Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The Christmas season can be a time of peace and joy and fellowship, especially among Christians. We take hold of it in more than one way. It appeals to our senses – the bright lights, the sounds of music, the feel of packages as we wrap them and then unwrap them. The Christmas holiday brings us reasons to celebrate during the darkest times of the year.
Christmas also warms our souls, which are the crucial parts of our natures even though we can’t see or touch them. As we give presents to others and receive them, so do we receive gifts from God.
When Christ was born, God came to the earth in the form of a child. As Paul wrote, he brings salvation. His grace appears to all people. Grace means undeserved favor like a free gift. God knew that the world was a mess and that we couldn’t save ourselves, so he sent his Son to live as we do and to die in our place. Jesus didn’t come because of any merit in us but because of God’s gracious desire to save. There’s a part of us that wants to save ourselves, to show God how wonderful we are, but if we try to do God’s work for him, we take on an enormous burden that will crush us. The Lord frees us from the need to please him on our own. He gives us his friendship as a gift, which we receive by faith. He invites us to rest in him, to be at ease.
Jesus brings us hope and direction. Christmas lights shine out at the darkest time of the year, though not so many in Toronto, I’ve noticed in the four years I’ve lived here. The light of Christ casts out darkness of the spirit every day, all year long. He keeps us from wandering like sheep, going from here to there, trying different things, never quite getting it right. Jesus takes us out of ourselves and invites us to focus on him. He will give us hope and purpose now and everlasting peace in eternity.
Now, the good Lord asks something of us in return. The free gift of salvation is not like a reclining chair from which we need never get up. It isn’t a soft couch or a hammock. The first and most important thing the Savior asks of us is that we believe in him, trust him, accept his gift with our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Jesus likes to see every part of our personalities concentrated on him in faith.
In the second place, as Paul says, God assigns us tasks to carry out. He doesn’t remove us from the world, but leaves us in it to do good works that give him glory and benefit our neighbors. He gradually changes our lives from ungodliness to a love for doing his will. He trains us, as Paul wrote. He gives us the gift of an education, and he is the teacher. He guides us so that we lead balanced, satisfying lives.
Paul sets down the guidelines. He mentions two negatives first: ungodliness and worldly desires. Ungodliness is the natural state of every human heart. By nature, we rely on our own abilities. By grace, we trust in God. We restrain the part of us that races like the little engine that could in the old story I used to hear when I was a child. We say “yes” to God’s offer to help us.
Everyone knows what worldly desires are. They abound at this time of year. Experience teaches, though, that craving for “more, more” always brings disappointment. This is why we listen to the Lord when he asks us keep in their proper place those things that have significance only for this world. We eat to live, for example, not for the sake of food itself. We rest to revive ourselves, not to give way to laziness. We celebrate Christmas to take part in the joy of the season, for fellowship, and to draw closer to the Lord, not for the sake of extravagant display. Everything is ours, but we avoid excess, which is a sign of ungodliness. Overwork and extreme self-denial arise from ungodliness, too, just like self-indulgence and lack of discipline. By God’s grace, we are able to lead balanced lives, giving him praise in everything we do. Mature people accept boundaries, which act as fences to protect us.
There are times, of course, when we know we haven’t done well, when we’ve broken through common-sense restraints. As believers, we regret our lapses. We take hold of God’s gift of pardon that he won for us on Calvary. We give thanks that he doesn’t hold our trespasses against us. We delight in the new life he gives us and the high status he confers on us as his sisters and brothers.
And so we come three positives Paul sets down: self-control, upright living, godliness. To be self-controlled means to live sensibly, not as slaves to the many mad follies the world puts before us. We may think of self-control as honorable living and good breeding. We do our best to act temperately, discreetly, and with courage. We welcome discipline and carry ourselves modestly.
Paul also writes that we should be upright or righteous – to conduct ourselves so that God’s judgment approves of us. We consider our neighbors. We give each person his or her due. We help folks in need, even if it means risking ourselves, our property, and our own honor. We don’t retreat from the world around us but work to make it better. Jesus transforms our minds so that we trust his ways and love righteousness.
In the third place balanced, satisfied living requires godliness – trusting our Savior and relying on his grace rather than our own efforts. We honor, praise, and trust God. We’re confident that he’ll be gracious to us and send his blessing to us. He doesn’t ask to build great monuments, but he does want us to be loyal to him. He’s delighted when his grace moves our hearts to look to him for purpose, meaning, and direction. He wants to help; a godly heart accepts his offer. He treasures our obedience to him and will reward it. Godliness also includes sincere worship and he is pleased that Christians around the world gather to worship hm. He will also be pleased if our godliness continues in the months and years ahead. Our lives work out well when we turn our hearts to him in faith.
So God’s promise that we will lead balanced, satisfying lives here on this earth calls for a response from us. This gift from God, you see, is more like an exercise bike than a 500 channel TV. It benefits us only if we use it regularly and vigorously, trusting that the same Lord who pardons our failings will also uphold and strengthen us to walk along paths that please him. Christian living calls for energy and commitment, and this, too, comes as a gift from God.
The Savior knows that we wonder where our strength will come from and how we can possibly maintain the joy of the Christmas season through whole year when no one knows what will happen next week. He assures us that he is God and that he will strengthen us.
You see, the Child born in Bethlehem, whom most people ignored at the time and whom many still reject, came to earth with a purpose – to purify for himself a special people a chosen nation, a kingdom of believers. That means you and me. The Savior calls us into his community, where he will nourish us and keep us strong. He defends his Kingdom and will protect us from everlasting harm. The key for us is to trust that he cares so much about us that he will keep our faith in him vibrant and inspire us with a desire, more and more, to do his will.
As hard as we try to keep calm, the secular side of the Christmas season often catches up with us. It’s almost impossible to avoid the rhythm of fast-paced times. I can’t know what you are feeling – whether you are joyous and full of anticipation or on the point of burn-out or somewhere in between. Perhaps it’s a low time for you, as it can be for folks who are grieving or working their way through a troubled patch. Wherever you are in the curve of life, I pray that you will trust the Jesus, the God who became man, holds out his hand to you and invites you to rest in him. It is his wish that you live abundantly and richly. He will bless you with strong, balanced lives. May he give us the insight to recognize his actions in our lives and the wisdom to follow him. In His name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding…….