Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
December 21, 2014
Christmas – the best gift of all
My good friend Ben Johnson invited me to spend four April nights in a monastery. There I would share a time of spiritual renewal with Ben and 17 of his friends. I decided to go but was apprehensive since his friends were all strangers to me.
My fears were melted on the first day by the gracious acceptance offered me. I relearned the joy of acceptance. What I felt was surely akin to what Saint Paul experienced when after his conversion he was introduced to Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem.
The disciples were wary of Paul and with good reason. Paul had been arresting and persecuting Christians. But they trusted their friend Barnabas and he persuaded the disciples to accept Paul. I imagine that, with a hand on Paul’s shoulder, Paul said warmly, “Fellows, you can trust this man; he is a real brother and you will like him. He is one of us.”
Paul had met the living Christ in Damascus. Grace had changed the focus of Paul’s life from persecution to praise. He was a new man. Now he was joyously embraced by his new brothers and sisters in the Jerusalem church. No wonder he would write later with such feeling about the family of God!
Such joy is what Christmas is all about – joy in the coming of God to offer the world his forgiving love. What wondrous news – that God’s love excludes no one and embraces “all people”! Isaac Watts has phrased our jubilant response: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”!
For many years the Hebrews had felt excluded from God’s love. Their disobedience had brought on the wrath of God’s judgment – bondage in a strange land. The prophets tried to give them hope – the promise of a Messiah who would come and save them. But would the promised one ever come?
Finally, in “the fullness of time,” he did come! Jesus was born as promised! The God whose name is Immanuel arrived; the one born in a cow’s stall is “God with us.” So Christmas invites a glad “Hallelujah!” from every believing heart!
The early Christians were certain that the Bethlehem babe was the Messiah. In a remarkable way Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. The prophet had said the anointed One would say, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me” (Isaiah 61:1). His mission would be to deliver and set free the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners and all who mourn. And those were the words Jesus used to announce his ministry. Boldly he stood in the synagogue at Nazareth and after reading Isaiah’s prophecy declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”!
From that moment on the people who encountered Jesus realized they had to “fish or cut bait.” Decision time had come! So down through the centuries the great question has been: Was Jesus a lunatic or was he the Savior? Only those who accept him as the Savior can truly celebrate Christmas! The rest are merely caught up in the superficial commercialism that profits from this “happy holiday.”
The biblical story of Christmas reveals God’s decision to have angels announce the birth of his son to, of all people, lowly shepherds. God chose shepherds instead of the learned, the elite and the powerful. So the good news was shared first with common people, not the privileged.
The shepherds must have felt unworthy of God’s favor. They had no reason to believe they were included in the Father’s love. The powerful and “important” people would probably have greeted the angel’s good news with skepticism. The shepherds received the news of Jesus’ birth with “great joy.”
Some brilliant people have trouble embracing the simple truth of the biblical Christmas story. It does seem whimsical so perhaps it is merely a lovely myth. The author Frederick Buechner suggests that even Gabriel may have wondered:
“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, bud he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said.
“And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung on the answer of a girl.”
If Gabriel was fearful Mary’s obedience turned his fear into joy. Mary fulfilled her role! The great plan of God became a reality. Salvation became available to all people through the birth of that precious little baby.
Christmas is truly God’s best gift, a gift of joy, and those who receive it can share it with others. All around us are people who feel excluded from God’s favor. They wait to be embraced as brothers and sisters who are included in the Father’s transforming love.
God’s joy is so astounding that once you receive it, you feel compelled to share it! That is what Christmas is all about – sharing God’s greatest gift with one another!
Merry Christmas! + + +