Many wars are being fought right now and many of them do not seem to be cooling down. For example, the war in Afghanistan has been raging since 1978. With the collapse of internal order different governments and different rebel warlords have fought for control in the country. In recent years The Taliban, Al Qaeda and the United States and its allies have fought for control and thousands of people have died. While that war still lingers, fresh hotspots have ignited like Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the casualties are bad enough, but also millions of people are displaced. Refugees flood across borders into Turkey and Europe. They are not looked after properly and the conditions that they live in are harsh.
Closer to the United States, Mexico has been fighting to suppress crime and disorder within its own borders. My friend James is afraid to go home to Mexico with his wife and children and visit because he believes there is too much lawlessness in his wife’s region. Well over 150, 000 people have been killed this year in armed conflicts around the world. There are over forty significant conflicts going on right now and over 12 million people have been displaced.
The last 100 years have been hard, but death from warfare and its effects have been a constant threat through the centuries. There are peaks and troughs as times of relative peace come and go, but the percentages of people who experience hardship remain fairly high. The number of conflicts of which we are aware, however, seem to be on the increase. Our world is a world that needs peace.
The conflicts that we experience are not just external. The darkness in the world around us can cause a darkness within. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states on its website that depression is a common mental disorder. Globally, it states that an estimated 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression. We don’t always think of depression as linked with disability, but it is cited as the leading cause of disability. There is also a link between depression and disease.
For many different environmental and personal reasons, statistics show that women struggle with depression more than men. My mother has been one of those women. She struggled with postpartum depression when I was born. When I hear of the electric shock treatment she endured and the visits to the doctor each week, I know that this is not the way the world was created to be.
Depression, if it goes unaddressed, can lead to suicide or accidental death. There are people from all walks of life who feel the pressures of each day so acutely that they might see death as a release. Robin Williams drew public attention when he succumbed to his depression. Whitney Houston accidently killed herself in all her efforts to bring herself happiness. Battles are fought miles across the oceans but they are also fought in the depths of our souls.
We may not have encountered depression, but we have probably felt anxiety at some point. There are forms of anxiety that can become chronic, intense and debilitating. General Anxiety manifests itself in a restlessness and a constant feeling of being wound up, or on edge. The National Institute of Mental Health describes symptoms of becoming tired easily, but then when it finally gets to be time to rest, the mind starts racing and the tasks for the coming days and weeks start running through the mind. Anxiety feels like life is spinning out of control, our bodies tense at the merest provocation and we are irritable.
The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports show the effects of sinful practices all over the world. People are using opiates like heroine, and using drugs like cocaine, despite the public campaigns to show the destructive nature of these drugs. People traffic other people. People are fraudulent. People even kill each other. NBC reports that Chicago and its collar counties have experienced 1,500 deaths due to heroin overdose from 2013 to 2015. More than 3000 shootings have occurred in 2016 in Chicagoland and 500 people have been killed in homicides – it’s only the beginning of October. I found it strange that these statistics did not make the global conflict reports I found. However, it is difficult to tell who exactly is at war in Chicago. It doesn’t take much scratching at the surface to see that sin and darkness are still a problem in this world.
The world needs peace. It does not need a superficial peace which is just the absence of conflict. Hearts need to be made right with God. The violent, self-serving and destructive actions that we see reflect hearts that are by nature violent, self-serving and destructive. The peace we desire is shalom in Hebrew. The Hebrew word describes a creation that is in harmony with its creator. Genesis 1 and 2 give us a blueprint of close relationship with God: 100% employment for mankind in the service of God, plentiful supplies of food and water, mutually supportive relationships between men and women.
God’s glory was always meant to be revealed in his world. When we see who he is, we broadcast his reputation, his renown and his radiance. God’s work in creation and throughout history are magnificent. His followers tell true tales of how God chose Abraham, provided leaders in times of crisis, loved and disciplined his people. These stories were meant to spread God’s renown, his glory, near and far. Unfortunately, Israel’s disobedience diminished this kind of glory and a restart was in order. The exceptional individuals who saw God, though, saw his radiance. This was beyond the figurative, communicating God’s purity, but it was also literal Shekinah glory. When Moses saw God the afterglow of God’s presence made it hard for his friends and family to look him in the face.
In recent weeks the Sunday School at Warrenville Chapel distinguished between prayer, worship and praise. Worship, according to A. P. Gibbs is ‘the occupation of the heart, not with its needs, or even with its blessings, but with God Himself.’ Praise is different from worship because it focuses on God’s actions. Because we have been so secularized we are often unaware of what God is doing in the day to day. Praise diminishes in secularized societies. Praise increases when the world is aware of God’s work in history and his work in the world today.
