What Only God Can Do [Part 3]

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11

The Christian gospel is mind-expanding in ways that nothing else is. The gospel pushes our thinking further in three directions: down here, out there, in here. We see it all in the Christmas story here in Luke chapter 2. We see Christmas down here in this world, in verses 1-7. Our nation is so angry today, so broken, so violent. How we need Christ down here! We see Christmas out there in the heavenly realm, in verses 8-14. I remember hearing Francis Schaeffer pray. He started, “God, we thank you that exist.” Of course. And we see Christmas in here in the personal world of our own interiority, in verses 15-20. There is a reason why you got in your car and drove down to church this morning. You want God in your life. You want more of God. You’re facing something today, and you don’t want to face it alone. You can have God, all of God, today – and on terms of grace. So here are three ways the gospel strengthens our hope.

If we leave Jesus out at any point, we lose everything. For example, if we remove from Christmas the world down here, we turn the gospel into a myth, a fairy tale, an escapist drug. It no longer matters if Christianity is true to what really happened. All that matters is an uplifting feeling, like a greeting in a Hallmark card. It’s the thought that counts.

But the Bible is not like that. Think of the difference between the Bible and, say, The Book of Virtues by William Bennett. It’s a good book of interesting stories – some true, others made up. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other. All that matters is “the moral of the story.” If that leaves an impression, it’s enough. Bennett writes on page 14 of his Introduction:

In telling these stories I am interested more in the moral than the historical lesson. In some of the older stories – Horatius at the bridge, William Tell, George Washington and the cherry tree – the line between legend and history has been blurred. But it is the instruction in the moral that matters.

There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with Aesop’s Fables. Jesus himself told parables. But his parables are embedded in a larger context of solid biblical history from cover to cover. The Bible tells us about a real man who lived a perfect life under our conditions in this real world. And he didn’t do that primarily as an example for us to follow; he did that primarily as our substitute because we have failed to follow his example. Maybe you were taught in your college Intro to Civ course that the Bible spins yarns to get us living better lives. But the Bible is better than that. It’s about a real Jesus who came to rescue real sinners from a real hell and take them into a real heaven. And that’s what we need. As we read the Christmas story here in Luke 2, God is not asking us to suspend mental judgment; he is inviting us to satisfy it.

If we take out of Christmas the world out there, the world of heaven and God and eternity and the supernatural – isn’t it striking how the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus include angels, lots of them, without even a hint of surprise? The New Testament treats angels and a virgin birth and a miraculous star and the glory of the Lord appearing in the Galilean countryside as if it all were obvious and natural and to be expected. The biblical gospel is thoroughly supernatural. It’s about what only God can do. If we take the world out there, the world above, out of the Christian gospel, we’re left in the position described by Arthur Leff in a lecture at Duke University School of Law. He was not a Christian, but he understood what’s at stake:

It looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. God help us.

The claim of the Christian gospel is that God has helped us: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Jesus came down to say to us, “What I am, I am for you. What I do, I do for you. I am yours, if you will be mine.” The world out there has opened up for us down here.

If we leave out of Christmas the in here, our personal response, our hearts, our vulnerability – I’m not talking about our virtue or strength, but our response to God’s grace for the unworthy and the weak – but if we leave out our hearts engaging with him, we make Christianity into empty ritual and performance and appearances and formalities. It cannot heal our pain within. So, we could have an historical Bible, and we could have the involvement of God, but if all of that does nothing more than regulate our external behavior, it ends up forced and artificial. The great thing about Christmas is that it’s the love of God’s heart coming down into our deepest needs. The New Testament speaks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Not just Christ in history. Not just Christ in heaven. But Christ in us, a permanent new reality deep inside. Jesus himself said, “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). The apostle Paul spoke of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And isn’t that what we all need today?

So the Christian gospel expands our thinking in all three directions at once: down here, out there, in here. Let’s think it through, in the three successive paragraphs here in Luke 2.

