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God’s Christmas strategy

  • Luke 1:67-79
  • Luke 3:1-6

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Most people find history boring, and if I told you that the sermon is coming from Luke 3:1-2 you might think of shutting down.  I urge you, however, not to.  What God has to say in these verses is very relevant to us – and it will help us to understand and interpret our times too.

Before we get there, here are some interesting facts from the latest census in Australia:

Between 1986 and 2006, the number of Hindus in Australia increased sevenfold, while the number of Buddhists has fivefold. The number of Australians with no religious affiliation rose from 18.7 to 22.3 per cent between 2006 and 2011. In the 2006 census, 55,000 people even selected “Jedi” as their religious affiliation, a belief system stemming from George Lucas’ representation of “the Force” in his “Star Wars” series.

We ask, “Has the message of the birth of Christ not been heard over the last 5 years?  Did we not have 6 Christmases between 2006 and now, and yet it seems Christianity is in decline?

Is there reason to be concerned?  You bet, there is! Is there reason be in panic?  No.  What, then should we do?  Let’s look at those verse again:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1–2, NIV)

The year of Tiberius Caesar 

Before we continue, let’s hear this verse from our chapter in Luke 3 too:

And all people will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:6, NIV)

The father of John the Baptist was filled by the Holy Spirit and prophesied on the day his son was born:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come to his people and redeemed them. (Luke 1:68, NIV)

His son grew up, left home and lived in the desert east of the Jordan, in the desert areas.  His food was locusts and wild honey, and his clothing was camel’s hair and a leather belt. Almost like Elijah.

Christ was born, he and his parents had to flee to Egypt, they later returned and went to live in Nazareth.  In the thirty years between the birth of Christ and John the Baptist’s ministry here was a moment of hope when Jesus was twelve and sat in the temple, amazing the teachers of the law with his knowledge of the things of God. But then for eighteen years nothing happened.  Of the message of peace to mankind, of salvation, of hope – nothing happened.

Our text on the other hand, spells out the activity of those working against the Kingdom of God.  Caesar Augustus hold a census of his kingdom, he earned taxes, he sent out his armies to further conquer the world, he appointed officials and governors, he appointed his successor, Tiberius Spartacus, who consolidated the roman Empire to a mighty world power which did not know resistance.  The Caesar became mighty and was worshipped as a god.

Pontus Pilate was the governor and the sons of Herod the Great became successor to him.  They broke up the kingdom of David and each governed a little part of it, while Pilate was seated in Jerusalem where David used to be the ruler after God’s own heart.  When Jesus was born the old kingdom of David was still intact, but now, thirty years later, it was ripped apart and the people of God were scattered and oppressed by so many foreign rulers that one wonders if they themselves understood who their actual authority was.  Ultimately they knew that the Caesar in Rome deposed and appointed at will, and that they had to obey.

The priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas

God ordained that the sons of Aaron should serve as priests and the the high priest were to serve for life.  They would represent God to the people and the people to God.

But the time Luke was recording in his Gospel the final dismantling of the high priesthood took place.  Annas was high priest, but the Romans replaced him with three others in a row, and later they appointed Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas as high priest.  Annas sieged the moment and as our text says, the two of them acted as the high priest simultaneously.  Instead of keeping the office holy, they bent the rules to their liking and even forged some political advantages out of their position.

So, politically, socially and religiously nothing positive happened since the birth of Christ.  One could say God had a small block of land in the desert of Judea, no prophet, no priest, no clergy, no representative – nothing.

The years were marked by the Caesar of the day, society as well as church were dominated by foreign influence, and it seems as if the kingdom of God got no where, in spite of the fact that the Messiah was born, in spite of the fact that the angels announced his birth, in spite of the fact that even the stars in the skies announced his arrival, in spite of the fact that wise men worshipped Him  with gold and incense and myrrh.  Christmas was over and nothing happened.  Even the star disappeared.  Add to this the 450 years of silence between the Old and the new Testament.

