"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things," says the LORD Almighty. (NIV)
Sometimes we need to step back and take stock of the obvious. Sometimes the most important things in the world pass before our eyes, and we don't see them. And so they don't have the impact on our thought and our emotions the way they could if we just stopped and pondered for a moment.
This is especially true of the significance of the birth of Jesus Christ. There are undisputed historical effects of the birth of Jesus Christ that are so huge and so important that we miss them—like we miss the sky or the air or the ground under our feet. We never give them a thought. But when you think about them, they're staggering.
Three Historical Effects of Jesus' Birth
Let me mention three. The reason I begin this way is to show you that the impact of Jesus Christ on this world has been so immense that even before we turn to the Bible, we are confronted with a staggering choice this morning in relation to the man Jesus Christ.
1. Those Who Call Themselves Christian
First, because Jesus Christ was born, one third of the world's population today calls itself Christian. That is, 1.6 billion people of the world's 5 billion have come under the sway of this man Jesus to the extent that they would say Christianity is their religion.
Not only that, Christianity is the most extensive and universal religion in history. There are Christians and Christian churches in every inhabited country in the world. And in two-thirds of the world's 223 countries the population is over 50% Christian.
So the first indisputable significance of the birth of Jesus Christ is that the life of this man has influenced more people over the course of human history than any other single man. Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, or even Moses do not compare in the extent of their influence on history and the world.
2. The Dating System
Second, virtually every person in the modern western, and most of the non-western, world call this year 1987. But the reason bankers and butchers, and car dealers and doctors, and teachers and attorneys, and computer programmers and presidents date their checks "1987" is because Jesus Christ was born 1,987 years ago.
No other man in history has been accorded the almost universal honor of dividing history in half—and with such definitive influence that millions who do not call him Lord are forced to bear witness daily to his tremendous, on-going importance in the world by using the date 1987.
3. The Setting Apart of Sunday
Third, all over the western world, and in a large part of the non-western world, Sunday is recognized as a holiday, and most of these western cultures recognize a difference even between Saturday and Sunday. The historical reason for this is that Jesus Christ was born and that he died and that he rose from the dead on Sunday.
Why Does Jesus Have Such an Effect on the World?
In other words the religious, historical, and cultural significance of Christmas—the birth of Jesus Christ—is so huge that no one can begin to give it an adequate description.
Now that fact, in and of itself, before we even turn to the Bible, confronts you and me with a profound choice: will we ignore this man and take him lightly in spite of his being the most influential man whoever lived, or will we inquire earnestly into who this man was and why he has changed the world so deeply?
Why is the birth of this man having this kind of effect on the world?
The Testimony of Witnesses Close to Him
Let's listen first to three witnesses who lived in the first century and who either knew Jesus personally or spoke often with those who did.
Witness #1: Luke (1:30–38)
Luke wrote a two-volume work about the life of Christ and the early church (The Gospel according to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles). He was probably in Judea for two years while Paul was in prison, and would have had plenty of opportunity to talk to the mother of Jesus and others who knew him well. He tells us that an angel came to Mary before Jesus was born and . . .
. . . said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the son of God."
Luke's answer to the question why Jesus has had such awesome influence in history is that he is that his birth was a miracle; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Most High God; he is therefore the Son of God and not only a man; and he is a king whose kingdom will never end.
Witness #2: Matthew (1:20–24)
Matthew was one of Jesus' disciples who went about with him for three years. He tells about the struggles Joseph had in marrying Mary because she was pregnant. The struggles were resolved again by an angel appearance:
. . . an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).
Matthew's answer to the question why Jesus has had such an impact on world history is that his birth was owing to the supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit; and that he is a Savior from sin; and that he is "God with us." Jesus is God come in the flesh. That is Matthew's answer.
Witness #3: John (1:1–4, 14)
Like Matthew John was one of the 12 apostles. He was the closest of all, who became responsible for Jesus' mother after his death. He begins his gospel by identifying Jesus as the eternal Word of God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
John's answer to the question why Jesus is having such a profound influence on the world is that Jesus is the eternal Word of God, who is himself God, and who became flesh and revealed the glory of God, and who is the source of all spiritual life and light.
