FIRST READING Malachi 3:1-7b
1“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. 5Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. 6For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
PSALM Psalm 66:1-12
1Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of his name; sing the glory of his praise. 2Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you.
3All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your name.” 4Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people. 5He turned the sea into dry land, so that they went through the water on foot, and there we rejoiced in him. 6In his might he rules forever; his eyes keep watch over the nations; let no rebel rise up against him. 7Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard; 8Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip. 9For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. 10You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. 11You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. 12I will enter your house with burnt offerings and will pay you my vows, which I promised with my lips and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble.
SECOND READING Philippians 1:2-11
2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
GOSPEL Luke 3:1-14
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” 7He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
AT THE INTERSECTION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH
It’s a story I heard from my youth and it’s told as if it’s true. It’s the account of a group of Apaches who attacked a Cavalry unit from the 4th Cavalry Regiment and successfully captured the paymaster’s safe. This particular raiding party had never seen a safe before, but they learned from other tribes that this steel box contained gold. Understanding that this precious metal was valuable to trade, they tried to open the safe but were unsuccessful. They beat it with tomahawks. They dragged it behind their horses. They heated it on a fire. They tried to blast it with gunpowder. Finally, they dropped it off a cliff into a great ravine. Despite their best efforts, the safe held tight. Finally, they gave up and left it behind.
Later the army found the abandoned safe. The paymaster immediately rushed to it, turned the combination, and within a few moments had it open. What the Apaches had been unable to accomplish with enormous effort, the paymaster accomplished in just a few minutes with the twist of his wrist. The answer to why is simple: the paymaster knew the combination. Other things in life are the same way . . . we cannot accomplish them until we find someone who knows the combination.
Four hundred years before Jesus, Greek philosopher Plato sought to illuminate the mystery of reality. He described the human condition this way: “Humanity is imprisoned in a cave. He is shackled in a world from which he cannot escape. He wears blinders so that his perspective is limited to what is directly in front of him. Before him are only the shadows of real objects. Given these restraints, he is able to view only a small part of reality, to comprehend a tiny fraction of truth.” It’s no wonder Plato’s name is one people remember even today. His was a brilliant recognition of the human situation before the coming of God’s only Son. Plato taught that all we can see on our own are shadows in a dark cave.
Plato was considered a great philosopher, but even the simplest Christian believer has an advantage over this noble Greek. The simplest Christian believer knows that into that dark cave of the human condition God has shown a wondrous light. That, of course, is what Advent and Christmas are all about isn’t it?
Theologian Origen of Alexandria, born 184 AD, tried to simplify the message of Advent and Christmas something like this: “Suppose there were a statue so large that human eyes simply could not take it in with one look. How could we ever grasp the essential form and substance of this statue?” Of course, Origen couldn’t imagine a world of drones that could fly overhead and take pictures of the giant statue. Origen’s imagined solution was to make a scale model of the giant statue. Then humanity could see what the greater statue was like. Origen went on to say this is what God has done in Jesus Christ. God shows us what He Himself is like within the bounds of our human ability to understand. This is of course the first wonderful truth about Advent and Christmas: God has come to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is an exact replica of God reduced to human size. Al Lindgren, a Seminary professor tells about taking his junior-high-school son fishing years ago. It was one of those days when the fish wouldn’t bite, so the two of them had a lot of time to talk. Out of the blue, his junior-high son asked, “Dad, what is the toughest thing God ever tried to do?” Even as an ordained minister, Al said that the question caught him off guard. He didn’t know what to say, and so like a good teacher he answered a question with a question. “What do you think it was, son?” he asked.
His son responded, “Even though you’re a minister, you don’t know much about God, do you, Dad?” The boy then proceeded to answer his own question. “Since taking science in school, I thought the creation of the world might be the hardest thing God ever tried to do,” he said. “Then, in Sunday school we got to talking about some of the miracles, like Jesus’ resurrection, and I thought that might be the toughest thing God ever did. Then after thinking some more and talking to others, I decided that no one knows God really well. So now I think that the toughest thing God ever tried to do is to get us to understand who He is and that He loves us.”
