The advent series this year is based on Ed Robb’s and Rob Renfroe’s publication The Wonder of Christmas available through Abingdon Press. Many thanks are owed them for making this available. The opportunity to share their work is a delight.
The Wonder of a Promise given on Sunday, December 18, 2016: Week 4 of Advent series
Sharing the Christmas Story: Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)
18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement[a] quietly.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[b] for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[c]
which means ‘God is with us.’”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
Reflecting on The Wonder of a Promise by Rob Renfroe
The very sight of a Christmas gift all wrapped up in pretty paper and wrapped in ribbons and bows triggers our curiosity. What is hidden in the box? The mere box suggests a promise of something very special just for you.
Wrapped gifts surround us in the stores, on the cards in the mail, and under the Christmas trees, and all suggest a promise. They also represents a relationship from one person to another, one family to another, one friend to another friend, and even one co-worker to another. The practice of giving gifts reflects the value we place on maintaining relationships with one another.
God wanted a relationship with us so much that he decided to join us in the package of the baby Jesus, born under the light of a star, announced by the angels, and named Immanuel. But, he was not wrapped up as anything special, rather he was wrapped up in swaddling cloth and laid to rest in a manger. What a wonder that God would go to such an effort to be with us, to do all that he could to establish a relationship with us.
Our very creator desires an intimate relationship with us. For generations God worked through the faithful in an effort to deepen the relationship; but then decided to be with us. Rather than waiting any longer, God joined us as the gift of the baby Jesus to demonstrate how to be in an intimate relationship not only with God but also with each other. What a wonder that God’s gift continues to be unwrapped generation after generation, by one people after another.
Have you unwrapped God’s gift to you?
Have you shared God’s gift with others?
The wonder of Christmas is that sharing gifts with one another is one more opportunity to affirm relationships we have with one another. Yet, God asks us to live our lives in such a loving manner that our relationships with each other reflects the behaviors demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
The wonder of Christmas is that God’s love is infinite and available to all people. For those who accept God’s gift, unwrap it, and use it, the transformation is truly wonderful. The gift of a relationship with God evolves into the one true gift that keeps on giving and gives us a new name—Christian. The wonder of the name Christian transforms our lives.
God’s gift of Jesus Christ wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is the promise that God is always with us. It is a promise that establishes a relationship with God that we demonstrate in all the relationships we experience in our own lives. Accepting God’s gift turns us into a gift too.
Opening up God’s Christmas gift comes with instructions how to give that gift to others. We just have to follow God’s instructions on living in relationships with people rather than live as though we are against each other or above each other or simply living among others. As Christians we are to live with each other just like God did as Jesus.
Stop and consider the importance of that one small word ‘with.’ The Old Testament stories tell us how the ancient faithful understood the relationship of God to man. In the Advent study, The Wonder of Christmas, Rob Renfroe explains:
The Old Testament reveals that God’s people ‘believed in God.’ First and foremost, they believed in God above us. When they sinned, they believed in God against us. And when they thought they were doing everything right, they were able to believe in God for us. But they did not believe in God with us—at least not in the ways we need most. Not with us as a mother or father is with a child. Not with us as a person who understands what it is like to be human—a tiny being in a monstrously large universe. Not with us as one who knows what it’s like to give your best and see it do no good, to give your heart only to be rejected, or to cry at night because those you love are hurting and you can’t take their pain away.
Even today we can know those same perceptions. We can understand how the Israelites and even so many today still express those same beliefs that God is above us, against us, and even for us. Yet, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah:
The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [NLT]
In that promise, there is that small word with. In the wonder of a name, God promises that in the birth of a baby, God is with us not above, not against, and not simply for us. God promises to be with us.
Unwrapping God’s gift at Christmas we must read the instructions in order to make sure that Isaiah’s prophecy is a reality. We find the instructions in the scripture, especially in the New Testament that records Jesus’ ministry, the teachings, and the modeling of God being with us. The instructions are quite simple: Love one another, as you want to be loved.
First to live in a Christian relationship with God, we must understand the people with whom we live—not only just our own families but in our community. We cannot be in a positive relationship unless we live with others. We cannot live as though we are above, against or for others. Maybe we do not co-exist in the same circumstances, but as Christians we have the capacity to with others through empathy.
Secondly, remember that we, too, had to accept God’s gift of Jesus Christ. There are times in our lives that we allow something or someone to separate us from our intimate relationship with God. Once we are separated from God, we slip into the mindset that God is above us or against us. We might be able to say that God is for us; but at those times we are separated from God, it may be difficult to even see that. The wonder of God’s promise is God is with us at all times.
Even as Christians, there are times in our lives that we become separated from God: God does not separate from us, but we make decisions that do separate us from God. Remembering our own human stories gives us the compassion to relate to others who have not accepted God’s gift.
The third set of instructions that comes with God’s gift is that we are to care about others. God knew that living with us as Jesus Christ establishes the intimate relationship that creates a bond of trust. Renfroe states:
When we tell people that God is with them and they can trust their lives to Jesus, we are asking them to trust us. Essentially we are telling them that we can show them how to create a different ending to their story. We are saying and promising, “Trust us with your lives; trust us with your stories. We will take you to the One who loves you. Trust us; we will not disappoint you.”
You don’t earn that kind of trust by telling people how badly they have lived or by acting superior. You earn that kind of trust by caring enough about their stories that you want their hopes and dreams to be redeemed. You earn that kind of trust by demonstrating humility and compassion as Jesus did—who was willing to leave the comforts of heaven and be born in a manger, disappointed by friends, rejected by the masses, and crucified on a cross—so that you can make the lives of others better.
. . . What enables people to trust us is our genuine care for their lives and their stories. And most often, what changes people is love. Most people are not argued into the Kingdom, lectured into the Kingdom, or guilted into the Kingdom. Most people are loved into the Kingdom.
The wonder of Christmas is as exciting as all the pretty packages sitting under the tree promising new and wonderful things. As Advent season begins, we experience the hope of God’s promise. Then we get busy in all the preparations and we seek relief from the hustle and bustle of the holiday, and ask for peace in our hearts and in our world. In the third week of Advent, we practice love in all that we do with one another. Each week of Advent we sense the joy of the season as we wait to unwrap God’s ultimate gift—a son to show us how to be in an intimate relationship with one another and ultimately with God forever.
Closing Advent prayer:
Today I stand in awe with a heart full of gratitude at the wonder of your promise to be Immanuel—God with us today, tomorrow, and forever.
You are a God who truly understands our struggles, because you lived in our world and experienced life in the same ways that we do. You have compassion on us, recognizing that we are sheep in need of a tender shepherd.
Help me to have that same compassion for others, reaching out to love them just as you have loved me. With your help, I will seek to “keep” the promise of Christmas—not only this season but all of my days. Amen