An oppressive government, civil unrest, harsh rules and expectations, religious divisions, and silence from God.
Sound familiar? This was the setting in Israel at the time of Christ's birth. Surprised? How fitting that we go into this Advent season with similar circumstances. However, we aren't faced with the silence of 400 years from hearing God's Words because we have His Word in written script rather than having to rely on the prophets.
As I reflect on the meaning of God's birth and reflect on my current circumstances, I am struck anew by many different thoughts related to Christ's remarkable birth. For one, Christ was foretold to be the King from David's line (2 Samuel 7:12-13) and Savior of Israel (Isaiah 52-53) and that his glory and splendor would be seen (Isaiah 35:2). It's only natural to assume then that this Savior King would be born in a palace with great fanfare and celebration, right? Well, that's not what God had in mind. Instead of a royal entrance, Jesus made his entrance into this world in a dirty cave in Bethlehem (town predicted in Micah 5:2) to a mother who was a virgin (fulfilling Isaiah 7:14) and a father who wasn't even his father by blood but who would eventually marry Jesus' mother and giving Jesus the heritage of being from the line of David. Jesus' parents, who were from Nazareth in Galilee, "just happened" to have to make a trip to Bethlehem, Joseph's town of origin for a census decreed by Caesar Augustus. The cattle shelter held no glory or splendor fit for a King. A manger (feeding trough) was Jesus' bed. Born in the night unbeknownst to the world, God in flesh dwelt among His people (John 1). Instead of letting all of the important Jewish rulers know of such an important birth, God chose to first alert shepherds, who in their day, were the low-lifes, the outcasts, the filthy people with whom townspeople, not to mention people of important standing, didn't want to associate. After receiving the grandest birth announcement ever, these shepherds were tasked to find the baby, which then led to the first Gospel movement carried out by these local outcasts (Luke 2 8-20).
This was only the beginning of the rules and expectations that Jesus would set out to break. He didn't have a life of fanfare and money like a king would, and he grew up in an insignificant town of Nazareth in Galilee, a poorer region of Israel. As Jesus began His ministry, He sought out fishermen, also considered lowlifes of the day, to be His disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). He then proceeded to minister to the sick, demon possessed, poor, and handicapped -- all outcasts of the day. He didn't just speak to these people, but he touched them, loved them, hugged them, and made them feel cared for deeply. Jesus was a living example of what it means to love one's neighbor. He didn't care about what others thought; no one was too insignificant to be noticed; and he was intentional, acting with purpose. Flash forward to today, I am grieved by what I see around me during this time of a pandemic where some Christians are hiding in their homes fearing a virus that has a 99.7% recovery rate for people 47 and younger or who claim they are staying in their homes to "love their neighbor." Leprosy was a very contagious disease of Jesus' day. People who had it were quarantined in certain areas outside of towns to keep them separate from people to help prevent the spread of the disease. Did Jesus stay away from them to love His neighbor? No, he moved toward them, he touched them, touch - something they hadn't felt in probably a very long time! No person was too worthless or hopeless for Jesus. He didn't come to this world to care for the healthy but the sick (Luke 5:31)!
Each one of us is sick. We are all dying of a wicked, evil soul. We are all lost living in the Kingdom of Self (Paul Tripp uses this phrase, and I like it!). This baby King came to tear down our Kingdoms of Self. The Jews expected Jesus to become their physical King overturning the oppressive Roman government. However, Jesus came to be the King in our hearts, overthrowing the King of Self and replacing it with His loving, grace and mercy-filled reign. We all need this Baby King to save us from death! For those of us who have found Christ, we have been saved, but while we remain on this Earth in our mortal bodies, we have a battle waging within us of our new and righteous spirit and our old and sinful flesh. Sadly, often, our old flesh gets the better of us. Our enemy Satan, prowls around looking to devour us, his former possession (I Peter 5:8). He attacks us and tempts us and aids our flesh in winning the battle. I see such strong evidences of him at work today dividing churches and dividing families over how to handle this virus. He's winning by leaps and bounds! So, should we throw our hands up in defeat because we've already lost? No, we are more than conquerors through Christ (Romans 8:35-39). He can give us the victory if we look to Him for strength and help. How did Peter walk across the raging waters of the Sea of Galilee? Was it by looking at his hopeless circumstances? No, the moment he did, he began to sink! He walked by keeping his eyes on Jesus and reaching for His hand to help him (Matthew 14:22-36). We need to stop looking at the circumstances around us -- the dangers of the virus, the numbers of cases or deaths, the bleak predictions, etc. and start looking to Christ seeking to glorify Him even in this dark time. If we take Jesus' example through His life on this Earth, we shouldn't be staying locked inside. We should be out seeking to minister to the many people hurting during this time. People have lost income and jobs and loved ones and freedoms and health and school and hope...the list could go on. What people need right now is the Hope of the World, whose advent we celebrate during this season. How will they hear unless people tell them (Romans 10:14-15)? We as believers are called to be Gospel-bearers (Matthew 28:19-20), and it's quite difficult for us to follow our calling if we hide indoors. I'm not saying every believer needs to be out and about, for there are some who are at high risk, such as those of old age or many health concerns, who may need to stay home, but they shouldn't remain home fearing that the virus should find them. They should be the praying saints flooding God's throne of grace with prayers for those out and about as they share the Gospel with those around them.
