Monday, December 24, 2007

The Word of the Lord Increased

In at least three places in the book of Acts, chapter 6:7, 12:24, and 19:20, the author, Luke, describes how the “word of the Lord increased.” The book of Acts describes the early decades of the first Christians, as they strove to bring the message of the Gospel in ever-expanding circles to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Along the way they faced much opposition and persecution. Sometimes the opposition was merely verbal, and at other times it took the form of imprisonment, flogging, or even death by stoning (see the example of Stephen, Acts 7).

But the fascinating part about the three passages that I mentioned above, along with many other passages in the book of Acts, is how the church continued to grow and abound in the face of such opposition. In Acts chapter 6, the apostles had been arrested and put in prison, beaten and then told not to speak in the name of Jesus. In Acts chapter 12, the apostle James was killed by Herod, and then Peter was again jailed. In Acts 19 many magicians and sorcerers quit their magical arts and turned to the Lord, and following verse 20 there arose a great riot in Ephesus. Nevertheless, in each situation, the “word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” The surprising thing is how the opposition to the message of the Gospel did not snuff out or silence the early Christians, but almost seemed to energize and invigorate the further spreading of the Gospel! And lest we be misled to think that it was merely some sociological phenomena where the early disciples were just galvanized against opposition—Luke makes it clear to us that it was the Word of the Lord that increased, and was the driving power behind this growth. The testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, witnessed by the apostles and many others, was a message that could not be contained, no matter what the opposition!

At some points, such as Acts 8:1-4, the persecution caused the believers to scatter, which turned out to be like trying to put out a fire in dry field by striking the fire. It only served to scatter the sparks and burning embers, as the believers spread out even further, to proclaim the message of the word. So this all leads me to wonder…how should Christians today regard opposition to the faith? Perhaps we have enjoyed too long a time of prosperity, and Christian beliefs have experienced a widespread acceptance, or at least toleration. And while Christians in other countries are certainly facing violence (check out the “Voice of the Martyrs” website), here in this country, most of the opposition still remains verbal or ideological.

So how ought we to receive criticism of the faith, and of the Biblical record? Some have suggested that we should be thankful for these challenges to the faith as opportunities for us to engage the world with the true message of the Gospel. When we see or hear Christianity being misrepresented or distorted by those who would challenge the Word, we may be given opportunities to more clearly articulate the true message of the Gospel to a world in desperate need of that truth. The apostle Peter advised that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16a). Are you prepared to give a defense? Do you know the reason for the hope that is in you?

In any opposition, whether we are facing physical threats of persecution (as in the case of the apostles and many Christians in the mission field today) or whether it be merely the arguments of unbelievers, it is the Word of the Lord that must be our driving force. If, like the early Christians, we are devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), we will continue to grow and increase in understanding of God’s Word. It is there in Christ’s Word that we learn the message of salvation and the wisdom of God which is revealed to us in the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:21-25). With God’s own Word as our proclamation and instructor, we can boldly face the challenges that arise to our faith. We need not become discouraged or disheartened when Christianity seems to come under fire, but we boldly confess the truth and with gentleness and respect present a winsome defense of the Christian faith. Being faithful to that Word, we have this certain knowledge: that the Word of the Lord will increase, even and especially in the face of opposition. So let’s rise to the challenge instead of hiding or ignoring it, and go forward to speak the truth in love!

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, 4th Sunday in Advent

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text for this Fourth Sunday in Advent is Matthew 1:18-25. On this final Sunday of the Advent season, Advent’s muted celebration of the coming kingdom of God gives way to the full-fledged joyfulness of Christmas, as we move from the calls of repentance to the birth of the Savior from sin. Today we learn how the fear, doubt, and uncertainty of our lives is dispersed with the glorious light of Christ Jesus’ coming. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the sermon today, we will join in speaking words that have echoed through Christian churches for at least 17 centuries. Words that we cannot allow to become commonplace simply because we have repeated them so often. Words that were made possible 20 centuries or 2,000 years ago, when Christ was born of a virgin. The words I speak of are the Christmas Words of the Apostle’s Creed, that I believe “in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” These words have echoed through Christian churches since the time of the early Christians, testifying to God’s personal entrance into the scene of human history, as God made flesh, the incarnation. The heart of the Christmas story.

