Most of us know the story of Jesus’ birth very well – and anyone who doesn’t can look it up quickly and read all about it. We live in the “information age,” after all. But as familiar as the story is, there’s still something special about hearing it in the church, and especially on Christmas Eve.
The other day I was walking through the parking lot at the mall when I saw a small stroller, sitting there empty, next to a big SUV. I figured I knew what was going on. It was the Christmas season – people were in a hurry, and a little bit frazzled, especially at the mall. Sure enough, a moment later that SUV began to back out. I wondered whether the driver would see the stroller or just drive right on by it (hopefully not over it!). Well, the brakes were applied, the vehicle moved back into the parking space, and out jumped mom to pick up the stroller and place it back in the vehicle. I smiled because I sometimes forget things too, and because I know it’s especially hard to remember everything with all the shopping and the other work associated with Christmas.
Yes, the Christmas season can be a crazy time of year. But you and I know that it’s worth the effort – and tonight we hear again why. Many years ago on this night Christ our Savior was born. That is why Christmas is such a big deal. But before I say more about this, I’d like to throw things in reverse and back up a bit to what we focused on in Advent. There’s a chance that with all the craziness of the season we may have missed a thing or two.
The season of Advent begins by looking at Christ’s second coming and the way life will be after that day. Usually we spend just a week or two on this subject, but this year we focused on it all the way through the season, especially at our midweek services.
Christ will come again. And we pointed out, in particular, that when he comes he will establish a new heaven and a new earth. I included two of the Biblical references which speak to this as our first and second readings this evening (Isaiah 66 and Revelation 21). This new heaven and new earth come about after our current earth is destroyed. Earth is then re-born or transformed upon Christ’s second coming, much like human beings die but then have their bodies resurrected on the last day.
In addition to noting these teachings of scripture, we also thought about how we in the church, in our sermons and hymns, tend to talk a lot about heaven as our future dwelling place, but not so much about the new heavens and new earth. We read from one particular author who was pretty concerned about this, and we thought about what differences a changed focus might make.
One difference, we concluded, would be a renewed focus on our church’s confession that there will be a resurrection of the body someday. Many other religions and spiritual teachers suggest that we will simply live on as spiritual, non-material beings in the afterlife. Even our own religion teaches – at least according to the majority view – that after we die our spirit separates from the body and is immediately with the Lord in heaven until that day when Christ comes again. With this emphasis on being immediately with the Lord we may sometimes forget that our bodies will be resurrected and that we will then live as bodily, material people, just as we do now.
We often call the afterlife “heaven” because God will be there and it will be a holy, perfect place. But in other ways that word “heaven,” which simply comes from the word for “sky,” is a little weak in describing the place of our final and eternal dwelling. A greater emphasis on a re-created or transformed earth might be serve us better.
For instance, a focus on the new heavens and new earth might help us to have a greater respect and appreciation for that which God has created. God made this world not as just some temporary place to live until we go to a better place which we call heaven, but God made this world as an Eden, a peaceful paradise for His beloved creatures. Yes, our world is now tainted with sin and as such it is a violent and dangerous place compared to what it was meant to be. But earth will someday again be that place where the lion lies down with the lamb and where there is no more suffering or tears. Knowing that the peaceful paradise will someday be restored, and that all this has been made with the purpose of glorifying God and living in peace forever, should we not be moved to be more respectful of creation?
I’m not suggesting that the Church be as green as those who actually worship the earth and call it “God.” Nor am I saying that we must do everything we can to save it. We should make good efforts to preserve creation for others, but we balance this with the need to preserve ourselves and with the faith which trusts that God is overseeing all. Our attitude toward the earth should perhaps be the same as toward our own bodies. We care for them, yes, but we don’t obsess over them, because they will break down some day anyway.
I thought about this recently as I was watching professional football. It makes me cringe to watch someone as talented as Robert Griffin III, the Redskins new quarterback, who obviously has so much to offer in many ways besides football, risk his good health each Sunday. But I believe he must share our attitude that life is about more than just preserving our health for the longest time possible. There’s an eternal life with a glorified body that awaits the believer.
Yes, the scriptures tell us that believers will live with glorified bodies in the life to come. The body is “sown in dishonor, but raised in glory,” as St. Paul once said. We don’t know exactly what that glorified body will be like, but considering all the scriptures teach us I’m thinking it will simply be a fit and healthy version of who we already are. The real glory will be that we won’t be disappointed with who we are, nor jealous of others. And if that’s the way life will be then, we ought to start adopting those views now. We ought to respect the way God has made us and the way he has made others.
Our celebration of Christmas is about remembering that we have a Savior who has overcome the curse of sin and restored the pathway to paradise. Someday soon, those whose sin has been forgiven will find themselves living a glorified life in the presence of God. Jesus makes this possible through his self-offering on the cross, which paid the price for human sin. When we repent of our sin and place our faith in Christ as our Savior we can be confident that our sin is forgiven and the gate to eternal life is open to us.
One of the great traditions of the Church is to sing hymns which capture the joy of knowing Jesus our Savior. We will close this evening’s service, as we often do, with that wonderful hymn “Joy to the World.” The hymn captures so well our feelings of joy, but note when you sing it how it also places such a great emphasis on God’s creation. The hymn was not originally written as a Christmas carol, but rather as a paraphrase of Psalm 98 with references to how Christ Jesus fulfills its promises. Listen to some of these verses from the Psalm:
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
Like the Psalm, the hymn certainly points ahead to the New Creation when we will live together in harmony (“And heaven and nature sing!”). But even before that day, we who know Christ Jesus, and make room in our hearts for him, start to experience the blessings of salvation. And so we sing: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…” His blessings do indeed flow, pushing away the curse of sin, whenever we place our faith in him and live according to his Word.
The Christmas story itself is a beautiful picture of God’s love and care for his creation. God doesn’t save us by whisking us away from the earth, but he saves us by coming down to us. As another great hymn of the church puts it: “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.” This is what we call the incarnation, and it is surely no small matter to note that God chose to save his people this way.
An emphasis on the new heavens and the new earth to come will no doubt help us to live in what we might then call an “incarnational” way. It is a way which trusts that God is with us here on earth. It is a way which commits us to sharing the Gospel of Christ with others. It is a way which commits us to embody the presence of Christ and live accordingly each day, giving thanks for the blessings which flow.
The details of the Christmas story give us a beautiful picture of how blessings flow in Christ’s Kingdom. A baby is born to loving and trusting parents. There’s no room in the inn but a place is found – a very earthy place in fact (a stable). Heaven rejoices at the birth of this child – as heaven always rejoices in a new creation of God – but especially in the case of this child who had been prophesied from of old. Angels appear to shepherds in the field, singing a great and glorious hymn of announcement. The shepherds are moved to go and see this thing for themselves, and then are moved to go and tell others. Blessings flow as one loving action leads to another.
The giving of the Christ-child by God to His creation has set forth waves of blessings that have reached every corner of the earth and have come to each of us in multiple ways. We who struggle with the frustration and decay of life can still rejoice because we know God is making all things new. Our Savior has been born—his work of salvation has begun and it will come to a culmination someday soon. We who know the Christ child live with the certain hope that we will see the earth restored and enjoy it as our Maker intended.
Jesus Christ came to earth to save it and to save us. He came to earth to sanctify it, and us, as His temples. He came to earth to make His blessings flow.
May God keep us in that faith until he comes again. In the name of Jesus, Amen.