Nicholas Sparks is an internationally-bestselling American novelist and screenwriter. Out of his sixteen published novels – six have been adapted to film, including The Last Song, The Notebook… and the one I want to mention this morning – Message in a Bottle.
The story is a captivating read (as always, insert here a healthy Christian caveat about the language of worldly authors). A young ex-reporter from a well known newspaper named Theresa Osborne now labored as a staff “news researcher”. On a brief trip to Cape Cod, she happened upon a bottle in the sand that contained a captivating love letter addressed “from Garret to Catherine”. Stunned with the depth of emotion that poured from the letter, she worked tirelessly to find the man who wrote the letter, and some others that she came into the possession of during her research, a man named Garret Blake. Garret lost the love of his life to death, and was struggling through grief – including anger at his wife for leaving him so awfully alone. He lived a secluded life now, on the outer banks of North Carolina with his father, Dodge. Theresa arranged to get to know Garret, but she didn’t reveal her knowledge of the letters. She began, unknown to him, to weave and publish a romantic tale of the “messages in a bottle”, without naming names. In time, Garret stepped out to try to continue to live – and even made a trip to Chicago to see Theresa and her young son. His heart began to open to her, until he inadvertently discovered his old letters in a drawer in Theresa’s apartment – and he felt betrayed and left – alone. Almost a year later, Dodge tracked down Theresa to give her some bad news. Garret died at sea in a storm while attempting to rescue someone. He told her because a bottle with a message inside was found on his son’s boat. In the letter, apparently written a night before Garrett’s failed rescue attempt, he apologized to Catherine and wrote to her that in Theresa he found a new love, a love he was about to fight for. The novel closed with some lessons Theresa learned about life, love and pain.
The novel seemed to me like too little communication too late. Why a bottle? Why not use a phone, email, twitter, a snail mail letter, telegraph, candy gram, singing gram, smoke signals or even sky writing? A message in a bottle doesn’t seem like a great way to communicate – a little slow for my taste! At the same time, there was a charming side of how carefully selected each communication was – and the reality that although the message was addressed to someone in particular – many would eventually read it, or hear about it.
I mention all this to say that God sent three messages the first Christmas season that I want to remind you of in this short lesson from God’s Word. It was as though God sent three Christmas Cards – each to individuals who knew the message was to be displayed to others like those long strings of cards that used to hang in my school classroom as a child at Christmas time. Each card was carefully selected – a message that communicated a truth from Heaven about the child of Bethlehem to the people who celebrated the Savior’s birth on the first Christmas. First, He told the shepherds about the arrival of the baby the night He entered the world. A month later, He told an old man who anticipated the arrival of the Messiah what Messiah’s task would be. Finally, later that same day (as the old man’s prophecy), God opened the mouth of an elderly prophetess the great response to the baby’s arrival.
Key Principle: God sent with the baby a message both of an important promise fulfilled, an essential work begun – along with His anticipation of our response to His magnificent gift.
The First Card: The story of the first “Christmas card from God” was sent on the night of the Savior’s birth. It answered the BIG question in the minds of Joe’s extended family – “How can we know Mary and Joseph didn’t make up the story about this baby’s conception?”
This was no small question to Joe’s family, and it is no small question to people around the world today! If Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit – something unparalleled in the human story happened. There truly IS a Creator… and He truly DOES care about us. So much changes if the story is true…
The Bible contains a vivid description of that night. Read it closely, and it will rip down any Hallmark images of the first Christmas. Those images were meant to displace the real story – a story about the darkness of men and the power of God. This was a scene much less “Currier and Ives” and a whole lot more “Homer and Marge” … a scene of poor and restless people, dressed in tacky clothing and living a life much less hygienic than any in our standard of normal living. We have prettied the scene and been distracted by the emotions we project on Christmas from our own family times growing up. Go back in time… it was presented like a beautiful movie.
First, recall that it was NOT a thrilling time – The setting was tax time. If you think that pulling together all those receipts and forms are a hassle, try uprooting your family and moving to another location for the fun of staying eighteen months to three years, while awaiting the census that will only, in the end, cost you more in tax revenues. All this to watch your government spend on personal luxuries of a few while most languished in near poverty. The curiosity and convenience of Caesar wasn’t a strong motivator for a positive attitude on the part of the original Christmas cast… Any positive feeling from the event went against the natural tide of feelings. . Luke 2:1 “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.”
