Writings: All Writings

Christmas for Israel

Delta Community Christian Church

Author: John C. Nugent

12/23/06+ Share

What do the birth stories mean when they announce that Jesus came to "save his people from their sins"? Back then, "his people" did not mean all future Christians. The prayers of Zechariah and Mary both indicate that "his people" refers to the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. Here is a Christmas sermon that explores why Christmas can only be Christmas for us because it was first Christmas for Israel. 

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The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said “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” (Matthew 1:20-21).

What is the meaning of that last sentence? What does it mean that Jesus came to “save his people from their sins”? We are tempted to think that this verse is about us, that we are “his people” being spoken of. But surely we are not, and if we want to understand the full meaning of Christ’s birth we need to learn who this verse is about. In other words, to fully understand the Christmas story, we must see it in the context of the wider biblical story, and to do this we must go back to the beginning.

When God created the world he blessed its inhabitants with many gifts. He gave us this wonderful planet to engage with its breathtaking sights, enchanting sounds, and delectable tastes. He also surrounded us with interesting people and exotic animals with whom we may enjoy and explore these wonderful gifts together.

But how did the first humans respond to these gifts? Adam and Eve did what any of us would have done: they grasped for more. They couldn’t be content until they had it all. They would not be satisfied until there were no limitations placed on their ability to consume at will. The consequences of their greed and thirst for limitless life are all too familiar to us. It brought strife between humans and God, humans and each other, humans and creation. It also brought degeneration of humankind and God’s good creation. So God banished our primeval ancestors from the garden and they continued their sinful ways until the stench of their sin ascended to the creator.

Genesis 6 reads, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6).

So God acted decisively. He gave all creation a clean slate by flooding away its impurities and sparing enough people and animals to begin anew. After the flood subsided and Noah’s sacrifice rose to God as a pleasing aroma, God resolved never again to destroy every living creature (Genesis 8:21-22) and he sealed his promise with a rainbow in the sky. In doing so, God put the burden on himself to make things work out somehow, and he would have to do so soon because things started falling apart all over again. Noah abused creation by planting a vineyard and drinking excessively to the point of unconsciousness. His son Ham abused his drunken father by looking upon his nakedness, whatever that means. Then their near descendants disobeyed God’s command to multiply and fill the earth by confining themselves to one city, called Babel, and by building a great monument to the human potential to accomplish great things without God’s help.

Then, at just the right time, God revealed his master plan—the plan that spans both testaments. God created a special people though whom he would show the world what it looks like to properly enjoy God’s good creation. To prepare them for this, God gave them careful instructions about how to carry out his mission. The biblical word for these instructions is Law or Torah. If God’s people live by his instructions, God will bless their socks off. If they refuse, God will punish them severely. Moses summarizes these blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 30, saying,

“I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).

There were strict punishments for ignoring God’s instructions because to do do so is to reject God’s strategy for showing the world his goodness. So either God could give up on Israel and find some other way to bless the world, or he could discipline his children to guide them back onto the right track. As it turned out, the Israelites ignored God’s instructions and rejected his plan for blessing the world. The prophet Jeremiah summarizes God’s charge against them in Jeremiah 2:

“This is what the LORD says: ‘What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, 'Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness…?'  I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable” (Jeremiah 2:5-7).

God kept his word and punished Israel for its sins. Hear what one Israelite said about this punishment. We will read a lengthy portion of Lamentations because we cannot appreciate the wondrous news of Christ’s birth for his people until we understand what exactly he was saving them from:

“Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!  Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows.  We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest. We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria, to get enough bread. Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities. Slaves rule over us; there is no one to deliver us from their hand. We get our bread at the peril of our lives, because of the sword in the wilderness. Our skin is black as an oven from the scorching heat of famine. Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. Young men are compelled to grind, and boys stagger under loads of wood. The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! Because of this our hearts are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim: because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it. But you, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:1-22)

Israel’s sin became a terrible burden to bear. Instead of extending abundant life God to all nations, God’s people came to represent all that was wrong with a world wrapped in sin. So God gave them their hearts desire: the awful consequences of disobedience. But God had not abandoned Israel. While extremely painful, the discipline they endured reminded them that God still considered them his children. Through the prophet Isaiah, God renewed their hope by announcing a future day when God would forgive their sins and reverse their fortunes. Isaiah 9 reads,

“There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress…The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase 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” (Isaiah 9:1-7).

God promised Israel that punishment for their sins was not his last word for them. God would someday send a new king who would restore them to their place of dignity and rule over them in righteousness. So when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, later learns that this Messiah will be born and that his son John would prepare his way, God’s Spirit inspires him to speak triumphant words of praise:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he said through his holy prophets of long ago, salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham:  to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:68-75).

Jews like Zechariah rejoiced mightily because their days of discipline were ending. The Messiah’s birth signals a new day when God finally uses Israel to bring salvation to all the earth. Jesus had not come to replace Israel, but to gather, equip, and commission them. He did so by forgiving their sins, conquering death, empowering them for global mission, and joining unto them people of all races, colors, and languages—all social, political, and religious backgrounds—so that this newly minted humanity called Church may bear witness to God’s kingdom in all of its manifold splendor. Through the Church’s pioneering witness the world may glimpse what God always intended for creation. What is more, all people may enter even now into God’s new creation as a sort of divinely-secured down payment on their full inheritance of God’s kingdom to be received when Jesus returns.

So Joseph obeyed the Lord who appeared to him in a dream. He took Mary home as his wife, she gave birth to a son, and they named him Jesus. And glory be to God, Jesus lived up to his name and saved Israel from its sins. God did not abandon his plan to renew creation through a people. Instead, he graciously invited all people to join with them so that we, too, may celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose salvation of Israel from their sins has made possible the forgiveness of our sins and the beginning of eternal life.

We thank you O God for your undying faithfulness to us. It is a mystery why you do not abandon us, why you do not find some foolproof plan that conveniently bypasses human obedience. But you will not give up on your people. You would rather give up your only son. So we thank you for sending Jesus. We thank you for his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his reign at your right hand, and his eventual return to finalize your purposes for all creation. To this great gift, we can respond no better than your servant Mary, the mother of Jesus, who sang,

"My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers" (Luke 1:46-55).