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Carol Service Reading 1 - A Saviour For Families in Crisis - Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18–25

Joseph knew how babies were made - and when he found his fiance bulging with someone else’s child inside, it seemed like his dreams of a good marriage to Mary were over. He’d been betrayed. But being a good man, he didn’t lose it, slag her off on facebook or have a public screaming match - he decided the best thing to do was to quietly call off the wedding and let her sort this out properly.

And then, in the midst of the turmoil of a crumbling marriage, an angel appears in a dream, assures him that this is God’s plan. His suspicions are unfounded. His marriage has a future. His intention to divorce her was premature, even foolish, in hindsight. His temptation to distrust her almost screwed up everything.

So they marry. But it’s still a bit odd - they’re still a bit at arms length: young, married but not sleeping together.

Finally after months of waiting, when they’re in Bethlehem, a baby is born. And Joseph, who has stood by her through the gossip and the uncertainty and the pregnancy, steps up. Jesus becomes his son. As a father, he names his son. As a husband he protects and provides for his family. Jesus birth catapults them from being a couple at arms length to being a full blown family.

So, in a small way, Jesus brings together a family that was almost torn apart by mistrust and suspicion. Jesus comes bringing hope for all families - not to repair every failing relationship, although there is hope for that - but to welcome us into God’s family.

Jesus comes because God is a Father who steps up. He comes so that we can trust God again and know God as our Father. He comes to fix our brokenness, to take away our shame and to make us the family that God has always wanted us to be.

So, this Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the Son of God.

Divine Nitpick Meets Salvation Service Provider

Dave Bish’s tweet reminded me of a conversation in the midst of the bible study prep at a recent camp leaders meeting.

At the meeting, for several of the participants, the goto gospel definition was: God’s standard is perfection, you’re not perfect, ergo you need Jesus. The fact that Jesus died for you shows you how good he is & you should repent and accept his offer of forgiveness. Queue emphasis on infinite perfection.

On twitter, an evangelistic video using this approach to explain the gospel failed to impress Dave’s friend’s 4 year old daughter, who, it seems, was taught Godwin’s Law at pre-school. And it didn’t impress Dave either.

I’m not about to call Christians who use the divine nitpick approach Nazis, but I’m definitely with the four year old on this one. She’s got a point. Why do so many of us favour a method of gospel presentation that is so cold, functional and qualitatively different from any preaching seen in scripture?

I’m guessing here, but perhaps:

  • It’s basically true.
  • Most of us are nervous when trying to explain the gospel and expect confrontation – so we go for the simplest formula we can find.
  • It’s a very familiar explanation – most of us have probably had it given to us at one time or other.
  • It’s very hard to pick holes in – so we feel “safe” that there are few areas for people to really push back.
  • We’ve seen it work in the past.

And yet I think there are strong reasons for revising our explanation:

The God You Don’t Want To Know

It portrays God as cold and distant to the extent that it undermines the climax of the gospel: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Rev 21:3.

If the primary characteristic of God is that he is a perfectionist, the response from earth to his coming is more likely to be “Cripes let’s hide – here comes the nitpick” than “Come Lord Jesus.”

We need to tell the good news about how good God really is. The God of perfect love and unapproachable light. The God whose beauty and grace take your breath away. The God we desperately want to know as well as we can possibly know anyone.

But Why Does The Actor Act?

The problem isn’t just that we do bad things – that’s just the symptom. The problem is that we are bad.

If I am born in a rebel stronghold in a time of rebellion, I am born a rebel. It’s not that I needed to go and burn the flag or poop on the king’s lawn myself – I was born into it whether I like it or not. I can sue for peace with the king, but I can’t treat my origin or the circumstances of my birth as if they are somehow neutral. They’re not – regardless of how many of the king’s laws I keep growing up, I keep them all in rebellion.

And sin is like that. We’re all rebels, born in rebellion. Adam is the rebel leader whose rebellion we’re all part of. We’re not born in a neutral state and inexorably drawn into the rebellion – we’re born there. Unless we deliberately and consciously turn our backs on the rebellion and ask the king to restore us as citizens of his kingdom, we remain his enemies.

