Christmas Is For Ordinary People
Christmas has been, is now, and always will be for ordinary people. In other words, Christmas is for you and for me.
When we stop to examine the Christmas story, what strikes home to us is its ordinariness. Christmas came to a little, out-of-the-way, back-water town called Bethlehem so that we might know that there is no place on earth unknown to God. Christmas came in the middle of the night to remind us that there is no moment of the day, or night, when God is absent from us. Christmas came to an ordinary, young, peasant girl named Mary to convince us that every person, no matter who they are or appear to be, is priceless to God. Christmas came in a helpless child lying “in such mean estate” in order that we might never forget that all of life is in God’s hands. Yes, Christmas is for ordinary people. That’s why Christmas stakes such an absolute claim upon our ordinary lives and transforms us into the vessels and vehicles of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.
William Chatterton Dix is all the proof we need. He was an insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland. He was doing well. He was making a good living. He was looking forward to all of the things that money could buy. Life was going his way, or so he thought. Then at age 29, he was stricken with a sudden serious illness. He was confined to bed for an extended period of time, and he suffered deep depression. Then Christmas came and plunged him deeper still into that depression. It was at that point that he cried out to God, and, as he put it “met God in a new and real way in the Christ of Christmas.” Out of that transforming encounter with God’s grace, William Chatterton Dix was ordinary no more. He was transformed by God’s grace from an insurance salesman into a prolific and gifted hymn writer. Many of his words we sing in the church to this very day. But the words of his I love the best are found in a carol he wrote just after his transforming encounter with Jesus Christ: “What Child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” Of course, that is a question asked through the ages, “What Child is this?” This One, who stands as the help of the helpless, began His life as a helpless child in a manger, and ended His life as a helpless victim on a cross. This One, who called Himself “the Bread of Life,” began His ministry hungering and this One, who called Himself “Living Water,” ended His ministry thirsty. He was weary, yet He is our rest. He prayed, yet He hears and answers our prayers. He was sold for 30 pieces of silver, yet, with His blood, He purchased salvation for us all. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd who never stops looking for His lost sheep. He died a brutal agonizing death, yet by His dying, He destroyed death for you and for me. Little wonder that William Chatterton Dix, having encountered God’s grace in the ordinariness of Christmas, could then be moved to write “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe the Son of Mary.” The words of that carol affirm that the extraordinary grace of God invaded our very ordinary human lives in Jesus Christ, and it all began with Mary. We see how it happened in Luke 1 where there is recorded for us a wonderful conversation between Mary and the Angel Gabriel.
The conversation shows us, first of all, the shock of God’s grace.
The Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as one who has been “favored” by God. In Luke, Gabriel says, “Greetings you who are highly favored. . . You have found favor with God.” The word we translate “favor” is better translated “grace.” The angel was actually saying to Mary, “You have been chosen by God’s grace. God is going to lavish His amazing grace upon you.” The angel went on to say, “You will have a Son and He will be great. He will be called the Son of the most high. He will be given the throne of David, and He will rule over Israel. Of His kingdom, there will be no end.” What an astonishing promise to be given to one so ordinary and insignificant in life. It is quite clear from the passage that Mary was shocked by what she heard. She didn’t understand it all, but she did understand enough to know that her life would never be the same again.
Not so long ago, I was dipping into a book about the Russian tsars written by Robert Massie. He told of Tsar Alexis who lost his wife and his two children to tragic illness and death. The Tsar’s grief was a double grief for not only had he lost his family, but he had lost an heir to the throne. Now the chief counselor to Tsar Alexis was a man who also was serving as guardian for a young woman, nineteen years of age. The young woman was very poor. She was uneducated. She had no dowry, no prominent family, no social status. As Tsar Alexis would visit the house of his chief counselor to discuss the affairs of the Russian empire, he would notice this young woman, and he would inquire as to how she was doing. Then one day, the tsar said to his counselor, “I have someone for your young ward to marry.” Surprised by that, the chief counselor asked whom the tsar had in mind. Alexis replied, “You may tell her that she will be my wife.” It was a statement with astonishing consequences for that young woman. She would be catapulted out of anonymity and insignificance into fame, prominence, opulence, and affluence, and that’s precisely what happened. Ultimately, she and the tsar had a son who went on to become Peter the Great, perhaps Russia’s greatest monarch. That is something of what it must have been like for Mary when Gabriel told her that she would be exalted and that she would have a Son who would be great.
