December, 2015

The First Words of Christmas

We often put a great deal of importance on first words. We all wait for our baby’s first words. We probably all know Neil Armstrong’s first words when he stepped foot on the surface of the moon. We might even remember Alexander Graham Bell’s first words over the telephone, “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.” Perhaps more elegant was Samuel Morse when sending the first message over the telegraph in what would be known as Morse Code. Morse’s first words were: What hath God wrought?

ARPNET, the precursor to what became the internet, sent its first message between two computers, from one at UCLA to another at Stanford, on Oct 29, 1969. The initial message was the word LOGIN but after the letters L-O were entered, the system crashed. The literal first message sent over the internet was L-O. About an hour later, the code was repaired and a second attempt was made at sending the word LOGIN. If you take the first L-O that was sent, and then the L of the second attempt…the first three letters sent across the internet were L-O-L. Seriously. They likely had no idea how prophetic they were being.

First words are important.

Do you know what the first words uttered in Scripture after the birth of Christ were?

Let’s set the scene for the birth. You have Joseph and Mary. They are betrothed. This means they are engaged but not yet married. Now in this time, betrothal was more formal than what we call engagement, but it was still short of marriage. In some ways they were legally bound together, but the full relationship had not yet been formalized. And as such, sexual relations were not permitted in betrothal. If the woman was not a virgin on the wedding night, then it was scandalous. So much so that the woman could be stoned to death for it. Matthew’s account tells us that when Joseph found out that his betrothed, Mary, was with child before they had come together, that he decided to divorce her quietly. He didn’t want her subject to the shame of a messy public divorce, yet he was also afraid of that people could do the math and figure out that this child was born less than 9 months after their planned wedding.

Joseph was afraid, but he knew there was something special about this child. An angel came to Joseph and made some amazing promises about what was going to happen. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. This child will be the fulfillment of prophecy.

Now if Joseph was frightened, what do you think Mary felt? She was pregnant. She knew she had done nothing wrong, but she also knew what everyone else would think. An angel had come to her and made the same promises as to Joseph. What wonderful things, but how frightening it must have been. Angelic visitors. Virgins giving birth. The Son of God. It had to be overwhelming and frightening. Luke tells us that Mary was greatly troubled at the saying.

Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. This child will be the fulfillment of all of God’s great promises.

So then the time came. Mary was great with child and ready to give birth. And then Caesar declared that a census was to be taken. And so everyone had to go to their town.

See, when the angel addressed Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, he calls him “Son of David.” Joseph was a descendant of David, so he had to go to David’s city, which is Bethlehem, to be registered. They traveled the 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It would have been a hard trip. Pregnant woman. Rough terrain. She was likely young and probably in pretty good shape. But it was still 70 miles on foot for three days or so. It might be interesting to note that the Scripture gives us zero indication that Mary rode on a donkey to Bethlehem. They most likely traveled on foot. They arrive in Bethlehem and they have no great options for housing. Usually people stayed with family, but if everyone is coming in for the census…then it would be hard to find family with room. Inns and lodges were few, and not ideal when there was room. There was nothing like a Hampton Inn or even a Motel 6. Inns were usually nothing more than an extra room in a family’s house. But with all the visitors in town, there wasn’t room there either. Again, the Gospels tell us nothing of where they actually did stay except there was a manger. It could have been in a barn, a shed off of someone’s house, or even just out in the open. So Mary on donkey-back, the Innkeeper, and the stable are all just conjecture. Sorry to mess up your Nativity Set.

It was a Strange city. Nothing familiar. No help. No good shelter. Strange prophecies. Angelic visitors. Baby coming. What would you do? What would you be thinking about?

At that same time, there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds were a rough lot. Shepherding was hard work. They rarely were watching their own sheep. Often, they were tending the flocks of wealthier men. And they were accountable to those wealthy men if something happened to the sheep. Wild animal attacks, bandits, and the stupidity of sheep made for a hard job. These men were out, tending the flock, when suddenly an angel appears.

What happens whenever angels appear in the Bible? Their appearance is usually described as awesome. Now, this isn’t like the flippant manner we use the word awesome. We use awesome to describe the most mundane things. I find a close parking space. Awesome. I get the toy in my box of cereal. Awesome. I’m flipping through the channels and stumble upon a show I like. Awesome. These are not really things that fill us with awe. Angels are awesome. They would fill you with awe. You would be at a loss for words. You would stammer. You would shake. You would back away. You would cover your eyes. An angel appears to these shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone around them. The text simply says, they were filled with fear.

We have a man with his betrothed, who is pregnant, a source of scandal. We have a virgin pregnant, ready to give birth. They are in an unfamiliar city, without lodging, without help, without support and there a baby is coming. There are shepherds, blue-collars workers out in the field, minding their own business when the heavens open up and they are confronted with the awe of an angel of the Lord. What unites all these people? What do they all have in common? Fear. Joseph was afraid. Mary was afraid. The shepherds were afraid. What was God doing in their lives? What was going to happen? What’s going on? They were all filled with great fear.

And then these words come from heaven. The first words of Christmas. The angel speaks, and they are the first recorded words we have after the birth of Christ. The very first words sent from heaven to man after the advent of the Son of God. The fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of all the promises of God, the fulfillment of God’s great plan of redemption and recreation has been born in Bethlehem. And the first words that come from heaven are these, “Fear not.”

