Displacing the Darkness (12/25/16)

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This Christmas morning, as we celebrate the birth of our Redeemer and Deliverer, do we really want Jesus to take away the sin that is still in our lives? I’m not asking if we want salvation from Him. We all want that. Do we really want Him to come in and change the dark areas we still have in our hearts? After all, this is one of the reasons Jesus left the safety of heaven and came into our evil world.

Jesus, the Creator, Light and Life, came to displace the gloom that sin had cast on God’s creation. He came to bring us salvation. This includes removing the darkness we still carry around in us which tempts us to play around with sin and to ignore God. The truth is many Christians don’t want to let Jesus into these areas because they enjoy sin too much.

What if we want to let go of the struggles, pain and doubt that we still carry with us? How do we let Jesus into the dark areas of our heart? To answer this, let’s look at a Christmas passage in the Bible.

Matthew 1:18-25 says, 18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”

This scripture reveals two important things about Jesus ministry we must accept if we truly want God to change the dark areas of our heart into areas of light. The first thing we must do is believe our sins are forgiven. Why do I state the obvious? It’s because many people hold a guilty conscience from past sins even though God has forgiven them. Unresolved phantom guilt affects everything we do. What is phantom guilt?

“Dr. Paul Brand, writing with Philip Yancey, told a story about his medical school administrator, a man named Mr. Barwick, who had a serious and painful medical problem in his leg, but refused to allow amputation. But finally, the pain became too great for him to bear, and Barwick cried at last, ‘I’ through with that leg. Take it off.’

            Surgery was scheduled immediately, but before the operation Barwick asked the doctor, ‘What do you do with legs after they’re removed?’

            ‘We may take a biopsy or explore them a bit, but afterwards we incinerate them.’

            ‘I would like you to preserve my leg in a pickling jar,’ said Barwick, to the surprise of all. ‘I will install it on my mantle shelf. Then, as I sit in my armchair, I will taunt the leg, ‘Hah! You can’t hurt me anymore!’

            Ultimately Barwick got his wish, but the despised leg had the last laugh.

            Barwick suffered phantom leg pain of the worst degree. Somehow locked in his memory were the sensations associated with that leg. Even after the wound healed, Barwick could feel the torturous pressure of the swelling as the muscles cramped and itched and throbbed.

            ‘He had hated the leg with such intensity that the pain had unaccountably lodged permanently in his brain,’ wrote Brand, who then added, ‘To me phantom limb pain provides wonderful insight into the phenomenon of false guilt. Christians can be obsessed by the memory of some sin committed years ago. It never leaves them, crippling their ministry, their devotional life, their relationships with others….’ (Preacher’s Sourcebook for Creative Sermon Illustrations)

Even though the Bible is clear that salvation through Jesus Christ gives us complete forgiveness for our sins, many people have trouble believing it. They hang onto their guilt just like Mr. Barwick hung onto his leg pain. Phantom guilt not only keeps them captive to their past, it keeps them in bondage to present and future sins as well. If we doubt God can forgive our past, we won’t trust He can forgive our present or future sins either.

Once they’re at this point, most people convince themselves they just need to try harder to be a good person and make it into heaven. This will work for a while. Then they’ll get tired of trying, their sinful nature will kick in, they’ll sin, feel guilty about it and then start again. Throughout this whole tiring process, the dark areas remain in their hearts.

Jesus does call us to be faithful to him and to his commandments. Nevertheless, we don’t have the ability to be good enough to earn forgiveness for the sins we commit. We have no choice but to trust in Jesus.

The second thing we must do is accept the fact “God (is) with us.” Sometimes, we might feel like we’re alone. Family and friends can disappoint us. Christian brothers and sisters get busy and miss the fact we need help. The good news is God never leaves us. He is with us when times are good and when times are bad. Our circumstances aren’t an indication as to whether or not God is watching over us.

One problem we have is that we can’t see God with our eyes. This makes us wonder if he’s always there. What if we think about God like we think about oxygen? Our bodies need oxygen to live. If all of the oxygen on earth instantly disappeared, we’d all be dead within a matter of minutes. Even though it’s so important to us, we can’t see it. Yet, how many of us sit at home and worry if there is oxygen around us? None of us do.

Why not? The very fact we’re breathing tells us it’s there. It’s the same with God. The fact we’re spiritually alive and growing in our faith, even when we feel lonely or things aren’t going well, means God is right beside us.

We know God is much more mysterious than oxygen. As Henry Law said, “His center is everywhere, His circumference is nowhere.” Is this easy to understand? No. But that’s OK. Everything about God isn’t meant to be understood. We just need to have faith that he’s with us. The more we trust God, the more we’ll be willing to let go of the dark areas in our hearts.

This passage in Matthew 1 reveals another important point about allowing Jesus’ light into the darkness of our hearts. It deals with our reputations in this world.

Let’s start by looking at Mary. Historians agree on three characteristics about Mary’s people. 1) They were poor. 2) They suffered because they were poor. 3) They sought after God in the hopes He would bring them justice. They weren’t held in high regard among the Jewish people. Now God is calling a young woman from this group to be the mother of the Messiah.

Let’s throw in one more problem. She isn’t married yet. Once word gets out that that she is with child, she will be labeled as an adulteress. She’s already looked down on by others because of her social standing and she’s suffering because of it. Things will only get worse.

Then there’s Joseph. Verse 19 says Joseph was a “righteous” man. “Righteous” is the translated Hebrew word tsadiq (tas DEEK). A tsadiq studied, learned, and observed the Torah, obeyed the Old Testament Jewish dietary laws, was faithful in synagogue worship and faithfully celebrated the holy days. It was a very reputable position to hold in their society.

Now, by outward appearances, the young woman he’s engaged to is an adulteress. Not only was she an adulteress, the child she’s carrying isn’t his. It’s an illegitimate child. Marrying her would ruin his reputation. He would be viewed by other tsadiqs to be no better than a Gentile.

Both Mary and Joseph destroyed their reputations in the community when they obeyed God’s request to be the parents of Jesus. That was a major deal in their society. They weren’t near as individualistic as we are in the United States today. The dishonor they brought to their families would have been considered shameful.

Mary and Joseph wasn’t the only ones who destroyed their reputations with this whole scandalous birth. God destroyed His reputation as well. He destroyed it by having an adulteress and a disgraced tasdiq be the Messiah’s parents.

In his book, The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight writes, “Our reputation (what others think of us) is not as important as our identity (who we really are). Spiritual formation begins when we untangle reputation and identity, and when what God thinks of us is more important that what we think of ourselves or what others think of us.”

Are we more concerned about our reputation in the world or our identity in Christ? If we’re more concerned about our reputation, we’ll play around with sin because that’s what the world encourages us to do. If we’re more concerned about our identity in Christ, we’re willing to let Jesus into the dark areas of our heart so he can change them.

Mary and Joseph were willing to give up everything to be faithful to God. God himself put his reputation on the line. We need to follow their example and focus on our identity in Christ instead of our reputation in the world. We need to be more concerned with what God thinks than we are about what other people or society itself thinks.

As fallen, fallible human beings in a sinful world, we will never have perfect lives. We won’t do everything right. We can, however, live more holy lives than we do right now. We do this by accepting who Jesus is and by allowing him into every area of our heart – even the dark ones. Once we give him access, he’ll displace the darkness and replace it with the light of his grace and love.

That’s his gift to us.