Andrew Greeley tells the story of a little girl who hated Christmas because of the fuss and rush of the season. Her mother explained to her that the true meaning of Christmas had nothing to do with the December frenzy, that it's Christ Mass, the celebration of Jesus' birth. The girl said, "That's great! It's just too bad that Christmas has to come during the holidays!"
Sometimes, our holiday traditions and habits get in the way of our experiencing what Christmas is about. But what is Christmas about?
On a mountain in the desert some 1400 years before the birth of Jesus, the presence of God descended from heaven to communicate the moral law for the human race--what we know as the Ten Commandments--to His chosen people, Israel. But the glory of God was so overwhelming, so intimidating, so blazingly terrifying, and so perfect, that the people of Israel turned to the leader God had chosen for them, Moses, and said, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
The Bible gives consistent witness to this sense that God is so searingly perfect that any human being who would dare to stand in God’s presence naked in their sin, uncovered by the saving grace that comes to those who repent and believe in Him, will surely be destroyed.
That’s why the Bible describes God as holy, meaning different, unique, set apart.
That’s why the Bible calls Jesus, God in the flesh. “the lion of Judah” (Revelation 5:5; see also Hosea 5:14).
It’s why when Jesus, revealed His deity in all His glory to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, His visage took on a brightness that nearly blinded the three disciples by Christ’s holiness and perfection.
It’s why both Old and New Testaments describe God as “a devouring [or consuming] fire” (See Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).
Now, folks, I am not bringing all of this up to frighten anyone. As a minister of Word and Sacrament, there are a lot of things I wish God had never said or done because then I wouldn’t have to talk about them and it would make my life a lot easier and people wouldn’t find it nearly as annoying to have me around.
But the truth must be spoken. We live in a world that has turned the “lion of Judah” into a tame lap cat. It's a world that has turned God, “the consuming fire” into a comfortable blaze in the hearth. In the minds and in the ways many live their lives, no matter what they say with their lips, they have whittled the infinite, almighty God of the universe down to a size they can manage.
The world does this, even we Christians sometimes do this, though we wouldn’t put the choices we make in these terms, in order to free ourselves from worshiping the one true God of all creation and so that we can, instead, worship our gods of choice.
People are worshiping false gods when they justify their selfish choices by saying, “I have to look out for myself.”
People worship false gods when, as well-meaning parents, they put their children, rather than God, in first place in their lives.
People worship false gods when, despite knowing that sexual intimacy is a gift God has reserved for husbands and wives united in marriage with the blessing of God, they instead do what feels good or feels right to them, replacing their judgment for the judgment and the will of God.
And what does this all have to do with the true meaning of Christmas?
In Luke’s telling, we see that, among other things, Christmas is an important battle in an ongoing war for our eternal lives.
Luke begins by saying: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
One scholar writes:
Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He became ruler of the Roman world after a bloody civil war...he proclaimed that he had brought justice to the whole world; and, declaring his dead adoptive father to be divine, styled himself as "son of god."...Augustus, people said, "was the ‘saviour’ of the world." [They said he] was its king, its "lord." Increasingly, in the east [the very region in which Jesus was born], people worshiped [Augustus]...as a god.In the midst of this world, where many of God’s own people had forgotten all about God, the true Son of God, the real Savior Who came to bring God’s justice to the world, the only deity worthy of worship had come to claim all who turn from sin and trust in Him for His kingdom of love and grace!
The first Christmas then, was D-Day, the opening salvo in God’s final push to liberate us from the gods to which we often choose to enslave ourselves.
We use the gods of this world--momentary pleasure, money, sex, drugs, alcohol, pornography, popularity, selfish pursuits--to anesthetize ourselves against the world’s grim realities, only to find that these things we use to exercise control over our lives really have become gods that control us.
The only one capable of destroying the power of sin, death, and futility over our lives and freeing us to live as the fully human beings God made us to be is the baby who invaded our world on the first Christmas.
The God Who came to us at Christmas didn't come to anesthetize us against the world's realities. He came to give us the strength to face those realities and to give us the certainty that, finally and eternally, He will create a new and everlasting reality in which death is eradicated, tears are dried, and we live with God, in what Luther's Small Catechism calls, "righteousness, innocence, and blessedness."
If the sad events in Newtown, Connecticut a few weeks ago tell us anything, it is that, though the ultimate defeat of sin and death were made inevitable by Jesus’s death and resurrection, this world is still enemy territory.
This world, as is, isn’t the place God intended for the creatures He made in His own image, Who are, in the Bible’s phrase, “the apple of [His] eye.” You and I weren’t made to live with tragedy, poverty, disease, heartache, war, or death.
This old creation, Paul says in the New Testament book of Romans, groans as a woman in childbirth awaiting the beginning of the new creation the crucified and risen Jesus will bring fully to life when He returns one day.
But, for now, sin, the sin within us, the sin around us, and the sin that is incited by that fallen angel, Satan, has the world in its grip. Sin tests us. It tries us. It tempts us.
That is why the Lion of Judah, the consuming fire, the Lord of lords, and King of kings entered our world at Christmas.
He has come to liberate us from the power of sin and death over our lives.
Jesus once told a grieving friend, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live.”
He said in another place, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
And this is not sweet by-and-by stuff! The hymn we sing at Christmas reminds us that, “where meek [meaning humble, surrendering] souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
The New Testament tells us, “If anyone is in Christ Jesus [in other words, if anyone dares to lay aside their gods of choice and the sins they love and take up Christ as God and King over their lives], there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” That's true of every baptized, believing Christian today, in this present imperfect world.
That doesn’t mean that everything in this life will go perfectly if we worship the God we know in Jesus as our only God and Lord. We still live in a fallen world.
But the God Who invaded this world at Christmas and has already conquered sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus, has promised, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (See Deuteronomy 31:6 and Hebrews 13:5)
He also promises, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”
And, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you...”
Friends, tonight, let me tell you that I know for a fact that Jesus is good for all His promises!
This sorry old sinner has experienced His forgiveness.
I have known His love when I knew how unlovable I really was (and still am).
I have been given His strength when I was at the end of my rope, overwhelmed by illness or a sense of my unworthiness.
I have seen the bankruptcy of life lived in service to the gods of this world or to the sin in my soul and I have known the fullness of a life lived in surrender to Him.
I have been empowered to live the life the master designer designed for me to live when I have laid aside my own plans and schemes to follow the better plans God has for every one of us.
I still sin.
I still lose my way when I should be following my Savior.
But I know this: Life with Jesus is better.
Life with Jesus is really life.
Following my own drumbeat or other gods is a waste of time, a waste of life that can only lead away from God.
So, tonight, I invite you to do as the shepherds did on the first Christmas: Follow the Lion of Judah, the protector and redeemer of your soul, the King of the universe, the perfect Lord of all.
You will never regret it.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
[This was shared during the Christmas Eve worship service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]