I’ve always loved Christmas.
When I was younger I loved waking up at ridiculous times to see if there were any presents under the tree and then going into Mom and Dad’s room to see if it was time to open them. After several years of this I learned that if you want Mom and Dad to be happy while you’re opening presents, it was better to leave them alone and let them sleep. It was then that I discovered I could turn on the TV and just wait for them (because you can’t go to sleep when you know there are presents under the tree awaiting you).
I think my Mom likes the whole present thing more than we do, though. She likes it when we have things to unwrap. I remember one time getting a stereo (before any kind of digital music player) and Mom wrapping each separate component because she wanted me to have more things to unwrap. Even today if Mom and Dad give us money, she’ll get cash and put each bill in its own wrapped box or gift bag. She just likes to give presents and likes to watch us unwrap them.
I’ve always loved Christmas. I enjoy family dinners. With my Mom’s family, we usually try to eat something different each year. Since Christmas and Thanksgiving are so close together, we don’t want to eat another Turkey, so we’ll come up with other things. We’ve done English dinners with Goose or Beef Wellington. We’ve done Italian and Mexican and Chinese. We did salmon one year, and we’ve done ribs and steak. It’s always fun because it’s never the same.
I love cold weather, so Christmas (occasionally) falls in the perfect time-frame for me. I love to snow ski. I think I was born in the wrong state because if there’s a sport that I’m actually good at, it’s snow skiing. I can place baseball and football. I’m too short for basketball and too male for volleyball (at least in Texas schools). I’m too slow to run track and too lazy to play tennis. But snow skiing…that’s where I’m in my element. I love below-freezing temperatures and the sound snow makes when you walk on it or glide over it.
One of my favorite memories comes from a snow skiing trip our whole family took a few years ago. Dad (who’s much better than I am) and I had been skiing the second of three peaks when he decided he was going to go back to the summit of the main mountain where Amanda, Mom, and my sister and brother-in-law were. I decided to stay and ski just a couple more runs (not the best decision, skiing alone, but I don’t always make good decisions). I skied my way over to the third peak just to see what it was like. There’s something you should know about resorts with multiple peaks. The main mountain is the one where everyone skis. It’s the most developed, has the most runs for beginners, and the most ski patrol stations if you find yourself hurt. (I know what you’re thinking: Carl falls down a lot. I didn’t get hurt this time, though.) The point being that there are rarely many people on the subsequent peaks.
I got to the summit of the third peak and there was absolutely no one else around. There was no noise at all. It was just me on the top of that mountain. I’ve never been more alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. I wish I’d had the camera with me, but I gave it back to Amanda because I do fall down a lot and didn’t know what to expect off the main mountain. Have you ever experienced complete silence? I mean there was no sound at all. You don’t want to move because the sound you make offends the silence. It was other-worldly.
I know what you’re thinking: Why is he telling us about presents, Christmas salmon, and skiing? Isn’t this supposed to be about Jesus? I’m getting there, give me a moment.
All of that was to say that I absolutely love the Christmas season and everything about it. A few years ago, however, I began to find myself depressed around Christmas and without any real reason. My life has been good. I have a wonderful family who loves me and has always provided for me much more than I need. I have wonderful friends who encourage me and exhort me to use my gifts. I’ve had good jobs. I’ve never wanted for anything, really. So why was I depressed? I began to be sickened by the idea of celebrating Christmas the way we’ve always done it. I was looking for ways to do different things, but you know how it is. They call things tradition for a reason. They become very hard to break. I knew the way we celebrated Christmas wasn’t really right, but I kept right along at it. And it was no one else’s fault, either. My parents taught us why we celebrated Christmas. Amanda is a very compassionate and giving person who always wants us to give more than we do. It was me. My selfish, wicked flesh contended with the truth.
I’m still not there, but I’m much less depressed than I used to be. I’ve begun to see better the real celebration at Christmas. Working through this Advent season and diving into scripture about Jesus’ birth, life, and death has helped me to appreciate exactly what God did for us.
Advent is the season of anticipation leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It’s a human tradition, but one that calls attention to the fact that we really do forget what Christmas is all about. Advent is about longing to see our Savior, to encounter him in a very real and personal way. Advent is about the patient endurance we must sometimes go through in order to really experience new life: the struggle with pain and difficulty. Advent is about our faithful pursuit of knowing God.
