Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Changes Everything

They say that in order to understand Christmas, you need to have children. Well, one thing is for sure: children know how to anticipate Christmas. When I was growing up, one of my four brothers celebrated his birthday one month before Christmas, but the day after those celebrations were over, we were given "permission" to think about Christmas, and think we did. Can you imagine the buzz five boys could create when given the opportunity?

But two thousand years ago, there was a different kind of buzz… Back then, they didn’t have internet; they didn’t have television; they didn’t even have radio. Back then, if you sent someone a letter, it might not even make it to its destination. But there was still buzz. You see, they had been told that something amazing was going to happen, and they had been given some clues as to when and where it would happen. And some of the experts of that time were saying that this could happen any-time-now.

The buzz was all about the coming of the Messiah. There were these amazing prophecies. Last week we revisited a few of them. Five hundred years before that, the King of Babylon had this dream of a statue made of gold, and silver, and bronze, and iron, and how the prophet Daniel explained to the King that four these different metals represented four different Kingdoms. One would conquer the other, until at last a rock would come that destroyed that idol and changed the landscape of the earth forever. The rock, the prophet said, represents a Kingdom the God of Heaven would establish that would last for all eternity.

So around two thousand years ago, the first Kingdom, the Kingdom of Babylon, had come and gone. The Second Kingdom, the Persian Empire was also now history. The third Kingdom, the Macedonian/Greek Empire of Alexander the Great had fallen to the fourth Kingdom, the Roman Empire. So here they were in the time of the fourth great empire, and they were all whispering about the coming Rock, the Kingdom from God.

We were also reminded of another prophecy by Daniel. In it, roughly five hundred years were projected between the decree to permit the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the arrival of the Messiah, the one who changes everything. And once again, those five hundred years became due around two thousand years ago. More expectation; more buzz. Today, when the most devout church folk get together and what do they talk about? World news? The economy? Fashion? Politics? What’s on television? What’s happening in the hockey league? Sad, but too true. Back then, farmers, fishermen and shepherds would get together and talk about the one who was coming to change everything. Do you remember the story of the woman that Jesus met at the well? That woman was not exactly the most respectable of individuals, but she told Jesus that she was expecting the Messiah to come.

Of course, there are plenty of other prophecies in the Old Testament. My favorite is from Isaiah:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

So with the air full of these and so many and more prophecies, this was the setting in which a very old and Godly man named Simeon one morning woke up one morning feeling that he should go find a baby in the temple. And so he got up, and he prepared himself and off he went. When he arrived at the temple, he came upon a couple carrying an eight-day-old baby boy. When our kids were born, we were so proud of them, we were just delighted to show them off to anyone willing to admire them, especially if they were very young or very old. And these two young people with the baby permitted Simeon to take the child in his arms. When he did, he couldn’t help himself: he prayed. And he said:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon, this dear old man, was so close to God that he knew that this little boy, a child that they had named Jesus, was the beginning of a new beginning.

And so it is: God reveals His Son, His Messiah, His salvation. Does He just reveal these precious truths to those who are old, and religious, and pious, and good? Well, Simeon was neither the first nor the last person to hear this good news. God also reveals himself to the young, and the not-so-religious, and the not-so-pious, and even the not-so-good.

In fact, eight days before Simeon had the privilege of holding God’s Messiah, there were some shepherds out in the fields… and shepherds in those days were not exactly known for their cleverness, their virtue, or their piety. But you all know the story: an angel came and frightened these guys out of their wits. I don’t know if you have ever seen an angel, but I’m willing to guess that they are pretty awesome, to say the least. And if you’ve been at all naughty when an angel shows up, your first thought isn’t that there is good news – kind of like hearing sirens on the highway when you’re going 130. But here are the words of the angel: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for everyone. Today in Bethlehem a Savior Christ the Lord has been born for you.” And here we get to the heart of the first change that Jesus brings to the world. The angel said that the good news of great joy is for everyone. Christ is born for you.

In every other kingdom the world has every known, there is great advantage to being born into the right family, or there is great advantage to being born beautiful, or smart, or rich. That’s not how it is in the Kingdom of God: the coming of the Kingdom of God is wonderful news for ev-e-ry-one, no exceptions. And God showed it from the very first moment, when he sent his first messengers not to kings or scholars or celebrities. He sent them to a bunch of riff-raff on the night shift … shepherds.

