First Sunday after Christmas
Lessons: Is. 63:7-9, Heb. 2:10-18, Mt. 2:13-23
Christmas is not always an easy time of the year.
Of course children love it. They give us some of the best facial expressions, some of the best responses to the gifts, to the lights, to the candy. Their intensity, their joy, their delight is so infectious, so deliberate, so whole-hearted. But for that very reason, the loss of children is so heartbreaking. It cannot be an accident that our Christmas story, the Christian Christmas Story, is not merely shepherds and wisemen gathered around a newborn and his proud but exhausted parents. Right there in the midst of the joy and peace proclaimed from heaven to earth, there’s a bloodthirsty tyrant and cruel soldiers doing his violent bidding. Alongside the lowing of the cows, alongside the singing of the angels, alongside the gentle cries of a baby, there are other sounds, the sounds of doors cracking, the sound of gruff shouts, the sound of crying, of begging, of pleading, of sobbing, and then only silence.
Even our celebration of Christmas this year is not absent some of these sounds. I suspect every Christmas partakes of this pain for most. While we sing the angels’ song, while we proclaim joy to the world, while we echo Mary’s triumph, in some parts of this world there are still the sounds of soldiers’ feet, the sounds of gunfire and explosions, in hospital rooms — the sound of labored breathing, and elsewhere — the sound of pain, of loss, blood and tears and an ache that will not ever completely go away: parents and grandparents, children and siblings, friends and neighbors, others we never knew but faces with names and loves. In the old days, churches were surrounded by graveyards, and we must not forget that we still sing and pray and feast surrounded by graves.
The prophesy of Isaiah we just read is remarkable given the context. Chapter 63 begins with One coming from Edom, coming with dyed garments, with garments stained red with blood. God says He’s just come from Edom where He poured out His fury, treading down the people like grapes in a wine press, making them drunk with His anger, spilling their blood all over the ground. And now the Warrior God comes walking toward Jerusalem, covered in blood, breathing hard with vengeance in His eyes, and Isaiah has the guts to sing, “I will mention the loving-kindnesses of the Lord… the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies…” Isaiah says that despite the sins of Israel, they are His people, His children, and therefore He is their Savior, even as He comes in judgment, even as He comes having poured out His anger on Edom. Even in all their afflictions, Isaiah sings, God has always been afflicted with His people. The Angel of His Presence saved them, in His love and pity He redeemed them, and He carried them along in all the days of old.
But the prophet goes on, explaining all the ways in which Israel rebelled against this love, rebelled against this salvation. But, despite this, he is still calling for God to come, to come down again. Isaiah knows that God must judge the wickedness of the world, even the evil of Israel, but he says that he knows that somehow even when God comes down in His fury, somehow He will not utterly destroy all of Israel. Somehow some will be saved because they are His children. He is their Father. And God is a good Father, and He will not utterly destroy His children. In His wrath, He will remember mercy.
In Isaiah, there are only allusions to the solution. We are left with God the Warrior coming to Jerusalem with a fierce jealousy, stained with blood, determined to destroy all wickedness. Yet, Isaiah sings in confidence knowing that this is not the ravings of a madman, this is not the bloodlust of a terrorist, this is the righteous fury of jealous love, a pure anger against the hypocrisy of Israelites that do not actually fear the Lord or love the Lord, but only try to manipulate Him like some kind of pagan deity, like some kind of machine in the sky. And still Isaiah sings of the lovingkindness of the Lord. He sings of the Angel of the Presence who comes with love and pity, who comes to redeem the children from their sins, who will be afflicted in their affliction.
Hebrews connects the dots and fills in many of the blanks. How can God pour out His wrath for sin and wickedness and there be any hope of escape? How can the children of God put their trust in their Father when He is so angry?