It’s also about the culminating event, though. It’s about the joy of Simeon who, upon the birth of Jesus, could finally die a fulfilled man. God had promised that he would see the Messiah, and he did. It’s about the overwhelming excitement of angels who could no longer contain themselves and filled the sky singing praises to God while shepherds were watching their flocks.
If you’ve been keeping up over the last four weeks, we’ve basically preached through the whole Bible. It’s a simple story, really. It’s the story of Jesus. At the point of creation everything was perfect. God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve and nothing was out of place. Man rebelled against God, however, and sin entered the world. This broke the relationship man had with God and ended their fellowship together.
From that moment, God put a plan into place to redeem mankind and restore the relationship. He is going to fix everything. The promise was made that restoration would come. God would save his people. His kingdom would come and a Messiah would lead his people out of darkness and restore all things.
Starting with the deliverance of his people from Egypt, God began enacting his plan. Through the law he told his people how they ought to live and treat one another. The Ten Commandments were basic principles for having a right relationship with God and with fellow man. The law was meant to reveal to man what things should be like, but man had trouble keeping the law. Through the judges, prophets, and kings God began to reveal specifically how his plan would be enacted. One would come who was from God, the Messiah. He would sit on the throne of David forever and reign over a kingdom of peace. He would be born in the town of Bethlehem but would flee to Egypt. He would be despised and rejected by the very ones he came to save. He would be killed because of our sins, but wouldn’t stay dead. His resurrection would call us to new life and we would never die.
For a thousand or more years the Jews heard these prophecies. Then a man came wandering through the desert wearing camel skins and eating bugs. John the Baptist proclaimed that “the Kingdom is here!” He preached a baptism of repentance, that the people might be prepared when Jesus came onto the scene. Then Jesus was born and his life was truly earth-shattering.
When God shows up, things change. When we encounter God face-to-face, we change. Nothing is left the same. I am not the same person I was before I met God. I’m not the same person I was six months ago. I think we sometimes believe that when we’re saved, that’s it. God has saved us, now we’re all of a sudden better people. I think we expect new Christians to be like that. We hope that once someone decides to follow Jesus that they’ll be completely different and they will, it just might take a little time. I’m so glad I’m not the same person I was six months ago. I’m glad I won’t be the same person six months from now.
Wednesday evening Paige VanMeter, one of our students, shared her testimony with the rest of our youth at Encounter. She told us about her life and all the trials and tribulations she’s experienced that have helped to shape her and make her who she is today. Several weeks ago I asked our staff to tell me what the 6 or 8 or 10 moments were from their lives that stuck in their minds as Ebenezers or milestones of their faith. The hymn “Come Thou Fount” has a wonderful second verse. It starts “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come.” These Ebenezers were altars or milestones to mark the journey of faith. So I asked our staff what some of theirs were. I want to share a few of mine with you this morning.
I remember clearly laying in my bed at home after having asked questions of Mom and Dad about Jesus. I remember praying for Jesus to come into my life and save me. I was six years old. I remember being baptized by my pastor who was also like a grandfather to me. I remember Youth Camp after my 7th grade year because that was the first time I realized that worship could be joyful and intimate. I remember “feeling” the presence of God in worship for the first time. I remember when I decided to go to ETBU for college. I really hadn’t planned on going there even though it’s where both of my parents had gone and my dad was on staff there meaning I could get my tuition paid for. That moment changed completely the course of my life because of the people I would meet and the classes I would take that helped shape my thoughts. I remember the moment I first saw Amanda. My life hasn’t been the same since. I remember when we decided it was time to leave Lufkin. We were both school teachers at the time and we were leaving to go to a place we didn’t yet know. But we left anyway. Because of that act of faith we ended up in Kilgore and have been able to build the relationships we have now. I remember nine months ago deciding that now was the time to start a new church.
There are moments in our lives that completely alter their courses. But there are also moments in history that forever change the direction of the world. I want to read today what I call the “third Christmas story.” There are accounts of the birth of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke, but one of my favorite accounts is in the book of John.
John 1:1-18, 29
The Word became flesh. Jesus was born on earth as a human baby, no special magical powers, just God in human form. Paul says in Philippians that he humbled himself to become human. He gave up some of his glory and royalty to become a man with flesh and blood. Think about that for a moment. How odd must it have seemed for him, the Creator of everything, to become part of that which he created? What were the things he must have felt seeing what he saw while he walked on earth? He was raised in a Jewish home, so he experienced all the ritual that came along with Jewish worship. Knowing what all of the sacrifices meant, how must he have felt to see that meaning perverted? The Word became flesh, and he also dwelt among us. I think Jesus on earth is the perfect example of what we must be, in but not of the world. He was not of the world. He was not born of the will of man, but of God. He was not of the world, but he lived in it.