Traffic isn’t just a modern Christmas problem. Did you see it? “everyone was on his way” should be read.. “Oi, What a traffic jam! I could live my life without sitting for hours at one more Roman toll booth.. I mean, this is ridiculous! I spent more on the camel to just sit there in this quadruped parking lot waiting for the guy with the idiot donkeys blocking the toll station… I wish some of these old people knew how to drive a camel. I mean, really…” Ok, maybe I am using some imagination… but it was a time when EVERYONE was on the move, and nothing was moving particularly well… I think we can all identify.
People romanticize Christmas in the Bible, for the sake of the story. What we know for sure is that it was a WARM time of year (the shepherds don’t stay out in the fields at night during the cold and rainy season). That means it was more like Sebring, FL than Chicago, IL. Add to the WARM weather a network of traffic laden roadways, and a lot of people who don’t enthusiastically support the rising cost of the conquering troops and their lavish spending masters … and you are closer to the scene. Now sprinkle in the special issues Joseph and Mary were facing…
Not only was it not a thrilling time, but it was NOT an exciting family gathering – Joe and his not yet married but pregnant young wife to be was about to move in with the in-laws – trying to get re-established. This wouldn’t be comfortable under any circumstances in a small home – not as large as those in our mobile home parks in the south. On top of that, Joe’s family was conservative – and perhaps not so forgiving a family – based on the details. Luke 2:4 “Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Do you see it in the details of the day for our “first family” of Christmas? They had a four to seven day journey, depending on the route they took. They came from a long and great line of “people who used to be famous, powerful and wealthy” but now lived in meager three room cave style dwelling in the middle of no-where – and had to go to a real city to be registered. They weren’t married and she was about to burst with a bundle of joy – a collective groan comes from all the women who hear about this! Think of this pleasant cocktail of heat, pregnancy, chafing and dirt… now we are getting closer to the real feeling of that day. Oh, there is one more thing that you should be aware of – there was a stinging pain associated with the couple.
Read the words: “no room for them in the inn” as “no room in the kataluma” – the guest chamber (meaning, of the family home). There were no “Motel 6” properties in ancient Bethlehem. The family of Joseph was re-gathering in the city of their ancestors for the census. Their first choice would have been to be in the family home. Archaeologists have uncovered homes in both Bethlehem and Nazareth that are commonly called “three room cave style homes”. These homes are essentially a cave in the side of a mountain ridge, with a room built onto the front. Such homes had a rear area of the cave that was for the animals (vacant because in the warm season they sheep are kept out in the fields and sheepfolds on the paths of grazing). The center room is the “guest chamber” of the family home – often used as storage when not occupied. The front room of the house was used as the primary dwelling space – for eating, sleeping and living. The daylight hours were lived outside at work – and the home was neither large nor comfortable enough to house the family for more than the most basic needs.
Joseph wasn’t given the middle room of the house – it was occupied. Instead, his “family” was given the rear of the house – a place that indicates to some of us that he was not very well received by the family… showing up with a pregnant young woman that was not his wife yet. It is worth noting again that she did not appear to have the respect of Joseph’s family. Would they really have kept Jesus’ birth in a stable cave if they believed He was the coming King as Joe and Mary were told? I think not. Mary learned a hard lesson – my life is to fulfill God’s purposes, not my desires!
For some of you, you can identify with this family. Christmas is a time when you feel a special kind of STRESS. You don’t have the money to do the things that you would really like to do with your family. Your family is… well, let’s just say they are no family set for a Christmas special on TV. You don’t have a lot of space in the house, and it is a lot warmer than you envisioned Christmas being. You like to think of your family being together at Christmas, but the reality is TENSION and TURMOIL. Some of you feel more like a referee that walks on egg shells at family gatherings. Take some solace – Mary and Joe understand you.
Now the first Christmas card from God was delivered…and it came to an unlikely place: It came to people outside town. Luke 2:8 “In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
There it is: God’s message to the men who were watching sheep, but ended up searching for a King.
- The angels said, “Do not be afraid” – the meeting is for the purpose of telling you GOOD NEWS!
The message of the Savior’s coming was GOOD NEWS for people who felt a distance from God, and felt even mistreated on earth. What a great reminder….Even Christians are getting caught up in living the wrong story. We are getting mixed up. A recent poll by the Barna Research Group in America found that only 37% of adults thought the birth of Jesus is the most important aspect of Christmas. 44% of the respondents said family time is the most important part of the Christmas celebration. 3% said presents or parties were the most important part of Christmas. The same percentage said the best thing about Christmas was getting a paid holiday.
Funny, as I listened this Christmas among BELIEVERS I was amazed that many had come to believe that our family time and our worship time are in CONFLICT in this day in which we find ourselves? Why have we come to truly believe that God was more interested in giving us time off with the family than having that same family sit together and celebrate the gift of Jesus while we study His Word? Let me be clear: Whatever you think is more important than your walk with God has become the real object of your worship….and our kids know what that is, even if we don’t say it out loud.
