“The Advents of Christ and the Power of God”
Psalm 2; Luke 1:26-33; Revelation 19:11-16
December 8, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We continue our Advent series this morning. Last Lord’s Day we considered “The Advents of Christ and the Humility of God.” This morning we will focus on “The Advents of Christ and the Power of God.”
And like last week, we will consider this theme with three texts: from Psalm 2, from Luke 1, and from Revelation 19.
With all of that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning.
First, from Psalm 2:
2:1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord [that is, against Yahweh] and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree:
Yahweh said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve Yahweh with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Next, from Luke 1:26-33:
1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And finally, from Revelation 19:11-16:
19:11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
From the worship of Israel in Psalm 2, through the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1, and to the coming of Christ in Revelation 19, this is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Most Merciful God,
In this season of Advent, we remember that you are a God who comes to his people in power.
Your power was shown as you drew close to your people Israel.
Your power came to the world incarnate in your birth.
Your power will come in its fullness on the last day when you return.
And you promise us that your power also comes to your people now by your Holy Spirit.
And so, we ask you now, Christ, as we come to your word, to draw close to us in power, and shape us by it.
We ask, Lord Christ, that you would do this for your tender mercy’s sake.
Last Lord’s Day I introduced this series, and how we would be focusing this Advent on the comings – the advents – of Christ. And key to that was that it is the plural comings of Christ.
The dominant theme for many in the season of Advent is the coming of Christ in his incarnation. In our culture and for many Christians in our culture, Advent is about preparing for Christmas. And it certainly is that. But historically, it is also more than that.
Historically, Christians have taken this season to focus on the three comings of Christ: Christ’s coming in his incarnation at Christmas, Christ’s coming on the Last Day to judge the world and make all things new, and also Christ’s coming to his people today through the Holy Spirit.
And in each coming – in each advent – we see who our God is – that our God is not a God who stands far off, but a God who comes to his people.
And as we reflect on that truth, we can (and should) also consider how God comes to his people in the advents of Christ.
And by “how” I do not primarily mean the mechanical means – but the aspects of his nature that are exhibited as he comes to his people.
Last Lord’s Day we considered how God’s humility (what theologians call his “condescension”) was and is exhibited in each of his comings. This Lord’s Day we are considering how God’s power is exhibited in each of his comings.
And the topic of God’s power and how it relates to us is – or at least it should be – a topic that matters to us. The power of God should matter to us, because we – because you and I – in and of ourselves, are very weak.
The power of God should matter to us, because before the challenges we face in this life, you and I are so often powerless.
And our weakness comes out most clearly as we face the challenges of the world, the challenges of our own sinful nature, and the challenges of the devil.
We are weak before the world, before our sinful desires, and before the devil.
And we see those truths in a variety of ways.
We might start by thinking of our weakness before the world.
The world shapes us in ways that we are often blind to and that we often feel powerless to combat.
As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, we can see this especially clearly when we read books from a somewhat distant age in the past, and come across statements – across beliefs or practices that seem crazy or evil or both to us, and which everyone at the time the book was written seemed to agree with or not even think about. And we wonder to ourselves: How could they have believed that? How could they have done that? How is it possible that so many went along with it – didn’t even notice it?
The answer is that the culture – the world – we live in is extremely powerful in shaping our thinking – our perception – of the world, and how we live in it. And most of the time we don’t even notice it. That reality has affected people in ages past.
Our age is no different. And you are no exception.
I promise you, that in one hundred years, people will look back at our culture and marvel at some of the things we believed and some of the things we did and thought were good. And our beliefs and actions will seem crazy, evil, or both to them. And it won’t just be the disputed beliefs they find most baffling – it won’t just be the beliefs of your cultural adversaries that you assume everyone in the future will dismiss. It will be beliefs and practices that we all share or all participate in. It will be the things we take for granted – the things we have been taught from childhood – the things we don’t even really see clearly enough to fight or to question. That is the power the world has over us – over our thinking, over our perceptions, over our practices and actions.
One novel I read recently put it like this – it said: “That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.” [Vandermeer, 108]
The world forces us to live in its reality from birth … and as it does, each culture colonizes its people with its own unique form of madness.
And we are weak before it. We on our own are often powerless before it. So what is our hope? If we cannot fight back the power of the world even in our own minds, who will defeat it?
