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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Christmas in Quartet:“John Sings Deep!

A sermon based upon John 1: 1-14

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 

Sunday, Dec. 20th, 2020 Christmas

 in Quartet: 4 Part-Harmony of the Christmas Story



Back in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.  It was the first time a human being could ever look down and see our planet as a whole.  You could actually see Earth brightly illuminated against the blackness of space. 

 After that, perhaps the most famous photograph from space of earth,  after the pictures taken from the Moon, was the picture known as the ‘blue marble’ picture taken by NASA in 2002.  It’s what has been named, ‘God’s eye view’ of the Earth.  It reveals the beautiful earth our tiny, fragile, but spectacularly beautiful home.  The reproduction of this image today, makes the earth look like a Christmas ornament hanging against a deep, black sky of dark.  

 Can you imagine that, the earth like hanging in darkness, like a Christmas ornament?

 We’ve been considering the Christmas story in 4 part-harmony; looking into how Christmas is presented in all 4 gospels; Mark, Matthew, Luke, and today, we consider John. 

 Each of the 4 gospels have their own way of telling us about Jesus.  Mark heads straight for the cross, telling us nothing about Christmas; but telling us how Jesus dies as God’s Son on the cross.  This is what mattered most to him.  

 Matthew tells us some about the Jewish circumstances surrounding his birth, as the ‘Christ who shall save his people from their sins.’  He gives us other details from Joseph’s point of view.  He also tells us how Herod, the Jewish ruler, tried to kill Jesus and the family had to flee to Egypt.  

 Last week, we learned how Luke’s most familiar story about Jesus being born in a manager is most beloved and well-known.   But this story is a highly charged story of God’s love for the poor, who trust God as their last and only hope in this world.  Jesus was born and placed in a humble manager, so he could challenge and change the world on behalf of those who were poor, outcasts, and sinners.

 Today, we come to the final gospel picture.  We compared Mark to a lead singer, Matthew to a dissonant singer, Luke to the loudest singer, but today, we hear from John who could be called the ‘deepest’ singer; perhaps like singing bass.  

 It reminds me, when the Band director pulled me out of Chorus class in High School, and asked me to play bass drum in Marching Band, and then later, Tuba in the Concert Band.  He told me, when you play the bass part, nobody hears you, or listens to you, unless you mess up.  And if you mess up, then everybody in the band messes up too.  You are the one who keeps the whole band playing in rhythm together.

 That’s a good way to describe John’s music of Christmas too.  It’s deep, it’s poetic, and it’s powerful theology, but nobody really thinks about it that much.  It’s beyond most people, but it still holds the rest of the gospel pictures of Jesus together. 



Let’s go back to that image we started with; of the earth hanging in darkness like a beautiful blueish/white Christmas ornament.   Who hung it there?  

 Answering this is great question is where John begins Christmas.   He not at the cross.  He doesn’t take us back to Abraham like Matthew does, nor did he take us back to Adam, like Luke does.   No,  John takes us out there with that the picture of that tiny, brilliant-blueish marble hanging in the dark sky.   John takes us to the ‘beginning’ of everything.

 No, of course, John wasn’t a Scientist.   In his day, the people who studied the stars were more Astrologers than Astronomers.   Astrologers didn’t look at the stars for what they were in and of themselves.  No, Astrologers looked at the stars and tried to figure out what they could tell us about life, about us, and about what might happen in the future.

 Today, we know that Astrology isn’t a Science.  It’s more like a pastime; perhaps even a pastime for people looking for ‘love in all the wrong places’.  

 But when John looked into the night sky, he was looking at love in the right place.   He didn’t look at what kind of story the stars could tell all by themselves, but he looked at the truth, the grace, and the love that was behind the stars.   There, when everything in heaven or on earth, had its beginning, when the earth was hung in space, love was there, and pure love put life there.

Now, of course you can’t prove all this.   You can’t prove that the love created the world, and love is the purpose of life, anymore than you can prove that God created the world or that God is love.   As I said in message on this text back in June,  there are somethings in life that can’t be proven, and they are just as important as the things that can be proven.   In fact these unprovable, spiritual truths about life, may be even more important than all the stuff we can prove by scientific methods.

 This is where John is taking us, as he opens his grand picture of God’s love.  This great love that ‘so loved the world’ is there as the great ‘Word’ who creates the world.   Although John can’t give us any details about ‘how’ the world was created,  he does what he can do; he explains how God’s love is the great mind, the great Spirit, and the great Word, who is behind the world.

 This is where the ‘good news’ of Jesus really starts, John is tell us.   It starts ‘at the beginning’.  John takes us back the that moment just before the ‘Big Bang’ , and tell us that God was there, and so was the ‘Word’ that was God.

 Now, here, we need to be careful.  John is not saying that the Bible is the Word that is God, but John is saying that Word of God, that becomes ‘flesh’ as Jesus Christ, is the same as very mind, voice, and truth of God---all the way back to the very beginning.   John is saying that back when everything started, God was there, God’s truth was there, God’s love was there, and so was the story God’s redemption for this world he created.

 Understanding Jesus as the one and the same as the Word who created life, or spoke life into being as God does in Genesis, means that now, God can redeem life by speaking his Word through Jesus Christ now.   

 Here, in this text, we find some of the simple, profound, but richest images expressed in human speech, WORD, LIFE, LIGHT, DARKNESS, GRACE, AND TRUTH.   These ordinary words are being stuffed with extraordinary meaning.  And just like God spoke the world into being with a simple act of speaking, God now speaks, his words in a kind of ‘Christmas’ language, that should not be hard for us to understand.

