This morning we kick off a new series called “Christmas Presence.” This morning I’m joined by Highland’s preaching apprentice Frank Bolling. Let’s pray and then Frank and I will share the message with you…
Christmas was only a few days away, when the unthinkable happened. Their house burned down. (Show picture of House Fire) Everything in it lost, destroyed by the fire and smoke. I wonder what Amanda Thomas and her 2 little children thought as they looked on at the scene with fire fighters trying desperately to put out the flames that consumed their life right before their eyes. Fear, loss, hopelessness. Officer Priest, one of the officers at the scene, came up to Amanda after the incident and said, “Don’t worry about Christmas. We’ll take care of Christmas. I promise you that.” I have heard promises before that weren’t kept, promises that seemed too good to be true. I wonder what she thought. No one keeps promises like that. This is hopeless. But I wonder what she thought only three days later when a patrol car brought them to their new rent house, freshly painted, prepped and furnished. The officers also presented her with gift cards, renter’s insurance, and a check for $10,000. An unbelievable gift to which Amanda Thomas’s reaction was “it’s more than I could ever ask for.” A promise fulfilled!
I love Christmas and this time of year because of the joy that comes with it. It is a time for family and friends to come together and celebrate. It is a time for gifts and giving. And I think more importantly it is a season when people emerge into hope. The Christmas season provides so much hope to so many people. Last Sunday we took up a contribution that will bring hope to people all across this world from Larose and Macon Hall Elementary to Ukraine and Papua New Guinea. People don’t keep promises like this but through your generosity and the grace of God our goal of $190,000 was reached. This is a season of hope.
I think we latch onto stories like these because there are so many people trying to make it through this life and they have lost hope. They are struggling to get by. There are those who have lost loved ones, there are people who have lost jobs because of a struggling economy. There are many people that when they wake up, it is a battle just to make it through the day ahead. And it is because they are lacking hope. Why is Christmas so meaningful? Because Christmas fulfills the hope that so many are seeking.
It was that way from the very beginning of Christmas. Jeremiah was one of the earliest prophets to speak of Christmas. He foretold the birth of Jesus to a people who needed hope. The Babylonians had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and after many days the Babylonians breached the wall and slaughtered the armies of Judah. The Babylonians entered the city burned all the houses to the ground. They went up to the temple and took out all gold, silver, and precious artifacts and then set fire to the temple and burned it to the ground. They tore down the walls of Jerusalem brick by brick and then carried the people off as captives to a land that was not their own. If there was ever a need for hope it was now. The people of Judah saw their houses burned, their temple ransacked and demolished, their families were split apart right before eyes, the people of Judah did not know what the next day would bring. As they were being led away in chains with city smoldering behind them I wonder what was going through their minds… Fear, Loss, Hopelessness. They needed hope! And it was in this moment of need that words of Jeremiah, rang true… “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.”
Jeremiah takes a promise which had been given to David many years ago and says God will fulfill His promise. God had told David that his throne would be established forever. Jeremiah takes this little seed of hope, and plants it in their minds. He proclaims that a day is coming when a righteous branch will Spring up and that branch is Jesus. Jeremiah says that HE IS COMING! He is coming and he is not just bringing houses and gifts but He is bringing justice and righteousness. Justice is a right relationship between people. In a land where justice rules, people love and care for their neighbor. They don’t oppress the orphans and widows, they don’t cheat and murder the innocent, people don’t have anything to fear because Justice reigns. The one to come is also bringing righteousness. Righteousness is a right relationship between us and God. Righteousness shows that the covenant is upheld and that blessings are raining down upon God’s people. These two gifts are greater than any gifts that could be given and this is what is promised to the people of Judah when they are in their greatest moment of need. They are looking for justice and righteousness and it is given in the promise of Christmas. And this is just the hope that they needed.
A small seed of hope, with the huge question of uncertainty looming in the background, will the branch grow up? I bet it was hard to trust what Jeremiah said. I am sure that these people had heard promises before, promises much smaller and much more insignificant than this that had not been kept by those around them. This is a huge promise. Will the branch grow up?
We can trust in the promise of Christmas, because as scripture says “And the angel said to them, do not fear, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be fore all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Christmas reminds us of that basic message from Jeremiah: “He’s coming.” God’s son is coming. Such a comforting message.
But Christmas is also a reminder that he’s coming—again. The one who appeared for the first time as a child will appear again in the clouds. The one who was first born in modesty will come again in majesty. His first arrival was as a kid. His second arrival will be as King. Christmas is a time to reflect not only on Jesus’ initial visitation among us but also on Jesus’ eventual return to us.
But while some of us may feel delight at the message “He’s coming,” we may feel dread at the message “He’s coming again.” Some of us may have the same emotional reaction to the return of Jesus that we have to Christmas itself. For some of us, this is the image that best captures our emotions at Christmastime: [photo]. For some of us this is a season not of gaiety but of anxiety. For some it’s the most wonderful time of the year. For others’ it’s the most stressful time of the year.
Why? One of the reasons has to do with the hard work of Christmas. Simply put, there’s a lot to do. Lights to hang on the house. Wreaths to place on the doors. A tree to find. Ornaments to hang. Cookies to bake. Meals to plan. There’s a lot of work to do.
And this, I think, is why some of us face the second coming of Jesus with dread. Because there’s so much work to be done. Some face the Second Coming of Jesus with anxiety because there’s so much work to be done.
