The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3-4, 2009
Text: Ephesians 1:3-14
Dear Friends in Christ,
For most in our world, the Christmas trees have been put away, the presents have been exchanged, cards sent and the like. The cookies and other treats have all been eaten. But we, in the church, are still lingering a little longer at the manger. It wasn’t always as it is today. Originally, Christmas was a solemn time. There were church services and vigils. Slowly as time progressed through the twelve days, there were an increasing number of gatherings and parties. Finally, on Twelfth Night, the Eve of Epiphany, there would be a blow out party with the exchange of gifts, dancing and much revelry. So in this case, Monday night, would have originally been the night for the big Christmas party.
The history of the celebration of Christmas is interesting in itself. In England and early America Christmas was not a big deal. Under the influence of English Puritanism Christmas was, in many cases, not celebrated at all. Massachusetts had even outlawed Christmas. Catholic countries always made some celebration of Christmas, but it was always a fairly solemn affair, midnight mass and all that. Christmas, as we know it is really an ethnic festival. For some reason, those gruff old Germans, would get all choked up about the birth of a baby. The Christmas tree is a German tradition. Many of our carols go back to Germany. Martin Luther saw no problem with the celebration of Christmas and did nothing to curb it. In fact he even wrote Christmas hymns like “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”. The nineteenth century saw a renaissance of Christmas in England. The English tend to copy the royal family. The ruler of England for much the of the nineteenth century of Victoria of the House of Hanover. She was obviously of German ancestry. But her husband was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha - an actual German. So the royal family had a proper German Christmas tide, with a humongous tree and so forth. And the nation copied it. And so from Victorian England and our German immigrants we get our Christmas traditions. The only real American contribution is Santa Claus. A father Christmas figure, often associated with St. Nicholas, was common in Europe. But the Dutch Immigrants of New York changed this historic image into the modern image of Santa Claus. The poet Samuel Johnson appears to have been one of the real movers in this regard.
However, we must not let any of this obscure the original purpose. We are celebrating the coming of God the Son into our world. That is an event worthy of our time and consideration - worthy of a great deal of our time. St. Paul uses a special phrase for the time of Christ’s birth. He uses this term in a couple different places. He calls this the fullness of time. It is as though time itself became pregnant. Time was great with child. Time was full and could hold no more. Then God’s plan for the fullness of time was fulfilled. Christ came to bless us with every spiritual blessing.
At the root of this is what read in out text: “In love He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace...”
We call this the doctrine of Justification. Let’s pull this apart. It starts with the love of God. God the Father, acts, on our behalf in love. Do we deserve His love. Teenage girls love Orlando Bloom because he’s handsome. I love skilled, versatile actors like Richard Harris or Alec Guinness. We love these people because of something in them. But God doesn’t love us because of something in us. There is nothing in us that is deserving of God’s love. We are rebellious sheep who love our sin. We have no love in our hearts for God. Rather God loves because He is love. His love comes from within Himself. Further divine love is always a giving of self. It is not an emotion. So when we speak of God loving us, that means He gives of Himself for us. There was no word for this in the Greek language. So the New Testament writers attached this idea to one particular Greek word for love - Agape. God predestined us. That phrase has caused a great deal of consternation over the centuries. At the root of the problem is that we don’t understand the things of God. So we have trouble just taking God at His Word. But what it simply means is that God chose each one of us to be His children. Now, don’t try to think on this too deeply. It is getting into something that not even the most learned theologians fully understand. But we need to take this the way Paul and the Holy Spirit intended it. We are to take comfort from the fact that God chose each one of us to be sons of God. We are not worthy. We are poor miserable sinners. But nevertheless, in love, God chose us to be His children. Then God gives of Himself, to make His choice a reality. He sends His Beloved Son to earth to bring us redemption through His blood.
This image of adoption is crucial to understanding God’s purpose. Adoption is what happens when a man or woman or couple, takes a child that is not theirs, but makes it theirs. They take responsibility for that child. They pay for its costs and they see to its needs. They raise the child to take it’s place as an adult in the world. So we think of Cindy McCain, who, at the urging of Mother Teresa, flew home with two infants on her lap. They adopted one girl and arranged for some friends to adopt the other child. These children were very ill with serious deformities. They paid a great deal of money for their medical care. The McCains and their friends made these children their own, even though they were not their own. They had no obligation, but they committed themself freely to pay great expense for these children. That’s what God does for us. He has no obligation. He doesn’t have to do it. But God the Father looks to the Son and says go down to earth and get Your brothers. Seal their adoption with Your own blood and bring them home to live with Us. Nor was this an improvised change of plans for God. Rather, God had planned our adoption as His sons before He started creating this world.
And so as we put away the lights and the blow up Santa, and we listen to the Christmas carols one last time, we do well to consider why Christ came to earth. He came to earth to adopt us as sons of God. He was born in the Bethlehem and laid in the manger for the purpose of sealing our adoption with His blood. This is why Christ came and why we should linger at the manger. For this is the mystery of the ages. This is our God in the manger. He is there not to judge us, but to save us. Yes, the time will come when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. But this time, at the manger, He came to save, to fulfill God’s plan and adopt us as sons of God.