Faded Glory: Why Christ Had to Come
Psalm 8 & Hebrews 2:5-9On Christmas Eve, 1998, George Will wrote a column called “The Happiest Holiday.” It began this way:
A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: “Important if true.” On Christmas Eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means.
There are several reasons why forgetting, actual or make-believe, is not altogether unfortunate. First, some people really have forgotten, or never knew, or never cared about Christmas’s religious dimension but they can still enjoy, and benefit from, the seasonal upsurge of nonsectarian goodwill. Second, many Americans are of faiths that assert Christianity is mistaken about what occurred in Palestine 1,998 years ago, and in the 33 or so years thereafter.
This is a case where a mainstream writer gets closer to the truth than many theologians do. I was thinking about what he wrote when I received an e-mail last night from Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. He wrote about this and that, and then he said,
What are you preaching these days? I’ve decided to do a defense of Jesus this Christmas—just finished preparing a message on the Da Vinci Code that is grabbing so much attention. An incredibly sly attack against Christianity.
That little phrase stuck in my mind—"a defense of Jesus this Christmas.” Have we finally reached the place where Jesus needs defending at Christmastime? Evidently the answer is yes, and I’m sure Dr. Lutzer will do a stellar job. Gene Edward Veith, writing in the current issue of World magazine (December 6, 2003), chronicles the rising tide of doctrinal illiteracy among born again Christians. He quotes a Barna poll of self-identified “born again Christians” that contains disturbing news:
26% believe all religions are basically equal.
50% believe that good works will get you to heaven.
35% do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
45% do not believe that Satan exists.
33% accept same-sex marriage.
38% say it is okay to live together before marriage.
Veith adds this comment: “This is strong evidence of how American Christianity is conforming to the dominant secular culture. It is all right to be religious, according to the dictates of postmodernism, as long as your faith exists just in your head. If you start claiming that your beliefs are more than just a private mental state that makes you feel good, asserting instead that what you believe is objectively real and valid for everybody, then you are an intolerant menace to society.”
Christmas and the Christian Worldview
I think the British skeptic had a good point when he said we should write over the door of every church: “Important if true.” Those three little words hang in the air as we approach Christmas this year. But what if the things we believe are not true? How can we be sure? Certainly there are doubts on every hand. Maybe Jesus does need defending in 2003. Or perhaps we need to remind ourselves of what we really believe. Last month I was invited to speak to a group of ministers at a breakfast meeting in Carol Stream. When I arrived, I discovered that the only person I knew was Pastor Lou Diaz of Wheaton Evangelical Free Church. I’ve known Lou for many years but hadn’t seen him in a while so we chatted before my talk. He told me that he was thinking about doing a series of sermons called “Christmas and the Christian Worldview.” I was immediately struck by what he said because we tend to sentimentalize Christmas when we ought to see the birth of Christ as the single most stupendous event in world history. If you think about it, all the elements of a Christian worldview are in the Christmas story. Because the coming of Christ changed history—literally, from B.C. to A.D.—we aren’t straining things to say, “Everything is different now that Christ has come to the world.” This isn’t a sentimental thought—like “The Little Drummer Boy” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The coming of Christ establishes the truth of all that we believe. Seen in its proper context, Christ’s birth speaks with incredible relevance to 21st-century people who write off Christmas as nothing more than eggnog and candy canes.
I hope that in the next four weeks we can lay a foundation for seeing Christmas as the basis for all that we believe. Let’s begin with the observation that the Bible makes some rather astounding claims relating to Christmas:
· An angel visited a virgin who became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
· The baby in her womb was the Son of God from heaven.
· God caused a heathen emperor to call for a taxation that sent Mary and Joseph back to Bethlehem at the very moment Jesus was born.
· Prophets foretold both the virgin birth, and his birth in Bethlehem hundreds of years before it happened.
· A star led the Magi from the East directly to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was.
· Angels spoke to shepherds.
· An angel spoke to Joseph on three separate occasions.
· An angel spoke to the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod.
· Even the slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem fulfilled ancient prophecy.
· When aged Simeon held baby Jesus in his arms, he prophesied of his death on the cross.
Then there are the names he is given:
· Wonderful Counselor
· Mighty God
· Everlasting Father
· Prince of Peace
· Immanuel—God with us
· Son of the Most High
· Christ the Lord
Then there are the things he will accomplish:
· He will save his people from their sins.
· He will reign from David’s throne in Jerusalem.
· His kingdom will never end.
Things We Hardly Think About
I submit to you that these are absolutely stupendous claims if you think about them, which we rarely do. We would rather sing Handel’s Messiah than stop to think about what it really means. We sing these words by Charles Wesley but we don’t stop to consider their meaning:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King!