So first, you and I are weak before the world.
Second, you and I are weak before our own sinful desires.
And if you have ever had some act – some sin or compulsion or desire that you didn’t want to do anymore … and if you’ve ever really tried to fight it on your own … then you may have some sense of how weak you are before your own sinful desires.
That said, we still often fail to see the strangeness of the situation in which we are at war with ourselves … and often losing.
Augustine was well acquainted with this struggle, and he wrote of it. He writes: “How then did this bizarre situation arise […]? The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed; the mind commands itself, and meets with resistance. When the mind orders the hand to move, so smooth is the compliance that command can scarcely be distinguished from execution; yet the mind is mind, while the hand is body. When the mind issues its command that the mind itself should will something […], it fails to do so. How did this bizarre situation arise […]? As I say, the mind commands itself to will something: it would not be giving the order if it did not want this thing; yet it does not do what it commands.” [Augustine, VIII,9,21]
Where do you see that same dynamic at work in your life? Where, as the Apostle Paul puts it, do you fail to do what you want to do but instead find yourself doing what you hate? Where do you see the power of your sinful desires, and your own weakness to resist them?
We are weak before the world. We are weak before our own sinful desires.
Third, you and I are also weak before the devil.
The Bible teaches that there is a powerful created spiritual being who rebelled against God and is set on twisting or destroying all that is good that God has made. And if you look at history or current events … that idea shouldn’t be as hard to believe as many modern people seem to find it.
And if such a being exists (and he does), then how could we stand against him? He is more powerful than we are. He has been deceiving for millennia. We are small and pathetic in comparison to him. It seems like we don’t have a chance.
What we see as we consider the Scriptures and our own experience, is that we are weak. We are weak before the world, we are weak before our sin, we are weak before the devil.
What then, is our hope?
What we see in the texts we have heard from this morning … what we see throughout the Scriptures … what we emphasize in the season of Advent … is that our hope is in the fact that God’s power comes to us through Christ.
Our hope, in light of our own weakness, is that God’s power comes to us through Christ.
And God’s power comes to us through Christ in three significant ways. God’s power comes to us in Christ’s incarnation. God’s power comes to us in Christ’s final return. And God’s power comes to us in Christ’s presence with us now by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s take a few moments to consider each of those.
First, God’s power comes to us in Christ’s incarnation. And this is an idea that Athanasius of Alexandria, the fourth century Church Father, focused on in his important work titled On the Incarnation.
Athanasius pointed out the ways in which God’s power comes to us in Christ’s incarnation.
And primary among them is in Christ’s work on the cross. And when it comes to the cross, Athanasius especially points out how the power of God was on display in Christ’s work on the cross, to defeat the spiritual enemies, against whom we were powerless on our own.
The way Athanasius describes it, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took on a mortal human body, in order to face Death. Death, Athanasius reasons, could not enter into God himself, because God is Life itself. But Death could enter a mortal body. And so God took on that mortal body. And once he did, Athanasius says that God was like a wrestler, standing in the arena, waiting for his foe to be sent in to fight him. God and his divine nature was like the wrestler. Christ’s human body was like the arena. And there God waited to face his foe. And then finally, at the cross, death stepped into the ring. And once the two were face to face in the ring, the true battle began. And once God and Death faced off within the arena of the physical body of Christ, the power of God was brought to bear, and Death was dealt the fatal blow of defeat. For in Christ God defeated death, and as a result Christ rose from the grave in victory. [Athanasius, 20, 22, 24]
And what is true of death was also true of sin, Satan, and the world. For God faced and defeated our sin on the cross just as he faced death. And in a similar way, in the incarnation the powers of the world and the powers of Satan conspired to do their worst. They came against Jesus with all they had – with all the power they could muster … but they could not keep him in the grave. The power of God won the victory.
The power of God has come to humanity in Christ’s incarnation.
And as God’s power brought the death blow to our enemies in Christ’s incarnation, so God’s power will bring the work begun in the incarnation to completion at Christ’s final coming – on the last day. Then, as Revelation twenty says, Satan and Death, and all the enemies of God’s people will be thrown into the lake of fire to perish forever. The Christian’s hope of an eternity with no more sickness or crying or pain is rooted in the conviction that God’s power comes to us in Christ’s final return.
