Advent 2019: The Victory of Christmas

Sermon by Ed Hartman on December 8, 2019

Revelation 1:9-20

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I invite you to take your Bible and turn with me to Revelation chapter 1. If you’re using the Bible in the rack in front of you it’s on page 1028. As we were preparing for this evening I spoke with Hunter, this was earlier this week, and I said, “You know, standing in the pulpit is a really unnerving, unsettling thing. You’re up high, there’s a lot of details to manage, and you’re paying attention to music and ushers and children, all of that, and you might forget something. If you do, smile, laugh it off, and pick up where you left off.” I say that to say that I admire our interns. I’m grateful for them – guys who are preparing for ministry, who are working in the church, honing their skills, developing their capacity to pastor, minister in different contexts. And for someone to stand up here and to be able to manage that kind of transition as well and as effortlessly as Hunter did, I admire that. Thank you.

So Revelation chapter 1 – “The Victory of Christmas.” We have a missionary by the name of Clark Norton who, actually his dad was a minister here on staff and Clark spent a number of his years here at First Presbyterian Church. Clark is a missionary in Ukraine, in Lviv, in the western part of the country, and whenever you get an email or a letter from Clark he signs it with one word before his name. It’s not, “Sincerely;” it’s not, “Warmly.” It’s, “Victory.” And it always makes me smile when I get an email from Clark because consistently that’s the word with which he signs off. “Victory, Clark.” And he’s referring to the victory of Christ, the victory that is ours in union with Him; the victory that assures us that all our ministry is not in vain, that the Lord Jesus wins. His victory has become ours. 

And so I’d like us to think about the victory of Christmas this evening, and to do that, we really need to think about that victory from the lens of the Old Testament. Because to understand the book of Revelation, you really need to think about it from the lens of what the Old Testament has first said. The clues to understanding all the symbols and all the imagery in this enigmatic book are found in the Old Testament. One of my former professors, Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum – he’s a man of Jewish origin who is a follower of Jesus – writes this; he says, “The book of Revelation contains roughly 550 references back to the Old Testament. The majority of the things found in the first twenty chapters of the book of Revelation are found earlier in the Old Testament. Only the last two chapters deal with things that are totally new.” And so as we unpack the Old Testament and how it undergirds and foreshadows the book of Revelation, we have real insight into what we are reading. And so that’s the context for the victory that I’d like us to explore together this evening. And specifically, I’d like us to look at three present and personal benefits of Christ’s victory that we celebrate even now in union with Him because of Christmas. Let’s pray together and then we’ll read together our text.

Father, we thank You for Your Word, for the ways You speak to us through it, even this evening. We confess that apart from the ministry of Your Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, these words remain printed on a page or spoken by a man, but they do not penetrate our hard hearts or our dull minds. And so Father, by Your Spirit, soften our hearts, open our eyes, incline our hearts toward You. Give us undivided hearts that we may fear Your name and satisfy us with Yourself that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Revelation chapter 1, verses 9 through 20:

“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, I was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.’”

This is God’s Word.

It was about five years ago that Sandy Wilson, the former pastor at Second Pres in Memphis, was speaking at our men’s rally. And he told a story about a Bible study that he had taught a number of years earlier. He said that as the men and women in this study would gather, he said, “I’m going to ask you to do something, just as an experiment.” He said, “I want you to close your eyes and for thirty seconds I want you to picture Jesus as you see Him. And just hold that image in your mind for thirty seconds.” And people did as he had asked and it was quiet. And after thirty seconds he asked them, “So tell me, how do you picture Jesus?” One person, not sure where this was going, said, “I pictured Him feeding the five thousand.” Another person said, “I pictured Him gathering the children into His arms.” Another one said, “I pictured Jesus walking on the sea in the storm.” Another one said, “I pictured Jesus on the cross.” And the list went on. And his point was this. When he had listened to everyone and how they had pictured Jesus, every one of them pictured Jesus in His pre-resurrection state. Not one of them said, “I picture Jesus seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, reigning, ruling, now and for all eternity!” Not one.

