Bethlehem – Part 3

In Sermon Series by Rachel Schultz

Accident or Miracle?

Photo: Andrea Danti

All Americans were saddened in the Christmas season of 2006 when Gerald Ford, our 38th President, passed away at the age of 93. People from both sides of the aisle really respected Ford for coming to power at a very difficult time and bringing healing and a new sense of hope to our country. Pardoning Nixon was a wrenching, perhaps disastrous, political decision . . . but it was really the only way for America’s completely dysfunctional, scandal-consumed government to get a fresh start and survive.

President Ford was the only Vice President and President to get into the White House accidentally. He was never elected to either position. He was appointed VP when Spiro Agnew had to resign in 1973; a year later, when Nixon followed the same ignominious trail, a lowly congressman from the obscure 5th District of Michigan abruptly found himself living with his wife Betty and four kids at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. West Wing had a story like that once, but this is real, and some of us lived through that very poignant time. 

There’s a devout Christian pastor named Nick Twomey who serves his Lord at a medium-sized church, also in Michigan, and there’s nothing very spectacular about it. The only point of interest is that when he was a teenager, his high school girlfriend was named Madonna Ciccone, who grew up to become a pop singer who usually doesn’t use her last name. Quite a story—and it illustrates the sometimes accidental nature of fame. 

I tell these two stories to contrast them with the brief life story of this Baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. Because there are many people in the world today who consider the Christmas story a sweet, touching, entirely human string of accidents. 

Jesus was born, in their secular thinking, to a girl who wasn’t married. We usually call that an accident. He was born into poverty, which is very common but not something anybody would choose. When he was 12, his parents flubbed up and accidentally left him at the temple in Jerusalem for three days. And for the next 18 years, he lived such an uneventful life even the best of scholars don’t know a single thing about him. 

Then he began to preach and teach. He was pretty good at it; many people listened. Some of the things he talked about are rather well-known even today. But he foolishly, or accidentally, antagonized the religious establishment of his day. He said the wrong things at the wrong times. He didn’t know when to keep His mouth shut. He accidentally healed people on the Sabbath when he should have waited until sundown. Finally, he riled the religious right to the point where they contracted a hit on him; they got him crucified on a Roman cross. 

End of story. To those who believe in accidents but not in miracles, that is definitely the end of the story. Jesus was a Gerald Ford politician who only got a partial term of power, and whose time in office was cut short because . . . he was only there accidentally in the first place. 

Now, do I believe this? Not for two seconds! I’ve already mentioned that we who are Christians reject entirely the “accident” motif; we have the word of the angel Gabriel, who says to the shepherds: I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. 

Moments later the skies are filled with an angel army which tells Planet Earth that what is happening is not an accident, not a blip in the space-time continuum, not an aberration or an anonymous moment of teen promiscuity. No, the arrival of this baby is heaven’s proclamation of good will to us, the announcement of an intergalactic rescue plan. 

I’d like to backtrack from this billboard-in-the-sky moment and go to a much quieter encounter, this one between one angel, Gabriel, and one confused earthling named Joseph. In Matthew 1, right after Mary has told her boyfriend that the blue plus sign in her e.p.t. test came out positive but not an accident, heaven’s #1 angel comes to Joseph and has this to say: 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. 

And here’s what I want for us to realize. Heaven comes to Joseph and tells him four things. One, Mary’s pregnancy is legitimate; it’s heaven-designed; it’s not an accident. Two, she will have a son. Three, God in heaven has already designated the name of Jesus. Mary and Joseph never went through a list of names, because the name had already been assigned. Four, this Son, Jesus, will grow up and succeed in a salvation plan yet to unfold. 

In other words, not only is Mary having a baby not an accident, this is all part of the most concise, precise, grand, intricate, perfect, pristine, holy, galactic plan ever put together. Jesus being born on planet earth is something that was not conceived in the back seat of a car, or in a bedroom while Mom and Dad are away. This was conceived in the highest courts of heaven, and conceived there even before Adam and Eve ever sinned, creating the need for the plan. 

It is sometimes suggested that Eve took the apple from the tree, and that this act of rebellion threw heaven into crisis mode. Oh no, what shall we do? I have read literature portraying this as an unexpected time of turbulent fear among the angels of heaven. What was going to happen? Was this new world doomed to be lost? But notice what Paul tells us in Ephesians 1. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will. 

So there was a salvation plan before Creation Week; there was a rescue plan, an adoption plan before Creation Week. By Genesis chapter three, a plan conceived long before has already been explained to Adam and Eve. 

Hollywood actor Bruce Marchiano was contracted back in 1994 to play the part of Jesus in a four-hour multi-million-dollar miniseries based strictly on the book of Matthew. They went to Africa to film, and Marchiano, a very devout Christian, just immersed himself in the role. It was a wrenching time for him emotionally; he came out a changed man. But he writes in his book that he caught a glimpse of a Jesus who was in full control all the time. He said what he said because it was right; He healed people at certain times because it was part of his plan. And Jesus went to Calvary because he came here to go to Calvary. To redeem us was his unassailable role; it could not be altered. That’s one reason why Jesus was almost a bit impatient with Cleopas and his fellow disciple as they walked in discouragement to Emmaus on Sunday evening after the crucifixion. “Why are you distressed?” Jesus asked them. “The Lamb of God came to give His life, and that’s what He did. This is all part of the cosmic plan spelled out in the prophetic writings of Isaiah. Every salvation puzzle piece is perfectly in place.” 

