and Galatians 4:4-5
This is Paul’s word to us through his letter to the Galatians. He says that when the time had fully come God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law to redeem those under law that we might receive the full right of sons. Will you pray with me?
Loving God, thank you so much for this time in your Word. Thank you Lord that your Word is alive and relevant for us today as when it was written so many years ago. God, I pray that you would open our ears and our minds and most importantly our hearts to hear what you would teach us this day, and that we would leave this place with a deeper level of trust in you as we enter this Christmas week. Thank you, Lord. Come Holy Spirit come, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Well, it’s a privilege to be here today to get to share with you a bit. We are just six days away from Christmas. Have I scared any of you yet? I’m scared. Many of us are still clamoring to get all of those last minute details done or to just start those last minute details in order to make the day perfect. We are excited about all that this week holds. We are anticipating the joy and celebration as we gather with family and friends to celebrate Jesus’ birth. This is the fourth and final Sunday in Advent, and I am privileged to get to preach it today because John, as you know and I want to just remind you of this if you don’t know, John and Debbie Schmidt are in Baton Rouge today having celebrated yesterday with their daughter as she got married. So when you see them on Christmas Eve congratulate them as you wish them a Merry Christmas.
So anyway I am privileged to get to preach today and it’s a thrill and when I was thinking of today’s sermon, this fourth and final Sunday before Christmas I thought of, just huge thoughts of a needy sermon. I was ready to unpack this huge test for you and really work through it with you and then I read the text. It’s two verses!. And those verses are pretty straightforward and fairly familiar. Let’s look at them. Beginning in verse 6 Luke says, “While they were there” referring to Mary and Joseph being in Bethlehem, do you recall they were there to be enrolled or registered by the government because the emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered that a census be taken. He wanted to collect the taxes that Dick referred to earlier. So there are Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, which was home to Joseph, his hometown but basically unfamiliar territory for Mary. The time came for her baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. Again, very straightforward.
Mary’s due date came and went or around the time that she was due, Jesus was born. We don’t get a lot of details about the birth itself, details for those of us who are preachers would just love to grab on to those details. We don’t get any of them. Luke, like the other gospel writers simply tells us that Jesus was born, that he was Mary’s firstborn, which we knew from the fact that she was an unmarried virgin and that he was a boy, also not a surprise given the previous visit by angels.
Well continuing on, Luke tells us that Mary wrapped him in cloth and placed him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. With this detail, this little bit of detail that we get, Luke is telling us that this was a common birth, very human in nature, and that as the mom, Mary would do whatever any loving mother would do. She kept her baby warm with what she had , cloth; and she offered him the best place that she could find for him to rest — in this case, a manger. Luke also lets us know that Bethlehem was a busy place at this particular time because of the census and that there wasn’t any room for them anywhere but a stable. More details about the very human side of this very holy event. That’s it.
That’s it. Aside from the fact that this is God’s son and they are in a stable, it’s not a very complicated part of the Christmas narrative. Now that’s not to say that it isn’t tremendously important or significant. It most certainly is and, in fact, it’s the centerpiece of the story; Jesus being born. It’s just that we have all heard it so many times before and it’s not a lot to base a 20 minute sermon on. Or is it?
Paul seems to think so. In his letter to the Galatians, he retells the same rather sparse story of Jesus’ birth that we find in Luke. What he adds is a reminder of exactly why Jesus was born. Look at this again with me. Paul says that,
“when the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law that we might receive the full right as sons.”
That’s the New International Version. The New Living Translation puts it this way:
“When the right time came, God sent his son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.”
What a great summary Paul gives us of the gospel. And that’s the gospel in a nutshell. Right there in those two verses telling us that Jesus was born to buy our freedom from the law, specifically the law of sin and death and we know from our later reading in scripture that that happened through his death and resurrection. The culmination of a promise made long ago to God’s people. The promise of a Savior. Israel had been waiting for this savior, for the fulfillment of the prophecies by Isaiah and others. Prophecies about the one who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace; prophecies about one who would reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom; prophecies about the Messiah. So Israel waited and they waited — for a very long time, and in many ways God’s timing probably seemed questionable. Just as the timing may have seemed questionable to Mary and Joseph and those directly involved in the birth story, just as it might seem somewhat questionable to us as we look back some 2000+ years. Imagine, if you are anything like me, how we might just tweak this story just a little bit to make the timing more appropriate or a little better for everybody involved; make it a little bit more perfect! But, the truth is God’s story doesn’t need perfecting. God’s timing was perfect. Jesus came in to the world at just the right moment in human history. And God as involved as he is in our lives and in the life of this world, worked out all of the details, every single one of them, fulfilling all of the prophecies of old about who this Messiah would be, about where he would be born, all of those prophecies. This is what God always does, isn’t it? Working out the details even when the timing seems so off.