In fact, many Christians question this picture of God altogether. Is God really angry about sin? Is God really furious about the way people treat one another? Does God really come down and trample cities and nations, spilling their blood on the ground? That seems archaic, barbarian. Would our God really show up splattered in blood from waging a holy war against people made in His own image? The Edomites were people too. They were men and women and children made in His image. But Isaiah has said exactly that. And faithfulness to Scripture must allow these awful words to stand. But what we want to know, what we need to know is how does Isaiah not despair? How does Isaiah continue to speak of God’s love? How can God be eternally angry about sin and evil and at the same time eternally full of love and mercy?
Part of the answer must be found in the limits of our own experience. When we experience anger, fury, wrath, when vengeance boils up in our hearts, it tends to drive out all pity, all love. Anger is often like a kind of emotional drunkenness in people, and they say things and do things that are usually full of malice and hatred. Their words and actions are destructive, hurtful, and end in sorrow and regret. But God is not limited by our experience, by our imagination. God’s anger is not like our anger. When God gets angry, He holds His fury together with His perfect love.
The other part of the answer to how God can do both is found in Hebrews. Hebrews says that He who made all things became the Captain of our Salvation through suffering. Hebrews says that God entered into our suffering, identifying with us, by calling the children of Israel, and all rebel children, His own brothers, His own family. God is not ashamed to call them brothers. God comes in His wrath, God comes in judgment, but He also comes in His mercy, in His pity. And He is able to come in both ways because our God is Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Bible teaches that there is only one God, but this one God exists eternally as a community of three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This one God has conspired to fulfill all justice and all mercy, and He has done this by the Father sending His Son ahead, and the Son willingly becoming a man like us through the power of the Spirit. The Son took part in our flesh and blood. This is what Christmas means. This is what we have been celebrating this week. That God the Son became a man. It means that God the Son took human flesh and blood and identified with us, came among us, to be our brother.
But that is not all. Hebrews says that God became our brother so that through death, He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil. And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Hebrews says that God became a man so that He might destroy the power of death, bondage to the fear of death. Jesus is the Angel of God’s presence. Jesus is the lovingkindness and pity of God. And Jesus comes not in the form of an angel but in the form of a man, taking on the flesh of Abraham, that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest, making reconciliation for the sins of the people.
How did He do this? How does Jesus make reconciliation for the sins of the people? He did this by being afflicted in our affliction. In order to understand the significance of this, we need to understand what God’s wrath is. What is God’s wrath? Romans 1 describes God’s wrath as His turning sinners over to their sin. It is His eternal judgment that actions, thoughts and words which reject His love are spiraling into the darkness, into pain, into eternal misery. God’s wrath against sin is His eternal determination to drive it all out of His creation, out of His people. God’s wrath is His eternal hatred of evil, His hatred of what sin and wickedness do to people and families and nations and to His whole creation. And so while the guilt of sin resides in us, the wrath and judgment of God are upon us. God hates sin. God hates what sin does to us. God hates what sin does to His creation.
Do you hate sin? Do you hate what evil does to this world?
Is it right for God to hate the way dictators massacre millions? Is it right for God to hate the murder of the unborn? Is it right for God to hate the way greed and lust turn people into vicious animals? Is it right for God hate the way evil grows in our hearts, to hate the way we manipulate and lie and cheat and cover up and hide?
Yes, God is right to hate all evil. God is right to hate the way we treat one another. And death is God’s sentence for evil. Death is the penalty for all sin. All the confusion and darkness and separation and isolation that come with sin are part of the wrath of God, but death is the culmination of God’s wrath. And the Bible teaches that this confusion, this darkness, this wrath is driven by the power of Satan, the Devil, the Dragon of Old. And Hell is the eternal sentence, the eternal death, eternal separation from the goodness of God reserved specifically for the Devil and all his angels. It is a place of eternal torment and misery, where His eternal wrath burns against all sin and evil. The wages of sin is death, and this is to be turned over to Satan, to the Devil for our destruction.
And so God must be just, but in order for us to be spared, in order for us to escape death, in order for us to sing with Isaiah of God’s lovingkindness, God must be both just—He must be right about sin and somehow He must make us right about sin. He must be Just and the Justifier. So God sent His only begotten Son, His beloved Son into the world to be our older brother. To be a true and perfect man, in order that He might be afflicted in our affliction, in order that He might bear the judgment against sin. In order that God might unleashed the full weight of His wrath and fury against sin and all evil – that it rightly deserves and allow sinners who deserve the judgment, who deserve the death, who deserve to die – to go free.
