Pastor Chris Tweitmann
One of the things I love about this time of year are the special,
celebratory things that we do to herald the coming of Christmas.
All of the sights, smells, and tastes. (SLIDE #1)
The dreamy, colorful and twinkling lights. (SLIDE #2)
The white dusting of snow – even if it’s fake! (SLIDE #3)
The scent of pine and wood burning on the fireplace. (SLIDE #4)
The spice & chew of gingerbread. Spoonfuls of sweet, sticky sugar cookie batter.
And of course, there are the sounds of Christmas. (SLIDE #5)
Sleigh bells ring. Little drummer boys drum. Nutcrackers crack.
Angels call forth for heaven and nature to sing.
Whether it is the traditional carols of the season
or the more, modern, timeless classics,
how could we celebrate Christmas without music?
In the midst of all we love about this time of year,
we can find ourselves overwhelmed by the list of things
we believe we have to accomplish to make Christmas merry & bright.
Getting the best deals on all our gift purchases – including free shipping.
Creating the perfect Christmas card – complete with the right photo or image.
Pulling off a Christmas party or dinner just as good, if not better than last year’s.
The list goes on of all the things we try to do to make Christmas happen
but somewhere along the way there can be a disconnect between
the reason we have for celebrating Christmas and HOW we prepare to do so.
Today as we return to the book of Hebrews,
the writer of this letter is well aware of the tendency for our focus to drift.
For this isn’t just a problem we have to wrestle with at Christmastime.
It is a challenge we face with every season of our lives. (SLIDES #6 – 9)
Through a breathtaking display of OT theology, the first chapter of this letter established the superiority of Christ over ANY human or divine messenger.
Jesus is much more than a human prophet or a heavenly angel. He is the Son of God.
With the start of the next chapter, the writer urges to pay careful attention to
what we have heard from these messengers, particularly the angels. (SLIDE #10)
As the writer speaks particularly of “the message spoken through angels,”
this is referring to the giving of the Law.
Last week, I mentioned how in early Judaism, angels were associated
with the giving of the Torah, the Mosaic Law on Mount Sinai.
The message of the Law was direct and simple.
Follow these God-given instructions
– for humanity to live at it was created to be – and you are choosing life.
Ignore these divine rules for living
– for flourishing together as God intended – and you are choosing death.
The point being made here is a sobering one.
The author basically tells us,
remember what happened as the people ignored that word from the Lord,
“every violation and disobedience” brought tragedy and destruction.
More than this, Israel’s failure to keep the Law through the story of the OT
shows rebelling against and rejecting God isn’t just an Adam and Eve problem, something isolated to the Garden.
The problem of sin isn’t their problem; it’s our problem.
All of us together are broken and deeply flawed
– deserving of death and unable to help ourselves. (SLIDE #11)
The writer is declaring IF the giving of that word from the Lord, the Law,
exposes our vulnerability as well as the condemnation we deserve, THEN
how can we dare ignore the word of our salvation that comes through Christ?
To be perfectly clear, there is no talk here of two messages being received
that contrast with each other – a word first given by God of judgment
but then another word given by God of grace.
No. Only one message is being referenced here. One message in two parts.
The first part of the message is the Law – the Way, the Truth, and the Life
we were created for, we were meant to experience but cannot because of
our self-imposed disconnect and separation from our Creator.
The second part of the message is the Gospel – the Way, the Truth, and the Life becoming flesh, of God in Christ coming down in person to not only show us
the kind of life we are missing but also to bridge the disconnect between
all of us and the Lord and to close the separation between Heaven and Earth.
If the first half of the message expressed through the giving of the Law
— of our brokenness and our need is so undeniably clear,
how can any of us dare to ignore the even better, second half of the message
of unmerited forgiveness & complete healing, of resurrection and everlasting life?
If, through our apathy or indifference we refuse to receive
something even greater, more important, more powerful
than the Law, God’s rules for life, then perhaps the Lord will conclude
we aren’t really interested in what we are being offered
– in being rescued, in being redeemed, in being set free.
And the consequences of such willful ignorance,
such outright denial of true message of Christmas – “of so great a salvation”
will be more than finding a lump of coal in your stocking.
