December 20, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 18:00 in the audio file.
Or, The Day of Small Begettings
Series: Advent 2020 #4
My favorite technique of painting is Pointillism. For whatever reason, I remember my fourth-grade art teacher introducing us to “Seurat the Dot” at least as she nicknamed him (here is my favorite painting). Pointillism, as you might expect, is the meticulous pointing or dotting of a canvas with small dabs with the tip of a small brush. From a distance it is often hard to tell that the painting is made of dots at all, but up close one can see the crowded specks that blend to form the picture. (Also interesting, printers and screens are concerned with dpi, that is, the density of dots per inch.)
Pointillism is the opposite of broad brushing. It’s not a quick method, not like rolling or spraying the side of a barn. No single dot makes the painting, but every single daub gives depth and direction to it.
The birth of Jesus could be considered as just a dot in a landscape of human history. For as significant as the Incarnation was, and is, God did not dump out a 5-gallon bucket of paint to mark it. Ponder with me, like Mary, some of these things in your hearts.
God told the serpent that Eve would have offspring who would crush his head (Genesis 3:15). God did not tell Adam and Eve, or the serpent, when. God told Abram that he also would have offspring of his own, that nations would come from him, and that certain of his offspring would bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-2; 15:5). God did not tell him when. God told David through Nathan that he would have offspring that would rule from the throne as King of Israel, that the nations of the earth would come and do homage (2 Samuel 7:12-16). God did not tell him when.
There were a lot of details given to the patriarchs (i.e., Abraham, Jacob, Judah) and to the prophets about the seed, starting small. Some of it is super obvious, at least if you know what you’re looking for. But the prophets themselves “searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating” about His coming (1 Peter 1:10-11).
To Isaiah it was revealed:
> Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ESV, quoted in Matthew 1:23)
To Micah it was revealed:
> But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, > who are too little to be among the clans > of Judah, > from you shall come forth for me > one who is to be ruler in Israel, > whose coming forth is from of old, > from ancient days. (Micah 5:2 ESV, quoted in Matthew 2:6)
As I mentioned in the first advent message three Sundays ago, God’s people were waiting; they didn’t know when. As generations went by God progressively revealed more specifics, but fathers and their sons anticipated the arrival of a Son who would be King.
They weren’t the only ones looking for this one seed in a great tree, for the promised point on the canvas. It wasn’t only the visible realm, but also the invisible—at least to our eyes—world that was watching. The ancient serpent, the dragon, was also looking for the seed.
Remember from Revelation 12, the great sign of a “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1)? That Woman is not Mary, it is the genealogy of Matthew 1:1-17. The Woman is not only the Jesus’ genealogy, but if this was a painting, think of His genealogy as a distinct line of subtle color on the Woman, obvious once it’s finished and pointed out. It was not only subtle leading up to Joseph and Mary, it was covert, so small that it was largely secret.
Why? Because the dragon was looking to devour the Child.
> And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon….His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. (Revelation 12:3–4, ESV)
Again, the Woman is Israel. The dragon was not in the stable/delivery room with Mary, he was watching the entire nations’s nursery as it were. The dragon was watching and waiting to find the Child. But he didn’t know when either.
We don’t know everything that’s happening in the spiritual, invisible realm, even though we know that realm exists and is part of our wrestling and warfare; “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We have enemies, and they were seeking to destroy our Hope.
For whatever reason, through ignorance or ineptitude or blindness, the dragon and his scribes and scouts were not as attentive as the Magi from the east (Matthew 2:1-2). The only people on the planet who knew, in the moment, that the King was born were Joseph and Mary and some small group of shepherds. It was just another dot on the canvas, “just Christmas.” The heavenly host had to announce the joy to someone (Luke 2:13-14), but it was limited in such a way as to make the point and keep the identity of the Child-King secret from His enemies that would have done anything to kill him.
This is why the arrival of the Magi two or so years later is not just a matter of historical accuracy, it is a matter of divine strategy. When they arrived before Herod, Herod was “troubled,” “disturbed” (NIV), alarmed. He responded immediately. As we’ve seen in the Apocalypse, the spiritual forces are often in alignment with political powers. Herod’s attempt to find and devour the Child was not merely his own petty, fleshly fear about losing his throne. There wasn’t a government in the world that the dragon wouldn’t have used to assassinate the newborn King. As it is, God warned Joseph through an angel to hide in Egypt (Matthew 2:13), making Herod’s decree to slaughter all the male children in the region of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) a blood-red strain on the painting, but not blotting over the Christ.
The King was born!