FEAR NOT.

There are so many things we could fear. Terrorism. Cancer. Financial Collapse. Bullying. College Tuition. Child Abuse. Alzheimer’s. War. Assault. Car Accidents. Blindness. Divorce. Loss of Job. Court Judgments. This world can be hard and harsh and cruel and cold. It seems like everything can go sideways in a thousand different ways. In the face of all these fears, a word comes from heaven. The first word. The first word comes from heaven and it says, “Fear not.” Fear not, for unto to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Yes, there are frightening and fearful things in this life. But there is a God who is both the great and awesome Creator of all things and also the intimate and personal Immanuel. He is the God who is with us. In the midst of the frightening circumstances of our lives, God enters into them. And in coming to us, he draws us to himself and says, “Believe in me. You have fear. But I will give hope. You have anxiety. But I will give peace. You have stress. But I will give rest. Fear not.”

Joseph and Mary and the Shepherds all had tremendous reasons to fear. But remarkably, they heard the word from God, “Fear not” and they believed. Fear not because God is working a plan of redemption through this child who is born. Fear non, believe in him and you will be saved. Fear not, ultimately, there is nothing to fear. The first words of heaven after the birth of Christ are “Fear not.” Fear not, there’s nothing to worry about because he has come.

Wellness Policy for CPC Children’s Ministry

Children must be symptom free from the following illness without medication for 24 hours before entering the classroom:

  • Fever of 100 or higher
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Nasal drainage that is green or yellow
  • Eye/ear infection
  • Undiagnosed sore throat
  • Deep or congested coughing
  • Lice

If a child develops any of these symptoms while in class, the parent will be asked to pick up their child.

This policy is for the protection of nursery workers and other children in the nursery.

Parents of children with allergies must inform teachers and discuss with them the appropriate steps to take in the event of an allergic reaction.

The Apostles’ Creed: Descended into Hell

The Apostles’ Creed was often said in the small United Methodist Church in which I grew up. I am very thankful that the Creed was something I never had to memorize because it had always just been there. In my head and in my heart, from before I could remember, this statement of faith was part of me. Even in a family where faith was rarely front and center or even talked about, these foundational beliefs took root.

Because this Creed was so ingrained in my mind, it struck me as odd when I first attended First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga. They too publicly affirmed the Apostles Creed, but they used a phrase that I had never heard in my old Methodist Church, “He descended into hell…” “Wait. What was that? Is that right? It doesn’t sound right.” For a long time, when the Creed was affirmed at First Presbyterian, I just went silent during that phrase and picked back up with “The third day he rose again from the dead.”

There is no small amount of confusion about this phrase in the Creed. Some churches, like my Methodist one, just leave it out. Others use an asterisk or a footnote to explain it. Some just go with it. But what does it mean and why is it there? One of the best explanations of this phrase is found in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.16.8-12). Calvin explains the background and meaning of the phrase while also defending it against some misunderstandings and errors.

This phrase was not included in the earliest editions of the Apostles’ Creed. And yet, Calvin argues that it deserves a place because “it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter.”[1] Some argued that the word “hell” was synonymous with the grave. If understood this way, then the phrase is redundant. This explains why some just remove it. Others, principally Roman Catholic theologians (e.g., Aquinas, Summa Theol. III.lii.5, and Catechism of the Council of Trent, sec. 49), have a different interpretation. For them Christ descended to hell or Limbo to the redeem the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Often 1 Peter 3:19 is cited in favor of this interpretation. But this interpretation misunderstands what is meant by “spirits,” incorrectly translates “prison” as “watchtower,” and wrongly sees redemption occurring in the Old Testament in a different manner than in the New Testament.

The phrase is best understood to mean that Christ underwent not only a bodily death but experienced the fullness of God’s wrath in order to appease and satisfy His justice. Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah taking on himself the Christian’s earned spot in hell. Christ took the place of the condemned and suffered their just punishment, except “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). This phrase tells us that Christ “paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.”[2] The descent into hell highlights that Christ was forsaken by the Father (Ps 22:1, 2; Matt 27:46). R. C. Sproul adds that Jesus “accomplished the active obedience and punitive suffering necessary to secure redemption for all who believe and confess. All was finished by Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Israel.”[3]

So what is the cash value of this phrase? What benefit or advantage does this doctrine provide the believer in Jesus Christ? First, it reveals to us the magnitude and seriousness of our sin. Consider the depths to which Christ had to suffer on account of our sins. If we grasp the severity of Christ’s sufferings, then perhaps we will not so flippantly enter into sin. Second, it ought to provide great comfort to the Christian. No punishment is reserved for you because Christ has fully drained the cup of God’s wrath on your behalf. No pain of hell awaits you because Christ has already entered the strongman’s house, subdued him, and plundered his goods (Lk 11:21, 22). Thirdly, we can have patience to wait upon the Lord. Christ was delivered from the pain and agony of death. You will be delivered from your trials and ultimately, from death as well. Instead of a phrase that creates confusion, we ought to affirm that Christ descended into hell on our behalf to win for us so great a salvation.

[1] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 2.16.8.

[2] Ibid, 2.16.10.

[3] R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 126.