Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Unexpected Christmas Gift (Matthew 10:34)


Snowfall created a crisis in our area last weekend. Not only did we have to cancel church, but the bigger news story was how the retail industry would be crippled because shoppers couldn’t get out on the day after Christmas. On that day, typically shoppers rush out to stores for two reasons. For one, they want to buy all of next year’s Christmas items at a reduced price; and they head out to return all the gifts they received but really didn’t want. I’ve been on both ends of that whole “unwanted gift” thing before. We gave some presents to a friend of our children, and when he had opened it, he said, “I really don’t like these; they’re not what I wanted.” And I’ve had those moments where I opened something and wanted to say that, but like a polite grownup I smile and say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” What I really mean is, “Seriously, you SHOULDN’T have.” Of course, sometimes you receive a gift that you really wanted, but once you unbox it and begin to make use of it, there is something unexpectedly disappointing about it. It doesn’t fit like you thought it would; the quality is poorer than you expected; it doesn’t have the features you were hoping it would have.

Now, we all know that Christmas is not about the gifts we give to each other, but about the Gift that God has given to each of us in Jesus Christ. And yet, it seems that as we acquaint ourselves with this wondrous Gift, we are sometimes disappointed, or at least surprised by something we never expected. Are you shocked to hear me say that? Don’t be, for God surely knows that we have all thought it; therefore it is no shame to just come out with it. Surely all of us have had those moments where we were faced with a reality that we never expected following Christ would entail. That has happened to every person who has ever begun to follow Jesus, beginning with the apostles and continuing on to this very day. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing wrong with Jesus; He is who He is, and He is glorious in all of His divine perfections. But sometimes there is something off-kilter in our expectations or understanding that gets whiplashed as we come to discover more about the Christ to whom we have pledged ourselves by faith. And so we come to realize that He is an unexpected Christmas gift.

In our text today we find an instance where we are perhaps taken aback by the words of Jesus. He says in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth.” Peace? Where would we have gotten a silly idea like that? Oh I remember now, that is what we were told His coming would bring to the world! You remember how the angels said in Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” These very words were inscribed on precisely 72.8% of the Christmas cards I received this year (OK I made that part up to make it sound more convincing, but those words were on a lot of cards). Surely the coming of Christ means peace on earth. But no, Jesus says, “Do not think I came to bring peace on the earth.” Well, if He didn’t come to bring peace, He must have come to bring something similar to peace. Maybe it is one of those “Greek word” things where we translate it one way but it really can also mean something similar but different. So what did He really come to bring? He said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Well, now if this isn’t the ultimate bait and switch! This is worse than my last visit to Best Buy. I went in to buy a computer that was listed in the paper, and was told that they didn’t have them and couldn’t get them but they could sell me one that was half as good for the same price. When I called to complain about that, they told me that the offer in the paper only applied to residents of Brooklyn, New York. That was bad, but this is worse. We were promised peace, but then Jesus shows up and says, “No, I didn’t come to bring peace! I came to bring a sword.” I think we’re going to need to talk to the Manager or something about this! This is not what we expected!

So in order to understand all this, we need to look at the peace that was promised and the sword that was sent and see how this Christmas gift that we never expected actually proves to be for our good and for God’s glory in the world.

I. Reexamining the peace that was promised.

Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God were promised a time of peace that was coming. The Hebrew word Shalom encapsulates so much more than just the absence of warfare. It carried the idea of completeness, wholeness, a state of perfect well-being in which all would be right in the world. It was clear that this day had been promised and that Messiah was the One who would bring it about. When Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah, He said that he would be called the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and said that there would be no end to the increase of His government or of peace (9:7). Isaiah spoke of the days in which Messiah would reign, and the people would beat their swords into plowshares, and nations would no longer lift up swords against one another, and never again would they learn war (2:4). Surely the angels who made their announcement to the shepherds in the fields in Luke 2:14 were not lying when they said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace....”

Now, because of our familiarity with the King James Version, and moreover because we have memorized Christmas carols that are based on the King James text, we tend to think of Luke 2:14 as saying, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good will to men.” But, in fact, this is not the best translation of that verse. Quite literally it means, “peace on earth to men of good will,” that is, “to those on whom God’s favor rests,” men of His good will; not peace and good will to all men everywhere. It is those who receive Christ and the promise of salvation who receive peace.