There are times when it feels like the Christmas story has been so replaced in our world, that the birthday boy isn’t invited to the party. The truth is – HE is the reason to celebrate. My heart breaks for those who are looking for something real in the glitter and wrapping of a Christmas that isn’t focused, first and foremost, on worshipping and honoring Christ. There is GOOD NEWS – Jesus the Savior has come. Why would we make this primarily about gifts, meals, parties and decorated trees – they are a distant second.
- The angels said, “Do not be silent” – the NEWS is for everyone!
There are lots of ways to tell the story of Christmas…. And some of them aren’t as successful as others. “There was an art contest held in a local school one Christmas season a few years ago in East Texas. One of the prize winners was a picture drawn by a nine year old boy showing three men, offering gifts to the baby Jesus in his manger. What made the picture unique is how the three gift presenters arrived – there was fire truck on the side of the picture. The principle asked the boy about his decision to draw the truck and the boy, in his heavy East-Texas accent, was quick to reply: “Well, the Bible says the wise men came from a-far.” Despite the wrong detail, the notion of sharing the message was right! The news that God sent the Savior is not something we are to keep to ourselves!
- The angels said “Do not be still” – the baby must be sought and acknowledged!
So many will HEAR ABOUT Jesus this Christmas, but few will take the time to journey to meet Jesus. It is a profoundly simple journey. It begins with acknowledging that God truly WAS behind His coming. It is about admitting that on my own, I cannot be acceptable to God. Even though I may be GOOD, I am not RIGHTEOUS before God. It is about accepting that Jesus came to be my substitute payment for sin. It is about asking Him to take my body, my life, my priorities and my choices – and use re-shape them to His own. He died for me, I will live for Him. I get it – He TRULY IS who the Bible says He is. Listen to these words from John the Apostle”
1 John 5:9 “If we believe the testimony of men, the testimony of God is far more secure; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. 10 The one who truly believes in the Son of God has that belief inside himself; the one who does not believe has decided that God’s record is not true, because he has not believed in the Words that God has given concerning His Son. 11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has accepted the Son has the life; he who has not – does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” The issue is NOT was a baby born – but WHO THE BABY WAS– and where the baby truly came from.
- The angels said, “Do not be downcast” – the gift is offered from God’s goodness!
John says it this way: John 3:17 “For God did not send the Son into the world as a judgment to the world, but that the world might be rescued through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him will not be judged by God; he who does not believe has cast the die to stand in judgment already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Our message is one of HOPE, but also one requiring a response.
The picture of their immediate and enthusiastic obedience is moving. Luke 2: 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
Why did God go to the trouble of announcing the baby’s birth to the shepherds? What was the purpose of the first Christmas card from Heaven?
I truly believe that the family members of Joseph were the real recipients of the first card. They would change their beliefs after the shepherds reported the call by the Heavenly host. They were HOME TOWN Bethlehem boys. Maybe these kids like Joe had gotten messaed up in their time up north in Galilee – but we can trust the home town kids to tell the truth…The text indicated who needed to know! Who else would have been included that night in the “all who heard it”? I think it is at least worth considering. The answer to the question: “How can we KNOW the story wasn’t fabricated by a first century couple?” is simple: “They had neither the means nor the knowledge to get a thousand angels together to float above the fields and proclaim the truth of the event.
One more thing before we leave this scene: Mary learned to hold in much of what she experienced, taking private joys and solemn sorrows to heart. When the shepherds came and knelt, she “treasured” and “pondered” (Lk. 2:15-20). Because we live in times when people share intimate details of their lives before whole studio audiences and across American living rooms, it is hard to imagine the benefit of remaining quiet – but Mary knew how to remain calm and quiet. There is a special discipline of silence that is being lost in our western world. We are over stimulated and constantly bombarded with the need to share everything with others. We even get hyperactive at Christmas. In fact, some of us are so focused on making it a GREAT Christmas, we don’t even make it a GOOD Christmas..
There is a rather poignant Christmas story about a little girl who watched her mother and daddy getting ready for Christmas. To her, it seemed that dad was preoccupied with burdens & bundles, & mom was concerned about parties & presents, & they just had no time for her. She felt that she was being shoved aside. In fact, it seemed to her that she was always being told, “Would you please get out of the way?” So one night in December she knelt beside her bed & prayed this prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven, please forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.” (Sermon central illustrations).