When I became a Christian as a teenager in a rural New Mexico Church of Christ, a song they often sang about the second coming went like this: “Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon, many will meet their doom, trumpets will sound…” As a young Christian, I found the song troubling. Jesus is coming soon. Many will meet their doom. Why? Because they didn’t get all their work done. The work of becoming more like Jesus. The work of living and loving as Jesus. There seems to be more panic than pleasure in contemplating the fact that the one who arrived in the manger is coming again.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul is writing to a group of young Christians. We get the sense that they are a bit worried about Jesus’ return. Paul writes to correct this.
He begins in this way: 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith (1 Thess. 3:10 ESV). The word “lacking” literally means “to be behind.” If faith was a schedule, the Christians in Thessalonica are behind. If faith was a race, they are behind. If faith was a tender Tennessee Christmas, they’ve still got presents to buy, lights to hang, and groceries to buy. They are lacking when it comes to several areas of their spiritual lives.
Paul identifies exactly what they are lacking: 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father… (1 Thess. 3:11-13 ESV)
What are they lacking? Paul spells it out: an increased and abounding love for one another and for all people; blamelessness; and holiness. They’ve not yet learned to love sinners the way they love saints. They’ve not yet matured to the point of being blameless. And they’ve not yet grown to the point that they act in ways that are truly holy. They are behind. They are lacking.
Can you relate? It’s the end of 2012. A New Year is about to start. Are you where you thought you’d be by the end of 2012? Do you have the kind of love you hoped to have? Do you have the kind of blamelessness you hoped to have? Do you have the kind of holiness you hoped to have? Or are you, like the Thessalonians, behind? Are you lacking?
Michael O’Brien tells this story: In the Middle Ages, a famous young painter was hired to create a mural above the altar of a great church in Paris. The subject was the life of Christ. The artist labored for many years…Yet it remained incomplete. The artist, try as he might, could not complete two of the faces: the Christ Child and Judas Iscariot. Whenever he attempted to fill in these empty spaces, the results were out of harmony with the rest of the work… He prayed for inspiration daily, and not long afterward, while walking on the streets of the city, he happened upon a group of children playing. Among them was a boy who had the face of an angel and who radiated goodness. The artist invited him to sit as a model of the Christ Child…and the finished image was considered a masterpiece. Yet the painter could still find no model for the face of Iscariot… Then one afternoon as he sat in the church, a beggar staggered down the aisle and knelt at the steps of the altar. He reeked and his clothing hung in rags from his haggard figure. He was not an old man, but he was hunched over, as if weighted by an immense burden of dark memories. His face was exactly what the artist had been looking for…He was willing to sit as the artist’s model. Weeks went by, and as the work progressed, the beggar would look from time to time at the image of himself materializing on the canvas. A curious grief and horror would fill his eyes. One day, seeing the model’s distress, the artist paused in his labor, laying down his brush. “My friend,” he said, “your heart is troubled. What is it?” The man buried his face in his hands and burst into tears…”Do you not remember me?” he said, “Years ago I was your model for the Christ Child.”
We start out with such promise. We start out with such potential for being just like Jesus. But sin breaks in and we end up looking more like Judas. For many of us there’s still so much lacking when it comes to our faith. We are behind.
But it’s just when we feel overwhelmed with the weight of our sin that we can truly feel the wonder of the return of Jesus. Listen once more to the way Paul uses the return of Jesus: 11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thess. 3:11-13 ESV)
Did you catch what Paul was writing? We do not make ourselves increase and abound in love. Jesus does. We do not establish our hearts blameless in holiness. Jesus does. Paul’s prayer is not that we would do all the work remaining so that at the coming of the Lord Jesus we’ve increased and abounded in love for one another and for all and we’ve established our hearts blameless in holiness. Paul’s prayer is that Jesus would do all the work remaining.
Paul writes similarly later in his letter: 23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Thess. 5:23-24 ESV) We do not sanctify ourselves—the word refers to becoming more holy. God sanctifies us. We do not make ourselves blameless. God does.
This concept is so important that Paul writes the same thing twice. The Jesus who is coming again is working now so that we might be blameless when he comes. The Jesus who is returning is working now so that we might increase and abound in love when he returns. The Jesus who will once again visit is working now so that we might be holy when he visits. The Jesus who is coming again is working on your whole spirit, soul and body. That’s Paul’s way of saying that every part of you. Every aspect of who you are will achieve perfection at the coming of Jesus.
Here’s the comfort of Jesus’ return: Jesus’ Second Coming will coincide with our completion. The work Jesus began in us at his first arrival he will complete by his second arrival. It’s not all up to our ability to make resolutions and keep them. It’s not all up to our willingness to work harder on our heart and our character. We have a role to play. There are things we must do. But we are not alone in this struggle for transformation. Jesus works with us. Jesus works in us. And by the time he comes again, his guarantee is that we will be complete. We may have the face of Judas now. But by the time he’s done with us, we’ll have the face of Jesus. We may be incomplete now. But we will finally be complete when Jesus returns.
There’s a growing business related to helping people handle Christmas. You can hire a personal shopper who will purchase presents for you. You can hire a company to hang Christmas lights on your house. You can have a Christmas tree delivered to your front door. Imagine if you could pay for someone to do something similar with your character. Imagine if that work would be done for free. This, Paul writes, is the great comfort of the Second Coming. Jesus, the one who arrived in a manger and who will arrive once again in the clouds, will, from now until the day of his return, work for free on your heart, your mind, your will and your character. He will do what you cannot, so that on the day he returns, your transformation will be complete.
 Michael D. O’Brien, Sophia House (Ignatius Press, 2005).