Jesus told His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” The kind of peace that Jesus gave to His followers in His first coming was a peace between God and man that results from deliverance from sin. Because of sin, humanity is at war with God, and it is a war that we cannot win. But Christ’s coming is the offer of peace. God Himself comes to dwell among us as a man in the person of Jesus to take the penalty of our sin upon Himself, so that in Christ we may be at peace with God. Paul says in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith,” that is, having been made righteous through faith in Christ on the basis of His sinless life, His substitutionary death, and His glorious resurrection, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The sin that separated us from Him has been overcome by the blood of His cross and we have been reconciled to Him in this grace of salvation. So, indeed, Jesus came to bring peace to those on whom God’s favor, His saving grace, rests.

But, the coming of Christ which we celebrate at Christmas makes no such promise of peace and good will to all people everywhere on the earth. Christ made this clear, and the promises and prophecies made this clear. For every promise that had been made of a coming peace, there were also promises of vengeance and wrath, promises of hardship that would be endured by the faithful people of God, promises of strife that would arise for the sake of the name of Christ. So when Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace,” the word which is translated as bring in our Bibles is the Greek word ballo, from which we get the word “ball.” It means to throw, to cast, to hurl, if you will. Jesus is saying, “I did not come to cast peace over the whole earth.” Though such a universal peace has been promised, it is for now postponed until His second coming. This was not the purpose of His first coming which we celebrate at Christmas. There is a peace with God that can be experienced individually by those who call upon Him, a peace with God that issues forth in peaceful relations between men where His grace flows through those who belong to Him by faith. But that peace has not been comprehended or experienced by all, and therefore, universal peace will continue to elude our grasp until He returns. When that day arrives, all evil and all sin will be vanquished by His glorious power, and the perfect state of Shalom, the perfect peace of His eternal reign will be cast over the whole earth. But it is yet future. Do not think that He came to bring that kind of peace at Christmas. For that we still wait; but here and now we can have personal peace with God by believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ which says that He lived the righteous life we cannot, and died the sinners’ death in our place, that we might be forgiven, redeemed, made righteous, and adopted as sons and daughters in the family of God. And if we lose sight of the distinction between these two kinds of peace, we may become disappointed and find Christ to be a most unexpected Christmas gift.

II. Considering the Sword that was Sent

I am for better and for worse something of a creature of habit, and for the last ten years or so, one of my habits at this time of year has been to reread C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The land of Narnia sits under the control of the White Witch and she has made it so that it is always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan, the mighty lion who represents Christ, is coming to set things aright in Narnia. The ancient Narnian prophecy had foretold: “Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight; at the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more, when he bares his teeth, winter meets its death, and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”

Before the children of the story meet him, they meet Father Christmas, the preferred name among the British for Santa Claus. It is he who announces to the children that “Aslan is on the move.” The appearance of Father Christmas indicates that the witch’s spell is breaking and that Christmas will come to Narnia; Aslan will arrive on the scene at the perfect moment, just as Christ arrived on earth in the fullness of time. When Father Christmas gives the children their presents, to Peter, the eldest, he gives a sword and a shield. Lewis says that Peter “was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.” Before peace could be established in Narnia, there would be a great battle, and Peter would have to make use of the gift he had received.

The biblical imagery of Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles is hard to miss. Just as Peter received the unexpected gift of a sword from Father Christmas, so Jesus says that He did not come to bring peace but a sword. And similarly, we understand this to mean that before there can be the universal peace of Messiah’s reign, there must be a battle to vanquish evil. That battle has been raging since sin first entered the world and it will continue until Christ returns. However, when Jesus came in His first Advent, the battle began to intensify. He came, He said, to bring a sword.