Why do you think that is? It may be because we’ve never had an experience like the apostle John had about which we’ve just read. Because when John sees Jesus, he doesn’t see Him as he had been familiar with seeing Jesus. Now he sees Him entirely differently. He sees Him as the victorious, glorified Jesus, and this is how he describes Him in verse 13. He says, “in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man.” This goes all the way back, as we said earlier, to the Old Testament in Daniel chapter 7 verse 13 where Daniel, as he talks about his prophecies he writes, he says, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man.” Same words as you find in John’s experience. “And this one, like a son of man, came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Daniel is seeing the Lord Jesus even before He became one of us. And John sees this same Jesus, only now in His post-resurrection, ascended, glorified state.

He goes on in his description saying that he was wearing “a long robe with a golden sash around his chest,” dressed as a priest, but a kingly, royal priest. And then he uses seven descriptive phrases to describe what he saw. He describes the hair of this one like a son of man; His hair, His eyes, His feet, His voice, His hand, His mouth, His face. And it slays him, or at least that’s what his experience was – verse 17. After he describes what he sees, he says, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead.” 

Now pause for a minute and think about this. We in Mississippi might say, “He fell out!” Someone was telling me about a party at the country club this past week where someone actually had this experience. He fell out! It turned out he was choking on some food and was not breathing and it was bad. He fell out like a dead man and there was full-blown panic. John has a similar experience. What he sees stuns him, startles him, slays him, and he falls over, as if he were dead. Now think about this. The people who knew Jesus best during His public ministry were His disciples. And the one disciple who was most closely, intimately acquainted with Jesus, was John himself, the writer of the gospel of John and the writer of this letter. John knew Him best. When John referred to himself in John’s gospel, he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He was closest in communion and fellowship with the Lord Jesus, and yet when he sees Jesus in His now unveiled, radiant glory, he experienced such a shock that he falls at His feet as one struck dead. He sees Him as he’s never seen Him before.

Jesus Stoops Down 

And it’s that reality, as we slow down and picture that image, Jesus standing before him in all of His unveiled, radiant glory, and John – puff! Horizontal! That’s what he writes. We learn three present and practical aspects of the victory that is ours in Christ. I didn’t see this. I had written a different sermon earlier this week and as I was going through it yesterday I started reading the passage and I saw some things that hadn’t occurred to me before. I started over because this really meant something to me when I thought about this. Because in order for Jesus to do what He did for John, you see it in the very next verse, rather verse 17, the next phrase – “I fell at His feet as though dead, but He laid His right hand on me.” If Jesus is standing and John is laying as if he’s dead, what does Jesus have to do in order to lay His right hand on John, the writer of this letter? Jesus had to stoop down. Even in His glorified reality, Jesus stoops. There you see a picture of Christmas, don’t you? The victory of Christmas. Jesus laid His right hand on me. His hand, the right hand that signifies authority and blessing and strength and sovereignty. He crouched down, He stooped down to lay His right hand on the now prostrate John. 

Exodus 15 verse 6, back to the Old Testament, “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power. Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.” This hand of power. This hand of sovereignty. This is the hand that the now glorified Jesus lays on John. Isaiah 41:10 – you’re familiar with this verse – “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” It’s that hand that the now glorified Jesus, in His unveiled brilliant glory, that hand He places on the prostrate apostle John. It’s a picture of Christmas, isn’t it? It’s our morning sermon series that David Strain is preaching, Philippians chapter 2. Think about it from the language of stooping. Paul writes in verse 6, “Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but He emptied Himself” – He stooped down – “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He stooped down. “Being found in human form, He humbled Himself” – He stooped down – “by becoming obedient to the point of death,” stooping down to, “even death on the cross.”

One of the most encouraging realities of the victory of Christmas is that our Redeemer stoops down. Not just at the beginning of His appearance, His incarnation, but throughout His ministry He stooped down to write in the sand as angry men were about to stone a woman caught in adultery. He stooped down as He walked dusty Palestinian roads with His disciples. He stooped down when it came to bearing His cross. He stooped down, even to the point of death on a cross and being buried in another man’s grave. And He still stoops down. That’s the beauty of the victory of Christmas. Jesus still stoops down. Isaiah 40:11, “He tends His flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart and gently leads those who have young.” How does a shepherd gather a lamb up into his arms? Lambs don’t high jump! A shepherd’s got to stoop down to scoop them up so that he can gather them up and hold them close to his heart. 

