Have you been to London? Do you know Downton Abbey?
I’ve had the privilege of touring London. My wife and I liked Downton Abbey so much we’ve watched it several times. (We’re currently enmeshed in the British series Call the Midwife.)
Maybe it’s the accents we like.
London in the 1800s would have had some compelling attractions. Charles Spurgeon’s preaching dominated the city. Thousands came to hear “the Prince of Preachers” at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Evangelical preachers are still learning from him today.
This was also the time of the famed author Charles Dickens. Known for many great works, during the Christmas season we are drawn into the power of Christmas by Dickens’ 1843 story, A Christmas Carol. Since its publication, this iconic work has never been out of print. Almost daily every December there is some reference to it.
Just last night I saw a car commercial featuring Ebenezer Scrooge offering me a new ride.
You remember this tale of transformation. If not, spoiler alert: the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future so disturb Ebeneezer that he becomes a changed man.
That idea of Christmas past, present, and future finds a parallel in holy Scripture.
The gospel at Christmas
Titus 2:11–14 is one of Paul’s great summaries of the gospel:
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (NIV, emphasis added).
In these four verses, Paul helps us consider Christmas in three wise ways.
1. We need to understand Christmas past.
Verse 11 says that “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” The story of Jesus bringing salvation happened in time, place, and space. The coming of Jesus in the flesh in a cradle and then to the cross is the hinge of all history.
While we cannot “prove” many aspects of faith, Jesus’ good news is a truthful story supported by mountains of evidence. In Acts 26:26, Paul explains and defends the gospel to Agrippa by saying “this was not done in a corner.” The Christmas coming of Jesus is open for full investigation.
God’s purpose in Christmas is the delivery of his grace. John said that in seeing Jesus he and others saw God’s grace and truth in human form (John 1:14). That’s what God wants us to see every Christmas and every day.
Jesus is the greatest of all gifts because he brings us mercy and grace. He makes possible the forgiveness of sin, the atonement as the lamb of God. In Christ we are justified (Romans 5) and made righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). He is our ransom (Mark 10:45). Salvation means we are given mercy that removes our sin (Acts 3:19) and grace that gives us a new identity as God’s adopted children who are full heirs with Christ (Galatians 4:5).
This indescribable gift is offered by God to “all people”—poor or rich, powerful or powerless, female or male, young or old. All people, from every tribe, nation, or tongue are sought by God to receive his salvation.
Take a moment to remember when you first “saw” God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.
Where were you? Who was with you? Whom did you first tell?
What is your salvation history, that time and place when Jesus first became the savior of Christmas born in your heart?
2. We need to live Christmas present.
Christmas is also a present reality.
It’s been said that “conversion is the end of the faith, the front end.”
Paul said to Titus in Titus 2:12 that God’s grace in Christ teaches us to say no to godless things and yes to holy things “in this present age.” Christmas faith with Jesus is a daily, moment-by-moment reality.
We do not believe in shallow conversionism. Turning to Christ initially in confession, repentance, and faith is essential, but it must be followed by the daily walk of a joyful and eager disciple (Ephesians 4:1). My pastor preached to me forty years ago, “Salvation is the miracle of a moment; sanctification is the miracle of a lifetime.”
When Jesus is king of our heart, it means that we submit to him and welcome him to teach us what to reject. Disciples must learn to say no consistently to all that tempts us away from the overflowing, joyful new life that Jesus makes possible (John 10:10).
We live in a culture that believes anything we feel or imagine is legitimate. Some call it being “your authentic self.” God tells us that we are made in his image, but that sin has warped, twisted, and broken that image so that “our hearts are despairingly wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9). We need God’s immediate salvation and his daily transformation through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, God’s word, and the supportive, encouraging and accountable fellowship of God’s people.
Jesus warned that the process needed to be both removing evil and replacing it with good. We can wrongly reduce our faith to a checklist of “don’t dos” and miss the relationship with God. The end result is worse than where we started (Matthew 12:43–45).
My four-year-old granddaughter loves to play princess dress-up. When she wears one of her Disney Princess gowns, she takes on a new attitude. Paul described the daily change we need as being like changing our wardrobe from the stained and torn rags of sin to the royal robes of godliness. In Christ we have the opportunity to “dress up” in a new style of living (Ephesians 4:20–24).
Today, this Christmas season, what is the Spirit of Christ saying to you? What needs to change? Is there a favorite sin that still nags at you? (Hebrews 12:1).
What does Christ want you to say no to in a fresh, emphatic commitment?
Conversely, what do you need to say yes to? What needs to fill the spaces of your heart and spirit?
My student pastor used to tell us, “A disciple is someone who gives all that he knows of himself to all that he knows of Christ each day.”
3. We need to hope in Christmas future.
Last, we hope in Christmas yet to come.
The third time reference Paul gives to Titus in this gospel summary is in Titus 2:13: “while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Waiting is one of the greatest parts of Christmas. Hopeful anticipation is the very essence of Advent, the certain expectation of the coming celebration. From the time we are children, we learn the experience of looking forward to Christmas. For weeks starting with Thanksgiving or, in some cases Halloween, lights, tinsel, and gift ideas appear before us, signaling that the annual celebration of Christmas is coming.
As believers we have a living hope of what is to come. We are waiting not just for a yearly celebration of Christ’s first coming. We have a “blessed hope” that Jesus is coming again.
We know that when he comes again it will not be in a stable and a stone manger as a baby. He will come again with the sound of trumpets and the voices of archangels that the whole universe will hear (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The next time he comes, it will not be in a cradle. Rather, it will be clear to all that he is the reigning and glorious King over all things. When he comes, evil, suffering, and tears will cease and righteousness, goodness, and peace will be the rule of the day.
Don’t give up hope
I confess: it’s easier for me to look at Christmas past, both the long ago past of that first Bethlehem Christmas and my own Christmas past. Those are so often fond memories.
It’s harder for me to imagine what the scope and scale of this “blessed hope” will be. Our world is so broken and dark and God’s timing is unknowable. It’s easy for us to lose our grip on God’s ultimate promises.
God counsels away from the extremes. We are not to be clock and calendar watchers trying to predict when God will fulfill our hope in Christ. No one knows the day or season (Matthew 24:36). Jesus gives us the what but not the when. The timing belongs to God alone.
Neither are we to be naïve and lazy thinking that he is coming so soon that our daily service is not needed. God warned the Thessalonians about sitting on their hands expecting Christ to return at any moment (2 Thessalonians 3:10–13).
But perhaps the greatest danger is that we will lose our hope by becoming scoffers who think that God will never make good on this promised return. That is the spirit of unbelief.
God led Peter to confront it in 2 Peter 3. When we read history and headlines, we are tempted to believe the world has always been as it is and that it will always be this way. That is not God’s good news.
Jesus is coming.
His righteousness will rule and reign.
The Christmas Prince of Peace will bring the peace we long for today.
We need that.
The brokenness of our world leaves us longing for our great king.
Come, Lord Jesus
Recently, a child near where I live was abducted and her life taken. Her family, community, and the whole region are crushed in spirit over this horrific evil. The story drives many of us to tears and to our knees.
Every detail of this crime urges me to pray with the Apostle John: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20–21).
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it in many ways more appealing is that, whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn’t require much of anything at all.”
There are many ways to look at Christmas. We look to and through lights, decorations, tinsel, and music. We see its glory in the faces of children, both ours and others.
As God’s children, let’s ask our Father to help us see Christmas fresh and new, timely and timeless, through the eyes of refreshed faith. When we do, we will find ourselves transformed in ways even more profound than Scrooge.