God’s power comes to us in his incarnation, and it comes to us in his final return. But Christ is not inactive between those two events. In fact, God still comes to us – to his people – in power through Christ. And that power changes everything.
The way that Athanasius puts it is that in Jesus, God has chosen to dwell in a human body, and with a human nature. And that human nature is united to all his people, the Church – to all who trust in and know him. He says that it is like “when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it.” When something like that happens, the city – all who have houses that are united to the house of the king in the same city – the city is made safe by the king’s power. For, he says, no bandit nor enemy can overpower those who dwell in the city any longer. The city may have been overcome on its own. But the presence of the king in their midst, and all the power he brings with his army, makes it so that the houses and inhabitants of the city are now protected by the power of the king. [Athanasius, 9]
And in the same way God’s power now comes to us in Christ, and is present among us.
But what does that mean? What does that actually look like? How does that actually play out in our lives this week? Or today? Or as we go out from here this morning?
How is God’s power through Christ at work in and with us now?
And part of the answer to that question is that Christ’s power is present with us in our spiritual victories … and that Christ’s power is also present with us in our spiritual defeats.
Christ’s power is present with us in our spiritual victories … and Christ’s power is also present with us in our spiritual defeats.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
First, Christ’s power is present with us in our spiritual victories.
Athanasius, throughout his work On the Incarnation points to the martyrs of the early church as an example of this. He marvels at how they had no fear of death. And their lack of fear of death is evidence that God really came to his people in the incarnation, and that God continues to be with his people now through the Holy Spirit. Athanasius reasons that such spiritual progress as seen in the martyrs – especially since some were so fearful before their conversion – is proof that God’s power has come to God’s people through Christ’s presence among them now by the Holy Spirit. [Athanasius, 27-30]
Now … most of us don’t have such impressive displays of spiritual victory as the martyrs. It is in part because we do not have the same opportunities for such displays. But it is also because most of us do not have the same degree of faith and holiness as the martyrs.
That should be a challenge to us. It should show our need for growth – our need to draw from the power of God available to us now in Christ.
But even so – even with where we are now, still, the power of God is evident through Christ’s presence with us by the Spirit.
Because we would not be who we are now if it were not for Christ.
If you are a Christian, then you are not the same person you would be without God’s power through Christ in your life.
If you became a Christian later in life, this should be obvious to you. You know your capacity for sin. You remember your slavery to sin. You are far from perfect today – that is true. But you are also far from where you were. This is evidence of serious spiritual victory in your life.
If you have been a Christian for most or all of your life, you may not have the same dramatic story as someone who converted later in live, but the evidence of spiritual victory should still be present in your life. You should be able to see areas where you have grown. Maybe you have not seen dramatic change in the past weeks and months. But if you look over the past years … or the past decades … you see growth, don’t you? You see change. You see evidence of spiritual victory in your life.
And regardless of your spiritual story, if you are a Christian, you know your sinful desires. You know what you crave, or how you tend to sinfully react to things, or what you would pursue if nothing of God held you back. And so take a moment now to imagine where you would be in life right now if you never knew the Lord. What would your life look like? What would your heart and mind be like? How would your slavery to sin and the devil play out? And when you have that in mind, step back, and consider the distance between that picture, and where you are this morning. This too … this especially … is evidence of serious spiritual victory in your life.
And none of it is by your power. As the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
Augustine expresses the same idea – he says: “If anyone were to give [the Lord] an account of his real merits, what else would that be but a list of [God’s] gifts? If only human beings would acknowledge that they are human, and anyone minded to boast would boast in the Lord!” [Augustine, IX,13,35]
None of the spiritual gain – none of the spiritual victory in your life originates from you. It is all a gift from God. It is all evidence that the power of God has drawn close to you in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. And the fact is that you can only see a fraction of the evidence that’s there.
For Christians, Christ’s presence and power are made evident in the spiritual victories in your life.
This means a few things.
First, it means that you must continue to vigorously pursue spiritual growth and victory, as a way of displaying and glorifying the power of God in Christ.
Second, it means that even as you actively strive against sin, you must be continually coming to the Lord for that power, and not trying to generate it from your own strength. You need to believe that the power of God really is available to you as you do battle with sin, and Satan, and the lies of this world.
