Christmas Day, 2022

Merry Christmas!

What cheer that greeting brings, wouldn’t you say?!

Discounting the exceptions—that is, the humbugging Scrooges of this world who’d be rid of Christmas if they could—“Merry Christmas” is one of the few salutations with the muscle to stoke the cooling embers of a tired heart. Indeed, a weary soul is made young again, even if only for a moment, when a smiling passerby says, “Merry Christmas.”

Truly, it’s a greeting like no other.

I heard the greeting countless times last night at the Christmas Eve service. As I did, I was reminded of days long since spent, past seasons from childhood to adulthood. In a way, it could be said that unlike other greetings, this one stands at the door of here-and-now inviting memories to come inside. “Remembrance, like a candle,” Charles Dickens said, “burns brightest at Christmastime.” He might be right. “Merry Christmas” is spoken today, and a favorite toy from decades ago is remembered. It remembers a special moment with family. It remembers bygone friends. It remembers so many things.

Rarely would I add anything to Dickens’ wisdom, except to say it’s not just our pasts being invited to join us. I think our hopeful futures enter, too. Hope comes in to sit beside memory’s flickering flame.

I slept here at the church last night, mainly because I’m getting a little older and more easily tired. I don’t usually get home until well after 1:00 AM on Christmas Eve. Knowing I’d need to turn right around and come back in barely a handful of hours, combined with the treacherous roads, this year I decided to stay. I’ve done such things before. Besides, those who know me best can assume I was accompanied by a warming beverage before bed, one furnished by the Scots. I also happened upon a poetic scribbling from Alexander Smith, another product of Scotland. “Christmas,” he wrote, “is the day that holds all time together.” Like Dickens, I think he might be onto something. The very event of Christmas, if anything, begins the divine intersection of past, present, and future.

The Lord’s birth is the first effort of God’s plan to save us. As it begins, a much fuller Gospel message can be seen on the horizon. The angels sing it. The shepherds share it. The wise men are drawn to it. The Devil, through Herod, is fearful of it. And why? Because in its completeness, it will be a message that meets with the past, present, and future. It will herald what Christ has done, is doing, and will continue to do for humanity relative to Sin. This is the timelessness of “Merry Christmas.” This is the greeting’s forward thrust.

To grasp it, it’s as simple as digging a little deeper into the greeting. The salutation’s innards are not far from “Be joyful! Christ is present bringing salvation!” A Christian stands in the middle of the intersection by these words. To say “Merry Christmas” is to see all of time being held together. It is to give and receive the best answer to the hardest questions plaguing anyone’s past, present, and future.

If a troubled soul were to ask, “How can the Lord love me for what I’ve done?” The answer must be, “Fear not! He does! Merry Christmas!” If the concern continues by asking, “Will my disfigured past ever obstruct the Lord’s view, making Him unable to love a person like me?” The answer must be, “No. He knows what you’ve done. Still, He inserted Himself into the tarry horribleness of your dreadful past to claim you. Merry Christmas!”

Unconvinced, a person might continue, “As hard as I try, I continue to fall short. Will my everyday imperfections disgust Him enough to push me away? Will He ever walk away when I fall? Will He ever distance Himself from my continued shame?” Again, the Christmas answer must be, “No, He will not do these things. Certainly, you are not perfect. But He is. Trust Him. By His great exchange on Calvary’s cross, He takes your sadness into Himself and gives to you His righteousness. Merry Christmas!”

“But what about the future? As with anyone else, won’t He one day grow tired of this exercise? As with so many others, won’t He one day turn me away?” Christmas closes the book on the discussion, offering kindly, “No, He won’t. He sees your penitent faith, even if you don’t. He intends to heap mercy upon you until He returns in glory on the Last Day. Be joyful! He came at His nativity to save you. He’s coming back to take you home! Merry Christmas!”

Dear Christians, please know that all is well by faith in Jesus, the divine Child we celebrate today—Christmas Day! The intersection of your past, present, and future rested in that manger in Bethlehem so long ago. He came. He was who He claimed to be, and He accomplished what He said He would. Your salvation is secure. You are His, and He is yours. This wonderful friendship is His gift to you (John 15:15). Moreover, it’s a divine exchange meant for presenting you as Jesus’ most precious possession before the heavenly Father (Titus 2:14). By His work, you are justified (Titus 3:4-7). Covered in the pristinely white wrappings of Holy Baptism and topped with the bloodstained bow of His salvific work on the cross, what else might the Son say amid this grand and heavenly gift-exchange but “Merry Christmas!” (Romans 8:34, 1 John 2:1, and Hebrews 7:25)? It certainly seems appropriate.

