December 22, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:45 in the audio file.
Or, Seeing the World in The Light of the World
My intention this morning is to encourage you that Christ is always the answer, and that when you see the world in His light, you see the world the right way. This includes Christmas.
I surprised myself a few days ago when I was looking at a list of sermons I’ve preached on, or right before, Christmas day since TEC began. This makes the ninth time that I’ve preached a Christmas sermon, though twice my message combined the coming of Christ with the next passage in a book study (1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 13). I’ve been told by a member that if I did not preach a Christmas sermon near Christmas that he would walk out, and I’ve also been told by a member that if I did preach a Christmas sermon that he would walk out. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to work.
As one of the shepherds, and for that matter also as one of the sheep in the flock, I have grown to think that the typical Christian Christmas celebrations, ones that I grew up seeing around me, are often superficial and sentimental, and also that the typical Christian Christmas humbugging as a response to typical Christmas celebrations are also, ironically, superficial and sour. That not more helpful.
What to do? What do we need? As a shepherd of this flock, with the responsibility to feed and protect and lead, how can I help get you ready for not messing it up, either way? How can I help you be ready to make it so that your kids grow up wanting Christmas to be like you want Christmas to be?
I stated my answer at the start. I want to encourage you that Christ is always the answer. What we celebrate at this time of year is crucial not just for thinking about Christian holidays or family traditions but for thinking about our view of the world and mankind as part of it.
In making this case I will admit that I am biased. To be biased is to be bent in a certain direction, inclined to have a certain outlook. A biased person tends to expect certain answers to questions, to have favorites. Bias and prejudice are bad words in our current culture, and they have come to carry a kind of baggage with them. But it is biased to say that having a bias is always wrong. That is blind.
We need to ask more questions: Biased about what? Biased in what way? I am commanded by God to be biased in my loves, for example, with an impulse to love my wife by default more than any other woman. That’s biased about the right thing. If my bias causes me to punch other men’s wives, then I’d be holding by bias wrongly. When we think about what we want for a person in the womb or a person in the emergency room, our bias should be toward wanting life.
A wise person is biased towards wisdom, which is part of what makes him wise. A thankful person is biased toward gratitude, which is part of what makes him fun to give gifts to. More on this in a bit.
One of the dangers is that we are often biased for the wrong things, and we go searching for, or only admit to, the evidence that backs up what we already thought. There is a fancy name for it called “confirmation bias.” If I only read commentaries on the book of Revelation that I knew I would agree with, or read commentaries with different views but took a black Sharpie to their arguments while calling their conclusions stupid, that would make me stupid. We shouldn’t want to be stupid.
But, I’ve labored in this introduction to ask, what if your bias is right? What if you’re good at finding confirmation for your bias because there’s going to be a lot of confirmation for truth? How will you know if your bias needs to be corrected or if your bias should be confirmed? Christ is always the answer.
The Incarnation of Christ—the word for when God took on flesh and became a son of Mary born in Bethlehem—confronts and corrects a view of Christmas that says mankind is good, or that any man or woman is good, or that any man or woman can fix his or her own problems.
The angel told Joseph that his pregnant fiancé was with child from the Holy Spirit, and that the Son’s name should be Jesus because He would save His people from their sins.
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
There is no resolution for guilt, no offer of forgiveness, no escape from blindness and darkness apart from the coming of the Light. Christmas corrects any worldview biased toward the goodness of man. If men were good, then there was no need for God to become a man and then die as a man. Christmas corrects any view of the world that says good food can fix what ails us, or that family is all the bond we need, or that the giving and receiving of gifts brings us eternal life. Without Christ, even Christmas is a millstone that drowns men in eternal death.
Christ is the answer. He is The Light of the world. Christmas isn’t a holiday because we were already having hearty family celebrations in December but wanted to kick our parties up a notch, or a contract made among businessmen agreeing to buy more stuff from each other and to take off work the same day. Christmas is a thing because we are dead in our transgressions. Christmas is a thing because of the bad news of our distance from God.
And the facts that God, in the Son, was born of a woman, as a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloths, lived on earth and among His family and later His disciples, that He ate and drank and built birdhouses (as a carpenter with his dad) and went to weddings and camped and washed feet and took naps, corrects the alternative way to miss the point of Christmas.
