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Advent series: Parables of faithful waiting

 We’re back into our advent series focused on Jesus’ parables of waiting for his second coming or “second advent.” I’m highlighting these because many among the people of God were not ready for Jesus’ first Advent. And so as we celebrate Jesus’ birth we rightly ask ourselves, are we ready for his second advent? Are we prepared?

Our text today is found in –

Matthew 25:1-13

– the parable of the ten maidens. (I have changed the ESV’s “virgins” to “maidens” throughout).

1Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

So this is about the second coming of Jesus when the kingdom of heaven will come to earth. When he returns, Jesus is saying, it will be like ten maidens waiting for a bridegroom.

We’ll come back to what this teaches us about the second coming, but for now let’s understand the parable.

Jesus is working with ancient marriage customs in this story. After the marriage ceremony, which included the exchange of vows, there would have been a marriage feast (v. 10) at the bridegroom’s house. (See Matthew 22:2-3 and that the groom answers the door at the end of the story.) The role of the maidens was to be ready, after the ceremony was over, to escort the bride and bridegroom to his house for the feast. They have lamps to do this, so they can light the way to the house in the evening.

In our story they’re in position and waiting. But there’s a problem . . .

2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”

So some of the maidens brought along extra oil for their lamps, just in case, and some did not. The lamps are most likely oil lamps and not torches, maybe attached to a pole. (The word here can mean either. For instance it means lamp in in Acts 20:8 and Judith 10:22. Luke uses a different word that clearly means lamp in his short parallel to this parable – Luke 12:35. And the details of the story favor a lamp – torches wouldn’t burn long enough for them to sleep; vessels of oil seem more suited to filling a lamp; and trimming v. 7 seems to apply more to a lamp – Davies and Allison)

5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.”

The delay is the key element in this story. The bridegroom takes so long that they all fall asleep, with their lamps burning all the while. Then at midnight the call comes. It’s time for them to fulfill their duty in the procession. And so they trimmed the wicks of their lamps for maximum brightness. And this is where the foolishness of five of the maidens becomes clear.

8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’”

The foolish ones didn’t expect or prepare for a delay of the bridegroom. And so when they awake their lamps are going out, which leads them to ask the others for some of their oil. But the wise maidens refuse because there isn’t enough for all and the procession would be a failure if all the lamps went out on the way. So they suggest they go and buy more oil. (It is possible that in a town with a wedding going on, people would be up late and able to sell them oil.)

Next we see the consequences of the lack of preparation on the part of the foolish ones.

10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.”

Those who were prepared were able to fulfill their function; they “were ready,” as it says. And they celebrated at the marriage feast.

11Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’”

Now the phrase, “I do not know you” doesn’t mean that the bridegroom doesn’t know them. They are most likely the bride’s good friends and relatives. It’s a statement of disassociation, “I have nothing to do with you now.” Or even, “I disown you.”

And then we have the lesson of the parable drawn out for us . . .

13Be prepared therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

–  that is, for Jesus’ return. (I have changed the ESV’s “watch therefore” to “be prepared.”) The phrase, “be prepared” can and often is translated as “stay awake” or “keep watch,” but here all the maidens slept and none are blamed for it. The issue is that some were not prepared and were thus shut out.

What this teaches us about Jesus’ second coming

It’s a pretty straightforward allegory.

  • The bridegroom’s coming = Jesus’ second coming (Is the “cry” of v. 6 the same as the “the cry of command” found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16? See also note below)
  • The ten maidens = disciples of Jesus who are waiting.
  • The delay = a delay in Jesus’ return. Jesus forewarns us here that it could take a while before he comes again.
  • The wedding feast = the messianic banquet. This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. This is the great party that will take place at the end of the world when Jesus and all his own celebrate his great victory and salvation.
  • The shut door = judgment.

(The maidens here match with what the living disciples will do when Jesus returns in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The word “meet” there and here has to do with an official delegation that goes out to welcome, and then escort a dignitary back into the city.)

This much is clear. But what about the central focus of the parable –the oil and the lamps?

The general point is the same as v. 13. Be prepared for Jesus’ return. The five foolish maidens didn’t count on a delay and so they didn’t prepare for it with extra oil.

To not know the day or the hour means that Jesus could return quickly – or as in this case – after a long time. And this parable teaches us to be ready for a delay. Don’t be caught off guard by it. (As many have pointed out, the slave left in charge saw the delay as a chance to be wicked and get away with it, but was judged. The foolish maidens didn’t consider or prepare for a delay and were judged for this.)

