September 21, 2020

Christmas Eve 2006: A World Just Beyond Our Grasp

the_nativity_of_our_lord_jesus_christ.jpgIt is traditional for me to post something about Christmas. The following is adapted from a sermon preached at a local Baptist Church, December 24, 11:00 a.m. 2006. A Christ-filled, joyous Christmas to all my Internet Monk readers..

A World Just Beyond Our Grasp. (Luke 1:46-55; Hebrews 10:4-10)

At the Spencer household, Christmas traditions are important. And the enforcer- my daughter, Noel- is watching your every move.

Woe unto him who attempts to NOT watch Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas…or who questions the relevance of the film to Christmas.

Woe unto him who doesn’t keep the Christmas music going, or make hot punch, or serve orange rolls for breakfast.

We’ve long loved the advent wreath, a Christmas ham and going out late on Christmas Eve for lessons and carols. No enforcement necessary.

Our Christmas traditions include telling sentimental tales of our childhood Christmas memories…and laughing at ourselves for crying. I now know that the kids were awake watching us bring the presents out of the shed. Oh well.

We have a tradition of at least one glorious food failure. For years, I carried the ball with my annual debacle of attempting to make fudge. This year, Denise left two Kuchins in the oven until they burned. They’re now somewhere in the woods behind the house. You don’t want to know how much eggs and butter perished in that one.

Several years ago, we began another tradition that has proven to be one of the highlights of Christmas for us: the reading of the unedited, uncorrected “Letters to Santa” printed in our local newspaper. The authors are local 2nd graders, and these letters, read dramatically, are absolutely the biggest laugh you can possibly imagine.

This year a boy asked for seven different kinds of carrots. Another child told Santa that last year’s situation of watching his brother get more toys simply couldn’t be repeated. They want lots of real guns, real four wheelers, and camouflage outfits. Second graders. This is Clay County, Kentucky, after all.

One child refused to write to Santa, instead writing to mom and dad and lecturing the teacher on the evils of believing in this sort of thing. (Some of my TR readers will be greatly pleased with this child.) Another child promised to leave spaghetti and sauce on the table, a real break from milk and cookies. I sense the influence of dad in that one.

Of course, most letters contained recitations of personal virtue and a summary record of good deeds. The words “very good” get quite a workout. One child said very 8 times in a row. OK. I get it.

On the other hand, a rare fellow said “Santa, would you check and see if I am on the naughty list? I think I am on the naughty list. I’m always getting into things I shouldn’t be getting into.” Now there’s a young person with the right idea.

I read these letters and I recall my own childhood. I vividly remember how Christmas would come and bring hope that, finally, dad would say yes instead of no. Finally, being poor wouldn’t be the reason I couldn’t have what other kids had. In that last week of the year, things would change and everything would be alright.

The myth of Santa Clause gripped me deeply and still affects me emotionally to this day. You see, there are other things in those children’s letters that I am not reading to you. If you know our area and culture, and if you read carefully, you will hear the story of poverty, broken families, absent parents, substance abuse and despair that lives in the hollers and off the highways of Appalachia. You will hear, in those letters to Santa, the human prayer that somehow, at the end of the year, all will be right again. That broken, ruined, imperfect lives will be touched with love and magic. Don’t we all know that letter? Don’t we all know that story?

We are, as human beings, an unfinished story, and we yearn for the last chapter to be written so that everything comes out all right.

We are a child without shoes, and we long to be clothed.

We are discordant notes, aching for resolution.

We are listening to the song of the angels, and we can hear the words “peace on earth,” but we cannot touch those angels and know that they, and their message, are real.

We are hoping, yearning, aching for a savior. Not often for THE savior, at least not most of us. But for a savior. For someone to come and say the cancer is gone. Someone to bring shoes, or a job. Someone to put us to bed without fighting, or let us hear the words “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

We are hoping that just beyond this life, we can touch another life. A life where so much isn’t wrong, and our hunger for happiness will not be constantly disappointed.

We are so close. So close we can see and hear and feel the perfect world in the faces of children, at weddings, when choirs sing, in movies and at meals. But we cannot reach that perfect world.