Or this verse from another familiar carol:
True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created.
You don’t hear many sermons about that last phrase—"begotten, not created"—and I suppose many of us hardly know what it means—yet it refers to one of the most crucial doctrinal controversies in the history of the Christian church.
“Important if true.” Psalm 8:4-6 brings us face to face with the reality of Christmas with these stirring words: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.” Here we see the glory and tragedy of the human race. We are crowned with glory and honor. We were created to rule over the earth. That is our glory. We were made in the image of God. Once every four years the greatest athletes in the world meet in the Olympic Games. They run, they jump, they swim, they hurdle, they wrestle, they throw, they dive, they lift. And at the end of the day, whoever can do it fastest, farthest, quickest, highest, longest wins the gold medal. And for that day at least, they are the best in the world. That’s our version of glory and honor. But the glory soon fades. Records are made to be broken, and sooner or later, every record is broken. And all our heroes end up with feet of clay.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Robert Frost wrote about this in one of his most famous poems:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Did you catch the biblical allusion? “So Eden sank to grief.” In just five words he described what happened to the human race when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Sin entered. Death became our destiny. Sadness invaded the human DNA. Pain moved next door.
We were made for greatness. That’s what the psalmist means. We were made a little lower than the angels. Not angels, really, but almost angels. That’s us. That’s you and me—a little lower than the angels. But the angels fell, and so did we. The evidence is all around us—and we see it every day. Sometimes we see it in a very personal way. Several weeks ago I spoke at one of the most difficult funerals I have ever attended. It was the funeral for five-year-old Michael Padin who was beaten to death. The Chicago media covered the story extensively. The mother and her boyfriend were both charged with first-degree murder. Michael is related to Linda and Rebecca DeCarlo who both attend Calvary. When Linda asked me to do the funeral, she told me that Michael had attended Calvary several times. Even though he was only five years old, he loved to tell people that he loved Jesus. The room where we had the service was so packed that people were lined up three and four deep along the back and the sides. The coffin was open during the service. He was a beautiful little boy whose life ended much too soon. There were many tears, and anger too, all of it mixed with a kind of sorrowing faith in God whose ways are past understanding. One man (a personal friend) hugged me and said, “He didn’t deserve this.” No, he didn’t. What a terrible world we live in where things like this can happen. When I left the graveside, friends and family members were singing a song in Spanish. A song of praise and worship, I think. The whole thing was so sad that I do not have words to describe it. All I can say is, what do people do who don’t know the Lord? It’s hard enough for us and we believe in life everlasting. What do you do when you don’t know Jesus?
That’s what the poet meant when he said, “So Eden sank in grief.” Nothing gold can stay. We were made for greatness—for something much better than what we see in this sin-cursed world. But having been made a little lower than the angels, it sometimes seems that we have sunk so low that we are more like the demons than the angels. Even our righteousness has become like filthy rags in the presence of God.
Why Would God Visit Us?
But that is not the end of the story. God made us for greatness and we made a total mess of things. We blew our one shot at immortality—and now the graveyards are filling up. But God is not finished with us yet. Go back to Psalm 8 for the rest of the story: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (v. 4). As if to say, why bother with people like us? We ruined Eden, you gave us another chance, and we fouled up so badly that you sent a flood to wipe out the human race except for one family. Why not just hit the delete button on the human race? Why not just admit that this was an experiment that didn’t work out? No one could blame God if he decided to get rid of us all and start over again.
David’s question comes to the very heart of Christmas—What is man that God should pay attention to us? What is man that God should care about us after we’ve failed so miserably? Why should God care about us at all? The New King James Version renders verse 4 this way: “What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” Why would God care enough to visit people like us? It is right at this point that we see the glory and wonder and mystery of the gospel. When the writer of Hebrews was trying to impress on his readers the greatness of our salvation, he actually quoted these verses from Psalm 8—and he applied them to Jesus!
What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:6-9).
There’s a lot here that we should think about. Let’s focus on three statements:
1) Jesus had to become like us in his nature. That’s the Incarnation. That’s Bethlehem. That’s Christmas. He came into this world as a tiny baby, born in a stable, in an obscure village, born in poverty, unwanted by the world. He was just another face in the crowd. No one knew that he was coming. No one cared that he had arrived. Note what I said—Jesus “had” to do this. In order to truly “visit” us, he had to become like us.