 It is amazing, how quickly a child can understand Christmas isn’t it?  I recall how quickly our own daughter caught on to the wonder of Christmas, not because she understood everything about the present we gave her, but how she loved unwrapping the presents and playing with the wrappings themselves.   In that first year she was with us, she loved the wrapping paper, first and perhaps most.  But by the next year, the paper came off pretty quick, and was never every played with again.

In the same way, the true message of Christmas is deep, much deeper than the wrapping paper of the lights, the music, the gifts and the festivities.   But as we grow older, and as we grow wiser and smarter too, we’ll soon be able to grasp the ‘real’ present in the gift we are given.  

 That’s where John’s going with his message about Christmas.  It’s deep, really deep, but he’s uses simple images we should understand; Life, Light, Darkness, Truth and Grace. 

These images are very simple to say, and to envision, but they have truth in them, that may take us years of unwrapping and unpacking to fully understand. 

 But that’s why we have Christmas every year, isn’t it?  So that we can keep experiencing it, hearing about it, and learning about it, until we finally have enough spiritual wisdom to understand it right.



And what does it mean to get these images right?   

 Well, let’s consider the bright shining one here: LIGHT.   When John speaks of the ‘light’ and contrasts it with darkness, he has a double meaning.   The ‘darkness’ will not able to apprehend the light; because the darkness can’t comprehend it either.   Darkness cannot destroy what it doesn’t fully understand.  The darkness has no real power over the light, because darkness isn’t really a power, it’s the absence of a power or a light.

 What what does this have to do with Christmas.   Well, it’s LIGHT we’re talking about.  Light always has to do with Christmas, doesn’t it?  What would Christmas be without LIGHTS.  And while some people might trace the Christmas LIGHTS with the pagan uses of LIGHT in the Long nights of Winter, the original LIGHT of Christmas, had a whole different meaning, altogether.

 Again, this meaning goes all the way back to Genesis, right after God said, started all “Let, There Be Light”. 

 According to John, the God who turned on the lights to create the physical world, is being challenged by the moral, spiritual darkness of this world.   And just like God had to overcome the physical darkness the first time; this time the moral darkness of this world is challenging God’s light, both spiritually and physically.   That’s not hard to grasp is it, that we can see parallels between moral light, and physical light; moral darkness and spiritual darkness, and how often seem to be a war with each other in the world.   

But it’s really no contest, John wants us to know.  The darkness can’t really extinguish or put out the light.  The light, God’s spiritual light is too powerful for that.  The only what that the ‘spiritual light’ can be put out, is when we reject the light, ignore the light, or refuse to turn the light on in us.

 And that’s exactly where John is coming from.   In the Old Testament story, after God creates Light, and the World, and calls everything good, God also creates human being ‘in his image’.  Human beings have the ‘light’, or the ‘image of God’ stamped in their hearts, originally, from the beginning.  

 But something happens in that creation story, if you remember.   Human’s allow the Snake, the Serpent, the Devil himself, to pull them away from following the ‘light’ that God puts in them.  Because humans give into the lesser, darker ways of living, ignoring their own relationship with God and his light in them, they give into disobedience and sin weakens the light of truth, the light grace, and the light of love in them.

 And this is so true about our world, sometimes isn’t it?  While there is no real substance to darkness, but darkness is the absence of light, when it gets dark, it can seem really dark, can’t it?  The story about Adam and Eve, putting out the light by disobeying God’s love and light, is a dark story of deception, doubt, and wayward desire; but it’s not just a story about what went wrong in them; it’s really the story about what still goes wrong in us.  

 We have great light of potential and truth in us, but we can ignore it, deny it, cover it up, and try to put it out, in our own lives too.  We humans keep messing with the ‘light’ we have been given, by hate, divisions, going to war, tolerating poverty and oppression; and by failing to protect this beautiful fragile earth too.  

 Each of us carries the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical scars too, of the things done to us and the things we’ve done to each other.   We carry anger, shame, hurt, and defeat around too long. 

 Worst of all we carry resignation.  We give up.  We say nothing can be done about it.  We give into a darkness, that shouldn’t be able to win, because it has no real power in the light; but instead of overcoming the darkness with light, we sit down in the darkness and run away from the light that can change how we see everything.

 And it is this kind of darkness, this moral, spiritual, and emotional darkness, that God’s light has come into the world, to shine God’s light upon.   

 John wants us to know that the same God who spoke light in the middle of the great darkness of nothingness, has the power to speak his Word again,  and shine bright enough to dispel the darkness of our moral, spiritual world too.  And this light is a light that will shine in a way that it can never be put out.



What is the light that can’t be put out?   How does the same love that created the world, make a way to redeem the world that has lost it’s way, in the dark?

 Well, if LIGHT, is one of the most visible images or metaphors in John, LIFE is the other.  And the LIFE that John puts on display is the WORD of life that God’s speaks again into this world, just like God once breathed and spoke LIFE into humans in the beginning.

 The LIFE that God speaks again, now comes into human life again, in Jesus Christ, the one born of human flesh.   But this LIFE isn’t only meant to give birth to Jesus alone.  This life is to give ‘new birth’ to anyone who believes on him.   As John says, in him was the ‘light that enlightens everyone’, and just like the says ‘in him was life’ he says this power for life, can be anyone who will receives him.

 The big bang in the first story, was the creation of the world; but the big bang in the redemption story is how ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’.   This is the next big step beyond Genesis.  God, has spoken again, and comes to us as Word, as Light, and as Life.  