Christmas, you see, is the declaration that little people count; that nobodies can become somebodies. Christmas is the declaration that common people, touched by God’s grace in Jesus are uncommonly blessed. That’s a shocking truth to grasp. Christmas means ordinary people can live extraordinary lives in Jesus Christ. Surely that is what the words of the carol mean “This, this is Christ the King, whom Shepherds guard and angels sing.”
Next, the conversation between Mary and Gabriel shows us the surprise of God’s grace.
Luke says, frankly, that, when Mary heard what the angel had to say, “she was greatly troubled.” I believe that she was troubled because she had a sense that God’s grace usually works itself out in ways we never expect. And so it would be for Mary. The angel Gabriel had said that her Son would be called “the Son of the Most High”—but the day came when Mary heard Him called “the son of the devil.” Gabriel had said that He would be given the throne of David and rule over Israel—but the day came when Mary saw the placard “The King of the Jews” not fastened over a throne but a cross. Gabriel had declared that “of His kingdom there will be no end”—and yet the day came, when after just three years of ministry, Mary saw His rule brought to an abrupt, catastrophic end.
Here’s a side of the Christmas story not often told: those soft, little hands fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those chubby, little baby feet unable to stand and walk, would one day stand before Pontius Pilate, and then walk up a dusty hill to be affixed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head which “on Mary’s lap is sleeping,” would one day wear a bloody crown of thorns. That tender little body lying “in such mean estate” would one day be ripped wide open by a spear. Jesus, you see, was born to die. In the Louvre in Paris there is a marvelous painting by Georges de la Tour called “St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.” It shows a sturdy, rugged Joseph at work in his shop. There is only one other figure in the painting. It is the boy Jesus at age 10 or 11. Jesus is holding a candle which provides the only light, and Jesus is watching attentively as Joseph takes hard, intractable material and shapes it. At first glance, it seems to be a tender painting of an admiring boy watching His father at work. But you must take more than one look. For only then will you notice in the deep shadows at the bottom of the picture—you can barely see it in the deep amber tones—that what Joseph is building with his hands is a cross. Jesus, you see, was born to die. Even the carol speaks of it. Believe it or not, we do not sing the carol the way it was written. When we sing it, at the end of each verse we sing the words “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” However, William Chatterton Dix wrote it differently. At the end of the second verse the words he actually wrote were these: “Nails and spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you. Hail, hail the word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” Jesus, you see, was born to die.
Now I’m not trying to upset your joyous mood at Christmas. It’s just that until we come to grips with the troubling fact that this sweet and tender birth ended in all the horrors of the cross, we haven’t dealt with what Christmas really is all about. God’s grace always comes in surprising, even troubling ways. It comes through a cross. Jesus was born to die—to die for you and for me.
Then the conversation between Mary and Gabriel shows us the surrender to God’s grace.
How does Mary respond to this incredible proposition? Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” The message is that God’s grace is something to which we yield, to which we submit, to which we surrender. When we surrender to it, it transforms us, and it transforms the way we live.
A recent convert to Jesus was approached by an unbelieving friend. This friend said to the new convert, “Well, I understand that you’ve been converted to Jesus Christ.” The man answered, “Yes.” The unbeliever then said to him, “Well, that means you must know a lot about Him, so tell me, what country was He born in?” The man answered, “I don’t know.” The unbeliever said, “You don’t know. Well then, how old was He when He died?” The man answered, “I don’t know.” The unbeliever then asked, “Well then, how many sermons did He preach?” Once again, the man said, “I don’t know.” With an acid tongue, the unbeliever then said, “You sure don’t know much for a man who claims to be converted to Christ.” The man thought for a moment, and then he replied, “You’re right. I’m ashamed at how little I know about Him, but I will tell you what I do know. I know that three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt, and my family was falling to pieces. They dreaded the sight of me when I came home. And I know that now I’ve given up alcohol, and we’re out of debt. Ours is a happy home. My children eagerly await my return each evening. All of that Jesus Christ has done for me. That’s what I know about Him.”
Frankly, my friends, that’s all he needed to know. You see to know Jesus Christ is to be transformed by Jesus Christ. That’s what happens when we yield to Him; when we submit to Him; when we surrender to Him. How does the carol put it? “The King of kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
My sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, if you have been struck by the grace of Christmas; if the Lord, in His mercy, has given you the courage to accept Him; if you are convicted that Christmas is the decisive breakthrough of the passionate love of God in Jesus Christ; if you trust that God is faithful to His promises, that He will finish what He began, that His amazing grace is at work in your life now, and that you have only checked into the hotel of earth for a short time and that you are enroute to the Heavenly City of God, then in the immortal words of John Powell “Please notify your face!” Let the sheer joy of God’s grace show in your face and in your life, not just at Christmas, but always.