Increasingly these days, an ecumenical wind is blowing. At Christmas time especially, we are hearing well-wishes like Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza, Happy Holidays, Merry X-mas, and the like. These differing sentiments, including Merry Christmas, which when uttered by the multitudes caught up in the spirit of the age, are not differing sentiments at all. These well wishes convey the sentiment of benign good will. These happy greetings are only different expressions of that one general sentiment. And herein lies the question for every Christian to consider, "What is the true meaning of Christmas and is our understanding of Christmas really any different from those well wishers caught up in the spirit of the age?"
So many of the holidays that we celebrate are simply cultural. At the same time, so many have been adopted by varying religious groups. Why do we not simply join in with the culture and transform the Christmas season to just that: a cultural season of good will and celebration? Why not just enjoy the things we do at Christmas time? Of course, the answer lies in the cultural mandate. As Christians, we are to transform the culture in which we find ourselves. One way to accomplish that task is to keep Christ at the center of Christmas. When we worship the Lord at Christmas time, particularly with the gathered body of believers, we take a break from the cultural emphasis, our family activities, and our festivities to say to ourselves, the world, and indeed the Lord, one more time, that we know why we are here. We know the true meaning of Christmas and our hope is in the Lord. Our confidence and our trust is in Christ! We live and move and have our being in Christ. We worship and we carry forward because we have hope, in Christ.
What tremendous hope is brought before us as we read the prophecy, "Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel." Let's meditate upon a few things here.
First, note that our hope is grounded in the Lord's action. "The Lord Himself" will do this thing. The Sovereign God did not forego this task of giving hope. He did not have to give us hope, yet, in His infinite mercy, He did so. "Long lay the world in sin and error pining," and then, that ray of hope shone forth, the birth of Christ, the Savior.
It is the Lord Himself who gives hope in the midst of despair. When the vicissitudes of life seem to crash in around us and when we feel as if we are going down for the last time, it is the Lord who shines in the darkness. He gives hope in the wake of failure. We are reminded that we are mere mortals and wretched sinners, and yet, the Lord reminds us of redeeming grace: that brilliant hope we have in Christ. It is God who gives us hope when we find ourselves in the shackles of sin. "Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I awoke, the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee!"
Of course, the Lord did not delegate the task of giving hope.Well may the prophets of old have said, "We will give hope to your people, O God, for we receive your message directly and can best convey it to the people." Well may the New Testament apostles have said, "We will give hope to your people, O God, for we are ministers of the New Covenant. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Well may the angels have said, "We will give hope to your people, O God, for we reside close to the throne and can be dispatched without delay." Yet this ray of hope, this sunburst of hope given by grace, was conceived, brought about, and delivered by God Himself.
Drawn near to the Lord, we pure of heart, no more in darkness must we grope,
A precious Word He did impart, a quickening beam of glorious hope.
Boldly we come before His throne, by virtue of His precious blood,
Clothed in His righteousness alone, freely redeemed by the Son of God.
Holding fast our hope we dare not waver, for He who promised is faithful still,
Yea, casting our care upon the Savior, secured and kept by His gracious will.
Brothers and sisters, we have a ground for our hope: the act of God. The Lord Himself has given it to us.
Second, as we come to understand that our hope is grounded in the Lord's action, we can then understand that our hope is born in the Lord's gift. "Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel." No doubt to many our talk of God's action and His giving of hope is nothing more than fantasy and nonsense. Yet, to those of us who have received His gift, to those of us who are being saved, this hope is a reality. "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18)."
This hope has been wrought in our hearts by virtue of God's gift to us. Indeed, it has been born in our hearts by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit of the Living God. We are in Christ and He is in us. The word "therefore" appears at the beginning of our text. In general, it refers to the fact that judgment should have and was indeed going to fall upon Israel. They had no hope. In the midst of this hopelessness, God, by grace, was giving hope. It was a gift. The gift was gracious. They did not deserve hope, nor do we. The gift was timely. They were out of hope, and so were we. "Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (Eph. 2:11-12)." The gift was powerful. The nation received hope, as have we. "But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13)
In 1939, the submarine Squalus sank in 243 feet of water. Twenty-six men perished while thirty-three were saved. Before the rescue was made, the only message that could be obtained from the foundered submarine was a terse, "Satisfactory, but cold." Thus, hope engulfed the wives and girlfriends of the crew members as they believed all of the men to be alive. It was this hope that gave them a bond. Yet, their common bond was shattered as a subsequent report revealed that twenty-six of the men were lost. Their bond was grounded in a false hope. Now, thirty-three women had a bond of true hope. They had a confident expectation that they would see their husbands again, while the remaining twenty-six had no hope at all. Those without Christ have no hope according to the Scriptures. But we have hope by virtue of what the Lord has given us. He has given us Himself. He has given us hope in so doing. God has made known to us "what is the riches of the glory of [the] mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in [us], the hope of glory (Col. 1:27)." Hope has been born in us.
[Part Two Tomorrow]
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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