But is there more? Something more specific? I think so. The imagery of a lamp shining takes us back to Matthew 5:15-16 (different word in Greek but the same idea) where this refers to “good works” or being obedient to Jesus’ teaching and example. It means living out the Christian life. v. 16 says, “Let your  light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

And when equivalents to the phrase “Lord, lord” are used (Matthew 7:21, 22; Luke 13:25), as in our passage, as well as “I do not know you” (Matthew 7:23;; Luke 13:27) and “the door was shut” with people asking to get in (Luke 13:25) – when these phrases are used in Jesus’ teaching, the issue is Christians who are not walking in obedience to Jesus. (Jesus calls them “workers of lawlessness” Matthew 7:23; “workers of evil” Luke 13:27.)

And so to be prepared means that we have considered things carefully and are ready to follow Jesus, not just for a while, but for as long as our lives go on until Jesus returns. We are prepared to live out our Christian lives for the long haul; however long it takes until he returns.

And so I ask you –

Will you be ready?

Many among the people of God were not ready when Jesus first came. And here five of the ten maidens were not ready for his second coming.

Examine your own life. Are you a wise Christian or a foolish Christian? Are you committed to living in obedience to Jesus until he returns?

One final thought. Just as in the story when the wise could not share their oil, someone else’s preparedness can’t be shared with you. You can’t lean on your spouse, your friend or your parents. Their being prepared won’t help you. You must make sure you are prepared.

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Advent series: Parables of faithful waiting

We are beginning Advent today. The word comes from Latin and means arrival or coming. We use it to refer to the first coming of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas time – and the Advent season ahead of this is a way of preparing ourselves to celebrate this.

But of course, as we think about how to prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ first coming,  it also makes us think about how to prepare ourselves for his second coming.

After all, many among the people of God were not ready for the first Advent of Jesus. And in the same way we have to ask, “will we be ready for his second Advent?” (Luke 2:34-35.)

We will be looking at three parables from Jesus about faithful waiting, and the first today is the parable of the slave left in charge, found in –

Matthew 24:45-51

 The question here is, will this slave be ready when his master returns? We begin with what it looks like if the slave is faithful and wise.

45“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?” (I have changed ESV’s “servant” to “slave” throughout).

The situation is that the master has gone away for a time and has placed one of his slaves over the rest of his fellow slaves in his household. As such, he is in charge and has the responsibility of administering the affairs of the house. Specifically, his task is to give everyone in the household their food at the proper time.

Now this parable is certainly talking about pastors or elders in the church.

  • These are the ones Jesus has set over his household while he is gone (fellow slaves – v. 49).
  • And the imagery of feeding in Scripture is one that is associated with teaching – a chief role of a pastor or elder (e.g. Proverbs 10:21; Jeremiah 3:15; John 21:15, 17; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-14; also Matthew 4:4).

(1 Timothy 3:4-5 speaks of elders as those in charge of the household of the church. I would argue that the presence of the words “not a drunkard, not violent” in the list of qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3:3 reflects the influence of this parable. Luke uses the word “steward” in his version of this parable (12:42-48) which is used in Titus 1:7 for an elder. The context in Luke 12 points to this parable as focused on leaders. Peter says in v. 41, “Lord are you telling this parable – about the master and the thief – for us or for all?” Jesus then responds by telling our parable about leaders.)

So I’m preaching to myself this morning for sure. But this parable can also have application to anyone who has responsibilities in the community of Jesus.

46Blessed is that slave whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.”

So this is a trial run for this slave; a test. The key phrase is, “will find him so doing.” If the master finds him doing what he told him to do, which is the test, he is blessed.

Specifically, he will get a promotion: his temporary position will become permanent and he will gain more responsibility and honor, since he will now be over the household and all that the master possesses.

Our life in this world is a trial run for life in the world to come; the kingdom of God on this earth. And if we are doing what we are supposed to do when Jesus returns, we too will be blessed.

For pastors and elders this means exercising the authority they have rightly (Matthew 20:25-28) and being busy to lead and teach the church in the right way. For everyone it means doing all that Jesus has told us to do, whatever our role is. This is the mark of a faithful and wise slave, which we are called to be.

Next we turn to the other possibility, if the slave becomes wicked.

48But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49and begins to beat his fellow slaves and eats and drinks with drunkards . . .”

