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Psalm 23

I'd like us to consider for a moment the messages we like to hear. We hear thousands of messages every day. Just think of all the ways messages bombard us. Mail. Email. SMS messages. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Television. Radio. Family and friends. Bosses at work. Billboards we drive by. Magazines we skim. Books we read. Songs we listen to. Messages are pouring into our minds non-stop.

Then consider the messages we hear from these sources: Do this. Don’t do that. Buy This. You’ve gotta have this. Work faster. Try harder. Take a risk. Be careful. Just say No. You can do it. You deserve it. Treat yourself. You’re hired. You’re fired. It’s time for dinner. Traffic congestion ahead. Watch this. Go there. Eat here. Invest now. We hear so many messages. Many, of course, we simply dismiss. But others sink in. They impact us in some way. They may encourage us or discourage us. They may motivate us or deflate us.

Of all the messages we hear from all these sources, what are the messages we most cherish? What messages mean the most to us?

One message we cherish is: “I am with you.” A person going through an especially difficult time - such as a divorce or a relational break-up, having a serious disease, or experiencing the death of a loved one, what they want most is not trite answers but simply the presence of someone with them so they don’t have to walk that difficult and painful path alone.

I have a friend from my university days who several months ago was diagnosed with cancer. She has been posting updates on Facebook so her friends around the world can follow her progress. A few days ago, she wrote that she would be starting her sixth round of chemotherapy this week. Then she mentioned how people have been responding to her messages. She wrote, “You heard my cry and rallied to my side. You let me know I was not alone.”

“You are not alone; I am with you,” whether that message is spoken with our words or demonstrated by our actions, is like medicine for the soul.

Another message we cherish is that we are forgiven. If we have hurt someone and guilt plagues our thoughts, there is nothing so freeing as hearing the message from that person, "I forgive you." It means we don’t have to live with guilt and shame, and there can be a new beginning to a relationship that had been damaged by our insensitive words or careless actions.

Yet another message we treasure hearing is that we are valued, that we matter to someone. When another person somehow communicates to us that they value us, that we matter to them, that brings joy to our hearts.

There's one more message I would mention that we truly cherish hearing, and that is that we are loved. Perhaps the message comes in a written note or words spoken from someone special. Regardless of how we receive it, nothing encourages us and lifts our spirits like when someone tells us they love us.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word “advent” means coming, or to come. So, the four Sundays of Advent are when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Savior of the world. This is a time when we want to tune our ears and our hearts to an extremely important message, for in the coming of Jesus God was speaking to us; He was sending a message to us.

We hear lots of messages from lots of sources, but none is more important than the message God has for us at this time of year. Actually, there are several parts to this message, or we could say, several messages within the message. These would be the four messages I just mentioned that we love to hear.

Isn’t it interesting that the messages we most love hearing are the very ones God has spoken to us through the events of Advent. Of course it’s that way, because that’s the way God made us! We actually see these messages foreshadowed in Ps. 23, which we have been studying the past six weeks.

First, the message, “I am with you.” As we saw a few weeks ago in our study of Ps. 23, David wrote, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” In the darkest valleys of lives, our Good Shepherd is with us. His rod stands for His power; His staff symbolizes His compassion. Together they represent God’s commitment to work for our welfare. He is with us to see us through the dark valley and to lead us to the other side, where we emerge healed, strengthened, and renewed.

In the birth of Christ, God’s presence with us went to a whole new level. When the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the baby she was carrying was actually conceived by the Holy Spirit, in Mt. 1:23 the angel went on to quote Is. 7:14, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).”

In a way we cannot fully understand, the baby born to Mary was both fully human and fully divine. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came to be with us. The announcement that God would be with us in Jesus preceded the birth of Jesus, and then those were the last words Jesus spoke to His disciples. The final words of the book of Matthew, chap. 28 vs. 20, record Jesus saying, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

God, the One who brought the universe into existence and who created each of us, does not want us to think that we are on our own, having to make sense out of life, struggling through difficulty. In Jesus, God came to be with us, so we can know exactly who God is and what God is like, to guide us, to strengthen us, to transform us, to encourage us in all of life. During His earthly ministry, Jesus was with His followers in a physical way, and now He is with all of us through His Spirit.

That means there is no trial we must face alone, no hardship we must endure by ourselves. Jesus is with us, to direct us, to comfort us, to encourage us. Knowing that Jesus, God the Son, is with us, sets us free from fear, for what are the things we fear in comparison to Jesus, to His power and His commitment to us?