God doesn’t do a gift exchange. God doesn’t play “take backs” with is.
What God has given us in Christ, the Lord has given freely and without condition.
In the end, God just evaluates our reception of His gift to and for us
based on whether we’ve opened it, whether we’ve played with it or not.
The consequence of willful ignorance isn’t God takes away what He has given. The consequence of willful ignorance is “You made your bed, now lie in it.”
If this is what you wanted instead,
if this is what you claimed instead of grace, then, you will receive exactly
where self-made righteousness & personal autonomy takes you. (SLIDE #12)
It is the consequence Ebenezer Scrooge confronted
when he was content to live his life as a covetous old sinner,
indifferent towards his fellow man and in repeated denial of
the mercy, forgiveness, and compassion of Christ.
And where did he find himself at the end of that long, strange night
of being visiting by the three ghosts of his past, present, and future?
Staring into the yawning darkness of a grave with his name on it.
Therefore, we are encouraged to pay more careful attention
to what we have heard – to the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Here in the second chapter of this letter, we have yet another of
several references throughout the Bible as to the importance of hearing.
All of these passages taken together remind us we encounter
a God who is not silent but rather HAS something to say to us
– something important, something life-altering and world changing.
Something we must not ignore or take for granted.
Good news is only good when it is accepted in place of bad news.
Our reception of what the Lord is saying to us cannot be limited
merely to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear.
Biblically, the call to listen (SLIDE #13)
is the call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God.
And at Christmastime, we are reminded that Word of God becomes flesh.
With the birth of Jesus, through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
this message of good news of joy and glad tidings for all the people is
delivered from the King, by the King in person, by our Designer and our Creator showing up on our doorstep.
We don’t believe myths and legends about Jesus. (SLIDE #14)
The story of Christmas isn’t some marshmallow, saccharine, Hallmark, fantasy.
This message, this story, which begins in a manger, leads to a Cross,
and ends with an empty tomb, is confirmed, as the writer, exclaims,
from “by those who heard Him” – through credible eyewitnesses.
And if this isn’t enough validation for the skeptic or the doubter, (SLIDE #15)
the author goes on to state, we know it was God in Christ speaking
because just through speaking, Jesus caused things to happen.
Signs, wonders, and various miracles of healing, of liberation, of redemption,
of overturning death itself, that happened not for their own sake
but in order to point to something – to someone
– to attest to and validate God’s presence and work in and through Jesus.
The Word that came with power also empowers (SLIDE #16)
those who follow this Word, who follow Jesus.
Notice, how the writer includes the presence and energy of the Holy Spirit
as part of the evidence to the truth of the Incarnation,
of God in Christ with and for us.
The work and the gifts of the Spirit we are given are not as
an end onto themselves, for our personal, private enjoyment.
The empowerment and transformation we can experience in Christ
through the Spirit is intended to be a reflection of the truth of the Gospel
– to point others to the living reality of Jesus in their own lives.
So, in light of all this, how well have we paid attention to what we have heard?
After all these years listening to sermons, to bible studies,
from our devotional time in the Bible, have we truly heard the Gospel?
Let’s try a little thought experiment. This past week, I asked a random sampling of people the following two questions. See if your answers match theirs.
(SLIDE #17) The first question is, “What is the reason for the season of Christmas?”
You probably answered “Jesus.” (SLIDE #18) EVERYONE I asked gave this answer.
After all, in the last few decades, this has become one of the Christian slogans developed in response to the commercialism of Christmas.
(SLIDE #19) Here’s the second question, “What is the gift of Christmas?”
The answers I got to this question were varied. (SLIDE #20)
Some said, salvation. Others, forgiveness.
A few mentioned the Cross or the Resurrection.
A couple of people said, new or eternal life.
Then there were those who offered responses
like love or grace or hope or freedom.
Maybe you had a different answer but what is interesting to me
is, the answers to the two questions should be the same.
If we’ve paid close attention to what we have heard, the Gospel,
then the answer to what is the gift of Christmas, is always and only, Jesus.
We say Jesus is the reason for the season but functionally, practically,
we think & talk about the gift of Christmas being all the things Jesus does for us.