Again, the greeting is like no other.

With that, Merry Christmas to you and yours! I hope to see you later this morning for worship at 9:30 AM. If you can make it, please know that the heat is on, the lights are beaming, and the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are ready and waiting to be received.

Predictably Unpredictable

My daughter, Madeline, mentioned being tasked by one of her teachers with reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Having two editions in my office, I shared one with her so that she wouldn’t need to wrestle with acquiring it from the school library.

I adore Charles Dickens—his skill with characters, his dexterity with language, and his prowess for telling a good story. Few writers compare. Maybe I’ve shared with you before that I have a first edition set of his complete works in my office. My favorite of his volumes is The Cricket on the Hearth. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so, especially if you’re a fan of his infamous A Christmas Carol.

In my humble opinion, pitched against the ever-growing list of worthless garbage our present-day public schools are calling literature, Dickens’ works are golden. I was glad when Madeline told me the assignment, and I knew if she could just get through the first few pages of the story, she’d be in for a real treat. Among all Dickens’ works, it’s one we might call a thriller. It’s very much a three-part story held together by perilous action, and it all ends at the guillotine.

I remember watching a film version of it when I was a kid, except I didn’t necessarily know what I’d seen until I read the book in high school several years later. As a bored eight or nine-year-old who was, as you’d expect, thoroughly unappreciative of the value of Sunday afternoon black-and-white matinees, I recall tuning in and sticking with the film only because, as a fan of scary movies, Christopher Lee was in it. As it would go, he played the cold-hearted Marquis St. Evremonde. To this very hour, I can imagine the possibility of a fanged Christopher Lee emerging from his horse-drawn carriage to bite someone’s neck. Of course, He didn’t. But I do remember a stake-through-the-heart moment his character experienced while sleeping. Either way, the film, like the book, had an aura of unpredictability.

I like unpredictable storytelling. Just ask Jennifer. The movies I find myself enjoying most are ones that keep me guessing. When it comes to all others, I’m as annoying as annoying can be. I think this is true because, as Hollywood continues to sew its recycled and under-considered plots into the sleeves of fast-food characters, there’s a good chance before a movie’s end that I’ll have already shouted out what’s going to happen. I’m not always right, but I certainly am more than the people sitting beside me would prefer. Annoying? Yes. So be sure to commend Jennifer for enduring my predictability.

Speaking of predictability, there’s an oft quoted opening line from the third chapter of the first part of the book. It reads:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”

In a volume filled with twists, Dickens refers to something in humans that’s universally predictable. Strangely, he points to every person’s hidden, namely, unpredictable side. In other words, the only thing you can predict with humans is that they’re unpredictable. Or to dive a little deeper, for as well as you might know someone, there will always be the side you don’t know and couldn’t have expected—the secret self that would surprise you if it were suddenly revealed.

As this meets with the season of Lent—a time when we’re exceptionally attuned to our need for a Savior—my Christian mind wanders to what this means for me. As it roams, I discover how I’m more than capable of concealing my sinful tendencies. And yet, the writer to the Hebrews untangles all misconceptions of this in relation to God when he offers that “no creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:13).

And therein is a path to something incredibly wonderful that we may not have predicted.

Yes, God knows the real you. He knows everything you’ve done. He knows all your horribleness. He knows all your dreadfulness. He knows your soiled intentions. He knows the worst of your thoughts, words, and deeds. And yet, even with all these horrendous things on display before His divine omniscience—things that He knows and sees and has every right to account as hell-worthy—still, He tells us by His Word that He looked on us in love and sent His Son to save us (John 3:16-17). He makes clear that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The predictability of God’s right to judge us accordingly is unpredictably turned on its head by His divine passion for our rescue. He does not give us what we deserve. Instead, He heaps our unfortunate dues upon Jesus, and by His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

I already told you just how much I love an unpredictable story. Well, it doesn’t get any better than the Gospel. And by this, I not only mean the death of God’s innocent Son for the dreadfully guilty, but also the unpredictable nature of the resurrection. That itself was a world-altering event. No one expected an empty tomb. No one expected to see Jesus alive. Not even the disciples. And yet, there He was, is, and remains. Sure, I like Dickens. But his stories are fiction. The Gospel is real, which makes the Bible that carries and communicates it, with every twist and turn of both the Old Testament and New Testament, the greatest volume in human history.