I cannot tell you how precious that verse was to me during my darkest chapter of life. When I was facing the reality of being a widower and a single parent with four little children who were looking at me saying, “Daddy, surely God’s going to heal mom, right?” This verse would make me weep because it became my picture of a God who condescends. “He tends His flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart and He gently leads those who have young.” And even as an adult now, that verse is so meaningful to me. It assures me that my Redeemer still stoops down. He gathers up His lambs. He holds them close to His heart, even – and maybe especially – when they are wandering lambs. He sees. He stoops down. He gathers us up. He holds us close to His heart. He leads us gently. 

And to what end? David puts it this way in Psalm 18. He says, “You have given me Your shield of victory. Your right hand has supported me and You stoop down to make me great.” He stoops down to make us great. Not great in our own eyes, but great as an answer to our fears that we are inconsequential, that He is indifferent to us, that we are too small for a God this great. How does He pay attention to 7.5 billion people all at once? And David reminds us He still stoops down to make us great, to remind us that we are precious to Him, that He loves us. And as Isaiah 43:4 says, “You are precious in My eyes and honored and I love you.” God stoops down. The Lord Jesus stoops down. He places His right hand, His hand of power and authority and blessing and sovereignty upon us, and He says, “I will not let you go.” The message of Christmas, the victory of Christmas is this Redeemer still stoops down, places His hand upon us, and He reminds us that we are precious to Him.

Jesus Guides 

The second present and personal benefit of the victory of Christmas is that He guides; He leads, He shepherds. He turns us around when we’re headed in the wrong direction. And you see that in verse 10 where John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” – pause for a second. Think about what he’s doing. He’s exiled on the Isle of Patmos. This was the Alcatraz of the ancient world. This is where they exiled people that the government didn’t want to have anything to do with. You couldn’t escape from the Isle of Patmos; no way off. So John is there; he’s doing the right thing at the right time. He says he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” You realize this is the only time in the Bible the words “the Lord’s day” is recorded? So it’s the right time for worship, he’s in the Spirit, he’s worshiping; he’s doing the right thing at the right time and yet the voice that he’s listening for – where is it? It’s behind him. Isn’t that was it says in verse 10? It says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.” 

And just so we don’t miss the significance of this, John repeats what he had to do to turn his attention to the voice. He repeats it twice. Verse 12, “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw these seven golden lampstands and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man.” John is doing the right thing at the right time, but he’s headed in the wrong direction. He’s not paying attention to where he really should have his gaze and his heart focused. 

What I take from this – and this is really encouraging to me personally – is part of Jesus’ victory is that He meets us in all the places where we’re headed in the wrong direction, where instead of meeting His frustration, He not only stoops down to us but He turns us back around. He puts us back on the right path. This is one of those images that you have to go all the way back to the Old Testament to see more clearly. You may think, “How did you get that there?” Well you go back to one of my favorite chapters in Isaiah, Isaiah 30, and listen to what the prophet says there. Isaiah 30 verse 19, “O people of Zion, you will weep no more. How gracious He will be when you cry for help. As soon as He hears, He will answer you. And although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your Teacher will hide Himself no more. With your own eyes you will see Him, and whether you turn” – and here’s the important part – “whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’”

Now think about this. The promise is this – “Whether you turn to the right hand or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’” Throughout the Old Testament you’ll find at least sixteen references to turning to the right hand or to the left. I counted them all up this afternoon, looked at all of them, and here’s the summary. When that phrase, “turning to the right hand or to the left,” is used, it’s generally pointing to these realities. It’s pointing to disobedience, to failure, blindness, compromise, or indecision. When God gives the Law through Moses, Moses’ warning is, “Do not turn to the right hand or the left.” He’s warning against disobedience. He talks about those who “do not know their right from their left.” The childishness, the foolishness, the indecision; the outright rebellion of turning to the right hand or to the left. And here’s what the promise is through Isaiah – whether you turn to the right hand or the left, even if you’re walking in disobedience, even if you’re walking in blindness or indecision or compromise or outright failure, God says, “I will make sure that your ears will hear a voice behind you,” as you’re walking in the wrong direction, “saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’” 