If we look at the world of our reading for today, in Luke 2, we have to rewind to Roman times. At the time of Jesus’ birth Octavian had just been declared Augustus Caesar. Augustus means ‘great’ or ‘venerable.’ He was a newly minted son of the gods. His dictatorship as the first Roman Emperor brought peace to Rome and he used the time of peace to reorganize collection of taxes. This was awfully good for the common Roman citizen who had watched political infighting, civil war, and corruption ravage the Roman republic. The new empire seemed well-organised and orderly in comparison.
However, not everyone was excited about the new imperial son of the gods and his dictatorial peace. The Jewish people were not all in favour of Roman rule and saw their loss of self-rule as a sign that God had deserted them. The Jewish Essenes went into the wilderness and tried to purify themselves in order that God’s favour might return. The Zealots rose up in force and tried to throw off Roman reign by cloak and dagger subterfuge or sometimes outright rebellion. The Roman province of Syria and the neighbouring kingdom of Judea were unstable and tumultuous. They needed a firm hand and so a Legates, a military governor, called Quirinius was put in power to govern Syria and keep an eye on the wily puppet-king next door, Herod the Great. Quirinius took a census so that accurate records were available for imperial taxes. The biblical text allows that Jesus’ birth might have come slightly before that. Also Quirinius may have had to govern the region twice in his career. The biblical text can be interpreted that way. However, the important thing to know is that times were hard in the Middle East and Luke sets Jesus’ birth in dark times for the people of Israel.
The story in Luke 2:1-20 reads like this:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If the reading from Luke 2 sounds similar to the reading from the end of Luke 1, there are parallels. John’s birth account is written as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ account. Just like their ministries will be presented in canon with each other, so their births show that pattern. It reminds me of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. After the glorious beginning of O Fortuna the chorus quietly sings, “semper crescis, aut decrescis; vita detestabilis,” to the famous melody (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXFSK0ogeg4) . Having run through the tune a couple of times though, the hair on the back of your neck stands on end as the choir sings through again with full volume. In the same way the story of John’s birth is showing God’s glory but it fades into the background when compared to the birth of Jesus.
Our anticipation each year around November is that the holidays are coming. After Thanksgiving the countdown is on in earnest for Christmas Day. As the Advent Calendar counts down our expectations rise. Finally, the children leap out of bed and the day arrives. We have recreated the emotion that should be experienced with the Christmas story. We have positioned the celebration of Jesus’ birth in the darkest days of winter. The lights on our trees talk of the light breaking in on our world. However, what should be glorious news, shared with gladness on December 25th, has somehow faded into the background. What was once a remembrance of God’s greatest gift to mankind has become an excuse to take a rest from work, watch more television, and overeat. Let’s take time to reflect now on the key verse of the passage.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11)
For the people at the time of his birth the glorious news of a savior would have been clear. God had sent heroes in the past and a new hero was now provided to miraculously release Israel from the rule of the Romans. Many times the confusion is repeated in the gospels. Jesus will reveal that his kingdom is not of this world, but his disciples and the crowds will misunderstand. Jesus will free the people from Roman oppression, but he will do it without one Roman needing to leave Israel. The freedom of Jewish people will emanate from their spirits. Then even if they become sport for Roman citizens, the spectacle will challenge the spectators’ attachment to this world and all the power and possessions it can offer.
The salvation that the baby of Luke 2 brings will not only deal with the symptoms of sin in a lost world, a solution is provided for the root of sin which. The people of Jesus’ days were much more conscious of their sin. They offered sacrifices in the temple to make amends for their sin each day. Rituals restored relationship between the God of heaven and his estranged people on earth. We call this atonement. Jesus would save the people from having to fulfill all of their ritual obligations. Jesus would take care of sin.
If Jesus saves from sin, we need to have an adequate definition of sin. The Holman Bible Dictionary writes, “One of the central affirmations throughout the Bible is humanity’s estrangement from God. The cause for this estrangement is sin, the root cause of all the problems of humanity. The Bible, however, gives no formal definition for sin. It describes sin as an attitude that personifies sin as rebellion against God. Rebellion was at the root of the problem for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3) and has been at the root of humanity’s plight ever since.” The dictionary goes on to say that sin can be described as missing the target. God has a standard for each person and in our hearts we know that we have missed that standard. Also, especially in the New Testament, sin is usually equated with ‘transgression.’ Transgression means to travel across. God has drawn a line in the sand and sometimes unwittingly and sometimes with intent, we have overstepped our bounds. We have crossed over into situations in which no creation of God should find themselves. As a result, we are estranged. God and man are strangers to each other. We need to be saved by Jesus.
