"The Manger: Message for a Distant World"
Dec.24/07 Christmas Eve Heb.1:1-9
The Message in the Bottle
"In these last days [God] has spoken to us by His Son..." (1:2) Suppose you decided to go on a spiritual retreat to re-focus, to think through life's big questions, to find yourself. And let's suppose you chose to do this not at some gloomy monastery - instead you picked a sunny Caribbean island, like Antigua: a spot beside a long sandy beach bathed by the warm waves of the Gulf Stream, far away from the cold and ice and snow. Are you with me? Not too hard to imagine, is it! So you get unloaded from your flight, all nicely settled in, your beach chair installed and your tumbler of lemonade, and you lean back in the beautiful sunshine to start some serious spiritual reflection about your destiny and life's meaning. And just as your eyes are closing to concentrate better, you notice something in the water. At first it's just a speck atop the waves, but then it comes closer and you realize it's a bottle with a cork in the top, floating in the water. As it drifts in to the shore you see it's empty except there seems to be a note inside. Hmm - a note in a bottle! What could it be? A message of distress from someone marooned after a shipwreck? A pirate's map to buried treasure? This is worth investigating!
So you finally extricate yourself from your ever-so-comfy beach chair, trying not to spill your lemonade, and go over to the shoreline to pick up the bottle. As you uncork it and take out the paper with the note on it, things start to get freaky. It's a letter addressed to you, with your name at the top of it! Weirder still, each paragraph goes through one by one the big questions you were seeking to search out on your retreat. Questions like, What am I here for? What's worth giving my life to pursue? What is God like, and what's He want me to become?
It's like this note in the bottle that came drifting in from who knows where was written especially for you. By someone who knows you intimately, even better than you know yourself. Things you'd wondered all your life, deep things, big mysteries, are suddenly made clear. Wouldn't that be great?
Tonight, at Christmas, the manger is like that bottle from a distant shore. Jesus, the baby laid inside, is like that wonderful letter written just for you to read. "In the past," says the author of Hebrews, "God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son..." Jesus is the message, the Word, the communiqué God's trying to get through to you for you to hear and understand. Let's uncork the bottle, unscroll the note, and ponder how Christ resolves some of our biggest puzzling questions by who He is and what He does.
The Baby's Being
Hebrews 1(2) says God "has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed HEIR OF ALL THINGS..." NLT, "God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance..." What's Jesus being 'heir of all things' got to do with me?
One of the questions in our soul is, "Whose am I? Where do I belong? What can I be a part of?" This becomes even more urgent in a society where families break up, and youths turn even to gangs in order to find some structure to be a part of. We want to be important to someone, to relate to something bigger than ourselves. The Bible says Jesus is heir of all things, everything belongs to Him; "You are not your own; you were bought at a price." (1Cor 6:19f) Jesus could pray aloud and say to God with the disciples listening, "All I have is Yours, and all You have is mine." He is the Heir. Like it or not, we come from Him, we are his.
Hebrews 1 goes on to describe Jesus' being this way: "The Son is the radiance of God's glory..." Have you ever tried to capture sunshine? What the power behind a million stars, could you bottle up that kind of energy? And not just raw power - glory has to do with goodness, faithfulness, holiness, and truth - anything that's excellent. "The Son radiates God's own glory..." (NLT) Another soul-question we have is, "What is truly beautiful and good? What's there to aspire to? What's worth giving my life to pursue?"
The baby the shepherds and magi adore is the shining-forth of all God's goodness and beauty, His 'glory'. John Wesley commented, "Glory is the nature of God revealed in its brightness." God had to shield Moses with His hand and tuck him in a cleft in a rock while His glory passed by (Ex 33:22). God's glory involves His compassion, grace, abounding in love and faithfulness, being slow to anger, and forgiving (Ex 34:6f). Jesus shows us that most clearly. Apart from faith, we're hardly awake to such things. John Calvin the Reformer notes, "We are blind as to the light of God, until in Christ it beams on us."
Another major question humans ask is, "What is God like? If there is a God, what does He want me to become?" Hebrews 1 goes on to say "the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being." Jesus "expresses the very character of God." (NLT) He is "the image of the invisible God." (Col 1:15) Jesus could say things that would be blasphemy for anyone else to say; for instance, He cried out, "When a man...looks at Me, he sees the One who sent Me." The disciple Philip asked, "Lord, show us the Father..." Jesus replied, "Don't you know Me, Philip...? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father." If you could take a snapshot of God, it would turn out like Jesus. The absolutely best kind of person you could imagine or want to be with.
The term in the original language (charakter) referred to a sharp instrument used for carving or engraving, then by transfer the resulting carving or engraving as a copy of the original subject; exact expression, marked likeness, precise reproduction in every respect. Think back to how vinyl records were made before CDs and MP3s came along. A tiny sharp stylus cut grooves in wax, different for right and left channels in stereo, then that master was copied by stamping thousands of other vinyl discs. When you play the record, it's like you're hearing the original performance again. God speaks or sings to us through Jesus better than in hi-fi or Dolby surround-sound. Calvin said Jesus is not God's "obscure or shadowy image, but His impress which resembles Him, as money the impress of the die with which it is stamped."
And the reproducing isn't finished with Jesus. This is where we get an answer about what we're to become. Romans 8(29) says those God foreknew "He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers." God's stylus is still at work shaping believers to share Jesus' character, His goodness, love, and glory. To use LP terminology - are you "in the groove" OR in the grave?