Christmas is the true story that takes us outside of ourselves—outside of the loneliness, the hurt, the doubt, the sinfulness of life, as God descends to join us to His own narrative. The narrative of His only begotten Son born into the world to save lost sinners. That the deliverance from our fears would not be in ourselves or our own striving, but would come to us from outside us—from the divine offspring of God the Father and the Virgin Mary, His mother. God with us, the answer to all mankind’s ills. Christmas is a time to marvel in reverent awe at God coming into human history to work out our salvation. The clouds break on the darkness of the world and the light of a new day dawns on humanity.

But the circumstances of how this all came to be, is far from the way we would have written the story. Yet we will see how closely those circumstances mirror our own, in considering how we are brought into God’s Christmas story. The entrance of God into human flesh didn’t occur with some angelic being descending from heaven in power and glory. He could have come striking fear in the hearts of all. Or He could have descended as a divine, benevolent ruler, come to claim our worship, but only impersonally ours—in no way born into our race or sharing our true likeness and experience. No, instead Jesus the Son of God from heaven, was born to a woman put in uncertain circumstances, trying faithfully to obey the Lord’s will. He entered humanity personally, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As we learn from Matthew’s account, the beginning of God’s plan for salvation was almost overshadowed by a cloud of suspicion and fear, as Joseph made the unsettling discovery that his betrothed wife Mary was pregnant, though they had not yet come together.

Jesus did not enter the world without hardships or obstacles, both to Mary and Joseph, and even to Himself. Consider that the first Christmas could’ve easily ended with a divorced and disgraced mother Mary, fending for her child alone. Even though they hadn’t come together yet, they were already legally considered husband and wife; and you can imagine Joseph’s distress when she was found to be pregnant, and he wasn’t the father! Unlike a modern engagement, betrothal couldn’t be broken informally, but required a divorce certificate, even if done privately, as Joseph intended. What a cloud of emotions must have hung over Joseph as he brooded over these things! His love for her, his trust in her integrity—but now?

Undoubtedly feeling betrayed, yet still torn by his love for her, Joseph chose to show mercy by getting a private divorce. This was to spare her from public shame and the penalty of stoning, which legally he could’ve had done. Scripture calls Joseph a righteous man for choosing to do this, and I think in part it’s because Joseph reflects God our Father’s heart. God our heavenly Father won’t expose us to shame or disgrace because of our sins, if we turn to Jesus, the one who saves us from our sins. He is righteous, more righteous than Joseph, and has covered our shame by the cloak of His Son’s righteousness. He has taken the church to be His bride, and spared her of any disgrace. And so God intervened to Joseph in a dream, and Joseph took Mary, his wife, sparing her from any disgrace; and he had faith in the Lord’s words. After Joseph had his struggle of conscience, God revealed to him that Mary was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. But what relief! Like the Son bursting through the clouds of his uncertainty, his fears were laid to rest. Not only was his beloved wife Mary found faithful to him, but he realized a far greater joy, that he should step-father the Savior Jesus, who would save us from our sins! Already before His birth, sin is identified as our fundamental problem that Jesus came to solve.

This is what I love about the Christian faith and the Christmas story. It’s the true story that brings lasting hope and joy, but doesn’t deny or ignore the real human struggles and uncertainties that are part of life, even as they were part of the Christmas story. The Christian concepts of hope and joy are not just superficial sentimentality and warm feelings that often circulate around the holidays. This kind of joy can quickly come crashing down as illness, death, or hardship do not disappear for the holiday season. It’s well-known that the holidays are a difficult time for many people, and that contrary to the apparent joy that seems to pervade the atmosphere, people can often feel emotionally drained or depressed during the holidays. If our Christian joy were only that superficial layer of sentimentality and cheer, then we could understand why some are cynical about the holidays. But for the Christian, who truly grasps what Advent and Christmas time is about, the joy of Christmas shines through the darkness, illuminating those dwelling in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Christian hope and joy doesn’t deny or paper over the real difficulties and turmoil in life, but faces them as a real consequences of sin, and gives an answer to them. Christian hope points to the One who saves us from our sins, Jesus Christ! In the baby born in the manger, there is the birth of hope for a darkened world—the hope of the God who has plans for us—plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11). Christ was born into the uncertainty of Joseph and Mary’s young married existence—and doubtless they had their share of fears and uncertainties to escape. Mary’s near escape with the public shame of having been found pregnant without her husband; Joseph’s fear of having his betrothed wife being unfaithful to him; the tiring journey to Bethlehem; the lack of a proper room in an inn that first Christmas; the threat of Herod’s soldiers searching for a King born to the Jews. It didn’t end there.