The Choice Before You Today
Now the upshot of all this is that the choice you are confronted with this morning is not only whether the amazing historical influence of Jesus will move you to search out a satisfying explanation, but also whether you will agree with the explanation given by the biblical witnesses.
Will you agree
- that there is a God who created and sustains and rules the
world, and has a purpose for all of history;
- that this God is three in one—three persons: Father,
eternally begotten Son, and Holy Spirit;
- that the Father sent the Son into the world, conceived of a virgin by the Holy Spirit so that he was both God and man;
- that this God-man, Jesus Christ, was a King whose reign will
- that by his sinless life and substitutionary death he saved his
people from all their sin;
- that he revealed the glory of God and taught the
- that he fulfilled the Old Testament promises of a
- and that he is therefore the key to understanding all of
history and all of life, including your own?
That is the meaning of Christmas and the choice it demands from each of us this morning.
Why People Reject the Real Meaning of Christmas
There are many reasons why people don't give whole hearted agreement to the biblical witness about Jesus Christ—why people hold back from full, red-blooded commitment to what Christmas really means—why they watch the drama of redemption unfolding in history like a spectator instead of a participant.
Sometimes it isn't because they see logical or historical obstacles. Instead it's often because they don't see that it really makes any difference. The whole thing seems irrelevant to real life. It doesn't connect. It's like some esoteric scientific claim about the molecule. It may well be true, but the likelihood of it making much difference in my life is so remote that I hardly need to make any commitment to the truth of the molecular theory. Leave that for the scientists. Leave Jesus for the religious. I've got my life to live.
And so what I want to do in the minutes left is take you to a verse in Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, and sketch for you five images of the coming of Jesus Christ. I want to show you that, if you see the coming of Jesus the way the prophets saw it, you would see its relevance for your life, and you wouldn't be indifferent anymore.
Malachi's Great Expectation of the Coming Lord
Here is a prophet writing 450 years before Jesus but full of expectation that the Messiah is coming. In 3:1 he says, "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight; behold he is coming says the Lord of hosts." And in verse 3:2, "He is like a refiner's fire."
This same great expectation is described in 4:2, and this is the verse I want us to unfold in the time that's left. Malachi has just warned that those who proudly resist God will be consumed with fire on the coming day of judgment. But then he has a different word to say to those who fear the Lord. For them the future holds something vastly more wonderful.
But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.
When John the Baptist's father prophesied in Luke 1:78, he alluded to this verse and said that with the coming of Jesus the day was dawning from on high. The sun of righteousness was rising. And he has been rising all over this world ever since. And one day his rise will reach its noonday brightness and he will appear in glory and the final division between the believing and unbelieving will be made.
Five Pictures of What the Coming of Jesus Means
But for those who fear the Lord—who wake up from their indifference or rebellion against him and honor him with trust and allegiance—what does the coming of the Lord mean?
What does it mean for you today if you are a biblical Christian? What could it mean for you if you would be?
Five pictures from verse 2:
- A rising sun
- Beams of righteousness
- Wings of healing
- Breaking out of a stall
- Leaping like calves
1. A Rising Sun
Jesus Christ is a rising sun.
That means at least four things. I'll mention only two (omitting: warmth where there was cold, and growth where there was atrophy).
Light Where There Was Darkness
He brings light where there was darkness. And when you have light, you can see. Jesus helps us see things like they really are. He makes sense out of things. He said to Pilate, "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." And Pilate mocked him and said, as though he lived in the twentieth century, "What is truth?"
That is the tragic and cynical cry of our age: What is truth! Not because there's a passion for truth, but because there is so much skepticism that any such thing exists. And the effect of this skepticism and relativism is moral and intellectual and personal and family bankruptcy. Why do many families come apart? Because they have no anchor of truth. The husband and father has no clear vision of why he or his children exist. And so all he can do is pass on a few tips for how to make more money or stay healthy. And the emptiness gets deeper and deeper with each unbelieving generation.
But Jesus is the light of the world. He brings sense and meaning out of absurdity.
Security Where There Was Danger
The second thing implied by his being a rising sun is that he brings security where there was danger. When it is dark, there is more danger because you can't see the path in front of you. You might fall off a cliff or trip over a log or bang your head against a branch.