Those who are saved by Jesus, though tend to look at God’s salvation as a one-time historical event. When describing our salvation to a student recently, I compared it to being saved from a raging battle. While in the fray we are battered and bloodied and the evil enemy, sin, has its way with us. Then our king saves us. He plucks us from the battle and removes us to the safety of a mighty fortress. The battle still rages outside but we are secure within. If we were to leave the fortress the enemy would devour us in an instant, but we are eternally secure within its walls. In this illustration I understand better not only how my savior has saved me from sin, but how he saves me daily from the fate of those lost in the world. My gratitude for a savior expands from just being thankful for a past event when I was eight years old, to an understanding of his safekeeping of my soul for forty years.
God saves us from sin through our saviour Jesus, but more broadly God addresses evil. As Plantinga writes in Engaging God’s World, “All sin is evil, but not all evil is sin.” What he means by this is that nasty, wicked, terrible things happen even when people do not make choices which directly lead to them. An example would be a tsunami. In Japan in March 2011 a magnitude 9 megathrust earthquake off of Tohoku Japan caused a Tsunami. Did someone choose to shake the sea that day? Was the tsunami good? The acts of nature that kill people are evil. All of creation malfunctions now because evil pervades not only humanity but all of our environment. The Bible teaches that Jesus did not only come to set right the sinful hearts of man, but to undo the evil that subjects God’s creation. To Jewish minds Peace on Earth is a much broader concept than a quiet night in with the family watching a movie on a reclining couch. Through the actions of this baby God will become accessible and he will work with humanity to bring the whole earth back to the ideal conditions in the garden of Eden. Mankind will know God and once more tend for God’s creation in accordance with its design. The Jewish people knew that a saviour heals the nations, but he also heals their land.
This magnanimous act of God needs to be declared. The angels declare God’s goodwill in glorious light. They speak in mighty unison. The radiance of God shines. He is glorified. The shepherds verify with their own eyes that the unfathomable acts of God are true and they tell anyone who will listen. The fame of God spreads abroad. God is glorified. We, too, seeing the humility of God-become-man saving his errant creation need to wake up as the light dawns upon us. This is glorious. Such an act needs to be declared. The saviour has come. The game has changed. We no longer are condemned by our heritage to die a death estranged from God. Our trespasses, our mistakes, our evil hearts are all going to be dealt with by this baby. Somehow this baby provides a complete salvation.
God has acted. His actions declare his nature. While worldly wise politicians try and dress up as kings or queens and spend all their time creating an image without cracks, God puts his majesty and his glory to one side and empties himself. In the person of Jesus, God descends to occupy a woman who rides 90 miles on a donkey carrying him inside her womb. The God on whom we are all dependent for every breath, becomes dependent on a woman to wrap him in strips of cloth. He has no gold-plaited crib or ivory cot. Jesus is laid in an animal feeding trough. Somehow God is more majestic for his condescension. It speaks of grace and humility with a power which is only conspicuous because of the events that surround him. We read about no spectacular actions by the baby. However, the series of events in the skies and around the manger lead to deep contemplation on the part of the child’s mother. In this, she is a model for us. When we understand more of what God is doing in Luke 2, we speak praise in hushed, awed tones. The fear of God causes us to bow down and worship. This child is worthy. Our gratitude causes us to praise. Finally, God is once more with us.
Are we foolish enough to wander into the darkness outside the walls of our salvation? Have we entrusted ourselves to Jesus, the saviour, to deal with the terrible consequences of our sin? Sin will pay us a wage. The wages of sin is death. In contrast, the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Are we tired of missing the mark? Do we know that we were created for more than the life we are living? We need to come to God by putting our trust in his saviour to save us. Are we in the habit of crossing the lines that God has marked in the sand of our hearts? Who will save us from this vacillation? Thank God for Jesus.
The name Christ is from the Greek for the Jewish Anointed One or Messiah. Some people mistake it for Jesus’ surname. It is his role. As Messiah he is sent by His Father to rectify all wrongs. As his disciples we work with him to bring salvation to the world. We call people into right relationship with him. Then as caretakers of his creation we uphold justice in our law courts, we value dignity and order in politics, we promote peace in our foreign policies, we are responsible with God’s resources, and we consume our daily bread with gratitude to the one who provides it. God does not work the same way to combat the evils in everyone’s life. However, he brought my mother peace from her postpartum depression when she found him. God saved her soul and he saved her mind at the same time. Jesus saves.
It is my wish that today we see the work of our saviour afresh. Our stale obeisance can show there is something wrong in our heart or in our perception. God’s work brings peace, it is glorious, it is worthy of praise. We have a saviour. Our response should surely have some passion.
The words of O Little Town of Bethlehem sum up a lot of what I wish to communicate:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel
I love the idea of constantly coming back to the hope of Christmas Day, to the hope of Easter Morning. In the midst of school and work and friends and routine, it’s easy to lose the passion that should be there at the glory of God’s saving gift. Yet “the hopes and fears of ALL the years are met in thee tonight.” Cultivating that kind of perspective would make such a difference.