And third, it means that if you are not a Christian, if you look closely enough, you too should see the power of God displayed in the lives of Christians around you, and if you want the same power at work in your life, you too must embrace Christ as they have.
If you’re a non-Christian and you’re close to a Christian, then you know they’re not perfect. The way to see Christ’s power in them is not to compare them to perfection, but to compare them to who they would be without Christ. And if they are a Christian, they will probably be able to tell you just how bad off they would be without Jesus. It is in that gap that the power of God in Christ is made evident.
Do you see that in your life? And if you do, don’t you want that for yourself? Don’t you want to know the One who brought this power to their lives? Don’t you want to embrace him by faith, that his power can work against the pull of sin, against the forces of Satan, and against the lies of the world in your heart as well? It won’t make you perfect right away. But once you truly cling to Christ, then the power of God will begin to become evident more and more in your life as you draw close to Jesus.
Seeing Christ’s power present in and through us in our spiritual victories is what we all want. It is what we aim for. And it is glorious when it happens.
But … at the same time … Christ’s power is also present in and through us, even in our defeats.
Now … what do I mean by that?
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I played football for seven years growing up – in middle and high school.
Our high school team was pretty good for some of those years. And we were especially good my junior year of high school. If I remember rightly, we made it just one round short of the state championships for our division that year.
Our team was good … and I was really bad. I mean … really bad. I was often the third or fourth string for my position … meaning I was at the bottom of the depth chart.
But here’s the thing. Because we were so good my junior year, I got to play a lot more than you might expect. Because our first-string team – our starters – were great. So the best players would start the game … and our offense would score again and again … and our defense would shut down the other team from scoring … and so sometimes, by the third or fourth quarter and the score was 35 or 42 to nothing. And … the game was basically over. There was no way the other team was going to come back from that.
And so the coaches, in part to avoid embarrassing the other team too badly, and in part to give some of the rest of us a chance on the field, would start moving down the depth chart. They’d send in the second string. And then they’d send in the third. And soon they were scraping the bottom of the depth chart … and that’s when I got to play.
And it was always exciting for those of us that far down when we got to play. But even as we went in, the other team would often still have their best players on the field. And as I said, our team was good … but our third and fourth string players, like me, were not so good.
And so, when we reached this point in a game, it wasn’t unusual for the other team to score on us – for their best players to score against some of our worst.
And when they did … it was a frustration to those of us on the field. We wanted to play well for our team. We wanted to make our coaches proud. We wanted to do well and hear the cheers of the crowd. So it was disappointing when we didn’t do well – when we failed to score on a drive, or failed to stop the other team from scoring.
Sometimes when the other team scored against our less skilled players, they would start celebrating and cheering – they’d dance around, or the crowd for the other team would go nuts, or the players for that team on the field would try in one way or another to rub it in our faces that they had just scored on us.
And when that happened … a common response that came from our team and from our fans … was for us to point to the east end of the field … and to start chanting “scoreboard.” “Scoreboard … Scoreboard …” over and over again.
Our team would point to the scoreboard located at the east end of the field and chant. Now … why would they do this?
Well … we’d do it to remind the other team … and in some ways to remind ourselves … that the game was already decided by the past and by the future.
First, we were pointing to the score. Because the score was 42 to 7.
Our first-string team had already been on the field, and in the first half of the game had shown its power in such a way that the other team was done. Their defeat was already decided. The game had been over at half time. Any over-celebration on the other team’s part, and any despair on our team’s part, was the result of forgetting what had already occurred. The power displayed in the first half of the game put into right perspective our relatively small defeat in letting the other team score on us once or twice in the fourth quarter.
The scoreboard reminded everyone of the past. But it also instructed everyone about the future. Because in addition to the score, it also displayed how much time was left in the game. The time was ticking down. And the future was already determined. At this point it was impossible for the other team to win. The future was set. The outcome was certain. And that certain future also had to shape how we experienced a brief momentary defeat in the present.
If you looked at just that one drive where the other team scored, then you didn’t see much power on display from our team. If you looked at just that set of plays that led to us being scored against, then we looked defeated.
But if you looked at the game as a whole, then suddenly the power of our team was evident even in this setback, because even then, as the other team celebrated, our team could point to the scoreboard, and chant at the other team in mockery of their celebration, because the power of our team was displayed in our huge lead now, and in our certain victory once the game was over.
