Christmas service - December 25, 2022
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Finding God’s Faithfulness Through Growing Spiritually
Merry Christmas, everyone! We are here again today to celebrate the good news that the God who holds the whole world in His hands and rules over it all has come to us, through the birth of His Son into this world as a human being. No matter what good or bad things have happened since we gathered here last Christmas, the Lord has continued to stand beside us. We are not alone! God is with us! That gives us a strong reason to celebrate!
We are finishing a message series today, “God’s Unwitting Witnesses.” We have seen God demonstrate His faithfulness through suffering, injustice, confusion, and other struggles of life. It also routinely takes place through our worship, life in community, service, and telling the gospel. But there is one last way for us to come to know more fully the God who keeps His promises. It is through growing spiritually. That is what I want to focus on with you today.
When we use the words spiritual growth, it may be easy for people to get the wrong impression. If you think of a “spiritual” person, you might imagine someone who never reads a book besides the Bible, listens only to Christian music, never misses a meeting of any kind at church, or other things focused on what that person doesn’t do or feels he/she must do. That is largely missing the point of what the Bible’s God teaches about growing spiritually. It may be more effective communication to talk not about spiritual growth but growing in our relationship with God. That means becoming more like Him, for example in what we love, seek, enjoy, and think about. As we do this, we not only become wiser, more loving people of greater peace and deeper happiness. Even more, we come to know God through this process.
Today let’s see how that happens in the lives of the holy family of Christmas.
That can give us some strong guidance in living our own lives from day to day. One thing we notice as we look at people moving closer to God in the Bible stories is that it often happens in situations that are not dramatic or spectacular. In many cases, people are just doing what they think they have to do in going through daily life.
We can see God at work, for example, in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1 (verses 5-25, 57-80). Zechariah is doing the ordinary job of a priest in the Temple when he receives a life-altering message from God’s angel. Elizabeth’s encounter with God comes through the always-special-but-far-from-rare experience of having a baby. Yet through these events, God sends John the Baptist, who prepares the way for the Messiah. Probably Caesar, when his government gives the command for all people in Palestine to return to their hometowns to be registered, thinks he is just doing his job as Roman Emperor. Yet God is at work through this so that the Christ will be born in Bethlehem (not Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary live), and what is predicted in Micah 5:2 in the Old Testament will take place (see Matthew 2:4-6). Later, when Jesus has been killed, some women from the group of His followers go to the tomb to care for His body. Mary Magdalene is there that day, crying and grieving her Lord’s death. These are things that people normally do in this culture in this type of situation. Yet they become part of these ladies’ coming to know in a much deeper way the living Lord through the resurrection. They discover more fully why Jesus was born into this world in the first place. And through them many, many other disciples of Christ over the centuries have done the same. John makes a point of telling us in John 20:9 that the things Jesus’ followers experience here are part of the fulfilling of Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah’s resurrection.
We don’t have time here to go through them one by one, but I encourage you to read through the gospels again and notice how many times God keeps the promises of prophecy through regular people who think they are just doing what they have to do. (Even looking only at the soldiers who put Jesus on the cross, you will discover a lot.)
Let’s turn our attention now to the way Mary grows closer to God through her journey of faith. When she hears the announcement that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, she at first has difficulty accepting it. “How can this happen? I am a virgin” (Luke 1:34). But she is willing to trust the Almighty with the parts of His message that she cannot understand. Mary does not begin with the question, “What do I most want to do?” Her guiding principle is not what she thinks best expresses her true self. She does not make an assessment of her personality, talents, and skills, then build a plan based on it and decide to go with it no matter what. No, she makes the commitment, “I serve the Lord. May it happen to me just as you said it would” (Luke 1:38). In her words is a faith choice that we can make, too. And when we do, it can lead us to amazing places in our lives of faith, as it does Mary.
She certainly doesn’t understand it all, but this young person is willing to follow where God leads. One of her first steps of faith is to go for an extended visit to the home of her relative, Elizabeth, who is preparing to have her baby. As she does this, Mary finds something happening that is greater and packed with far deeper meaning than the life she probably has been imagining for herself. And she finds her place in God’s story, the life that her Heavenly Father has been preparing for her.
For Mary, being surrendered to God does not mean being passive. Luke tells us (1:39ff) that she hurries to a town in the hill country of Judea. That is probably a three- to four-day journey. She is apparently pregnant and alone at this point. If she is a typical female in her time and culture, she is a 12- to 14-year-old teenager. An older person may not be willing to make such an impulsive-sounding decision, but Mary does. There are curvy roads in the hill country, places for bandits to hide. It’s dangerous. But she arrives.
