Monday, December 06, 2010

Preaching in the Advent Season

(cross-posted at capsministry.com)

When it comes to Christmas, some preachers are faced with one or more dilemmas:

  • Should I temporarily step away from the book I am preaching through to preach a special Christmas message or series of messages throughout December?
  • What texts and topics shall I cover?
  • How can I present the old, old story without coming across in a stale way? How do I stay fresh with texts and topics I feel I have exhausted?

Some preachers will not deviate from their normal preaching, but will continue through the book or series they are working through. Some of these will probably recognize the season somewhere in the service. Others will continue their normal preaching rotation, but may use the Christmas story as an illustration of the text. If they are preaching on humility, they may point to how Christ’s first coming provides a perfect example of humility.

Others, however, will devote entire messages to the themes of Christmas. If this is your preference, here are some ideas that may help you present fresh, helpful, Biblical messages for the Advent season, whether you are a pastor or are filling in this month.

Expository Series

  • Preaching through a portion of a book – the most obvious idea here would be to preach through Matthew 1 & 2 or Luke 1 & 2. One year, I had the opportunity to fill in at a church in December and preached consecutive messages from Matthew 1:1-17, 1:18-25, 2:1-18, and finished with 28:18-20 (connecting the coming of the King to His marching orders in the Great Commission).
  • Preaching through selected passages – one could take a theme and preach expository messages from key passages related to it, for example: “Christmas prophecies made and fulfilled” or “Christmas with the patriarchs & prophets.”
  • Preaching stand-alone messages – one could select various passages to preach messages that are not part of a series, except that they share the Christmas theme (such as Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12:1-3, Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:1-9, Micah 5:2, Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2, John 1:14, Galatians 4:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1, etc.).

Topical Series

  • Biographical studies – perhaps “the characters of Christmas”; could focus on the significance of the individual in the larger story and lessons we can learn (positive & negative) from individuals such as: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi, scribes, King Herod, Elizabeth, Zacharias, John the Baptist, Simeon, Anna, the angel Gabriel, Caesar Augustus (well, maybe not a whole message on him, since he is just mentioned in passing… but there could be some great contrasts between him and the true Ruler), God the Father, God the Holy Spirit and of course, Jesus.
  • Geographical theme - trace the events from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Calvary or something similar.
  • Christmas carols - take the song title as the sermon title, give the background to the song in the introduction and the preach on the main text or truth the song declares (make sure it does teach truth — see the next suggestion).
  • Christmas: fact or fiction? or “the myths of Christmas” – could debunk common errors (Really a “silent” night? Is it true that “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes?” Did the shepherds look up and see a star? Did the wise men visit Jesus immediately after the shepherds?) and focus on giving an accurate account, encouraging the people that it is necessary to know what God’s Word actually says for ourselves.
  • The scandal of Christmas – man finds fiancĂ©e pregnant before marriage! king born in a cow trough! etc. — there is plenty of shocking material in the Christmas story that points to the glory of God in using the lowly and unexpected to bring His plan to pass.
  • The wonder of Christmas – could deal with all the wondering and marveling that the people in the narratives do (Luke 2:18, 33) and how we ought to be far more amazed at what God has done than we are.
  • The necessity of Christmas – we don’t need a lot of the stuff we have or get, but we desperately needed for Jesus to come; one could preach a series on our accountability to God our Creator, the punishment our sin deserved, how Christ was qualified to be our sacrifice, and what He accomplished in His life and death

There are many ways to preach helpful, biblical messages for the Advent season. And they can be intermingled as well (for example, preaching a biographical message each year and using the rest of the Sundays for an expository series). But none of them will be as helpful and as biblical as they should be unless you also remember to do the following:

  • Connect passage to its context and main point, even if you’re focusing on a minor point.
  • Locate the Christmas story in the storyline of the Bible – particularly in how it is fulfilling God’s promises to bring salvation to sinful mankind.
  • Be sure to bring out who Jesus is, and the wonder of the incarnation – God taking on flesh, fully God and fully man (but perfect)it is also good to connect His humble birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, exalted title, and His future glorious return.
  • Explain why Jesus needed to come – although you could preach a whole message on this topic (one of the suggestions above), it needs to be present in some way any time we preach, if we are to be “gospel” preachers who preach the gospel. And the whole reason Christmas should be so glorious is that it is an announcement of the gospel: “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10).

