J. Gordon Duncan

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Sneak Peak at the Sovereign King Love Feast Photos

More photos coming tomorrow…

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

How to Celebrate and Contemplate This Christmas Season

Have you ever experienced something that moved you to both quiet contemplation and boisterous celebration? I think those moments are pretty rare, but when they happen, they are pretty special. These are those moments that have depth thus requiring great thought and they also have an overwhelming sense of jubilation that require you to tell everyone in the world about it.

o The birth of a child is like that. You are overwhelmed with the intensity of the moment while also wanting to call everyone you know.
o Graduating from High School or College can be like that. Your hard work has paid dividends, but now you have to get a job or grow up a bit.
o Getting married should also take on those same qualities. This other person actually wants to spend their life with you, but now you have to love them and no one else forever.

The exuberant jubilation is easy. We learned how to jump up and down for joy starting all the way back with games of kickball or even checkers. But learning to be quiet and contemplate is not generally most people’s strong point. Because of that, we often do not process or grow in light of meaningful experiences. We often just don’t know what to do with them.

Make it a complex experience that requires both joy and deep thought, and we might just jump up and down and leave the deep thought for someone else.

Well, this week, we are going to look at the birth of Jesus, and that my friends, requires both celebration and contemplation. We need to do the hard work of both honestly celebrating while also mining the depths of riches that are in this experience. So as we approach the scriptures this week, let’s ask this big picture question:

Big Picture Question: How is the Advent of Jesus both a treasure to be pondered and a glory to be proclaimed?

Luke 2:8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

I love the setting of the proclamation of Jesus’ birth. Jesus himself speaks to it later on his ministry when He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; to set free the downtrodden to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus arrived to proclaim the favor of God to the poor. Now plenty of ink has been spilled about who the poor is. Is it spiritually or physically poor? Well, Jesus let’s us know in His Sermon on the Mount. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God. But we also learn from the focus of Jesus’ ministry that He spent great deal of time with the physically poor. Look at who Jesus spent time with: prostitutes, lepers, the maimed and the blind – absolutely destitute and poor in Jesus’ day and age. So it is both. Jesus came to proclaim the good news to the physically and spiritually poor. What do the physically and the spiritually poor have in common? Humility which is the essential element in relating to Jesus Christ.

So, in light of this, the first message of Jesus was delivered to poor, humble shepherds. They were a despised group of people (no one likes to hang out with smelly people). Their occupation made it difficult for them to observe the law (no one wants to hang out with people who will make them ceremonially unclean). They were considered distrustful and not allowed to give testimony in court (no one wants to hang out with traveling nomads who will still your hubcaps).

So these outcasts worked in shifts. They kept watch meaning someone had to stay up and watch the sheep, so they would do that taking turns. And the language implies that suddenly, in the midst of that incredibly boring task in the middle of the night, an angel appeared to them and they were filled with fear. At this point and time, it’s hard not to think of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. The angel makes several declarations. The angel says…“I bring you good news” – I bring you a joyful gospel for all people. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord” Now in the Greek there is no article before Savior so it the announcement has much more punch in the original language. It reads “Born today in the city of David, Savior who is Messiah, the Lord.” The Gospel is that Savior has come.

Now, let’s stop for a second and think about these events in terms of celebration and contemplation.

I imagine many of you have celebrated that Jesus, Savior has come. I hope the singing we did a few minutes ago was part of that. And if you claim the name of Christ as your Savior, you have celebrated His birth in some way. However, have you ever contemplated it?

• Have you sat in silence and considered what it means that the Savior has come?
• Have you sat in silence and considered what it means that the Kingdom of Heaven is here and advancing against the kingdoms of this world because Jesus has arrived?
• This moment merits such contemplation and you would be better off the more you sat and considered these things.

We often miss out on so much because we fail to properly contemplate what God is doing. For example, I remember graduating from ECU with such joy. The long road of living off of canned biscuits and generic canned soup for dinner had come to an end. I teared up and enjoyed the celebratory hugs and gifts from my family. But where I succeeded in celebration, I failed at contemplation. I did not contemplate in any real depth what had just happened…at least not in the way the circumstance merited celebration. Because of that, within 48 hours of getting my diploma, I was home for the holidays, confused wondering what to do next. In fact, I was nearly depressed. I thought was an abject failure less than two sunrises from walking the platform and receiving my diploma. Graduation required both: celebration and contemplation, and I had skipped one and indulged the other, and I was the worse for it.

