I trust you have had a joyful Christmas. It is the evening, and the hectic activity that leads up to and ushers in the day is winding down. Now is such a time to take in what, I hope you will see, is the wonder of Christmas day.
The text read may seem out of place on a day when we celebrate birth and peace. It presents a dramatic account of the great redemption that God’s people celebrated. It is the story that gave them their identity, which marked their destiny as God’s people. There is no greater story for the Jewish people. Tonight, I want to use this story to remind us of the greater redemption that God has wrought for both Jew and Gentile through Jesus Christ whose birth we are celebrating.
This is the seventh time turning to Psalm 78 at this time each year. Those of you who have heard some of the sermons should remember the gist of the psalm. The psalmist Asaph determines that his generation will not be like those of old who forgot the great deeds of God. He shows how, as a result, they rebelled against God and strayed from him. God then chooses David to shepherd the people.
Thus the setting of this vivid account of redemption is set in the context of rebellious forgetfulness.
42 They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
43 when he performed his signs in Egypt
and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
Over the years we have studied this forgetfulness and rebellion. We want to focus now on the acts of redemption. As we know, the people of Israel were living in bondage in Egypt. They had become Egypt’s slave labor force. God sends Moses to deliver them from their oppression. As he instructs Moses to tell the people: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” (Exodus 6:6).
These acts of judgment turned out to be the ten plagues. Our psalmist refers to six – waters turning to blood; the swarms of flies, of frogs, and of locusts; the devastating hail; and, the most terrible of all – the death of the firstborn. Note how graphic the psalmist renders the effects of these plagues: “they could not drink of their streams”; flies, which devoured them… frogs, which destroyed them; destroying locust. The land’s crops, the fruit-bearing vines and trees, the cattle and flocks were given over, destroyed by the onslaught of plague after plague. If you are wondering about the “frost” in verse 47, that is a poetic description of the hail covering the land. I’ve seen such a sight following a hailstorm in South Dakota.
The depiction of destruction reaches its pinnacle in verses 49-51:
49 He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50 He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51 He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
Do you feel the wrath? Does your mind take you from image to destructive image so that you can imagine the terror and the oppression that led Pharaoh’s servants to have the nerve to say to him, “Do you not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?” (Exodus 10:7).
And then for his own people, the Lord acts as shepherd, protecting and leading them to safety.
52 Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountain which his right hand had won.
55 He drove out nations before them;
he apportioned them for a possession
and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents.
The sea overwhelmed their enemies (v 53). The greatest deed of all! Recounted again and again in Israel’s lore. There is much detail to fill in, of course, of all that took place in the forty plus years of deliverance. And the psalm includes more of the story – of the great deeds by which God provided, protected, and even brought judgment against his own people in the wilderness. And all to the end of redemption. Yes, even the judgment was for the purpose of turning the hearts of his people to himself for their salvation.
And the covenant people of God recognized the significance and the greatness of these deeds. Whenever they were oppressed and appealed to God, they would remind him of this mighty redemption he wrought for them. When the psalmists praise God for his wondrous works, it is these works of deliverance from bondage that they extol. What a wondrous Redeemer is their God to deliver them out of bondage and to settle them in the Promised Land!
Truly such deeds are to be remembered, recounted, and praised. Surely God is to be exalted for such works of redemption. But on this Christmas day, on this night of reflection, consider the greater deeds, the more wondrous works of redemption that were still to be performed.
For there was to come a night when a young woman would give birth to a peasant baby with no place to lie but in a manger. That very birth would signify the beginning of wondrous deeds of redemption. The young woman was a virgin, and so the child’s conception and birth was a great wonder.
His very presence itself is the greatest wonder. For he was Immanuel, “God with us.” This Redeemer is God-man. As the carol proclaims, here is “God of God, Light of Light…very God, begotten, not created.” Here, as theologian J. I. Packer says, are two mysteries for the price of one. Surely we would agree with him, that “Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.”
The incarnation alone would be enough to give holy worship to God, to this child. To contemplate such mystery would be enough to fill us with awe; to contemplate God becoming man to be with man – that is enough to stir our hearts.
Put aside the controversies today over displaying the nativity scene. When those who have taken time to view, to contemplate the story of the God-child lying in a manger, it has filled believer and even unbeliever with a sense of reverence. It softens the hearts of Charlie Brown’s materialistic friends to look kindly on a frail Christmas tree. It lures “Home Alone” Kevin into church before his epic battle with the “Wet Bandits” at his home. It even pulls on the hearts of the Herdman kids, “the worst kids in the whole history of the world,” as we are told in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. There is something that draws a sense of peace, of quietness, of sacredness.
Yet the mystery of the Christmas story lies not merely in the baby called Immanuel – God is with us – but in his other name, Jesus – God saves. And so, the carol we will sing, proclaims:
Forth today the Conqu'ror goeth,
Who the foe, Sin and woe,
Death and hell, o'erthroweth.
God is man, man to deliver;
His dear Son Now is one
With our blood forever.
God sent his Son not merely to be with us but to redeem us through great signs and wonders, greater than those of the earlier redemption. Consider the miracles. In the first redemption God brings forth storm; Jesus calms the storm. In the first, people are plagued with disease and death; Jesus heals and brings the dead to life. In the first, food – the crops, fruit, and livestock – are destroyed; Jesus multiplies food. In the first, darkness covers the land; Jesus is the light dispelling the darkness. In the first, swarms of destroying and debilitating insects and frogs overwhelm the people; Jesus casts out legions of demons. In the first, the water is divided then destroys; Jesus walks on the water and quiets its rage.