I don’t want to belabor this point, but I want to give us one more morsel to think about. We sometimes debate and discuss the issue of Christ’s nature; was it fallen or unfallen? Could Jesus have sinned? The Adventist Church takes the position that he indeed could have sinned; the many temptations in Matthew 4 and in Gethsemane seem to indicate that. But we also have here in the Christmas story a clear declaration by the angels that this baby WILL save us; he will not fail; there is no possibility of failure. He will go to the cross and win. In John 14:30, Jesus says calmly to His disciples, speaking of Lucifer: The prince of this world approaches. He has no power over Me. He has no hold on Me says the NIV. So I cannot speak to the impeccability of Jesus’ nature, but I can gratefully proclaim the immutability of heaven’s eternal plan. Let’s never forget that God does not lose. Jesus does not fail. Heaven does not surrender. And this Baby being born was not just part of God’s biggest plan; Jesus was God’s biggest plan. 

Verse 15, as we return to the midnight choir concert in the fields outside Bethlehem. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They saw this incredible thing, the sky lighting up, the thunder of many voices singing. But now it’s dark again. The moment is over. The glory has faded. And what do they do? They act upon the miracle which has come to them. 

All through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there were people who saw or experienced miracles. Some responded; others just walked away. But praise the Lord for these shepherds. They were given this rare privilege of receiving the announcement, and their response was the right one. Let’s go check it out. Let’s go see. The Adventist commentary points out that there is a special blessing for those who hear this kind of proclamation and who then act upon it. 

Verses 16-18: So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this Child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.And right here I think you and I find something that is starkly relevant for us in this church we all love. What does this mean for us today? They spread the word concerning what had been told them about this Child. 

Our Survival Depends Upon It

And friend, I was seized by this reality. The most important ingredient in our survival and growth here at this church is the challenge that we must go to others and tell them about Jesus. The shepherds saw Jesus and went and told someone else. And there have been times when someone here had a very vivid and real encounter with Jesus Christ, and a little time later, they brought by the hand a new person, a different person, someone not yet in our ranks, and brought them into this building and said: See? I told you. I have found a Friend so precious; He’s all the world to me. 

We all have social connections with people who do not truly know the Christ Child as their Savior. We could say more than we say; we could share with more power than we do. We could exercise more intentionality than we do. If you spend time here in December going around in your cul-de-sac giving out Christmas cookies, you will probably be struck by the embarrassing reality of how little we know about people living less than 100 feet from our front door. We know some names, but not all. We have neighbors who are fellow believers, and we have no true communion with them as we should. 

Think what would happen if every single person here, by the end of next year, found and brought to church just one other person. And just having babies doesn’t count, even though I applaud that missionary plan as well. I know that multi-level marketing schemes prove that we can’t double our church every single year, but I think we could definitely do it during the year that begins a few days from now. If these shepherds, who were basically shiftless thieves and tax cheats, could do it, you and I with our M.D.s and Ph.D.s can surely do it too. 

Now we move on to Scene #2 in this story. Verse 21: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived. When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”) (Exodus 13:2), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Lev. 12:8) 

I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you this, because I frankly do not know all of the ways of the Lord. But it was God’s rule for Israel that if a young woman had a baby boy, she was unclean for a week. If she had a baby girl, she was unclean for two weeks. Another gender inequity is that the long-term purification schedule for the mother of a baby boy was 33 days, for a girl 66. And the assigned gift for a poor family, instead of being a lamb, was two doves. And this is what Joseph and Mary brought. 

It’s sweet to think that Mary, who received this Baby directly from heaven, now comes to the Temple to give Jesus back, in a sense. To present him to the Lord. We have baby dedication services here at church where we do this very same thing. But I would like to impress upon all of us as we head into the new year the wonderful Bible challenge to bring back to God’s house the things we receive from God. 

If you have gotten talents from God, bring them here. If you have gotten children from the Lord, then it is right and proper to bring them here. You owe God that. If God blesses you with a good income, part of that income should come to this temple’s coffers. I don’t say that for myself; I say it because it is what the Bible teaches. 

I am so moved when an economically challenged person here who is barely hanging on by their fingernails still gives back to God out of the blessings they have gotten from him. I know someone whose entire income is less than their rent; they are upside-down before the month even begins. And yet they come on Sabbath and bring a dish of food. Isn’t that amazing? And here Joseph and Mary, who have received this miracle Baby from God, come to the temple and give him right back. 