 This isn’t another, different servant, but the same one (as we see in Luke 12:45). If he chooses to be wicked instead of faithful and wise, this is what will happen. (The word “that” points back to the previous slave. The word “wicked” is anticipatory of the bad things that will be described shortly.)

The problem is that the master is delayed. So this parable forewarns us that there may be a delay in Jesus’ coming. So the wicked slave thinks that because of this he can do whatever he wants and get away with it. And so instead of being faithful to his task he misuses his authority – beating his fellow slaves and neglects his responsibilities – going off and living it up with the wrong crowd. Instead of a focus on feeding the household, his job, he is busy feeding himself and drinking and partying.

Again our life in this world is a trial run. And if we think Jesus won’t come because it has taken so long, or that we have time to be irresponsible or if we entertain any other thought that would lead us to stop doing what Jesus has told us to do – there will be consequences when Jesus returns.

50the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

 Jesus is saying, there will be consequences, because the master will return! And since the slave thinks his master won’t come or not anytime soon it catches him off guard.

v. 51 says literally he will “cut him in two.” He will be chopped in half. Jesus is getting our attention here. Just as he misused his authority to be violent to his fellow slaves, the master will use his rightful authority to violently judge him. Notice the symmetry. And he will be put with the hypocrites (a term Jesus uses for leaders who are false – Matthew 23. Luke 12:46 has “the unfaithful” or unbelievers). Just as he negligently associated himself with drunkards and partied, the master will rightly put him with the hypocrites where there is much suffering – weeping and gnashing of teeth. Again notice the symmetry. This latter phrase most likely means grinding one’s teeth because of pain. This is an image of Gehenna or hell.

This parable teaches us that if a pastor or elder misuses their authority and neglects to teach and lead their people – there will be judgment. And for anyone who is not doing what Jesus has told them to do – there will be judgment. Jesus will return on a day when we do not expect him and at an hour we do not know and we will be judged (the language of “day” and “hour” echoes 24:36, 44).

Well, just as this slave had a choice – to be wise and faithful doing what his master said, or to be wicked – not doing, or doing the opposite of what his master said, so –

We have a choice

What will yours be?

Many were not ready when Jesus came the first time. Are you ready for the master’s return at his second coming so that you will be blessed and rewarded? Are you faithfully doing what Jesus has told you to do, as we await his second advent?

 

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I want to share with you briefly on Joy and Christmas-time. Joy is certainly central to the message the angel spoke to the Shepherds in the Christmas story.  Luke 2:10  says, “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.’”

Christmas is a time of joy, right? Time off work; enjoying family; giving gifts; special meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood and a time to set aside one’s problems for a while. All we need to do is hear the Christmas music and  see the decorations to be joyful and happy.

Yet, as you know, for some, Christmas can be a time of real sadness. If many have time off work, some don’t have a job or are working several jobs with no time off. If many enjoy family, some have family brokenness or even no family. If many give and receive gifts, some don’t have the money to do this. If many have special meals, some can’t afford this either. If many go to special events with friends, some don’t have friends to go out with. If many have sentimental remembrances, some didn’t have a good childhood and so it can bring back bad memories. If many are able to set aside their problems – some are reminded of specific tragedies that have happened at this time of year, or losses from the past year.

So for one or more of these reasons, simply to hear the music and to see the decorations brings sadness or even depression. You can’t seem to enter in and be happy, and it makes you sadder when you see others experiencing joy, when you can’t.

So does this mean that we shouldn’t talk about Christmas joy since we might make someone feel worse? No. We simply need to remember again why we have joy at Christmas. And we learn this from the angel who spoke to the Shepherds in Luke 2:11 – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Notice, the angel said nothing about time off work; family; gift giving; meals; special events with friends; sentimental associations from childhood; or a special time to set aside problems for a while. This is the cultural part of Christmas; the human traditions that have accumulated around our celebration of Christmas.

Think of Mary and Joseph. They were obeying an imperial edict to be registered in a census. I’m sure they weren’t excited about having to do this at the very time when Mary was due to give birth. I don’t think it was fun to have to put Jesus in an animal feed-trough because there wasn’t enough room for them in a home or an inn. They certainly weren’t enjoying what we associate with celebrating Christmas.

Think of the Shepherds as well. They took a brief break from their work to go see the baby and then went back. They had none of the trappings of our cultural traditions.

