Faithlife Sermons

Bethlehem

Advent 2020  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Faith

Faith is traditionally the second Sunday of Advent. We are probably familiar with the Scripture that without faith it is impossible to please God. The extraordinary happenings in Bethlehem 2000 plus years ago require faith. And this faith is something we establish personally. Now, faith isn’t just intellectual assent, but include a moral element of personal trust. Something that may be foreign to us as a society or people, but well suited to the personal trust in Christ that is saving faith.
Throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions. God initiates the relationship between Himself and human beings. He expects people to trust Him; failure to trust Him was in essence the first sin (Gen. 3:1–7). Since the fall of humanity God nurtures and inspires trust in Him through what He says and does for the benefit of people who need Him, ultimately in the birth of His Son JC whom we now celebrate.
Faith is an especially significant concept in the Gospel of John. His concept of faith is really a verb. It has the sense of “believe.” The important thing is the connection between the believer and Christ. JC’ coming into the world brings life to those who believe.
Statements emphasizing the importance and results of belief in Jesus bookend John’s Gospel. At the beginning John states, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). He associates believing with receiving, which divulges his relational perspective on faith (i.e., “covenantal faith”). Then, at the close of his Gospel, John explains, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31.
So we light the candle of faith, an expression of believing the name and saving power of Jesus, born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem-Christmas 2020

They just don’t write obituaries like they used to. My mom was really interested in genealogy and among the plethora of information she had, she discovered the obituary of my great grandfather Benjamin DeCocq. The title Found Dead on the Floor “Benjamin DeCocque [sic], an old French farmer who lives 3 ½ miles east of Medoc was found dead on the floor in his house Saturday morning. The old man is a widower, his wife having died about two months ago, leaving him two small children, hardly old enough to talk plain. They were the discoverers of his dead body.” He had come to the United States as a young boy from France with his Father Leopold. They had settled in southwest Missouri where my family has largely stayed ever since. That is probably the most significant factor as to why I am here today. So why bring that up? Well, life is not lived in isolation. There is always a background, a context; and that context influences all of our actions, whether we like it or not. And the context, the background of your life has influenced why you are here today. (Or series of my teachers)
If we don’t understand the context of life, we lose relationship that what we are doing now is unrelated to anything of the past, present or future. Think back to the forces that brought you here. What brings you to this point in your life? Where you were born, where you went to school and what you studied, the household in which you lived, whom you may have married, the experiences of life along the way. All of that makes you who you are and the person you are here today. You are the product of all sorts of people in your life, whether you would want to recognize them or not. But what forces brought you here today?
The Christmas story is made up of people who had not known each other but had reason for interacting with one another. They were suddenly brought together and have become very familiar to us; shepherds, angels, Magi, soldiers, Mary, Joseph, Caesar, the innkeeper etc. Even those people were connected to the prophets such as Isaiah and Micah from generations earlier. How would all of these people be linked with Mary, a young girl, pregnant by the Holy Spirit and living in some backwater town. Why was Mary in Bethlehem? More importantly, why are we where we are today?
Perhaps one of the most read portions of Scripture ever.
Luke 2:1–7 NIV
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
A lot of forces, events, people brought Mary to Bethlehem at that time. Likewise, there are forces, events, people that brought us here today. I had never been to Hartville before I met Janice. We met through a mutual friend while I was living in Kansas City. With time we eventually got married and then moved from Kansas City to Springfield. After Deane had passed away, Brenda took his place as minister and she asked me to deliver the communion meditation when I could attend. Then when she was out of commission for several months, I filled in for her. Then in April last year my company closed the pharmacy in which I was working and I entered into early retirement. Two months later Brenda also passed away and I then stepped into the position of minister having the time to do it. It was a God thing. It seems God was involved and brought forces, events and people together to accomplish His purpose. So, again I ask what brought you here today?