It is frustrating to not be able to go beyond the door; to be so close, yet so far.

In the Bible, in Genesis 3, we are told that we once lived in a perfect world where our longing for happiness was fulfilled in knowing and being known by God. We lived in a perfect environment, and we loved each other. It was, once, exactly what we long for now.

But we did not remain in that world. No, we were shown the door, and the door slammed and locked behind us.

That memory, that echo of abruptly leaving Eden, is constantly with us, and all of us with longing hearts want to reach beyond what we are, to what we were, what we want to be. And yet, we cannot. Our longing exceeds our grasp.

We diagnose this disease, and we say that it is a problem with government, or education, or money. If we will elect the right person, or spend enough money, or get everyone into school, we can find that paradise again. We are close enough to fix things, we believe, and we are optimistic and hopeful. There is something beautiful in that, and something sad.

The problem is not something we can fix. We are not just a bit off the path, able to find our way back. The problem is not the other person or all those other people. We should know this. The problem is profound and deep and universal. It needs a savior.

When I was growing up in church, our hymnal had Longfellow’s poem turned Carol “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day.”

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Now what many people don’t know, is that this poem was written in the midst of the civil war, and included two verses we never sing before the more familiar closing ones.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

If we can just beat the south, we will have peace on earth. That was the version of fixing the world that filled the minds of people when that lyric was written.

Today we could rewrite the song a dozen different ways, couldn’t we?

I’m not one of those Christians who revel in the world getting worse and worse. We ought to do all we can to make the world a better place for everyone, and do so to the glory of God.

But we also shouldn’t be so naive as to think that all we need to do is beat the south, or the terrorists, or the liberals, or cancer, or whatever is on your list, and we will be the kind of people we ought to be.

No…as Chesterton said, the problem with the world is me…and you. We are all affected, and we are all infected.

You see, there is a blind spot in the worldly diagnosis of what’s wrong. That blind spot has to do with God himself. Our problem is, at the root, a problem with God.

We all believe in God these days, or at least 85% of us. But most of us believe in a God who should simply give the world a hug and say, “it’s OK.” This God is, unfortunately, loose in the church. You will hear about him from some emerging Christians, many mainstream liberals and many sentimental evangelicals. He is the God of the Hallmark Card. The God whose job it is to get over it, and to make us all feel better. We pray to him in hospitals, at ball games, when we are on dates, and when we buy lottery tickets. He is the God who wants Americans to have more stuff, an easy life, a nice retirement and heaven.

We know things need to be different, and so we want a God who will fix things. He knows what is wrong. Why doesn’t he listen to us and fix things so we can be happy? This, as shallow as it sounds, is the objection of millions of people to believing in God at all.

This God isn’t the God of the Bible. In no part of the Bible do you meet this God. If this were the God Jesus came to show us, things would be very different.

No, the God the Bible tells us about is Holy. He’s a God who isn’t made in our image, but we are made in His. He’s the God we find in pages of Scripture. He’s a God of justice. What is right must be done. He is a God who bases forgiveness on righteousness, not sentiment. He’s a God whose name, glory and reputation are the center of the universe. That sounds odd to us, because we, deep down, want to be the center of the universe, at least as much as possible without going to hell.

Do you know why we aren’t in Eden? Because, we threw this God out of paradise in Genesis 3. We threw him out before he sent us out. We slammed the door on him as our God. The heart of our problem is a problem with the God we were created FOR; the God we were made to glorify and worship. We want that God to get out of the way, or do it our way. If not, we’ll make up a God that does.

We have, and the result is what we call life in this world. The Bible calls this sin; theologians call it sin; it us the curse of sin and death on a world of light.

This, my friends, is why we can’t touch the angels, or take hold of the innocence, or get to the goodness we long for in our souls.

It should be obvious that the answer to this situation isn’t going to come from us. Strangely, one of the marks of the truth of this situation is that we can’t see the hole that sank the Titanic; we can’t admit that we are helpless.

