given on Sunday, December 21, 2008
The week has been crammed full of activity. Monday was the students’ graduation from our program. Wednesday was a health day. Oh yes, Tuesday was the partial snow day, thank goodness. Thursday was getting all the other students wrapped up with their work. And then there was Friday, the clean up day at school but the beginning of a long-needed break. This list is just my personal one, and I know that others have probably filled their week with even more than I have.
In all this activity it is very difficult to hear God. What if we did not have God in our lives? What if we simply failed to hear God even once a week? What if we had been told Jesus was the Messiah and we had not heard it? What if we had been told we were going to be parents of the Messiah? What if we had been the shepherds when the angels appeared, and we had not heard their proclamation? What if we had seen the new star and followed it like the three wise men did? What if we had not heard and believed the story of Christ, the Messiah?
The story we have grown up hearing each and every Christmas is so familiar that sometimes we do not hear it. What if we had faithfully been waiting for the Messiah as the Israelites had for hundreds of years? Would we have believed he had been born? As we read through the prophecies, I kept thinking how easy it is to be skeptical.
In our instant communication-filled world, we hear all types of news or reports. As a teacher, I try to explain to the students how important it is to be skeptical until they can check out all the information floating around on the web. They tend to read something in an email or see something on You Tube and they simply believe it as true. We have had battles about Wikepedia because they think anything written on that site is true; they ignore the premise that anybody can add anything they want to add. Maybe I need to trust a little more, but what if the information is wrong?
Oh no, I have gone full circle: What if we heard and did not believe, then what if we heard and believed too quickly. This creates quite a quandary but God is in charge and thank goodness for that. The major concern is whether or not we are listening for God.
Today we are nearing Christmas Day, and we are in the middle of our annual traditions. We love the traditions and all the trimmings. The Christmas tree is one of those traditions and one of the carols we sing has added to that tradition, “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.” We go shopping down the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks listening to “Silver Bells.” We listen to the weather wondering just what the chances are that we will have a “White Christmas.”
The list just grows on and on, but sometimes what we have grown accustomed to being part of our celebration of Jesus’ birth really has no connection to the Christian holiday. We have added so much fluff to the season that we cannot hear God. What if all the non-believers like Theophilus had someone like Luke to tell them the story? What if church members were like the early Jewish people who knew the story but still did not believe? What if our Christmas is blocking us from hearing God talking to us?
These Sundays in Advent have helped us to stop and listen carefully to the story. We are reminded of all the circumstances that have surrounded the story of the Messiah from the years and years of waiting, to the years of watching the child grow and learn before assuming his role as the Savior. And then, after just three short years of ministry, Jesus fulfilled the role of the Messiah, the Savior, as he was crucified, then arose from the dead and went to sit with God granting us forgiveness and eternal life as long as we believe in Him. What if we had not heard the story?
Scripture: Luke 1: 68-79 Zacharias’ Prophecy (from the NKJ)
68 “ Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David,
70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
71 That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
74 To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.
76 “ And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
78 Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Hymn 213: “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” (v 1-2)
Are You Listening?
The words we sing year after year tell the story. I do not have an iPod or any MP3 player, but I do have my CDs. I listen to the music each morning as I get in the car and drive to work. It is my short worship time in which I sort out the world, hear the words others use to tell us the story of Jesus. Sometimes the most painful songs are ones that speak to me the most. One is El Shaddai, this song tells of Jesus the teacher. It is a song that speaks to me in an entirely different way because it does use a different language, but the translation is there and the Holy Spirit lets me hear the message.
What if we did not hear the words we thought we would hear? What if we were going about our daily routine and just knew what the next step was for us and suddenly we were to hear God tell us something so outrageous we just could not understand it? What if we were Joseph? He loved Mary and the plan was to marry her and live happily ever after. That sounds familiar to many of us as we meet our loved one and plan to marry. We were following the expected pattern of preparation and marriage. But God has a way of stepping in and changing things once and a while.
When God chose Mary to be the birth mother of Jesus, he also chose Joseph. The circumstances were certainly unexpected by both of them, but they heard God and accepted his decision. They listened to his words and they followed him. The certainly had no idea how their future would unfold. Neither did they expect that what was happening in their little world would so effect the generations to come. But Herod knew and oddly enough a decree went out which Joseph and Mary had not expected:
Scripture: Luke 2:1-5 (from the NKJV)
1 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.
Hymn 230 “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (verses 1-2 only)
Oh My, How Hard It Is To Believe
The years of anticipation for the Israelites was finally coming to an end. The prophecies were being fulfilled, but it had to be hard to believe. Can we even imagine what it must have been like when Joseph and Mary learned that they were going to have to travel to Bethlehem because they had to register in their own city.
