The Miracle of the Moment
You know the words to the song: “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me …” A partridge in a pear tree. “On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me …” Two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. One of America’s leading theologians, a man named Stanley Grenz, heard that song one day as he shopped for Christmas gifts and reflected: “Tony Bennett’s voice wove its subtle magic throughout the shopping mall. How appropriate, I thought, as I watched the shoppers scurry from store to store. The advertisements promised “just the right gifts at just the right price,” allowing us to “give like Santa and save like Scrooge.” As I listened, I was struck with how we have turned Christmas around—not so much by commercializing the season, but through something deeper. Our McWorld of drive-through expectations has replaced patient waiting, followed by heartfelt joyous celebration, with the idolatry of instant gratification. This is poignantly evident in the fusillade of renditions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to which we are subjected this time of year.
The ancient Western church devised a rhythmic cycle for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. At the center was Advent, the 20-plus days beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. By fasting and abstaining from public festivities, Christians were to prepare for the holy day by being drawn into the sense of longing for Messiah’s coming felt by generations of God’s faithful people. This heightened sense of anticipation would, in turn, give way to overwhelming joy and festive celebration when Christmas Day finally came. Only then followed the 12 days of Christmas, climaxing on January 6 with Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi.
As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars.
But our bypassing of Advent runs deeper—altering our attitude to the story of Christ’s birth. We know how the story ends. Knowing the end of the story so well, we want to rush through the long and tortuous details of how God prepared a people—of how “God sent his Son…when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4). Rather than entering into the sense of expectation lying at the foundation of the narrative of Christ’s entrance into the human plotline, we read only the story’s glorious climax. Rather than savoring the plaintive mood of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we immediately want to hear a robust version of “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come.” In short, we have our Christmas early and create a drive-through Christmas.
The irony of our situation is that in our rush toward Christmas, we end up truncating the celebration. Once December 25 is past, so is the holiday. Stretching the 12 days of Christmas until January 6 seems entirely out of place. In fact, we have eliminated the need to do so by moving the adoration of the Magi to our early Christmas: we efficiently (and ahistorically) place the wise men at the manger next to the shepherds. We cannot even stretch Christmas to December 26, for Boxing Day entices us to take our unwanted, reboxed gifts back to the stores or to buy boxes of the sale goods that draw us out in droves for one of the biggest shopping days of the year. So we have our 12-plus days of Christmas, just like the song says. But in our impatience born from the lure of instant gratification, we have transposed them. Christmas now precedes December 25. This may allow us to avoid the stressful waiting, the longing expectation and the forlorn cry of our forebears. But it also precludes us from sharing the exuberant joy of that first Christmas, for we cannot truly sing “Joy to the World” unless we have thoroughly rehearsed “O Come, O “Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”[i]
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the four weeks leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth. We’re going to take a break from our “Your Identity in Christ” sermon series from the book of Ephesians to focus for the next four weeks on Christmas in a sermon series entitled “Experiencing the Miracle of Christmas.” Today, we’re looking at the miracle of the moment, God’s perfect timing. If you have your Bible with you, turn to Galatians 4:1-7.
Paul starts, as he so often does, by revisiting the condition and realm from which we have been saved. So often we don’t want to look back. Yesterday’s mistakes and problems are yesterday’s mistakes and problems, and I don’t want to go back there. There’s no use reliving yesterday. But Scripture consistently encourages us to remember the depths from which we have been saved. Not to go back and rehash old mistakes, failures, problems, and sin. But so that we will appreciate where God has us now. When I remember where I have come from, I am also filled with real humility, for then I realize that I am not so different from those around me who are struggling with the things I used to struggle with, or even other things, for we know that while some sins are certainly worse than others (I think we can all agree that murdering someone is worse than stealing a candy bar), but degree of sinfulness is just that, degree of sinfulness. Yes, some are worse than others, but the tiniest of sins separates me from my heavenly father, and leaves me in need of forgiveness, restoration, a Savior. Truer words were never spoken than “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That’s what Paul wants us to feel. How many men, in recent weeks, have wondered about things said to or about women? It seems like every day another male leader or public personality falls as more and more women come forward with stories of abuse and discrimination. Hopefully this serves as a wake up call to men who follow Christ everywhere to prayerfully rethink and reform the ways we think about, talk about, talk to, and treat women.
Now, the analogy Paul uses for our condition prior to the coming of Christ into this world and into our lives is one of children whose parents have died and who are thus under the care of guardians and conservators. At the end of chapter 3, Paul said that all who are in Christ are heirs in Christ of every promise of God, offspring of Abraham by faith, even if you aren’t Jewish. Although Paul is clear in Romans that God’s promises the physical children of Abraham are still in effect, he also redefines children of Abraham, the people of God, as those who are “in Christ,” authentic followers of Jesus. And prior to Christ, we were heirs to the promises of God, but under God’s law. Condemned sinners.
