December 24, 2000
This is Christmas Eve. Even though there is no command in the New Testament to celebrate Christmas, we happily join with millions of Christians around the world in remembering the birth of our Savior. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” And because he was born in Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Our text does not at first glance seem to have anything to do with Christmas. In its context, these three verses are an encouragement to first-century Jewish believers to hold on to their faith in Christ because of all that God has promised them. The writer traces those promises back 4000 years ago to a man named Abraham who met God while he was a pagan businessman in Ur of the Chaldees. But his meeting with God (or rather, God’s meeting with him) radically changed his life and altered the course of human history. God promised to give him a land of his own, he promised him a whole nation of descendants (Abraham and Sarah had no children), and he promised that through Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). From this stupendous promise came the nation of Israel and (2000 years later) the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate “seed of Abraham.” With that as background, here is our text:
God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:18-20).
The “two unchangeable things” of verse 18 are the promise of God and the oath of God. In order to help Abraham (and us!) believe in a God we have not seen, God first gives a promise and then he swears by himself that he will keep his promise. When we are tempted or discouraged or afraid or when we feel backed into a corner or when we want to give up or when circumstances overwhelm us or when our loved ones encounter hard times or when our friends turn against us, we can remember God’s promise and God’s oath, and in those “two unchangeable things” we have hope that gives us great encouragement. That hope in the midst of difficulty is a) based on God’s character, and b) an anchor for the soul.
This sermon is about Christmas hope. That’s something we need all year long, but perhaps many of us need that hope in a special way this year. If you need an infusion of hope, then read on. This message is for you.
Where can we find this kind of hope that will be “an anchor for the soul” and how is that hope connected with Christmas? Here are three answers to that question.
I. Past Promises
The basis for our hope is found in the way God has kept his promises in the past. Our story begins in the Garden of Eden in those tragic few moments after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. Paradise was violated by the entrance of sin. Satan had won, God’s plan had been foiled, and our First Parents had fallen from innocence. From that moment sin spread out across the earth, staining everything it touched.
What would God do? How would he deal with people who had chosen to turn away from him? Would he destroy Adam and Eve and start over again? No. Salvation begins with the simple observation that God didn’t give up on the human race. God was determined to do something! He would not let Satan win the battle for planet earth.
The rest of the Old Testament is the progressive unfolding of God’s plan to counteract what happened in Eden. At that point in time God made a promise that, while vague, was the first glimmer of hope after the Fall. That promise can be traced across the centuries as God slowly clarifies the promise by narrowing its scope. The promise in its purest form was this: God would do something about sin by sending someone to the earth. But who and how and where and when?
Let’s trace the unfolding answer to that question:
A. He will be a member of the human race.
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) This verse contains an amazing amount of information concerning God’s plan to rescue the human race:
1. God’s plan centered in a specific person.
2. That person would be a man.
3. He will enter the human race by being born of a woman.
4. He will do battle with Satan.
5. Satan will strike a blow against him but will not defeat him.
6. He will crush Satan and his power.
The Deliverer, when he comes, will be the “seed of the woman”-that is, he will not be an angel or some super-natural creature, but he will be a man and will enter the human race by being born of a woman. Genesis 3:15 is thus the first link in the long chain that leads us to Bethlehem.
B. He will come from the Semitic peoples.
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!” (Genesis 9:26). After the Flood of Noah, the line begins to narrow. Noah has three sons, but the Deliverer must come from one of them. Noah declared that the Deliverer would come from the descendants of his son Shem-who is the father of the Semitic peoples of the world.
C. He will be a son of Abraham.
“I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2,3). Many years later God spoke to Abraham while he was in Ur of the Chaldees, calling him to leave that city for a land God would afterward show him. Abraham obeyed and ended up in the Promised Land. This represents narrowing down of the promise-from all humanity to one solitary man. The Deliverer must come from among Abraham’s descendants.