So God the Father allowed His own Beloved Son to be betrayed, to be mocked, to be lied about, to be condemned, to be flogged, to be beaten, to be struck, to be nailed to a cross, to be hung up in shame and agony, to be jeered at, to be scoffed at, to be rejected as a fool, as a rebel, as a sinner. God’s love poured out His wrath, turning His own Son over to the power of death, so that He who knew no sin became sin for us. He bore the curse in His own body on the tree. But He did this in our place. He stood between the wrath of God and guilty sinners. He stood between us and the Devil who wielded the power of death. Jesus stood in our place. He stood as our brother. And when He had swallowed all of the wrath, when He had taken all of our sin, when He cried out and gave up His spirit, there was no more wrath. Because in that moment Death was absolutely exhausted. God lifted His hand and allowed the Devil to pour out the fullness of Hell. And Jesus died. But when Jesus died, there was no more debt to pay, nor more wrath to come, no more judgment to fall.
Jesus paid it all. Jesus took it all.
And because Jesus is both fully God and fully man, He not only satisfied the justice of God in His death, but because He also is God, who took His life back up again on the third day so that all who trust in Him may not fear death anymore. Death is fearful because of sin, because we deserve to die, because we deserve the justice of God for our sin. But Jesus died so that all who place their trust in Him might not fear the grave. For those in Christ, for those who trust in His name and in His work on the cross for their sins, death is no enemy, death has no sting. Death is only sleep. Death is only a passage. Death cannot hold us. Death has been trampled.
Do you ever think about dying? Do you ever think about death? Are you afraid of dying?
Our flesh certainly fears the process. We fear the pain. We fear losing our minds, losing control of our bodies. We fear the shame of growing old. We fear the weakness of disease. But what do you think about dying? When you pause and you think for a moment about leaving, about closing your eyes for the last time, whether suddenly, unexpectedly or slowly growing weak and frail – what do you think? How do you feel? Are you afraid? Does it strike fear in your heart?
Paul said that for him, to live was Christ, but to die would be gain. He said that for those in Christ, we have already died and our lives are hidden with God in Christ. He said that part of him could not wait to die because then he would receive the crown of glory laid up for him in heaven. Is there a part of you that can’t wait to die? Is there a part of you that longs to put off this moral flesh, and to put on immortal glory? Do you long for a crown to be placed on your head, to stand before Jesus and all the angels and to have Him look into your eyes and call you by your name and for Him to say to you, Well done, good and faithful servant?
For those outside of Jesus, for those who do not know Jesus, death is judgment, death is still part of the wrath of God against sin. But for those who are in Jesus, for those who have met Jesus, we have already died and our lives are hidden with God in Christ. The sting of death is removed, our sins have been taken away, our debt is paid, the wrath is over. And now we are free.
Make sure you know today who you are. Make sure you know today which kind of person you are. Christmas does not come despite the evil of the world. Christmas comes because of the evil in this world. Jesus was born because there are Herods who slaughter little ones. Jesus was born because there are Hitlers who gas millions. Jesus was born because there are wicked businessmen who lie and steal. Jesus was born because there are husbands and wives who cheat. Jesus was born because there are fathers who abuse. Jesus was born because there are children who rebel. Jesus was born in order to bear the wrath of God, to be afflicted in our affliction because He is the Lovingkindness of God; Jesus is the love and pity of God, our Father.
Our Father made a way for His children to escape the wrath through His own Son, our sacrifice for sin, and now the ransom is paid, the guilt is pardoned, and we are set free. We have been delivered from the fear of death, from bondage to sin. The sword of Satan has been shattered. His power is broken forever. And all those who look to Christ are forgiven, are restored, are healed, and are safe from every danger, from every evil, now and forever.
This is what Christmas means.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.