 And this is the part of the Christmas story, John doesn’t want us to miss.  It’s bigger than anything else that can be said at Christmas.   It’s bigger than the Christmas lights.  It’s bigger than the Christmas packages.  It’s even bigger than going to Grandma’s house; and it doesn’t get much bigger than that.  But this is what makes the lights, the packages, and the trips to Grandma’s and everything else mean something, that really means something because LIFE means something that the devil can never steal or take back.   And do you know what that is?

 Do you know what the devil can’t take away from us?  God.   God is not far off in some distant heaven, nor so far back in history of religion that he doesn’t matter.  God is not a distant clock-maker, who wound up the world and left the universe to run on it’s own.   No, God has come among us to know us from the inside out.   When it says here, that God has ‘lived among us’, it literally means, God has ‘pitched his tent’ among us.  We might say, though Jesus Christ, “God has moved into the neighborhood’.    God wants us to know, once and for all, that God is not only ‘out there’, beyond anything we know, but God is also ‘right here’ in everything we know.  There is not looking at us ‘from a distance’, but God sees us close up.  And while God’s gets a good look at us, we can get a good look at him too.   According to John, that’s what Christmas means; God has become flesh to be among us.

 But there’s something else going on here.  John’s deep music about the incarnation; God becoming flesh and dwelling among us,  means something else, we must not miss.

For not only does God become flesh, because God has entered human flesh, we can become ‘children of God’ too.   This is the other side of the meaning of the incarnation.  God has come into flesh through Jesus Christ; so that now, the Spirit of Jesus can get into us, in our own human life of flesh and blood.

 Linda Bridges, who currently teaches at Wake Forest, Divinity School, tells about growing up in a pastor’s home in S.C.  She says when she was 12 her Dad announced that a 97 year old man, Mr. Dixon, was too be Baptized on a Sunday Evening.   It scared her.  What if her Dad dropped him?  What if he died while under water?  

 When the time came for him to be baptized, he began to speak and share about how 80 years ago, when he was 16, he heard a fire and brimestone preacher, called Cyclone Max, preach a sermon entitled, "Who is Jesus, Anyway".  But, Mr. Dixon said, he put it out of his head.  He didn't want to get into that church stuff.   But the question never went away.  Finally, now, at age 97, with the end of life in front of him, he knew he finally had to do something about it.  He needed to finally answer, 'who' Jesus was for him, anyway.

I'm glad Mr. Dixon finally answered the question.   The sad thing is that he just about waited too long.   Not everyone gets that long to answer.   What we need to know now, is that the Christmas story from John is deep, but this isn't about  information, it’s also about transformation.   As I quoted Athanasius, who also quoted Irenaeus, two great early Christians who barely didn’t make into the Bible, both said: ‘This God became what we are in order to make us what God is.   Here’s the ultimate gift, and good news of Christmas.  The incarnation isn’t about information, it’s about transformation.   This image of God that was given to us, and has been tarnished or darkened by sin, can now be remade and Re-stamped in us.   For just as God’s glory entered flesh in Jesus Christ, through Jesus, God’s glory and goodness can enter and become light and life in us.  

 And do you know what is most wonderful about this new ‘life’ from God.   In rest of John’s gospel,  Jesus will teach us over and over, through all the people who encounter him; Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, the other, all the others too, will remind us that in Jesus we can be ‘born again, from above, and we can be find ‘living water’, and living bread so that we never thirst or hunger again.  

 And do you know how all this happens?  Because Jesus isn’t just a baby who is born in a stable, or to Mary and Joseph, nor is Jesus a simple man who lived a good life on earth, but Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Great Shepherd, and the Way, the Truth, and the Life, so that we, who believe, and follow his light, can come to the Father, through him.   Through Jesus, the life that has been broken, and the world that went dark, can be healed and enlightened.  

 For you see, just as Genesis is the first Creation story, John puts forth his gospel as the Redemption story.   This is the chance God is giving the world, to get things right and to have hope.  

 And in this struggle to get it right, we aren’t alone.  God has entered the darkness with us, and he dispels it too, because he is light and he is life---then, and now.  



Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas in Quartet:“Luke Sings Loudest!”

A sermon based upon Luke 2: 1-20

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 

Sunday, Dec. 13th,, 2020 Christmas in Quartet: 4 Part-Harmony of the Christmas Story


Who doesn’t love the Christmas story.  My wife’s family tradition was that on Christmas Eve, for her Father’s side of the family to gather at her grandparents home, and before sharing gifts, her grandmother would read, very emotionally, the Christmas story from Luke.  Fortunately, after we were married, I also got to participate in that tradition. 


I’m sure each of you have developed some Christmas traditions too.  If your tradition is religious, it probably focuses somehow on this story from Luke, which is the only gospel that tells us that Jesus was ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manager’.   


While Matthew also tells us where Jesus was born; in Bethlehem and not in his hometown of Nazareth, only Luke tells us ‘how’ he was born, in such a inconvenient, unexpected, and humiliating setting.      


With this little introduction, we continue the current Advent series entitled,, “Christmas In Quartet.  We’re studying how and why the Christmas story differs in each gospel.


In our first message, we noted how Mark sings lead; the main melody line about Jesus takes us straight to the cross.   Then, last week we heard Matthew’s more dissonant voice pointing to the Jewish world, where the message of Christmas is grounded. 


Today, we come to Luke’s familiar, well known, and most beloved voice.  As a historian and man of the world, Luke focused on many detail to point out the universal implications of Jesus’ birth and story.  



Luke’s attention to details can be compared to how Laura Hillenbrand wrote the biography of Louis Zamperini.  Zamperini was Olympian and war hero, who was converted at a Billy Graham crusade.  


Hillenbrand also wrote the book Sea-biscuit.  Critics have called Hillenbrand a “research genius” and one of the “best writers” alive today.  

