Sunday, December 23

Christ has gone to heaven.

Candle Lighter:if someone asks about your hope as a believer,…”
Response: “…always be ready to explain it.

Scripture: I Peter 3:15-23

15 …you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. 17 Remember, it is better to suffer for doing good, if that is what God wants, than to suffer for doing wrong!

18 Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.

19 So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— 20 those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. 21 And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

22 Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority.

Reader: The word of the Lord.
Response: Thanks be to God.

Some thoughts:
There are several threads of thought in this short section. One of the opportunities we have in a culture that celebrates a completely secular Christmas holiday is to be aware when we have the chance to engage someone in a conversation about the meaning and significance of the birth of Jesus, the focal point of Christmas. There is this wonderful line you just read, always be ready to explain it. How would you explain Christmas to someone who asked you what you think about Christmas? What is a little surprising is that it is brash Peter who writes “do this in a gentle and respectful way.” (Apparently the Holy Spirit did some reworking on Peter!) Look for opportunities these days to do just that. Peter anticipates you may receive some harassment for explaining Christmas and he then connects the “suffering” aspect to Jesus’ own suffering. In one short sentence he summarizes the whole purpose of Christmas: “He died for sinners to bring us safely home to God.” That’s it in a nutshell. Jesus came to die to make it possible for people to dwell eternally with God in heaven. There is much, much more to life than our time on this earth.

Verses nineteen to twenty-one are one of the more difficult and mysterious portions of Scripture. It’s a little more complicated than we have space for here. Suffice it to say, these verses do not allow for a “second chance” nor do they endeavor to prove the existence of a purgatory. Both of those ideas would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. (Email me here at church if you are curious for a longer discussion.) The last verse of our reading today describes Jesus’ completed earthly mission in restoring creation and then his return to heaven, assuming his rightful place at the right hand of the Father. We might read this last verse and move on without much thought. Jesus did not always have a human flesh and blood body. As a part of the Triune God, he has never not existed. But there was a moment in human time when he took on human flesh and was born of a woman. He left the heavenly realm to dwell in Israel thirty some years. During his time on earth upon occasion he was ministered to by angels from heaven (E.g. his temptation Mt.4:11, Garden of Gethsemane Lk.22:43). Jesus’ return to heaven in his physical body to resume his place at the right hand of the Father brought great joy to the angelic host. One of the challenges all of us have, in the midst of Christmas celebrating, is to grasp the reality of what is happening in a world we cannot yet see, and live in relation to that world while we continue to live in this one. Jesus’ humbling of himself to live and die in our world is the ultimate measure of his love for you and for me.

Music: Dec.23 “The First Noel”   Atlanta Master Chorale -a glorious setting!

Lord Jesus, forgive me for the many times I think of you only in relation to myself. I think of you in terms of what I want to see happen; what I think you should do; what I need from you―forgiveness, grace, mercy, wisdom, strength, courage, patience. I’ve thought very little of what your love and humility led you to do. You were in a perfect, holy, sinless, joyful world in perfect communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit in need of nothing. Yet you willingly left heaven to take on all the limitations of human beings. I have no framework to process what you did except to say I love you and joyfully bow at your feet in worship and adoration. Your love is mystery beyond my comprehension! This I pray to one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.
Daniel Sharp

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