Out of the mouths of babes . . . Al Lindgren could simply say to his boy, “Son, I think you’re right. That is the hardest thing that God ever had to do, and there was only one way He could do it.” God sent His Son to take on our flesh to help us understand who He is and that He loves us. That’s the good news of the Gospel. Jesus came because that was the only way God could reveal Himself to us. That was the only way we could be reconciled to God. But there’s more too it than just Emmanuel, God with us: God came and humbled Himself in our behalf: this is the second thing we need bear in mind.
There was an interesting article in a national magazine several years ago about John Croyle, a former Alabama football player. Croyle, a devout Christian, started a ranch in 1975 called the “Big Oak Boys Ranch.” Over the years that ranch has taken in more than 2000 homeless, unwanted, and abused boys. Thirteen years later, a Big Oak Girls’ Ranch was added. The Girls’ Ranch evolved from a court case involving “Shelley,” a 12-year old girl who had been physically and sexually abused by her father. The folks at Big Oak Ranch pleaded with the judge to let Shelley live at the Boys’ Ranch, but the judge refused and placed Shelley back with her parents. Shelley was beaten to death by her parents three months later. The Girls’ Ranch was built in 1988 in Shelley’s memory.
Croyle once said, he has seen hundreds of miracles among those boys and girls. At the ranch the children are exposed to faith, love, and hard work. Over the years Croyle has received a lot of help from football friends like the late coach Bear Bryant and many other notable NFL players. John Croyle married his childhood sweetheart. At the time of the magazine article, they lived in a small farmhouse at the Big Oak Ranch. “The boys say they know I love them,” said Croyle, “because I live in a smaller house than they do.” What an interesting statement!
That sentence caught my attention. So often servants of God seek to live like royalty. From time to time we hear press reports about some notable mega church or media preacher who lives in an 8,000 square foot $2,000,000 house. I wonder what kind of sermon they preach when the subject is giving to missions. “The boys say they know I love them,” says John Croyle, “because I live in a smaller house than they do.” By the way, today Croyle is assisted by his son, John Brodie Croyle, also a former quarterback at Alabama as well as having played with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Arizona Cardinals.
God needed to communicate His love to us and so He humbled Himself and took on our flesh. When He came, He moved into a house smaller than ours. A stable behind the Inn, a manger, some straw, some sheep and some humble shepherds were His only greeting party. Maybe the little town of Bethlehem was the only place that could have happened. If it had been you and I, our child would have been born in the best hospital in all of Rome or Athens or, at least, in Jerusalem. But not God. The little town of Bethlehem was all God needed.
There was a small book from Doubleday titled, Dear God. It’s a collection of Children’s Letters to God. One young man wrote, “Dear God, was there anything special about Bethlehem or did you just figure that that was as good a place as any to start a franchise? Your friend, Jim age 12.” Obviously, God thought that was the best place on earth to start a franchise. Jesus stripped Himself of His divinity, humbled Himself and came into a stable and a manger, among cattle and sheep and shepherds, in the tiny town of Bethlehem in order to communicate to us His love and His purpose. Emmanuel, God with us in the form of His Son Jesus Christ. And He did this in our behalf. That’s the first two great truths about Advent and Christmas. The third is, in Jesus Christ, humanity has been lifted up. Even though we’re absolutely unworthy of any action on God’s part, God came down that we might be lifted up.
There’s a humorous story about a church having an outdoor Nativity Pageant. They decided to use live animals in this pageant. It was quite a feat, because the church was located in the very heart of downtown in a large metropolitan area. The evening of the pageant everybody was busy making preparations. Nobody noticed that the donkey that was to be used in the pageant wandered off and trotted down the street, causing quite a stir. Finally, the donkey entered a nearby bar.
Obviously, one of the customers was startled when he saw a donkey come into the bar. The customer pushed his glass aside and decided he had had enough. The bartender, seeing that the customer was frightened, tried to calm him by saying, “Oh, don’t let that donkey bother you. He belongs to the Methodist Church up the street.” The man thought for a moment and then decided it was time to leave.