Why does she go there? Our first thought may be that she wants to hide her pregnancy because she knows how people will probably judge her as an immoral person for getting pregnant outside marriage. Pastor Sasaki mentioned that last week. It seems difficult to blame her if that is the case, doesn’t it. But it’s likely that there’s more. She maybe be thinking, “If I meet Elizabeth, I’ll have someone who believes me.” At this point, Joseph may not yet know she is pregnant, or he may still be struggling to decide whether to stay with her or give up on the relationship. Mary probably also wants to try to be of help to Elizabeth, whom she has learned is six months along already in her pregnancy. Many women die in childbirth at this time. (By the way, not to name names, but some men have been accused of being unhelpful at this important time. I know of one pastor who was there in the birthing room with his wife. But when there was trouble with the delivery and there was suddenly a lot of blood everywhere, he almost fainted. The doctor made him sit down with his head between his legs. When the baby was born safely, the doctor said to the mother, “Your son and your husband are both pinking up at the same time.”) There may also be at work in this young woman a sense that God can use all these confusing events for something of spiritual value. “If He is already at work in her, it may help my faith to be with her.” Mary may have a thought like that in her mind now, too.
As Mary places her life in God’s hands and seeks to follow, something remarkable happens. Elizabeth welcomes Mary, and they both celebrate this time of unique and great significance as they affirm and encourage each other in preparing to become the mother of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. Mary is willing to be active in her faith, even in a stressful time. God is with her, protecting her. As she and Elizabeth look together at particular things God is doing in their lives, Jesus begins to be present in them and to one another in their friendship. You never know how God will meet you as you ask Him for answers to questions like these: How can I be open to you and other people now? How can I bless the people who are in my life today? Who can I see? Who can I encourage? Who can I bless?
We read this story every year in our own languages and may not notice anything special when we read phrases like “the hill country of Judah,” “Blessed are you,” “filled with the Spirit,” “How can. . . ?,” “leap for joy,” and “three months.” But some Bible scholars point out that many people who heard this story in Jesus’ time would realize this as very “loaded language.” They would recall a particular story, from II Samuel 6 in the Old Testament. There King David wants to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, which will be the center of worship in Israel. This is the ark of the covenant, which contains the 10 Commandments, the word of God. Put simply, this is where God is, His home. Of course, He is everyplace. But in a very special sense, God is here. This is “God with us” in a unique and powerful way. David leads the people of Israel, despite some trouble along the way, and they place the ark of God in Jerusalem, making it the place they will come to meet God in worship, their spiritual home, God’s home.
Note the parallel language at various points in the stories. The Israelites start out from the hill country in Judah. Mary likewise goes to the hill country of Judah to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. David blesses people in the name of the Lord, and Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women.” David asks in humility, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” Elizabeth asks, “How can the mother of my Lord come to me?” (She is the first person to confess Jesus as Lord.) David leaps for joy as the ark of God is brought into Jerusalem. John leaps in the womb of Elizabeth, she tells Mary. The ark remains in the house of Obed three months in a stage of preparation for the final move to Jerusalem. Mary stays with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months as she prepares for the greater event of Jesus’ arrival.
In all these ways and others, the stories are telling us a common central message, though they are separated by centuries. God comes to be with His people. He wants to make His home in our hearts, minds, and bodies. Mary’s body actually becomes like the ark of God, showing His covenant commitment to being with His people. As He began revealing this is the Old Testament, He fulfills the promise through Christ and makes His home not only in one geographical location but in every believer. “God with us,” “Emmanuel”—that is who Christ is born to be, as the Old Testament has prepared us to see. God invites His people to life in communion with Him. We get to be in “the with-God life.” That’s the good news of Christmas.
Mary finds her place in God’s world as she puts her life under His control and willingly follows Him where He leads. It impacts where she lives, whom she marries, what she does from day to day, and all parts of her life. It is not something that she dreams up for herself. She has no idea that God is using her to fulfill prophecy and demonstrate His faithfulness. But as she takes one step of faith at a time, that is exactly what happens. The promised Messiah is given through her.
Our circumstances may be very different, but the same type of life is available to you and me. What might your future look like if you make the same choice that Mary does to follow wherever He leads? Now is a good time to begin using a holy imagination to picture that in your mind and heart.
We can trace a similar path if we follow Joseph through his life of faith in the Christmas story. But Pastor Sasaki already did a lot of that for us last week. If you did not hear it, please go to Open Door’s Web site and listen. To tell you the truth, I was planning to preach on the same passage from Matthew 1:18-25 and say quite a few of the same things that Sasaki-san did. I’d promised to get this message to Takashi-san by Sunday, so I was beginning to get a little nervous, wondering if I could write a largely different one in a short time. But as it turned out, he explained a lot about Joseph’s adventures in faith for us. So I don’t need to repeat it all. I’ll just note a few things and move on. Thank you, Sasaki-san!