To write her account of Zamperini’s life, she conducted 75 interviews and pored over countless historical documents, taking 7 years to write “Unbroken,” the 496-page biography of Zamperini’s life.


In Luke’s own approach to the gospel, it looks as if he has researched the life of the Lord Jesus quite extensively too.   He seems to writing this gospel account to intentionally speak to a much broader audience. 


Luke may have interviewed eyewitnesses and pulled together other source material.  As a physician, he was careful, thoughtful, and persuasive.  In the way he crafted his gospel together,  you can tell that he was accustomed to handling data and giving close attention to details   This is why in opening verses, he says he made an ‘orderly account’.


But what does this mean, an ‘orderly account’.  How this relate to Luke’s whole approach to the Christmas story? 


Well, for one thing, Luke’s gospel is the longest gospel.  Luke wrote Acts too.   Luke’s goal seems to be to take us from the ‘humble beginnings’ of Jesus, and to how the church was also born and launched out into the world.  Luke would have been especially interested in this story, as he was a companion to Paul on some of his missionary journeys (2 Tim. 4:11, Col 4.14).


This makes it clear, that Luke’s gospel certainly has missionary concerns.  You can see this missionary concern bleed through the pages in two most prominent ways.  One, Luke is writing this account for Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1).  This is either a real person with Greek name which means ‘friend of God’ or, most likely, it could be a pseudonym for his intended audience; a culturally Greek people who were open to Jewish, religious ideas and the story of Jesus. 


Also, Luke’s primary aim was to tell the story, not in contrast to the evil ways of the Jewish King Herod, but to point to Jesus, as opposed to the cruel, corrupted rulers of the Roman Empire.  Just as those rulers were considered to be divine ‘sons of God’, Luke even more intentionally, points to Jesus as the humble, but true ‘Son of God’. 


In this his gospel, Luke is putting forth a missionary invitation to the saving, healing, and more compassionate way of Jesus Christ.  His perspective of the gospel, and Christmas too, has striking, universal and political implications, as we are about to see.   




We see Luke’s world-shaking and world-shaping very ‘political’ and ‘missionary’ gospel in the most climatic introduction to Jesus, at the close of the account, when the angels announce his birth to ‘shepherds’ who were ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night’ (2:8). 


Here, we not only have an angel, like in Matthew, but Luke’s announcement concludes with a ‘multitude of the heavenly host’ proclaiming in chorus, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace...’ (2:14). 


So, the very first political question raises with his readers it this:  How does Jesus birth and life offer the peace ‘on earth’, when the earth we live on can be such a troubled, conflicted and war-threatened place?


Interestingly, that very question was once asked in a Christmas carol, based upon a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863.  That poem was written in a time our greatest American conflict, during the middle of America’s Civil War.  If you recall, it was Longfellow who also wrote the famous poem about ‘The midnight Ride of Paul Revere’.


The Christmas Carol tells of the writer’s despair upon hearing Christmas bells during the American Civil War, saying "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men".  Here, Longfellow quotes Luke 2:14 directly.  


The song does not end with despair, but concludes with the bells carrying a message of renewed hope for peace among people, saying, in spite of what was happening at the time, that: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."


In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was fatally burned in an accidental fire.  


Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army without his father's blessing.


Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer", he wrote. "I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.".


Charles was soon appointed as a lieutenant but, at the end of November that same year, he was severely wounded during General Mede’s failed Mine Run Campaign against General Lee in northern Virginia.


Charles eventually recovered from his shoulder wound, but his time as a soldier was finished.  Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863, right after he received a Telegram informing him that his son had been wounded in battle. 


What makes this poem and song so powerful, is that is so honestly hopeful.  It faces the realities of life in a conflicted world but does this with unrelenting hope in God’s promise of peace. 


I recall another Christmas Carol story based upon “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”.   “Midnight Clear” is a historically accurate 1992 World War II movie based upon the true story of how American and German soldiers faced each other in the Ardennes Forest, just before the Battle of the Bulge.


 It was near the end of the war, and the German patrol actually wanted to surrender without their superiors knowing about it. They called a cease fire and met with American’s to exchange cigarettes and sing Christmas carols.  The next day, their common plan for the Germans to surrender tragically did not work, but for one moment, on cold winter night, there had been ‘peace’, but peace didn’t work out.


Unfortunately, as we in the church know all too well, in our world, whether it be personal or political, even God’s peace doesn’t always work out either.   Hate is still very strong, and still mocks the song of Peace”.  So, how are we to understand Luke’s angelic greeting?   Is this only a hopeful greeting, or is it an unattainable spiritual reality, or is it, as most might say, wishful thinking of a delusional religious mythology? 


He has Lifted Up the Lowly 1:52

Luke’s own answer, which maybe is the kind of answer most don’t want to hear, is that a brand-new kind of ‘politic’ that has entered into the world through Jesus Christ. 


The new political agenda of Jesus is made clear by the angel Gabriel, who comes to Mary.   Gabriel isn’t just any angel.  Gabriel is Israel’s guardian angel and God’s ruling angel, who will do whatever is needed to defend Israel from other nations. 


It is Gabriel who not only says that Mary ‘will conceive’, but Gabriel announces that Mary’s child will be ‘great’, the Son of the Most High, and that the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David’ (1:32).   That’s not a simple ‘post card’ greeting.   The angel Gabriel means business, and it’s political business too, and it doesn’t stop there.  Later on in this text, Mary visits her sister-in-law, Elizabeth.  After informing her about the child, Mary breaks out in a song of praise to God that has more political punch than anything else in Luke’s gospel.