D. He will be a son of Isaac.
“… Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed …” (Genesis 22:18). The promise narrows even further as God now specifies that the promise will come through Isaac-not through Ishmael.
E. He will be a son of Jacob.
“… All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14). Isaac had two sons-Jacob and Esau. By custom, Esau should have received the promise as the first-born. But he sold that right to Jacob for a bowl of “red stuff.” Would God honor that transaction? The answer is yes, even though it involved some degree of unfairness on Jacob’s part. In that mysterious dream of the stairway to heaven, God repeats to Jacob the promise previously made to his father and grandfather. Thus the line is narrowed again.
F. He will come from the tribe of Judah.
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his” (Genesis 49:10). Jacob had 12 sons. Which one would be chosen to carry on the promise? By rights it should have been Reuben, the first-born. But he sinned and was passed over. The same is true of Simeon and Levi. When Jacob came to his fourth son Judah, he uttered one of the most amazing prophecies in all the Bible. For 2000 years Genesis 49:8-12 has been regarded as one of the greatest Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Although Jacob was old and dying, with eyes of faith he saw through the mist to a day when the tribe of Judah would take leadership in Israel. The people of Judah would be lion-like in courage and strength. Their tribe would lead the way; the other 11 tribes would follow.
The scepter (the sign of regal authority) would rest with Judah until “Shiloh” comes. “Shiloh” is either a proper name for the Messiah or it is a Hebrew contraction meaning “he to whom it (the scepter) belongs.” If it is a proper name, then “Shiloh” means “the one who brings peace.” That may well be correct, since Isaiah 9:6-7 calls Messiah the “Prince of Peace” and Micah 5:5 says of the Messiah that “he will be their peace.” If it is a Hebrew contraction, Jacob is prophesying that the Messiah will be the rightful ruler of the world. Both thoughts are true, of course, and it is possible that both thoughts are intended by the expression “Shiloh.”
Here is a simple outline of Jacob’s prophecy concerning Judah in Genesis 49:8-12:
1. Judah will be the dominant tribe in Israel. 8
2. Judah will be lion-like in courage and strength. 9
3. The Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah. 10
4. Messiah’s coming brings peace, joy and prosperity. 11-12
Although Jacob predicts dominance for Judah, this prophecy was not fulfilled for many centuries. Israel’s earliest leaders came from other tribes:
Moses from Levi
Joshua from Ephraim
Gideon from Manasseh
Samson from Dan
Samuel from Ephraim
Saul from Benjamin
But after Saul was rejected, God chose a man from the tribe of Judah to be king.
G. He will be a descendant of David.
In I Samuel 16 things begin to change. After rejecting Saul as king, God chooses the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd boy named David. He eventually becomes the king of Israel. In time he will be considered as Israel’s greatest king, her model warrior, her finest statesman, her poet laureate and “the sweet singer of Israel.” In this one man are bound up all the hopes and dreams of a nation longing for the fulfillment of the ancient promises.
At the height of his career God made an amazing promise to David: “… the Lord himself will establish a house for you … I will raise up your offspring to succeed you … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (II Samuel 7:11,12,16). This promise is the most specific yet. Not only will the Deliverer come from the line of David, he will also rule over David’s kingdom and will reign upon David’s throne. More than that, David’s “house” and “kingdom” and “throne” will last forever.
These sweeping promises go beyond merely the human rulers who followed David-Solomon, Asa, Hezekiah, Josiah, to name only a few. Although these men were righteous before God, because they were human, they could never reign from David’s throne forever. Mortal men could never exhaust this great promise. It demands a Ruler who will live forever. But what person could fulfill that requirement? David could not have imagined the answer to that question.
The promise has now become very specific indeed. We have moved from a member of the human race to a descendant of Shem to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Judah to the tribe of Judah to David to the descendants of David and ultimately to someone who can reign forever on David’s throne.
Who could the Deliverer be and where will he come from and how will he be recognized? The next two promises begin to answer those questions.
