The Second Sunday of Advent December 5, 2004
701 [TLH alt. 66], 74, 412, 70
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be likeminded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God. Now I say that Jesus Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: “For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, and sing to Your name.” And again he says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!” And again: “Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!” And again, Isaiah says: “There shall be a root of Jesse; and He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope.” Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Among my all-time favorite TV programs is the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. They are consistently entertaining and more wholesome than what is generally offered by the networks. But I also like them for another reason—the commercials. They are almost as good as the movie itself. Especially at Christmastime, the commercials portray a slice of life as we would like it to be: the peace of a walk in the woods under a starlit sky on Christmas Eve; the joy of hope fulfilled when a son makes it home for the holidays; the warmth and fellowship of boisterous laughter around a festive table. These 60-second mini-stories are designed to evoke feelings which are often referred to as the “Christmas spirit.”
We watch the commercials and imagine ourselves there. We might even try to duplicate them, but what happens? We might remember a winter walk more for the frozen fingers than for the peace it was supposed to give. Icy roads and six inches of snow might ruin plans for a loved one to make it home. Hours of preparation in the kitchen and dreading the cleanup afterwards might create a feeling of exhaustion rather than exhilaration. In other words, getting the Christmas spirit is not as simple as creating the right atmosphere. We could work and work at it and still feel empty and let-down. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can have true Christmas spirit regardless of whether our lives are Hallmark-perfect on the outside or not, because that spirit is a matter of the heart and a free gift of God.
Holiday music and appeals to one’s goodness and generosity cannot produce Christmas spirit because those things do not change human nature. A selfish person is going to be a rude, impatient shopper no matter how loud the music is playing in the mall. Anger toward others and being at odds with God do not disappear just because of glowing lights spelling “peace.” We can see all those faults and more in ourselves. In fact, this time of year can make them stand out even more as we notice how far short we fall of the ideal. Even at Christmastime we are still sinners. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18 NIV). “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). Sin brings conflict and suffering, never peace and joy. Look back over the past day and week, and you will see many examples.
To find true Christmas spirit we have to look outside of ourselves and beyond the sinful world. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of Scriptures might have hope.” [v.4] The source of our hope is God’s holy Word. Christmas spirit can only be found in Christ. Both the Old and New Testaments lead us straight to the manger in Bethlehem. Jesus came to serve His people, the Jews, by confirming all the promises made to Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those promises spoke of a descendant from their family who would crush the Devil’s head and rescue them from their sin. Jesus would do that by keeping God’s holy Law as their stand-in, and then paying the debt of their sin on the cross.
But it would not stop there! Jesus would become a banner of salvation for Gentiles, too. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people! Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!” [vv.10-11] That is the true spirit of Christmas! Believe it, it’s yours! “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace and believing.” [v.13] What could be more joyful than knowing “that though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool”? (Isaiah 1:18 NIV). What could be more peaceful than knowing that all is well between you and God through Jesus? May the God of hope fill you with that true Christmas spirit!
God fills the forgiven heart so full of His peace and joy that it overflows into the lives of others and creates the Christmas spirit of harmony even where it might seem unlikely. The Roman congregation to whom St. Paul was writing is an illustration of that. The Roman church was very diverse. Some were Jews who had grown up with the Old Testament forms of worship. They had a solid grounding in Scripture. Others were Gentile converts who were brand new to the faith and had no desire to adopt the ceremonial laws for their worship. Satan tried to capitalize on these differences by using hurt feelings and human pride to drive a wedge between these believers.
But Paul steered them back to Christ and the Gospel, and reminded them of their unity in what really mattered. They were joined in one mind, both Jew and Gentile, for they trusted in Jesus as the Son of God and their Savior from sin. With one united confession they praised God for His salvation in their worship services. Whether they did this with traditional Jewish forms or modified them for the sake of the Gentiles did not affect their essential unity in the least.
One thing which Satan cannot stand is to see a congregation of believers working together in harmony. He will work overtime to destroy that. If he cannot divide us with false teaching, he will try to do it by making outward things which God neither commands nor forbids issues of contention. Stories are told of congregations splitting over a color choice for new carpeting in the sanctuary.
Rather than that, Paul says, “Let the Christmas spirit of love in your heart overflow to fellow believers.” “Receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.” [v.7] To “receive” means to welcome. “Welcome one another, just as Christ also welcomed us.” Jesus did not grudgingly let us into His kingdom. He did not first check to see whether we measured up or fit in. He unconditionally welcomed us with open arms. “Come, you who are weary and burdened with sin and I will give you rest” (cf. Matthew 11:28). Every day we fall short of loving Him and living for Him as we should, and yet every night when we confess our sin, He patiently forgives us again.
That is the spirit He works in us toward one another. In Him we find the patience and endurance to welcome one another as fellow believers who have nothing of which to boast except Christ crucified. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32 NIV). Likewise, Peter writes: “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble….Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 3:8; 4:8 NIV).
We all sin, and sometimes we sin against each other. When that happens let the love of Christ move you to forgive just as freely and completely as Christ forgives you every day. Jesus understands and sympathizes with everything you are going through. Let His love give you the same compassion for the difficulties others are facing in their lives. Christ’s love overflowing from our hearts to others brings about and preserves a true Christmas spirit among us.
Don’t let it stop with fellow believers. God’s love is so overwhelming that there is more than enough to fill all our hearts, bubble over to one another, and still reach out to many others. Just as Jewish believers were to share the Gospel with the Gentiles around them, so think of all the people around us who have no clue about the real Christmas spirit. Let your joy and hope overflow to them.
When your carefully laid plans for these days fall apart, let others see that your peace does not depend on earthly things, but on the Prince of Peace who has made things right with God. When the words and actions of others or just the hectic pace of life leaves you frazzled and frustrated, pray for Christ-like patience and then show it. When you see others searching for some kind of happiness, let them see your joy. Be ready to give a reason for the hope that you have.
Even little things can make a big difference when the Word is at work. Every year after our evening of caroling, there are notes and phone calls of appreciation. It is not because we spend a great deal of time singing or because of our polished performance. But those few minutes we spend bring the Gospel hope to other souls, the hope which endures long past Christmas. The expressions of Christian faith you write on Christmas cards are a gift that money cannot buy. Let your whole life be a joyful witness to God’s love for sinners.
Familiar holiday music, twinkling lights, bright decorations, and nostalgic scenes are the Hallmark version of Christmas spirit. But God gives us the real thing. He places in our hearts the message of His mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus. Treasure that, but do not let it stay bottled up inside. Let it reach out from your heart to your family, fellow believers, and all others. This Advent season “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [v.13] Amen.
Prepare my heart, Lord Jesus,
Turn not from me aside,
And grant that I receive Thee,
This blessed Advent-tide.
From stall and manger low,
Come Thou to dwell within me;
Loud praises will I sing Thee
And forth Thy glory show.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.