When the sun finally rises, you can move with security. That's the way it is with Jesus. He points the way to go again and again. He shows up the danger and the foolishness of many choices before we make them. He guards us from many evil forces that only have power in the dark.
So when Jesus comes into the world, he comes as a sun: he is light in the darkness of confusion and ignorance and skepticism. He gives a fixed point of truth in a world where every standard seems to have come unglued. And in doing this, he guards us from destroying our lives and keeps us safe.
2. Beams of Righteousness
The sun is a sun with beams of righteousness.
Which means that Jesus makes things right. He makes man right with God through reconciliation. He makes man right with man through grace and humility and patience and love. And in the end, he will make right all the wrongs that his people have suffered, so that we don't have to carry the burden of indignation and revenge.
If you look at the incredible injustices in the world today, and see people suffering when they seem innocent and prospering when they seem wicked, Jesus gives an answer: where he is trusted, he can reconcile and restore; where he's not, he will have the last word in the judgment.
3. Wings of Healing
This sun of righteousness rises with healing in its wings.
I can remember the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean nineteen years ago this week. Noël and I were on our honeymoon. We were up early one morning and saw how it happens on the rim of the ocean.
A thin line of orange and red appears along the water. Then it intensifies, brighter and brighter, and you see the brightness focusing more and more on the center of the line, until the flaming ball surges up out of the water. And then you watch it rise up, and in a sense it brings that whole red line on the rim of the water up into the air as though the sun had wings.
When Malachi saw that, God told him: the coming of the Messiah will be like that and the effect of his beauty will be healing. And Jesus was a great healer. All I have time to say now is that though Jesus does not heal every disease in this life, he will heal every disease in the resurrection. In other words Jesus meets the tremendous need we all feel for hope beyond the grave—that all sickness and pain and sorrow and crying will be gone forever.
4. Breaking Out of a Stall
One effect of all this for those who fear the Lord (and this is the fourth image from verse 2) will be a going forth from the stall—"You shall go forth from the stall."
The coming of Jesus means freedom not bondage. I remember talking to a thoughtful young woman a few years ago about my sermons on Christian Hedonism and whether I really believed joy was what all people were really after. I asked her what made her tick. And she said, "For me freedom seems more basic."
I wouldn't want to minimize that deep longing in our hearts for freedom. It is real and it is essential to all joy. And Jesus promises to give it. Until he comes, we are all in a real sense trapped and bound in the stall. We might party all day long; but we will never know the freedom for which we were made as long as we are in the stall—until Jesus sets us free.
5. Leaping Like Calves
But I stand by my Christian Hedonism of those days because the fifth image from verse 2 is that when the sun of righteousness rises with healing in his wings and we are set free from the stall of bondage, we will not merely walk, or run; we will leap like calves.
In other words freedom is the necessary condition of leaping joy. Jesus said once (Luke 6:22–23), "Blessed are you when men hate you . . . Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven."
Some of you think that others are disabled in this regard because of inherited personalities. You think they could no more leap like a calf than speak Russian. But I have suspicion we do not know each other very well.
I remember once in seminary going out with people from the adult Sunday School I was teaching. We came out of the pizza place and I commenced to demonstrate the high step of a drum major in the Greenville, S.C., Christmas parade. Well the mouths of those folks fell open. And they stared in disbelief. They didn't know I have a calf in me.
But I want tell you a secret: There is a calf in every believer in this room. And given the right setting, it will leap. And we would do well to give it some room. Otherwise we will look very out of character in heaven when Jesus takes us running through the fields.
The True Meaning of Christmas
That is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus comes
- to give light and truth where there was darkness and confusion,
- to set things right where they were wrong,
- to give healing where there was sickness and brokenness,
- to give freedom where there was bondage,
- and to give calf-life joy where there was dreariness and fear.
Shall we pray:
Father, I pray that none in this room would be able to resist the offer of your grace in these words. Let every family be united in the faith this year. May those who have been spectators stop holding back, and join the drama of redemption. And may even this morning the sun of righteousness rise with healing in his wings so that all of us might go forth leaping like calves from the stall. In Jesus' name. Amen.