H. He will be born of a virgin.
Many years pass as the people of God wait for the Deliverer to come from heaven. Then in the days of King Ahaz God once again narrows the line. This time he specifies how the Deliverer will enter the world: “… the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). A virgin birth! I wonder what Ahaz thought when he heard that? Come to think of it, I wonder what Isaiah thought? Only God could have conceived of such an event. The Messiah will indeed be a member of the human race, but his entrance will signal that he is no ordinary person. He enters the world supernaturally because he is the One sent by the Father. In the fact of the virgin birth, we have a hint (though not more than that) of the Messiah’s true identity-fully God (thus miraculously born of a virgin) and fully man (thus born of a woman).
I. He will be born in Bethlehem.
The line narrows once again-this time to specify exactly where the Messiah will be born. Out of all the cities and villages of Israel, he will be born in Bethlehem. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). The phrase “from ancient times” could literally be translated “from days of eternity” (the NIV margin). This ties directly back to Genesis 49:10, which speaks of a ruler who comes from Judah. It also adds the crucial fact that Messiah’s origins are from “days of eternity.” This helps explain how the Messiah can reign on David’s throne forever. Since his origins are from eternity, he will have an eternal reign.
When all these prophecies are taken together, we have an amazing portrait of the Messiah:
1. He will be a Jew.
2. He will come from the tribe of Judah.
3. He will be a descendant of David.
4. He will be born in Bethlehem.
5. He will be born of a virgin.
Who would fit all those qualifications? Many people could fit the first one, fewer the second, fewer still the third, very few the fourth, but only one person in history has ever met the fifth qualification. His name is Jesus Christ.
Matthew’s Amazing Genealogy Before going on, we should note that Matthew 1 contains a lengthy genealogy that starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus Christ. Though many of the names are unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce, the list is meant to impress us with the truth that God’s promises span the generations. What starts with Abraham in 2000 BC ends with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. And if you study the list, you soon discover that it reads like a rogue’s gallery. There is Abraham who lied about his wife (twice!), Isaac who lied about Rebekah, Jacob who was a congenital cheater, Judah who slept with his daughter-in-law (thinking she was a shrine prostitute), David who committed adultery and murder), Solomon who had hundreds of wives, and then there is Manasseh, a man whose name is synonymous with evil. He was so wicked that he sacrificed the children of Judah to the pagan deities.
The list also mentions four women. There is Tamar who slept with Judah, Rahab the harlot, Ruth who was a Moabitess, and Bathsheba who committed adultery with David. Three are Gentiles. Three are involved in some form of sexual immorality. Two are involved in prostitution. One is an adulteress. All four are in the line that leads to Jesus Christ!
When taken together, we learn from this that
a) God keeps his promises no matter what, and
b) God uses very flawed people to keep his promises. He uses imperfect people because that’s all he has to work with.
In the end the only name in the genealogy that matters is Jesus. Everything that happened before was meant to lead to him. God orchestrated centuries of history in order to bring his Son to the world at just the right moment. This incredible trans-generational display of God’s faithfulness ought to give us hope as we move into the uncharted future. What God has done for others, he will do for us as well.
II. Present Help
And we can also find hope in the present help that comes from the Lord. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in the time of trouble.” I find it comforting that God’s help comes “in” the time of trouble. First, you’ve got to be in trouble (something that isn’t difficult for most of us). Second, when we are in the midst of trouble, God sends his help and proves to be our refuge and our strength.
This week a close friend gave us a new book by noted author, pastor, and radio speaker David Jeremiah called A Bend in the Road. The book tells how in the midst of a growing ministry, he was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. The doctors discovered he had a form of cancer called lymphoma growing near his spleen. After enduring surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. In 1998 it returned with a vengeance. This time the doctors decided to throw the medical equivalent of a nuclear bomb at it. They performed a stem-cell transplant, a difficult procedure in which stem cells are harvested from the patient’s body, then huge doses of chemotherapy and radiation are used in order to kill every trace of the cancer, then the stem cells are re-injected into the body in the hope that the cancer will not return. Pastor Jeremiah writes with great poignancy of both the physical and emotional toll of this treatment. He speaks candidly of his battle with pain, nausea, and deep depression. At the present time his cancer is in remission but he knows (and the doctors have told him) that there are no guarantees. The cancer could come back, or it might not, but there is no way to be sure.
