CHRISTMAS DAY 2005 HE ASCENDED ON HIGH AND GAVE GIFTS TO MEN
THIS IS THE DAY IN WHICH WE CELEBRATE THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST!
What did he say? Has our pastor’s mind wandered off again? Doesn’t he know this is Christmas, not Easter?
I can hear my mother’s voice “what are you thinking?” Or comedian Jonathan Winter, an Ohio native whose female ancestors undoubtedly asked, “Are you out of your ever lovin mind?”
No. Think of it this way.
Not only was a homeless child born outside a hospital, even outside a normal dwelling 2000 years ago, a similar event occurred somewhere in this world last night.
There are itinerant, immigrant, and homeless families all over this world. So many there are in the inner cities and poorer sections of cities in this and other countries of the world that many on hearing of another such birth, or seeing ill clad, ill fed poor children shake their heads and look on in dismay and wonder about the irresponsibility of some people.
In the England of Charles Dicken’s day, the novelist in A Christmas Carol preached to Christians everywhere when he affirmed that the poor were not simply a burden on a productive society to be viewed as “over population.” He showed that even a poor child with disabilities is a gift from heaven. The heaven sent child pronounced a blessing on the whole community, ”God bless us everyone.”
Tiny Tims are everywhere present. Children born without proper homes may be found in every part of the globe. What is so special about 1 child born so long ago?
The evangelists, Matthew and Luke, write a preface to the infant’s life, telling of the expectation of a nation that a child would be born who would bring back the monarchy of David and reestablish the pre-eminence of Jerusalem and Judea in the region.
It was expected, in a Messianic Paslm – that is a Christ Psalm 68 - that this Savior-King would represent God arising, scattering the enemies of the people.
Psalm 68:19 reads “18You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.”
The Early Christians seized on this Psalm and writings of the prophets in regard to Son of God, Christ, Shepherd of Israel and Savior, and saw in them promises of the Heavenly Father to bring salvation from the evil world to the faithful from who looked to God for help. This hope was tied up with the bringing of justice in this world to the down trodden as well as the hope of bringing in the Everlasting Kingdom that would embrace all peoples in all times.
Matthew writes of the visit of the Kings, Wisemen from the East. Psalm 68 gave a hint as do the prophets of the coming of the nations to the God of Israel, bringing tribute.
28Summon your power, O God,
the power, O God, by which you have worked for us.
29Because of your temple at Jerusalem
kings shall bear gifts to you.
30Rebuke the beasts that dwell among the reeds,
the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples.
Trample underfoot those who lust after tribute;
scatter the peoples who delight in war.[f]
31Nobles shall come from Egypt;
Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God.
32O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord,
33to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
35Awesome is God from his[g] sanctuary;
the God of Israel--he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!
This theme, the coming of the world to God is a theme found in the Bible from the beginning of Israel’s story to the book of Revelation.
Our grandest English Music, Handel’s Messiah, also celebrates this theme. There was a time when the Mid East, parts of Africa and Europe and the Americas could see this reign of Christ not only a religious hope, but a political reality. There was a time when Good King Wenceslas was a Christian King, as were the princes in Germany, all the Nordic countries, Russia, France, Spain and England.
To be a Christian Monarch was expected of those invested in political power. It was the norm. When one spoke of a Christian nation, everyone had some idea of what that meant.
Jesus was born into a pre-Christian world, not so different from our own. “The powers that be”, in the days of Jesus Christ and St Paul may have been ordained by God, but those powers did not know it. Roman rulers tolerated religions, but the rulers did not fear or give credence to gods. Pilate’s question to the beaten and thorn-crowned Jesus, “Are you a king?” was nothing more than a dismissal, a mockery; though his wife had a premonition of a greater essence in this humbled Jew.
We live in a pre-Christian or post-Christian world, depending on how you view history.
We, the Christians who Sunday after Sunday gather to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, see the Kingdom as Coming. We don’t look upon it as having come and gone. We see it as Jesus taught in his parables; a tiny mustard seed, growing now, and growing in the future to provide a resting place for all manner of birds.
What has Psalm 68 to do with Christmas?
Psalm 68 recounts the way God saves; gives us the pattern, the paradigm of his acts in history. It recounts the event of Exodus.
6God settles the solitary in a home;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.
7O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
8the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel.
9Rain in abundance, O God, you shed abroad;
you restored your inheritance as it languished;
10your flock[a] found a dwelling in it;
in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy.
11The Lord gives the word;
the women who announce the news are a great host:
12"The kings of the armies--they flee, they flee!"
18You ascended on high,
leading a host of captives in your train
and receiving gifts among men,
even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.
19Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation.
It is in the 18th verse of the Psalm that ancient Christian writers understood that God always visits his people when they are in the desert. When God came to us in Jesus Christ, He was entering history at a time when once again, the people were captive, as in Egypt. Once again they were in the desert place in need of deliverance.
