Christmas Service - December 19,2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Jesus Christ, Sent from God
As we pass the fourth Sunday of Advent mark and move closer and closer to Christmas, I am very glad to be with you here in worship today, whether online or in person. Recalling standing over there beside Takashi-san in Christmas Sunday worship a year ago, I’m thankful for all the freedom we have recovered since then from COVID-19 and the restrictions related to it. Yet the year almost ended now has also been one of especially great suffering, fatigue, and loss for many people. We still feel deeply the need our world has for a Savior, don’t we.
And the birth of our Savior and Lord is exactly what we are here to celebrate today. Matthew and Luke tell us the most about the events of Christ’s birth in the first two chapters of their gospels. John 1 tells us a good deal about what the Lord’s birth means. In today’s reading (1:14) we learn that “He came from the Father.” But we tend to think of those introductions to Christ’s life as all there is, and the stories soon jump all the way to the time Jesus is probably around 30 years old. Yet there is one main source of knowledge about His birth that tends to be forgotten, and that is Christ Himself. If you keep reading the gospels, especially John, you see that Jesus again and again speaks of His entering this world. And when He does, He focuses repeatedly on the truth that He was sent by God. In John’s gospel alone, I count at least 55 times that references to this teaching appear, and the vast majority of them are reported as the words of Christ Himself.
So in order to understand not only Christmas but the whole life and message of Jesus Christ, and to see how that forms and informs our own way of living today, I want to explore with you a number of those times Jesus refers back to His own origins in being born into this world.
First let’s look at what these instances show us about Jesus’ understanding of Himself. He shows how He thinks of His own identify when He says in John 16, “I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world” (vv. 27b-28a). That thought is at the core of His self-image: “The living Father sent me, and I live because of him” (John 6:57a). It tells Him who He is and is not: “I am from heaven. . . . I am not from this world” (John 8:23). “I came from God, and now I am here. I have not come on my own. He sent me” (John 8:42). We don’t know how quickly or through exactly what process Jesus’ character has formed, but He has come to see Himself as “the One the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world” (John 10:36b). Then, in one of His most direct descriptions of His own birth, He says, “I am a king. In fact, that's the reason I was born. I came into the world to give witness to the truth” (John 18:37b).
We’ll get to more on what He was sent to do later, but first let’s see what He has to say about His own nature, the person He grew from His birth to be. He shows a lot about what motivates, strengthens, and sustains Him when He says (John 4:34), “My food is to do what my Father sent me to do. My food is to finish his work.” Similarly, His life from the beginning has not focused on Himself but on God, He says in John 7:18. “Someone who speaks on his own does it to get honor for himself. But someone who works for the honor of the One who sent him is truthful. There is nothing false about him.”
What is the deep desire that keeps Jesus moving forward through His life? Its roots pass through His birth in Bethlehem: “I do not try to please myself. I try only to please the One who sent me” (John 5:30b). Likewise, in John 6:38 He explains, “I have not come down from heaven to do what I want to do. I have come to do what the One who sent me wants me to do.” Who are you living to please from day to day? That is a good question for us to ask and keep asking ourselves. In following Christ, our example of what it means to be a human being fully alive, we find our richest, most meaningful life.
Our Lord also traces His source of inner strength back through His entrance into this world as a baby. It is not magical or intellectual or emotional or physical or technical power of a special type or amount. Much more, it’s relational. “I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me,” He says (John 8:16b). Likewise, “The One who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone. . .” (John 8:29a).
He describes His overarching view of His role in God’s world this way (John 5:43a): “I have come in my Father's name. . . .” In other words, He has been put here as a human being to represent God.
Jesus sees His future as linked with His entrance into this world, too. He tells His disciples (John 7:33), “I am with you for only a short time. Then I will go to the One who sent me.” This very clear self-awareness shows up again when He says (John 8:14b), “I know where I came from. And I know where I am going.”
In all these ways, Christ’s identity as a human being grows out of the relationship He has with the God who sent Him. He teaches His followers that we, too, are here not as accidents or only random results of the evolutionary process. We are not the Messiah, of course. We are different from Christ in important ways, too. Yet our lives, like His, are gifts of God. We are put here by and for our loving Heavenly Father. In growing in our relationship with Him, we can discover and become our true, best selves.