The book’s title comes from his observation that sooner or later we will all come to a “bend in the road” that we didn’t expect, couldn’t have foreseen, didn’t want, didn’t ask for, and can’t postpone. We’ve got our life lined up and things are going in the right direction and then one day everything changes and suddenly we have come to a bend in the road. Now life is moving in a different (and unwanted) direction. What will we do then? How will our faith survive? Where is God when life takes a turn in a new direction?
I recommend the book highly, both for its treatment of the human condition and for its firm foundation in the truth of God. Early on David Jeremiah lays down this basic principle: When we come to a bend in the road, we must remember that nothing is wasted with God. Even the “bends” of life have a divine purpose. In Chapter one, he quotes a portion of a letter written by British author Malcolm Muggeridge to his friend Bill Buckley: “As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly-that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about-the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies-is suffering, affliction” (p. 17). Then David Jeremiah adds his own comment: “The only road that leads to the destination God desires for us has its sharp bends. All attempted shortcuts lead to the wilderness” (p. 17).
Both Muggeridge and Jeremiah seem absolutely right to me. As I look at the things that I know that I know that I know, it strikes me that my deepest convictions have been forged out of times of personal sorrow and difficulty. I’m sure I’ve learned a lot in the good times, but I can’t seem to remember any of those lessons. But the things learned in the darkness have been tattooed on my soul. Life is a journey with many twists and turns and as I slowly creep toward my 50th birthday-not next year but the year after that-I find that I believe in the sovereignty of God more than ever before. I have what I have because God has willed me to have it. I live where I live because God has willed me to live here. I was born into a particular family because God willed it to be so. I was born in Tennessee, raised in Alabama, met my wife in Chattanooga, went to seminary in Dallas, and now live in Oak Park because God has willed it so. I have three fine sons because God has willed it so. And even my problems (which aren’t many) are apportioned to me by the hand of a loving God. I am what I am and who I am and where I am by the sovereign grace of God. That means there is no such thing as luck or fate or chance-not even when it comes to the vexing issue of when the Cubs will win the World Series. Or the things that really matter like life and death, health and sickness, and what the future holds for our loved ones. I heard about a little girl who, when asked what she had learned in Sunday School, said that she had learned that “God never says ’Oops.’” That’s comforting to know because we live in an “Oops!” world where mistakes are made all the time, often by well-meaning people.
It’s very possible that Christmas reminds you of your problems and the things in life that aren’t the way you wish they were. And you may even feel like giving up. In his sermon on this topic, Pastor Walt Gerber reminds us that we have two grounds for hope even in the darkest moments: 1) God is at work engineering your circumstances in ways that you cannot see, and 2) He can forge good out of what seems hopeless and even evil.
There is great hope in the help God supplies in the midst of our troubles. And it may also encourage you to recall the title of one our beloved Christmas carols: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” Be patient. Wait on the Lord. Those who hope in him will not be put to shame.
III. Future Glory
Finally, there is great hope in what the future holds for the children of God. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known”(1 Corinthians 13:12). “Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Hope means better days are coming. Things won’t always be the way they are now.
A few days ago someone very close to me said, “I am so glad we have a Redeemer.” She was thinking about an unexpected bend in the road that has come to her family in recent months. “If there were no hope for the future, this world would be a terrible place.” She’s right. Today there is so much suffering, so much pain, so much hatred, violence, lawlessness, and so much brokenness. This is God’s world but it is not the world he made. It is God’s world deeply marred by sin.