If you are going through a difficult time right now, please know that you don’t have to face it alone. The living Lord, the One who was born in Bethlehem, crucified on the cross, and raised from the dead, is with You. He will be your strength. He will walk through this trial with you to supply all you need.

The second message that we cherish - that we are forgiven - is also part of the message God has spoken to us through the coming of Jesus. How sweet that is to our ears, that we have been forgiven!

We also get a hint of this from Ps. 23, written by David about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. In this psalm David affirms that God is his shepherd – the One who provided for him, who guided him on the right paths, who was with him and protected him even in the darkest and most dangerous valleys. This is what David knew in a general sense of God; that God was his shepherd. We have a huge advantage over David, for we know the truth about God specifically through Jesus Christ, who identified Himself as the Good Shepherd. Jesus, the One through whom all things were made (Jn. 1) is our Good Shepherd.

David knew that the well-being of any particular sheep depended on who their care was entrusted to. In that vein, in Jn. 10 Jesus spoke of the difference between hired workers and true shepherds. The hired workers, said Jesus, do not really have the welfare of the sheep in mind. For them, watching over the sheep is just a job, so if danger approaches in the form of a wild animal or a thief, the hired hand will abandon the sheep to save his own skin.

The shepherd, on the other hand, will risk all to care for His sheep, for he owns the sheep and the sheep are precious to Him. Jesus then applied this to Himself by saying in vs. 14-15: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father – and I lay down My life for the sheep.” And why did Jesus lay His life down? It was to bring us forgiveness for our sins and reconcile us to God.

For centuries in many religions a sheep would be slain for the sins of the people, including the shepherd. But Jesus reversed this order. He, the Good Shepherd died for the sins of His sheep, all of His sheep. It is almost incomprehensible that Jesus, God the Son, would bear our sin through His own undeserved death so we could be forgiven, but that’s what He did.

Is. 53:5-6 prophesied this, some eight centuries or so before the birth of Christ, stating: "But He (Jesus) was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all."

We treasure hearing the words, “I forgive you,” but never did it cost anyone so much to say those words as it cost Jesus. Jesus was pierced by the nails and spear. He was crushed by the weight of our sin. We have peace with God because the punishment for our sin was placed upon Him.

Our sin, our rebellion against our loving and holy Creator that had separated us from God, fracturing our relationship with God, could not be ignored. Something had to be done to make us right with God. This Jesus did when He offered His sinless life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. Now the guilt of our sin has been removed, so God sees us pure, and thus we can enter the presence of a pure and holy God. We have been reconciled to God, our relationship has been healed, and we are His children forever.

Eph. 1:7-8 speaks so powerfully about our forgiveness through Christ: “In Him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us.” It is only by the shed blood of Jesus on the cross that we have been forgiven, and it says this is in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. God doesn’t want us weighed down with the guilt and shame of our sin, and He certainly doesn’t desire that we be separated from Him due to our sin. So, because God is so gracious, He did for us what we could never do for ourselves - He took care of our sin problem.

And noticed it says that God lavished His grace upon us. God isn’t stingy with His grace. God doesn’t show us just a little bit of grace, maybe to cover our less significant sins. No, His grace is sufficient for all our sins, big or small, few or many. Not that we then try to take selfish advantage of God’s grace by having a casual attitude about obedience to God – of course not! But the death of Jesus covers all our sin, for God lavishes the riches of His grace upon us. How amazing God is!

Rom. 8:1 reminds us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for Jesus, the Good Shepherd gave His life for the sake of the sheep. Now we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have been forgiven. We don’t have to wonder if God will forgive us. We don’t have to hope God will forgive us. We can be assured that God has already forgiven us, because the death of Jesus guarantees it. As we prepare our hearts during Advent for the birth of the Christ-child, we remember that He was born so that one day He would die; He would die for us so we can be forgiven.

If you have come to worship this morning with a deep sense of guilt, thinking that God could not forgive you, consider that God is lavish in pouring out the riches of His grace. From the cross Jesus was saying, “I forgive you.” The message, “I forgive you,” is a message that can eternally bring us joy.

