As we come back to this same text again this week I want to encourage you to do something with this text during Advent. Read it once a day. Read it yourself, read it during family devotions or at the dinner table. Read it each day. And if you really want it to sink in, try memorizing it. Have you ever been on a really big roller coaster like the ones at Six Flags? Back in my college days I rode one of the highest wooden roller coasters at Six Flags in Gurnee, Illinois. You know how it works, they start out by taking you up as high as they can and then drop you as far and as fast as they can. The really brave/foolish people do it with no hands. Last week I tried to take you up as high as I could into the heavens, as high as our finite minds could fathom the Son of God. Jesus existing without time or limit, infinitely big and powerful, creating everything from the vast universe filled with trillions of galaxies and stars, quasars and blackholes, down to the trillions of living creatures that inhabit our planet, and then sustaining everything He created every second of everyday. When a text starts out that way, you expect it to continue that way. You expect it to continue with grand and otherworldly language, magnifying the splendor of Jesus as God enthroned above the heavens, ruling and reigning on high. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word created everything that is. But then there is a twist, an unexpected turn. This week we are going to plunge to the depths in a most precipitous fall to earth. I probably can’t create that sinking feeling in your stomach as the roller coaster drops over the hill, but I hope to create profound sense of what Jesus did for us.
I have given our Advent series this year the title: The Incarnation: A Riches to Rags Story. There are a lot of rags to riches stories in the world. Some of you can even tell a story like that. Growing up in the Great Depression with little or nothing, learning how to survive without necessities. And now you are blessed and have all you need and much more. And there are a lot riches to rags stories in the world. People who started out with a lot or maybe had great successes and then lost it. We hear again and again of people winning the lottery and a few years later being worse off than ever. The same story can be told too many times in the world of Hollywood stars and pro sports, athletes making millions and a few years after retirement having nothing left. The incarnation is a story of a Great Condescension, a riches to rags story.
I love when God plans things without our knowing it. Helene came to my study about a month ago to tell me about tonight’s Children’s Program and the theme she had chosen of One Night in Bethlehem. Back in September I had already decided to focus on the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem this morning, a great American carol. I say American carol just to highlight how few of the Christmas carols in our hymnal are from America. I think the only others are I Wonder as I Wander and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and this one. O Little Town of Bethlehem is a truly wonderful hymn and even more so know when you know it’s history. It was written in 1868 by Phillip Brooks, a Boston-born, Harvard-educated, much loved Episcopal pastor. In fact he was one of the most famous American preachers of his generation, like a Billy Graham or Charles Stanley. When he died in 1893 10,000 people stood outside his church in Copley Square in Boston for his funeral. There is a statue of him outside Trinity Church there. But before he became great, God humbled him. After graduating from Harvard he started teaching at the prestigious Boston Latin School. He lasted 5 months. It’s not clear if he quit or was fired. He was told if he couldn’t teach he would fail at anything else. He went to seminary where his first sermon was a disaster. God humbled him, so He could use him. He wrote this carol while pastoring Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia from 1862 to 1869. Think about those dates for just a moment. What was going on in America? He was preaching during the time when our country was ripped apart by a great conflict, tens of thousands of young men taken from their homes and churches and killed on the battlefield. And in April of 1865 just a month before the end of the war, President Abraham Lincoln has assassinated. Our country was in turmoil and crisis and mourning. 1865 was a hard time in America, the great and devastating war between the states was just ending. The great president was dead, there was a darkness and sadness over the land.
Now, I’m sure, you will agree with me, that joy & happiness are always associated with Christmas. ▪ there is joy in the sound of bells ringing & carols sung & greetings & gifts given. ▪ there is happiness for merchants with the noise of cash registers, busy shoppers, sales being made. ▪ there is laughter as family & friends get together, shrieks of delight at the beautiful Christmas decorations displayed, & at presents being unwrapped.
How is the Gospel of Matthew like Lynden, WA? It starts with a drive through a cemetery. Matthew begins the Christmas story with a cemetery tour that visits the gravesites of 47 relatives of Jesus. Jesus was the only person in history who got to choose His relatives. And some of His choices are about as hard to explain as Mary’s pregnancy. Notice who some of Jesus’ relatives were. Matthew starts with Abraham who was from Iraq, from the idolatrous people of Mesopotamia. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all got their wives from Iraq. Tamar (vs. 3) was a Canaanite who had to turn to prostitution to trick Judah into doing what was right. Rahab (vs. 5) was a Canaanite and well-known prostitute from the cursed city of Jericho. Ruth (vs. 5) was from Moab east of Israel in modern Jordan. Moabites were a race of cursed people born out of incest between Lot and his daughters. Bathsheba (vs. 6) was a married to a Hittite and might have been one as well. The Hittites lived in what is modern Turkey. A whole host of foreigners and sinners. Jesus took His blood from the world and shed that blood for the whole world. Jesus is the only World Savior.