Probably the wealthiest family in my home town, Wilmington, Ohio, is the Roberts family. They are the founders and owners of R & L Transfer, a major trucking company. I see their trucks in Traverse City almost daily. The also own two major Quarter Horse farms, one in Wilmington and one in Ocala, Florida. The Wilmington farm is now home to the one of the largest horse show facilities in the country, and they’re building another one just like it in Ocala. Both are more than capable of housing shows as large as the 7-week Great Lakes Equestrian Festival … completely indoors and housing all of the participants without a single hotel room being used. The Roberts family owns several other properties and businesses as well. The father’s name is Larry. His oldest son is Larry, Jr. When Larry Jr. was a child, he was heir to all of his family’s holdings. But he possessed none of it. It was a future promise, but not a present reality. If his father had passed away while he was still young, Larry Jr. and his possessions would have been placed in the care of others until he came of age. And then it would be his. When Princess Diana died, she left over 20 million dollars to each of her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. But neither could gain control of that money until they were 30 years old.
In the ancient Greek and Roman culture to which Paul was writing, for all intents and purposes, a child was no better than a slave. Both enjoyed the protection and provision of the father & owner’s household. Neither had a right to it. But when the child came of age, he took possession of all that was rightfully his. And before Christ, all people everywhere, Jew and Gentile alike were enslaved to sin. Christ changed all of that.
Look at V. 4. “When the fullness of time had come …” At just the right moment in human history, “God sent forth his Son …” God’s timing is perfect.
In a debate with the atheist (and now deceased) Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig noted how Christ’s arrival on earth occurred at the perfect time. Craig said: Human beings have existed for thousands of years on this planet before Christ’s coming. But what’s really crucial here is not the time involved; rather, it’s the population of the world. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever lived on this planet is about 105 billion people. Only two percent of them were born prior to the advent of Christ. Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research says, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Christ showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population.” The Bible says in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, and when Christ came, the nation of Israel had been prepared. The Roman peace dominated the Mediterranean world; it was an age of literacy and learning. The stage was set for the advent of God’s Son into the world. And I think in God’s providential plan for human history, we see the wisdom of God in orchestrating the development of human life and then in bringing Christ into the world in the fullness of time.[ii]
And on top of that, this “time,” this “moment,” perfectly chosen by God, came at a time when Roman civilization had brought a peace of sorts to the known world. The mighty Romans built and used their military to protect roads, which facilitated travel. The Greek culture that Rome defeated still provided a common language for people throughout the empire, so that people from different parts of the world and of different ethnicities, could understand one another. And the Jews proclaimed the hope of a coming Messiah in synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world. For the first time in human history, there was a confluence of factors: relatively safe travel allowing news to travel more quickly than ever before, a common language understood by most, and the hope of a Messiah. The time couldn’t have been more right.
Look back at V. 4. “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law …” In the perfect moment, God sent the perfect Savior. Jesus was born of a woman. Not only is he, as St. John declares, “the Word who was with God in the beginning,” fully God, Jesus was also fully human. Fully God, his sacrifice made us holy before God. Fully human, he died for humans. And born under the law, he lived under the law without sin, making himself the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
And the result of that miracle of the moment is our adoption as sons and daughters of God. Imagine that Larry Roberts had no other children but Larry, Jr., the heir to his massive business empire. But then he traveled to North Korea, and there adopted a son and a daughter. They would become heirs of all that belonged to Larry and his biological son too. Could you imagine?
How many of you have researched your family tree? Researching your family tree can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Aubrey and Becky have been doing quite a bit of work on both my family and Becky’s on Ancestry.com this fall, and it’s been fun. Turns out both of our families have been in the Americas since at least the 1600’s, and apparently I’m related to a Revolutionary War general. But for one Minnesota man, researching his ancestry was a life-changing experience. Marty Johnson knew he was the product of two young college students who had a brief affair. Neither parent was prepared to deal with raising a child, so Johnson was given up for adoption and grew up in a loving home in Minnesota. Years later as an adult, he started digging through past records and got in contact with his birth-mother. Then a letter arrived one day that said, “Welcome to the Ogike dynasty! You come from a noble and prestigious family.” The letter went on to explain that Johnson was the next in line to inherit the position of village chief from his biological father, John Ogike, the current chief of Aboh village in Nigeria. Johnson flew to Nigeria to meet his new family. He went from having no knowledge about any blood relatives to a noisy celebration in the village. There he was united with brothers and sisters, numerous aunts and uncles, cousins, and of course, his father. In a similar way, Jesus is God’s wonderful surprise letter declaring that we are his sons, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.[iii]
Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers. He moved to Kalawao—a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony. For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him. Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers….” Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together. One day God came to Earth and began his message: “We lepers….” Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together.[iv]
God’s timing is perfect. Always. It was perfect in the timing he chose for sending his only begotten Son, Jesus, the Christ, into this world. As we celebrate this Advent and Christmas season, may we pay attention to the miracle of the moment, our perfect Savior come at the perfect time. And may we celebrate with hearts grateful, for once we were under the law, enslaved by sin, but now we are free in Christ. Free to live as children of God.
[i] Stanley Grenz, “Drive-Through Christmas,” www.christianitytoday.com (12-06-99)
[ii] William Lane Craig, “Does God Exist,” Reasonable Faith (4-9-09)
[iii] “Adopted Minnesota Man Learns He Is a Prince,” ABC News (6-2-05)
[iv] John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think (Zondervan, 2005), p. 103-104