Christmas down here (verses 1-7)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:1

Augustus ruled from 27 BC to AD 14. Quirinius administrated this registration around 7 BC. Luke goes out of his way to anchor the birth of Jesus in solid history. Throughout the Bible God is moving our way, coming down into this world. The first four words of the Bible are not “Once upon a time” but “In the beginning God.” The beginning of what? This world we live in. It matters to God. We matter to God.

So Luke chapter 2 starts in Rome, with one man, Augustus, signing a piece of paper and disrupting the lives of millions. Which is also the world we live in – a world where human tyrants can push a button that throws our lives into upheaval. But here’s what only God can do. God can pick up human evil with his hands and use it for a redemptive purpose, and he doesn’t get dirty in the process. When we touch evil, it sticks to us. When God touches evil, his redemption rubs off on it.

Here’s what I mean. 700 years before Jesus, God predicted where the Messiah would be born:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. Micah 5:2

But Mary and Joseph are in Nazareth, about 70 miles north. So how did God get Mary and Joseph down to Bethlehem? A decree went out from God that a decree would go out from Caesar that all the world would be rearranged for a while. This world down here is where God is moving his plan forward even through powerful people who don’t care. There’s a lot we don’t understand about that. But the gospel opens our eyes to see human history and our world today as the stage where God is enacting his own drama, whether or not people intend to cooperate.

If you’ve seen the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, you might remember when Woody Allen goes back in his memory to his boyhood and sees his atheist aunt at the dinner table ridiculing his uncle for believing in God here in this brutal world. And his uncle answers, “If I have to choose between truth and God, I’ll choose God every time.” That way of thinking allows for two kinds of truth – hard truth in the facts, which leave us cold, and soft truth in religion, which warms our hearts. But the gospel never calls us to “a leap of faith.” We don’t have to stoop to wishful thinking. We see that in the factual, concrete down-here-ness of Jesus’ birth.

Christmas out there (verses 8-14)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Luke 2:13-14

We can be grateful for the objectivity, the exteriority, of God out there in the highest place. Here’s why. We are weak. Even our faith is weak. Sometimes we feel strongly about God. Other times we feel uncertain. We even feel nothing. So we’re grateful for the externality of God, whatever we’re feeling. We don’t activate him. He supports us. We didn’t persuade him with, “We will never leave you nor forsake you.” He made that promise to us, when he knew full well how backward we would be. So the massive, settled, cheerful, emotionally non-dependent out-there-ness of God reassures us as we stumble along down here. Glory to God in the highest means he is not an ideal we aspire to; he is the permanent new reality coming down into the world today with a hope greater than our potential. The army of heaven – the word “host” means an army – the heavenly army storms the beaches of Planet Earth, declaring not war but peace. From that first Christmas 2000 years ago until the second coming of Christ out in the future, God’s foreign policy toward this world is peace. His heart toward you today is peace, not payback.

Here is how God’s peace enters this world: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (verse 11). Three things about Jesus. First, he is our Savior. In the first century the word “Savior” did not have the religious overtones it has today. Back then it was a common word for a hero figure. It described politicians, public benefactors, the god Asclepius who healed, the god Zeus who gave people safe voyages at sea. “Savior” meant someone who preserves life, who holds society together, who prevents disaster. It was a perfect fit for Jesus.

Second, he is the Christ, that is, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the anointed one. Jesus had the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit in all of human history. He alone is able to fulfill all the promises of the Bible we’ve never lived up to.

Third, he is the Lord. Over 40 times in the book of Acts the early Christians referred to Jesus as “Lord.” They thought of him as royalty and authority. They saw Jesus as their Lord leading them, providing for them, correcting them, defending them, present with them in power no matter what they were facing. The Bible says every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

Two years ago Jerram Barrs explained to our men at a retreat how meaningful it is that this mighty Jesus is our peace, our shalom, our healing. We are all torn apart and broken and disabled at seven levels.

One, the creation we live in is set against itself. Theologians call it “the curse.” Tennyson called it “nature red in tooth and claw.” We live in a predatory, self-injuring creation. We can all see that.