Or to put it another way, the issue on judgement day won’t be the paperclip you stole from work, it’ll be whether you reject the rule of the king.

Dusty Feet

We worship a God who is not ashamed to show his face on earth. He doesn’t swoop in, presidential style, with secret service and red carpets and bullet proof podiums. He comes as baby, lives a working class life and dies as a criminal. God gets dirty.

And yet I think we gloss over the incarnation too quickly, or write it off for its functional value in the cosmic courtroom, “he lived the perfect life in our place.” (Which is true, but there’s a lot more to Jesus living a full human life than that).

What kind of God is willing to sweat? To cry? To be persistently contradicted and frustrated by fishermen who think they know better than he does what he ought to do? To travel his creation at walking pace, even when his friend is dying?

The incarnation makes God too close, too tangible, too here to be some impersonal provider of salvation.

Talking At Cross Purposes

The presentation of the cross is, quite rightly, seen as something done by God and for God’s sake. But it is too easy to make it sound like a legal fiction – particularly when the cross is just presented as an emotionally charged, but otherwise neat solution to an otherwise tricky conundrum.

It may be partly because we tend to say things like “he paid the penalty of our sins” which conjures up a very different image to: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Isaiah 53 emphasises “he bore the sin of many” – not just the punishment for that sin.

This was not the consolidation of all my sin into one divine fixed-rate repayment – this was Jesus embracing me, sin and all, identifying with me so closely and so personally that my sin could become his and his righteousness mine. It’s the deeply personal transaction that makes the apostles talk not about Christians, but about those who are “in Christ” and those for whom Christ is in them.

And so Jesus gives himself for me, but I die with him. And I’m raised with him. And if I’m “in Christ,” the resurrection is so much more than the demonstration that Jesus is who he says he is: far from being the proof-of-concept for my resurrection, it’s the resurrection. I am raised with Christ, not just raised like Christ. My resurrection body is the fruit of my union with him, not a parallel implementation.

It’s all radically personal. Saying the cross is about Jesus paying for our sins is like saying sex is about two people exchanging body fluids: it’s technically true, but it misses the point.

The Eurgh Factor

There’s more to complain about, but I think my basic concern is something like this:

We risk treating salvation like a jigsaw – and we look at the picture in order to understand how the pieces fit together. But in the reductionist, perfectionist version there’s little opportunity to stop and gaze at the picture. We see what the gospel is, but without really seeing. We see what God has done, but not who he is or, at any meaningful level, his heart.

Last word

Dave Bish’s advice was two-fold: focus on what God is really like, as Mike Reeves does in this book and preach Christ.

Esther - relevance and resonance

Heard a couple of sermons from Esther recently. God's doing his stuff all over the shop - moving players and set pieces: it's abundantly clear that although Ahasuerus has the throne, Haman has access to the King's ear, Esther has access to the King's heart and Mordecai has access to Esther, God is calling the shots.

But is there more than sex, scheming and sovereignty? Is Esther a book about Jesus? Or is it just about how God provided for his people in order that one Jesus might be able to come, as the seed of Abraham, and save?

According to the preacher, Esther is primarily about understanding the purposes of God in human history and seeing the interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility working without any seeming conflict.

Which is true. (And it seems that divine sovereignty and human responsibility actually work better together in the courtroom that many people think they will from the classroom).

But it's not the whole truth: because the gospel echoes throughout Esther.

Who is it that wins the favour of the King, but then shares the benefit of their relationship with their people? Esther - but she points the way to Jesus who says that the Father will love us because we love Jesus (John 14:21).

Who is it that triumphs against all odds and sees the enemy slain with his own gallows? Esther - but she points the way to the one who "through death" destroyed "the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." (Heb 2:14)

Who lays down their life on behalf of their people in order to spare them from the judgment of the King? Esther - but she points the way to the one who doesn't merely risk his life, but lays it down for his people (John 15:13-14).

Esther does provide a fantastic, gutsy example to follow - but, were we part of the story, we'd be numbered amongst the helpless hordes who sit under threat of execution with no hope of saving themselves. And, if rather than just trying to highlight its relevance, we listen for it's gospel resonance, the book of Esther won't just point us to a great example: it'll point us to a great Saviour.