People will ask me from time to time if I interpret the Bible literally. That is really a misguided question, for the Bible, like all literature, contains passages that are literally stated and those that are figuratively stated. There are twin errors that arise when someone wants to interpret all of its passages with strict literalism or with strict figurativism. Usually, when figurative language is present, it is quite obvious, and this is one of those times. We know that Jesus does not mean that He came to bring a literal sword to the earth. First, the earth already had plenty of swords; second, we have no historical record of Jesus ever using a sword; third, when Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him; we could go on, but it is plain to see that Jesus is using “sword” here in a figurative way. But what does this figure of speech mean? Like most figurative language, there are many possibilities. In the Bible, a sword is sometimes used to speak of war, and sometimes of violence and bloodshed. While the Quran uses the idea of the sword to teach these things, the teachings of Jesus clearly indicate that this is not what He means when He says He came to bring a sword. There are passages that speak of the sword as an instrument of judgment, wielded both by the state (in the sense of capital punishment) and by the Lord. But divine judgment is something that is promised for the second Advent, not the first. There are also some passages that use the figurative language of a sword to describe the Word of God, and certainly Jesus not only came to proclaim the Word, but He also IS the incarnate Word of God. Yet, context here does not point to this meaning either. The symbolism here seems to point to the idea of a sword that divides.

In 1836, Colonel William Barrett Travis stood in front of the Alamo and took his sword and drew a line in the sand, saying, “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with to come across this line.” This is the same idea that we find here with the sword that Christ brings to the world. He comes to divide those who are with Him and those who are against Him. He eliminates all potential for a middle-ground. In Matthew 12:30, He says, “He who is not with Me is against Me.” And here in this text, He gives a stern warning to His followers.

We who have chosen to be with Him, to believe in Him by faith, will feel the sharp slice of the sword that He came to bring as we find ourselves divided from even our closest relationships. He says in the very next verse, “I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” The point here is not that Jesus calls us to make enemies with those people. No, the Bible is clear that the people of God are to love, honor, respect and care for their family members, even those who are unbelievers. Rather, Jesus’ point is that we must not be surprised when those family members cut us off from their company and turn away from us because of our faith in Him. We must understand that this kind of division is inevitable, and though it is as painful as the stab of a sword, we must endure it for the sake of His kingdom.

This is the point of what He says in verses 37-39. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy or Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Are we willing for the faith that binds us to Jesus to sever us from earthly ties? Does the threat of that sword cause us to want to shrink back from following Christ? If so, then Jesus says we are not worthy of Him, for we have not truly grasped the eternal severity of following Him, nor have we fully committed ourselves to Him. He says, “He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” Because we do not daily see crucifixion happening, these words have lost their sting in our day. Jesus’ original hearers understood full-well that when Jesus spoke of taking your cross, He meant death. If we are not willing to follow Christ to the point of death, suffering every earthly loss it may entail, including the loss of our very lives, then we have not comprehended the all-surpassing glory of Christ. The loss of earthly ties may seem mild compared to the bloody death of a cross that both Christ and many of His followers have had to endure. But we must be prepared to suffer both if we choose to follow Him.

But then He says, “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” If our existence is all about preserving our own luxuries and comforts so that we have a more enjoyable life here and now, then all that we seek to maintain in the present will be lost when this life comes to an end. What does it profit a man, Jesus said, to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? But if our faith in Christ is sincere enough to suffer the loss of earthly relationships, luxuries, comforts and privileges in order to hold fast to His name, then we will find that we have lost nothing in this life that is not more than compensated for in the life to come when we see Him face to face. The sword that Christ brings is much like the surgeon’s scalpel – it cuts us painfully and draws blood, but it cuts us to heal us. And when we awake to see His face in glory, our healing will be complete … First John 3 says that when we see Him, we will be like Him. And all the pain that the Christmas sword caused will fade from memory altogether, and there will be joy, glory, and ultimately peace like we have never known before.

Today I’d like to conclude by asking you if you have received this Christmas gift of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He lived and died to provide for you? As you follow Him, you may be surprised at what He calls you to and commands of you. The sacrifices you may be called to make may be quite unexpected; some of what He has promised may be postponed for a later day. But He will be faithful to His promises, and in Him alone is salvation found. So, though the bells of Christmas have ceased from ringing, the ultimate gift of Christmas is still available to all who will receive Him. We invite you today to receive Christ as God’s gift to you by calling upon Him as your Lord and Savior.

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