But if we think about it, God could have provided all of the above
without coming down and making a personal visit to us.
Given all the resources at His disposal – ALL of them btw – the Lord could have devised some other means to deliver forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
And yet Christmas is the beginning of an incredible revelation
that we worship a God who isn’t content just to do everything FOR us
but who passionately longs to be WITH us – in person, in relationship,
taking up residence in our hearts and minds, living in us and guiding us home.
The gift of Christmas, the heart of the Gospel, is Jesus. (SLIDE #21)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”
Wherever we look, and as we listen to the life of Jesus,
we witness His repeated declaration about sharing, enacting,
and ultimately being the Father’s gift to us.
In every miracle, with every parable—simply by being in the world at all
—Jesus is proclaiming, “God is good, God loves you. God desires to be with you.
God loves giving, God is giving Himself to you through me,
and I’m here, among other things, to prove it.”
Salvation. Grace. Second chances. New and everlasting life. Freedom. Hope.
Of course, all of these things are wonderful,
and of course, God gives them as well but ALL of them are given through Jesus.
Scour the letters of the New Testament like this one, writings that reflect
on what we have been given, and you’ll absolutely find mention of
all of these gifts – and then some others like adoption, justification, etc.
However, if we look closely, if we listen carefully, all of it, everything,
points back to the first and greatest gift of God – Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul perhaps said it best when he wrote in Romans 8, (SLIDE #22)
“He who did not spare his own Son…
how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Jesus is the greatest gift of Christmas. Jesus is the greatest gift there is.
Everything else we treasure is possible, can be most assuredly be ours,
because of the God who truly seeks to be with and for us.
Not just in words but in the flesh.
Even though “Christ” is the root of “Christmas,”
even though we tell ourselves and each other,
Jesus is the reason for the season, how is it that we so often
lose sight of or forget the greatest gift we have ever been given?
The writer of this letter answers this question with a single word: DRIFT.
(SLIDE #23) Beware of drifting away, we are told. Drift is nautical imagery.
Drift is what happens when one sits in a boat
and chooses not to row, not to set sail, not to engage the motor.
Not to row, not to set sail, not to engage the motor is to drift
– to find one’s boat being carried by the prevailing current of the water.
Applying this imagery to daily life,
to drift is to “just go with the flow” or to simply “be along for the ride.”
But direction matters.
Float aimlessly through life & you’ll find yourself carried by any current or stream.
Drift, initially, is usually imperceptible. We are just slightly off course.
Just being a little off course will end up taking you a long way off
from where you wanted to be.
All of us in this room started in the same place
– embracing Christ as our Lord and Savior
and seeking to follow Him as the pilot of our lives
by receiving the Spirit as our navigator and the Bible as our compass.
But out on the waters of everyday life, are we moving forward in faith
– actively rowing, setting sail, engaging our motor
or just aimlessly floating here and there, every which way?
Let’s remember where we started toward – with hearing.
Hearing, once again, is more than audible perception.
Hearing is believing, obeying, and submitting.
Are we hearing, are we believing, obeying, and submitting to Jesus
or charting our own course through our lives?
Especially at this time of year, how easy it can be to just float by and miss Jesus.
We can miss receiving the gift of Christ
because we so busy longing and searching for other gifts under the tree.
Has Jesus become for us like that pair of socks (SLIDE #24)
we all get for Christmas but quickly toss aside with indifference
and for which we have to be talked into being grateful?
Are we so focused getting what we want for Christmas – in our lives
– the way we want it, that we are ignoring what we have received,
who we have received, the One who is the friend, the advocate, the Savior, we need?
For Christmas isn’t about a God ask us what we want.
Santa may or may not bring us what we want.
Christmas is about the God who comes down to us in Christ,
even when we didn’t want Him, even when we rejected Him. (SLIDE #25)
Christmas is about the God in Christ who comes anyway
to give us exactly what we need.
We don’t need to be saved. We don’t need to be forgiven. We don’t need eternal life.
We want to be saved. We want to be forgiven. We want everlasting life.
All we need is Jesus. It’s not about what we want.
It’s not about what we need.
It’s about WHO we need. And, Jesus Christ is who we need.
