Joy to the World !
"I want to make a confession." That was the first thing Sally said to me after we introduced ourselves. Sally was in her mid 20's. The hospital chaplain had asked me to see Sally because she wanted to see a minister of her own faith.
"I've done some really terrible things, things that deserves the worst punishment. I've committed wrongs that can never be made right. I’ve done things that can’t be forgiven," she said softly but firmly.
She continued saying; "I've destroyed my body. God gave it to me. I've abused it and here I am today." She went on detailing her sins, as if she were a prosecuting attorney. She described some sexual habits and detailed a story of drug abuse and even an attempt to end her own life through a drug overdose. She believed that she deserved what she was getting and that her wayward life was the reason she would lose an eye from surgery for a brain tumour.
"If I had believed in God more, gone to church more, and followed the advice of my Sunday School teachers, I wouldn't have got into this mess. I got all tangled up in all kinds of wrong things and I couldn't get out of them. I know I was destroying myself. My problems are all my fault."
Sally associated her present condition with previous sins. There was no doubt that her lifestyle had contributed to her ill health, but there was still an even deeper pain. She felt that she had no hope. She openly talked about her wayward life and confessed her sin, but still felt that she had no hope in the face of continued suffering because of the tumour and even in the face of death.
Guilt is something we all experience at some time or other. We hurt someone with unkind words and we feel bad about what was said. We are caught doing something we shouldn’t and we feel guilty about what we were doing. The husband who has cheated his wife knows he has alienated himself from his wife's love, care and understanding. He feels guilty. If he listens to his guilt feelings there is a chance to repair some of the damage. If he ignores his guilt feelings only tragedy can result.
Guilt can be a terrible thing. Doctors and psychiatrists are aware that guilt, and the upset it causes in our lives, is the reason that so many people fill their waiting rooms. Guilt is that kind of feeling that makes us feel bad about the way our lives are going. We want to do something about it but often our pride prevents us from doing anything as well as the embarrassment that our wrongdoing causes us.
The management of a posh hotel reported that it has been receiving items that had been stolen over the years. So far they have received 85 silver spoons, 1 oyster fork, a silver sugar bowl, 2 silver candlesticks, and 243 towels. Those returning the objects to the hotel presumably have relieved guilt-troubled consciences. Some of those guilt feelings go back a long way. One person returned four 65-year-old spoons dating back to the early days of the hotel. A woman returned a 49-year-old sugar bowl that she said had been taken by her mother. Here was the realisation that ‘borrowing’ or taking a souvenir was actually theft and many people had pangs of conscience about stealing such valuable items. Even after a long period of time unresolved guilt feelings can still haunt a person.
A man once told me the details of a conflict that he had with a fellow parishioner. Now, after many years, that unresolved conflict continued to follow him and, I dare say, will continue to do so until it can be resolved in some way. You see, when something like this happens, our guilt tells us that not only have we done something this is wrong, but it points out that something has happened to our relationship with the other person. The feeling of guilt warns us that something needs to be repaired and that we need to take steps in rectifying the situation.
A classic case in point is the story of King David. David had put the husband of the beautiful woman who lived next in the front lines of the battle. He was killed and this made way for David to take the beautiful Bathsheba as his wife. Of course, it was his right as a king to have any woman he desired as his wife, so his conscience kept on telling him.
Then one day Nathan the prophet came in for an audience, asking for the king's judgement, he told the parable of the 2 men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had great flocks and herds. The poor man had nothing but one little lamb, the family pet. When a traveller came to visit the rich man; instead of taking one of his own sheep for a feast; he killed the only lamb of the poor man. David became angry at the rich man for doing such a cruel and heartless thing. David could clearly by see the rich man’s guilt and it was only when Nathan said, "You are that man" did David realise his own guilt and that there was repair work needing to be done. He confesses, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan immediately replies saying, "The Lord forgives you" (2 Samuel 11-12:15).
Luke 3:1-18 tells how John the Baptist blasted away at the crowds. He was a straight-to-the-point kind of preacher, exposing the sin in his hearers’ lives. They may be the people whom God had chosen, but they will not escape the punishment that comes as a result of sin. He preached, "Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send?... And don’t start saying among yourselves that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham!
In contrast to the rough and abrasive words of John the Baptist as he calls his listeners a "brood of vipers" is the Old Testament reading from Zephaniah 3:14-17 where he calls God’s people to rejoice, and sing, and shout on the tops of their voices. He says, "There is no reason now to be afraid." "Don’t let your hands hang limp" in guilt and discouragement. Sing and shout aloud for joy, people of Israel! Rejoice with all your heart, Jerusalem! St Paul joins in with a similar tone, "May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord, I say it again: rejoice!" (Phil 4:4) On the one hand we have the stern preaching of John the Baptist and on the other a call for "rejoicing with all your heart"?
During the Advent season we can’t bypass John the Baptist and his call for repentance, but neither can we bypass the joy that comes from knowing the God who saves. Along with repentance there is the good news that we are forgiven. This good news of forgiveness is so important as we prepare for the day when Christ will come again. On that last day we can be sure of eternal life because we are forgiven. We may be a sinful brood of vipers but we are also God’s chosen and forgiven people. And so we have the call to shout and sing.
Zephaniah was speaking to people who had come to realise their guilt and sin while in exile from their homeland. And the prophet declares to them that their sin has been forgiven, their guilt taken away and they have been made as white and clean as new snow.
As long as we walk blameless - as long as we keep on thinking, "There’s nothing wrong with me", as long as we try to ignore what kind of people we really are, we will never really see who it is that is lying in the manger. We will never see what that baby has done for all of us; we will never see the love of God that sent his only Son to die for our sake. If we want to experience the real joy of Christmas then we must first repent, recognise our sinfulness, to let go of it and turn away from it.
Jesus told the story of the lad who was sitting in a pigsty thinking how stupid he had been to leave the warmth and security of his father’s home. He repented. He went back home and his first words were, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." His father welcomed him with open arms. And likewise our heavenly Father welcomes us home and forgives all of our sin because of Jesus.
It is true we can't really know and appreciate what God has done for us in Bethlehem unless we taste the bitter castor oil of the Baptist. He calls us to account, measuring our lives, not by what nine out of ten people think, but by what God Almighty commands. He reminds that there is no getting away from the fact that we are sinners and that without help from God we would be damned forever. But he also points out that there is good news. The Messiah is coming who "will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
Before we rush headlong into Christmas joy, let's take a moment to stumble over abrasive, rough, straight talking John the Baptist. Joy, real joy, gospel-evoked joy, only comes because we can happily put all of our sin behind us. We know that at Christmas God's love sent to us a Saviour who would cancel our debt of sin totally and completely. There in the manger is a child, a very ordinary looking, plain and simple child, but the infant son saves us from the punishment we deserve - he died on a cross for our forgiveness. Joy, not a superficial Christmas merriment, real joy has come to the world. We sing at this time of the year, "Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing."
And so we have this call to rejoice and shout aloud. We may be sinners but we have a Saviour. And that is just what we are about to celebrate in a week's time. Jesus was born in Bethlehem for us and because of our sin, so
"Sing and shout aloud for joy! Rejoice with all your heart! .... The Lord will take delight in you, and in his love he will give you new life."
Encounters with Jesus - Timothy Keller
Pastor Vince Gerhardy Blog
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament - Christopher J. H. Wright
Jesus Through the Old Testament : Transform Your Bible Understanding - Graeme Goldsworthy
Finding Christ In The Old Testament : A Study in Pre-existence and Prophecy - Worldwide Word
The God of the Old Testament : Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture - R. W. L. Moberly