And then, the deliverer Jesus Christ was far superior to the deliverer Moses, whom God sent. Moses performed no miracles. When he tried to take credit for bringing water out of a rock, God gave him harsh discipline to remind him that he, God, was the miracle-worker, not Moses. But Jesus possessed the very authority to rule nature and order it to perform according to his will.
But even that does not get to the wonder of the redeemer Jesus Christ. For whereas manna, the bread of heaven, was provided for the people in the wilderness, Jesus was the very Bread of Heaven given for his people. Whereas water was provided miraculously from a rock, Jesus was the Life-Giving Water. Whereas a pillar of fire and of cloud was provided to guide the people, Jesus was the Light of the world. Whereas a pole with a serpent was lifted up to bring healing, Jesus was the Healer of all illness.
And we know that the pole with the serpent had more significance. As we are told in the gospel of John: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14).
Moses was the shepherd who led his sheep out of bondage to another nation, then through a wilderness journey up to the entry of the Promised Land, though he could not enter with them. Jesus was the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Jesus was the shepherd who became the lamb that led his flock out of bondage to sin, who continues now to shepherd us through our wilderness here, and will usher us into the eternal Promised Land. Therefore we may sing:
He becomes the Lamb that taketh
Sin away And for aye
Full atonement maketh.
For our life his own he tenders;
And our race, By his grace,
Meet for glory renders.
To win the first redemption, plagues and death were visited upon the oppressors. To win the second redemption, the Redeemer took upon himself the plagues and death. Are there more wondrous deeds than to bear such disgrace and agony as our Redeemer bore for us? He left his place in glory to live on an earth scarred by the fall. He took on our flesh and experienced the cold, the heat, the weariness – all the physical trials that we undergo, yet more. For he took on flesh not merely to identify with us but to serve us, even to suffer and to die for us.
Throughout his ministry the Man of Sorrows was questioned, pressured, made demands upon before his sacrifice. Upon his arrest, he was imprisoned, beaten, interrogated, mocked, made a spectacle of until he was finally nailed upon a cross, and even then continued to be mocked.
And that is what we could see. We could not see the spiritual battle. He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and throughout his ministry. The length and strength of such warfare we cannot know. Nor can we grasp the greatest pain of all that he bore, when on the cross, when our sin had been transferred to him, he experienced the turning away of his Father. What deed, what mighty work, is more wondrous, more terrifying than that which our Redeemer wrought for us?
And then, consider the superiority of the redemption itself over the first. That first redemption was mighty and worthy of the honor given to it by the people of Israel. To deliver a small nation from bondage to the mightiest nation of the day; to deliver the people through a wilderness, protecting them for forty years was wondrous, as it was also to bring them into a land occupied already with nations and then settle them in the land.
Even so, they merely moved from land cursed by the fall to other land cursed by the fall. They experienced the same death, encumbered with the same troubles of survival and inward failure. Their sins were not atoned for. As the writer of Hebrews noted in reviewing the sacrificial system established for Israel: “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
But the redemption won by Jesus Christ did just that. As Hebrews goes on to say, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v. 10). And though we may still die, death has been stripped of its victory.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).
Thus we can sing:
Though my breath Fail in death,
Yet I shall not perish,
But with thee abide for ever
There on high, In that joy
Which can vanish never.
Then let us consider even greater mystery, and that is the mystery of why God should give such a cherished gift.
Shall we still dread God's displeasure,
Who, to save, Freely gave
His most cherished treasure?
To redeem us, he hath given
His own Son From the throne
Of his might in heaven.
Why such treasure? Why the gift of his very Son? The motive of the first redemption was love:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:7-9).
God loved the people of Israel because God chose to love them. And because of his love his made a covenant with their fathers, and God is a promise keeper.
For the same reason God sent his Son to redeem us.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).
Because of such love, we are included in the covenant promises. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, spoke of the Messiah coming to fulfill the covenant: to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant (Luke 1:72). And lest we think our sins disqualify us for such covenant love, we are comforted by these words in Romans: God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
This redemption, this salvation from sin and from death, this treasured gift given in love – this is what the scene at the manger presents to us.
Hark! a voice from yonder manger,
Soft and sweet, Doth entreat:
"Flee from woe and danger,
Brethren, from all ills that grieve you
You are freed; All you need
I will surely give you."
And this is the final great advantage of the second redemption. It is a gift, pure and simple. We are not called to endure added hardship as when the Pharaoh increased the labors of the Israelites when Moses first arrived. We are not called to rush through a divided sea pursued by enemies. Nor are we called to fight battles as we journey through the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. Christ has fought all our battles. He has journeyed through the wilderness on our behalf, and we are called to nothing more than to take our inheritance of salvation that is offered in him.
As this Christmas day comes to a close, may your heart – all your heart – this night rejoice in the birth of your Redeemer. If you know him, all the more give thanks for him and resolve to live for him and rejoice in him.
If you have yet to know him, don’t let this day end as simply another tradition observed. You are here now, among those who believe in the true mysteries of the incarnation. You have rare opportunity now to consider the gospel of redemption. Another year is coming to an end. Will it be nothing more than time gone by? Will the new year having nothing to present but more time to fill up? Are you not willing to let mystery come into your life, mystery that has significance, that changes your life? May your heart at the close of this year rejoice in the good news of your redemption.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org