This is often the case for many of us when we fail to grasp the large intersections of our lives. We need helpful questions to guide us when we struggle with discouragement and disillusionment is. Let me give you a few questions to ask yourself while your enduring difficult or in depth times.

• Have I properly contemplated what the work of Christ means in my life?
• Am I viewing this circumstance purely from my own benefit?
• Do I see larger purposes even in the minutiae for my life?
• Do I just celebrate and celebrate but skip out on the hard work of contemplation?

Maybe we would all be a bit healthier if did both singing for joy and sitting and thinking. Look at verse 12.

12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

The sign that Savior has come will not be triumphant or accompanied by a press release and they won’t be a cute photo session for the newborn king. He’s not going to have the photogenic black and white pictures taken. He’s not going to be dressed up like a bumble bee for an Anne Geddes coffee table book. The sign that the Savior has come will be His humble birth, His lying in a manger. And about the time the shepherds get used to one angel speaking to them, a multitude of them appears.

They sang “Glory to God in the highest”

Now why is this their song? Why should God be glorified in the absolute highest sense now moreso than any other time? Well the reason glory should be given to God in the highest sense is because God is so perfect and so powerful that He could become a man and still be God. Theologically, this is called the incarnation. Emmanuel. God with us.

Humans were created in the image of God so we bear some resemblance to God yet because of sin that resemblance is scarred. Our humanity, our life, has honor because of the dignity conferred on it by bearing God’s image but our sinfulness dishonors that dignity. And now Jesus has arrived fully God and fully man fully the image of God. And that deserves praise. The angels go on to declare, “On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” This is different than what we have often heard which goes “peace on earth, good will towards men” This is a more faithful rendering of the Greek. This verse could also be read “peace on those with whom he shows his grace” or even “peace on those whom he has sovereignly chosen”

The central idea here is this. Yes, there is a central benefit to the entire world that Jesus, God with us. Jesus walked among so many and healed and fed thousands, yet, not all of them believed or proclaimed faith in Him. Those who did found Him a rest for their weary soul. Those who didn’t found in Him their judge. Both Isaiah 28:16 and Roman 9:33 say this, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Folks, take a moment to contemplate and celebrate those two truths. Peace on earth and good will turns those upon whom Jesus finds favor. Rejoice and celebrate. A stone upon which to stumble and a rock of offensiveness to any who do not cast their cares up on Him. Pray and contemplate.

Who is Jesus to you? Is He the Savior upon whom you cast your every care and you dwell with Him without shame? Or is Jesus the stumbling block who is a rock offense to you? We find who He was to the shepherds in verse 15.

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

Vs 15 implies that they went to see Jesus immediately – they immediately obeyed. “Let us go over to” implies that there was a decent distance that had to be covered. They immediately went and told Mary and Joseph what the angels told them. The proper response to hearing the savior has come is to go be with him. The shepherds got it. They had celebrated with the angels and could have just sat around and celebrated the fact that that heavenly angels had visited lowly sheep herders. But they got it. They knew, far better than we do most of the time, what the experienced merited. They knew that their celebration would fall short if it was just surface level exuberance. They knew that true celebration deserves proper contemplation and going to see this baby promised, this baby who would provide a path by which they would be forgiven of their sins, they knew they could better celebrate if they considered in depth what God was doing. So they went to sit and contemplate and consider this wonderful Savior.

Think about for a minute. Think about what we celebrate. If you get a raise, or if you get to go on vacation or if UNC wins or Duke wins or your child’s soccer team wins if your favorite sports teams wins, we jump up and down, men hug men, maybe even a few tears are shed. Now, there is no deep contemplation needed for the Yankees winning the Super Bowl or for any other win for that matter. The most contemplation that happens there is how to avoid the burning cars and riots in downtown New York. Aside from bragging rights, there is nothing to contemplate. The same goes for defeating someone on Modern Warfare 2 or World of Warcraft. Jump up and down, beat your chest, brag to your friends online. I imagine the only contemplation appropriate for a video game win is asking yourself if you are wasting your time online.