The angel said we can have joy because of something else. We have to keep vs. 10 and 11 together. v. 10 speaks of “good news of a great joy.” v. 11 tells us why – “for unto you is born . . . a Savior”

Our Messiah and Lord has come someone who can save us. Someone who can help us in our difficulties, provide for our needs, and give us the promise of a better future. And this is what gives us both hope and joy.

This is a message precisely for those who are sad and who don’t have what they want at this time of year. And it’s for all of us who have problems. You don’t need a savior if you have nothing to be saved from, right?

The true meaning of Christmas can give us all joy precisely because we do have problems, pain and brokenness.

Jesus is the savior. He has come. And he can help us. And this is what we celebrate. So let’s celebrate with vigor and great joy! A joy that cannot be taken away no matter what our circumstances are.

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As we celebrate advent this year we are looking at right and wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Wrong responses have to do with how we can get off track and distracted by other things, like getting caught up in consumerism – buying things, just to buy things. Because of the commercialization of Christmas, we now buy and give gifts that others don’t need and receive the same from them.

We can also be distracted by  cultural Christmas – various events, time with family and friends, giving gifts, meals. Or by being so stressed out from the busyness of the season   that we never quite get to celebrating the birth of Jesus. These are or can be wrong responses to the birth of Jesus.

Last time we looked at some right responses from the example of the shepherds in Luke 2. And today we look at some right responses from the example of the wise men.

 

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1-11. Please listen as I read this familiar story which takes place after the birth of Jesus.

2:1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” 7Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

9After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

By way of introduction let me share –

 

A few notes on this story

 It’s an interesting story, and it raises some questions. 1. Who are these “wise men”? They were most likely from Babylon or Persia. They would have been court figures, perhaps from a priestly class, who practiced a mixture of astronomy and astrology. They were considered to be very learned.

There was a certain mystique in the Roman world about wise men from the east. And there were various stories of them coming to speak of a new king.

 2. What’s with the star? In v. 2 the wise men said, “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” This seems straight forward enough, we have astrologers/ astronomers and then there’s a star. And there have been attempts to identify this star with various astronomical phenomena of the time.

But notice v. 9 – “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” This was no ordinary star. It actually led them just five miles south to Bethlehem and then it stayed right over one specific house.

The answer, I think, comes from an understanding that stars and angels are sometimes connected in Scripture. So it is best to say that the star was an angel leading the wise men.

 This star is scripturally connected to Numbers 24:17 which was seen as a Messianic prediction among many Jews. It says, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”

  • Balaam who predicted this was a Gentile prophet from the time of Moses (although he is seen as a false prophet in other places, here it says, “The Spirit of God came upon him.”)
  • The wise men, then, are his successors. Gentile magi acknowledging the fulfillment of this prophecy.

 3. What’s with the gifts? They gave of their treasures gold, frankincense and myrrh. The last two are both fragrant spices, or perfumes made from different kinds of resin. These are gifts appropriate for royalty; in this case the king of Israel.

Along these lines no one knows how many wise men there were. Just because three gifts are mentioned doesn’t mean there were three of them. Scripture is silent on this.  

4. When did the wise men actually come? The answer is a year or two after Jesus’ birth. This comes out in v. 7 – “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” And then v. 16 – “Herod massacred the children – who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

To get more specific Jesus was born “in the days of Herod” (Matthew 2:1) and Herod died in 4 BC. So Jesus had to be born before 4 BC. So yes, our current calendars are wrong, that say Jesus was born in AD 1. And the whole BC AD system is off by several years.

Given the wise men came up to two years later, and Herod was still alive, this pushes the date back two years. Jesus was most likely born in 6 BC. So the wise men came between 5-4 BC, after Joseph and Mary had a house and were staying in it.

Now let’s look at –

The response of the wise men

 1. They sought Jesus out. v 1-2 – “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’”

In the same way we need to seek out Jesus this advent season. In the midst of many distractions: busyness, cultural Christmas, the stress of making sure the Christmas dinner is just right, and everyone has just the right gift – we need to ask, “where is he?”

The message this morning is this – make sure you seek Jesus out this advent. The wise men went to great effort and it might take some effort on our part as well. Focus on Jesus; give him your attention. It is, after all his birthday.

2. They rejoiced. v. 10 – “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

 

As we think of Jesus’ birth this year we should rejoice exceedingly with great joy. I’m not talking about the joy we have when we see our family or experience familiar Christmas traditions.This is cultural Christmas. Now, this is all fine, but whether you have this or not the point of Christmas is not this.