The truth is, there are a few donkeys in the Methodist Church, in the Lutheran Church, in the Baptist Church and there are donkeys both inside and outside every church. In fact, all of us act like donkeys at one time or another. But when Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem of Judea, all of us donkeys were raised to a new level. God has come down. Humanity has been lifted up. It’s said that the famous French author Balzac fancied himself to be an expert at interpreting handwriting.
Balzac believed that he could determine the character of a person by analyzing their script. One day an old lady brought him a little boy’s homework book and asked this great writer and expert on handwriting to give an opinion of the child’s potential. Balzac studied very carefully the irregular, untidy script and then asked, “Are you the boy’s mother?” The old lady replied, “No.” “Perhaps you are related?” he asked. “Not at all,” she answered. “Then I will tell you frankly,” he said, “the youth is slovenly, probably stupid. He will never amount to much.” “Ha!” said the woman, “It might surprise you to know that this notebook was your own when you were a little boy at school.”
A study of humanity’s past would be depressing at best. Thousands of years of bloodshed, hate, bigotry and war point to a future as dismal as our past. Nevertheless, 2000+ years ago in the tiny town of Bethlehem, God paid humanity the ultimate compliment. He took on human flesh in order that He might reveal His great love for us. At times it’s hard to comprehend, but we are that important to God. God has come down. God humbled Himself in our behalf and humanity has been lifted up. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s one more truth that Advent and Christmas teaches us: Salvation has drawn near. That was, of course, the message of John the Baptist in the wilderness.
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John proclaimed, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth. All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (4b-6).
We know that God humbled Himself and come into our world. We know that His purpose was that the world through Him might be saved. The question we need to constantly be asking ourselves is, what is our response to this astounding news? Pastor Barry Davis noticed some interesting statistics in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review that you might find enlightening in this season of gift-giving.
One of the most popular gifts in stores today is gift cards. Research shows that nearly 40 percent of shoppers will purchase gift cards for friends and family, followed by 35 percent of shoppers opting for a restaurant gift card. But according to estimates reported in the Journal of State Taxation, the typical American home has an average of $300 in “unredeemed” gift cards lying around unused. These cards are often misplaced, accidentally thrown out, or only partially redeemed. According to this report, between 2005 and 2011, $41 billion in gift cards went unused.
To me, this is amazing! What good is a gift card if it’s never used? What good is God’s gift of His Son if you and I don’t open our heart to His love? God came down in Jesus Christ. He humbled Himself in our behalf. Humanity has been lifted up. Salvation has come near. And where the horizontal and the vertical intersect, there is the cross of Jesus Christ. A famous artist painted a picture of the Nativity. In his painting, across the crib falls the shadow of the cross. Salvation is God’s eternal plan for humanity. This is why He came down. This is why we have been lifted up. Heaven and earth have intersected at the cross of Calvary.
We are the recipients of a great free gift. That’s why it’s right for Christmas to be a time of gift-giving. We are the recipients of the greatest gift of all. The God of all creation became the babe of Bethlehem. The babe of Bethlehem became the Lamb of Calvary. Because of the Divine drama of which the stable of Bethlehem was only a part, our salvation has been made possible. It was in our behalf that God humbled Himself, and the salvation that He offers is free to all who will receive it.
We know we’re incapable of earning our salvation. There’s no material gift that we can offer the Christ child in return for what God has done for us. We’re like the young fellow at college who couldn’t get home for Christmas. So he sent his Dad a set of inexpensive cuff links and a matching inexpensive tie clasp. Along with these gifts he sent a little note. “Dear Dad. This isn’t much, but it’s all you could afford.”
When we try to offer something material to God, or something derived from our own accomplishments, God must smile with appreciation and understanding, but the gift He offers us is totally, unconditionally free. There’s only one gift we can offer Him in return. That is to humbly receive the gift that He offers us. God humbled Himself and came to lift humanity up. Salvation in Jesus has drawn close and all we have to do is receive it, share it and respond in joy.