Sermon, December 27, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Brothers and sisters in Christ;
Here it is, January 4, 2015. Since we last gathered in this place you and I have put up a new calendar, marking another milestone in the advance of human history toward that day when we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. I cannot escape the sense that putting up a new calendar is more than just some arbitrary reckoning of the advance of time. In the providence of God, our time marches forward toward a very serious moment in which we will be confronted with the startling reality that all these minutes and hours and days that we thought were ours to play with were really much more important than we thought they were.
I want to return to this theme a little later, but first I think we should take note of the prior “fullness of time” to which the Apostle Paul referred when he wrote about the sending of God’s Son. He wrote, “when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son...”. In the title of this sermon I posed the question, “Why was Jesus born in 4 B.C.?”, so I suppose I should take a stab at answering it.
You and I were born on our birthdays, and no earlier. So how did it come to be that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., that is, 4 years Before Christ?
Well, the traditional date of the birth of Christ, which marks the beginning of our era, was actually set in the sixth century by a monk named Dionysius. He calculated on the old Roman calendar, based on the supposed founding of Rome, that Christ was born on December 25, (Anno Urbis) 754 years after the founding of Rome. This was the point from which he began to reckon the dates of the Christian Era, using A.D., or Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord, as opposed to B.C., before Christ.
But Dionysius was a little off in his calculations, later historians found. We learn from the New Testament that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the Great, who died in 750 by the old Roman calendar. So Jesus was born at least by then, or possibly even two years earlier, since Herod thought that if he killed all the male children two years old or younger he would get rid of the new king. So Jesus was actually born sometime before 1 A.D., possibly as early as 6 B.C.
When St. Paul refers to the “fullness of time”, he was not likely concerned with the reckoning of days and years on any calendar. What he had in mind was the ripeness of the particular moment in history for that special birth. All of secular history had secretly prepared this special moment in time. Beginning in Genesis, and continuing through the prophets, the whole of history was preparation for the moment in time when Jesus would be born.
When Jesus was born, secular history had reached a golden age of peace in an often-violent age of history. It was the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Roman poet Virgil wrote a poem in 40 B.C. that later Christians saw as a premonition, even in the pagan world, that something great was about to happen. Virgil wrote of a virgin and a divinely descended child before whom all the world would tremble in homage in a golden age of peace. How closely this seemed to parallel the words of Isaiah 11, where the prophet spoke of a peaceable kingdom that would come in a day when the son of David would reign.
So many strands of history pointed to this moment. Judaism had reached a point of frustration where its very identity was in question. The identity of the 12 tribes of Israel was mostly lost. Greek customs and ideas had so infiltrated Judaism that many Jews were uncertain just what it was that made them unique. Even the rules of reasoning that the great Rabbi Hillel applied to the interpretation of the Scriptures were derived from Greek rhetoric.
But this trouble for Judaism was a blessing for the whole world. The Greeks provided a language which people throughout the world had in common. Greek became the language by which the New Testament could spread through the whole world. And it is well known how Roman roads and Roman law provided ways for the spread of the Gospel.
When we see St. Paul in Athens able to discuss the Christian Gospel in an open forum of debate, we see something which was a new opportunity in human history. For one of the few times in all of human history there was an open forum of ideas in matters of religion, so that Christianity could be given a hearing. You and I may think that people have always been able to do this, but it is not so. The time in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ was first preached was a new era of openness. This is a part of the “fullness of time” in which Jesus was born.
Thus the way was open to make possible obedience to Jesus’ command, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mt. 28:19). And so the Gospel came to be heard by your ancestors and mine. And so a part of the world that was not even known at that time came to be the largest “christian” nation on our planet. Could the Apostle Paul ever have imagined our land teeming with “born-again” believers? The time was ripe.
If the time was ripe then for the coming of Christ, I see that there is a great ripeness today as well for the spreading of His Kingdom. You and I live at a time of unparalleled opportunity. I cannot help but wonder how God views our place in this wide-open time.
You and I have the privilege of free access to education. You and I have unparalleled freedom to use our time as we please. We live in a climate of freedom of choice, and freedom of religion. We have access to the Bible in so many different translations that we sometimes wish the “real” Bible would please stand up.
In view of all this, the question persists for me, “What are we to do with our privileged situations?” What difference is your privileged life making in the world and in the Kingdom of God?
Perhaps it may be good to first offer some guidelines that are important to me in using responsibly the opportunity that God has placed before me. First, I am often reminded that just because I am free to pray or not to pray, to believe or not to believe, to study the Bible or not to study the Bible, to share my means or not to share my means, to speak of Jesus to others or not to speak of Jesus to others, this freedom does not do away with the imperative that Jesus puts on me to do these things. You may not hold me accountable, the society may not hold me accountable, but there is One who does!
My friend, Stuart Robertson tells, of being taunted by an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who said that we Christians, who say we are free to pray at any time and in any place, mostly use this freedom to pray at no time and no place at all. There seems always to be a great hue and cry about the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, but it seems that not very many Christians really care enough about Scripture to know very much about their Bibles and what the Bible says. With all of the churches and preachers available, Christians have placed more emphasis on the secular weekend than on the Lord’s Day.
With most of our homes positively bulging with all kinds of expensive electronic gadgets and equipment, the bulk of Christians give only very modestly to the Lord’s work. And somehow, we have allowed the secular ideas of pluralism, tolerance, inclusivity and fairness to push the command to preach Jesus Christ to the whole world to the very fringes of Christianity. And further, we have very diplomatically allowed non-Christian, or even anti-Christian points of view on all kinds of morality; business ethics, and politics, and the value and sanctity of life, to come into our “pluralistic” church and to compete for a place along with the traditional views of historic, biblical Christianity.
You and I need to dare to stand up and challenge this tide. And then we need to ask the question, “How ought I, a Christian, to live in all this opportunity?” Then we must stand ready to answer the question honestly, and then to hold ourselves to account.
You and I need to rediscover and embrace the virtue of discipline, in which the unlimited opportunities before us are governed by the high purposes of our calling in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you think that as a young person, exploring the shape and scope of Christian belief, that it is your time in life that you owe it to yourself to be uncommitted. Says who? Perhaps the demands of your job have convinced you that faithfulness in participating in this congregation must take a back seat. How so? Perhaps you have been turned off by the scandals among some of the prominent televangelists or the rudeness of some pharisaic hucksters of Christianity, so that you have adopted the guise of a polite person who does not impose his or her views on someone else. If so, you have been tricked into getting rid of much of what it is to be a Christian. No one can impose the Gospel of Jesus Christ on anyone. We do not offer our own point of view; it is simply the Gospel that we offer.
As we enter the new year of 2015, it is my prayer that this congregation will be a congregation that remembers the duties of discipleship, while maintaining the high profile of love and encouragement of one another. It is my prayer that this First Presbyterian will be conspicuous and dedicated in replacing the old, selfish “look out for number one” mind-set by compassion for others. I pray that yours will be the outlook of people submissive to one another, and to the Lord.
I look to see that the motivation for faith and service is not, like it is for some, a fear of the end of the world, but rather a delight in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, love for His people, and compassion for those who do not know Him. With Jesus Christ consciously the Lord of all time, and minds, and money, and bodies, and session, and the whole of this congregation, you will have, and use, the opportunity of making this era a time when God greatly extends his love and his call to other people.
God calls His people to live vigorously and aggressively under the spell of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This must be your response and mine to the fullness of time in which we live.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.