The point of Christmas is to rejoice in the coming of Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s promises for our salvation and peace. Rejoice in him this Christmas season.

3. They honored Jesus. v. 2 – “we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” v. 11 – “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

 The word “worship” here can mean worship of God, or the honor one gives to a king or another important person. And it was customary to bow or kneel before a king. Here they are honoring Jesus as the king of Israel.

But for us, who know the fullness of Jesus’ identity we should honor Jesus with the worship due to the Son of God. We give to Jesus ourselves and all that we have. These are our gifts and we are to lay them before him.

We do this as we gather on Sunday mornings, in our own personal prayer times, and by how we live our lives, honoring him as our Lord and King – the promised Messiah.

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We are in the season of Advent when we think about the coming of Jesus and his birth. And as Christians it is good to celebrate this and to honor him.

But as you know, there are many distractions that seek to take our attention away from him during this time. For instance “consumerism” – our culture’s tendency to focus on buying things at Christmas time, because buying more than we need makes us feel happy, at least for a little while.

There are other things that distract us from Jesus’ birth and focusing on honoring him:

  • There is the whole story and traditions connected to Santa Claus
  • Traditions of giving gifts, family meals, reunions, events with friends, etc.
  • And then there is the busyness of this season; so many things to do. It can be overwhelming.

Some of these things are good, but what I want to say is that none of them are necessary to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In fact you don’t have to have even the best of these – giving gifts, family events and so forth to celebrate advent and the birth of Jesus. These are just a part of cultural Christmas; cultural and family traditions that have grown up around our focus on Jesus. And being distracted from focusing on Jesus by any of these is a wrong response to the birth of Jesus.

So to help us today, we look at some right responses, as we see these in the example of the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke.

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:8-20. Please listen as I read this very familiar story which takes place just after the birth of Jesus.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

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

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

By way of introduction, here are –

A few notes on this story

First of all, the angel announcement. It speaks of “good news,” “a Savior,” “the Lord” and “peace.” The language of this announcement is Roman imperial language.

  • The phrase, “good news” was used, among other things, to refer to the birth of a future emperor.
  • The titles “Savior” and “Lord” were used of Roman emperors.
  • And “peace” was a word used to describe the results of Rome’s power after crushing her enemies.

Here, however, the angels speak of the “good news” of Isaiah 61:1 – talking about the coming of the kingdom of God, and the Savior and Lord who is the Messiah, who will bring God’s peace to the world.

The message of the angel to the Shepherds was that the Messiah is born and that they will know this is true through a sign – a baby in a feeding trough (or manger); a strange sight.

Now we have a very idealistic view of shepherds today, in part because of this story. But it was a very humble profession. They were a part of the lower class. And they were often seen as suspicious characters.

But as we see here, God shares this good news with the lowly – not the leaders in Jerusalem. As Mary said earlier in Luke 1:52, “God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.”

Remember also that David, the ancestor of the Messiah, was a shepherd.

  • Psalm 78:70-71 says, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.”
  • Micah 5:4 speaks of the Messiah, and says, “he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.”

So here we have a gathering of shepherds around the Shepherd, the descendant of David.

Now let’s look at –

The shepherds’ response to Jesus’ birth

1. They sought Jesus out. In vs. 15-16 the shepherds said, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. They went to see what was going on; to see the baby Jesus

We also need to seek out Jesus this advent. In the midst of the consumerism (buying, buying, buying), Santa stories, family and cultural traditions and busyness, we need to seek Jesus out and focus on him and honor him and be in awe of him.

Make sure you seek Jesus out and thank him for coming to be with us and for the blessings he has given us.

After they saw Jesus and the sign (that confirmed it was all as the angels said)

2. They proclaimed the good news. 17-19 – “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

 And all who heard it wondered. Even Mary was amazed by what they said.

What they said is what the angels had told them, v. 10 – “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” And v. 11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We should also tell others the good news of Jesus as we sing hymns and worship in church, and as we are in family settings and as other opportunities arise. Having been in the presence of Jesus ourselves, we should share the amazing news that the Messiah is born, who is the Savior of the world.

Finally,

3. They glorified God. v. 20 – “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

 They had quite an experience seeing angels, a sign from God and seeing Jesus in person. And this led them to glorify God.

We should respond to Jesus’ birth by glorifying God as well. Thanking God that Jesus has come and has brought us peace. Just as the angels had said before to the shepherds in v. 14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

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Anytime you are involved in the work of the Lord you can be overcome by fear.

