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Posted in: Big Faith, Growth, Know God

12.27.22 ( Jeff Vines )

Christmas Joy

(except from the sermon)

Sermon Series: Rediscover the Wonder

This past week I read that the distance between the earth and the observable universe (in other words, how far away that we can see, that we can take data and information from) is 93 billion light years. So you ask, how far can light travel in one given year? And the answer is almost 6 trillion miles. At the edge of the observable galaxy (our galaxy and what we know), there is all this other stuff 93 billion light years away. And that's just our own galaxy. Beyond that are things that we will probably never see, understand, or comprehend. Everyone's been telling us over the last few years, “Follow the science.” Here's what science tells us: We will never be able to travel to another galaxy. Scientists tell us that such travel is beyond humanity's capacity. That means there's so much out there that we're never going to understand or even collect data from. So much beyond our own galaxy into the entire universe.

There are billions and billions of other galaxies. Now, what does that tell you? Well, it tells you that we understand about two ounces of this universe. That most of the universe is beyond our grasp and comprehension. Now, we do suspect that all the vastness of the universe somehow contributes to earth's ability to sustain life. But we're really not certain how all that fits together. Because our knowledge is significantly limited. We may make new discoveries, and that's good. We're all for science, the discovery of God's planet, and God's universe. But pretending that we can ever have an exhaustive understanding of all that we see in the expansive space is like a child discovering that two plus two equals four and suddenly he or she has an exhaustive comprehension of mathematics. The vast, expansive, inexplicable, wondrous world leads to one logical conclusion: God. In the beginning, God. Which is exactly what Bill Anders, Jim Level, and Frank Borman of Apollo VIII said, as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve December 24th, 1968. The only words they could use to describe what they were seeing: in the beginning God. Just as Paul had written 2,000 years before. In all creation, Paul says, we see God.

His eternal power, His divine nature. Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen.” So as we look at the heavens, we're supposed to see the wonder of God. Now, why is that important? Well, because ancient peoples also believed in God, or in gods, due primarily to the vastness of the heavens and the earth. In fact, in the Christmas story, we're told that the wise men or magi followed the Christmas star to find the King of kings. (I've always been intrigued by that because I don’t know how they knew which star to follow. There are lots of stars in the observable galaxy.) The wise men were Babylonians, so why are they so concerned about a king in Israel? They weren't Jewish. Neither were they monotheistic. So why did they search particularly for one king, a Jewish king?

They would've had their own religion and culture and personal beliefs. So why go and search on a long journey for a king from another nation? Now what's extremely interesting here is that the three wise men (if there were three, the three kings, the magi, whatever they were), were of Babylonian stock. We know that in this time of history, the Babylonians were enamored with the stars and with the heavens. They believe that human events would be played out in the constellations before they ever became a reality on earth. So, through the movements of the stars and the planets throughout specific constellations, heavenly stories were told that would predict earthly events. As a matter of fact, Pliny the Elder (a respected historian from this time) went so far as to say that there are principles by which cometary apparitions could be interpreted.

He claimed that by noticing the shape of the comet, you could determine the nature and geographical location of the doom or the fortune (because it could represent either one). So by taking note of the comet’s appearance, its placement within the sky, and the way in which its tail is pointed, he says this, “If it looks like a flute, it is an omen regarding the art of music. If it appears in the private parts of constellations, it is an omen for immoral behavior. It portends genius and erudition if it forms an equilateral triangle or a rectangular quadrilateral in relation to some fixed stars and it portends poisonings if it appears in the head of either the northern or southern serpent.” So he says, look at the comet and determine the doom or the fortune. During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylon astronomers actually developed a new empirical approach to astronomy.

