(Note – this is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at my church’s Christmas Eve service. If some of the wording strikes you as odd, note that it was written to be spoken and heard, not necessarily read.)
by John Ellis
During this time of year, many peoples’ thoughts, including our own, are turned, more than usual, towards Jesus. The lyrics of “Away in a Manger” and “Joy to the World” serenade us as we finish our Christmas shopping. We drive by pastoral manger scenes; coffee cups, TV commercials, and even wrapping paper remind us that things like “peace” and “goodwill” are connected to Christmas. And yet, for many of us, our hearts are heavy. We weep at the violence around the world; the murder of children in the name of politics. We mourn the death of loved ones. We anguish over strife that threatens to engulf and then divide our family and friends. In our own souls, we struggle under the weight of the thought that the concepts of “peace” and “goodwill” are seemingly out of our grasp, no matter how hard we try.
In Notes From Underground, Dostoyevsky introduced nineteenth century Russia to a broken and defeated man who rejected the possibility of peace and goodwill. In the short novel, the Underground Man angrily rants and raves from his gutter of despair while bitterly distilling the folly of human wisdom and effort as the means to achieving goodness and righteousness. For him, there can never be peace and goodwill. And in one of the most honest opening sentences in the history of literature, the Underground Man begins his manifesto of human depravity with the confession, “I am a sick man.”
And, if we’re being honest, we, too, even during the Christmas season, run the risk of being drug into the morass of despair because of the wickedness that seems to dominate the world around us. What’s more, if we look inside of ourselves, at our idol worshipping hearts, we, too, can utter the confession, “I am a sick man.”
This bleak story has been written across all of human history. The beginning decades of the 21st century have seen no improvement over the mid-19th century when Dostoyevsky wrote Notes From Underground. And the great Russian author could have legitimately placed the Underground Man in a hovel located in the seemingly unimportant Roman province of Judea some 2,000 years ago, which is the setting for our text this evening.
Please turn to Luke 1:31-33, if you haven’t already, it can be found on page 855 of the Bibles provided in the pews. Please follow along as I read from God’s word. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, her world was as desperately wicked as ours. Racism was woven into the fabric of existence; violence was rampant; and disease and hunger reigned. Like us, the young Mary lived during a time fraught with uncertainty, natural disasters, and human sin. And with that dark upheaval as his backdrop, Gabriel made his announcement of grace.
Yet even while reading the glorious announcement of the birth of Jesus, many of us feel the pull of the Underground Man. Thankfully, this Jesus who is announced in our text provides the antidote for the sickness of the world and our souls.
This evening, by God’s grace, we’re going to briefly explore who this Jesus is by looking at three aspects of our text – Person, Place, and Promise.
Gabriel’s commendation of God’s favor on Mary was directly connected to the birth of Jesus. At one level, we understand this, right? When couples conceive, we are quick to offer our congratulations and comments about God’s blessings in connection to the pregnancy. But there are at least three things that stand out about this announcement and cause us to pay a little closer attention to the revelation that Mary has found favor with God. Reason number one – Mary was a virgin, as verse 27 states. Her pregnancy violated the laws of science, which makes it a miracle. Reason number two – it was announced by an angel. No matter how much of a blessing it is that in this church we have several couples expecting the birth of a child, none of the pregnancies were announced by an angel. Reason number three – God chose to have this birth announcement recorded in the Bible.
The Bible is first and foremost, God’s revelation about Himself, and, contrary to what many people believe, the Bible is one book. Like most books, opening it in the middle will raise some important questions. So, if someone opens the Bible, and begins reading in Luke, the text will hold some mysteries. Why is the birth of Jesus important enough to warrant an angelic announcement? And, since the birth announcement for Jesus comes so late in the actual book, surely he’s not a main character, right? I mean, why wait so long in the book to introduce him? Thankfully, the answers to those questions are found throughout the Bible.