What I prayed about today and the Lord began to speak to me about the complicity of these passages. They really are very straightforward, which caused me to think beyond what’s there and what we read to what’s not there, to what the writers didn’t include. This is kind of how my mind works. Specifically, I was thinking in regards to Mary and Joseph and their reaction to the birth of Jesus happening when it did. What we don’t hear in these accounts is any doubt or questions from them. We don’t hear them complaining about their circumstances. I am sure that they had to have questions running around and racing through their minds. They would have preferred that the timing be just a little different. After all, with just a few more months they would have been married, and they would have eliminated any possibility of the embarrassment of delivering a child out of wedlock. They would have certainly preferred, I would think, to be at home rather than in Bethlehem, where Mary could have been far more comfortable, where they would have been surrounded by their family and friends. Why was the timing such that they had to go to Bethlehem? And they might have been wondering why God in his infinite power, this Almighty God that they worshipped, couldn’t have postponed,(this would not have been hard for God to do), to postpone either the delivery or the census. Why couldn’t he have just prompted Caesar Augustus to say, “Oh, lets just move the census a couple of weeks.” That wouldn’t have been hard. A lot of reasonable questions, but we don’t hear any of them in either passage.
As I contemplated it, trying to put myself in their place, I couldn’t help but think that maybe these questions aren’t there because by this point Mary and Joseph, (despite potentially not liking the timing), really did trust God with it. Think about all that they had been through. Complete and total upheaval in terms of family and cultural norm; visitation, imagine this one, put yourself in their place for this one, visitation by angels telling them that they are going to be key players in God’s plan for the salvation of the world!!! Can you put yourself in their spot for just a minute with that one? That’s a hard one for me to get my brain around.
There were unexpected miracles in the lives of family members. Recall Elizabeth. The calming promise of God’s presence through it all. How could they do anything but trust completely? Even if they didn’t understand the timing. Or maybe Mary and Joseph trusted because of the promises that they knew from scripture– promises that spoke of God’s perfect timing in all things; words of exhortation and encouragement. Promises like we find in Proverbs 3:5-6, which encourage us to trust in the Lord with all of our hearts, not relying on our own understanding, believing that, as we do, God will make our paths straight. Or maybe they were remembering the words of Jeremiah 29:11 where God assures his people that he knows the plans he has for them and they are plans for good, not for harm. They are plans to give them a future with hope. Whatever their motivation, I believe it all came down to trust. Would they trust God with their lives and believe that his timing was perfect and best?
I am convinced that as we enter this last week before Christmas that the very same question is before us today. As we anticipate all of the excitement, do we like Mary and Joseph trust God’s will for our lives? Do we believe that God’s plan is perfect even when the timing of certain events seems really off? We just don’t understand — why now? why me? Do we really trust God?
Now on the surface our answers as followers of Jesus might seem like an easy “yes”. Of course, we trust God. Of course we do. But I want us to think for a minute about what it really means to trust and how that’s a bit different I think than simply believing God. As I thought about trust I began to play with a notion that “trust” and “belief” are not the same thing. While they are both part of faith, trust somehow requires (at least for me) a slightly deeper level of confidence or assurance that to really trust someone or something, I have to first believe that it is true and trustworthy, and then I have to choose to fully surrender myself to it or to a person.
