Because of Bethlehem: “God Has A Face”

Sermon Series on Because of Bethlehem: “God Has A Face”
A Message on Hebrews 4:14-16

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Dec. 10, 2017
By Doug Wintermute

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NRSV)


Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


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In his book, Because of Bethlehem: Love is Born, Hope is Here, Max Lucado tells the true story of a man named George Harley who moved with his wife to Africa in 1926 to become medical missionaries among the Mano tribe in Liberia. After arriving he became frustrated because the people he was trying to reach with the gospel message were not responsive. George had a burning passion for Jesus Christ and just couldn’t understand why the people he was living among weren’t interested in it.


George constructed a clinic and a chapel. The clinic was full and he treated thousands of people, but no one came to the chapel. Not a single person.


While in Africa George and his wife had a son. They named him Robert but called him Bobby. He was the apple of their eye.


Then when Robert was five he became ill. His dad, George, being a doctor, tried everything he knew of to try to cure his son, but nothing worked. In just a short period of time Robert got worse and then died.


Heartbroken, George went to his workshop and built a coffin. When it was finished, he placed Bobby’s body inside, nailed the lid shut, and then hoisted it on his shoulder and began carrying it toward a clearing where he planned to dig a grave for his son.


While he was on the way an older man of the tribe in the village came up to him and asked him what he was doing. George explained what had happened and what he was doing. The elderly man offered to help George carry the coffin, and the two of them carried it to the cleaning.


George later told a friend:


So the old man took one end of the coffin and I took the other. Eventually we came to the clearing in the forest. We dug a grave there and laid Bobby in it. But when we had covered up the grave, I just couldn’t stand it any longer . . . I fell down on my knees in the dirt and began to sob uncontrollably. My beloved son was dead, and there I was in the middle of an African jungle 8,000 miles from home and relatives. I felt so all alone. But when I started crying, the old man cocked his head in stunned amazement. He squatted down beside me and looked at me so intently. For a long time, he sat there listening to me cry. Then suddenly, he leaped to his feet and went running back up the trail through the jungle, screaming, again and again, at the top of his voice, “White man, white man—he cries like one of us.”


Max wrote about what happened next. “That evening as Harley and his wife grieved in their cottage, there was a knock at the door. Harley opened it. There stood the chief and almost every man, woman, and child in the village. They were back again the next Sunday and filled the chapel to overflowing. They wanted to hear about Jesus. Everything changed when the villagers saw the tears of the missionary. Everything changes when we see the face of God.”


Christmas is when we see the face of God. It celebrates the birth of Jesus, an ordinary yet extraordinary baby, born not in a palace of royalty, but the humbleness of a a stable.


Seeing the face of God is a big deal. A really big deal. If we go back and look in the Old Testament we find just how significant it is.


In the 33rd chapter of Exodus, we find God preparing the Hebrew people to enter the Holy Land. God has been speaking to Moses not only on Mt. Sinai where he gives him the 10 Commandments (twice!) but also in what is called the Tent of Meeting, a tent set up outside the camp where a pillar of cloud would appear at the entrance after Moses entered.


So God is giving Moses instructions. Moses asks God to go with the people, and God assures him that he will. Then we read of this exchange between Moses and God:


Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he [God] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23)


Did you catch that? “…you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”


God’s glory, God’s presence, is so holy, so powerful, that seeing God’s face would push humans beyond the ability to witness it and live. You’ve heard of people seeing things that are so shocking that they pass out, right? Can you imagine seeing something that is so powerful that it kills you?


And yet…


In a stable in Bethlehem, with no earthly fanfare, God’s face is seen for the first time. It comes to us as a baby boy. God puts on flesh and a face. God comes and dwells among us. The baby is Immanuel, God-with-us.


I think part of the challenge at for us as Christians living in the 21st century is in trying wrap our minds around what Christmas is really about, what the true meaning of Christmas is about.


We say it’s about the birth of Jesus, and that is right. But I think we miss the significance of that event.


Christmas has become so commercialized that the world seduces us into believing that it’s all about the giving and receiving of presents, that it’s about the decorations and parties and meals. In these respects Christmas takes on a life of its own, a personality of its own, one that is much, much different than God coming to earth in Bethlehem. And not only coming to earth, but doing so in such a humble way.


