By Res Spears
Message delivered December 16, 2018 at Liberty Spring Christian Church
Many of you know that I had a career as a journalist before entering the ministry. I’ll pause here for everyone to say, “Boooo.”
I spent most of the past 33 years in the newspaper business, and I was editor of the Suffolk News-Herald for eight years before leaving to focus my attention and energies on seminary and ministry.
I loved that job. In fact, I always figured I would work at that desk right up to my last day – hopefully hanging on until after our deadline.
There was something exciting about being in the know about the things happening in my community, and I must confess that my ego always got a little boost whenever Annette and I would be out and someone would come up and say, “Hey, I read your editorial the other day.”
Some would say my ego doesn’t need a boost, and they’re probably right, but there it is, nonetheless.
The point is that I loved that job. And when I left it last December and prepared to head to Haiti for the first half of this year, I wondered how much I would miss it.
What surprised me was that I didn’t. At first, I simply reveled in the opportunity to be at home with my family on weeknights. And then, once I’d moved to Haiti, I found myself far too busy doing ministry there to give the news of Suffolk much thought.
And now that I’m serving here at Liberty Spring Christian Church, I believe I have found my true calling in life. So far, my worst day here has been better than my best day in the newspaper business, and I appreciate all you folks have done to help make that so.
But I still like to be informed.
Now, I was raised in a church tradition that didn’t include Advent candles and Chrismon trees and these things – I know they’re not table runners, but I can never remember what they’re actually called – so one of the things I’ve been asking about is their significance.
You’ve all heard me rail against church traditions. Please understand that I’m not opposed to tradition per se; what I’m opposed to is tradition that has lost its meaning. When we do not know the significance of why the table runners are a certain color each week or why this week’s Advent candle is purple and not pink, then we’re just doing these things as some sort of rote activity, and their significance to worship is gone.
So I did a little research, and I want to share what I’ve learned about our Advent ceremony with you in case anyone here is as ignorant about it as I was. Henceforth, you will be informed about this tradition.
First, note that the candles here are set within an evergreen wreath.
The circle of greenery reminds us that God is eternal. He is the Alpha and the Omega. He existed before the beginning, and He will always exist. He is without beginning or end.
The fact that the wreath is made from evergreens reminds us that, in Christ, we have newness of life. Those of us who are reborn of the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ have been renewed, recreated.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.2 Corinthians 5:17
Next, let us look at the candles.
First, the white candle in the center of the wreath is the Christ candle. It is traditionally lit on Christmas Eve, and that’s what we’ll do here on the evening of Dec. 24, when you’re bringing all your friends and family to worship with us.
But what about the other four candles? Why are three of them purple and the other one pink? And what is the significance of the order in which they are lit?
Let me just say that there was some controversy over which candle we would light today. And there are probably some here who winced when the purple one was lit. But I think I can make a good case for why we did it this way.
First, the purple candles represent a link between the birth of Jesus and His death. Purple is the traditional color of Lent, when many Christians choose to commemorate His sacrifice by giving up something themselves.
In some historical Christian traditions, His followers would fast during the first weeks of Advent, too. Then on the third Sunday of Advent, they would light the pink candle in anticipation of the end of fasting and the beginning of their rejoicing over the birth of our Savior.
Now, the Catholic Church — and some churches that identify closely with it — continues to hold to this tradition. But many Protestant churches choose to wait until the fourth Sunday of Advent to light the pink candle, thereby marking the climax of the Advent’s season of waiting.
That’s why we lit the purple candle this week and will light the pink one next week.
Now, about the candles themselves: Why not light them all at once each week? And why are there four of them along the outside? Why not 12? Or one? Or, for those who start counting the days until Christmas on Dec. 26, why not 51?
Lighting the candles represents the light of God coming into the world through His perfect Son, Jesus Christ. The light should also remind Christ’s followers that we are called to be the light of the world.
As to their number, the best answer I could find seems to be that each candle in the outer ring marks one century of waiting between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ.
God was silent toward His people between the time of His prophet Malachi and the perfect revelation of Himself in the person of His son, who clothed Himself in the mortal flesh of a baby born to a virgin in Bethlehem.
So now you’re informed about the significance of what we have done here today.
The people of Israel had been informed about the coming Savior. Ever since the Garden of Eden, God had been revealing to them His plan of redemption.
You’ll recall that Adam and Eve broke the one commandment that God had given them, eating from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Having confronted them about their sin and having heard them each blame someone else for it — Eve blamed the serpent, and Adam blamed Eve — God then pronounced a curse on the serpent. And He made a promise that we know today as the Protevangelium. Speaking to “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan,” God said:
And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”Genesis 3:15
Satan had sought to destroy the good thing God had created, and he had certainly succeeded in desecrating it, but God wanted to inform the devil that he would ultimately be defeated.
I was thinking about this yesterday and it occurred to me to that Satan must have been feeling pretty smug before this conversation.
He had been cast out of heaven for deciding that he could be like God. We see that in Isaiah, Chapter 14.
“How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations!Isaiah 14:12
“But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north.Isaiah 14:13
‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’Isaiah 14:14
So the prideful ambition to be like God, which is what Satan told Adam and Eve would happen if they ate from the forbidden tree, is what got him thrown out of heaven.