Next, let’s move to Jesus’ teachings. These, too, grow out of His fundamental belief that God has sent Him into this world, a thought that we can find coming from His lips regularly. Christ tells us some of His basic beliefs about His teaching when He says (John 7:16), “What I teach is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me.” Likewise, He is not just teaching things He has thought up, but there is a key relationship which colors and guides everything He says. “. . . The One who sent me can be trusted. And I tell the world what I have heard from him” (Jn. 8:26).
Why was Jesus sent into our world? His teaching about this focuses on two things. First, He came to show the Father. He wants us to know what God is like, so He came to our world in a form we could understand—as a fellow human being. To that end, He says (John 12:44-45), “Anyone who believes in me does not believe in me only. He also believes in the One who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the One who sent me.” That is why He is able to say (John 14:24b), “The words you hear me say are not my own. They belong to the Father who sent me.” Toward the end of His life in this world, He looks back at it from the beginning and says (John 12:49-50):
I did not speak on my own. The Father who sent me commanded me what to say. He also told me how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So everything I say is just what the Father has told me to say.
Showing the world what God is like means showing us the king of heaven and earth. So Jesus is following this same purpose when He says (Luke 4:43), “I must announce the good news of God’s kingdom. . . . That is why I was sent.”
The second purpose God had in sending Jesus to be born this world becomes clear in perhaps the most famous words of the Bible, John 3:16-17.
God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world. He sent his Son to save the world through him.
There are some senses in which Jesus did come to judge, He explains later. The truth itself judges people who refuse to receive it, and Christ came to tell the truth. But His greater mission is focused on God’s saving love. So He repeats in John 12:47b, “I didn't come to judge the world. I came to save it.”
How are you and I doing at being like Christ in this aspect of our character? In our day-to-day lives, are we actively interested in doing things that lead to life, health, and well-being for the people around us? Are we sometimes more interested in finding reasons to judge people? Our Lord invested His one and only life as Jesus of Nazareth in building people up, lifting them up, leading them to know God’s salvation. Lord, in this world of great division and so much anger, help us to be imitators of Christ in this area of our lives.
Sent to save. That theme comes through loud and clear as Jesus tells us where the road to life, to heaven, to God, lies. “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He will not be found guilty. He has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24b).
The salvation Christ was sent to give is not only the forgiveness of sins. He demonstrates God’s life-giving work in visible, practical ways, too. He says (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2):
The Spirit of the Lord is on me. He has anointed me to tell the good news to poor people. He has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners. He has sent me so that the blind will see again. He wants me to free those who are beaten down. And he has sent me to announce the year when he will set his people free.
That good news is a big part of the gospel, too, but for whom is it meant? To whom was Christ sent? In Matthew 15:24b, He seems to have a very narrow focus. He says, “I was sent only to the people of Israel.” But it would be a mistake to think that the God who sent Jesus is uninterested in people of different ethnic groups. That limiting of His work to Israel seems to be more about the task His Father has chosen for Jesus at this particular time in His short life on earth. As God continues His saving work through the Holy Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ followers, the offer of salvation is made to everyone who believes, under His leadership. In fact, He says (John 13:20b), “. . . Anyone who accepts me accepts the One who sent me.” God wants all the world’s people to believe in Him and so receive His gift of eternal life. And Jesus says a key part of that is related to His birthday. For example, in John 17:21, He says, “Father, I pray that all of them will be one, just as you are in me and I am in you. I want them also to be in us. Then the world will believe that you have sent me.”
I told you that most of today’s message is from sections of the Bible outside the most famous “Christmas stories.” But there’s a link with them here. Do you remember the “strips of cloth” (“swaddling clothes” in the King James Version) that Luke 2:7 tells us the baby Jesus’ parents wrap Him in after His birth? According to Glen Sunshine, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University in the U.S., after Jewish babies in Bible times are born, they are washed in salt water, rubbed with salt, then wrapped up tight, with their arms against their sides and their legs extended. They look kind of like mummies. It is thought that this is good for them, but there is a spiritual meaning in the custom, too. In Ezekiel 16:3-4 God is angry at His people, Israel. He tells them that they are acting like someone who never had a parent to take care of them or teach them properly. He says, “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths.” Especially because of these Bible words, in Jesus’ time, taking care of a newborn baby this way, including using the strips of cloth, is a sign of faithfulness. Failing to do so shows a rejection of faith.