The Unashamed Workman blog also has some suggestions for dealing with the “Challenges of Christmas Preaching” here.

Two related articles:

"An Ambivalent Hallmark Calendar Guy" by Dr. Michael Lawrence

"100 Failed Human Predictions" by Dr. David Murray

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Christmas through the eyes of... Gabriel (Reflection #2)

GABRIEL

Summary of Biblical Testimony

The Bible contains four direct references to Gabriel - two in the Old Testament book of Daniel (8:16, 9:21), and two in the New Testament book of Luke (1:19, 26). The only other angel in God's service who is named is Michael (Daniel 10:13, 21; Jude 1:9; Revelation 12:7).

We know that Gabriel appeared to at least three individuals to communicate and clarify God's message for them. Taking the form of a man (Daniel 8:15), he appeared to Daniel to explain prophecy and even to indicate when the Messiah, God's anointed, promised Savior would first come (Daniel 8:16ff., 9:21ff.). He appeared in the temple to the elderly Zacharias to announce the conception, birth, and ministry of John the Baptist, who would prepare people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1:19). Gabriel describes himself as "standing in the presence of God" and as being sent to give good news to Zacharias (Luke 1:19). God sent Gabriel to Nazareth to announce to Mary that God had favored her: the Holy Ghost would come upon her and a son would be conceived - Jesus, who would receive the throne of his ancestor David (Luke 1:26ff.). He left Mary after she verbally consented to the prophecy (Luke 1:38). In all three instances, Gabriel dealt with the glory of God in accomplishing what was humanly impossible - predicting in great detail the rise and fall of future kingdoms and the timing of Messiah's coming; announcing God's choice to give barren Elisabeth a child in her old age; and the virgin birth of the Son of God, who would reign forever.

It is possible that Gabriel appears in other places, but it is conjecture without the actual mention of his name. However, the usage of "an angel of the Lord" and "the angel of the Lord" seems to be interchangeable in these New Testament passages ("an angel of the Lord" in Luke 1:11 is later identified with Gabriel in 1:26), and it is possible that Gabriel was the one who appeared to Joseph in a dream (or dreams) in Matthew 1 & 2, and that he was the one leading the heavenly host in their glorious announcement in Luke 2.

Lessons from His Character

Gabriel stood in the presence of God. He did not receive what he shared second-hand, but actually stood before the Lord. While we are not part of the angelic host as Gabriel was, if we have repented of our sin and trusted Christ, we can stand before Him through the presence of His Holy Spirit, by virtue of being united to Christ, as we draw near to hear His voice in the Bible and commune with Him in prayer.

Gabriel was sent. He was conscious of being commissioned to go, obey God, and minister in the ways that he did. (The word "angel" is derived from has the connotations of being a messenger - one who is sent.) It may be that the sending would not have happened without the standing in God's presence. God calls people to different avenues of service, but if we know Him and stand before Him, we will know that He has called us to obey Him and serve in particular areas, especially the next two points.

Gabriel communicated God's Word. As he explained and communicated prophecy, he was simply passing on what God wanted Daniel to know. As He told Zacharias and Mary how God had blessed them and what He would do for them and through their sons, He was simply communicating God's Word. As people with a message, God sends Christians to communicate God's Word, not our own opinions, but what the Most High God says.

Gabriel announced the gospel. His focus was on the preparation for and coming of Jesus. Christians also ought to see the announcing the good news of Christ as their most glorious privilege in serving God. We must announce, from the Scriptures, that Christ, the Son of the Most High God, has come, and fulfilled the promise of God. He offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn away from their rebellion and trust Him who is King forever and ever. He will return one day to judge the living and the dead, and we must come to Him on His terms if we are to experience His salvation and are to eagerly anticipate meeting Him face to face.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Christmas through the eyes of... Joseph (Reflection #1)

I hope to spend some time reflecting on some of the people often associated with the first advent of Christ, and share some of those thoughts over the next few weeks. I hope to give the Biblical background of the people and think about their character and and consider them as models (or warnings) for us today.

JOSEPH

Summary of Biblical Testimony

The New Testament books of Matthew and Luke are our primary source of knowledge about Joseph. While Joseph is a relatively obscure individual, we do know some things about him - some stated and some implied.

