I’d like to begin this morning with a couple questions for you. When you were a kid, what was your favorite Christmas present? What was your least favorite Christmas present?
One of my favorite Christmas presents when I was a little kid was a Big Wheel, not the Hostess snack cake, but the plastic tricycle that had two short wide tires in the back and one big wheel in the front (hence the name J). I spent hours and hours riding that around the neighborhood. One of the best things about the Big Wheel was that you sat very low to the ground, so the low center of gravity meant you could take corners as fast as you wanted without worrying about toppling over. Not only that, but if you went downhill at a good speed you could pull the brake lever on the right side and you would start spinning clockwise as you went down the hill—thrilling, dizzying fun.
Like many little kids, I used to examine my presents before Christmas morning, feeling them, shaking them, trying to guess what they were. I even ranked them in the order of what I considered to be the least interesting to the most interesting. (Yes, it is a bit neurotic for a little kid to literally rank Christmas presents but unfortunately that was but a small precursor of things to come J).
One year I lined up the presents in their proper order according to rank, and the first present I opened was what I guessed it was, a pair of socks, definitely the least interesting. When I got to the final present, I was so excited. Giddy with anticipation I tore off the wrapping paper and found myself holding a rather interesting present for a little kid…Old Spice Soap-on-a-rope—a great present, because two things little kids really enjoy are showering and smelling like Old Spice J.
I didn’t learn my lesson, and continued to rank my Christmas presents. When I was sixteen I again opened the final present, and guess what it was? A lint brush—for real—but not just any lint brush, a lint brush in the shape of a car. Perfect. What would a sixteen-year-old want with an actual car when he could have a lint brush in the shape of a car? After all, every sixteen year old guy is concerned with the lint on his clothes, right?
It is my experience that the best Christmas presents I have ever received were given to me by those who knew me the best and loved me the most. The Big Wheel was given to me by my parents. And a few years ago my family pitched in and got me an iPod, a ridiculously perfect Christmas present for me.
Those who know us the best and love us the most tend to give us the best presents.
On Christmas Day we celebrate the fact that the One who really knows us the best and really loves us the most, God, gives us the best present of all—his Son, Jesus Christ.
At the end of this service we will sing John Mason Neale’s classic hymn, Good Christian Friends, Rejoice, and the final verse emphasizes why Jesus Christ was born:
Good Christian friends, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave
Jesus Christ was born to save
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain his everlasting hall
Christ was born to save
Christ was born to save
John Mason Neale, who was an Anglican priest, was exactly right, “Christ was born to save.” This is the heart of the gospel.
And yet, if you are anything like me, perhaps you just get focused on other things, even at Christmastime. There may be moments when the reality of salvation through Jesus Christ fills our hearts with love and gratitude, moments when the truth that we are fully known by God and fully loved by God may bring tears to our eyes, but even this ultimate gift from God can sometimes become relegated to the back burner of our hearts.
This is nothing out of the ordinary. This past Sunday in The New York Times Book Review Paul Elie described this:
“In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on the frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land” (12/23/12).
And if you think about it, while we celebrate the same thing each and every year at Christmas—that Christ was born to save— each and every Christmas is different, because each and every Christmas our lives are a little different.
One Christmas you’re a bouncing five year old with disheveled hair rifling through your stocking, another Christmas you’re a seventh grader playing Space Invaders on an Atari video game system.
One Christmas you’re rocking your newborn daughter by the Christmas tree, and another Christmas you’re realizing that while your grown daughter loves you, she would much rather be hanging out with her boyfriend.
One Christmas you’re drinking hot chocolate with your spouse, and another Christmas you’re trying to adjust to the first holiday season after your divorce.
One Christmas you’re anticipating holding your unborn grandchild next year, and another Christmas you’re trying to enjoy Christmas in the midst of the fatigue caused by chemotherapy.
Every Christmas our lives are different and yet the good news each and every Christmas remains the same: Christ was born to save.
Two weeks ago a friend of mine emailed me an article about Andre Johnson, the Houston Texans wide receiver renowned for his charity work with underprivileged kids.
This year Houston Child Protective Services chose twelve kids, kids who had been rescued from especially toxic living situations, and Andre Johnson took them to every kid’s favorite store, Toys R Us.
His uniform number is 80, and accordingly he gave these kids 80 seconds to fill their carts with whatever they wanted. The timer went off and the kids began laughing as they heaped their favorite toys into their carts. “You hear a minute and twenty seconds and you don’t think that’s a long time,” Andre said, “but you’d be surprised by what these kids can put into their carts.”
In case you were wondering, these dozen kids in just 80 seconds collected toys that totaled $19,521. The article included a photo of Andre Johnson, who is 6’3”, grinning, as he held the receipt that was so long it ran all the way to the ground next to him. Andre Johnson paid every cent of that $19,521. The kids did not contribute anything, not one penny. All they did was receive the gifts.
Christ was born to save. And this salvation is a free gift from God.
In one of the best known passages in all of scripture Jesus emphasized this in an evening conversation on a rooftop with a Pharisee named Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but on order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
And the Nicene Creed, that we recite every time we celebrate Holy Communion, emphasizes that Christ was born to save: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”
And how was Jesus Christ received?
Well. John tells us that Jesus “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11).
For the most part Jesus was rejected at his incarnation and during his earthly life.
He was rejected as illegitimate while in Mary’s womb, rejected by the inn keeper at his birth, rejected by the people of Nazareth and Capernaum during his ministry, rejected by the religious leaders, and eventually even rejected by the disciples themselves, who fled when he was betrayed and arrested.
Jesus was rejected and nailed to a cross to die.
And yet Jesus, through whom all things were created, knew all this was going to happen even before his incarnation. Along these lines in his book The Four Loves (1960), C. S. Lewis writes:
“God is love… God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love…them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the medial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up…Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves” (p. 126-127).
On the cross Jesus, Love Himself, died to atone for all our sins. He paid for every cent of our salvation. When it comes to our salvation, we don’t need to contribute a penny. Jesus paid the full price for each of our sins with the blood that ran all the way to the ground next to him. Our salvation is a free gift.
In response we are simply encouraged to believe, to trust in the truth of the gospel—to receive the gift of salvation by receiving the Giver himself, Jesus Christ—as John puts it in today’s gospel passage, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
And as Jesus told Nicodemus, his gift of salvation includes eternal life, so that as John Mason Neale also wrote, “Now ye need not fear the grave.”
Every year on Christmas we remember loved ones who are no longer with us, and this is especially painful the first Christmas after they have died. And yet the hope of eternal life is part of salvation—“Now ye need not fear the grave.”
On Christmas Day 1629, about a year and half before he died, the brilliant Anglican priest and poet John Donne preached about this gift of eternal life at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:
“But as, how abundant a life soever any man hath in this world for temporal abundances, I have life more abundantly than he, if I have the spiritual life of grace, so what measure soever I have of this spiritual life of grace, in this world, I shall have that more abundantly in heaven, for there, my term shall be a term for three lives; for these three, that as long as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost live, I shall not die.”
So on this Christmas Day, no matter what stage of life you’re in—even if you feel like “a stranger in a strange land”—be encouraged.
Perhaps today as we celebrate again the old story of Christmas it may mark “the beginning of a new adventure” in your life.
You are fully known and fully loved, and the One who knows you the best and loves you the most offers you once again the greatest Christmas gift ever, Jesus Christ, who died for you because he loves you all the time, no matter what, and who freely gives you salvation and the hope of eternal life.
And that is the good news of the gospel—Christ was born to save.
- John 1:12 - 12