Christmas Eve – All I Want for Christmas is Faith

Luke 1:26-38 tells us what led to the observance of Christmas Eve, the holy night for Christians everywhere. Nothing is outside the power of God to accomplish the impossible. Click the videos below and we will remember and observe the coming of the Christ child…

Josh Groban – O Holy Night
Silent Night – Concordia Christmas Concerts, 2016

May the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the Magi, the obedience of Joseph and Mary, and the peace of the Christ child be yours this Christmas. And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.  Amen.  

All I Want for Christmas Is Faith

Annunciation to Mary by Salvador Dali, 1965

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary.  The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered.  “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38, NIV)

Most of life is lived in the mundane, even in a time of pandemic. For the most part our everyday lives involve going about our business and dealing with the daily grind. That is because we are common ordinary people. So, we can especially relate to Mary because she is quite plain. 

To put Mary’s life in our contemporary vernacular, at the time of this encounter with the angel, she is of junior high age but has never attended school. She wears mostly clothes from Goodwill, and occasionally can get some from Wal-Mart. She cannot read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We do not know if she even liked him. She lives in a small town that most people cannot point to on a map. 

One night, into the bedroom of this young girl comes the brightly beaming divine messenger Gabriel whose name means, “God has shown himself mighty.” Mary stands there in her ratty old flannel nightgown, her life very quickly moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The juxtaposition could not be more pronounced:  a mighty angel and a plain teen-ager; a messenger of the Most High God and a girl barely past puberty; a holy angelic light which beams in a simple candlelit bedroom; an awesome power encountering complete vulnerability.

Annunciation by Mexican painter Angel Zárraga (1886-1946)

Mary, compared to Gabriel, is defenseless, fragile, and overwhelmed. She is in way over her head. That is why we can relate to her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She is like us. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life and altered it forever. She is the Matron Saint of the Ordinary. We can totally understand why Mary responds the way she does.

Mary’s initial reaction was to be “greatly troubled.”  She was disturbed and shaking in her hand-me-down slippers. The angel confidently told Mary that she had found favor with God. In other words, Mary was literally “graced” by God. The situation was not that Mary had some extreme spirituality, but that God simply chose her to be the mother of Jesus. And Mary needed to come to grips with what was happening to her.  This was well beyond anything she could have expected.  Becoming pregnant with the Savior of the world was not even remotely on her radar. 

Mary immediately sensed the crazy disconnect between what was being told to her and who she was. After all, she was a plain ordinary girl from the hick town of Nazareth and was being told that she would raise a king.  Maybe somebody in heaven screwed up. Maybe Gabriel got the wrong girl. Maybe his Google map sent Gabriel on a wild goose chase. Relating to Mary, we can totally understand that she would question how in the world all this was going to happen.  Not only is Mary ordinary and far from royalty, but she is also very much a virgin.  Nothing about any of this made any sense.

But the angel let Mary know that God specializes in the impossible. English translators chose to phrase the original rendering of Gabriel’s words as “for nothing is impossible with God.” I rather prefer the more literal translation which is “for there is nothing outside of God’s power.” To me, that is beautiful. There is nowhere we can go, no place on earth, no situation whatsoever that is beyond God’s ability and reach to affect divine power.

We do not always get straightforward answers to our questions about God, but Mary asked a question and got a straight answer: She really can be pregnant with Jesus because the Holy Spirit will come upon her, will overshadow her with power. If the story were to end there it would be a great story. But to me the most astonishing part of the narrative is Mary’s response to what was happening to her.

Mary believed the message and submitted herself completely to God’s will. I think we would completely understand if Mary simply said in her ordinary way that she was not prepared for this. We would totally “get it” if Mary pushed back on what the angel said to her. We could relate if Mary just dismissed the angel’s presence, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol, as if Gabriel were just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Yet, Mary not only believed; she also humbly submitted herself to what was happening. And this is what I believe we need to relate to most about Mary – not her being just a plain ordinary person in a non-descript village but stepping up to the calling she received. We, too, have received a calling in our lives. We, too, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit.  We, too, are ordinary people who have been given a very extraordinary task. 

Our response today can be the same as Mary: “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.” The Church is pregnant with possibilities because of the Holy Spirit. We know the end of Mary’s story. She gave birth to Jesus. She raised him in her plain ordinary way. She watched him grow up. She saw him embark on his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God has become near. Mary did not always understand what Jesus said or what he was doing. And she experienced every mother’s nightmare in seeing her beloved son killed in a terribly gruesome manner right in front of her eyes. 

Yet, just as the Holy Spirit was with the birth of Jesus, so the Spirit was with Jesus at his resurrection from the dead. Jesus lived an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way. Furthermore, today Jesus invites us to do the same. Because Christ accomplished his mission of saving people from their sins and establishing a kingdom that will never end, he has given us the same Holy Spirit to follow him forever and call other people to follow him, too. 

To trust and obey is God’s only way to live into the life of Jesus. The Christian life may often be difficult, but it is not complicated. It is rather simple, just like Mary. Mary responded to God’s revelation with faith, choosing to fully participate in what God was doing. “I am the Lord’s servant” is our confession, as well. Along with Mary we declare, “May it be to me as you have said.”

Revelation 19:1-9 – “Hallelujah!”

Adoration of the Lamb by Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck, 1432

After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:

“Hallelujah!
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
    for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

And again, they shouted:

“Hallelujah!
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”

The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried:

“Amen, Hallelujah!”

Then a voice came from the throne, saying:

“Praise our God,
    all you his servants,
you who fear him,
    both great and small!”

