Topical Scripture: Luke 2:1-7
A couple of Christmases ago I wrapped Janet’s presents in birthday paper and never noticed (though she did). On Monday I received an email essay forwarded by a compassionate friend. It reads:
This is the time of year when we think back to the very first Christmas, when the Three Wise Men; Gaspar, Balthazar and Herb, went to see the baby Jesus and, according to the Book of Matthew, “presented unto Him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
These are simple words, but if we analyze them carefully, we discover an important, yet often overlooked, theological fact: There is no mention of wrapping paper. If there had been wrapping paper, Matthew would have said so: “And lo, the gifts were inside 600 square cubits of paper. And the paper was festooned with pictures of Frosty the Snowman. And Joseph was going to throweth it away, but Mary saideth unto him, she saideth, ‘Holdeth it! That is nice paper! Saveth it for next year!’ And Joseph did rolleth his eyeballs. And the baby Jesus was more interested in the paper than the frankincense. “
But these words do not appear in the Bible, which means that the very first Christmas gifts were NOT wrapped. This is because the people giving those gifts had two important characteristics: 1. They were wise; 2. They were men.
I wrap gifts, but because of some defect in my motor skills, I can never completely wrap them. I can take a gift the size of a deck of cards and put it the exact center of a piece of wrapping paper the size of a regulation volleyball court, but when I am done folding and taping, you can still see a sector of the gift peeking out. (Sometimes I camouflage this sector with a marking pen.) If I had been an ancient Egyptian in the field of mummies, the lower half of the Pharaoh’s body would be covered only by Scotch tape.
On the other hand, if you give my wife a 12-inch square of wrapping paper, she can wrap a C-130 cargo plane. My wife, like many women, actually likes wrapping things. If she gives you a gift that requires batteries, she wraps the batteries separately, which to me is very close to being a symptom of mental illness. If it were possible, my wife would wrap each individual volt.
My point is that gift-wrapping is one of those skills like having babies that come more naturally to women than to men.
In conclusion, remember that the important thing is not what you give, or how you wrap it. The really important thing, during this very special time of year, is that you save the receipt.
To a visitor from Mars, wrapping Christmas presents would seem strange indeed. As would the rest of the holiday. He would find it odd that we cut down trees and put them in our homes; or, even stranger, buy fake trees which look like the real thing. He’s have serious questions about the sanity of wrapping houses and trees in enough lights to land a 747. It’s an amazing time of year.
But then the miracle goes away. The wrapping paper is trashed; the trees go out by the curb or up in the attic; Santa Claus returns to the North Pole, taking Christmas with him.
Not this year. I’m praying that this year you and I will not miss the lasting, life-changing significance of this event. I’m praying that you and I will understand the true miracle of Christmas–not the toys and tinsel and trees, but the actual miracle which made possible the most significant turning point in human history.
When we remember all that really had to happen for Christmas to come, I think we will stand in awe of this miracle. And we will understand why it matters just as much to us today as it did to those who first witnessed the foundational event of all eternity.
Christmas in heaven
Before we can understand how the miracle of Christmas happened on earth, first we need to understand how it happened in heaven.
Last week we rehearsed the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 and the fact that Satan is now the unlawful god of this age. But at the very beginning of Satan’s rebellion, the true King of the Kingdom predicted his ruin: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15).
We are at “enmity” or conflict with Satan, the prince of this world. But the “offspring” of the woman will win the war. He will “strike the head” of Satan, but first Satan will “strike his heel.” He will kill the enemy, but first the enemy must kill him. Here’s why.
Our sins separated us from the holy and righteous God who is Judge of the universe. And “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Because sin separates us from the God who is the source of all life, sin causes us to die physically, relationally, emotionally, spiritually, eternally. Just as a brick left on the lawn blocks the sun’s rays and causes the grass to die, so sin blocks the Son’s life and causes us to die. Death is the inevitable consequence and penalty of our sin.
And the only way our sin can be forgiven by a holy and just God is for its price to be paid in full.
When I hit a baseball through a neighbor’s windshield back in the sixth grade, someone had to pay for the windshield. An apology wouldn’t keep the rain out of the car. Ten dollars wouldn’t fix the glass. The debt had to be paid in full. Sin requires death.
The moment you and I sinned, we deserved to die. Our death could not pay anyone else’s debt, for we owed that debt ourselves. Only a sinless person’s death could pay for the sins of someone else. And the only sinless Person in the universe is God himself. God would have to pay the penalty. His Son would have to die. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).
