Christmas Eve 2018 Sermon: “In Christ, God is Well Pleased with You”

December 26, 2018

I preached the following sermon on December 24, 2018, at Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. I apologize for the video quality: I took it directly from the Facebook Live feed. But the sound quality is O.K. Scripture is Luke 2:1-20.


Advent Devotional Day 26: “Those with Whom God Is Pleased”

December 26, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 2:13-14

Linus, in A Charlie Brown Christmas, understood that when we hear the Christmas story in the Bible, it just sounds better in the classic King James translation: 

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

The shepherds weren’t “terrified” (NIV) or “filled with great fear” (ESV), they were  “sore afraid.” Outside of this scripture, I’ve never used “sore” as an adverb. But in the Christmas story it just sounds right.

Unfortunately, the classic King James rendering of the second half of verse 14 is misleading, if not wrong: “on earth peace, good will toward men.”

This translation makes it seem as if the angels are pronouncing God’s favor toward everyone without condition. Granted, in a culture that values “inclusion” above all other values, this idea fits nicely. But Bible scholars believe that this isn’t what the angels meant.

Modern translations have it right: “on earth peace among those whom he favors” (NRSV), or “those with whom he is pleased” (ESV).

Among “those with whom he is pleased”? If that’s the case, we better find out who these people are with whom God is pleased—and why!

Theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as the former Pope Benedict XVI, provides this helpful answer:

Now, with regard to this question the New Testament itself provides an aid to understanding. In the account of Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and a voice came from heaven, saying: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased…” (3:22). The man “with whom he is pleased” is Jesus. And the reason for this is that Jesus lives completely oriented toward the Father, focused upon him and in communion of will with him. So men “with whom he is pleased” are those who share the attitude of the Son—those who are conformed to Christ.[1]

Here’s the good news: If we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, God is “well pleased” with us, not because of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for us. As Paul says of himself in Philippians 3:9, he no longer has a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

Do you agree with the following statement: “God is well-pleased with me, not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for me”? Why or why not? Do you believe that any part of salvation depends on your “earning” it?

1. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 75.


Advent Devotional Day 25: “Veiled in Flesh, the Godhead See”

December 25, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: John 1:14

At around noon on May 30, 1984, my eighth-grade classmates and I stood in a field near our high school to witness an annular solar eclipse. For a few moments, while the moon passed in front of the sun, it appeared as if the sun were completely blacked out. Our teachers warned us repeatedly: “Don’t look up at the sky! You might go blind!” Or at least, they said, the light from the sun that isn’t blocked by the moon could damage our vision.

So instead of watching the eclipse directly, we watched it indirectly, through pinhole projectors made from shoeboxes.

As exciting as this was—and as happy as I was to be excused from class for most of the afternoon—I was too worried about being accidentally blinded by the sun to enjoy the experience. After all, if someone tells you not to think of pink elephants, what do you think of? In the same way, if someone tells you not to look up at the sky, what are you tempted to do?

Fortunately, I didn’t go blind, nor was my vision damaged. But the experience reminded me of an important Old Testament truth: It’s dangerous for us sinners to see God—even to get too close to him.

In Genesis 32, for example, Jacob is grateful to be alive after he realizes that he had been wrestling all night with God. In Exodus 33, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God shields Moses’ eyes when God’s glory passes by. Otherwise, God tells him, the experience would kill him. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah has a heavenly vision and shouts, “I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”[1] He realizes that he is in God’s presence, and he knows that sinners can’t get close to God without being destroyed.

Something changed, however, when Jesus came. In his hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley describes it this way: 

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Not only could humans get close to Jesus Christ—who is God-made-flesh—when he was on earth; now, because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we can be close to God all the time. 

Remember what Christ did: He took our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for them. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.) He lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die. In exchange, we who place our faith in Christ receive his righteousness as a gift. 

From God’s perspective, then, it’s as if we’re no longer sinners at all. We are instead God’s beloved children, holy in God’s sight!

Think of how much parents want to be close to their children. God desires that kind of relationship with you! That’s why God became incarnate at Christmas.

Do you believe that God longs to be in a close relationship with you? Do you believe that God wants to spend time with you in prayer and speak with you through his written Word, the Bible? Do your actions reflect this belief?
I’m praying right now that you and your family and friends will have a wonderful Christmas Day!

1. Isaiah 6:5 paraphrase


Advent Devotional Day 24: “Surrendering to God”

December 24, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:28-38

Notice in verse 38 that Mary isn’t necessarily saying that she’s happy to be God’s chosen vessel for bringing God’s Son into the world. True, her joy would come soon enough—after she visits her relative Elizabeth later in this chapter. But right now, she is likely nervous, uncertain, and afraid. In spite of these feelings, she says “yes” to God. She surrenders her will to God. She says, in so many words, the same thing her son would say more than thirty years later in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thine, be done.”[1]

Although our circumstances will be different from hers, all Christians must be prepared to do the same. Like Mary, we must learn to surrender to the Lord.

