We are by now accustomed to hearing about how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his—ahem—problems with this season are no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe it always has been. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy. Let’s face it; this time of the year can stir up memories of possibly better times, at least the way we see it. The Christmas blues can hit hard when we think of those we used to spend Christmas with are now gone by death, divorce or a broken relationship. We can be alone and these thoughts may not be so merry, but hang over our heads like the wrong kind of mistletoe.
Not too long ago, I heard from someone about how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation. Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of this pain. It’s been a story hard to forget. A young mother had to give up her kids to her X-husband because she could no longer afford to raise them on her own with the job she had. Her soul was ripped in two. I could go on, but you get the point.
I get it. I mean, it makes sense on the level of Christmas being a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce, or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.
But allow me to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They have not gotten lost on the way because of the GPS they got last year. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.
But this is backwards. Christmas—the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer—is for everyone, especially those who realize they really need a rescue that is bigger than themselves. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshipers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, ugly shepherds, beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.
Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who have to live alone when they would rather be married. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer, and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when he wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for prostitutes, adulterers, and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of the family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune—they want “home” but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray. Christmas is for those who have all but given up on life whose hopes have been crushed too many times to hope any more, but rather exist an odd “comfortably numb” existence during the holiday season,
Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for sinners. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it most.
This has been a most disturbing year in American history. Did you know that there has been 307 mass shootings in the U.S, so far, this year alone? In fact, there has been nearly as many mass shootings as we have had actual calendar days in 2017.
On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. This horrible event is considered the “Worst Mass Shooting in American History.” On Nov. 5, a 26-year-old gunman shot and killed 26 people including several children, a pregnant woman and the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter during a Sunday church service at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. The shooting was the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the deadliest in Texas. Millions of Americans at this moment are confused, discouraged, cynical, frightened and disillusioned. Each day seems to add to our problems.
In the wake of a difficult year, many people have become somewhat numbed to what appears to be the “further unraveling of our culture.” In October, the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since then, more than 38 sexual misconduct scandals have occurred involving high-profile men, actors and national, once-respected celebrities such as; Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, U.S. Senator John Conyers (D-Mich.), U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), Comedian Louis C.K., Alabama Judge Roy Moore, Actor Dustin Hoffman, Actor Kevin Spacey, and Actor Ben Affleck, to name just a few.
Contrasted against the dark background of 2017, in the midst of all this terrible upheaval, crisis, difficulty, problems and fear, comes the message of Christmas with all of its hope, goodwill and cheer. I think the message of Christmas has been terribly misapplied and misunderstood for many years in this country. There has never been a greater need to revisit, renew and recapture the reason for Christmas, not only for our country, but for our lives personally, than there is right now.
During this holiday season many people are caught up in the material side of business profits, shopping, gifts, tinsel, toys and celebration. Others are more spiritual and think mostly of Bethlehem, of the star in the sky, shepherds in the field and angels singing. Still others cynically ask, “Where is this Prince of Peace in a world filled with so much trouble? Where is this peace on earth promised to us”
But the real Christmas message goes far deeper. It answers all the great questions that plague the human race at this hour. The Christmas message is relevant, revolutionary and reassuring to us today. I believe it can be summed up in three words: a cradle, a cross and a crown.
First, the cradle. On that first Christmas night, the Bible tells us about the angel coming to those fearful shepherds and saying, “Fear not, I bring you Good News” (Luke 2:10).
During World War II, many a mother would take her son and try to keep the memory of the father, who was away at war, in the memory of the boy. One mother I heard about took her son every day into the bedroom and showed him a large portrait of the father who was away. And one day the little boy said, “Mom, wouldn’t it be great if Dad could just step out of the frame?”
That’s what happened that first Christmas. For centuries men had looked into the heavens longing for God to step out of the frame, and at Bethlehem that’s exactly what God did. God stepped into our world through our human skin and became one of us, yet without sin. God became personal in an intimate way like never before. God walked “in our shoes” in Jesus.
Incredible and unbelievable as it may appear to a modern man, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was a visitor from outer space. He was God Incarnate. That virgin-born baby was God in human form. He humbled Himself, He took the form of a Servant, He was made in your likeness and mine, He identified Himself with the problems of the human race. And thus it was that the Apostle John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14).