Are ready for it?   Mary is full of praise because through the birth of her child,  The Mighty One’ (she names God) has not only ‘scattered the proud’, but this God has ‘brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’.   This God ‘has filled the hungry with good things, and has ‘sent the rich away empty.’   It is because of this political agenda that God has ‘helped his servant Israel’ and ‘remembered mercy’.  God is about to something political, earth-shaking again, because in order to lift one people up, God will have to bring others down. Do you see that?


Often, we hear pastor’s being warned, ‘’When you work in your church, make sure you don’t get political.  And there certainly some important wisdom being shared here, isn’t there?   As a pastor, or even as a church, you don’t want to get locked into one side of the political equation in our country, or any country for that matter.   The gospel is bigger than one political party.  The gospel is also bigger than any one nation too.  


I once told you about the Baptist pastor in Texas, who upon being convinced that the Mennonites and Amish are right not to put any national flag on display, he proceeded to remove the America flag from the pulpit area, without consulting church leaders.  Upon finding the flag removed, the next week they removed the pastor, and then on the following week the America flag was back up.  Today, that pastor now leads a Mennonite church in Virginia.


Yes, we must use wisdom in understanding the connection between God and any nation; and just as God is pro-Israel, pro-America, he is must also be understood to be pro-people, period too.   But when we read the Christmas, we must understand that the church must have a political agenda.  The word ‘politic’ means ‘of the people’ and if we are going to be a church who cares about God’s agenda,  then we must know that we aren’t only given a spiritual agenda, but we have a political one too. 


And one of the of the most important images that reveals Jesus’ own political agenda, which is God’s own political agenda, is being detailed for us in Luke more than any other gospel.   And this political agenda is that God is constantly inviting new people to God’s table of goodness and grace. 


After Mary tells us that God ‘has filled the hungry with good things’,  we also see Jesus as a dinner guest with a sinner, tax collector (5:27f), a Pharisee (7:36f.), at the home of Martha and Mary, (10: 38f.), and then, he is eating at the house of a Pharisee again, where he does not ‘wash his hands’ in the proper ritualistic fashion (11:37f.).  


Jesus is also invited to a Sabbath meal with a ‘ruler of the Pharisees’ (14: 1f).  The point is Jesus is always at a ‘table’ eating somewhere, and he is normally the kind of dinner guest you wouldn’t invite, unless you are also prepared for some kind of trouble. 


And the biggest trouble with Jesus, according to Luke, is that Jesus has such bad ‘table manners’, that he and his own ministry was labeled as ‘the one who welcomes and eats with sinners’ (Luke 15:1ff).  


In fact, more than anything else, Luke wants us to know that it is Jesus’ own table manners, especially in how he spoke about the rich man’ went to Hell, was the one who has all kinds of wealth and food, but he didn’t have God.  The reason he didn’t have God, wasn’t because he didn’t believe in God, but because he never stopped to see or meet the need of the poor beggar, who was lying helpless, hopeless and hungry right out his is front door.


Now, are you beginning to see the kind of political agenda Jesus has in Luke, especially?   Other gospels reveal this political agenda too.  In fact, Matthew even has Jesus saying plainly, that ‘he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword’ (10:34).   Luke didn’t even go that far.  But Luke accomplishes the same challenging political agenda with ‘forks and knifes’. 


For you see, Jesus does have a political agenda---a very definite political agenda, but Jesus is not on the side of Democrats or Republicans.   Jesus is on the side of the poor and those who have needs, ever which party that is at any given time.   And Jesus displayed his agenda with who he ate with, and how he challenged people with means reach out and respond to help those without means, especially in the basic matters of food and community.   It was actually because Jesus was so politically charged, not only religiously charged, that the religious and the political establishment felt like they had to get rid of him.


I know this is not the kind of stuff you want to hear about at Christmas.

You mind is already on some other agenda---you family agendas that are so important to all of us this time of year.  I understand that.  That’s certainly important too.  


Still, we must also consider the true political agenda of Jesus, which goes hand in hand with his spiritual, saving agenda too.  For Israel, and for us too, still today,  ‘Salvation’ isn’t just a religious matter, it’s also a political matter.  Salvation isn’t just something God wants to do in people spiritually, but salvation, which means, ‘healing’, also has a family, community, social, and political agenda too.  


And isn’t it true, that we often do, perhaps more than churches used too, don’t we think this political and social agenda more this time of year?  Don’t we have ministry programs, and give money to charity now, at Christmastime, more than other times?   Maybe, just maybe, we’ve already have a glimpse at seeing that Jesus and his agenda is bigger than just going to church.  Maybe we might even see that Jesus is bigger than going to heaven too.  Of course, I’m certainly not belittling going to church or going to heaven, but what I am doing is helping us see that Jesus cares about much about this world as the next.  In fact, the Bible actually teaches Resurrection, not mere immortality.  In other words, the Bible cares about what happens in this world, because God’s future, in some amazing, transformational way, includes this world, as part of the world that is still to come.  Yes, the world must still undergo some tremendous changes, but God’s world is it is heaven.  Isn’t that how Jesus taught us to pray;  ‘Thy Will be done on earth, as it is in heaven?’


Luke is the one who brings right out in the open, and applies it not just to Jerusalem, or Israel but puts Israel right in the middles of the greater political struggle that is still going on in the world; the struggle between the rich and the poor, the struggle between the powerful and weak, which is just as important, as the struggle between the proud and the humble.  In fact, it is Luke’s Jesus who said, the Kingdom is here, now, ‘among’ you (17:21).


Because You Did Not Believe 1:20

Finally, here again, this hope of a changed peaceable world, because of a changed more peaceable people; people who not only care about God and what we can get from God, but who actually care about those who need us to care about them, and what we can ‘give’ to them.  This is a ‘kingdom’, that never comes, but which the angels announced, and Jesus declared is a kingdom that can be ‘among’ us, even here and now, if we care enough.