He not only stoops down, but He guides. He puts us back on the right path. He forgives. He restores. I need to hear this. You need to hear this. Because in all of the places where we’re on the right path, even sometimes we’re intending to do the right thing at the right time but we’re getting it wrong over and over again and our fear is, “How much longer is He going to put up with me? What’s going to happen if I get it wrong or if I choose the wrong path? How much longer will He pursue me? When will He finally say, ‘Enough already. I’m going to spend My time on someone who’s less obstinate than you’?” See, the promise is that our God will come after us. Even like John – doing the right thing at the right time but headed in the wrong direction – a voice is behind him and he has to be turned to face back where he ought to be focused, like most of your life and mine. The victory of Christmas means our Redeemer not only stoops down to enter into our mess, our brokenness, our failure, but He guides. He puts us back on the right path. He shepherds. He tends His flock like a shepherd. He gathers His lambs close to His heart. And He gently leads those who have young. He will lead us gently. 

Jesus Wins 

Jesus stoops down, even our places of disobedience. He guides us; He puts us back on the right path. And finally, Jesus wins. That’s what I take from this passage. He stoops. He guides. He wins. Verse 17, “When I saw Him I fell at His feet as though dead, but He laid His right hand on me saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’” “Fear not,” He says. “Don’t be afraid. Don’t panic. Don’t let your heart be filled with so much anxiety. Don’t let that low-level rumbling anxiety be the norm.” Why? He says, “Because I have the keys of Death and Hades. Death and Hades are the worst, and I have the authority, I have the answer, I have the victory over all of it.”

Think about it. The rest of the book of Revelation, all the disturbing and violent images – and there are many. I just wrote a list of them – war, earthquakes, fire, darkness, weeping, anguish, persecution, disease, dead bodies, hail, fire, smoke, brimstone, swords, rivers of blood, plagues, wormwood, massacre, torment, hunger, serpents, scorpions, dragons, beasts, bottomless pit, lake of fire, eternal torment – all of that, that’s deeply unsettling, to all of that He says, “Fear not. I am the living one, I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Keys are the symbol of power and authority, ultimate power and ultimate authority. And Jesus is vindicated as the one who has ultimate and permanent power and authority over everything that you can ever imagine as dark and broken, offensive, threatening, violent; all of it that the book of Revelation displays. 

And think about it. How much of your life is anywhere close to the images that the book of Revelation describes? Rivers of blood? Have you run across that lately? The worst of it all, Jesus says, “Fear not. I have the keys. I open; no one shuts. I shut and no one opens. I have ultimate authority over the worst of what you can imagine.” And the book of Revelation is really good at showing us the worst of anything that you or I could ever experience. And Jesus says, “I’ve got this. I’ve won. I have the keys. It’s done.” 

Revelation 21 verse 3, the apostle John comes to the end of that apocalyptic word and he finishes like he began. He begins with hearing a loud voice; he ends with hearing a loud voice. Revelation 21 verse 3, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will dwell with them and they will be His people and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Not, “One day I’ll make it all new,” but He says, “Right now, I am making all things new.”

Do you believe that’s true for you right now? The apostle Paul says He must reign until He brings all His enemies under His feet. Do you realize He’s doing that now? He is right now bringing all His and your enemies under His feet and He will reign until the last enemy to be destroyed is death. It’s happening right now. He is working and making all things new. That’s the central message of the book of Revelation. It’s the victory of Jesus – a triumph of the Lamb; the certainty of the return of the King. It is certain. 

And so the book ends with an invitation. It’s an invitation to join in the victory of Jesus, the victory of Christmas. Revelation 22:17, the last paragraph, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come.’ Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Verse 20, “He who testifies to these things, even Jesus, says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Be the One who stoops down, even now. Be the One who rescues, who guides, who shepherds. Be the One who wins, now and forevermore. That’s the invitation to which we’re beckoned. Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we praise You for the victory into which You have invited us. By our union with You, Your victory has become our victory. You are even now bringing all Your and our enemies under Your feet. The victory is moving forward and You are inviting us to come. You are inviting us to come back. Thank You that You will always bring Your children back to Yourself. You will pursue us, You will find us, You will lay Your righteous right hand upon us, and You will put us back right. Will You please give us courage to believe the promise of Your victory and to embrace it as our own, maybe for the very first time this evening, or for most of us, to embrace it all over again. We claim that victory. We celebrate that victory. We rejoice in that victory. We pray, Lord Jesus, by Your Spirit, enable us to fight for joy as we pursue the victory, celebrate the victory that is ours already. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

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