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The Real Meaning of Christmas

December 20, 2009 | Central Presbyterian Church

Here is the Christmas story according to Luke:

“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone went to his own hometown to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped Him in strips of cloth and placed Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. And they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly, a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and, on Earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.’

“When the angels had left them and gone back into Heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off, and they found Mary and Joseph and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had told them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.

To coin a phrase: “familiarity breeds complacency”. That’s right. You see, I happen to believe that familiarity breeds not so much contempt as complacency. Familiarity tends to blunt our perceptions. Familiarity tends to produce complacency. Back when William O’Dwyer was the mayor of New York City, he frequently would welcome distinguished visitors to New York. On one occasion, he greeted two dignitaries from South America. He asked the two men how long they would be staying in New York. The first man replied that he would be here for about two weeks. “Ah, good,” the mayor responded. That means that you will see a lot. The second man indicated that he would be in New York for a year. The mayor frowned and said, “Well, you probably won’t see very much at all.” You see, the mayor was underscoring the premise that familiarity breeds complacency.

Now, frankly, I believe that’s something worth remembering here at the Christmas season, because the truth of the matter is you and I know the Christmas story so well that sometimes, we may miss the real meaning of it all. We are so familiar with every trifling little detail of the story that we frequently miss its real essence. And, therefore today, I want to zero in on the real heart—the real essence—the real message—the real meaning of Christmas. Mind you, I don’t want to argue about it. This is not the time and the place for an argument. I don’t want to debate it—I simply want to declare it. The real meaning of Christmas is not only the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but also the birth of Jesus in your heart and mine—that is the real meaning of Christmas.

Well, you see, when Jesus is born in your heart and in mine, then we discover that the love of God in Jesus Christ is the most powerful thing in all the world. Now, I know it may seem somewhat absurd to stand up here speaking about love in the midst of a world where terrorist bombs are killing and maiming in Iraq, where fire fights are raging in Afghanistan, where rocks and stones are being thrown in Israel, and where nuclear war is being threatened by the likes of Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-un. It may be absurd to speak about love in our country where our national debate has now turned so acrid and acerbic and antagonistic. It may seem absurd to speak about love when you think about the evil that is hidden away from the public view—like that vice which continues to parade as virtue—like those insinuations which have not yet risen to indictments—like that gossip which is only just beginning to crush and burn.

Oh, yes, it seems absurd to talk about love in the midst of a world like that. But let’s make it more personal still. What about looking down inside you and inside me, if we dare? I came across a wonderful little letter not long ago written by a little boy to Santa before Christmas. The letter read, “Dear Santa, there are three little boys in our house. Jeff is two, and he is good part of the time. Philip is four, and he is good some of the time. Norman is six, and he is good all of the time. I am Norman.” Well, we might all like to write a letter like that. But the fact of the matter is, if we are honest, we know we can’t. I mean, come on now, if Jesus Christ were to shine His light down into the deepest places of our lives, you and I know that that light would reveal those things of which we most assuredly are ashamed.

And so look at the world. Look at the evil and the wrongness of this world, both that on public view and that which is hidden away. And then look at those things down inside of us of which we are ashamed. Look at all of the wrongness of the world. And let me at ask you, “What could be more powerful than that?” The answer—love—the love of God in Jesus Christ. I know that there are those who say that the love of God in Jesus Christ is not really that powerful at all. I know that there are those who say that in the midst of a world like this, how absurd that at Christmastime, we would focus on a little baby boy. And there are those who would say, “Listen, the wrongness of the world was just as visible and just as violent on that first Christmas as it is on this Christmas.”

Yes, that’s true. There were the oppressively cruel political machinations of the Roman Caesar. There was the bloodthirsty, power-mad craziness of King Herod. There was the senseless slaughter of some innocent children in and around Bethlehem. There was the half-paralyzing fear of the holy family as they ran for their lives across the desert and into Egypt. And there was complacency—oh, yes—the complacency, the apathy, the indifference of so many people who just could not have cared less about the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem. The wrongness of the world then and the wrongness of the world now. I mean, come on, what could be more powerful than that? The answer—the love of God in Jesus Christ.