What a difference the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger 2,000 years ago makes to our world today. The educational systems He has inspired, the social reforms that His teachings have instituted, and the transformation of families and lives that have come about as a result of a baby born at Bethlehem! The whole world was thinking of Caesar. The whole world was thinking of Rome. But in God’s eternal plan, He was thinking of a Baby in a manger in the little tiny town of Bethlehem.
Second, there’s the cross. Christmas, to have meaning, cannot be separated from the cross. The angel said at the birth of Jesus, “He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus Himself said, speaking just before His death, “For this cause was I born” (John 18:37). He was the only person in history who was born with the purpose of dying. The Apostle Paul, years later said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The central message of Christmas is that Jesus Christ, by His death and resurrection, can transform both individuals and society. Almost everyone at some time or another feels shame, moral guilt and failure. In every newspaper or magazine that we pick up, and in every newscast that we watch, we see a picture of hate and lust and greed and prejudice and corruption—manifested in a thousand ways. The fact that we have wars, crime, injustice, terrorism, hate, racism, policemen and jails and military forces indicates that something is radically wrong with human nature. We suffer from a heart problem on an epidemic scale.
The Bible teaches that the human race is morally sick. This spiritual disease has affected every phase of our life in society. The Bible calls this disease by an ugly, three-letter word: Sin. Secular psychologists may try and explain our problems away, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see something is radically wrong with human nature. The evidence is all around us, everyday.
The Bible teaches that the only cure for sin is the blood that Christ shed on the cross. Christ became the Lamb of God who bled and died on the cross for our sins. He took upon Himself our sin, rebellion and disbelief, for us, in our place, on that rugged, Roman cross. The sin we committed, He became guilty of. He took the curse of sin, the death, hell and judgment we deserved, on that cross.
The cross and the resurrection stand today as man’s only hope. It was on Good Friday and Easter that God did for man what man could not do for himself. From these momentous events, God is saying to sinful man, “I love you. I love you so much I gave My Son.” But He’s saying more than that. He’s saying, “I can forgive you, because of what He did on the cross.” And this is Good News this Christmas!
Some may dismiss it as idiotic and ridiculous that a man dying 2,000 years ago could be relevant today. Paul anticipated that we’d say that. He said, “The preaching of the cross is, I know, nonsense to those who are involved in this dying world, but to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, Phillips).
I believe that America stands on the threshold of divine judgment. Morally, socially, economically, politically, spiritually, we are in deep trouble. We’ve turned away from God, and every month seems to take us further away from the only One who can reverse the tide, forgive our sins and forestall the imminent judgment. We must alter our course if we are going to see many more Christmas seasons as a free people. We are running out of time to change our ways. Our country desperately needs a moral and spiritual awakening from coast to coast. Many concerned believers today are praying for just that, even as we speak now.
Our greatest need is a change in the hearts of people. That is why Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). That’s why He said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Paul, in his famous sermon at Mars Hill, said, “God commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world” (Acts 17:30-31).
Who should repent? Everybody. This is what the cross calls for. The heart of its message is simple: Repent or perish. I know the word “repent” sounds like an archaic term, but what it means literally in the Greek is, “a change of mind, a change of heart, a turning away from the things that are wrong in our life and a turning towards God.” Of course, we need God’s grace and power to do this. But, there is an alarming trend in many pulpits today of some popular television preachers preaching a gospel without repentance, a “cheap grace” and “easy believism,” as Bonhoeffer warned us about. Yet, the truth is, without repentance we cannot be saved. Keep in mind, when we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, God gives us His Holy Spirit to help us repent. We are given all the spiritual power we need and more to become the transformed people He has called us to be. As we follow Christ, we learn that repentance is not just a one time “walk down the aisle.” It’s a lifetime of seeking to live in holy, set apart for the glory of God. Thank God He gives us not only the power, but the desire to live Christian lives as we should.
The Scripture says, “A broken and a contrite heart God will not despise” (Cf. Psalm 51:17). If we as individuals and as a nation would humble ourselves and turn from our sins, God has promised forgiveness, healing to the nation and eternal life to the individual.
Third, there’s the crown. Chiseled into the cornerstone of the United Nations building is a quotation from the Bible that has never yet been fulfilled. It reads, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). This is a thrilling thought. It has often been repeated by those who long for peace. However, this quotation must not be taken out of context.