The flock of God needed the Good shepherd when God came in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.
Matthew and Luke begin with the Descent of the Christ to earth. They end with the ascension of the Christ to the Father. In between is the time in the desert, from which, according to Psalm 68, if it does indeed record the paradigm properly, when he ascends he leads a host of captives behind him.
Who were the captives?
There is a very early tradition that Jesus, during the three days in the tomb, was not idle but visited Hades, preached to and liberated the souls imprisoned there. (I Peter 3:19 and possibly Matthew 27: 51-53).
The Good News was not only for those who heard Jesus in the days of his flesh, and for those of us who have heard from his Apostles and Disciples, but also for those who “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth.” (Hebrew 11:13) cf. Ephesians 2:11-22; I Peter 1:1; 2:11)
The elect, the Children of Israel and the followers of Jesus, as in the words of the Gospel song say, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through, my treasure is laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”
We celebrate Christmas, the descent of Christ because in this feast we see not only the beginning of the work of salvation, God coming to us humbly as a child, but also the end in view, the ascent back to the Father bearing all of us with Him.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev an Eastern Orthodox Christian wrote Christ the Conqueror of Hell . On 5 November 2002, Bishop Hilarion wrote the following paragraphs.
“The Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the resurrection itself, that is, Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict ‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. Under the Saviour’s feet is the black abyss of the nether world; against its background are castles, locks and debris of the gates which once barred the way of the dead to resurrection. Though other motifs have also been used in creating the image of the Resurrection of Christ in the last several centuries, the above-described iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, His victory over death, His raising of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before His Resurrection. It is to this teaching as an integral part of the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Christian Church that this paper is devoted.”
“The descent of Christ into Hades is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and inexplicable events in New Testament history. In today’s Christian world, this event is understood differently. Liberal Western theology rejects altogether any possibility for speaking of the descent of Christ into Hades literally, arguing that the scriptural texts on this theme should be understood metaphorically. The traditional Catholic doctrine insists that after His death on the cross Christ descended to hell only to deliver the Old Testament righteous from it. A similar understanding is quite widespread among Orthodox Christians.”
“On the other hand, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell as addressed to the unrepentant sinners: ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited’. However, many Church Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons. “ (End quote)
I can remember Rupert Clinton Foster, then somewhere near or beyond my own present age, in the 1950’s lecturing on the Passion story in Matthew that when Christ entered hell he emptied the place.
Bishop Hilarion continues, “Clement of Alexandria in his ‘Stromateis’, argued that Christ preached in hell not only to the Old Testament righteous, but also to the Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Commenting on 1 Pet. 3:18-21, Clement expresses the conviction that the preaching of Christ was addressed to all those in hell who were able to believe in Christ:
“Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and guard’?… And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there….”
“Clement emphasizes that there are righteous people among both those who have the true faith and the Gentiles and that it is possible to turn to God for those who did not believe in Him while living. It is their virtuous life that made them capable of accepting the preaching of Christ and the apostles in hell:”
“...A righteous man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be of the Law [Jew] or a Greek. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all men. So I think it is demonstrated that God, being good, and the Lord powerful, save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.”
“According to Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith, but also for those who are outside faith.” (END QUOTE)
Bishop Hilarion gave many examples of the teaching of the early Church in this regard, and I won’t go further on that subject now. But revisit the last sentence I quoted from the good Bishop: According to Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith, but also for those who are outside faith.
Isn’t that a clear indicator of how valuable you in the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Haverford Moravian Christians and all the Christians are in this community?
Jesus said, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Just a pinch of salt makes the food palatable. Just a little yeast makes the cake rise.”
The candles you light, the light of Christ you and the other Christians bring will not be extinquished by the garish lights of the commercial interests or snuffed out by those secular institutions that don’t want Christ’s name to appear in schools or public places.
The Christians of the early centuries believed that since Jesus came as a man, God tricked the Devil into thinking he was weak and would easily be defeated. After all, throughout human history hadn’t the Devil taken many generations captive?
The Darkness over the earth at the time of Jesus death may have been an omen of deep darkness that would spread over the world if the light He brought was put out. Vivid in the memory of many of us living, is the darkness that spread over Europe by a Christless Nazism and a Christless Communism. So it must have been in that first century when Jesus died.
But with the Descent of Christ, Satan was bound as the Book of Revelation tells us.
He is being bound day after day. Jesus once asked, ”When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on the earth?” The Answer is a resounding Yes!
Everywhere the light of Christmas still shines.
As John 1:1 says, “The true light that lights every man” has come into the world.
Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Lift up your hearts, “The true light shines.”
Listen with joy to Handel’s Messiah this Christmas Season,
He shall reign for ever and ever.
He descended, he has ascended, having set many captives free, we ascend with him to the Father. “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men.”
O Little town of Bethlehem . . .The Hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Thanks Be to God for this His greatest gift.