Jesus is who we need to pay attention to
— to listen to, to follow, to look to & rely upon, to represent & reflect to others.
It’s not about what I want to say.
It’s about what is Jesus seeking to say through me.
It’s not about what I want to do.
It’s about how is Jesus purposing to direct me
— to work in and through me.
It’s not about what I want to receive.
It’s about where and to whom Jesus is calling me to give — and through that
act of giving in whatever form it takes — to share and point to Him.
We get so fixated on getting others what they want for Christmas
rather than focusing on what the people around us need.
Jesus is who everyone needs. And Christ has come for all of us.
But we don’t have to give people Jesus.
Jesus already has given Himself to each one of us.
We can give the people around us what they need,
the One they need in Jesus, by letting Christ work through us.
Extending a needed word of forgiveness.
Making a needed movement toward reconciliation.
Expressing a needed message of love and acceptance.
Offering a needed gesture of compassion and self-sacrifice.
These are ways we can give others what they need,
how we can share and point them to Jesus.
(SLIDE #26) Wise men still seek Him. Wise people still seek Him.
At the time leading up to the birth of Christ, we would find
astrologers and astronomers in virtually every city and cultural center
who would track and interpret the movements of the night sky.
Sometime preceding Jesus’ birth, a sign appeared in the heavens
—but of the thousands upon thousands of astrologers,
only one select group from the east, near Babylon, sees the sign
and paid attention to what they had heard, a prophecy of old
– a message of salvation to be delivered through the King of the Jews.
(SLIDE #27) All the rest—all looking at the exact same sky, mind you
—either completely missed this sign or ignored it altogether.
The announcement was broadcast in the heavens for the world to see,
but history shows only one small caravan of magi followed the star
and made the long journey to Bethlehem.
They never drifted from their course – even when enticed and tempted by others – because they continued to intently look for Jesus, for follow not just the star, but the Word and the Spirit that was leading them right to where
they needed to be – finding Christ. And what did they do in response?
They worshipped. They worshipped Jesus.
Heaven came down to earth in the quiet cool of the night
unassumingly in the obscure, ordinary, shepherd town of Bethlehem.
While the rest of the world went on with business as usual,
only those who paid attention to what they heard,
only those who aligned the trajectory of their lives to the direction
provided by heaven above – received the greatest gift ever given to humanity.
Wise persons still seek Him.
The unwise, on the other hand, are too busy, too distracted, or can’t be bothered.
Which one are we?
Sometimes the most precious and sacred things are right in front of us,
in plain sight, but we cannot or will not see them.
We can get so caught up in all the gifts, the songs,
and all the celebration about Christ, instead of (SLIDE #28)
actually coming to worship Christ – to offer our lives anew to Him.
It’s so easy for us to get lost in our own pursuits.
It’s too easy to get lost in the day-to-day grind.
It’s not hard to find ourselves drifting – becoming so focused on ourselves,
on what we want, on our own little worlds, on the role we’ve been given
in the play, that we can’t even see the one the Christmas play,
the Christmas story, is all about.
For the greatest gift of Christmas is not forgiveness;
it is the One who clears all the red ink on our collective ledger
by bearing the burden of all our deficits, the One who pays
the spiraling debt we cannot cover in our bankruptcy and sets us free.
For the greatest gift of Christmas is not salvation;
it is the One, the only One who could possibly mount
such a cosmic rescue operation — who could save us from ourselves and
the ultimate consequence of all the brokenness and chaos we leave in our wake.
For the greatest gift of Christmas not eternal life;
it is the One who descends into the greatest darkness we all deny & fear &
ruptures the perceived, final silence of the grave with the light of Resurrection
— His light of everlasting life which the darkness cannot overcome.
For the greatest gift of Christmas is not the Gospel; it is the One who is
the reason there is news and that is good — good for us, good for all the world.
Beloved, may we have ears to hear the story that is so much
bigger than ourselves, that offers us so much more than holiday cheer.
Let us pay close attention as we witness something beautiful and remarkable being placed into our lives – the Word of God made flesh.
Jesus, God in Christ, with us and for us. O come, let us adore Him. Amen.