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (NIV)

Things will not always be this way. There is coming a time when pandemics and poverty will end. In the age to come there will be no more grief, tears, oppression, hardship, and suffering. The day will arrive when, together with all saints past and present, and along with the angelic host, we will collectively shout, “Hallelujah!”

Time is simply the relationship between events. When all events are ended, there will be no more time – only unending eternity in the presence of God. For the Christian, this is our hope and ultimate salvation. Our deliverance from sin, death, and hell will be complete.

So, we wait and watch, preparing ourselves for the consummation of God’s kingdom. Meanwhile, we are truly in an awkward time between the two advents of Christ. It is the already/not yet time. We are already saved, yet not fully; we are holy, yet not completely; we have our adoption papers as children of God, yet still wait for our celebration feast with Christ.

Second Coming by English painter Kevin Derek Moore

There are few times more awkward, agonizing, joyful, and hopeful than a marriage engagement. Its as if two people are inextricably connected but not yet completely together. I still remember the downright weird feeling of the six months between my engagement to my heart’s love and standing at the altar marrying my bride.

Those months included every emotion imaginable, from exuberant happiness to terrible impatience, along with hopeful anticipation and sheer nervousness. It was a time, for me, of unique joy and unwanted suffering. Since I was separated by two-thousand miles from my beloved for most of our engagement, it was an unparalleled longing for the marriage to occur.

That is likely how believers have felt throughout the ages as they anticipate the second coming of Christ. In a period of hardship and even persecution, Christians long for their Savior – to be with Jesus forever and be shed of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In this present age, we have received the Holy Spirit as a sort of engagement ring, a continual sign and presence to help us until the marriage happens with Christ as groom and the Church as bride. Since we have not yet experienced this, it is difficult for us to anticipate just how incredible and inconceivable the coming age will be.

Yet, the Christian intuitively knows, by means of the Spirit, that the upcoming marriage supper will be a heavenly paradise – and so we long for it, especially in these days of uncertainty and difficulty.

Presently, the great harlot attempts to seduce the believers, if that were possible, away from Christ. However, along with all God’s holy angels, we will join in the heavenly chorus which continually sings, “Hallelujah!” to Father, Son, and Spirit.

The book of Revelation describes the end of history for the purpose of encouraging the saints of God in the present. God will once and for all destroy evil and faithful believers will be united with Christ forever in glory.

So, as we draw near to a close of this Christian Year with its anticipation of the new, beginning with Advent, we are mindful of both advents, both comings of Jesus. As we remember the first, we anticipate and gaze longingly for the second. Holding them both together, the past and the future, guides us in the present because Jesus Christ bookends our lives with the mercy of the cross and the grace of his coming again.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – A New Covenant

The Last Supper by Francis Newton Souza, 1990

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT)

For the past few weeks, the Daily Lectionary readings brought us steady admonitions of passing faith onto future generations, with obedience as the key to it all. However, God’s ancient people kept going through significant times of unfaithfulness, infidelity, and disobedience. As if they had some sort of spiritual A.D.D., the people could not seem to keep their eyes off the glittering gods from the surrounding nations.

For certain, God has always possessed a faithful remnant of people devoted to observing the covenant. Yet, the nation in the prophet Jeremiah’s day floundered and broke faith with the teaching given to them.

Since God’s grace has the last word, the sins and shortcomings of the backslidden people who failed to pass on the covenant teachings to their progeny would have a better ending than judgment.

God’s answer to repeated human failings was to establish a new covenant, unprecedented in its audacious mercy.

Rather than rewriting commands on stone tablets (as with Moses on Mount Sinai) and having a remedial class on covenant, God would instead do the extraordinary by writing the law on human hearts – that way they would know the Lord in a direct and immediate way. What is more, it would be for everybody, neither only for the remnant nor for the spiritual elite.

From the least to the greatest, from young to old, even from Jew to Gentile, God would forgive once and for all.

If that is not the most gracious act ever decreed, I do not know what is. This was a radical move of spiritual amnesty which was completely undeserved and most definitely not something any other god from any other nation would ever do. It was unthinkable – completely off everyone’s radar. Yet, that is exactly what grace does.

From a New Testament (New Covenant) perspective, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s good covenant promises to the people. Furthermore, God’s Holy Spirit serves as the continuing presence of Jesus within us, teaching us and guiding us in the ways of God. Our only task, then, is to live into those promises – to know them, claim them, and bank on them. 

We are most obedient when we believe the promises of God and throw all our hope in them.

The implications of this divine decree are enormous. It means:

  • I cannot do a dang thing to earn God’s acceptance because I already have it! (John 6:37; Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 8:33-39, 15:7-12)
  • I need not fear judgment because Jesus has already taken care of the sin issue, once for all! (Romans 6:5-10; Hebrews 7:27-28, 10:5-10; 1 John 4:17-18)
  • I lack nothing because God has already given me everything I need for life and godliness in this present evil age! (Philippians 4:19; 2 Peter 1:3-4)
  • I can know God, right now, without jumping through spiritual hoops or over imposed hurdles because Jesus leveled the way and made it clear! (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9-18)
  • I can enjoy forgiveness and a clean heart because God has decreed it to be so! (Psalm 103:8-12; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:14-18)

If this were not enough, Jesus has sent the Spirit to be with us forever, to guide us and lead us into realizing the law written on our hearts. We are never alone. God is with us.

Jesus said, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you. Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Do not be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:26-27, CEB)

In this world of trepidation, fear, uncertainty, and unrest, there is peace, grace, and love because of Father, Son, and Spirit, the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Divine Warrior who fights our battles, the Lord of Hosts who has our backs. Yes, this God, and no other god, has the chutzpah to make promises to us and the power to back them up.

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes! Yes! Amen!