Two, our own loss of dominion over the creation, our own loss of control – not just dangers from snakes and tornadoes but our failures at work. We are not on top of our own reality. We all see this.

Three, our very selves split apart when body and soul divide at death. Death and suffering make it obvious that something has gone terribly wrong. We all see this, and ultimately we can’t do a thing about it.

Four, we alienate one another, we harm one another, we grow cold and distant. Even in a great marriage, it’s never perfect. We wish it were. But we let each other down. We all know this.

Five, we dislike ourselves. We despise what we see within. We are uncomfortable with who we are and what we’ve done, and we deserve to be miserable. We all feel this.

Six, we keep our distance from God. We want enough of him to bless us, but not so much of him that he takes over. We don’t really want him; what we want is a pixie-dust sprinkling of his blessing, to help us get on with our own plans. We insult God. We all do this.

Finally, God is angry with us. God is rightly offended with how we treat him and one another. How could God be true to himself and also okay with how we are? God is right to turn his face away. And these seven alienations are why life is bitter and disappointing and painful. Our only hope comes from above, from out there, from the One we have offended.

Jesus is God’s peace to us at all seven levels. He came, and he will come again, to eradicate all evil forever and renew the entire creation for everyone who has received him as Savior, Messiah, Lord.

Christmas in here (verses 15-20)

But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:19

Now let’s make it personal. We see two responses to the birth of Jesus: the shepherds, and Mary. There is a difference.

To their credit, the shepherds said, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (verse 15). They believed the message, and they found that God had told them the truth. So they returned to their flocks, “glorifying and praising God” (verse 20). Verse 18 pulls still more people in: “And all who heard it wondered [marveled] at what the shepherds told them.” That’s a good response.

But have you ever noticed that, after the Lord’s birth, with the angels and the glory of God appearing and everyone being astounded by it all, they forgot about him? The Old Testament prophecies were clear. This was the greatest event in world history. They were there. They saw it happen. But they forgot. It just wore off. And 30 years later, when Jesus went public, people didn’t say, “We’ve been waiting for you.” They wondered who he was. Why?

It’s one thing to get caught up in a dramatic moment; it’s another thing to embrace that reality with our hearts. The shepherds were right to praise God. But Monday morning they went back to work and the magic in the air just wasn’t there. It was like the lights and sounds of Christmas fading into drab January.

There is another way to respond. “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (verse 19). That word translated “treasure” means “to protect.” Mary defended within her thought world the truth about Jesus. She prized it. She held onto it. She said to herself, “Jesus my Savior, my Messiah, my Lord, is now the center of my life. Everything else will have to adjust around him.”

Mary also “pondered” these things. The word “pondered” is what we mean by “connecting the dots.” Mary began to put together a growing understanding of Jesus from the Bible. She pondered him, she thought about him, she went deeper. This is why we study the Bible and theology here at Immanuel. Like Mary, we want to treasure and ponder Jesus deeply.

Here’s what that personal treasuring and pondering can look like. Dr. Hudson Armerding was President of Wheaton College when Jani and I were there. In one of his books he tells us how the Lord met him personally:

After lunch one noon I was washing the dishes. All during the forenoon a disturbing memory had kept coming to my attention – an act of disobedience years before that I had confessed and by grace had put away. Yet repeatedly that morning the recollection kept coming back, constant accusations that would not cease. But as I bent over the dishes, suddenly this word came just as clearly as if someone were in the room: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). I knew that a more accurate translation would read, “. . . continues to cleanse us from all sin.” Immediately tears mingled with the dishwater because the Lord Jesus in mercy and through the Holy Spirit had reminded me of the unchanging truth of his word of forgiveness on the basis of his atoning sacrifice.

Angels come and go. Tingles down our spines come and go. What we all need is something that can breathe life into us all the time. What is that? The good news of great joy about Jesus – our Savior, our Messiah, our Lord, who came down here, from out there, to comfort us way down deep in here. Will you let your heart crack open and receive him today?