In Matthew 1:1-16, we learn his genealogy, which is traced through Israel's patriarch Abraham and also through King David's line (particularly, the kings of Judah), as well as through Zerubbabel (governor of Israel after their return to the land) and then through some obscure individuals. (It is also interesting to note the "outlaws" and women who are named in the genealogy, but that is beyond the scope of this somewhat brief meditation.) The wording of Matthew 1:16 does not name Joseph as the father of Jesus, but as "the husband of Mary." Regarding Mary, it says "of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."

In introducing the birth of Christ, Matthew 1:18 begins by telling us that Mary was betrothed to Joseph (cf. Luke 1:27), which, in that day, was a commitment as binding as marriage, dissoluble only by divorce. Yet Mary was "found with child of the Holy Ghost" before they ever came together. Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as a "just man" (that is, a righteous man), who did not want to make Mary a public example, and so considered divorcing her privately. The angel of the Lord interrupted his thoughts, coming to him in a dream, telling him not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife. The child Mary bore was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. Joseph awoke, obeyed, and took Mary as his wife, but did not know her intimately until she had brought forth Jesus, her firstborn son.

Before Jesus' birth, Joseph took Mary, "being great with child," to Bethlehem (since he was descended from David) to be counted in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). When the shepherds went to see the newborn babe, Joseph was there with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:16).

God communicated with Joseph in another dream, probably when Jesus was about two years old, when King Herod was seeking to have him killed. In this dream, he was instructed to take Jesus and Mary and go to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Later, he was instructed in a dream to return to Israel (Matthew 2:19-20). He then dwelt in Nazareth, to fulfill prophecy (Matthew 2:21-23).

Joseph, along with Mary, was diligent in observing the Mosaic ordinances, including having Jesus circumcised (Luke 2:21). They went to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice for Mary's purification and to present Jesus (Luke 2:22). The offering of two birds instead of a lamb suggests that Joseph was not a rich man (Luke 2:24, cf. Leviticus 12:6-8).

Joseph "and his [Jesus'] mother" were in wonder by the things spoken about Jesus by Simeon (Luke 2:33).

Joseph is referred to as a "carpenter" (Matthew 13:55), which could also be translated as "woodworker" or "mason." John MacArthur writes: "It may have been that he did both. If he built houses he would need to be able to lay bricks and frame windows and doors too. At any rate, he worked hard for a living and probably was anything but rich." (The Miracle of Christmas, pg. 56)

Lessons from His Character

God certainly knew what He was doing when He chose Joseph to be the earthly guardian of Jesus, but it is also true that Joseph's calling was not an easy one. The difficulties that Joseph faced show us several things about his character.

His thinking about how to deal with Mary (before he knew the truth of the conception), showed Joseph to be a righteous and caring man. According to Deuteronomy 22:20-21, Mary could have been executed by stoning under the Mosaic law if she had lied about her virginity to her betrothed husband. The Roman rule over Israel would not allow this in Joseph's time, yet she could still be publicly shamed. He showed a graciousness and concern that went above and beyond what some would have done, in his inclination to divorce her privately.

Joseph was a man of reflection. He thought about the situation. He wasn't hasty. He considered the situation and the implications of a course of action. He was given a difficult set of circumstances to process, but he did not despair, but rather took his time to try to think through the matter.

Joseph was a listening man. When God communicated with Joseph, he paid attention. He listened to what he was told. He was open to more information and wisdom than he had on his own!

Joseph was a man of faith and obedience. He not only listened, but believed and obeyed. When God told him to do a particular thing, he did it. And he apparently obeyed without question or hesitation, as we never read of him raising objections to God's directions. (We never see, "But Lord, this is too embarrassing to be married to a woman with a child I didn't father; it's really a long trip to Egypt; etc.") Because of his faith and obedience, he married Mary, named her son Jesus, left for Egypt, and returned to Israel.

Joseph was a working man. Probably a carpenter by trade, he worked diligently to support his family.

From all indications, Joseph was a man of humility who listened to God, and thought of others, believing God and obeying Him. Although we do not know what became of Joseph in Jesus' later years, we have a picture of him in Jesus' early years that shows us a man worthy of respect and honor, with traits worthy of emulation.

Following these traits in and of themselves do not make us right with God. But if we have turned from our rebellion and put our trust in this Jesus, who was born to save His people from their sins, and therefore died on the cross in place of sinners and rose again, these character qualities will help us walk worthy of the good news of Jesus Christ.