So great was this contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science that some scholars see this as the first scientific revolution. Have you ever wondered, for instance, why there are 60 minutes in an hour or 360 degrees in a circle? It comes from these ancient Chaldeans. They used what is called a sexagesimal place value number system, which simplified the task of recording very large and very small numbers. So the practice of dividing the circle into 360 degrees and an hour into 60 minutes are examples of their methodology that we still use today. And the Babylonians were extremely religious. They believed in many gods, which is why we have Sunday. It's the worship of the sun, Sun Day. Moon Day or Monday, the worship of the moon. Thursday or Thor’s Day. They all have their roots in Chaldean astrology which is attributed to the gods, to each of the planets.

So the known and observable heavens were everything to these Babylonians. If you know Old Testament history, and all this is connected, God sent someone to the Babylonians to explain the reality of a Creator that created the heavens and the earth. One God is responsible for all creation who planned in the future to reveal Himself. You've heard me say before, it's one thing to believe in God. It's another thing to believe that this God somehow has revealed Himself to us. So as the Jews were exiled out in Babylon in the 6th century BC, God sent Daniel, in captivity, to rescue the Babylonians. Yes, Daniel was a servant to the Babylonians, but he's also God's ambassador chosen to teach them about the one true Lord of all creation. So in a setup initiated by God, the king was plagued by a troubling dream and none of the Chaldeans and all their wise men could solve it.

None of their magicians, none of the divination, could help them. Only Daniel was able to solve the mystery because God had put him there at the right place at the right time for something that was going to happen in the future. So the entire empire started to learn that there was one God because of Daniel. There was one God who was sovereign over all the powers they had ever known in the constellations. Daniel explains to the king in these words, in Daniel 2:27-28, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.” So Daniel talks about the God of heaven who made and controlled all the skies and the galaxies. In order to effectively reach the Babylonian nobility in terms they could understand, Daniel communicates in this language.

Now again, if you know the story, Daniel and his friends proved several times that the God of Israel not only knows the future but He is sovereign over it. And, as a result, King Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate before Daniel. And he says this in Daniel 2:47, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries.” And Daniel and his friends are promoted to the highest ranks in the kingdom. And more than that, in time, Nebuchadnezzar actually encourages the people over whom he rules to worship one God, the one true God. And he leads the Babylonians to look not to the stars, but to the one who created everything, the maker of all that is. As a result, Daniel becomes the chief of the Magi. Imagine that, a Hebrew, an Israelite in captivity in Babylon becomes the leader of all the wise men, the magi, those who study the stars in order that they can determine the times and places of major world events, all of which are ruled over and determined by the God who created the heavens.

Now while Daniel is in Babylonian captivity and he's leading the wise men, Daniel gets a personal visit from the archangel telling him exactly when the Messiah, the king of the Jews, will be born. In Daniel 9:25-26 we read, “Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks, Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” So Daniel, one of the ancient magi of the Chaldeans, gets a heads up about the timing of the Messiah's coming and the fact that the Messiah would be cut off and crucified before the destruction of the temple, in 70 AD. Now counting from the order to rebuild Jerusalem, Daniel is told by the angel Gabriel it would be 7 weeks plus 62 weeks, which equals 483 years. That gives us the time frame. Now a lot of people will tell me, “I want to believe the Bible is the word of God.” Wouldn't it be cool if you could just have your Bible (no matter what translation it is) and when you open it to the middle, there's a hologram that pops out and says, “This is the word of God.” People say, “Well, you know if something miraculous like that happened, I might believe it.” But the reality is, if you take the time to look at the scriptures, you will know that there are prophecies that can be tested and verified. All in this book. That's the miraculous nature of what we are reading in the scripture.

So in the year 445 BC, the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, gave Nehemiah the order, just like Daniel was told, to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. You can read about that later in Nehemiah 2:1-8. As a result, the countdown begins. So this is how the ancient Chaldeans would've known what to look out for and when to look out for the coming king. And that wisdom would've been passed down generation after generation to Chaldean wise men, or the magi. Now, these Babylonian wise men had the countdown from Daniel because Daniel was an exile and taught them. So they knew the year by doing the math. They knew what they were looking for in the constellations, in the skies, and what celestial events would happen to determine or communicate the birth of a king.