When Toyohiko Kagawa, the great Christian saint of Japan, was still in his pagan life, he was stricken with a serious physical illness. He was alone in his apartment. There came a knock at the door. He immediately called out, “Do not come in. I have a contagious disease.” And the response from the other side of the door was, “I’m coming in anyway. I bring the love of Jesus Christ, and that is more contagious than any disease.” That single line won Kagawa to Christ, and Kagawa changed Japan. The contagion of the love of Jesus Christ—the love that came down at Christmas—the contagion of the love of Jesus Christ spreads from the cradle in Bethlehem out across the world so that now it is the single most shaping, powerful, transforming force ever turned loose in this world. What could possibly be greater than all the wrongness and the evil of this world? Love—the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Ah, but then, also, if Jesus is born in your heart and mine—then we discover that love is the most personal thing in all the world. I read about a woman who was living in a retirement home. Her daughter would come to visit her every single Sunday afternoon. And every Sunday, when the daughter would arrive, her mother was always waiting on the porch to see her. And then it occurred to the daughter that her mother no longer had a calendar and had become sufficiently confused in her mind to be unable to tell which day of the week it was. And so she asked her mother how it was she knew to be on the porch on that day each week. And the mother replied, “I wait for you on the porch every day.”

I want to tell you something—that’s a group picture, and we are all in it. We all wait on the porch of our experience every day longing for someone to love and to be loved by in return. We wait on the porch every day hoping and praying for some experience of God, which would be so personal that we would know Him in our hearts and be known by Him in His. We wait on the porch, waiting, hoping, praying that there will be someone we can love—that there will be a God whom we can know and love in our own experience.

I know there are plenty of people who say, “Come on. The love of God, if it exists, is so great and grand and glorious that it’s beyond our understanding and, therefore, beyond our experience.” I don’t buy that for a moment. Let me tell you something, dear friends. When I step out on the porch of my experience, longing to know the love of God, I find, in the unconditional love my Trisha has for me—a teaching about the unconditional love of my Lord in the Kingdom of Heaven. When I experience the profound love I have for my children, then that teaches me about the profound love my Heavenly Father has for me. When I step out onto the porch of my experience, I know that I’m stepping into the presence of the God who loves me unconditionally. And I think that’s true for all of us.

Last night, right here in this magnificent sanctuary, there was an incredible spiritual experience. Let me tell you something about it. Last night, this place was filled with people. And our choir and orchestra and soloists, under the direction of Dr. Ward, presented Handel’s Messiah in a magnificent way. And I tell you, all of us here in this place were lifted to Heaven itself by the power of the music. We had an experience of the presence and the power of God’s Messiah. So profound was it that after the concert, people didn’t leave. They stayed here—right here—standing here visiting with each other—embracing one another—expressing love for one another, sharing the joy of the Christmas season. It went on for hours. No one would leave. The experience of loving God and loving each other in the heart of Christmas, well, let me tell you something, that is what Christmas really is all about. Our great, transcendent, all-powerful God comes down at Christmas in Jesus to live with us, to live in us, to love us and to allow us to love Him in return. I want you to mark this down and never ever forget it. The hinge on the stable door in Bethlehem is the hinge on the door of your heart and mine, and those who are truly wise open that door. Love—Christ’s love—is the most personal thing in all the world.

It’s always seemed to me that Christmas is a time for telling stories. Here is a Christmas story for you to tuck away in your heart:

It seems that, once, there was a widowed father who had an only son—a son whom he cherished. The son was the greatest joy in his life. The two of them—the father and the son—not only shared a great love, they also shared a great appreciation for the world of fine art. And as a matter of fact, the two of them ultimately became significant collectors of artistic masterpieces, acquiring pieces from artists like Picasso and van Gogh and Monet and many others. And those masterpieces hung on the walls of the family estate—a great treasure.

And then there came a point in time, a number of years ago, when this world was engulfed in war. Eventually, the United States was drawn in to the conflict after that day, which is referred to as the day that shall live in infamy. The United States became engaged, and the young man was actually then called into military service to serve his country. The young man went off to war. And then there came a day when the father received the telegram that any parent with a child in combat dreads to receive. The telegram said that his son had been killed in the act of rescuing a severely wounded fellow soldier. The father was devastated. The light went out of his life. He and his son had always loved Christmas, and Christmas was just a period of a few days away, and he knew that now Christmas would no longer hold any joy for him at all. And furthermore, all of those artistic treasures hanging in his house, they were meaningless to him now because they reminded him that his son would not be coming home.