When Joseph learns that his fiancé is pregnant, he plans to “divorce her quietly” (v. 19). The engagement period would last for, say, a year. It was designed in part to make it clear that the couple had not had sexual relations before being married, which having no child would demonstrate. Joseph’s plans show that he probably deeply cares for Mary. For one thing, he will give back the “bride money” he has no doubt received from Mary’s family if he divorces her quietly. If he accused her publicly, he would keep the money. What’s more, the Old Testament Law says that she can be killed by stoning for having sex outside the covenant of marriage. The Romans generally have taken away the power for Jewish people to execute someone, but there apparently are times when some people will take the Law into their own hands and kill someone despite the Romans. (The John 8 story of the woman caught in adultery suggests this.) So it’s not clear that Mary will actually be killed if Joseph calls her out publicly for breaking her vows. But it will protect his reputation as a “righteous” person and make her life a lot more difficult, to say the least.
As Pastor Sasaki mentioned, at God’s direction, he chooses the path that will mean he, Mary, and their children will be seen as members of a morally questionable family. But that is the life to which God calls Him, in line with His wise plans. As he and Mary choose to obey, Matthew tells us in 1:22-23, the prophecy is fulfilled that Jesus will be born as Emmanuel (“God with us”).
After Christ is born, King Herod feels threatened by the birth of a new King, and Jesus is in danger, Joseph again follows God’s leading as he receives it in a dream (Matthew 2). He takes the family to Egypt. We don’t know what part of the country, though it may be Alexandria, which has a relatively large community of Jewish people at this time. In all this, God is working behind the scenes. We read in 2:13-18 that it fulfills the promise of Hosea 11:1. “So the words the Lord had spoken through the prophet came true. He had said, ‘I chose to bring my son out of Egypt.’” Even through the horrible sin that King Herod commits in killing children, God’s plans are revealed. In Jeremiah 31:15, it says, “A voice is heard in Ramah. It's the sound of crying and deep sadness. Rachel is crying over her children. She refuses to be comforted, because they are gone.”
Finally, after the holy family stays for a period of time in Egypt, God once again speaks to Joseph and tells him it’s time to go back to their home country. He first plans to relocate them in Judea, but God shows him that Nazareth is safer, so “There (they) lived in a town called Nazareth. So what the prophets had said about Jesus came true. They had said, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” There is a little mystery here because there are no specific verses in the Old Testament which clearly link with this. We do read in John 1:46 that people thought nothing good could come from Nazareth. And over Jesus’ cross was written, “jesus of nazareth, the king of the jews” (John 19:19). So when Matthew talks about a prophecy that Jesus will be called a Nazarene, he may be talking about a more general idea, for example in books like Isaiah and Jeremiah, that Christ is willing to come to the lowly, not-so-glamorous, ordinary people and be glad to call Himself one of them.
To sum up Mary and Joseph’s growing in relationship with God through the events of Christmas, we can see especially that they place their lives under God’s control. They follow His leading as they make decisions about their lives from day to day. That includes choosing a marriage partner, deciding to continue a “problem pregnancy” rather than end it, keeping sex between one man and one woman inside marriage, choosing where to live, finding the work to which God leads them, and beginning to raise a family. The Bible does not present them as geniuses, and God never tells us that we have to have some kind of special talent or knowledge to please Him. But we do have to listen. We have to pay attention to what God is telling us and be willing to follow as He leads. By doing those simple but vital things, the holy family is able to see God doing amazing, memorable, truly wonderful things in their lives and through them for many, many others. There is something in their story that holds out great hope for us as we go through our particular journeys from day to day.
Let’s pray together.
God, on this day when we celebrate the birth of your Son Jesus, we thank you for all the ways you have made life together with you possible for us. As Mary and Joseph came to a deeper knowledge of you by simply trusting you to guide them step by step through each day, help us also to welcome the events of every day as opportunities to learn to depend more fully on you. Teach us to place our needs, opportunities, decisions, plans, and all parts of our lives in your wise, loving hands. In this way, draw us closer to yourself and use us for your glory. In the name of the Christ of Christmas, amen.
Henry, M. (1706). Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Retrieved December 1, 2022 from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/matthew/1.html
Ortberg, J. (December 8, 2022). Spiritual Windows. Become. Retrieved December 9, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVNr38or0Lw
Ortberg, J. (December 9, 2022). Have Yourself a Messy Little Christmas. Become. Retrieved December 10, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfH1r45bGMc