They had the understanding of the stars, and the word of God, and now they had the faith to believe it all. Now here's what's astounding, here's why we did all that work. As evidenced by their passionate pursuit and long journey, the wise men did not allow their traditions or culture to prevent them from discovering the transcendent. So when the truth and wisdom of God entered their culture, even though it wasn't consistent with what they formerly believed, they willingly laid down any presuppositions and followed the road that led them to the King of kings. That's amazing. I love this because it reveals to you and me the importance of seeking God on His terms, not ours.

The importance of not creating God in your own image, not allowing culture to dictate to you what God is like, but instead depending on God's revelation of Himself to reveal to us the truth of His divine nature and His intentions for all humanity. I love this. Do you understand that the very purpose of Christmas was to do just that? That you would stop, you would take a pause in all your presuppositions about God, and would suddenly, in the face of Christ Jesus, our Lord, through His birth, death, and resurrection, through His ministry, you would begin to see what God is really like and the mistakes you have made, that you would now conform to the revelation of God to us. Remember that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. But here's the problem, and this is what I want you to take away this Christmas, to capture this and the difference it can make in your life, you have to do three things.

Here's the first one. You need to understand that Christmas really happened. It's an actual event. Often we'll read Matthew chapters 1 and 2, Luke chapter 2, maybe John 1, and of course Revelation 12 is also a description of the Christmas narrative. However, 1 John 1:1-4 is perhaps the most descriptive of all – of the why of the what. Why did these events of the first Christmas take place? 1 John 1:1-4 says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.”

Now I want you to notice something. Notice what John emphasizes in the text. He says, we saw Him, we heard Him, we were with Him. The One whose life appeared in the manger that very first Christmas from heaven. Why is John so emphatic? And notice that these verbs correspond to the varieties of what we call witness attestation in ancient jurisprudence. In other words, John writes, we've seen it, we’ve felt it, we’ve heard it, we’ve testified to it. And he does that because he's not making conversation. He's swearing a deposition. He's saying that the gospels, the story of Christmas, is real. It's not just a set of nice stories or legends or myths. The incarnation, the atonement, and the resurrection, all occurred in real space and time. As a result, everything changed. Okay, Pastor Jeff, I'm hearing you.

I know it's Christmas. You have to talk about these things. But what is it, exactly, that changed? Well, if Christmas really happened and Jesus is Emmanuel God with us, the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, then religion is a waste of time because salvation is by grace through faith. If God really came to this world in the form of a child, a baby raised to be a Man who gave His life on the cross, then religion is a waste of time. Salvation is by grace through faith. And I hope that you leave this Christmas understanding at least that. The Bible says in John 1, not 1 John, but John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Every first-year Greek student can tell you that this is very simple Greek. It actually tells you that Jesus was with God in eternity, long before He was born in a manger or cave in Bethlehem.

Unto us, a Child is born to mankind. A Son, though, is given. A Child is born, but a Son is given from heaven from God. And then 1 John 1:2 says, “The eternal life was with the Father and appeared to us.” Jesus shows us eternal life is possible, and that's what we're all after. It's confirmed in the resurrection. Then He tells us how to obtain it. And this is where Jesus is different from every other religious leader, which is why Christmas is different from any other holiday. We're not being told that Jesus has eternal life or that He even gives eternal life. We're told He is eternal life. And in every other religion, the founder points to eternal life saying, “Do this and you might achieve eternal life.” But Jesus is God come in the flesh. And to unite with Him in faith, to know Him in love, is to have this life. 

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About the Author
Pastor Jeff Vines is the Lead Pastor of ONE&ALL Church. He spent twenty years on the mission field (Zimbabwe, New Zealand) planting churches and training leaders. Jeff is the author of Dinner with SKEPTICS: Defending God in a World that Makes No Sense (2008, 2011) and Unbroken: 8 Enduring Promises God Will Keep (2012). Jeff and his wife, Robin, have been married over 30 years and enjoy life with their kids Delaney & Sian, their daughter-in-law Jessica and sweet grandchildren Ada, Owen, & Layla.

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