> She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:5a ESV, citing Psalm 2)
Looking back at Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is easy. It’s finished; every “t” crossed and “i” dotted. But it was not so clear as the painting was being dotted. Which way would the family tree branch? Where would the next point lead? The genealogy reminds us not only to wait on the Lord, but also, don’t despise the day of small begettings.
“Begat” is the English word William Tyndale (c. 1525) used that the KJV translators (1611) borrowed from him (Wycliffe used “bigate” c. 1390) for the Greek word ἐγέννησεν (egennesen), which is the verb used 40 times in the genealogy. The ESV waters it down with “was the father of,” and fine, but “begat” is both lively and sturdy. (Andrew Peterson’s song, “Matthew’s Begats,” is well done.)
It was Zechariah to whom the Lord gave encouragement about small beginnings. When Israel returned from the captivity in Babylon (referenced in Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew 1:11-12, 17), it was not obvious to the Jews that their rebuilding efforts would succeed. It felt to them as if starting over, from the ground up, wouldn’t survive the threats from neighbors. So first, the Lord reminded them, “Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 4:8). And then specifically related to the temple, the LORD promised that it would be completed, “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice” (Zechariah 4:10). Or, “Who dares make light of small beginnings?” (NET)
One brick isn’t a wall, one dot isn’t a painting, one son isn’t always the solution. But don’t despise the day of small begettings because then the King was born!
The birth of the King was without a parade. In the moment it did not feel awesome, even though of all the dots on the canvas of earth, Jesus’ birth really is awesome. But the glory of that dot could only be seen by faith. How many people did Joseph even try to tell about his dream, and how many of them didn’t meet him for coffee again after that? Mary was a young woman and, apart from her cousin, she seems to have gone through her pregnancy and labor mostly alone; she didn’t even get a home birth. Were they glad for the stable? I’m sure they were, but ox and ass aren’t comfort animals. Bethlehem was off the beaten path. Nothing visible was big about this begat.
Yet as we look at the canvas, after the passing of 2000 more years of the Lord’s work, what dot has not been affected by the begat of Jesus “who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16)? Because of that small dot on a potentially silent and starry night, time and space and heaven and hell and souls and stories, and even God Himself, have not been the same.
If after Adam’s fall we have questions about the goodness of being bodily image-bearers of God, the Incarnation of the God Himself into flesh forever settles the matter. What a small, but irreversible, begat. If we wondered about the possibility of knowing our Maker’s transcendent “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20), it is the eternal Logos, through whom all things were made (John 1:3), who made known this invisible God (John 1:18), and brings all who believe to be children of this Father God (John 1:12). What a small, but incredible, begat.
Christmas gives us the ultimate and also concrete standard for humility (think Philippians 2:5-7). Christmas is the ultimate and decisive test for who is telling the truth:
> By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2–3, ESV)
Christmas exposed philosophers as fools. Christmas makes redemption possible for Scrooges, and makes every Scrooge a character to be pitied, not imitated. Christmas, with Jesus’ growth and perfect obedience and loving sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the grave, is a project of abundant life life (John 10:10). Christmas divides our marking of years, B.C. and A.D. (before Christ and “in the year of our Lord”). Christmas, unknown to our enemies at the time, sent demons reeling and into constant scurrying in attempt to retaliate. Christmas began the crushing of the serpent’s head. That is some kind of small begat.
How should you respond to all of this? Believe it. Rejoice in it. And Just Christmas.
The theme of our study through Revelation has been Just Conquer. When the saints keep faith in Jesus they conquer the dragon, and the world, through the Lamb-King. “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4). And Jesus said all we need is faith like the grain of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20).
So then, by faith, just Christmas. I mean “Christmas” here as a verb, a small action, a small dot painted in and for Jesus’ name. Is your gift small? Is your sacrifice small? Is your encouraging word small? So was every begat. Are you giving yourself for your kids, for your guests, for your employer/employees, but it doesn’t feel awesome in the moment? Remember Bethlehem. Don’t despise the day of small begettings.
God not only can use small births and small gifts, God has His reasons for choosing them. Make a point, even if it’s just a small one. May God be pleased to use your little point in His grand canvas for His glory and your blessing.
God “begat” (Tyndale’s translation) us to life (James 1:18) by the word of truth, and by implication that means that He begat us to receive all His good gifts (1:17), begat us to be quick to hear and slow to speak and slow to anger (1:19), begat us to obedience as doers of the Word (1:22), begat us to the law of liberty (1:25), begat us to be #blessed (1:25). The King was born, and you’ve been born again into His kingdom. Offer whatever you have to Him, no matter how small.
> Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27, ESV)