Topical Scripture: Revelation 13:8; Romans 5:8
Here are some Christmas facts I didn’t know:
- The Germans made the first artificial Christmas trees out of dyed goose feathers.
- Most of Santa’s reindeer have male-sounding names. However, male reindeers shed their antlers around Christmas. Thus, the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are likely female.
- Two weeks before Christmas is one of the most popular times of the year for couples to break up. (Perhaps they’re trying to avoid getting gifts for each other?) However, Christmas Day is the least favorite day for breakups. So, you have only ten days to go.
Today we’re discussing the grace of Christmas. Not only is it unlikely that your loved one will break up with you today—your loving Father never will.
I read this week that Billy Graham’s favorite hymns include Just As I Am. This is not a surprise: he made it the title of his autobiography, and it was sung at the close of his crusades for more than sixty years.
He explained why: “It has special meaning to all of us because they don’t have to go home and rearrange their lives; they can come just as they are, no matter how they are dressed, no matter what language they speak or what their sins are in their background. They come to Christ and He puts His arms of love around them, forgives them and changes them.”
This Advent season, we’re learning what Christmas can teach us about Christ. We’ve explored his power and his humility. Today we’ll focus on the theme Dr. Graham so loved: Jesus’ redeeming grace.
Here’s what we’ll learn today: our past is no barrier to God’s future. How we begin the race is not as important as how we finish.
What in your past bothers you today? What guilt or burdens or failures are on your heart? Let’s learn to find God’s Christmas grace wherever we need his grace the most.
“While we were still sinners”
The book of Revelation describes Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (13:8 NIV). 1 Peter 1 describes “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (v. 19) and says that “he was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (v. 20).
In other words, before God made the world, his Son was already a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world.
Romans 5:8 makes this fact plain: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “While we were still sinners”—before we had done one thing to earn God’s forgiveness, Jesus died for us.
Here’s the point to understand: Jesus chose to die for you before you committed your first sin. He knew your forgiveness would cost him his life, but he chose to create you anyway. And every other person in our race with you.
There is nothing we can do to earn such love, because it was decided before we even existed. His redeeming grace is like a house you build for your children and their children before your children are born. It is like a soldier who dies for a country that does not yet exist but his death helps create.
Would you have a second child if you knew that second child would murder your first child? We are God’s second children. And he chose to make us, and his first child chose to die for us, anyway.
Yesterday, Navy defeated Army in their annual football game. But the significance of the game is less the score than the commitment of those on the field to their mission. Clint Bruce, a former Navy Seal and friend of mine, once said that Army-Navy is “the only game in the world where every person on the field is willing to die for every person in the stands.”
Such sacrificial love is the grace of Christmas.
“So that we might receive adoption as sons”
All through Scripture we see the same theme: our past is no barrier to God’s future.
The Jewish people had sinned against their Lord constantly across the centuries leading up to Christmas. They worshipped Baal, the Canaanite pagan fertility god that required all sorts of horrific immorality; and Molech, an even more horrific pagan god that required child sacrifice. They rejected God’s prophets and spurned his revelation. They no more deserved a Savior than we do.
Nonetheless, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
We see his choice to redeem our past for his future in the shepherds of Christmas, men whose ritual impurity and immoral lives barred them from the temple or the synagogue. And yet he invited them to witness the birth of the King. We see it in the pagan astrologers, Persians who worshiped a plethora of gods but who were invited to worship the one true God.
We see it in the apostolic leader he chose, a Galilean fisherman who would deny him three times but then preach the Pentecost sermon and lead the advance of the kingdom. We see it in the missionary leader he chose, a rampaging Pharisee who led his people to prison and death but who later led them to reach the Roman Empire and wrote half of the New Testament.
My favorite Christmas card
This is a theme unlike any you will find in any of the world’s religions.
As I’ve noted before, the difference between them and Christianity is this: they claim to show us how we can climb up to God, while in Christianity, God climbs down to us. The way to do this, they say, is to find ways to atone for our mistakes and failures so God or the gods will accept us.
The Jews did so through sacrifices and now through good works. The Muslims do so through obedience to the Qur’an, praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving to the poor, and making pilgrimage to Mecca. Hindus believe they must go through multiple reincarnations before the karma, the law of cause and effect, purifies them for moksha, when they are absorbed into Brahman. Buddhists strive to cease wrong desires to cease suffering, hoping that through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path they can earn their way to nirvana, their version of absorption into reality.
Three transforming facts
Here’s why the world’s religions, with their works-righteousness to atone for guilt, remain popular: they appeal to our fallen humanity. There’s something in us that wants to justify ourselves, to earn our way, to do it our way. We are willing to forgive others but hate asking others to forgive us. We want to pay our debts and be a debtor to none.
Even to God.
If God won’t punish us for our sins, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll make ourselves feel enough guilt and do enough good that one day, we hope, we’ll feel that we’ve squared our accounts and paid our debts. Much of the good done in the world is done for this reason—to pay for the past and secure a better future.
But guilt-based religion is a pale substitute for grace-based relationship, for three reasons.
One: We can never do enough good to outweigh the guilt in our hearts. The first does not accomplish the second. It’s like wearing a stained shirt to feed the poor or help the homeless—we can feel good about the good we do while wearing it, but the stains remain. Only God’s grace can remove our guilt.
Two: We will never win the world to guilt-based religion. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means everyone else has guilt in their hearts just as we do. They’re all trying to be good enough to feel good about themselves and perhaps to earn their way into heaven. If we offer them another lane on the same freeway, why would they take it?
I used to think that Christianity was about going to church and trying to be good. I couldn’t see that Christians were any better than I was, so I didn’t see why I needed to go to church. And I was already trying to be good.
When I met Christians who had a sense of peace, purpose, and joy I had never encountered, that was when I was drawn to their faith. Not by guilt-based religion but by their grace-based relationship with Jesus.
Three: Grace-based relationship will transform your life and your world. Imagine stepping into heaven and knowing that your past is gone, forever. Imagine knowing that all your failures, your mistakes, your sins and your guilt, are no more. They are part of your old life in your old world. They are gone, forgotten forever.
How much joy will you feel in that moment? To know that you are forgiven and free forever?
That’s the joy you can feel right now, because of Christmas. Because Christ was born to die that you might be born again to live forever. Because Christ chose to die before he made you, so he could remake you. Because “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Because of the redeeming grace of Christmas. Sharing that grace will change every life it touches until it changes the world.
Where do you need this grace the most today? Claim the Christmas grace of your loving Lord.
Who do you know who needs such grace from you? Who needs your forgiveness as you have needed the forgiveness of God? Who needs your love as you have experienced his? Who needs your help and encouragement as you have received his? How can you pay forward what you have received?
One of the first stories I ever remember hearing in a sermon was about a boy who built a red model sailboat. He worked on it for days until it was just right. Then he took it down to the creek behind his house to sail it.
Unfortunately, the string he attached to it was too weak for the wind that caught its sails. The string broke and he had to watch his red boat sail down the creek and out of sight. He was heartbroken.
Days later, he happened to walk by a second-hand store and saw his sailboat in the window! He was overjoyed. He ran inside and told the man at the counter, “That’s my boat in your window. I made it and it’s mine.”
The man said, “Son, I paid someone for that boat. If you want it back, you’ll have to pay for it.” The boy was angry but determined.
He worked every job he could find until finally he put together enough money to buy back his boat. It was a joyful day when he marched into the second-hand shop, put his money on the counter, and took his boat from the window.
As the boy carried his red sailboat home, he said to it: “Now you’re mine twice. I made you the first time, and I bought you the second.”
Let us pray.