This Advent season we have been focusing on Jesus as Savior. Christ is our Sin Savior who saves us from our sins and from the judgment and condemnation our sins deserve. We are great sinners and Christ is our great Sin Savior. Christ is our Sole Savior; He is the only name given to mankind by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12). Christ is our Shepherd Savior, He knows us and cares for us and protects us and willingly lays down His life for us and rewards us with eternal life. Our text this morning makes a stunning revelation about another aspect of our Savior. We have heard the Christmas story so many times we don’t hear the shock of it. Shepherds listen up, “Today in Bethlehem there has been a baby born who is the Messiah, and this baby is your Savior, and He is also the Lord Himself come from heaven.” No wonder they reacted the way they did, first with fear at the angel’s message and then with perplexity at this strange thing the angels said. No wonder the people wondered at what the shepherds said. Those words of the angels would have been an utter shock to first century Jewish ears. First of all, that the long expected Messiah has come as a baby. And then that this baby is also Lord, meaning God Himself. How is this possible? No one saw this coming. Lord means sovereign, and I want us to consider our Savior’s sovereignty in two ways. First, His Lordship over all creation and His power and authority as God to do all things. Second, His Lordship over us and our responsibility to submit to Jesus not just as our Savior but as the Lord over our lives.
To the first century Middle Eastern ear these words from John 10 were a sweet sound. Those words grounded in the long history of an agrarian people were rich in meaning and truth. “Before men dared to think of God as their Father, they called Him their Shepherd” (Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd, p. 14). When Jacob stretched out his hands to bless his son Joseph he said God had been his Shepherd all the days of his life (Gen. 48:15). The greatest heroes of our faith tended sheep. All of the OT patriarchs, the greatest of the lawgivers Moses, the sweetest of the poets David, and some of the mightiest of the prophets were all shepherds (see Jefferson, p. 40-41). One of the greatest Psalms, Psalm 23, was written by a shepherd who realized he had a shepherd and so he wrote from the perspective of a sheep who had a relationship with a shepherd. Psalm 23 begins with a stunning truth. This universe we live in and this earth we live on are created and sustained by a shepherd God. The great Almighty, all-knowing, creator God of the universe compares Himself to a shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd, we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care. We live in a world created by a shepherd God and we live in a world redeemed by a shepherd Savior. Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd three times in our passage. How good is our Shepherd Savior, and how is He good?
Last week I proclaimed Jesus as our Sin Savior. Jesus came to earth to pay a bill, to cover a debt, to deliver a ransom. On Good Friday Christ wrote a check in His blood as full payment for all our sins. On Easter the check cleared. God accepted it as satisfactory payment for our sins. I spoke of Christ as an unblemished Lamb, took our place, became our substitute, satisfied divine justice, and reconciled us to God. In Christ we are forgiven. He is our salvation, but is He our only way to salvation? Is He our Sole Savior from sin and death?
The sanctuary looks beautiful. I am especially grateful for the hours of preparation given by Rich and Coni Hoolsema, Jan Bos and Nancy Zylstra. It is my prayer that God will be glorified in all that we do as we celebrate this season. I look forward to celebrating our tenth advent season with you. Today marks the first day of the Christian church calendar. All over the world today the Christian church is beginning their celebrations of one of the most central truths of the Christian faith, that astonishing miracle when God became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Each advent season our worship planning team and I think and pray about a special theme to focus our thoughts in this season. This year our theme is Our Savior Comes. Advent is a great time to think about a Savior, after all advent is about our Savior coming into the world. There have been many great leaders in history who have done some great things. And some of those great leaders have taken for themselves some lofty titles. Alexander the Great and Herod the Great. Robert the Magnificent who was father of William the Conqueror. Richard the Lionhearted and Charles the Bold. But when the Son of God came to earth God said call Him Savior. His name shall be called Jesus because He will save His people from their sins. The name Jesus like its OT equivalent, Joshua, means the Lord saves. His name declares His mission on earth, His agenda. Jesus is the author of salvation.