What many believers have quickly lost sight of in these days is that God is sovereign. No matter how careful we are to abide by the "scientific" guidelines or even if we choose to shelter in place, if God's will is for us to contract or even die from COVID, there is no where we can hide and no bubble strong enough to protect us. We've lost sight of the fact that God is God and that we cannot thwart His plans. We need to be wise in our actions but continue the work God has called us to do trusting Him for the outcome. Who can add a single hour to his life (Luke 12:22-31)? Our life is not guaranteed us. We do not know when our hour of death will be. God calls us to live life to our fullest doing everything to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31). That means that we need to stop living like we are already dead (like so many are currently doing) and get back to living the life we have. Are you afraid to spend Christmas with family for fear that germs may find you? If you knew this would be your last Christmas together as a family, would that change your mind? If you knew your grandmother would die of a heart attack next month, would you give her a hug now? What if you already have failing health, and death is more of a reality to you? Do you want to spend your few remaining days isolated from family, never seeing your grandkids, or having a family member give you a hug? Life is fragile, and it can be over in an instant. We need to live with this perspective and seize the day, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:15-16). Live faithfully so that when God calls you home, you will hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25: 21, 23).
Back to this humble Baby in a manger. What kind of a man will He become? For one, he will become a rule breaker when it comes to tearing down the superfluous, extraneous Jewish laws created by the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus made it really clear where He stood as far as their hypocritical beliefs, words, and actions (see the 7 Woes in Matthew 23). He followed God's laws! He is a proclaimer of truth even when it means He loses popularity or risks His life. He calls people out when they are wrong (and yet does it without sinning -- something I can't emulate very well yet!). He will become a man who knows when to speak and act (Matthew 21:12-13, for example) and when to remain silent (Trial of Jesus: Matthew 27:1-31; Mark 15:1-20; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16).
What will He do? He will bring God's kingdom to Earth by building it in the hearts of the people God calls to Himself in preparation for building a new heaven and earth where God's Kingdom reigns forever and ever. He, as the second Adam, will lay down His life on the cross to be crucified (the most humiliating and cursed way to die) so that he can close the gap between God and man that was created by the first Adam when he brought sin into the world. He crushed the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), Satan, the holder of death. What does this mean? The Kingdom of Self has been demolished. I am not my own! I have been bought with a price, therefore, I am not a slave of men (I Corinthians 7:23), nor I am a slave to sin (Romans 6:15-23)! The curse of sin has been reversed! I have been set free and have the promise of eternal life! I no longer have the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). We as believers can all share Paul's perspective on death, which was ever before him during his ministry: "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:20-21).
His birth brought the Kingdom of God to this earth, His death made it possible for God's Kingdom to dwell in the hearts of His people, and His resurrection gave way to His eternal Kingdom coming in fullness with his Second Coming. In the already-not-yet period, God gave the gift of His Holy Spirit to speak truth into our hearts and guide our footsteps. We need to seek and listen to His voice! God also gave the gift of the Church, His body in which Christ is the head. We are made up of many members, each with his own gifts and function within the larger body. If we function independently of each other, we fail, because we were meant to be one. In our day today, churches are torn apart by differing political views and views on the virus. Satan has very successfully got us off track by making us take our eyes of Christ and forget our purpose as a church within our body and outside of our body. We are called into the world to be witnesses of the greatness of God serving others being the hands and feet of God Himself. It's pretty hard to accomplish that locked inside, though. We are called to edify one another and build each other up; sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to speak the truth of God's Word into each other's heart; bear each other's burdens (kind of hard to do that over Zoom); spur one another on toward love and good deeds; and most importantly not forsake the assembling of ourselves together or partaking of the Lord's Supper until Christ's return (Hebrews 10:23-26). If we are going to be effective witnesses in this world, we need to present a united front. So, there are different perspectives and viewpoints - that's ok! We are a diverse body, and that helps to keep us searching the Scriptures and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We can agree to disagree and love those who think differently. How many of the apostles and missionaries of old disagreed on certain points (read Acts for a few examples)? We can agree on the essentials of the faith and let everything else be of less importance. We do need to be a functioning church, though, active in the work to which we are called. I know some great men and women of the faith, who have needed to use more caution during this time, who have taken the time at home to be prayer warriors, praying faithfully and intently and sending notes to encourage others. There are tasks for all members of Christ's body, and no matter what side you fall on, you need to be loving your brothers and sisters in the faith continuing to build them up and point them to Christ, finding creative ways to love them. Stop jumping to conclusions and judging one another's actions and motives. It's so easy to think that someone seemingly not following recommendations is a rebel and someone adhering to the recommendations is a fearful coward. That's simply not the case! It's not our place to judge! It's our place to LOVE! After all, that's why we celebrate this Advent season - LOVE came down and dwelt among us (John 1:14, 3:16)!
This Advent season, Satan is working overtime to discourage, depress, quiet/distort the Gospel, and divide churches and families. Don't give him fuel! Christ crushed his head once! Stand with Christ and be victorious over the attacks of the devil. Let peace rule in your hearts and reign on this Earth this Christmas. The World has never needed God's love and peace more! Praise God that Christ was an expectation-breaker! Praise God that because Jesus came as a baby, Immanuel--"God with us"--(Matthew 1:23) has come to us. Praise God that because Jesus was born, our Kingdoms of Self could be destroyed! Go and live in the freedom Christ's life and death and resurrection accomplished for you, and share the Good News to all who will listen! There is much to celebrate this Advent season!