The Lord's Doing
Other phrases refer less to who Jesus IS, more to what He DOES or has done. A common question people have is, "Where am I from? What's my origin? Why am I here?" Hebrews 1 says God has spoken to us by His Son "through whom He made the universe." Quite a paradox or mystery, this Baby is born of the Virgin Mary, who herself has her being through Him when time began! John writes, "through Him all things were made; without Him was nothing made that has been made." You're here tonight, not because two molecules collided, but because God acted through Christ in creation. The Lord created your inmost being and knit you together in your mother's womb (Ps 139:13).
Something else we wonder inside is, "Who'll be there to lift me up when I'm weak? Who can I find that will help me when I fall?" Who can you count on to be there for you? That's why trust and faithfulness is so precious - in marriage, in friendship, in any relationship. Here, Hebrews declares the Son is "sustaining all things by His powerful word." Whether stilling the storm or raising the dead, Jesus showed the disciples He could do it all simply by saying the word. He was our Creator back then, He's our Sustainer now. Christians can know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him - He'll bring us through, no matter what. (Rom 8:28)
We know we're not perfect. Those who are honest with themselves will admit they've blown it along the way, from time to time. So a question arises at the level of our conscience: "How can I deal with my failure and my shame? When I've messed up, how can I ever come clean again?" Hebrews 1 says Jesus "provided purification for sins"; He "cleansed us from our sins" (NLT). Praise God! If you think getting shoved into a rough manger in a smelly stable was crappy treatment - just wait till you see what happens to Jesus at the other end of His earthly life! False accusations, injustice, mistrial, whipping, and death by agonizing lingering torture. Though He was 100% innocent! Why? "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them." (2Cor 5:19) This baby welcomed by shepherds became the sacrificial lamb to atone for our wrongs. Though we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory, we can be justified freely by His grace through faith in His blood (Rom 3:23ff). Jesus provides purification, cleansing, for the worst offences. His name "Jesus" means He saves people from their sins - that's what He's about (Mt 1:21).
Finally, a big question that bothers people is, "To whom am I ultimately accountable? Is there someone to whom I must someday give an answer for all I've done?" Hebrews 1 says Jesus "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." He sits because His redeeming work at the cross is finished, the job's done. But the PLACE where He sits is significant - at God's right hand, the Number One spot. A Great White Throne judgment awaits humankind; according to the Bible, those whose names are not found in the good of life will be thrown into the lake of fire. For those saved by trusting in Jesus, we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive what's due us for the things we've done, whether good or bad (2Cor 5:10). So it does matter what you do; it matters eternally.
Don't despair. It's never too late in this life to change your ways and receive Jesus as the Saviour of your soul He came to be. With the appeal of the early church messengers, "We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." Your sin to trade for His righteousness (2Cor 5:20f). Don't let this Christmas go by without joining the Shepherds, angels, and Wise Men in kneeling at the manger and recognizing who is speaking to you, FOR you in the Father's presence. Christ Jesus is at the right hand of God AND "is also interceding for us." (Rom 8:34)
Speaking by Coming
"In the past God spoke...through the prophets...but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son..." Are we getting the message? That bottle - that manger, rather - holds a note personalized just for you, responding to your deepest inner questions. The manger is a message to a world that was very distant to God: our world - my world. God took pains to speak to you.
Henry Carter, a pastor at a church which also ran a home for emotionally disturbed children, was working feverishly on his Christmas sermon, but finding it hard to find something fresh to say. He tells about what happened next in these words. "The floor mother appeared at the study door. Another crisis upstairs. Christmas Eve is a difficult day for the...children in our church home. Three-quarters of them go home at least overnight, and the ones who remain react to the empty beds and the changed routine.
"I followed her up the stairs, chafing inwardly at the repeated interruptions. This time it was Tommy. He had crawled under a bed and refused to come out. The woman pointed to one of six cots in the small dormitory. Not a hair or a toe showed beneath, so I addressed myself to the cowboys and bucking broncos on the bedspread. I talked about the brightly lighted tree in the church vestibule next door and the packages underneath it and all the other good things waiting for him out beyond that bed. No answer.
"Still fretting at the time this was costing, I dropped to my hands and knees and lifted the spread. Two enormous blue eyes met mine. Tommy was eight, but looked like a five-year-old. It would have been no effort at all simply to pull him out. But it wasn't pulling Tommy needed--it was trust and a sense of deciding things on his own initiative. So, crouched there on all fours, I launched into the menu of the special Christmas Eve supper to be offered after the service. I told him about the stocking with his name on it provided by the women's society. Silence. There was no indication that he either heard me or cared about Christmas.
"And at last, because I could think of no other way to make contact, I got down on my stomach and wriggled in beside him, bedsprings snagging my suit jacket. For what seemed a long time I lay there with my cheek pressed against the floor. At first I talked about the big wreath above the altar and the candles in the windows. I reminded him of the carol he and the other children were going to sing. Then I ran out of things to say and simply waited there beside him. And as I waited, a small, chilled hand crept into mine.
"'You know, Tommy,' I said after a bit, 'it's kind of close quarters under here. Let's you and me go out where we can stand up.' And so we did, but slowly, in no hurry. All the pressures had gone from my day, because, you see, I had my Christmas sermon. Flattened there on the floor I realized I had been given a new glimpse of the mystery of this season. Hadn't God called us, too, as I'd called Tommy, from far above us? With His stars and mountains, His whole majestic creation, hadn't He pleaded with us to love Him, to enjoy the universe He gave us? And when we would not listen, He had drawn closer. Through prophets and lawgivers and holy men, He spoke with us face to face. But it was not until that first Christmas, until God stooped to earth itself, until He took our very place and came to dwell with us in our loneliness and alienation, that we, like Tommy, dared to stretch out our hands to take hold of love." Let's pray.