And so, in heaven it was decided that the Son of God would have to come as the “offspring of a woman” to be killed by Satan, so his death could pay the penalty of our sin and free us from Satan’s hold on our souls. In this way he would “strike his head” and end his rebellion.
In this way God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
This was the miracle in heaven which led to the miracle on earth: the free choice of the Father’s grace to send his innocent Son to die for us, so we could live eternally with him. Without that decision, Christmas could never have come. If we don’t understand that miracle, a baby was born in a manger but nothing changes and Christmas is just a holiday. When we appreciate that miracle of God’s love and grace, Christmas becomes relevant for us all, as we’ll see in a moment.
Christmas in history
We’ve seen Christmas in heaven; now let’s watch Christmas in history. If Jesus had come as the virgin-born son of Eve, humanity could not have understood why he came or why he died. It would take all of world history to set the stage, with the miracles of God coming at every step of the way.
God had to preserve the human race from the catastrophic results of our rebellion against his rule, miraculously using an ark and a single family to save the race. Then he had to choose a nation through whom to reveal himself, his word, his will, and ultimately his Son.
His miraculous power protected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their enemies. His miraculous power delivered Moses and the children of Israel from their Egyptian masters. His miraculous power divided the Red Sea and the Jordan River, demolished Jericho and defeated the wicked Canaanites, and established his people in their land.
His miraculous revelation gave Israel the Ten Commandments and the rest of their Law. His Spirit gave them their prophets to interpret and apply that Law. His providence used Assyria and Babylon to judge their sins, then used Persia to protect them from destruction and return them to their land and purpose.
His miraculous providence used the Greek nation to create a universal language through which the story of Christmas could be told to the all the world. He used the Roman military to create a universal peace which would protect the first Christians as they told that story. He used Roman engineers to build roads which would take those missionaries around the world. He used the scattered Jewish people to build synagogues as outposts and launching pads for the global spread of the Christian faith.
Then, finally, all was ready.
His angel miraculous revealed his plan to Joseph and Mary as they were engaged to be married in Nazareth of Galilee. She would be the virgin who would bear a son whom they would call Immanuel (Is 7:14; Mt. 1:23). Her conception was a miracle beyond all human ability.
But the prophet had already specified that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Now the Lord had to move the expectant mother and her husband 90 miles south to fulfill his plan.
So, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. . . . All went to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:1, 3). The Romans were fond of registering their subjects for military service and taxation. We have actual records from Egypt requiring all Roman subjects to return to their hometowns where the family records were kept; it is no surprise that the same was required of Jews in Palestine.
And so the entire Jewish nation was required to return to their ancestral homes, most significantly those belonging to the house and family of David. All so God’s Son could fulfill God’s word and God’s purpose and come to be struck on his heel by Satan and then strike Satan’s head. All to redeem us from hell for heaven and paradise forever.
Think of it: God used 20 centuries of Jewish history; the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Persian, and Roman empires, a pagan Roman emperor and his roads and military; all to make Christmas.
Now, why did he do it? For you. You are the reason for the season.
Time magazine has just announced its “person of the year”: you. They’re writing about the global phenomenon known as the Internet, “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”
Computer professionals call this Internet revolution “Web 2.0.” It’s a way of life built on the ideas and dreams of the individual. It’s all about you.
God’s word announced its “person of the year” 20 centuries ago and came to the same conclusion. With all your faults and frailties, with your guilt over the past and fear about the future, with all your hopes and dreams and problems, you are the reason for the season. You are the one Jesus came to redeem. He folded his eternal omnipotence into a fetus and was born as a baby for you. He refused all temptation so that he could die a sinless death for you. He chose the cross when he could have called 10,000 angels to save him, for you. He gave up his spirit for you. He was buried for you. He rose from the grave for you. He will come again one day for you.
This Christmas Eve, no matter how hard or good things are for you, remember the source of your personal worth.
You may be grieving the loss of someone you love. You may be lonely and alone. You may be fearful of what 2007 will bring. Or you may be blessed with a loving family, good health, and great prosperity. But know that these things are not the source of your personal worth. They can all be gone tomorrow. The source of your personal worth is the fact that you are worth the birth and life of the Son of God. He loves you, and likes you, and wants to spend eternity with you.
The greatest miracle of Christmas is that it happened in heaven and in history, for you. Let’s thank God together, right now.