Maria Colvin, a British war reporter, was killed in 2012, while covering the heart-breaking civil war in Syria, where President Assad, sent out jets to bomb his own people.  She was reporting on how it wasn’t armies he was attacking, but families, women, children, and the elderly.  That was her approach in many places she had gone before, in Libya, in Iran, in Afghanistan, and in Bangladesh, reporting in the darkest corners of war torn areas, about what happens to normal people to bright light upon the true  human costs of war.  Before he tragic death, she asked why she choose to do such dangerous work.  She said: ‘I cared enough to go to these places and write in some way something that would make someone else care as much about it as I did at the time.  Part of doing this is that you're never going to get to where you're going if you acknowledge fear. I think fear comes later when you've - when it's all over.’


We all know the world and people, need to change; to do things differently.  But what will it take for that to happen?   What will it take for peace to come to the world that lasts?  What will take for a political agenda to rise up that makes a real, lasting change to how we live together in this world, and how we come together in this world, as rich, poor, powerful, weak, or proud and humble?   How will that ever happen?


The answer is in how Luke opens up his gospel, with the very strange story about a Priest, named Zechariah, who is also visited by an angel.  He’s an old man, and his wife too, are both too old to have children.  In a surprising, and frightening visit, an angel informs Zechariah that this is going to happen.  But when Zechariah hears this, he asks the wrong question.  “How?”   Old Zech is a old Priest, and he’s been righteous and faithful too, but this didn’t set too well with the angel.   The angel makes him mute, until the Baby is born, just to prove his point.  


And do you know why Luke tells us that the angel was so hard on Zechariah?   The angel explains, “... because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur." (Lk. 1:20 NRS)


Did you catch the problem the angel has with this very religious guy?  This guy who believes in God.  This guy who goes to church every Sunday, or Saturday.  This guy who has been faithful to God every day of his life?  Do you know why the angel is so hard on him?  He doesn’t believe. 


Oh, yes, Zechariah believes in God, he just doesn’t believe God wants to do something different.   Zechariah has gotten stuck in the ‘same ole, same ole’.  He wasn’t ready to see and understand that God is about to do something different, very different.


My favorite part of the story about Zechariah, comes at the end, when Elizabeth’s baby is born, and people start wondering, what she’s going to name the baby.  She said his name was going to be ‘John’, as the angel had instructed her.  The neighbor’s answer, but nobody in your family has that name.  So they went to Zechariah, who still can’t speak, and they ask him what the child’s name will be.   They had him a tablet to write on.  And do you know what Zechariah writes?  He writes exactly what the angel said: “JOHN”.   It was then, that Zechariah regained his voice. 


What about you?  The reason hate is still strong and mocks the song of peace on earth’ isn’t because of what God hasn’t done.  No, everything that needs to be done, needs to be said, and needs to be proven, so that we can get life right, get our heads right, and get our politics right, has been done, but do we get it?  


Are we ready for God to do something different?  Don’t we know enough about what war, hate, and divisive, dirty, underhanded politics does to people, and will finally do to us?  How can we, in this season of the year, or any season, do something that makes a difference and brings peace and hope to those hurting and hungry for love around us?  Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Christmas in Quartet: "Matthew Sings Sharp

A sermon based upon Matthew: 1:18-25

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 

Sunday, Dec. 6th, 2020 Christmas in Quartet: 4 Part-Harmony of the Christmas Story


This Advent season, we’re considering what each gospel says about  Christmas.  They each tell the same basic truth about Jesus, but the details about Jesus birth can be very different.


As we saw last week, Mark doesn’t have anything to say about a Jesus’ birth.  He starts with John the Baptist, and heads straight to the cross.  Today we want to consider how Matthew tells the Christmas story.

Matthew does tell us about Jesus’ virgin birth and there were a couple of mentions of angels, but there’s still no manger, no shepherds, nor any heavenly hosts singing ‘Glory to God in the Highest!, nor any wish for  ‘Peace on earth.  


In fact, after an opening genealogical introduction, the gospel of Matthew starts out with a scandal.  Joseph is about to break off his upcoming marriage to Mary altogether.  That’s why I suggest, using my music analogy, that Matthew sings Christmas, a bit off key.  And it gets worse.


Planned to dismiss her quietly...  1:19

Whereas Mark tells us nothing, John begins with Genesis, and Luke tells us about John’s family dynamics, Matthew shows us how difficult God’s interruptions can be.  


In Matthew’s story, without being married, one day Mary turns up pregnant.  In Luke Gabriel warns Mary and, Mary informed Joseph, but in Matthew, there’s no angel Gabriel and no warning at all.  Now, after Joseph was getting ready to ‘dismiss’ and ‘put Mary away privately, an unarmed angel shows up in Joseph’s dream ‘a day late and a dollar short’, my mother would have said.   

It’s obvious that Matthew has a completely different agenda, in how he is introducing God’s work in the world.  While Luke’s angels speak ‘peace’, Matthew’s angel is trying to keep the peace.  The work of God in Matthew causes problems, while the work of God in Luke is trying to solve problems.

Why the difference?


Well, maybe part of the answer in in the how Matthew emphasizes the kind of Messiah or Savior Jesus will be.  Matthew is the first gospel writer to express directly, how ‘this Jesus will save his people from their sins’.  Matthew seems to want to show us, from the get-go, that when a holy God begins to work among a sinful people, there’s going to be conflict, misunderstanding, and trouble.  I guess you could say, that we can see the handwriting on the wall’ already pointing us toward the cross.