The passage speaks of the future time when the Messiah will reign over the whole earth. This is the era about which Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This is the time when He who came as the baby of Bethlehem shall come back as King of kings and Lord of Lords. The Bible teaches that there will be an end to history as we know it. Man will have his last Armageddon. But when it seems that man is about to destroy himself, God will intervene. Christ will return.
At the cradle, He was in the stall of an animal. At the cross, He wore a crown of thorns. But, praise God, when Jesus returns, it will be as the mighty, victorious Commander in Chief of the armies of Heaven, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” He will take control of this war-weary world and bring the peace that we strive for and long for. A new world will be formed, a new social order will emerge. Sin will be eliminated. Tears will be wiped from every eye. Disease shall be no more, and even death will be eliminated from the human scene. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be no more.
This is the promise of Christmas. This is our hope. This is the Christmas star that lights our darkness. This is the assurance that a new day is coming, through the Messiah, whose name is called by Isaiah the prophet, “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
This is God’s gift of Christmas: the cradle—His Son; the Cross—His life; the crown—His coming kingdom. As we celebrate Christmas this year, let us note not only the historical significance of Advent, but the radical difference Christ makes in our lives today, and the uplifting hope we have for the future with His return.
Charles Dickens’ immortal classic “A Christmas Carol” was released on December 19, 1843, and has never been out of print. This beloved novel tells the dramatic story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy, greedy, sour, stingy man who bellows, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas,’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding!” Yet, one Christmas Eve, Scrooge is radically changed into a generous and happy man. With great humor and insight, Dickens’ book captures humanity’s universal longing for inner peace as it ends with the fact that no one could ever keep Christmas like the new, transformed Scrooge!
In a like manner, as a young man, the Apostle Paul hated Jesus and His followers with a burning persecuting passion. He was absolutely determined to destroy the early church and the first Christians. He “made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). But one day he unexpectedly encountered the risen Christ, and his life became a totally different story (Acts 9:1-16). In a letter to Timothy, his son in the faith, Paul described that life-changing event by saying, even though he was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man . . . the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14).
Jesus was born into our world to change our eternal destiny by changing our heart in the here and now. Real Christmas is about a heart transplant; by our faith and trust in what Christ did for us on that first Christmas tree, His cross, “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). In the Scriptures, no one remained the same after they had encountered Jesus.
In 1739, Charles Wesley penned, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” In one of the verses, he poignantly writes, “Born to raise the songs of earth, born to give them second birth.” The second birth is the life-changing, transformation we experience when we come to Christ and totally trust Him and Him alone for the work of salvation He did for us on the cross. Someone once wrote, “We cannot truly know the birth of Christ until He is born in our hearts and He cannot be born in our hearts until we are born again.”
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” —(Matthew 1:23)
“Have I allowed my personal life to become a “Bethlehem” for the Son of God?”
I cannot enter the realm of the Kingdom of God unless I am born again from above by a birth totally unlike physical birth. “You must be born again” (John 3:7). This is a command, a fact based on the authority of God’s Word. The evidence of the new birth is that I yield myself so completely to God that “Christ is formed” in me. And once “Christ is formed” in me, His nature immediately begins to work through me.
A middle-aged woman recently became a Christian writes, “I can’t believe it but I’ve really changed; God has given me the desire to want to study His Word, pray, turn away from the wrong things in my life. I want to worship God and be Christlike in my thought life, relationships and decisions. I use to think I wasn’t complete unless I was in a relationship. Yet, I’ve been hurt many times. Now, I finally have the power to forgive those who have done me wrong. The only thing that used to make me feel good was going shopping. Where once “I” was the center of my world, God now occupies that place. I am a different woman! To me it’s not becoming more religious. God has really become personal to me. It’s about a relationship. Jesus has become my personal Savior, not just a historic concept. I know I have been “born again.” I now enjoy real peace of heart and mind, I never knew that before. My guilt has gone. I know without a shadow of doubt that my sins are forgiven. I know I’m going to heaven when I die. I didn’t have that assurance before and that scared me. I’ve lost some friends and family members who were not believers. However, I wanted to make sure I was saved. On top of all that, I now experience joy and love on a whole other level much deeper than ever before. I’m not perfect. I still have a long way to go. But, what a difference Jesus has made in my life so far!”
This, my friends, is the grand personal transformation that Christ can make in your heart this Christmas. This is why Jesus is the heart of Christmas. This is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so that we could be born again.