But the Kingdom of God is not just for the downtrodden. It is not just for the old and frail. The next set of visitors for the newborn baby were a group of guys that the Bible refers to as “magicians”. It’s true! The word “magi”, which is translated “wise men” is exactly the same word used to refer to magicians. And we all know how cool magicians are… But honestly, the modern equivalent would be scientists! Seriously. These were the most educated people in the world at the time. The Persian wise men were known the world over for their great learning. And it is almost certain that they would have been aware of the expectation of a Messiah in the land of Israel. In fact, this expectation of the Messiah was so well known, that we have evidence of it in surviving ancient Roman writings. Suetonius wrote: “There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world.”

So one of the fields of study for these scientists was the stars, and, in their study, they noticed something amazing in the sky and concluded that it was the sign of the Jewish Messiah! So what is this “star” that they saw? First, the word translated as “star” can mean any astrological occurrence. But, and this is very cool, we can use our modern knowledge of the paths of the planets and reconstruct the night sky in and around the time of Jesus birth. The astronomer Susan Carroll writes, “There were some incredibly spectacular astronomical events that occurred during this period.” For example, we can track the three planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars to a rare convergence around that time, and there was another four-planet conjunction, too. Even a comet (number 52 on Williams list of comets) appeared in the sky around that time. But another perhaps even more interesting event was a triple-retrograde path of the planet Jupiter that also involved a conjunction with the planet Venus. In fact, the retrogrades of the king-planet Jupiter had it circle around the king-star Regulus, and would have had it appear in the constellation Leo (remember the Lion of Judah) and Virgo, the virgin. These wise men were treated to a feast of celestial action just before Jesus was born.

But perhaps the most significant thing about the wise men was not the fact that they were rich, or that they were smart, or that they had studied. The most significant thing about the wise men was that they weren’t Jewish! Traditionally, the Jewish people have kept to themselves. Of course, it is hard to blame them: everyone else throughout history seems out to get them. But the prophecies about the Messiah said that He would come to save His people, but that he would also be a light to the Nations. And so the story of the first Christmas has the message making it to the Jews and to the Gentiles, to the religious and to the not-so-much, to the educated and to the ignorant… Oh, and I forgot one, didn’t I?

Remember Simeon? Old man in the temple holding the eight-day old baby Jesus. Well, as he was praying, a woman named Anna approached, and the Bible says that she gave thanks to God and told everyone she knew about the baby. So let me spell this out: for the first time in history, there is a story cuts across age, and cuts across gender, and cuts across religion, and cuts across race, and cuts across education. All the old structures have been defeated, and will eventually be blown away on the wind. That ground-breaking story? The story of the first Christmas. The man-made idols of wealth, and economics, and power and strength are pulverized by the coming of the Kingdom of God. Christmas changes everything.

The very first words that we have written concerning the message of Jesus are these (from Mark 1:15): “The countdown is over. The Kingdom of God has arrived.” That rock had arrived at the foot of the idol, turning it into so much dust. Those almost-five hundred years were now past. Simeon correctly identifies Jesus as the Most Holy Anointed One. And over the last two thousand years, that rock, the Kingdom of God has grown to cover the whole earth. We have the privilege to be part of that Kingdom this morning. What’s more, contrary to the partially true if trendy idea that religion is an agent of discord and violence in the world, the legacy of Christ and His church is one of human rights, of higher education, of health care, of artistic expression and of fairness and justice. All of this is history, all of it is good news. But there is, unfortunately, bad news in history as well. In particular, we note that the majority of the Jewish people rejected Jesus as their Messiah. As we read in John’s gospel, “He came unto his own, but his own did not receive him.” How come?

Well, the answer to this question is crucial. It isn’t just important religiously. It isn’t just important historically. It is important today. It is important for you. It is critical for you. Because this Christmas season the birth of Jesus is the opportunity once again to align yourself with the Kingdom of God. Sure, the kingdoms of this world have wormed their way into our thinking over the last year. Sure, we’ve been seduced by the kingdom of power, or the kingdom of wealth. But those won’t go the distance. Betting on those horses means losing your shirt. The key to alignment with the only Kingdom that will last is found in the rest of Jesus’ message. Remember what He said from a few seconds ago? “The countdown is over. The Kingdom of God has arrived.” Now listen carefully to what comes next: “change your way of thinking, and receive the good news.” Change your way of thinking. Here is the reason that folks resist their Savior. Here is the reason that folks reject their only Hope. They just don’t want to give up on their way of thinking. They are simply too close-minded.