So where do Mary and Joseph get the cloth to use for baby Jesus? There are two possibilities. When a Jewish person dies, that person has to be buried immediately, according to the Law. When they are going to travel long distances, which is dangerous in Bible times, faithful Jews will wrap bandages around their waists. The idea is that if they should die or be killed along the way, they can be buried in those cloths. To wrap up Jesus, then, Joseph may use a cloth that he has brought to serve potentially as his own burial shroud.
The other possibility relates to lambs that are born in caves. The shepherds in the Luke 2 story are probably Levitical shepherds, who are raising sheep to become sacrifices at the nearby Temple. To be fit for such a purpose, they need to perfect—no injuries, scars, spots, or anything. There are quite a few caves around Bethlehem, and they are often used as places to keep animals, like a barn. A second century writing by Justin Martyr says that Jesus was born in a cave, which would fit this possibility. When it is time for a lamb to be born, shepherds will often take the sheep into a cave for safety from the weather, wild animals who might attack, and so on. According to the Mishnah (written traditions of Judaism), when a lamb is born, it will be inspected and, if free from any problems, wrapped in cloths to keep it from injuring itself as it thrashes around. So the cloths used to wrap the baby Jesus may be in the cave for the purpose of caring for sheep when the holy family arrives there. After the shepherds hear from the angel that they can find the newborn Savior wrapped in strips of cloth, they know exactly where to look. They don’t have to go searching all over town. Their minds naturally go first to a cave, where they seek and find the newborn Christ.
Whether the cloth used to wrap Jesus was from a bandage carried around Joseph’s waste or provided to help a sacrificial lamb be born safely, there is a powerful message that comes with it. There is a connection with death in Jesus’ birth. He was born to die, and through that death, provide a way of salvation—a path to life—for the world’s people. Jesus was sent by God into this world to take away the sin of human beings. Sent to save.
Up to this point, we’ve focused on Jesus’ identity and His words. Now let’s use the little remaining time to explore the work of Christ, which He says God sent Him into this world to do. About His actions, Jesus says (John 5:36b-37a), “I am doing the very work the Father gave me to finish. It gives witness that the Father has sent me. The Father who sent me has himself given witness about me.”
And when He speaks of His work, He does not limit it to Himself. He teaches (John 9:4), “While it is still day, we must do the work of the One who sent me. Night is coming. Then no one can work.” And He builds on that idea of “we” by sending His followers out to do His work in His name, much in the same way He has been sent by God for that purpose. He sends out His 12 disciples 2 by 2, to heal people who are sick (Luke 9:2), drive out evil spirits (Mark 6:7), and spread His teachings (Mark 3:14). Later He expands the number to 72, and He eventually sends all those who follow Him out into the world on mission. He says to God (John 17:18), “You sent me into the world. In the same way, I have sent them into the world.”
Then the Son of the God who sends, continuing the work God commissioned Him to do, sends the Holy Spirit in His place to be with His followers, even as He returns to His Father, saying (John 16:5a), “Now I am going to the One who sent me.” This concludes Jesus’ first advent, or coming, into our world. But He will be sent once again, the Bible tells us, this time to proclaim His victory over sin and death, punish those who refuse to follow Him on the only path to life, and take those who are willing to follow along with Him to the Father in heaven.
There you have it. In His identity, teachings, and actions, Jesus shows us from start to finish what a great meaning it has for Him to know that He has come from God into this world. There is no greater gift that you will receive at Christmas or any time. Let’s pray that we will be able to open our hearts and minds wide enough to receive, in a deeper way than we have before, Jesus Christ, sent from God.
God in heaven, we have seen today how the awareness that you sent Him guided, sustained, and encouraged Jesus throughout His life. Help us today to accept more fully than we have to this point, that Gift of value beyond all others, as you intend us to do. Then empower us as people who are also sent out in your name, to continue the work of spreading the saving love that Christ came to give our broken and dying world. In His name we ask it. Amen.