People guide us

From our Scripture passage, the first thing we would notice is the decree of Caesar. Caesar is a most unlikely character in this story. He wasn’t anywhere near Israel, he was a pagan probably with no knowledge of the prophecy of Scripture and certainly no friend of the Jewish people. He was arrogant, insensitive. Yet he was a good administrator and required a fastidious financial accounting in his empire. He declares a census, less for the purpose of counting people as we would think of a census, but really for the purpose of collecting taxes. It wasn’t convenient, you had to go to your hometown to register, and Mary, pregnant as she was, went with Joseph. It would have made no difference to Caesar.
For Mary, it was beyond her control, the decision was made for her, she had to go, there was no other choice, no exceptions. It was probably never her plan to give birth in a barn, cave and put her newborn baby in a feeding trough. Sometimes you have to make the best of a situation at hand. The angel hadn’t said anything about having a bunch of trouble around the time of the birth.
For us, many decisions can be made for us. As an example, where I live, the homes association made the decision to renovate the pool and assessed each home owner $800 to collect the funds for that. It wasn’t optional, they had the power to enforce and collect the special one time payment. I may not have liked it, at that point we had never even used the pool. There was no praying as to whether this was the will of God, it was out of my control. So what do you do, you do what you have to, pay the $800 and go on with your life.
Caesar had the power to do what He did. From our vantage point, we can see the hand of God in that. Government has the right to do what it does (or an employer has the right to do what they do). It’s not something about which to get your nose bent out of shape, to pray whether it is God’s will. Some things are, and we just do them; pay your taxes, be honest, read learn and expand your mind formally or informally and do it all in the praise of God your Father.
The Beatitudes are linked to Christmas. We had looked at the Beatitudes, JC called His disciples together and says that He wants to tell them how the Word is to live through them, how the Word is made flesh in this life, how that will guide our life. For instance:
The people that are mourning need to be comforted.
The people who are poor in spirit - they own the kingdom of heaven.
This was spoken to the disciples with the crowds listening. The Beatitudes are instructions to the disciples. JC is saying that the kingdom of heaven has to be linked to all of us, how it guides us.
The Romans controlled the civilized world, Caesar gave his edict. By contrast, Joseph and Mary controlled very little. Often people feel like them, caught by forces larger than themselves. The closest example I can think of today is a world in the grip of COVID-19 and mask mandates. The thing is-don’t pray about whether you should or shouldn't, just do it, and then you can pray about it. The same for taxes, you may not like it, it may be painful, but do it. Don’t pray whether you should, pray how you are going to pay. Mary ended up in Bethlehem because of the decision of another person whom she had never even met. But God was behind that. For us, don’t let yourself become emotionally exhausted over something, someone you cannot change. Just do it and walk closely with God. God is in there, if we will just have faith. People do guide us.

Positions guide us

Notice the position of Mary in the relationship she had with Joseph. At the time the angel came to Mary to announce the miracle that was to come upon her, she and Joseph were betrothed. It was somewhere between engaged and married. In our culture we don’t really have an equivalent. In Jewish culture it was more of a formal, legal type of arrangement. More than just a date set for the wedding, to dissolve the betrothal was really a serious process. Yet it wasn’t a period of the rights and privileges of marriage. Mary, either by her own choice or that of her family, was in that type of relationship with Joseph when she conceived of JC. Joseph, then visited by an angel himself, took Mary as his marriage partner. Thus Mary became part of Joseph’s family. She couldn’t change his lineage, heritage. She was on the hook with Joseph - and life is just like that sometimes.
So in that context and complexity of life, how would you find God’s will in that? Often doing God’s will takes a person out of their comfort zone. Thus, you have to operate within the realm of what you are required to do, and you do it without panicking. For Joseph and Mary, as peculiar and awkward as it may have seemed it was really to fulfill prophecy. Joseph was of the lineage of David, that is critical. Matthew and Luke both point to that fact carefully. But it explains why the birth of JC happened in Bethlehem.
Notice that even though Mary is pregnant, apparently very close to term, she must follow the perceived father of the baby, Joseph. She is not asked whether or not she wants to go to Bethlehem or whether or not it is convenient, she just goes because it is required. Being in the will of God does not guarantee comfort, but there is the promise that every has meaning in God’s plan.
There is a second influence to those positions that guide us. That position is in submissiveness to the will of God.
Mary was in total submission to the will of God. The immediate issue was the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, the visit by the angel.
Luke 1:28–33 NIV
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Mary, probably stunned, asks the rather obvious question. How is this going to happen? I have not put myself in a position that this would even be possible. The angel explains the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
Luke 1:35 NIV
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
It must have been a tense conversation she had with Joseph. Joseph needed some supernatural intervention to assure him of what Mary had told him, it was a sticky situation. You have to give the guy some credit, he acted respectfully to Mary and then believed an angel who came to him.
Because Joseph did go ahead and marry Mary, it was probably assumed that Joseph was the father. Scripture gives us no indication that there was any suspicion about the situation. But submission to the will of God, on the part of Mary and of Joseph, didn’t clear up everything with everyone “out there.” It took Mary to a place she never thought she would be. During the visit with the angel, it never probably occurred to her that she would be giving birth in a stable.
An explanation for this can be found in Romans 8:28 (NIV2011)
Romans 8:28 NIV
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
That less than desirable situation for Mary, and also as we consider ourselves, is wrapped up in the will of God and how He works. For you grammarians and school teachers, notice the significance of the lack of period after “all things God works for the good”. We are given 2 qualifications modifying “working for the good” 1) those who love God and 2) who are called according to His purpose. Mary loved God and Mary was called. We need to love God, which is the greatest commandment and then walk according to His purpose.
For the unbeliever, those who don’t love God, who aren’t called; things can fall apart. That is the nature of the fallen world. But for the believer, God can take the broken pieces, all the things that don’t seem to fit, and somehow puts them together.
For Mary, “God was in charge of the whole situation.” She probably couldn’t see it, Joseph probably couldn’t see it. Perhaps they were thinking that God was going to bring a rich benefactor to take them under his wing and get the best of care. But that didn’t happen, but God knew what needed to happen and in His providence He provide the situation to make it happen. Mary’s submission was part of God’s plan to bring about salvation. If cares weigh you down and dims your hope, think of Mary and wait patiently for God to finish working out his plan.
When things are out of control (our control), we have to also trust God knows what He is doing. When we submit our lives to Him, suddenly the verse of Romans 8:28 becomes our hope and our possession. We can believe that God is greater than all the incongruent things happening in our lives. Even when our best laid plans seem to go awry. We need to stay driven for the love of God. Of course, we are still human and can really make a mess of things, even when we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. But God can take our messes and put everything together for His purpose. People & Positions guide us.