Oh the Christian fussers who fear the stuff, fear the body, fear the laughter, fear the gifts, do not yet see the world in The Light of the World. If God thought that the best place to celebrate the Incarnation was out of the body then that would be at best ironic, and at worst blasphemous, to take on a body Himself.
Christmas corrects dualists who are biased toward the “spiritual” as defined in avoiding earthly things. Christmas corrects fear mongers who are prejudiced against the material world, as if sin was in the ham not in the heart.
Are there good ways to be biased? Yes. Here are four biases that Christmas confirms.
Christmas confirms a bias toward humility. Jesus was born a baby, in a stable, to an unwed virgin, not at home. Jesus was born into flesh and blood, as a human, as a servant, on earth. Whenever it was that the wise men showed up with their gifts for a king, it was out of place, not because Jesus wasn’t a king, but because He wasn’t in a palace. The wise went went to Herod’s palace first because, well, that’s where one expects a prince to be born. Paul wrote about the “mind of Christ” which all believers should have, and this “mind” was revealed in the Incarnation which is also referred to as Christ’s Humiliation (Philippians 2:5-11).
Christmas confirms a bias toward generosity. When we worship, and when we consider why we worship at Christmas, we see the Lord God Almighty, all-powerful and wise, giving.
Generosity is not the same as unselfishness. In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis unwrapped the distinction.
‘She’s the sort of woman who lives for others—you can always tell the others by their hunted expression.’
Lewis has the demon say that it’s a game best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children. If you’re going to give, then let go.
Christmas confirms a bias toward thankfulness. All is gift. What do you have that you have not received? Christmas does not confirm your bias that you deserve anything, it does confirm a bias that you get way better than you deserve. Christ’s glory is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). The truth is, you needed and you get grace.
Do you resent the person walking up to you with something in her hands because all you can think about is the effort it will take you to write a thank you note? Do you hate being in the position of receiver because you feel like that makes you indebted? As I said, there are bad givers, but God isn’t of their number, and whether you like it or not you will never catch up counting your blessings. Be “giving thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20).
Christmas confirms a bias toward joy. Being biased doesn’t mean you can’t see the other side, it’s just which side you lean to. The first coming of Christ had been prophesied for centuries, and God’s people had been in exile, in battle, in anticipation and even in misery for a long time. When Christ was born and began His ministry and rose from the dead, not everyone received their King. The night was long. The night feels long again as we wait for His second advent.
Which song should be our crescendo? To ask is to answer.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded,
Those lyrics channel Habakkuk 2:20, yes, yet the third verse in the song demands that we not be silent:
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
Which is why we rejoice:
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Joy to the earth the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
“Everything created by God is good” and to be received with thanks, sanctified by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
The truth of Christmas sanctifies us so that we have sanctified biases.
Apart from Christ, Christmas is hell. In Christ, all are yours.
Unbelievers need to be corrected. Believers need to be corrected. Unbelievers think it’s all about gifts and parties and family. Some believers think it’s all about not caring about gifts and parties and family. Ironically, both define it according to worldly standards. One misses the Baby, the other misses what the Baby was born to do.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
“Life” in the “light of life” is the object on which the light shines. The Light illuminates the cosmos, the Light makes the cosmos visible for us to see for what it is. Any real understanding of life comes from Jesus because He made it and He sustains it.
We do not need to get off the earth before Jesus does us any good. Christmas disciples us to look to Jesus and, when we look to Jesus, we see what is wrong and what is good on earth. Christmas reveals the deadliness of envy and lies and gluttony, of pride and grabbing like the first Adam.
Christmas also disciples us in the light of grace and truth and thankfulness, of humility and giving. The second Adam from above is effacing the first Adam in us. As He does so, our increasing likeness to the new Adam includes cinnamon and butter and bread and yeast and hops and child-proof toy packaging. It also includes patience with immature children–which is okay, you are helping them to grow up, as well as grumpy, complaining kids–which is okay in a different way because Jesus came for sinners.
Christ is the star that lights the way. When you see the world in His light, you see the world, and Christmas, the right way.
This would usually be a good place to charge you to live at peace with others as much as depends on you (Romans 12:18), to be patient, to serve, to die to bring life. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. So, while you’re not being angry, I’m exhorting you to look for a strategic moment to light a verbal candle and really let the room, or your relative, have it. If your bias is a good one, then—he who has ears to hear—give someone a reason to complain about it. Don’t hide your Christmas bias under a basket (Matthew 5:15).
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Revelation 22:17, 20–21, ESV)