2) Jesus tasted death because that is our common destiny. Earlier this week I was up late and happened to catch a few minutes of a Western movie starring a young Paul Newman. When I saw it, I didn’t know the name of it because all I saw was the last few minutes. Later someone told me the name of the movie was “Hombre.” In the climactic scene, the last bad guy says to Paul Newman, “How’s it gonna feel to go to hell?” To which Newman replies, “We’re all gonna die. It’s just a question of when.” Then Newman shoots the bad guy, and the bad guy shoots Newman. They both end up death—proving Newman’s point. Life is short. It is appointed unto man once to die. Jesus could not have truly “visited” us if he had held himself back from “the last enemy” that confronts us—death. In order to be fully human, he had to taste death. Jesus suffered and died because that was the only way he could save us. Only by dying could he give us life.
3) Jesus came to restore all that we had lost in Eden. The Bible calls Jesus “the last Adam.” One of the verses of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” calls him the “Second Adam from above.” He came to reverse the curse that we brought upon ourselves. Now in heaven he is crowned with glory and honor. One day all those who believe in Jesus will share that glory with him.
But that day has not yet come. That’s why the writer said, “At present we do not see everything subject to him” (Hebrews 2:8). Better days are coming but they aren’t here yet. Today we still weep for little children who die too soon, we wonder about all the suffering and pain and heartache and sickness and death that we see all around us. G. K. Chesterton said, “Whatever else is or is not true, this one thing is certain—man is not what he was meant to be.”
It is precisely at this point that Christmas speaks so clearly to us. We were made for glory, but our glory faded a long time ago. First we disobeyed, then we died on the inside, then we started dying on the outside, then we turned to our own devices, then we said, “God, we don’t need you at all. Leave us alone.” And we wonder why the world is the way it is. Look in the mirror. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
And God said, “I will not leave you alone. I will not let you destroy all yourself, each other, and the world I have made. I love you too much to let you alone.” So he sent prophets. We killed them. He wrote letters. We ignored them. He told us how to live—and we said, “Who are you to tell us what to do?” We mocked the God who made us, we broke his laws, we said we didn’t need him, and we made up our own gods that we liked much better because they looked so much like us.
Oh, we made a mess of things. God had every reason to kill us all. But he didn’t. He said, “I love you too much to let you go.” And after we had trashed everything, God said, “I’m coming down there so you’ll know once and for all how much I love you.” We didn’t pay any attention; it didn’t even make sense to us. How could God visit us? But he did—and he came to the world in a very strange way. He entered a virgin’s womb and came out as a baby, born in Bethlehem, a baby named Jesus, born to save us from our sins.
So he came as a baby, and when he grew up, we killed him. Murdered him. Hung him on a cross. That’s the thanks we gave to God for visiting us. But we were wrong about everything. After we killed him, he came back from the dead—proving that he was right all along and we were really wrong—dead wrong about everything—and still God loved us and came from heaven to earth on the greatest rescue mission in history.
He came because we blew it so badly.
He came and we killed him.
He died and became our Savior.
No one but God could have done something like that. What a story! What a Christ! C.S. Lewis said, “The son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” God has done it all. That’s the good news of Christmas: God has done it all. The only thing left to you and me is to believe. God wrapped up his Son in swaddling clothes and said to the whole world, “This is my Christmas gift to you.”
Do you believe it? Will you receive it? George Will called Christmas “the happiest holiday,” and he’s right. But it will only be truly happy for those who truly believe in Jesus. I close with those three words I mentioned earlier: “Important if true.” I cannot prove to you that what I have said is true. You will have to decide that for yourself. But I can say without any reservation that I have staked my life on the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the incomparable Son of God.
Christmas matters because truth matters. And the heart of the truth is that God did not leave us alone, but in our misery he came to visit us one dark night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
Christmas is all about who we are, and who God is, and how far God will go for us.
“Important if true.” At Christmas we learn how much God loves us, and there’s nothing more important than that. Amen.
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Topics in this messageGod | Sin | Work | War | Marriage & Family | Love | Ruth | Bible | Faith | Heaven & Hell | Family | Children | Death and Dying | Hope | Spiritual Leadership | Grace | Gospel | Joy | Anger | Doubt | Job | Paul | Law | Conflict and Confrontation | Salvation | Magi (Wise Men) | Worship | Suffering/Trials | Bible Characters | Satan/Demons | Holy Spirit | Marriage | Peace | James | Preaching | David | Sex | Mary | Culture | Angels | Singing | Christmas | Herod | Birth of Christ |Current sermon series:
Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned at Christmas
» SEE SERMONS IN THIS SERIES
Faded Glory: Why Christ Had to Come Psalm 8 & Hebrews 2:5-9
No Crib for a Bed: The God of Every Circumstance Galatians 4:4
A Savior is Born Luke 2:11» Index for this sermon series