And there is something in that that is similar to how Christ’s power is present with us, even in our own spiritual defeats.
We each face spiritual defeats – we each face spiritual set-backs.
In our struggle with the world, we see the ways the culture shapes the church for ill. Or we see the ways the culture shapes our children for ill. Or we see the ways the culture shapes us for ill. We see our failures, and the failures of other Christians, and the world seems for the moment to have won. They seem to be celebrating in the endzone while we stand with our heads down.
Or we see defeats in our struggles with our sinful desires. We do that thing we didn’t want to do again. We sin in that way we didn’t want to sin again. We give in again to anger, or to covetousness, or to lust, or to whatever that thing is for you or for me. And our own actions, our own sins, seem to mock us. And we feel defeated.
Or we see defeats in our struggle, or the church’s struggle, with the devil. We believe his lies, either about God or about us. Or we see his strategies seem to succeed as he brings down one Christian leader or another whom we admired. Or we see spiritual deceptions take hold in the lives of those around us. And we feel defeated – either as individuals or as the Church. And the devil seems to mock us.
And on some level, when we suffer spiritual defeat – especially if it is our own fault – then we should be upset. We should be disappointed. We should want to do well and bring honor to our Lord and to those who serve alongside us. We should want to display his power through our victories.
But at the same time, when we suffer defeat – whether it is from the world, or the flesh, or the devil – then the proper response is also to stand up, to point to what Christ has done, and to chant “Scoreboard … Scoreboard.” Because even in our momentary defeat, Christ’s power is displayed in what he has done and what he will do.
Because Christ has come. And he has faced the world, and our sin, and the devil. He took them head on in his incarnation, and he defeated them. He crushed them. He struck the decisive blow, and they will never recover from it. Even in a momentary triumph of the world, of sin, or of Satan in our lives now, if we see it clearly, it only makes more obvious the fact that such forces have no hope of crawling back from the ultimate defeat that Christ has already dealt to them. Because Christ has already come in power in the past, his power is evident now even in our defeat. Christ has come in power.
And, of course, it doesn’t stop there. Because Christ will also come in the future. And his power in the future once more shapes our present. Because the clock is running down. And the final outcome is certain. Christ will be victorious. He will come again and what was decided in his first coming will be brought to completion in his final coming. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he will strike down all of his enemies, and his victory is so certain that when sin, or Satan, or the world celebrate over some minor victory in our lives, then on some level, as Psalm 2 tells us, he who sits in the heavens laughs. And as he does, he points to the scoreboard.
Christ’s victory is sure. And that changes not just the future but the present.
God’s power comes to us in Christ’s incarnation. God’s power comes to us in Christ’s final return. And God’s power comes to us in Christ’s presence with us now by the Holy Spirit – both in our victories and even in our defeats.
God has come to us. Like a powerful king, he has set up his residence in the midst of his people, the Church. And bound to him, we are safe – we experience his power. The world may rage and try to deceive. The Devil may seek to devour. Our own sinful desires may seek to enslave.
But God, our powerful King, struck the decisive blow to them all when he came in the incarnation. He dwells with us now, so that even when we falter and even when we fail, still he keeps his own safe, protecting us from ultimate defeat as we trust in him, and growing and maturing us so that we might share in his spiritual victories. And one day, Christ will come out from his chamber, with a rod of iron and a sword coming from his mouth, to once and for all finish those who are set against him and against us.
This Advent, as you celebrate and prepare for the comings of Christ, open your eyes to what Christ’s comings bring you, and rejoice in the power of your King – the power of God which comes to you in the advents of Christ.
This sermon draws on material from:
Athanasius the Great of Alexandria. On the Incarnation. Translated by John Behr. Popular Patristics Series. Number 44a. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011
Augustine, The Confessions. Translated by Maria Boulding. Second Edition. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012.
Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season. Translated by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia OCSO. Edited by John Leinenweber. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2007.
Connell, Martin. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year. Vol 1. New York, Continuum.2006.
Lewis, C.S. “Preface to the First Edition” in On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria. Translated by John Behr. Popular Patristics Series. Number 44a. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011 (Lewis’s Preface: 1944).
Vandermeer, Jeff. Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.