Of course, Joseph does not actually ‘dismiss’ or ‘put Mary away’, but he came close.  Had not that angel appear in his dream, think what might had happened?  But the angel did show up.  That’s how Jesus got his other named, ‘Emmanuel, God with us!’   God was with us, but it was very close to not happening like it did, or at least that’s the way Matthew likes to tell it.  It almost didn’t happen, but it did.       


An account of the genealogy 1:1

And I know that’s how Matthew pictures the work of God, ‘It almost doesn’t happen, but it does’, because this was his angle already.  


In the Genealogy that opens his gospel, Matthew takes us through a long list of male names, starting with Abraham, and ending with Joseph and then Jesus.  This isn’t exactly ‘Ancestry dot com’, because some names are left out, while others are added in. 


In fact, the neat way Matthew puts this together, he has 14 generations from Abraham to King David, and 14 generations from King David to the exile in Babylon.  Then he has 14 more generations from Babylonian Captivity to Jesus.  That’s very neat, almost too neat.  But then he deliberately colors outside the lines by mentioning only four questionable women along the way; Rehab, who was a prostitute, Tamar, who was raped, The wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery, and Ruth, a foreigner who got frisky to save her life.  You actually could add Mary as the fifth questionable woman, because this mother of Jesus did have a teen pregnancy.  When most people would cover stuff like this up, Matthew lets it all hang out.  And no, I’m not kidding folks, this stuff is in the Bible, the Holy Bible, I might add.


Why are all these questionable women, and men too, for that matter—-what are they doing in this story?  Well, besides this being a true story, made of real people, in real life situations that carry a lot of baggage, what Matthew seems to be saying about these women,, including Mary, is that here we have a God who works in mysterious ways.  Bad things happen.  Good things almost don’t.  And know that God is with us, really with us, because these good things that almost don’t happen, somehow, still do. 


That’s what all these women, and there stories have in common.  You don’t notice God is with you, when every thing is running smooth like a well greased-wheel, no you notice God when it was close—when good things  almost didn’t happen, but they still did, and they still will, because God is Emmanuel, God with us.


In the time of King Herod Matthew 2:1

And that brings us to the final part of Matthew’s unique angle on Christmas.  We find in the dark-side of the story of the wise men, who were following the star.  It’s also a story about something that almost didn’t happen, or should I say, it’s the story about a something that almost did, tragically happen.  It the story how Jesus was almost murdered, as a baby, but he wasn’t.  


If you recall,  the wise men, (not kings), bearing 3 different royal gifts, saw the star announcing Jesus’ birth, and followed it.  Now get this.  Matthew says they were coming from the east, following a star they saw in the east, rising, but they ended up going west.  Didn’t I tell you God works in mysterious ways?   I think the point here is, that this was no ordinary star.  The idea isn’t that the star was in the geographic east, but it was rising like stars do in the east. 


All this geographical, astrological confusion is warranted, because later, we read that they find the child by following this star ‘to the place where he was’.  But all this confusion does explain how they made a wrong turn and ended up at Herod’s house.


And this was really, a wrong turn.  Because, as you may remember, Herod did not like hearing that a baby was to be born, who was already being called the ‘King of the Jews’.  Herod the Great was the only king of the Jews, and he was going to do whatever it takes, to make sure of that.


And that’s where this story starts to take a dark turn, too dark.  After the wise men informed Herod the time they saw the star first appear, they left and finally came to where the child was.  A dreamed warned them not to return to Herod, and an angel came an warned Mary and Joseph, that King Herod would be looking for the child, so they fled to Egypt. 


Unfortunately, that’s not the end of this story, because Herod, unable to locate the child, orders every child in and around Bethlehem to be taken from their parents and murdered.  Again, the point of the story, is that one of these children could have been Jesus, but it wasn’t.  By the time Herod’s soldiers arrived, the child Jesus was safe with his parents in Egypt.


Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15

Now, we’ve come to the end of the Christmas story, and where is Jesus.  He’s not in a manger in Bethlehem, he’s headed back home to Nazareth, but for now, Jesus is a refugee down in Egypt, right where his ancestors were in Egyptian bondage. 


This opens us up to having to make the comparison Matthew wants to make, and will make, all the way from Egypt, to Nazareth, and to Jerusalem., and everywhere in between.  This Jesus, who is God’s son, and Israel’s Savior, and is Emmanuel, God with us, is now ready to be cast as ‘the new Moses’.  And this Jesus, as the Savor who is God’s Messiah, is one who is greater than the Law itself.  He is the one who will lead his people on a new Exodus, and he will his redeem his people, not only from sin, but from the  law.


And that almost doesn’t happen too.  It wasn’t long until Jesus came into confrontation with the most serious keepers of the law; the scribes and the Pharisees.  You know that story, because it is the story that runs through each of the gospels, and it’s partly why Jesus is crucified. 


But what you may not realize is that Matthew’s shows us this great difference of interpreting the law, in his unique detail that gives us the sermon on the mount.  Nothing establishes Jesus authority and priority over the law, more than his new law, and higher form of righteousness which was being laid out in the sermon on the mount.


You know how that goes, ‘You’ve Heard it said, but I say”.  Now, that’s the real authority of ‘God with us’, when he reinterprets his own law.  Now, that’s certainly something that was going to cause trouble, and it did.     


And here again, we end up where we started.  The gospel of Matthew starts with a scandal, and continues with one right up to the cross.  And it’s at the cross that is the epitome of it almost didn’t happen, but it still did.  And it’s at the cross that we find Jesus leading his people on a new Exodus, and this time it’s not the waters that part, but it’s the tomb that rolls away, to open up the way to eternal life.