Pastor and author Tim Keller gives us an idea what this looks like. He describes an experience decades ago at a Christian conference:

Two questions were put to us. First, are you willing to obey anything the Bible clearly says to do, whether you like it or not? Second, are you willing to trust God in anything he sends into your life, whether you understand it or not? If you can’t answer these two questions in the affirmative, we were told, you may believe in Jesus in some general way, but you have never said to him, “I am the Lord’s servant.” These questions were startling to me, but to this day I believe they are accurate indicators of what Christians are being asked for.[2]

Can you answer these two questions in the affirmative? What changes do you need to make in your life to become a more faithful servant of the Lord? Pray for the grace to change.

1. Luke 22:42 KJV

2. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 91.


Advent Devotional Day 23: “Bearing Our Guilt and Shame”

December 23, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Matthew 1:19

What does it mean when Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

I understand that Joseph wanted to spare Mary both her life and public humiliation, but how would annulling his marriage help with this? Even if he “dismissed her quietly,” the conspicuous fact that Mary was pregnant would become more and more apparent. And someone was the father! Wouldn’t people put two and two together and assume that Mary slept with someone else, and that Joseph, in his justifiable anger and hurt, divorced her for this reason?

Not according to Adam Hamilton in his book The Journey. By keeping quiet about the reasons for the divorce—rather than loudly accusing Mary of infidelity, as most men would do—people would assume that Joseph himself slept with Mary. By divorcing her and letting people believe that he was the father, Joseph would bear the shame, not Mary. Meanwhile, by divorcing Mary, Joseph believed he was giving the “real” father the chance to do the right thing and take Mary as his wife.[1]

So out of great compassion, Joseph was willing to let people think that he was an irresponsible jerk. He was willing to bear the shame and guilt of someone else’s sin—so far as he knew—for the sake of love.

Who does that remind you of?

Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all of your sins—past, present, and future—on the cross. Whenever we confess and repent of our sins, we can be confident that God will forgive us. As John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:19). Spend time confessing and repenting of your sins. As you do so, be confident that God has forgiven you!

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 44.


Advent Devotional Day 22: “The Meaning of Christmas Is Easter”

December 22, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-18

In January 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran from New York named Wesley Autrey was taking his two young daughters home on the subway in Manhattan. While he was standing on the subway platform, a 20-year-old film student suffered a seizure and collapsed onto the tracks in front of a fast approaching train. The student was dazed. He struggled vainly to climb back onto the platform but fell down. That’s when Autrey did something so brave and heroic I can’t comprehend it.

Without having a moment to spare, Autrey leapt onto the tracks as the train neared. There was a trough between the two rails about a foot deep. Autrey pushed the student down into the trough and lay on top of him, holding him down, while five subway cars passed over the both of them, inches above Autrey’s head. Autrey, who was underneath the train, shouted to bystanders that they were O.K., and could someone look after his two daughters until he got out.

Both men were saved. Autrey said afterwards, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”[1]

All I can say is, I hope Wesley Autrey is around if ever I’m in trouble!

I said a moment ago that I can’t comprehend his act of heroism, but that’s not quite right: I can comprehend it, but only because I’m a parent. Not that I’ve ever had to put it to the test—and not that I want to—but when my daughter was born—my firstborn—I understood for the first time the impulse to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. I remember thinking for the first time, “In the interest of love, I would do anything to protect and save this precious life. I would jump in front of a speeding locomotive to save her. I would push her out of the way of a fast-approaching bus. I would take a bullet for her. Without giving it a second thought!” (And, by all means, I would do the same for my two boys!) That’s love, and I fell in it deeply and unshakably and unfailingly when I became a father.

Now consider our heavenly Father’s love for us: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 KJV). The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” so that God could lay down his life to save us, his children. 

My friend Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, put it well in a Facebook post one Christmas: “And remember, folks, the real meaning of Christmas is Easter.”

Christmas means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the word that God spoke so powerfully through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of his Son is “I love you.”

Have you experienced God’s love for yourself? You can!

If you’re ready to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ, begin by praying this prayer:

Almighty God, I confess to you that I am a sinner in need of your forgiveness. I know that because of my sins I deserve nothing better than death and hell. But I also know that you loved me too much to leave me this way. I am sorry for my sins and with your help I am turning away from them now. I believe that your Son Jesus is Lord. I believe that through Jesus—through his death on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead—you are offering me forgiveness and eternal life. Enable me to receive that gift now. I promise, by your grace and power, to be a faithful follower of Jesus for the rest of my life—in this world and in the world to come. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

If you prayed this prayer, please let me (brentw@cannonchurch.org) or someone else know. I would love to help you as you begin this journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

1. Cara Buckley, “A Man Down, and a Stranger Makes a Choice,” New York Times, 3 January 2007.


Advent Devotional Day 21: “Doers of the Word”

December 21, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Matthew 2:13-15

The magi were experts in both religion and astronomy. Among other things, they believed that important events on earth influenced the night sky—and vice versa. Therefore, when they saw the Star of Bethlehem, they pieced it together with what they knew about Judaism and concluded that the Messiah had been born. 

They followed the star as far as it would take them: to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Surely, they reasoned, Israel’s Messiah would be born here. Upon arriving in the capital, however, they learned otherwise. Bible scholars in Jerusalem pointed them to Bethlehem. Scripture, these scholars said, foretold that the Messiah would be born in David’s hometown.