The next two Christmas cards from Heaven came a month later – both on the same day… mail service being what it is…J
The Second Card: The story of the second “Christmas card from God” was set in stages – ending a month after the birth, and answered the question “Why was the baby born?”
We now move to a month later as Luke tells what happened when Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for His presentation offering. Circumcision occurred eight days after the birth, but the “days of purification” for Mary went on longer – 33-40 days. It was at the end of this that Jesus was carried to Jerusalem (Luke 2:21-24).
Luke 2:25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Simeon’s card was addressed in two parts – the first part to the World: This baby has a PURPOSE from God. He has come to be our RESCUER – a Savior. He has come to be REVEALED to people everywhere in a deliberate mission to give the message. He will bring light well outside the nation of Israel to a PAGAN WORLD.
The second part of Simeon’s message was to Mary: To fulfill His work – He will BREAK YOUR HEART. Any parent knows that we live and die a thousand times in the excitement and pain of our children as they live – we face the heart break of every disappointment or trouble they will suffer in their future. Jesus came to SAVE, but that would be at the expense of SAVING HIMSELF from anguish.
The Third Card: The story of the third “Christmas card from God” revealed the answer to a nagging question – “What am I here for?”
Luke 2:36 And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Anna lived in an unexpected “Plan B” life. In some ways Anna had something in common with Elizabeth. Anna is a short form of Channah, or “Grace”.
- Anna learned CURBED EXPECTATIONS! Anna was widowed after a marriage that lasted only a brief seven years. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple. Anna was not like most women of her time. She chose a different path. Instead of finding her identity in a second marriage and raising children – she heard God’s direction and went a different way then people expected. She chose to serve the Lord. Her expectations, probably the same as other women of her day, were dramatically altered by God’s superintending in her life. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life.
- When she curbed her expectations to total reliance on God – she stuck with it! The people who have encouraged me the most were the people who over the long haul of life have learned to drink from the well of satisfaction from the Lord even when their life circumstances were not ideal. Sixty-five years of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption. God is in no hurry! We will not experience instant depth, instant passion, instant deep praise. Genuine change of heart takes time. Genuine weaning of self satisfaction to God’s purposes requires time and a painful transition as I leave the throne of my heart and He takes it.
- When she curbed her expectations – she sought the Lord and did what He instructed! What if Anna decided not to come in on Tuesdays because she was feeling lazy? What if she accommodated her feelings of disobedience and thought: “I don’t feel like looking for the Messiah this morning – I will go in later?” The blessings of being obedient far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of placating my wants and desires.
- She learned reliance of God meant real strength and real provision! Others are defined by their roles – Anna’s role was stripped from her and THEN God defined her real purpose. God used her in spite of being the definition of poor and hopeless. She was not forsaken, she was being set up to accomplish her life’s purpose! Adjusting our expectations to put them in line with God’s plan is a vital part of maturity.
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O LORD, endures forever – do not abandon the works of your hands.” — Psalm 138:7-9
“My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped. I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” – Psalm 17:5-6
IN THE END, ANNA KNEW SHE WAS HERE TO KNOW, LOVE AND PROCLAIM THE SAVIOR!
God sent three messages – Christmas cards if you will allow the metaphor. Each had a purpose – to answer a question:
Is the baby truly from God? Yes, God sent His Son in a miraculous way.
Why was the baby born?” Jesus came to rescue us – but it cost Him His life.
What am I here for? God uses our lives to know, love and proclaim the message of Jesus.
God sent with the baby a message both of an important promise fulfilled, an essential work begun – along with His anticipation of our response to His magnificent gift.
History records for us an interesting footnote. It was during the dark winter of 1864. At Petersburg, Virginia, the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee faced the Union divisions of General Ulysses S. Grant. The war was now three and a half years old and the glorious charge had long since given way to the muck and mud of trench warfare. Late one evening one of Lee’s generals, Major General George Pickett, received word that his wife had given birth to a beautiful baby boy. Up and down the line the Southerners began building huge bonfires in celebration of the event. These fires did not go unnoticed in the Northern camps and soon a nervous Grant sent out a reconnaissance patrol to see what was going on. The scouts returned with the message that Pickett had had a son and these were celebratory fires. It so happened that Grant and Pickett had been contemporaries at West Point and knew one another well, so to honor the occasion Grant, too, ordered that bonfires should be built.
It is possible that the celebrations of the Son of God this Christmas have made you curious. Maybe they have even made you worry about the meaning of all of this. It is time for you to build a fire and join the celebration. The fire is your life, offer it to Him and He will replace it with HIS LIFE – lived through you.