  • Perhaps God speaks to us powerfully or calls us to do something special. This can make us afraid.
  • Perhaps God asks us to do something that is really hard or involves risks. This can make us fearful.
  • Or perhaps we are serving God and are going through trials and hard times. This can cause us to be afraid.

Fear isn’t good. It doesn’t help anything

  • When we are afraid we become reactive so that we make quick, impulsive decisions; we can’t think straight or hear God.
  • When we are afraid our mindset becomes distorted; we just see the problems around us.
  • When we are afraid we just want to retreat or give up.

In short, fear will keep us from doing what God wants us to do.

For all who are feeling fear this morning, God is calling us to faith, which is the opposite of fear. It’s not that there aren’t things to be afraid of, it’s that we are called to trust ourselves into the hands of the one who can lead us through anyway.

And so we have to release our fear into God’s hands, so that we can hear God and what he wants us to do, so that once we have heard from God – we can move forward in faith.

This threefold pattern of releasing fear, hearing from God and acting in faith shows up in three examples from the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke. I want us to look at these, and the first one is –

The story of Zechariah: Luke 1:11-20

  • Something happened to him.  v. 11 says, “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” Gabriel, was his name (v. 19).
  • And this caused him to be afraid. v. 12 says, “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Surely the presence of the angel could cause anyone to fear and maybe he even thought he was in trouble with God.

And what is the first word given to him from God? 1. “Do not be afraid” – v 13.  You can’t hear God or do what he wants when you are overwhelmed with fear. So step one is to set aside your fear.

What’s next? 2. He listened to what God had to say. Gabriel goes on to say that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son, even though she has been unable to and they are older. And this son will play an important role in God’s plan; he will be a great prophet – John the Baptist.

And once the message is heard, 3. He was to act in faithNow, at this step, Zechariah doesn’t fully measure up. In v. 18 he asks several questions that reveal doubt in his heart. How can they have children? And because of this he is sentenced to not be able to speak until the baby is born.

And so here we have a warning that we should act in faith when God speaks to us, or at least with more faith than Zechariah demonstrates.

Next is –

The story of Mary: Luke 1:26-38

  • Something happened to her. v. 28 – Gabriel (the angel) greeted her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”
  • And this caused her to be afraid.  v. 29 – “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” There is an angel, and, given the greeting, it sounds like God is about to ask her to do something special. And so she is afraid.

What is God’s first word to her? 1. “Do not be afraid Mary” – v. 30.

What’s next? 2. She listened to what God had to say. Gabriel told her that she would have a son, even though she was a virgin. And that her child is the promised Messiah.

Once the message is heard, 3. She acted in faith.

Interestingly, in v. 34 she also asks questions, about a virgin birth. But these did not come from doubt. And her faith rings out loud and clear in v. 38 – “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

The final example is –

 

The story of the shepherds: Luke 2:8-20

  • Something happened to them. v. 9 says “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them”
  • And this caused them to be afraid. v. 9 says, “And they were filled with fear.” What’s going on? What does God want from us?

And what is the first thing that the angels said to them? 1. “Fear not” – v. 10.

And then, 2. They listened to what God had to say. The messiah has been born and they are to go and see him; to be witnesses of this amazing event.

3. They acted in faith. 16 – “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”

What about us?

  • Well, sometimes things happen to us, hardships and trials.
  • And like in all these examples, our temptation is to be afraid.

But what do you think God’s first word to us is? 1. Do not be afraid. Don’t let fear and anxiety overwhelm us so that we can’t hear God, so that all we see are the problems, so that we just want to give up.

We must release our fear to God and choose to trust God, knowing that whatever happens he will take care of us. Yes, we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know the future and there might be a basis for fear and concern. But despite all this, we choose to trust and to put ourselves in a place to be able to hear from God and then move forward with whatever he says.

And 2. We need to listen to what God wants to say. This involves praying and listening to God. It involves seeking wisdom for what God wants to say to your situation. What does he want for you? What is the path forward?

3. Then we must move forward in faith. Move forward based on what you hear God saying, with trust and boldness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John the Baptist is our Advent focus this year. John prepared the people for Jesus’ coming. And he can also prepare us as we get ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also as we await the second coming of Jesus; his second advent, which could happen at any time.