Given that Herod was “troubled” by the news—as was the populace in Jerusalem—the magi’s journey was hardly a secret. Perhaps Jerusalem’s citizens knew from painful experience that when their king was “troubled,” he took it out on his subjects. Regardless, many people in Jerusalem, including the Bible scholars that Herod and the magi consulted, knew about the star and the magi’s journey. As best we can tell, however, the magi made the journey to Bethlehem alone.

Why? Didn’t these scholars believe the Bible? Even Herod believed it—enough to go on a murderous rampage! These scholars must have believed it was possible, if not likely, that scripture was being fulfilled. Yet they stayed home. They didn’t accompany the magi to worship the newborn king.

Their inaction or indifference reminds us of James’s words in James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” And his warning in 2:17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Do you try to live your life according to God’s word? Would the people who know you best agree with your answer to this question?

Another pastor questions the Virgin Birth for no good reason

December 20, 2018

Pastor Brian McLaren, who, alongside his former “emerging church” colleague Rob Bell, used to identify as an evangelical, said that the “literal factuality” of the Virgin Birth is beside the point—which is really, he says, a statement against “patriarchy.” Or something.

Anyway, in response to this tweet I tweeted the following:

It should read “whomever.” Sorry. When will Twitter let us edit tweets?

I’ve blogged many times about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Here’s one representative post.


Advent Devotional Day 20: “The ‘Little Herod’ in Each of Us”

December 20, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Matthew 2:13-15

King Herod went to murderous lengths to oppose the kingship of Jesus Christ. Yet, in the following passage, Tim Keller argues that even we Christians have a little bit of “King Herod” living within us:

Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.[1]

How does that “little King Herod” manifest itself in your life? Pray for forgiveness and repent. Ask for the grace necessary to fight him back.

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 73.


Advent Devotional Day 19: “Great Things for Me”

December 19, 2018

During the month of December, I’ve prepared a series of daily devotionals to help my church get ready for and celebrate Christmas. I created a booklet (if you’d like a copy, let me know), but I’ll also post devotionals each day on my blog.

Devotional Text: Luke 1:49

Notice that in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, she expresses amazement that God is bringing to fruition his plan of salvation for the world through her. The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for her, personally: “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”

What about you? Have you personally experienced the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news? 

I have. And I’d like to share one way that the gospel has been good news for me:

I am someone who is a naturally fearful person. For example, growing up, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union—Russia. In fact, I was fairly certain that I was going to die in a nuclear war.

The early eighties, after all, were a scary time for fearful kids like me. For example, when I was in eighth grade there was a made-for-TV movie called The Day After starring Jason Robards, which imagined the world after the Russians dropped the bomb on us. For weeks, news about the movie was all over newspapers, magazines, and TV news.

Sting had a hit song about nuclear war, in which he wondered “if the Russians love their children, too.” We played video games like “Missile Command.” Remember this game? You’re in command of missile silos, and your job is to protect six cities from being hit by fast-approaching nuclear missiles. And these missiles just keep coming, wave after wave. You have to shoot them out of the sky. And no one wins in the long run: eventually all your cities get reduced to rubble! 

Around the same time, President Reagan was talking about building a real-life “missile command” system that could destroy Russian nuclear missiles before they landed on U.S. soil!

We also watched movies like WarGames, in which a young Matthew Broderick is a computer prodigy who hacks into the Pentagon computers and nearly launches World War III—by accident. 

And you may be wondering, “Brent, you’re a pastor now! Instead of being afraid, why didn’t you just place your faith in God, and trust that he would take care of you?” After all, Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”[1]

Jesus also said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’”[2] In other words, there is a healthy kind of fear that we’re supposed to have, and it’s the fear of the Lord, which comes from believing and trusting in him as our Savior and Lord. If we do that, we don’t need to worry about all these other things! God will take care of us!

And I believe these words are true from the bottom of my heart now. But back then… I didn’t know Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I wasn’t saved. So I was afraid that when I died, I wouldn’t be prepared meet the Lord, because I hadn’t yet received the gift of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life that he freely offers us.

But that changed one weekend in February 1984, when I went on a winter youth retreat to Black Mountain, North Carolina, with my church youth group. 

The gospel was preached in a way that finally made sense to me: I understood that I was a sinner whose sin had separated me from a holy God. As scripture says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[3] I understood that because of my sins, I deserved death and hell.

But just as importantly, I also understood that God loved me—that God loves all of us—way too much to let us die in our sins. He wants to save us. He wants to have a relationship with us—both now, in this life, and in eternity. I understood that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[4]

I received this gift of eternal life that weekend, and I’ve never been the same. For one thing, I’m not nearly as fearful as I used to be. I have peace of mind and a sense of security and belonging. And it’s because of Jesus. 

Along with Mary, I can say, “He who is mighty has done great things for me.”

Reflect on the “great things” that Christ has done for you. You might want to write them down. Could you, speaking from personal experience only, share this good news with others?

1. Matthew 6:31-33 NIV

2. Matthew 10:28 NIV

3. Romans 3:23

4. John 3:16