Merry Christmas!


Beyond the trees and poinsettia,
     Beyond the bows and wrapping paper,
          Beyond the sounds of carolers and smells of gingerbread,
               Beyond the armloads of gifts and the grim reality of credit card bills,
                    Beyond red-suit clad Santas and tiny angels adorned with aluminum foil halos,
Ever wondered what Christmas was all about?

     Far from the glamorous festivities that mark today's holiday celebrations, the first Christmas proved the humblest of events.

     A couple engaged, but not yet married, traveled to a distant city to pay taxes. Adding to the rigors of the journey was the woman's very-pregnant condition. Despite her state, she claimed to be a virgin and said the child she carried was the Son of God, not the product of any human relationship.

     How the tongues must have wagged in ancient Palestine! Probably they questioned her sanity. Certainly they challenged her morality. And they must have wondered about the intelligence of her husband-to-be. What sort of man would marry a woman about to have a child which was not his?

     Whatever the community thought, Mary knew the truth. Joseph initially doubted his bride-to-be's fantastical story, but an angel appeared to him one night and told him that the child was indeed God's and that his fiancee was pure and honorable, a suitable wife. After that night, Joseph needed no more convincing. Together, the couple made plans for their new life as one flesh, and for the addition that was soon to grace their family. That meant obeying Caesar and paying taxes.

     Yet when the twosome reached the city, they could find nowhere to stay. Every room in the city was taken. Mary's condition complicated matters. The child was ready to be born. And as any woman who has ever given birth knows, babies don't delay their arrivals because of inadequate facilities.

     Finding no other shelter, Joseph and Mary settled for a stable--a common barn filled with animals and the accompanying smells. The baby came, but no soft receiving blankets graced his skin.  No sterile crib awaited the squirming newborn. Mary did the best she could for her baby. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in the softest spot the barn offered--a trough filled with hay.

     Glamorous? No.

     Festive? Hardly.

     But glorious? Yes. A thousand times yes.

     You see, like any proud father, the infant's Father--God Himself--hastened to announce His Son's birth. Yet unlike any other father, He proclaimed the good news as only God could.

     Without warning, the night sky over Bethlehem came alive. An angel split the night-sky, hovering over a pasture filled with shepherds. Fear gripped their hearts, but the heavenly visitor immediately spoke peace.

     "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

     Before they had time to regain their composure, similar creatures literally filled the sky. And angelic praise shattered the typical evening quiet.

     The shepherds probably didn't think twice. Who would have under the circumstances? Abandoning their flocks, they headed back into Bethlehem. They didn't stop until they found the child about whom the angels sang. Then, there in the barn, they worshipped the newborn King.

Read the Bible account of Jesus's birth.

     For some, this is where the story ends. For others, even this is new. Yet Christmas, the first Christmas, can scarcely be reduced to the events of a few hours or even a few days.You see, the child Jesus was born for a purpose. And any telling of the Christmas story which fails to relate the infant's divine purpose is, at best, incomplete.

     What was the infant's divine purpose? Death.

     Ouch.

     Not a subject about which we want to think, particularly at Christmas.

     Nothing like the gentle strains of "Silent Night."
          Nothing like the sweet images conjured up by "Away in a Manger."
               Nothing like the cheerful proclamations of "Joy to the World."

     Death. Though it lurks somewhere out there, waiting to claim each of us, it's not something we want to regard as our ultimate purpose. It's certainly not a purpose any parent would select for his or her own infant.

     So, what was the Christmas's Father-God? A sadist? A monster?

     Hardly!

     You see, God didn't just look down the road to a cross. He looked back to a choice. He saw a point in history where man and woman, created in His own image and created for fellowship with Him, chose to rebel. He saw the fall of His creation. And in it, He saw the chasm between man and God, a chasm no man could ever bridge.

Read the Bible account of the fall of man.

     What did this chasm mean for mankind? Eternal separation from God. Punishment. Death. Man's only hope, in fact, was for another to suffer the consequences on his behalf. Yet all of mankind deserved the same fate. Thus, no man could justify another.

Read what the Bible says about man's condition.

     But there was a perfect One--God's Son Jesus Christ. And so, from the throne of heaven, He came down to a humble stable in Bethlehem. The very God of the Universe chose to become a infant. And He hardly demanded for Himself a perfect life.

     Before he was two years old, he was a fugitive. A jealous king wanted him dead. Not knowing where the Christ-child was, the king sent soldiers with a command to murder every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. But God warned Joseph in a dream, and the family fled to Egypt.

     At last, the murderous king died. The family began to return to its homeland, but the king's successor was no better. So they settled in Nazareth, which was hardly an educational or cultural metropolis. There, the very Son of God labored with His hands, assisting Joseph in his carpentry trade.

