The Angel announced to the shepherds that you will see a baby." "A baby." That's all the Greek says. The word means "an infant" or a "newborn child." It is a totally ordinary word used to describe the birth of a child. This tells us that Christ came into the world just as we all do. This is the central truth of Christianity. God has entered human history in order to provide for our salvation.
Today we meet God in his helplessness. The Angel informed the shepherds that "you will see a baby  wrapped in cloths." In those days newborn babies were wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them from the harsh weather. Looking at the baby this way, no one can say he came only for the rich and powerful. And no one can say that he used his heavenly prerogatives to make an easy entrance into the world. He came not for the faith of a few but to be the Savior of all. He was bound that we might be set free.
Today we meet God in his humility. The angel  gave a sign to the shepherds that "you will see a baby lying in a manger." The word itself means something like a stable or perhaps a feeding-trough. In the first century, stables were often nothing more than a circle of stones around a hollowed-out cave in the side of a hill. Nothing about the baby Jesus appeared supernatural. There were no halos, no angels visible, and no choirs singing. Nothing about the outward circumstances pointed to God.
We know the story of Christmas. We know about Mary and the angel Gabriel. We know about the dangerous journey to Bethlehem. We know about Caesar's decree. We know about Herod's insane jealousy. We know about the inn with a "No Vacancy" sign. We know about the angels and the shepherds. We know about the mysterious Wise Men from the east. We know about the flight into Egypt. All of these stories are so well known to us. But we do not recall the time that God has taken to prepare man to accept God in a humble helpless child.
From the very beginning of time God promised to send His Son. Going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, God promised that one day the Seed of the Woman would crush the head of the Serpent, who is Satan (Genesis 3:15). Adam and Eve didn't know and couldn't have known but that phrase "Seed of the Woman" was a direct prediction of the coming of Christ. Centuries later God promised Abraham that he would have a son and that through his son and his descendants all the earth would be blessed. Several generations later the promise was made more specific, that a scepter would arise in Judah, meaning that Christ would be born of the tribe of Judah. Hundreds of years later God promised David that one day he would have a son to sit on his throne whose reign would be everlasting. Thus, the promise narrows from Adam to Abraham to the tribe of Judah to the house of David. Still later the prophet Micah declared that Messiah would be born in the little village of Bethlehem . Finally, Daniel was given divine insight into the exact time frame when Christ would come to the earth. All of that was written in the Old Testament, and The Jews knew this, and it created within them a great desire, a hope and dream that one day the Messiah would come.
The Old Testament comes to an end with the prophet Malachi who lived approximately 433 years before the coming of Christ. We call the period following his ministry the "400 Silent Years." We call them "silent years" because no prophet arose to speak for God and no Scripture was being written. The heavens became silent almost as if God had forgotten his promises.
But this time had had its silent preparation. It was a time of International Peace. The great  Roman Peace was in force which meant that the whole Mediterranean world was united under one government.
It was a time of religious ferment. Across Roman empire the mystery religions were in decline. And Judaism was ripe for the Messiah to come. During those 400 "silent years" the Jews had migrated to every corner of the ancient world. Judaism flourished as the Jews built synagogues wherever they went. By the time Jesus was born there were Jews at every level of society in the Roman Empire. And many Gentiles knew of the God of Israel.
It was an era of moral decline. Athens was in the late afternoon of its glory. The gods of Greece and Rome no longer could command the blind allegiance of the masses. Education, philosophy and great art  created desires they could not fill. In the end the verdict was clear. Athens could produce great philosophers like  Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Rome could produced great Statesmen like Seneca, Cicero, Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Julius Caesar. But the best man could do was not enough. Nothing could fill the "God-shaped vacuum" inside the human heart. Historians tell us that in the centuries preceding the coming of Christ there was a feeling of unrest, and an undefined expectation of something about to happen.
Into this world God sent his son silently.
In his carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem," Phillips Brooks has a stanza that is a delight at this point:
How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven! 
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.
May that be our experience this Christmas season.
When Pope Julius I authorized December 25 to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus in A.D. 353, no one would have ever thought that it would become what it is today. When Professor Charles Follen lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America in 1832, No one would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today. Today Christmas has crossed all oceans and reached all continents.
It cost Mary and Joseph the comforts of home during a long period of exile in Egypt to protect the little babe. It cost mothers, in and around Bethlehem, the massacre of their babies by the cruel order of Herod. It cost the shepherds the complacency of their shepherd's life, with the call to the manger and to tell the good news. It cost the wise men a long journey and expensive gifts and changed lives. It cost the early Apostles and the early church persecution and sometimes death. It cost missionaries of Christ untold suffering and privation to spread the Good News. It cost Christian martyrs in all ages their lives for Christ's sake. More than all this, it cost God the Father His own Son. He sent Him to the earth to save men. It cost Jesus a life of sacrifice and service, a death cruel and unmatched in history.
So our Christmas gifts should go beyond the usual things. Mend a quarrel. Dismiss suspicion. Forgive someone who has treated you wrong. Turn away wrath. Visit someone who is suffering. Apologize if you were wrong. Be kind to those with whom you work. Give as God gave to you in Christ, without obligation, or announcement, or reservation, or hypocrisy.

Wish you all the peace of Infant Jesus.

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