Christmas morning, the depressed old man was awakened by a knock at the door. He opened the door, and there stood a young soldier holding a brightly-wrapped package under his arm. The young soldier introduced himself and, to the old man, he said, “I was a friend of your son’s. May I come in?” The depressed old man just mumbled something in response and motioned for him to come in. The young soldier sat down, and he proceeded to tell the father about the heroism of his son—about how many soldiers he had rescued in heroic fashion until, at last, a bullet had stilled his caring heart. The young soldier said, “I was the soldier he was rescuing when he was killed.”

As the father heard these stories of his son’s gallantry, he felt the pain of his grief beginning to ease just a little. And then the young soldier said to him, “Your son and I became very close friends—I suppose it was because I’m an artist—and, here, I would like for you to have this.” And he handed the package to the father, and the father proceeded to unwrap it. And there was a painting of his son. No art critic would ever call it a masterpiece, but the painting did capture his son’s face in exquisite detail. The father was overcome with emotion, and he said to the young soldier, “I’m going to remove the masterpiece that hangs above the fireplace in the place of honor in this home, and I’m going to place there this painting of my son.” And that’s exactly what he did. And he spent the remaining hours of Christmas just gazing at the painting of the son he so dearly loved. He told others, later on, that that was the greatest gift he had ever received.

Later on that spring, the father was stricken ill. Within a matter of a few weeks, he died. According to his will, all of the art masterpieces which they had accumulated were to be auctioned off. And the auction was to be held on Christmas day the next year because that was the day the father had received his greatest gift. Well, the art world was abuzz. And so when Christmas arrived, people gathered from all over the world, art collectors, museum curators. All of these magnificent treasures were going on the block. The auctioneer opened the auction, and then he placed on display the first painting. It was the painting of the father’s son. And he said, “Who will open the bidding?” No one said a word.

Someone in the back cried out, “Listen, it’s a nice painting of the father’s son, but we’re interested in the real treasures here.” And the auctioneer replied, “I’m sorry. According to the father’s will, this painting must be auctioned first. Who will take the son?” No one responded. And then a voice from the back of the room, a man, said, “Listen, I knew the father well, and I certainly knew the son. So I’ll bid $100 on the painting.”

“Is there a higher bid?” the auctioneer called. Silence. Going once…going twice…gone! The gavel fell. Cheers erupted. “Now,” they cried, “let’s get on to the real treasures.” The auctioneer stated, “This auction is now over.” Stunned silence settled in the room. Someone then said, “What do you mean? There are millions of dollars of treasures here. What do you mean the auction is over?” The auctioneer replied, “It’s simple. According to the will of the father, whoever takes the son gets it all.” That—that is the real meaning of Christmas. There was a father whose greatest joy was his only son. And that son went away and gave his life rescuing others. And because of the love of that father—whoever takes the son gets it all.

Pray with me, please. God on high, hear my prayer. Let us sweep away the complacency of the season and let us, instead, hear and now, take the Son—take Him as our own—for then, by Your grace, we shall have it all. Amen.

If you’ve never made your personal commitment in faith to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, I invite you take that step of faith today. If you do, your life on this Earth will be changed, and your place in Heaven will be absolutely secure. If, at some point previously, you’ve made that commitment to Christ, but today you wish to unite with the membership of this church, I invite you to take that step of faith as well. Or if you desire to have special prayers for yourself or for someone you love, I invite you to take advantage of the spiritual resources waiting for you here. In any case, all you have to do when the service concludes in just a few moments, make your way to the narthex, I will be standing there. I will be ready to receive you. In the name of Jesus Christ, I invite you.

Come, Let us pray. Now may the living Lord, Jesus Christ go with you. May He go above you to watch over you, behind you to encourage you, beside you to befriend you, within you to give you peace and before you to show the way; now and forever. Amen.

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