John says that Jesus came to his own. He came to the very people who should have recognized him for who he was. He came to the very people who should have been expecting him. He came to the people that had been foretold of his coming. The Lord God, who rescued them from slavery, who brought them into their own kingdom, and who called them his own, came into their midst and they didn’t see him. John said he came to his own, but they did not receive him. Not only did they not recognize him, but when it was revealed who he was, they did not receive him. They despised and rejected him. They didn’t believe him.
But, to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God. This is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible. To those who receive Jesus and who believe in his name, he gives the right to become his children. Do you see the difference here? We are no longer simply his servants, although to be in service of the King is a wonderful thing. We are no longer simply his people. He gave us the right to become his children. He adopted us into his family. Can you see why Christmas is so special now? We get to be part of God’s family. Paul even says that we get to be co-heirs with Christ. We receive the same inheritance, the same honor. How amazing is that?!? John then says that these children of God were not born of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man. What he’s saying here is that children of God are incorruptible. There is no weakness, no death in being a child of God. We take on his eternal nature.
Skipping ahead a few verses we see John the Baptist baptizing in the Jordan River. As he sees Jesus coming toward him, he stops what he’s doing and proclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” It’s the same thing I would say to you today. As we get closer to Christmas (it’s this coming Saturday) I would say amidst all the craziness that happens during this season, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” That’s why we celebrate! That’s why we sing. He is the one who takes away the sin of the world!
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word became flesh. This moment in history forever changed the outcome of events. No matter how awful the world becomes, no matter how dark things get, there was a moment in history that changed things. The Word became flesh. God came to earth. Talk about a milestone!
We get to be children of God! What an awesome privilege! This privilege carries with it a responsibility, though. God blesses his people with extravagant grace so they might extend his extravagant glory to all peoples on the earth. That’s the Gospel message. That’s the scandal of Christmas. The Word became flesh. God came to earth. He came to set us free. He gave us the right to become his children, adopted into his family, co-heirs with Christ.
It started with Jesus. It will end with Jesus. In between, it’s all about Jesus. Jesus came once as a baby. He came to the poor and the maligned. He came to the sick and the sinners. He came to set captives free. But he is also coming again. He is coming as the resurrected Lord of all. He is coming as a victorious warrior and conquering King. He is coming in all the ways the Jews thought he would come the first time. He is coming again. Advent is the wonderful season of dual meaning. We look with anticipation toward the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and longing for him to return again.
All of life is about our relationship with Jesus. The silly games we play with religion don’t matter a bit. What’s real is our relationship. That’s what matters. Even in the ritual and tradition we find what really matters. We look at the elements of the Passover meal and we see the sacrificial death of Jesus. We look at the feasts in the Old Testament and we see the attitude we’re supposed to have toward worship, remembering who God is and what he has done. Even in more traditional settings with the “Hanging of the Green” there is meaning. The point, however, is always our relationship. If it doesn’t point to Jesus, it is worthless. If it doesn’t bring all our focus on him, there is no point. You see, the tradition doesn’t save us. The law in the Old Testament didn’t save anyone. Paul says that people were justified to God because of their faith, not their ritual. The law just pointed out to people how life ought to be. Jesus came to remove any barrier between us and God. His sinless life, his sacrificial death, and his triumphant resurrection provided us with means to meet God for ourselves and to know him better. That’s why we celebrate Christmas. The Word became flesh.
So this Christmas, worship Jesus. Remember who he is. Remember why he came. Remember what he did for you. Then remind others. Let your life be a testimony to the grace of God. Let others know who you are. Last week we talked about how God can use a jerk, too. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. We’re all broken people. Paige reminded us Wednesday night that our brokenness is what makes God so great. The difficulties he’s brought us through are why he’s so special. While we don’t like pain, it helps to define us, so even if we could go back in time, maybe we shouldn’t long to change the pain we’ve gone through because maybe it can help others see just how amazing Jesus really is.
I’m going to close with the words of Luke (and Linus Van Pelt).
“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. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
That’s what Christmas is all about.