But when you do have appropriate moments, do you celebrate and contemplate?

• When your child was born, how much time in prayer did you spend?
• If you are getting ready to graduate, how much time in prayer did you spend?
• If you are nominated for an elder, how much time in fearful thought and prayer have you spent?

We short change our selves and do disservice to our gracious God who orders extraordinary events when all we do is jump and down. Look at who really gets it. Look at verse 18.

18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Mary, who just celebrated the birth of Jesus, is now greeted by shepherds who tell her that angels have visited them and have declared her newborn son the Savior of the world. What does she do? She gets it. She treasures these things and ponders them in her heart. Can you imagine the full story? Mary has more than likely been mocked and ostracized for what the world thought was getting knocked up. Angels have appeared to both Mary and Joseph telling them that this baby was the savior of the world. Now shepherds, complete strangers come and tell them the same thing. This baby is the savior we have longed for. Not only is what is being said amazing, but it is also amazing that God is speaking again after 400 years of silence. Remember God has been silent since the book of Nehemiah and now He is speaking to so many people.

And Mary ponders? This great woman of faith (who is more than likely a 14 year old illiterate girl) is having every promise of God affirmed to her. She knows she is a virgin. She knows that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem and now she has shepherds telling her the same things that Gabriel told her. In a motherly way, she probably wants everyone to back off her child. In a human way, she wonders how this child might be her savior. So she treasures and ponders appropriately. She doesn’t waste this incredible experience by jumping up and down and thinking that posting a couple of pictures on facebook is celebration. She ponders just what God might be doing in this incredible moment.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The shepherds didn’t see that Joseph and Mary were poor or in a lowly estate and freak out. They didn’t turn away from the promised savior because He was meek and lowly and breastfeeding. In fact their faith was strengthened because everything was as the angel said it would be. And oh, by the way, they can relate to a meek and lowly savior. So after celebrating and contemplating the birth of their Savior, they acted appropriately. They declared to all that would hear that Savior had come. They went home glorifying and praising God all that they had seen and experienced.

So practically, how do we do this? How do we both contemplate and celebrate what God has done? I think a good picture of this for us is found in I Peter. First Peter recommends to all of us that we properly contemplate what Jesus has done.

13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Simply, if you want to properly celebrate the work of Christ, then be sober minded and set your hope fully on the grace of Jesus brought by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The revelation of Christ is His advent, His arrival, to us in our time of need in living a life of righteousness and dying a death for sin. You are to prepare you mind for action just as an athlete prepares. You are to be sober minded and set your hope on the only place that you have hope: the grace of Jesus Christ. Meditate on the fact that Jesus forgives and gives you His goodness. Then and only then, we can properly celebrate.

And how do we do that? Verse 14 says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions you had before you knew Jesus. Instead, live a life of holiness and obedience. Since God is holy, you are to be holy. Your passion for Jesus Christ should affect every single aspect of your life and it will if you properly pray and contemplate what Jesus has done. You’ll begin to ask questions like:

• How am I treating children, poor people, minorities, the last, the lost, the least, my enemies?
• Am I loving my neighbor and creating opportunities to spend time with them?
• Am I treating my body in a way that reflects a concern and care for what God has created?
• Am I pursuing entertainment or sports in a way that reaffirms the values of Christ?
• In my workplace: Am I we serving the wrong master? Do I serve money rather than God and am I pursuing money in a Godly fashion?

We must imagine that God is using ordinary, dirty spaces as extraordinary sacred places for the fame of Christ to be proclaimed. We must be faithful stewards in both celebration and contemplation of every event of our lives but especially the profound ones where we know God is moving among us. Then we can be as I Peter commands and as the Shepherds and Mary demonstrated, we can be obedient children who live holy lives as our Father in heaven is holy.

Final note: This holiday season, before you open a single present and start the craziness of Christmas morning, stop and contemplate what God is doing. Ask Him to show you how you might be more faithful and holy. Ask Him to give you heart of thankfulness that properly ponders and celebrates the great work of Jesus Christ.

This article also appears at the Raleigh Examiner. Read it there and help me earn a penny.

December 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 6 Comments