And if we were to go back to the beginning, to Genesis, we would find out that God created everything good and humans are living in God’s good world and enjoying a right and personal relationship with their Creator. But, not very far into this book, the Bible, tragedy strikes. Humans rebelled against their Creator, and that sin caused an ethical separation between a holy, sinless God and all humanity that is now born in sin. Romans 5:12 reveals that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” But, in His grace, God promised to send a redeemer who would take care of the problem of sin and death. God promised to make a way for humans to once again enjoy a right and personal relationship with their Creator. In Genesis 3:15, on the heels of Adam and Eve’s sinful rebellion, God promised to send someone to conquer Satan and sin and death.
After God reveals that He has a plan to fix what humans broke, one of the main questions that readers of the Bible are confronted with is “who is this person that God promised to send?” And so, as we read the Bible, we’re introduced to person after person, and each time, we’re confronted with the possibility that this might be the one, but each time, the individual is revealed to be sinful and part of the problem and so not the promised one – not Noah, not Abraham, not Isaac, not Jacob, and not even Moses. And we could extend that out to every historical character introduced to the readers of the Bible. But as we read the Bible, a picture is starting to take shape of the Redeemer. The sacrifices instituted in the book of Exodus lets the reader know that only a perfect, sinless sacrifice can atone for sin. Sin must be punished after all, because God is holy, He cannot abide any sin, and God is just, He must punish sin. Letting sin slide is not an option; it would undermine God’s holiness and justness, and He would not be God. Sin must be punished. The Bible also reveals that God’s promised Redeemer, the Messiah, will be a prophet and a priest – delivering the word of God as well as mediating before God on behalf of sinful humans. It’s also revealed that this promised one will be a King. A warrior King who fights for his people. We see this prefigured in King David who fought and defeated Goliath, a giant who had the words of the serpent from the Garden of Eden in his profaning mouth as he tempted God’s people to doubt the word of their God. All of the prophets, priests, and kings that are introduced to the reader by the Bible are types or pictures of something better. Every prophet, priest, and king fails. Time and time again, God’s people fall into sin and the sacrificial system is proven useless for enacting real change at the heart level. This is why in Jeremiah 31:33, God promised that “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Further, flipping the script of expectation, a plot-twist, if you will, this promised one is revealed in the book of Isaiah to also be a suffering servant. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:4-5.
By the time the reader reaches the end of the Old Testament, the puzzle pieces are laid out in such a way as to enable the full picture to begin to emerge. And then out of the silence, the birth of Jesus is announced. Jesus is the one whom God promised in the beginning. Jesus is the one whom the sacrificial system was pointing to. Jesus is the one that all the prophets, priests, and kings of the Old Testament prefigured. In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel appeared to a poor virgin in a strife filled place and time because the entire Bible was pointing to that moment. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Providing further evidence of who Jesus is, Gabriel informs Mary that “[Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.” This place, this throne of David, is one of the most important clues in our text about the eternal gravity of this coming birth.
Considering that Mary lived under Roman rule, her soon to be born son being promised the throne of David seems optimistic. Or foolhardy. Or both. I mean, for Jesus to mount the throne of David, that would require taking on the might of the Roman Empire. However, if we flash forward in the life of Jesus, many people expected him to do just that – defeat the Romans, claim his place on the throne in Jerusalem, and reestablish the autonomous nation of Israel. After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, it’s recorded in John 6:15 that Jesus, “perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Considering that event recorded in John (and others) and the fact that he continually predicted his death, Jesus did not see his objective for coming to earth to include overthrowing Roman rule in order to set himself up as king over the nation of Israel. Does that mean, then, that Gabriel was wrong? That the Bible is in error when it states in Luke that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David?”
Well, considering that the Bible is God’s inspired and inerrant word, Gabriel wasn’t wrong; the Bible isn’t in error. Answering that requires us to once again look to the Old Testament.
In Psalm 110, King David delivers the astonishing revelation that “The Lord says to my Lord; Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” According to that Davidic prophecy, there is coming a time when the enemies of David’s king will be utterly subdued. And throughout the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, especially, the images of that coming kingdom, that future city of David and future Temple of David, transcend the dimensions and reality of Jerusalem at its physical peak under David and Solomon. The Old Testament saints, including King David, were looking ahead to a new and better Jerusalem and a new and better covenant that would fulfill the old.