It was the fifteenth year of Tiberius. God gave him all the benefit of the doubt:  he was at his strongest, his kingdom at its height, his influence irresistible, his enemies exhausted, his pride at its pinnacle.

On God’s side was a man living in a desert, some sort of fanatic, some out of sorts fellow, a non-conformist and a-social individual – not your typical Presbyterian! And somewhere in the workshop of a carpenter, there was a man called Jesus.  But the world knew nothing of Him.

The year of our Lord

Our text moves forward:

… the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:2, NIV)

God called John the Baptist into motion.  His brief was the same as that of Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. (Luke 3:4–5, NIV)

Why?  Where will this end?

And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ” (Luke 3:6, NIV)

One can only shake one’s head and say this is a bit ambitious; “all people”?  Really?  Maybe all people in Judea?  All people in the Roman world?  Even that is a tough call.  All people in the world?  Surely not; just look at the statistics of the last census?  People are not attracted to God’s kingdom!

The pathetic condition of God’s people, as well as the glory of God’s enemy are known to us.  It was God’s timing.  And it was perfect.

God’s power base was in the desert, and one man – for the moment.  No army, no weapons, no apparent organisation.  The world calls it foolishness.

He was not powerful, he had no influence, he knew nobody with influence.  How could he stand up against Tiberius or Herod or the other governors?  How would he face Pilate?  Would he be wiser that Annas and Caiaphas?  No.

But he had something:  the Word of God.  God commissioned him with nothing more, but nothing less.  Fearlessly he began to preach this Word.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:7–8, NIV)

Not only Jews came to see him; Roman soldiers did too – and in this something of “all mankind” began to see the salvation of God.

John pointed to Jesus.  That was his message:

I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16–17, NIV)

The Word of God was his sword, the message of Christ was his battle cry, and baptism as a sign of repentance to the living God became his ministry to people who were lost in sin, bewildered by godless politics and without direction in a spiritual desert.  East of the Jordan they were baptised, and renewed in their hearts and minds they crossed back into the promised land, ready to receive their Messiah.

Who was Tiberius again?  And Pilate and Herod – what can you tell about them?  And Annas and Caiaphas?  When did they live?  When was the Roman Empire at its height, and when did it fall?  Have you forgotten?

Just in case you did not keep in mind, we are at the end of 2013, the year of our Lord. It is as almost 2014 anno Domini – the Year of Our Lord!

Since John the Baptist started proclaiming the Word about the Messiah, the Christ of Christmas, things changed.  Old kingdoms came and went, rulers and princes and kings came and went.  Very early in the piece John lost his head under Herod, and after him thousands of others lost their lives too for the same reason as John.

Our Lord stood before all four:  Pilate, who had Him whipped; Herod, who scorned Him; Annas, who delivered Him to the people; and Caiaphas who had Him crucified.  It was perfect in God’s timing that they would be people of authority facing his Son; sometime in the future, at the return of our Lord, they will kneel before Him – and He will judge them as He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

His disciples had to report to Annas and Caiaphas (Acts 4:6), while Pilate and Herod had their actions investigated (Acts 4:27), but they did not hesitate.  Full of the Holy Spirit they prayer to God:

Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. (Acts 4:29, NIV)

Conclusion

If it happens that you are a bit apprehensive about the success of the Kingdom of our Lord, I need to call your attention to your task:  Like John the Baptist, take the Word of God, and proclaim it!  I cannot guarantee that you will not end up in trouble for it; many others before you did.  But let us remember what J.C. Ryle, the old faithful preacher of the Word of God once said:

“The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight against spiritual apathy in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a brief round of formal religious services once or twice every week. But of the great spiritual warfare – its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests – of all things they appear to know nothing at all. Let us take care that this case is not our own.”

Do you want to see the Kingdom of God grow?  Is their a desire for us to see the church of Christ grow?  Let’s take up the Word like John.  He had nothing else, no weapon other than the Word.

Let’s look forward and allow us the luxury to in our mind’s eye see how all of this will end, one day when God says it’s time for it to happen:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11–16, NIV)

Take courage, He has authority in heaven and on earth.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 29th December 2013

 

 

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