The third message we cherish is that we are valued, that we matter to someone. This is also part of the message of Advent, and here again we see how Ps. 23 was pointing to this. Ps. 23:1 assures us that we matter to God, for He is our shepherd. Why does that mean we matter to God? Well, God doesn't have to be our shepherd. God chooses to be our shepherd. As we've seen in our study of Ps. 23, it takes work to be a shepherd. It takes commitment to be a shepherd. One must sacrifice to be a shepherd. This God willingly does for us, because we matter to Him. As surprising as it may seem, we are of value to God.

Why is God our shepherd and we His sheep? Well, it's not our doing. A sheep doesn't choose its shepherd. The shepherd chooses the sheep. The shepherd may buy the sheep. Or the lamb may be born to a sheep that the shepherd already bought. Either way, the only reason the sheep has a shepherd is because of the shepherd's choosing. And amazingly, God chooses to have us as His sheep, to be the special object of His attention and affection.

Of course, the sheep have no idea they were purchased, that the shepherd worked and toiled to earn the money to buy it. Scripture tells us that we have been bought with a price - the blood of Jesus. That means we belong to Him and that we have value to Him.

Just think of the things you buy. The reason you buy them is that you value them, and so you want to have them as your own. And the more you value them, the more you will pay for them. You may pay a few dollars for a new shirt, but you are not going to pay $100,000 for a new shirt. Of course not; you don’t value the shirt that much. But you may pay $100,000 for a university education, because that’s how much you value it. The more we value something, the more we will pay for it.

So consider what Jesus paid to purchase us. He paid with His very life, His blood poured out on the cross. You can be sure if there was a less costly way to purchase our salvation, that’s what Jesus would have done. But there wasn’t a less costly way. Yet Jesus considered His life for our salvation worth it; that’s how much He values us.

If you question your worth, if you think you really don’t matter to anyone, that no one really cares about you, take a look at the cross. Realize that there Jesus purchased your salvation. That is why Jesus came. That is why He was born in a Bethlehem manger – to purchase your salvation. That is part of the message of Advent, that you matter to God. God values you – not because of your goodness or good works, not because you have somehow earned it. God values you simply because He values you. So be encouraged; you matter to the King of kings.

The fourth message that we cherish, and that is proclaimed clearly and loudly through Advent, is really the overall message of Advent. And that message is God saying to us, “I love you.” The other three messages from God: “I am with you. I forgive you. I value you,” are simply ways that God expresses His love to us.

We all need to know that we are loved. If a person feels that no one loves them, it’s hard for that person to make it through a day. What’s even the point of getting out of bed in the morning if you are not loved?

Well, we never need to wonder if we are loved. Advent is about the coming of Jesus into the world. And why did He come? One verse sums it up, a verse we all know – Jn. 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus came into the world because of God’s love for us, a love God wants us to know and experience both in this life and for all eternity. And God’s love for us isn’t simply a warm, gushy feeling, rather it’s a love that seeks the welfare of those He loves, no matter the cost. As Jesus said in Jn. 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s how much God loves you!

And I Jn. 4:10 tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That’s why Jesus came – to present Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. That is the depth of God’s love for us. That’s how much God loves you. That’s the message we want to hear and can hear.

Now the most important thing for us to understand in considering these messages of Advent is that it’s all about God. It may seem that it’s all about us. We are not alone. We are forgiven. We are valued. We are loved. Yes, the messages of Advent mean so much for us. And we should embrace the fullness of these messages and rejoice in them.

We reap the benefits of the Advent messages and are encouraged by them, but ultimately, the messages of Advent are about God. After all, He is the One doing the speaking, and speaking not only with words but with actions. It’s because God loves us and values us that He came to us to forgive us, to heal our broken relationship with Him, and to be with us always. The messages of Advent mean so much for us, but they are all about God, for this is the way God is.

We celebrate what the messages of Advent say to us and mean for us, but we bow before God in grateful praise and adoration for what the messages of Advent say about Him – that He is a loving and forgiving God who values us and is with us always. He brings these messages to life. He makes them true.

This Advent season we will hear many messages. When we stroll through the mall, we will hear messages like: “Christmas sale. Buy this.” We will hear messages in songs about reindeer and Santa and bells that jingle and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

During these four weeks of Advent, as we hear so many messages from so many sources, let’s make the effort to hear God’s message to us – that because of the coming of Christ, He is with us, He forgives us, He values us, and He loves us. And as we rejoice in what this good news means for us, let us also rejoice in what it says about God. Even more, like the magi who came bringing their gifts to the Christ-child, let us bow in worship before this amazing God.

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