Four words that appear on almost every year-end Christmas or holiday greeting card sent and received.
Wonderful words and appropriate.
But also, very exclusive.
But more on that later.
What strikes me is that if the church of Christ was going to mark yearly God’s great redemptive event of the Advent (the promise and birth of the Messiah, the Christ), year’s end is the best time. Not the middle of July or sometime in August or such like, but year’s end, as the church and the believer are compelled to mark the passing of time. And with the passing of time, we are reminded of the long-awaited return of Christ, His second coming, this time not as a lowly babe ignored by all the world, but in power and in glory on the clouds of heaven with the trumpets of heaven blowing and echoing around the world and the saints still living exclaiming “He comes, He comes! As promised, He comes! Halleluiah, He has come!”
And what is true of His first appearing, in little Bethlehem? “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
I say, “If the church was going to mark the Advent of the Messiah,” because not every Calvinistic church has chosen to mark the Advent of Christ with a special worship service on an affixed date during the calendar year. Those of Scottish Presbyterian vintage chose not to, in agreement with Calvin and Knox, and all but anathematized such a practice because it smelled suspiciously Romish to them. The addition of such days to the Lord’s Day was something Rome imposed on her members, extra holy days as far as they were concerned, and then used to her financial advantage as she urged her members to come to its cathedrals and worship before its images of the Virgin carrying an infant (which all cathedrals had in some shape or form) and leave coinage behind. Supposedly, another packet of meritorious works to add to one’s pile while Rome’s clergy enriched themselves.
Be that as it may, the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands at the Synod of Dordt by its Church Order decided there was value to marking the great redemptive event, the wonder of the Incarnation, on an annual basis on a designated day, and decided to keep it on the day church members had been marking since early Christendom (336 AD), namely, December 25.
For the reader interested in the rationale of the Synod of Dordt for its congregations to mark the great New Testament redemptive event of Christ’s birth (called Christmas) with a call to worship, along with Easter and Pentecost (and in some locations continuing their practice of marking the days of Christ’s circumcision and ascension as well), read Van Dellen and Monsma’s commentary on Dordt’s Church Order.
Interesting and informative.
As far as our church fathers were concerned, it was a matter of Christian liberty. A denomination has the right to require such of her federation members, namely, to conform to certain practices in the interests of the spiritual benefits perceived and evils counteracted as long as it did not violate a scriptural law or principle.
This became an issue between Presbyterian and Reformed brethren but, interestingly and significantly, one that historically did not prevent fraternal relations in days post-Reformation or post-Dordt.
Neither is it an issue we intend to attempt to settle in this editorial.
Simply put, we are of the Reformed persuasion. And truth to tell, as pastor and preacher, I have rejoiced in the practice of marking these great redemptive events on an annual basis, seeing their benefit when it comes to subject matter for preaching and pointing the people of God to Jehovah-Salvation’s wonderful faithfulness in the keeping of His promises, fulfilling great prophecies as they are found scattered throughout the Scriptures. And this on an annual basis.
But especially I have enjoyed the Advent season (call it Christmas-time, if you will) during my pastoral ministry. In part, I must admit, not only because it comes at year’s end, but also because it comes at year’s end for one living in a northern climate. Days are short, nights are long, the weather is cold, and it can, like the Netherlands, be gloomy for days on end, not to say weeks. And then comes the first official day of winter and, shortly thereafter, year’s end.
And then that great light that the Lord God created on the fourth day to rule the day (and the seasons) begins its northern trek again and the days begin to lengthen. Speaking of, assuring us of what? Springtime shall come again! And with it, the renewal of life.
How does the Song of Songs in the KJV put it so exquisitely? “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land” (2:11, 12).
Never heard a turtle, you say? Nor have I. I suppose some scholar will impress us with his knowledge of Hebrew and tell us “Literally, it says ‘turtledove’.” Granted. But for poetic reasons I prefer “turtle.” Don’t ask me why.
The cold, seemingly lifeless earth is renewed and life once again abounds.
How does Psalter #171 versify Psalm 65, describing springtime?
To bless the earth Thou sendest
From Thy abundant store
The waters of the springtime,
Enriching it once more.
The seed by Thee provided
Is sown o’er hill and plain,
And Thou with gentle showers
Dost bless the springing grain.
All these things done in parables, God’s creation and its seasonal cycles pointing to the greater spiritual and heavenly realities set forth in His Word, the regeneration of new life, beginning in the hearts of a new humanity, bearing fruit, and foretelling of a whole new creation blooming with everlasting life.
And that brings us back to marking the Advent of the promised Messiah this time of the year. I have found it beneficial.
Even the practice of sending out greeting cards. Some may call them Christmas cards. I prefer holiday greetings, because the occasion for the cards is not primarily, as far as I am concerned, a need to remind each other of Christ’s birth, but an occasion to remind others that they are in our thoughts the whole year long, even if we may have little opportunity for personal contact during the whole year.
