When we last left Scrooge, he was trying to recover from his three visitors. There was the Ghost of Christmas Past, who came at 1:00. She showed him some wonderful Christmas memories and others that weren’t so great. There was the Ghost of Christmas Present, who came at 2:00. He showed him both the poverty that existed in his world, and the fun he was missing. There was the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future, who came without warning. He reminded Scrooge of his mortality. No one likes to hear that they are terminal from birth.
Our scene for this evening begins with sunshine. It is a new day. You remember the scene. Scrooge has endured his three visitors and promises to change. The transformation is complete! With newly discovered energy, he jumps out of bed and begins to dance around. The church bells begin to chime when Scrooge has a horrible thought. Maybe the work of the ghosts took longer than one day? Maybe he missed Christmas? He runs to his window and opens it. He looks down and discovers a small boy. He yells at him and asks the question for this evening, “What day is it?” The boy repeats the question, then he answers it. “What day is it? Why, it is Christmas day!” Scrooge is thrilled with the boy’s response. He hasn’t missed it. He begins to make plans to get the most out of that Christmas, and I hope you have done the same. Can I ask you a question?
What plans have you made for Christmas? What are you going to do to get the most out of this Christmas? Has anyone here decorated their home for Christmas? Your tree came out of the woods and makes the whole house smell like pine. Or your tree came out of the attic, but it won’t shed a single needle. Is anyone here planning on spending the day with loved ones? Some have traveled a long way to spend the day with you, others have walked down the street. The distance doesn’t matter, their attendance does. Is anyone here planning on exchanging gifts for Christmas? You bought just the right present for just the right person, and you cannot wait for them to open it. Maybe you have spotted an extra-large gift under the tree with your name on it. You can’t wait to open it. I don’t have to go on. You know it is true. You are just like Scrooge! You know that the great day of Christmas is here, and you are trying to get the most out of this Christmas. Did you know the National Retail Federation expected the average American to spend $998 on Christmas this year? The average American will spend $850 on presents alone. However, those of us who comprise the church know that Christmas is more than a giant birthday party.
Christmas is deeper and more profound. Christmas is more than a massive birthday party. Christmas is about the incarnation of God. The Gospel of John says, “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (1:14) In other words, God left the perfection of heaven and took a human form to become one of us. We say we love our dogs, but would we trade places with them. Would we get on our knees and hands and eat of their food bowl? Would we get on our knees and hands and lap water from the bowl? That is what God did. That is what makes Christmas so special. The church celebrates Christmas annually for three reasons. Ponder them with me.
Christmas is a day to celebrate the heart of God! The God of the universe is in love with us! The God of the universe is in love with you. He could have ordered us to love him. He could have impressed us with his power. However, those ways have limitations. Instead, God entered this world to share our interests and concerns, and to win our hearts.
Did you know the disease we call leprosy is still active in our world today? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1,000 people die each year from leprosy in the Western Hemisphere. However, in most cases, it is treatable. That was not the case during the time of Father Damien (1840-1889). He was a Roman Catholic priest, who was born in Belgium. He spent most of his adult life in the mission fields. He spent the last sixteen years of his life on Hawaiian island, serving a leper colony. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built two thousand coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, the leper colony became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope. He got close. For this the people loved him. Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers.” Now he was not just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward he was not just on their island; he was in their skin. First, he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died.
That is the story of Christmas! The incarnation reveals the heart of God. Jesus did not just come into the world to help us. Jesus, God came into the world to be one of us. He came into the world to die with us.The incarnation reveals God’s heart. The incarnation reveals our great human need.
In 1963, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was charged with trying to sabotage his nation’s government. He went against his nation’s apartheid government, which treated each race differently. He wanted South Africa to have a democratic government, which treated all races the same. He was found guilty and was sent to prison. He sat in that prison for the next twenty-seven years. When he was released in 1990, he only spoke of one thing, forgiveness. In time, he would become president of his country and had an international audience. He spoke of forgiveness time and time again. Mandela said, “Forgiveness is part of God’s plan.” Nelson Mandela knew it. Mankind’s greatest need is for forgiveness.
Christmas is a day to admit mankind’s greatest need, forgiveness. In the life of the church there is nothing, there is no one, more important than Jesus. He is the key to happiness both in this world and in heaven itself. It is impossible to separate the baby in the nativity from the Savior on the cross thirty-three years later. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He died so we could live. The Incarnation reveals our greatest human need, forgiveness. The incarnation reveals God’s heart and our greatest human need. The incarnation also reveals the mystery of God’s ways.
The Hebrew world waited for generations for the coming of the Messiah. They knew he was going to be something special! They dreamed of his greatness, but they almost missed him because he was quite common. The story of the nativity is filled with common people. The shepherds were the first to hear about the birth of Jesus. Who were they? They were nobodies. In fact, they were rejected by the orthodox leaders for not keeping the law. Mary and Joseph were really nothing special. They were just another poor couple having a baby. Aren’t the poor always having another baby? Two years later, when the Magi finally arrive, they go to the palace because they are looking for something special. Who looks for something special in the barn? Think about this for a moment. God trusted common people with his divine plan, and He still does.
This is my question for you. What are you going to do for God with the rest of your life? I know that is an intimidating question. I know it raises your insecurities. You feel like you are nothing special, which makes you perfect for God’s service. Christmas is a day to ponder God’s mysterious ways. Never forget, God has a purpose for your life.I end with this story. I have told it in the past because it is one of my favorites.
One of the great places in the world is the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It is the site of the papal conclave, the process how a new pope is elected. The fame of the Sistine Chapel lies mainly in the frescoes which decorate the interior, and more particularly the Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. He began the project in 1508 and completed it four years later. Five hundred years later everyone agrees, it is a masterpiece. Years ago, Kathryn and I were fortunate to visit the Sistine Chapel. We were not alone. We were just two in a large group of tourists. The crowd made it impossible to study all the details. It was frustrating. The tour guide led us through quickly. If you ever get a chance to visit the Sistine Chapel, do it.
A good friend of mine visited the Sistine Chapel years ago too. Bill Johnson was young and in the navy. You remember Bill. He worked with me for five years. No one has a bigger heart than Bill. He was on leave in Italy, so he and a group of friends went to the Sistine Chapel. Like my experience, he was in a large group when they were herded into the chapel. Bill was uncomfortable in the crowd and was unsure of his location. He did not want to step on anyone, so he kept his head down. When they exited the chapel, everyone began to talk about the beautiful ceiling. It was only then that Bill discovered his mistake. He was standing in the middle of the Sistine Chapel and never looked up to see the famous ceiling. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he missed it. I hope you do not miss it.
I hope that is not your story. Scrooge feared he missed Christmas. I hope you do not miss Christmas. It has been a wonderful scene. There has been the colored lights and the holiday decorations. There have been the cards and gifts. There is one at home waiting for you. There has been special music and parties. It has been fantastic, but do not miss the real meaning of Christmas. Those of us who comprise the church know the true meaning of Christmas. It is about the Incarnation. David Jeremiah (born 1941) once said, “All the presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.” What day is it? It is Christmas day!