Someone has suggested that Israelite families essentially paid these two doves to the temple as ransoms, as it were. Rather than sacrifice their firstborn children, they were permitted to “buy them back” with this sacrifice of a lamb or a pair of doves. Some people here have paid in the five figures to bring their baby home from the hospital; how much would you be willing to give the Lord for the gift of your child, were he to ask you for it? But it is inspiring to think of Joseph and Mary, ransoming this little Baby who would someday ransom the entire world with His blood. In her book, The Desire of Ages, Ellen White observes that some no-name priest held this little Baby, maybe the tenth one that day, amid all the sacrifices and blood and altars and this huge, legal system . . . and had no idea in the world that this one unique, heaven-sent Baby was going to fulfill it all, supercede it all, bring their entire edifice of legalism, of works, of blood to a crashing conclusion at the cross. Like people in Michigan who went to the polls one day back in 1948 to vote for a young Michigan State football hero and World War II vet . . . and never dreamed that young Jerry Ford would one day be President of the United States. 

Now to Scene #3, and this is very touching. One of my favorite people in the Bible comes into the story now. There’s an old woman named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. It’s not entirely clear if she was 84 years old or if she had been a widow for 84 years. One way or another, she had been around for a long while; her hair was gray. And what I like is this: even at the age of 84, or maybe 104, she was always at church. She never skipped church! As we head into the new year, I invite all of you to be like this great old gal of the Bible. She never left the temple, it says in verse 37. But before we get to her, there is another old prophet we want to read about. 

Verse 25: Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israelin other words, he was waiting for this exact moment, the arrival of the Messiahand the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 

And as Simeon holds Baby Jesus in his arms, he says with beatific joy: Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace. He was willing to lay down to his rest, because he had seen the arrival of his Messiah. This is the Child. This is God Himself. This Baby will save all of us. Our rescue is absolutely assured at last. 

Verse 30: My eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Your people Israel. And then this great old man says to God: okay, let me go to sleep in peace. I saw what I’ve waited all my life to see. Somehow God made sure that Simeon was at the temple that very day. 

So here are these two old, faithful saints. They waited for years, for decades. There may have been talk through the years of closing the church, or folding, of quitting. People then were tired of waiting for prophecies to come true, just as we sometimes are. They got weary of commuting to the temple each Sabbath. But they kept coming. And God went out of his way to keep them alive long enough so that they could have this rare, sweet experience. They got to hold the Redeemer in their arms, and know he was their Redeemer. 

We’re told in the Bible, Deuteronomy 19:15, that all important matters should be established by two witnesses. And here these two old, faithful, reliable voices tell the world: Here He is. This Baby is the hope of all mankind. We saw it with our own eyes. If you don’t want to believe me, then believe them. But here at Christmastime, this one Baby is still the One. He is still our Savior, our only hope. 

There’s a hard moment for you moms to think about. Simeon, holding Baby Jesus, promises the salvation of our lost world. That’s wonderful. But then he quietly says to Mom in verse 35: [But] a sword will pierce your own soul. In the Message paraphrase: A figure misunderstood and contradicted—the pain of a sword-thrust through you. In 33 years, Mary will watch her little boy up on the cross, dying for all of our sins. She’ll stand right there and hear the nails going in, sense the agony of her own flesh and blood. 

This sword, we’re told by the Greek experts, was a rhomphania—a large battle sword. Not a machaira, a small dagger. No, this is a major weapon of heartbreak; in fact, it’s the same word used for the sword of Goliath. Mary is going to have her heart broken by the sacrifice on a hill far away. 

I want for us to close by going back to the announcement by Gabriel. A Savior has been born TO YOU. And then this: He is Christ THE LORD. 

Please stop with me and think carefully about what “Lord” means. Television sometimes uses that word carelessly; let’s not make that mistake. Jesus is our Lord. He rules over us. Jesus rules in a holy and complete way in our lives and in the life of this church. 

I was talking to someone last week about surrendering his life to Jesus Christ. And I made the point that if Jesus did create us, and then did come to earth and die on the cross for our sins, then him being Lord is plain reality. In legal terms, we owe Jesus loyalty in a de jure sense—legally. By rights. It may be fun; it may not be. We may enjoy it; we might not. You might have a personality that loves church and worship, or maybe you don’t. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Jesus is our Lord. He deserves all that we can give; He deserves our worship and our time and our offerings and the gift of our children. He deserves the powerful, dedicated functioning of this church right here. He is Christ the Lord. 

And Simeon says to Mary: You are so blessed; you’re favored above all women. But there will come this sword moment. Your heart is going to break partway through this process. In the end, the world will be saved . . . but you’re going to cry one Friday afternoon. 

Maybe you and I will have some hard times too. Maybe a rhomphania of loss, of pain, of death will happen to us. Christianity may mean a sword for us too. But it does not matter because Jesus is our Lord. He came to save us from our sins, and both Anna and Simeon give a testimony which rings through the centuries. We have seen the Christ Child. Shall we pray? 

Lord God, in one of our final Sabbaths of this year, we bow before Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We accept the sure word of these two great saints of old, that you are the Baby sent from heaven. And like the shepherds, we want to take this good news and now share it in a tangible way with some precious person in our lives. Make us effective heralds of your love, we pray. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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