Now I have witnessed the arrival of two grandkids this year. I have heard of the pregnancies and all the trials and tribulations the two mommies have experienced. I have been anxious about blood pressures, miscarriages, weight gain, and the weeks. I remember my own experiences, and I remember those last few weeks. And I waited. And I waited. I found it hard to believe that the nine months really means ten months.
But what if my two daughter-in-laws had had to ride on a donkey for hours the last few days before they gave birth? I cannot even imagine what the experience would have done to them, much less the babies. Joseph and Mary, only knowing that they were following God’s decisions and then following the law, trusted God. The ride over those miles must have been tortuous, by our standards.
According to the Archeological Bible, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was at least a three-day journey. Less than 1,000 people lived in Bethlehem and was about six miles from Jerusalem. The prophecy said that the Messiah was to be born in the city of David, as we read in Matthew, Joseph was of the line of David so he had to register in the city of his ancestors which was Bethlehem. Interestingly, Mary, too, would have had to register and even though we have seen how Luke developed her lineage to include Levi the priest, she also was of the line of David. In order to fulfill the prophecy, they had to be in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
So, Joseph and Mary made the trip to Bethlehem where the city was overflowing with others who had come to register. This first census must have been quite an ordeal for each community, and no one was expecting such an important arrival as the Messiah. With everybody crowding into the city to register, there was no room in the inn. This is another little piece we, today, would find hard to believe.
Today we pick up the phone or open up the computers to locate a room at a motel almost anywhere in the world. We know the different chains and know what to expect when we check in. But as Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem, they had no way to call ahead or plan. They simply had to show up. The town of Bethlehem did have an inn because it was the location people began journeys into Egypt, but since it was probably full other “inns” may have been a room in a private home, rather like our current “bed and breakfast” inns.
Regardless, Joseph and Mary were unable to find a room and the story continues that Jesus was born in a stable, in a manger, or even in a cave used as shelter for the animals. And as hard as it is to believe, the Messiah was born:
Luke 2:6-7 (from the NKJV)
6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Hymn 229 “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” (both verses)
Can You Believe It?
Here we are 2000 years later and we are hearing the story once again. We live in a world so filled with creature comforts, quick transportation, and instant communication. We do not hear prophets. We do not look for miracles. We can find answers through research and experiences. We tend to be skeptics. So, can you believe the story of the Messiah’s birth? Can you hear God talking to you as you sing the carols? Can you find the joy of giving as you walk through the stores, wrap the gifts, and even open the gifts? Can you believe that one birth over 2000 years ago has given us the gift of grace, of forgiveness, of eternal life?
The shepherds heard God through a host of angels. The wise men believed the news when they witnessed a new star above Bethlehem. The legends have it that the animals knew as they became quiet and the lamb lay down with the lion. But what if we do not hear God? What if we cannot believe it? The story is told year after year and we become numb to it. Some of us might even be able to recite it word for word from the Bible. But do we believe it? Do we celebrate Christmas as part of the story or do we celebrate Christmas without the story?
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Are you prepared to hear God during the week as he once again reminds us that Jesus was indeed the Messiah he had promised the Israelites thousands of years ago? Are we prepared to hear God announce Jesus as the Savior? Are we ready to personally accept Jesus as our Lord and to live in a loving relationship with God? I believe we are. I believe that as we have walked through these days of Advent, we know God is with us. I believe that when I hear those carols singing through the car’s speakers that the angels are talking to me once again. I believe God wanted to share his unconditional love with us so much that he was willing to be here on this earth in order to teach us how to love, to demonstrate his power to heal, and to serve as our savior so that we might have eternal life.
As we leave this holy place today, let us believe with all our hearts that God is with us. Let us know that as Christmas morning dawns, we are opening the gift of all gifts—God’s gift of his grace through the birth of his son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and our Savior. Let us believe.
Hymn 232 “When Christmas Morn is Dawning” (all 3 verses)
And So the Story Is Told
Scripture: Luke 2:8-20 Glory in the Highest (from the NKJV)
8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
14 “ Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
The story never grows old. We hear those words from Luke and we believe. We hear the story and we are filled with joy. We hear the story and believe because God talks to us through the Holy Spirit. We hear the angels because others have given them to us:
Hymn 238 “Angels We Have Heard on High” (all 4 verses)
Dear Heavenly Father,
We have told your story. We have heard the angels. We hear you speaking. We do believe. For us, there are no “what ifs” because we know your love, your grace, and your gift of eternal life. Thank you for believing in us as we share the story with others. –Amen