They shall name him Emmanuel,” Matthew 1:23

So, Matthew still sings Christmas, but he sings it in a dissonant, out of tune kind of way.  He looks at Christmas from the dark side, which also reflects upon the kind of world Jesus was being born into.  


If there is one verse, however,  that Matthew uses to sing his understanding  of the Christmas story, it’s the words the angel used to announce Jesus’ birth to Joseph. When an angel is doing the talking, you should pay close attention, because often points to what God is doing. Remember, angels are messengers of God. 


So, what’s the message?  In our primary text, in   

Matthew 1:21, the angel informs Joseph the reason for Mary’s teen pregnancy, which man be unwanted by the world, but is still the mighty work of God.  The angel says: ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  We can sum up what Matthew sings about ‘Emmanuel, God with us, in the birth of Jesus, using this one verse.


His People.  Matthew, sings the original message Christmas, and Jesus’ birth.  Jesus came as the Christ, the Messiah for ‘his people’. 


Everything in his  Christmas story points to this; the long genealogy that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus,  the story of King Herod, and the terrible political situation in Israel at that time, and also how the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt, and how Jesus came back ‘out of Egypt’ just like Israel was rescued out of Egypt. 


Finally, also how Matthew presents Jesus as the giver of the new law, the higher law of love and faithfulness on display in the sermon on the mount.

In every way, Matthew sings Christmas, he places the whole event in its original, local context.  As a Paul said, Salvation is of the Jews first, then the Greeks.  


Their sins.  The other part of Matthew’s tune, is what begins to make the music more universal, for us too.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Jesus first comes to save ‘his people from their sins’. 


Do you know what the worst sin in Israel was at that time? God called Israel, as he called Abraham, so that through Abraham, all the families of the earth could be blessed’ (Ge. 12:3). 


Then, later, in Exodus, as Moses delivered God’s people from Egypt, he gave them the law, he consecrated them, reminding them, God chose them, among all the nations, to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6).  And that means, as Isaiah reminded them later, that they have been chosen to be a ‘light to all the nations’ (Isa. 42: 6) being a holy and righteous people, serving God and taking God’s salvation to the whole world (Isa.49:6). 


Here is precisely the primary ‘sin’ Israel is found guilty of, which must be healed and remedied.  That’s why God has to come down, in the form of a man, In Jesus Christ, God is saving his people, so he can continue his work of reconciling the whole world unto himself. 


This is how Israel’s sin and failure provides the way, for God to address the sin of everyone.  It’s also why Jesus comes to save his people first, so that through Jesus, God keeps the work of salvation, redemption, and restoration going.  Jesus doesn’t take Israel’s light away, but he restores that light by picking up the torch, and becoming the light of the whole world. 


And don’t forget, Jesus also passed that light down to us, saying that ‘we are the light of the world too ‘.  That comes straight out of Matthew’s Christmas gospel.  This is also the reason we light up our world at Christmas.  When you do that God’s call should come straight to you.  When you light up a tree, you aren’t just saying, Jesus lights up your world, but you’re also showing yourself what God wants you to do; to pick up the same torch, and keep running the race, for the prize of the call in Christ Jesus.


He will save.

So, finally, Matthew’s tune is sung about the ‘sin’ in our world, and what God has done, and is doing to heal, save, and redeem us from it.  This brings us to the ‘bright side’ of this dark, melancholy, and someone difficult story.  In Jesus Christ, God comes to save, to heal, and to redeem.


How Jesus saves is what the story of Christmas is about.  God saves through the people he chose.  God saves, in spite of their sin and failure, and finally, through Jesus, and his newly redeemed and restored Israel, which now, by his grace, includes us, the church, we too become recipients and participants, in God’s saving love.  We are called to receive the light come into the world , and become light in the world. 


 We are all very familiar with the events of 9.11.2001, when terrorist attacked the World Trade Center in New York City.  However, four days later there was another tragedy that didn’t get as much attention, and rightly so.


It was September 15, 2001 at 2:30 AM, and a group of barges loaded with coiled steel slammed into one of the pillars of the bridge that leads to South Padre Island, Texas, causing three 80 foot sections of the bridge to fall into the water.   Because it happened without warning, and because it was so dark, numerous cars drove off the bridge and plunged 85 feet to the water below.  In all, eight people died and 3 more were injured.


Following the tragedy, someone suggested, “If only it had happened during the day time, when the sunlight would have made the collapsed bridge more visible. Or if only there had been a big spotlight that could immediately have been shined on the problem, or warning lights that could have immediately started blinking to warn the drivers. Then the people would not have lost their lives.”


“If only”.  We all know the importance of light.  We not only love it at Christmas, there is no life without light.  Spiritual light is just as important.   Without spiritual light a great darkness overtakes our world  and people  drive off the dangerous roads and broken bridges into the a great abyss.


We have the light and we are the light.  We can shine the lights at Christmas, and we can live in the light to show the way to stay on the right road that leads to life and more light..

Now, before we close, let’s here return to the most obvious, in Matthew’s, dissonant, off key sounding tune.  God saves through Israel’s brokenness to include us, and show us the way into the light.  When you didn’t think the world could be saved, God still does it.  As the black church often says, ‘He’s a just in time God’. 


And this often how God works on purpose.  God waits to work through us, because God’s saving purpose has always included us, you, me, and the whole world. 


Jesus came to save his people to shine and show a light to save all people.  That’s why the offer to save the Jews means also, that today, and everyday, and every year at Christmas, Matthew also sings and remind us, how God came for them, and for us, because he is still, for all, Emmanuel, God with us.   Amen.