Let me show you something I ran across this past week. It’s a nativity scene that you can purchase. It sells for $109.99 on Amazon but hey, it qualifies for Amazon Prime free two day shipping.


It’s called the “Hipster Nativity Scene.”  Here, I’ll show you some close up photos of it. (Show photos.)


Set in our day today, it shows Joseph, with a man-bun, taking a selfie with Mary, who is holding a Starbucks coffee in one hand and holding up a peace sign with the other, while also showing “duck lips” for the photo. There are solar panels on top of the stable. The shepherd has an iphone or IPad with ear buds in his ears as he Snapchats news of the savior’s birth. The sheep is wearing a Christmas sweater and the cow has a sign saying “100% Organic” while eating “gluten-free feed.” The three wise men are on Segways holding boxes that say “Amazon Prime.”


I find this both funny and sad. It is funny in that it points out so many of stereotypes present in our society today. But it is sad in that it shows just how far from the true meaning of Christmas we have come. What’s possibly even worse is that it represents the theology of so many Christians today.


God has a face. God comes to earth. God walks among us, talks to us, teaches us, heals us, and offers us things that the world cannot give us. God gives us purpose and meaning for our lives. God gives us an example to follow in our interactions with others. God gives us hope when we think there is none. God offers us eternal life that defeats death and transcends time.


I think part of the problem with our perception of Jesus’ birth is that it has been cleaned up too much. Our society has removed the realism of it by making it an event where everything is perfect.


For example, one of the traditional Christmas Hymns is “Away in a Manger.” The lyrics of one of the verses says,


“The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes


I am convinced that the writer of those lyrics went a little too far with the editorial license. When newborn babies wake up they cry. It’s what they do. They cry if they are hungry. They cry if they need a diaper change. They cry if they are gassy. It’s the way they communicate.


If Jesus was fully human when he was born, and I am convinced that he was, then there shouldn’t be lyrics in Christmas songs about how he doesn’t cry.


Here’s another example: “The Little Drummer Boy.” Now y’all know that I’m a drummer and I like drums, but this song makes no sense. The little drummer boy shows up to see baby Jesus and, because he is poor and has nothing to give the child, volunteers to play his drum for the baby. The lyrics say that “Mary nodded,” giving approval and permission for him to play.


Anyone who has ever had a newborn baby knows that song is a lie. When Pam had our girls, Sarah and Emily, the thought never entered my mind to play drums for them. I’m pretty sure if a kid showed up at our house wanting to play the drum for either of our newborn babies I’m pretty sure that Pam would have told him… well, I can’t really say that in this setting, but suffice it to say she would NOT have nodded yes.


The scripture we read today from Hebrews is not one we normally associate with Adent or even Christmas. But I think it is important and that it really does sum up accurately what the birth of Jesus Christ means.


Listen again to verse 15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”


I think at the birth of Jesus we have focused too much on the divinity of Jesus instead of his humanness.


Jesus was born like all human babies. God came to earth not with a giant flash and special effects. He came to earth through the painful cries of a mother in labor. Andrew Peterson wrote a beautiful song titled “Labor of Love.” Here are some of the lyrics:


It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyway that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold.

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.


Jesus cried. Jesus spit up. Jesus needed his diaper changed. Jesus was just as human as any other baby.


Jesus was/is fully human and fully God. It wasn’t 50/50. It is 100/100. And while this isn’t humanly possible it certainly possible for God.


Remember verse 15 we read today? “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”


Jesus’ humanness, his being fully human, means that he knows everything we go through. He knows about the temptations we face because he faced them as well. He was tested just as we are tested every day. The difference is that he didn’t sin. We do.


And because he didn’t sin, because he was perfect, it makes it even more amazing that he was willing to go to the cross to bear the sins of those of us who aren’t perfect.


So God does have a face. His name is Jesus. And because he came to earth and went to the cross, we have joy at Christmas because it leads to Easter.


So my challenge to you this week is to remember that God has a face. As we celebrate and shop and decorate may we never take our eyes of the fact that God has a face, the face of a baby born in Bethlehem. That is the real reason for the season. (And you can’t take a selfie with that.)


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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