When I was in University, one night my folks told me that we were having a guest speaker at church the next Sunday, and that he was going to stay at our place and have dinner on Saturday night. So Saturday night came around, and this really, really old Scottish guy shows up, and he’s nice and polite and all, but after dinner I excused myself to go do some homework. Engineering students always have lots of homework. I didn’t give this guy another thought until the next morning he was invited up to the pulpit. Ho hum. …and then he started to speak! This guy was amazing! He had traveled all over the world evangelizing, and he had written books about his travels. The books were so compelling that he had received multiple honorary degrees in Geography from Universities all over the globe. This guy was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the American Geographical Society, the Royal Historical Society, and the Royal Society of Literature. He was one of the original board members of Campus Crusade for Christ. He also has at least one of the hymns in our hymnal. And he had every single person on the edge of their seats. Nobody noticed the time fly by; nobody wanted him to stop speaking. …And I had had the opportunity the previous night to listen to this guy in my own home, but was too stupid…trying to be smart! I wish someone had told me “you might not have thought that it could happen, but there is a genius here; change your mind – change your way of thinking – and believe the good news.”

Now I’m going to ask you to use your imaginations. First, I want you to imagine that you are single. That doesn’t take too much imagination for some. But then, I want you to imagine that there was someone in the world who God made to be your soul mate. Somewhere in the world, there is someone who is made just perfectly for you: he or she would laugh at your jokes; would understand your ideas; would cover for you in your weakness and would cheer you in your strengths. He or she is perfectly wired to share true love with you. And now imagine that you meet him or her tomorrow. That would be a miracle, wouldn’t it: out of more than six billion people in the world, God brings you together with someone who was made especially for you. How perfectly amazing that would be, wouldn’t it? What good news!

But now suppose that you’ve been through a lot. You’ve known hurt; you’ve been let down a few times. And suppose that those hurts have made you just cynical enough… that you don’t believe in true love any more. Someone I know says that true love exists in Neverland with fairies and leprechauns. Perhaps she’s right. Someone said that being a pessimist is always the best policy: you are always either right or pleasantly surprised. J But if you were a bit too pessimistic, you might not even notice… you might not even realize that you were introduced to someone who could synchronize with your heart in ways that most people can only dream about. Talk about tragic! Talk about heart-breaking! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity appeared to you, and you weren’t clever enough to notice. Someone needed to be there beside you, telling you “you might not have thought it could ever happen, but your soul-mate is here; change your mind – change your way of thinking – and believe the good news!”

But that is exactly what happened to God’s people around two thousand years ago. They were expecting the Messiah to come. They just weren’t expecting him to come like he did. That’s why Jesus message was always “change your way of thinking.” (that is, after all what the word “repent” means, isn’t it?) If you don’t change your way of thinking, you’ll never get it. You’ll never know the incredible joy and peace that God is offering to you this morning.

So that’s my Christmas message for you: “you might not ever have thought that it could happen. You might not have ever imagined that you could know the Creator of the universe personally, but you can! Change your mind, and receive the good news! You might not ever have guessed that He wants to talk to you and use you in the world for your joy and His Kingdom, but he does! Change your mind, and receive the good news!” You might think that the birth of a baby boy two thousand years ago couldn’t possibly be relevant to you. If you think that way, you are just like those who, when they heard where Jesus was from, said ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’. Their prejudice clouded their thinking, and kept them from receiving the truest source of fulfillment. Don’t let your prejudices cloud your thinking; don’t let your habits of mind keep you from being open to the good news of great joy, which are for all people, including you. “I tell you,” the Bible says, “Now is the time of God’s favor; now is the day of salvation.” Change your way of thinking and receive the good news. You might not have thought that it could happen, but God came and revealed Himself to people, and He wants to reveal Himself to you; change your mind and believe the good news.

Don’t waste your time on any of those other structures and Kingdoms in the world. This season, I’ve had the fun of singing in Handel’s Messiah, and if you can, I’d like you to imagine the Hallelujah Chorus with me. It starts majestically (Hallelujah, Hallelujah), but in the middle, there is this sudden hush, and the words of Revelation come through: “the Kingdom of this world is become…the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.” King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah. Amen and Merry Christmas!