I am thinking of this in purely personal terms. Several years ago my mother was placed in a home for adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and associated disorders. Last month Marlene and I and our youngest son Nick traveled to Alabama to visit her. The home is clean and well-kept and the women and men who live there are obviously loved and well cared for. Before our visit, my older brother Andy told me that Mom might not recognize me because her short-term memory has nearly disappeared. I was delighted when she immediately called my name when I walked in the room. She knew me, she remembered Marlene, but Nick was simply a “very handsome young man.” We laughed a lot during our visit and it was clear to me that she is in a good and safe place. At the end I took her hands and prayed for her. When I finished, she wiped away a tear and said, “That was a lovely prayer.” “Thanks, Mom,” I replied. Then I kissed her and said goodbye. She had a smile on her face when we left even though she probably couldn’t recall that we had been there ten minutes later.
A few days ago I called Andy and he mentioned that he had been out to see our mother last week. She’s doing fine and they are getting ready for Christmas at the home. Andy commented that every afternoon Mom goes to the television room and watches “White Christmas” starring Bing Crosby. “And every time it’s new to her,” Andy said. I smiled when I heard that because I think my mother is doing as well as she can, and I know she is happy and reasonably healthy. Then the thought filters into the mind: Better days are coming. It won’t always be like this. One day by the grace of God the memory will be restored, lost strength will be renewed, the mind will be made whole, and the ravages of time and old age will be reversed forever. Before God is finished, the dead in Christ will be raised incorruptible and living believers will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye. “We will be changed,” the Bible says. This life is not the end. Alzheimer’s will not have the last word. Cancer cannot win in the end. Sin will one day be defeated. And death itself will be destroyed.
That day has not yet come, but it’s coming. You can bet on it. Better days are on the way. This is our hope of future glory.
Light from the Manger
This week I had an opportunity to study a famous painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt called “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” Painted in 1646, it depicts his vision of what it was like for the shepherds to see the baby Jesus. The painting is dark because it is a night scene inside what appears to be a barn. The dark tones force the viewer to study the images carefully. In the center is the Babe in the feeding trough. Mary is by his side, Joseph not far away. The shepherds are gathered around, intently studying the baby whose birth was announced by the angelic choir. If you look into the gloom, you can see outlines of the sheep. The shepherds couldn’t leave their sheep outside so they brought them into the barn with them. To the right there is a rickety ladder leaning through the shadows on a crossbeam. Next to the ladder is a rooster. Soon it hits you that the ladder and crossbeam make the dim outline of a cross, the rooster a symbol of betrayal in the distant future. Even in this joyous moment, the cross looms over the baby Jesus. But the most significant feature is the light. Unlike other Renaissance artists, Rembrandt didn’t paint Jesus as an angel with a halo. He is a very normal, very human baby. All is dark in the painting except for the baby in the manger. The light isn’t shining on the baby; it’s shining out from him. This was Rembrandt’s way of saying that all hope and light shines from the manger, lighting up a darkened world.
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
Is there hope in the world? Yes! Hope invaded the world 2000 years ago at Bethlehem. And if we want that hope to invade our lives, we must do what the shepherds did so long ago. We must come to Bethlehem and bow before the newborn King. Hope is available but only to those who will humble themselves and bow in faith before the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you believe he is the Son of God from heaven? Do you confess that you are sinner? Do you admit you need a Savior? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Are you willing to trust him as your Lord and Savior? Will you bow before him and crown him as your King?
Some people think about Jesus each year at Christmastime. Deeply touched, they resolve to know him personally. Then the moment passes and the pressures of a new year lead them away from the manger. There is great danger in coming near to Christ but never making a commitment. You can’t cram for heaven the way you cram for a chemistry exam. You can’t take a crash course to get into heaven. Sooner or later, you’ve got to make a personal commitment that Jesus Christ will be your Lord and Savior. Every time you put it off, it becomes harder the next time.
Is there room in your heart for Jesus? Will you bow before him? May God give you grace to make room in your heart for him. Amen.