Monday, December 24, 2012

At just the right time: A Christmas Meditation

The following is adapted from my Christmas Eve message:

We wait all year for Christmas to come and now, it’s almost here. Tomorrow is Christmas. It’s time to worship and celebrate the coming of the Son. Since I am tasked with a significant role each year in leading the celebrations that we make at Chilli Bible, I get the magnificent luxury, each year, of spending significant time thinking about the wonder and meaning of Christmas, about why we celebrate and how.

I really can’t quite imagine what it must have been like, all those generations back, to stand or kneel beside a manger in a little barn and, amidst the animals, the mess, and the exhausted but beaming mother and father, knowing that the little child staring up at you with eyes that can’t yet focus is nevertheless the Creator God and Savior of humanity. The awe of being there must have been intense. And the incongruity of seeing God in baby clothes, never mind seeing Him face-to-face, lying helpless in a feed trough, must have been almost literally mind-blowing, a reality too overwhelming for your brain circuits to process.

And yet…And yet, it was the fulfillment of centuries upon centuries of prophetic expectation, given with enough detail that every priest in the land knew the place and family of Messiah. Every pious Jew would have known he was coming and anticipated it with joy. But for many of the years of Israel’s long and troubled history, it must have been like living through a year in which Christmas might come, only to get to the end of the year and find that it didn’t come after all, and to think, “Maybe next year.” And then, finally, it did come, at long last.

In a verse we don’t normally associate with Christmas, the Apostle Paul describes Christmas this way:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. ~ Galatians 4:4-5 
 “When the fullness of time had come” carries with it the idea that Jesus didn’t just show up on the scene in some sort of grand and glorious divine surprise. He didn’t arrive because God had failed to account for humanity’s Fall into sinfulness and so God then decided to intervene on a whim. No, Jesus’ coming was part of God’s explicit plan from before there was a humanity, even before there was time itself. John tells us in Revelation that “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:18). God knew that given the choice, humanity would reject the path of obedience and continued communion with Him and go its own way. He knew the Fall would happen. He planned therefore for the coming of the Messiah even before He made either people or the universe they would inhabit. And down through the years between the Fall and that first Christmas, the words of the prophets echoed closer and closer, like the footsteps of a man approaching down the tiles in a darkened hallway, until finally, he stepped into the light at just the right time, in accordance with all that God was doing in His grand plan and in a way that would make his arrival both unmistakable and fulfill all the prophecies He had sent to His prophets.

 And Paul reminds us here in Galatians 4 that "God sent forth His own Son." Jesus was not a mere man, specially empowered by God to fulfill certain tasks and purposes, like Moses or Joshua or David or Abraham. No, he was a man, but far more than that. He was the actual incarnation of the Second Person of the Triune God. He is God in the flesh, Deity with a fingerprint and toenails and taste buds. He was "born of woman, just like every human being, so that He might share their nature and thus be capable of bearing their sin, for as Gregory of Nazianzus taught centuries ago, “what is not assumed is not healed.” He had to be fully God to be capable of saving all humanity by his death. He had to be fully human to be a perfect substitute and sacrifice for human sin. Thus God took on a fully human nature.

He lived, as Paul says, “under the law,” meaning he was fully subject to God’s law and the penalties those who violated it incurred. The fact that He is God could allow Him no “King’s X,” no special exemption from the requirements that He, as God, had placed on His creatures once He became one of them. He had to keep the Sabbath, just as He required of His people. He had to be circumcised, observe the feasts, make the sacrifices required on the appointed days, attend worship at the synagogues and the Temple. He had to conduct himself in relationship with others just as He required of us. And when he was falsely accused of blasphemy, which was the crime for which he was eventually wrongfully condemned to death, He had to go the cross. It was the penalty God had decreed, so it was the penalty His Son paid. Jesus lived his life, from beginning to end, subject to God’s law.

And then as you look at this verse, you see that marvelous transition, that magnificent conjunction, which in Greek is the little word “hina,” but appears in the ESV simply as “to” and “so that.” If you’re in a scholarly mood, it’s a conjunction giving the purpose or result of God’s plan being carried out, which is: “to redeem those under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Under the terms of the divine Law, we all stand condemned. We all justly deserve death for the rebellion and treason against the God who made us that we commit every time we sin by word, thought, or deed. So God sent the Son to redeem us, to purchase our lives with His, to satisfy the righteous requirement of the Law in a way that does not result in our death, but in His. And he did all these things, according to His magnificent sovereign plan so that we might receive adoption as sons. God might have redeemed us in order to make us servants. He might have simply set us free to follow our own desires, but freed from the penalty of sin, like a banker who cancels a debt but doesn’t want much to do with you afterward. Instead, he redeemed us to make us His sons! He sent the Son to His death so that we could be joint heirs of all that He possesses and all that He is with His only begotten Son, Jesus.

What can we say? How can we ever exhaust the need for worship of the God who has worked such great salvation for us? Though we celebrate Christmas once a year, every day ought, for the Christian to be in some ways, a Christmas celebration; a life lived in light of the fact that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from sin and death by becoming sin and tasting death for us. Thus, we have life that is truly life. Thus we have reason to say to one another today, and every day, “Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you. Merry Christmas!

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