Providence guides us

The third influence to those things that guide us is the strangest. Mary was in Bethlehem according to the nature of the prophetic word. Prophecy in its purest form drives events. Psalm 138:2 ESV I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. This has the sense that word is greater than the whole of God’s reputation.
Sometimes a prophecy can be conditional; if you do this, I will do that. But that is not the case in relation to Mary and the birth of JC. The prophecy concerning the birth of JC is an authoritative prophecy. Consider
Isaiah 9:7 NIV
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Did you hear that? The zeal of the Lord was going to accomplish this. It wasn’t if Mary had done all the right things to prepare for this event. It wasn’t going to be thwarted by any human intervention. Once God says something is going to take place, God Himself will make sure that it will happen. Also consider
Micah 5:2 NIV
“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 of old, from ancient times.”
This Bethlehem experience is in that same authoritative prophecy. Mary ended up in Bethlehem some 700 years after this prophet Micah said that a king would be born there. There are no conditions attached to it. No power on earth could change that. Herod didn’t know about it, Caesar didn’t know about and wouldn’t have cared about, but God cared about it.
The prophecy becomes the guiding, driving factor. God protects His integrity. Listen to the birth of JC.
Matthew 1:18–22 NIV
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Forces beyond the control of Mary, Providence really, put her in the right place, at the right time, in the right condition to fulfill the plan of God. So the question becomes, what forces have brought you to this place, this time, this condition. We aren’t the master of our own ship. If you have no place for God in your life, then consider how you have come this far without God. But perhaps, God has not only guided you this far, but had a plan for your future.
God’s will is as important, critical, to us at any age. The Bible is filled with interesting and important facts. But what makes them important is that they help us fulfill God’s will for our lives. God does have control over our lives and we would do well to seek to be active participants in His plan. The prophet Micah even speaks that to us today
Micah 6:8
Micah 6:8 NIV
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
We do have some responsibility, to humble ourselves before God, submit to Him, embrace with thanksgiving what He is doing and acknowledge His presence. Our responsibility is not just being a bystander, rather actively seeking, accepting and following Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If we fail to do that, we lose the relationship that what we are doing now is unrelated to anything of the past, present or future. It is why we are here today and what we need from our Heavenly Father. We need to come back to ourselves and the recognition of what God is doing.
Mary probably didn’t want to be in Bethlehem. Joseph probably wasn’t thrilled about it either. Certainly Rome didn’t care. But all the people, positions and providence involved created a connectedness in the story. As a church, both locally and at large, we walk together, struggle together because we are connected. And as we do that , God’s will can take us to Bethlehem or anywhere else He wants us to go. You may not understand why you are where you are today, or may not be able to see the hand of God working in your life, but if we will commit our lives to Him, be submissive to the Father, He will bring us to the place we need to be and be faithful to deliver all that He has promised to those who in faith, believe.
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