     Jesus grew to adulthood and began to minister throughout the territory. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He fed the hungry. And He taught the people. He taught in a way no one had ever taught before, as though He had all authority. The curious masses followed him in droves. They begged him for another miracle, and another, ... and another. They brought their sick to Him, or called Him to come to them when the sick were too ill to travel. They brought their grievances to Him. They brought their fears. They brought their requests. The shouted acclamations when He satisfied them. But did they love Him?

     No.

     When His teaching became a little TOO uncomfortable, when He called them to love God with ALL their heart, when He challenged them to love and serve their neighbor, when He commanded them to submit to civil government, they turned from Him. In fact, they demanded His death.

     And they got it.

     He was seized. He was falsely accused. He was taken before judge after judge. He was beaten beyond recognition. Finally, He was sentenced to crucifixion--the cruelest form of execution man has ever devised.

     Soldiers stripped him of all clothing and nailed His battered body to a cross. They drove thorns deep into His skull. The masses spat on Him and mocked Him. Even one of those sentenced to die alongside of Him taunted Him. Worst of all, His Father, God Himself, turned His back on Him.

     At last, He died.

Read the Bible account of the crucifixion.

     Were this the end of the story, Christmas should stand as the most infamous day in history. Thankfully, there's another chapter.

     Christ's broken form was removed from the cross. It was taken and placed in a borrowed tomb. Soldiers surrounded the grave to make sure the body was undisturbed. But soldiers are helpless to restrain God.

     Three days after He was buried, Christ rose from the grave. The One who never sinned could not be held forever by the curse of sin, death.

     That chasm created by man's sin? Well, through Christ's death and resurrection, He bridged it. Now a risen Savior stands just on Heaven's side of the chasm, waiting to receive any who will walk across that cross-shaped bridge.

     So what is Christmas all about? Life. A life of direction. A life of purpose. A life of joy. A life of peace. A life that never ends. A life of fellowship with God Himself.

     Yet just as the first man and woman chose to sin, each of us must choose life. Anyone may walk across the bridge, but no one is forced to.

     How does one get on the bridge? Admitting that he or she is a sinner, that he or she has "sinned" or done wrong. Remember that "little white lie"? God calls it sin. Or cheating on that test in second grade? Sin again. What about the figures on that expense account that you fudged ever so slightly? Sin. Or the angry words you had with your neighbor? That time you hit your sister? The name you used to call the unpopular kid in the class? Sin. Simple as it may seem, the first step is to agree with God and say, "Yes, I am a sinner!"

     Next, we have to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Even if our sin list seems short alongside someone else's, sin is sin. Any is too much. Even one sin keeps us from being able to get to God on our own. Sound harsh? Unreasonable? What effect does one drop of poison have on a glass of water? How does a single cup of sugar in a gas tank affect a car? Sin's the same way. Before we can step onto the bridge Christ made, we have to acknowledge that the gap between us and God is too great for us to cross on our own.

     Then, we have to believe that Christ's work is sufficient. We have to trust that the cross really will get us to God. Some people want to try multiple bridges. They try Buddha, just in case the Buddhists are right. They try Mohammed, just in case the Muslims are right. And they want to try Christ, just in case the Christians are right. But this is an impossibility. Try driving your car across three bridges simultaneously, or even two, for that matter. It can't be done. Neither can any person really place their faith in multiple gods.

     Other people want to build their own bridge, just in case the cross isn't enough. They hope that their good works will make up the distance. Though there's nothing wrong with good works, they're no substitute for the cross. They aren't sufficient. They won't make a bridge all the way to God. And if we're somewhere along the edge of the chasm building our bridge of works, we're not on the bridge of the cross. Again, it's impossible to travel on two bridges at once.

     Still others want to keep one foot on the bridge of family. Just in case the cross isn't sufficient, they remind God that their father was a pastor. Or that their great-grandfather was a deacon. Or that their aunt was a missionary. Or that their family has been Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or Roman Catholic or ... for the last five generations. Maybe they can even trace their lineage back to someone great like Jonathan Edwards or Daniel Webster. Doesn't matter. The bridge of family won't get you to God.

     So what will restore fellowship between you and God? What will allow you to escape the eternal consequences of sin? Admit that you are a sinner. Acknowledge that you cannot save yourself. Believe that Christ and Christ alone can save you. And ask Him to save you. It's that simple.

     What is Christmas all about? It's about the greatest gift mankind ever has or ever will receive. It's about a God who became a baby and came to earth so He could die for you and me that we might live forever with Him. It's a choice. Will you accept the Christmas child, or reject Him?



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