But in the midst of what seemed to be swirling impossibility and bewildering circumstances, Joseph and Mary walked in obedience and faith to the commands of the Lord. And into the topsy-turvy world of these faithful servants of the Lord, was born the Christ child, come as their very Lord, to walk amongst them. God with us! He would deliver them to a hope and a future they couldn’t have fully expected in their uncertainty. Yet Jesus was not just born into the life of Mary and Joseph—He came for all humanity. God’s beacon of light shining out to the chaos of a world laboring under the guilt and burden of sin. God had entered into the chaos to be the anchor of stability; that all the promises of the prophets might be fulfilled in this lowly child, born into a manger. Here the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ. Here was a refuge and a shelter for all the storm-tossed and distressed.

We can see in Joseph and Mary, and also in us, what the Psalmist meant when he spoke of the righteous: “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries”(Ps. 112:6-8). This is the kind of trust and security that the believer has, when he is resting on the sure promises of the Lord. We need not be afraid of bad news, but can have a steady heart as we trust in the Lord. For He’s the Lord who is Emmanuel, “God with us.” And God is with us precisely in His saving power and plan, as He literally became one of us in flesh and blood, as Jesus, who would save us from our sins. As troubling as fears, doubts, and uncertainties are to us, they are merely the symptom of a deeper problem, namely that of sin. And this is precisely the problem that Jesus Christ was born into the world to take away.

When we call Jesus “Emmanuel,” God with us, we are recognizing that God is with us in the most personal and beneficial way—as our Savior from sin. As one commentator thought about three different ways one can view God, he put it this way: “By the light of nature, we see God as a God above us; by the light of the law, we see him as a God against us; but by the light of the gospel, we see him as Immanuel, God with us, in our own nature, and (which is more) in our interest.” After the miracle of Jesus incarnation—God coming into human flesh at Christmas—we can truly say that God is not simply above us in the heavens, watching at a distance. We can truly say that He is not against us any longer because of our sins. But He is truly with us and among us for our interest. In Jesus’ conception and birth from the Virgin Mary, God was creating the circumstances whereby He could send the Savior from sin. One who was fully human, so as to be the legal substitute for human sin; and one who was fully God, so as to be able to die the death that would atone for the sin of the whole world, and further to be raised from the dead. Only as true God and true man could Jesus’ death accomplish what God intended. You see, God’s saving plan was not complete with Jesus’ birth—the goal was not merely to have God as a companion for humanity—rather the plan was complete with Jesus’ perfect death on the cross, where He saved His people (us) from our sins.

Emmanuel, God with us, through the mystery of the Incarnation, born of the Virgin Mary, the heart of the Christmas story. But since Christ has risen from the dead, and ascended to heaven, are we now absent a Savior? Was “God with us” only for the 33 years of Jesus’ earthly life, and now He’s only “God above us” again? By no means! As He’s with us through the mystery of the Incarnation, to save us from our sins, so also is God with us through the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, where today we can share in the very body and blood of the one who is with us to save His people from their sins. When we commune, we truly partake in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), who is there at the table, Emmanuel, God with us, in His saving work. There God brings us the forgiveness He earned for us through Jesus’ death on the cross. So Christ truly has kept His promise that He will be with us till the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), both through His Supper and through the sending of His Holy Spirit. With the knowledge that our God is with us for our salvation from sin, we have a lasting joy and hope that cannot be stolen away, no matter what our circumstances. For in the Christmas story we have been pulled out of ourselves and into the narrative of God with us, working for our salvation. Praise to Emmanuel! God with us! Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.