Adam and Eve were already like God in all the ways that mattered — “made in His image, according to His likeness,” Scripture tells us. They had a perfect relationship with their Creator. They were in perfect fellowship with Him.
But they believed the devil’s lie.
“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:5
They already knew good; after all, they knew the perfectly good God who had created them and called His creation “very good.”
Why would they want to know evil?
But then, don’t we all? Don’t we all toy with it? We entertain ourselves with things that we know do not edify us. We get angry and think evil thoughts about our fellow humans. We are adulterous and envious and covetous in our hearts We ignore the plight of the needy.
Much of this is a result of that first sin. Because of it, we are completely broken. In fact everything is broken; nothing is the way it is supposed to be.
We suffer the curse of that original sin through the inheritance we have in Adam. Understand this: We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. We are — in the words of religious thinkers and writers for many centuries — totally depraved.
Total depravity does not mean that all of us are the very worst we could be. In fact, if we were that, the human race would have ceased to exist a long time ago. But we are still here as a race because God, in his infinite grace restrains the evil that we would commit.
What total depravity means is that, because of the nature we inherited from our first parents, doing good is completely beyond us.
Paul had a lot to say about this.
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;Genesis 3:9
as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”Genesis 3:10-12
As Eve, and then Adam, ate from the forbidden fruit, I wonder if what Paul says here must have been the devil’s greatest hope.
Mankind, created in the image of God, would, in its sin, effectively put that image to death, destroying itself what God had made “very good.”
Think of a body lying in a casket. It still bears the image of the person who was once living, but that face in the casket no longer has life.
I think it’s the same with we humans who are still created in God’s image. The image is there – that’s why all humans deserve to be treated with dignity – but there is no life in it. On the very day of our birth, each of us is born dead in our trespasses.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.Ephesians 2:1-2
You see there the reference to Satan, “the prince of the power of the air,” the “spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience”?
God has His kingdom, and in the Garden Satan must have figured that he had firmly established his own. This prince would have as his subjects all of the humanity that had been created for a relationship with God.
He certainly knew that God is holy and righteous and that no unrighteous person would be allowed to have fellowship with him. Mankind would be doomed to separation from God forever, just as Satan had been.
But there was a part of God’s character that Satan had never seen, because God had never had the occasion to demonstrate it before.
And it is the grace of God that gives life to His formerly dead image in those who follow Jesus Christ.
Be informed of this today: You are a sinner. You may be a sinner saved by the grace of God, and I hope that you are. If you are, then God looks at you as a saint. But you are still a sinner.
And if you have not been washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, the blood He shed on the cross to pay the debt your sins have incurred, then you are a sinner destined for hell.
Some folks think it’s harsh to talk about hell these days. I think it would be a sin for me to avoid the subject, knowing as I do that those who have not been saved by grace are destined to spend eternity there.
Please understand: I do not stand here today and boast that I am going to heaven because I am not a sinner.
I am a sinner. I was born a sinner because of Adam’s first sin, which was imputed to all born from him. I confirmed my sin nature by committing my own sins. And I continue to do so far more often than I would like to admit.
Here is what I can boast in: God knew that I would be a sinner, so way back in the Garden of Eden, he announced His plan to redeem me. And a little more than 2,000 years ago, He came and lived among us in the flesh of His Son, Jesus Christ, born of a virgin and laid in a manger in Bethlehem.
Jesus bought my salvation. He redeemed me from my slavery to sin. And He did that on a cross, where He bore the sins of all mankind and paid the price of death.
As Jesus hung on that cross, perhaps the devil thought he had actually won. After all, God’s only Son was about to die.
But Satan had not counted on the boundlessness of God’s grace. And I imagine he also underestimated the power that Jesus had over death.
You see, death is the devil’s thing. Death is the result of sin, and sin is Satan’s domain. Sin and death were what was inside that forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
But Jesus has power over death itself, and He proved it in His own resurrection. He had won the victory over sin at the cross, and He won the victory over death in the empty tomb.
As the disciples saw their resurrected Savior, they informed one another and the world: He is risen!
He is risen, indeed.
But this is the season of Advent, and this was supposed to be a Christmas message — at least it was before I discovered on Saturday afternoon that my computer had eaten this week’s message and that I’d have to recreate it.
So here’s a connection to Christmas for you.
The angels appeared to a group of shepherds on a hilltop near Bethlehem one night with the greatest news of all time.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.Luke 2:10-11
God sent His heavenly newscasters to inform the shepherds.
And as much as we focus our attention on the birth announcement, the news lead here was that the child who had been born would be a Savior.
We were dead in our trespasses. We were subject to the total depravity of the flesh we inherited from Adam. Shut off by Adam’s sin and by ours from a relationship with God, we were utterly lost.
But God had a plan to redeem us.
Be informed of this: God gave us Christmas so that we could have Good Friday. And Good Friday matters because Easter followed it.
I may not edit the newspaper anymore, but now I get to share the best news ever: God loved you from the beginning. He still does. And the light of that candle — or rather the light that candle represents — is evidence of His love for you.
You are most certainly a sinner. I am, too. We all are.
But because of God’s amazing grace, the story does not have to end there for any of us. Because that baby born in the manger was God Himself, and because He died for our sins and then rose again, we who follow Him have been redeemed.
That is the greatest Christmas gift of all. And it’s the most wonderful news ever.