Last week we saw how he prepares us through his message of repentance. We are to set aside our sin and our excuses for our sin, and commit to do God’s will in all of our lives. And then, just as the people did in John the Baptist’s day, we can come and confess our sins and find forgiveness.

Today we focus on how John’s example of humility prepares us. But first, a bit more on the person of John the Baptist. We looked at some things last week, but today we take note of –

John’s exalted status

John was chosen by God and given a special role in God’s scheme of things; God’s plan for this world. And not only this, he is spoken of very highly in Scripture. Let’s look at this.

1. His birth was announced by an angel in the Temple – Luke 1:13. Not many people can claim this.

2. He received the Spirit ‘in utero.’ The angel said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” – Luke 1:15.

3. His birth was special. When people heard about the circumstances of his birth, about his mother being older and not able to have children and his father not being able to speak and then speaking to name him John, when they heard all this, they said, “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.” – Luke 1:65-66.

4. It is the testimony of Scripture that “He was a righteous and holy man” – Mark 6:20.

5. He baptized Jesus – Matthew 3:13-17. An amazing privilege.

6. He was the first to confess Jesus’ identity. He said, “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” – John 1:34.

7. He was immensely popular. “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” – Mark 1:5.

8. He was respected by the king. “Herod feared John . . . and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly” – Mark 6:20

9. Jesus said about him, “He was a burning and shining lamp” – John 5:35.

10. Jesus said, “John came to you in the way of righteousness” – Matthew 21:32.

11. His father prophesied great things about him at his birth. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” – Luke 1:76-77.

12. He is the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Jesus said, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’” – Luke 7:26-27.

13. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'” – Matthew 3:3.

14. He is the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6. This speaks of Elijah coming before the day of the Lord. “And the disciples asked Jesus, ‘Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?’ He answered, ‘Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased’. . . Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.” – Matthew 17:10-13. (Also, Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17)

15. John is the dividing line between old covenant and the new. Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached.” – Luke 16:16.

16. John was the greatest of the old covenant. Jesus said, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John” – Luke 7:28. That is, those among the old covenant. Neither Moses, nor David, nor Elijah is greater than John.

It is difficult to find someone in Scripture spoken of more highly, and certainly none in terms of the words of Jesus. What an amazing person! And what an amazing ministry he had!

Now lets’ look at –

How John’s example prepares us for the coming of Jesus

He presents an example to us of true humility. And given all the accolades, this really stands out.

He saw himself as unworthy in comparison to Jesus. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” – Matthew 3:11. He sees himself as not even worthy to do slave service for Jesus; not worthy to carry his sandals.

He claimed no titles. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’” – John 1:20-21. Jesus called him the prophet and Elijah. But he was uncomfortable with these titles. He simply saw himself as the one who prepares the way.

He felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. When Jesus came, Scripture tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” – Matthew 3:14.

He willingly let his disciples follow Jesus. “The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” – John 1:35-37.

John deferred to Jesus’ ministry. Someone said to John, “Rabbi, he . . . to whom you bore witness – look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26. Would he be envious? John answered them, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” – John 3:29. He is simply the friend of the bridegroom. The party is for the groom, not the friend. And he is happy for Jesus.

Finally, and succinctly, John said this about Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30.

What an amazing portrait of humility! He was socially humble, claiming no status. He was economically humble, being poor. He was personally humble, as a virtue in his relations with others. And he was humble before God and submitted to him. Whatever you want God, that’s what I want.

And this stands out all the more in contrast to king Herod and the Pharisees and Sadducees, where we see arrogance, pride, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency.

But notice that John, in his humility, was blessed by Jesus when he came. But all these others, because of their pride, found themselves opposing Jesus and being opposed by Jesus. They lifted themselves up and so they were not ready for the coming of the Lord.

What about you? Where is there pride, arrogance, self-righteousness or self-sufficiency in your life? Do you strive to be recognized, as opposed to lifting Jesus up?

Do you have areas of our life where you think you don’t need Jesus? Are there issues where you think you know more than Jesus, and so you don’t listen to him or obey him? When he challenges you, do you resist because you are too arrogant to listen or yield?

John teaches us that getting ready for Jesus’ advent means getting rid of our pride and learning true humility before God.

Jesus said in Luke 14:11 “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” that is by God when he comes. But he also said in the same verse, “he who humbles himself will be exalted,” that is by God when he comes – just as John was exalted and blessed.

And if we follow John’s example, we too can be blessed, when celebrate and worship our Lord this Christmas, and as we await his second coming.

William Higgins

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