Year’s end serves as an occasion to send greetings to folks we have not seen or personally conversed with for years sometime, friends and fellow believers of the household of faith separated by miles and even by great seas. We have, for instance, developed friendships with saints in Germany and Singapore (to say nothing of those in former congregations half a continent away). Year’s end is an opportunity to send them greetings, reminding them that they are still in our thoughts and prayers, encouraging some that though they be small in number and even isolated from many like-minded believers, they are not alone in the world. There are others who share with them a common hope.
And now this simple, basic point: that hope, the only hope there is in all this benighted world, is grounded in the One identified by the last of the Old Testament prophets (and that at time when spiritual coldness and darkness lay over a withering Old Testament church), the One labeled as “the Sun of righteousness” who was to “arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2).
Apart from Him there is no hope, no joy, no peace, no true, enduring fellowship of love.
Strikingly, these are realities of which not only the Christian church speaks, but the ungodly world as well. How it longs for these realities.
Of these spiritual realities the church of Christ must speak as decisively and sharply to our present society as the five wise virgins spoke to the five foolish; namely, these treasured realities to be found in our Jesus, the church’s promised Messiah, or not at all. “Your lamps are without oil or light. Repent and believe, or perish. There are no other options.”
Wonderful words—love, peace, joy, and hope. Wonderful truths and realities found in the Christ Jesus of Bethlehem.
Love! Even the worldings know that great Scripture, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave….”
Notice, not simply “that He sent” (though He did), but He gave! The gift-giving Lord God.
And this is the marvel: there is a sense in which, when the incarnate wonder emerged from the womb and was held in the arms of that young virgin and before the eyes of her now husband Joseph, God unwrapped Himself. How does that other great 3:16 passage put it? “Great is the mystery of godliness [the true religion], God was manifest in the flesh” (I Tim. 3:16). And again, “And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Love, self-giving love. That the almighty, eternal God gave, and gave nothing less than Himself is a wonder beyond words.
And do not forget, life is begotten by love, not apart from it. God’s love in Christ Jesus is pre-imminent. You know not the Father and Son? You know not love, and you are without true life.
But if you know this love and rejoice in it, then you have peace. And only then.
Why? Because then you are held in the embrace of the arms of the mightiest Persons and Being there is in the whole universe, those of our Father, who is also the eternal triune God. He is the One who’s “got the whole world in His hands,” and “the little tiny baby.” Held in His arms as His own as one looks out over the raging world? There is no place of greater safety and security.
That’s elusive peace, as far as the world is concerned. But not for those who belong to Jesus, body and soul, bought with the precious blood; they have real peace.
May you, while yet on earth, know the peace of being under the protection and care of God’s great Prince of Peace.
And then comes joy!
A friend recently sent out this brief reflection on joy, which holds a world of truth.
Some people think Christians should always be smiling and happy, and something is wrong if they aren’t. But this isn’t necessarily true.
Don’t confuse happiness with JOY. Happiness comes with happy circumstances; joy wells up deep inside our souls as we learn to trust Christ. Joy does not mean that we are never sad or that we never cry. Joy is a quiet confidence, a state of inner peace that comes from God.
Life’s troubles may rob us of our happiness, but they can never rob us of the joy God gives us as we turn in faith to Him and seek His face.
True joy radiates from within and makes its presence known regardless of circumstances.
How true. “True joy radiates from within,” because it wells up from the deep current of Christ’s life founded on God’s promises found within the heart of every believing child of God.
At the birth of our Christ child the angels “sang” for joy, because well they knew, He and He alone in His person and work was “the joy of the whole earth.”
And out of this arises hope.
Hope is a glorious thing. It is the expectation of some glorious, better thing promised in the future that makes whatever losses a believer suffers in this world worth it in the end. Hope means that even in the darkest of circumstance there is a light that burns—yes, even as death takes hold of a child of God, be she young or be he old, a candle-light of hope that is never extinguished, because the oil with which it burns is the oil of the Spirit of the incarnate Son of God.
As one suffering saint put it long ago, “For I know that my redeemer liveth,…and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25, 26).
All other hopes fail. As the apostle declares in Ephesians 2:12 concerning man in unbelief, “having no hope, and without God in the world.”
If one is outside of Christ, one is without God. And then one is without hope. All that the future holds is judgment and death in the end. Despair.
But having Christ, His faith, His love, His life, His promises? One is filled with hope and joy unspeakable, that which the world cannot know.
As we take time to reflect upon the gift of God’s Son, the Wonder-Child, and upon the passing of time as we together live in the hope of His return, it is altogether proper to use it as an occasion to greet one another, wish each other well, and to point each other to our one great hope and Redeemer.
We can, of course, do this at any time during the year. Go ahead. Most people welcome cards of greeting expressing good will towards them.
But, human nature being what it is, it is most helpful to have an occasion when we are prompted to do so, and that on a yearly basis so as not to be forgotten altogether.
Year’s end is an excellent time.
But what is the marking of time without the Christ child born once and then, as promised, coming again!
In conclusion, I close with a quote from Martin Luther I came across just recently. “The gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel, and every line suffused with wonder.”
There is truth to that. But truer is this: When it comes to the incarnation of God’s Only Begotten, the birth of our Lord, it is both a miracle and a marvel, and every line suffused with wonder.
It is a wonder to be spoken of, gloried in, and by believers, shared.