Now I have never been bungee jumping. I will never go bungee jumping, but from what I know of the sport I think a little comparison here might clarify what I mean by the difference between belief and trust. Now let’s just say that I was going bungee jumping, (again this is a huge stretch because this will never happen), but let’s just say that I was going bungee jumping. For me to actually dive off of a bridge or dive off of some incredibly tall manmade structure, going head first down toward earth, I would first have to believe that all the gear intended to keep me safe would do just that, right? I would have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind that what this gear was intended to do was what this gear was going to do. Right? But I also know myself well enough to know that that would not be enough. There would have to be a mental shift where that intellectual knowledge or intellectual belief that this gear would keep me safe shifted to a deep core level of trust that would allow me to make that mental shift to actually take the plunge. Now, like I said that’s never going to happen. The difference is subtle, right? But I think its there, belief versus trust.
I wondered whether I was way off on this, so I went to the dictionary. I think I quoted Webster’s last time I preached here, but I love Webster’s because it does clarify things for me. I was hoping for a little clarification on this point and what I found was fascinating! You have to believe me that this was God putting the pieces together, because I looked up what Webster had to say after I was wrestling with this notion of the difference between belief and trust — and I was fascinated. First, I looked up “faith,” which Webster defines among other things ” in relation to God, belief and trust in God.” Belief and trust, not belief or trust, belief and trust; they really are different at least according to Webster and in my excitement I immediately turned to the definition of “trust.” It reads “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.” I want to read that again because I think it is a pivotal definition for us. “Trust is assured reliance on the character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.” The words that immediately jumped out to me, they just leaped off the page were “assured reliance.” In my mind, “assured reliance” goes a step beyond simple belief in someone or something’s existence or truth. It cuts directly to that more difficult level of complete confidence and ultimate surrender, which is such a hard thing, especially when we don’t understand all the details.
How I wish sometimes that I could see things from God’s perspective where the past, the present and the future are all on the screen at once, all right there before me and they all mesh together to form this perfect picture. Instead, it often feels like I am viewing life one screen at a time and on each of those screens only a portion of the story is seen — and it doesn’t always make sense — and it seems a little bit mixed up.
I don’t have the big picture.
I venture to guess that you don’t have the big picture either.
But it is important for us to remember that God does see the big picture; that he is not confused, that for him the story is not mixed up and that in his wisdom and his plan all the events of our lives do make sense, which brings us back to the issue of trust. I believe God is calling us to trust in a new way, to be like Mary and Joseph who, when life seemed to be very mixed up, trusted God’s plan and God’s timing. They trusted, faithfully walking the road that God put before them.
This week as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we have a new opportunity to step out in trust; to make that mental shift, that heart shift, from beliefin God’s best for us to an assured reliance, which ultimately allows us to surrender to him those things that are most difficult. I am sure that we can all come up with things in our lives where we are having a difficult time trusting God with them, trusting his timing.
You might be asking why? Why now? Why me?
Whatever it is, God is asking us to surrender it, to trust God’s perfect timing for our lives and the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 that “God knows the plans that he has for our lives and they are plans for our good”, to wholeheartedly trust that from God’s perspective the events in our lives couldn’t be more perfect in terms of their timing, especially since, from God’s perspective, time really isn’t even an issue. Remember the past, the present and the future are all before God at once.
Walter Wangrin, in an Advent devotional that I have been reading this year, suggests that the birth of Jesus shows us, and I quote,
“that God has promised and God fulfills. Salvation is surely coming to the people of God and time itself collapses. All chronology contracts in to that single fierce and burning moment when God acts among us.”
As we celebrate the birth of the long expected Jesus… the centerpiece of God acting among us — and in us — and through us, may we place our lives again before our God, surrendering all that we are to him and trusting his timing and his will, believing that as we do, he will free us from our fears, and that he will draw us close to him, closer than we have ever been before in that relationship of TRUST.
Will you pray with me? Holy and Loving God, we are so thankful this morning that we can come before you trusting your character, your truth, your love for us. God there are things in our lives that perhaps at this point don’t make sense or the timing seems off, where we are having a difficult time trusting you, surrendering to you all that we are and believing really to the depth of our being, God, that you will care for those things with which we struggle and that you will care for us in the process. God, we ask that you would help us to surrender, help us to live in that assured reliance, reliance on you, reliance on the presence of your Holy Spirit and reliance on the work that Jesus Christ who was born as a baby has done for us. Lord, thank you so much that we can trust you and we ask that you would keep us mindful of that call as we celebrate this week. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.