At this point, I must say with all respect, that religions like Islam, communism or Buddhism, in telling us that we save ourselves by good works or achieving a level of consciousness, must be considered remarkable failures because we cannot save ourselves and we cannot become deserving of being saved. We prove this every day, and over and over. We are the problem, and we are not going to cure the problem. It’s like politicians promising to fix the government. Do you still believe that? Or have you learned the truth that we’ll never save ourselves at the cost of putting God in his place and admitting we are out of ours?

God must do it. The offended one, the one rejected, the one offended, must save us. Salvation is of the Lord. It can be no other way. This is the good news of the love of God, the mercy of God and the kindness of God. He’s not abandoned us. He has sent a savior; his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven to Bethlehem “for us and for our salvation.”

The Bible tells us that God has decided to save this world by sending a savior who was God in human flesh, by making all things right in him, and by giving us, in him, a whole new world. This is what we believe, and it is called the Gospel.

You can hear it in many places in the Bible, but listen to it in two of the lessons we hear on this Christmas Eve.

First, hear it from Mary in Luke 1. Mary is a poor girl, almost, but not yet married. God has sent an angel to tell her that, after thousand s of years of waiting, the savior is going to come into the world through her body, without benefit of a husband getting her pregnant. This is because, of course, salvation is of the Lord. It can be no other way.

When Mary hears this news, she worships. Listen to her song.

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

God is my savior. HE has looked. HE is mighty. HE is holy. He is merciful. HE has shown strength. HE has scattered the proud. HE has brought down. HE has exalted. HE has filled. HE has sent away. HE has helped his people, just like HE promised.

Salvation is of the Lord. It couldn’t be any other way. Mary knew this, as to all who believe this good news.

Mary said all this about a baby who had done nothing. It is all true in that child- that mediator’s- very existence. He- Jesus- is our salvation. In him, God does everything and all things necessary to repair what was ruined and make new and alive what was old and dead.

In Hebrews 10, the writer of this letter tells us how God does this. He is reading Psalm 40, and like the early Christians often did, he hears in the Psalm something about Jesus. “Christ is speaking” he says.

4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”

8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

At least a hundred times a year, I tell the students at OBI that God saves us by Jesus coming to live a perfect life for us, and dying a perfect death in our place. He is our substitute and our salvation. Hebrews says he came to “do your will, O God.” We didn’t do God’s will, but Jesus does, and gives us the opportunity to have his obedience credited to us as a gift. God has always done this for those who trust in him, but now we know that he does it through the person and life of Jesus that we read about in the Bible.

And he is an offering, a sacrifice, that makes unholy people holy- ONCE, for all and for all time. This is the Gospel. He is our mediator. He lived a perfect life. He died for our sins. God raised him from the dead and exalted him as Lord of the Universe. In advent, we remember that God sent this savior and that he will come again.

So in Jesus, the world is made right, God is satisfied, we are forgiven, and in him, a new world will be raised from the dead. A new world is here in Jesus, and a new world will come in and through Jesus, where all that we long for will be satisfied.

One last stop. Go back to Mary’s song. She says “My Spirit rejoices….” “My soul magnifies…” God has done “…great things FOR ME.”

You have to believe this message. God calls that faith, and it is what he requires for this story to include you in what it is doing and what it will do.

You don’t have to work or do. You must, however, believe. You must let go of your rebellion against God- repentance- and surrender to this King. You must make this story the believing foundation of your life. You worship and rejoice and live in this good news. You receive it, you savor it, you believe it and you keep believing it. In all you do, from now on, this is the truth of your life.

Mary- and thousands of others in the Bible and elsewhere- is your model, but Jesus is your salvation. She needed a savior, and so do we. So do you.

On the other side of the song of the angels, on the other side of Christmas music, letters to Santa and once a year family visits is a world we long to reach. But the door is shut.

There is now, the Bible says, a new and living way to God. Jesus Christ is that way and made that way available. If you believe that message, then the door will open, and you will one day enter into all that you long for. You will know, of course, that all you long for is God, and that He has, from the beginning loved you to this point and to himself. Right now, he offers you, in the good news of Jesus, the beginning of a whole new world.

I pray you take it, believe it, and as C.S. Lewis said, come further up and further in to the place where we touch the wonder that we hear at Christmas.