In Isaiah 60, and those of you who have been here on Sunday mornings to hear Pastor Mike’s sermon series on the book of Isaiah may remember this (especially since Isaiah 60 was this past Sunday), the prophet beautifully describes how God’s final kingdom will shine forth over the whole world and push back the shadow of darkness that encompasses the entire globe. God’s coming light will expose the Underground Man, his allies, and their serpent king in their wretched basement of sin and rebellion, and our king, King Jesus, will ride forth in battle. The curse will be undone and Satan and death will be fully and finally defeated. And all things will be made new again; creation will no longer groan under the weight of sin.
Later in his life, Jesus’ actions and words reflect the expectations of the Old Testament prophets. John 18:36 records Jesus’ words to Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world.” And, when he returned to heaven after his resurrection, Jesus assured his fearful disciples that he would one day return. Jesus’ final promise is predicted in the words of Gabriel to Mary.
As we begin our final point, The Promise, let’s read again those words of Gabriel to Mary recorded in Luke 1:31-33. “31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Jesus isn’t finished. God’s promise to Mary delivered by Gabriel hasn’t seen its full and final fulfillment. Going back to the Garden of Eden and humanity’s fall into sin and death, the ethical divide between a holy God and sinful humans had to be bridged. The incarnation of Jesus, the first Advent, what we call Christmas, had as its objective the bridging of that divide. Jesus came to save sinners and provide a way for humans to have a right and personal relationship with their Creator. God took on flesh in order to open the door into the glorious light of His final and full kingdom.
And Jesus had to take on the frailty of human flesh in order that he might be tempted like we are and yet overcome sin, unlike us; that he might suffer like we do. Physically suffer. Emotionally suffer. Existentially suffer. Yet throughout his suffering, Jesus joyfully and fully obeyed God the Father. And his steadfast and faithful obedience throughout his life becomes our obedience when we place our faith in his life, death, and resurrection. When we believe in Jesus, his death on the cross atones for our sins; the ethical breach between us and God is bridged. Jesus, God himself, is the promised redeemer of Genesis 3:15, but the story doesn’t stop with his life, death, and resurrection. Fulfilling the promise that “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end,” Jesus will one day return, the second advent, the second Christmas. And on that day, those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in him will be ushered into the new Jerusalem. Those who are in Christ will worship God and enjoy God’s blessings for all eternity in the new heaven and the new earth. Those who are in Christ will one day enjoy a Christmas feast at our King’s table, prepared by God for his people. Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
But please listen, there is a negative side to the coming of Jesus, to Christmas. Christmas reminds us that those who die in their sins without placing their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be counted as his enemies. And, fulfilling the promise of Psalm 110, the enemies of Jesus will be made his footstool; they will be banished to suffer God’s just judgment for all eternity. There is no coming Christmas feast for those who die in their sins. But that aspect of Christmas doesn’t have to cause you to tremble.
Christmas is a joyous time; it’s a time for feasting and dancing and celebration. And it should be. God sent his only son into the world so that by grace through faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, sinners, like you and like me, might be saved. There is no reality deserving of rejoicing as much as the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, during this joyous time of year, it’s important that you come to terms with your response to Jesus. Have you repented of your sins and placed your faith in him? Or, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, are you still sick in your sins? If the latter characterizes your position before God, know that Christmas reveals God’s love and His desire to save you from your sins and heal you. Christmas reveals God’s plan of salvation.
So, as we go out from this place this evening, please consider your standing before the one whose birth we celebrate tomorrow. As you enjoy time with your family, know that God has an eternal family that will enjoy all of God’s blessings for all of eternity. As you sit at your Christmas table, think about the coming feast of Jesus. And if you can hear these words, know that you are invited to that table. If you place your faith in Jesus, you will have the joy of celebrating Christmas for all eternity.
Soli Deo Gloria