December 16, 2012
Rev. John Watts
I always feel a little torn this time of the year as I prepare these messages. On the one hand, I like to keep things light and fun. Christmas is a celebration after all, and I don’t suppose you come to church hoping you’ll feel worse when you leave than you felt when you got here. But on the other hand, the scriptures that tell us about Christmas aren’t necessarily light or fun. It can get a little heavy, I know. Sometimes even a little dark. You missed it last week, but at 9 am we even got to talk about John the Baptist’s head on a platter. I’ll bet you didn’t know that’s part of the magic of Christmas!
So in terms of how serious we’re going to get today, using a scale of 1 to 10, with Frosty the Snowman being a 1 and with a severed head on a platter being a 10, expect that today might be about a 6. Maybe a 7. But I promise you it won’t be an 8. I just don’t want you to be expecting a 2.
It reminds me of the little boy whose dad was a pastor. The family was hurrying out of the house on the way to the Christmas Eve service when the little boy said, “Dad, do we get to enjoy Christmas tonight or are you going to try to explain it?”
I want to pose a serious question this morning: Why Christmas? In other words, Why Jesus? Why was it necessary for God to enter human history and be born a human baby? I know it’s possible to give a short, glib answer to this question. Something like, “Because God loves us.” And while that is true, it’s not the whole truth. So we’re going to need to do a little digging today to uncover the fuller answer to that deceptively simple question, Why Christmas?
We begin onMt.Sinai. Moses is leading his people from slavery inEgyptto freedom in the Promised Land. Mt.Sinaiis on the way. Moses meets God on this mountain, receives from God stone tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments, and God enters into a covenant withIsrael.
It doesn’t get off to a very good start. Moses comes down from the mountain to discover his people worshiping a golden calf. Moses is furious. He breaks the tablets. God must have been furious, too. But God gives them another chance. Moses goes back up the mountain, he comes down with a fresh set of stone tablets, and the covenant is renewed.
The word “covenant” is important. A covenant is a sacred agreement that binds two parties. It’s like a contract, but it’s much deeper. Marriage is a good example. In legal terms, marriage is a contract. There are legally acceptable ways a contract can be broken, including the contract of marriage. But marriage, of course, is so much more than just a contract. It is also a covenant. That’s why the end of a marriage is such a big deal. Because a covenant once made is not meant to be broken.
This concept of covenant is not limited to the Bible. It is found in all cultures, among all peoples. And it is always taken very seriously. For example, the Indian nations ofNorth Americadidn’t even have a word for the breaking of a covenant. It was unthinkable that that would ever happen. And so when the white men broke all those covenants, the Indians to this day don’t have a word for what was done to them.
A covenant is forever. A covenant is not suited to our convenience. You can count on a covenant. You shouldn’t have to worry when you get up in the morning whether the other person is going to keep the covenant. Or whether you’re going to keep your end. It’s a given. You make your plans on the assumption that the covenant stands. Everything else may change, but the covenant remains.
That’s true on a human level. When human beings enter into a covenant — not just a contract, but a covenant — it is binding. It is forever. And all the more so when God is one of the parties. God said, “I love you. No matter what. You can count on that.” God’s people said, “We love you. We will obey your commandments. We will be your covenant people. You can count on that.”
That should have been the end of it. Of course, it wasn’t. God was faithful to the covenant. God’s people were not. All the gory details are spelled out in the Old Testament (which, by the way, means “Old Covenant”). It’s a long and complicated story. Kind of like the long and complicated story of a rocky marriage. Betrayals and reconciliations. Second chances. Third, fourth, fifth, and so on. But finally it got to the point that nothing more could be done. We had done the unthinkable. We had broken the covenant. And so we find that strange verse in Jeremiah 3 where God givesIsraela bill of divorce and sends her away (3:8). It is over.
Except, with God, it’s never really over. Which brings us at last to this morning’s text. The prophet Jeremiah announces God’s amazing plan for the future.
Behold the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house ofIsraelafter those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
To understand this new covenant you have to understand it’s not just a matter of God forgivingIsraeland taking her back. It’s not that simple when there’s a covenant involved and that covenant has been broken. You don’t just patch up a broken covenant. It’s broken. All the kings horses and all the kings men can’t put it together again. Even God can’t repair a broken covenant once it’s been broken. It’s that serious. The only hope is a new covenant. And that’s exactly what God announces through his prophet Jeremiah. “Behold, the days are coming when I will make a new covenant withIsraeland withJudah.” It’s not giving the old a new try. It’s a new covenant.
Helen and I have friends inPortlandwho have a very happy marriage. It’s the second marriage for each of them. Their first marriage was to each other. When they both realized that their divorce had been a mistake, they couldn’t go back in time and bring back to life their old marriage covenant. It was dead. It was buried. It was history. They needed to enter into a brand new covenant. And they will tell you how glad they are that they did!
The new covenant God announces in Jeremiah is kind of like that. It’s not the old covenant renewed. It’s a new covenant. But it’s more than that. Our friends’ new covenant was new in the sense that it was new for them. There had been many marriage covenants before theirs, including one of their own! The institution of marriage didn’t begin again the day they got married again. But when God announces a new covenant, it’s not just a new thing that’s the latest in a series of old things. It’s something brand new that has never been seen before.
If you do what Dave Ramsey says never to do and buy a new car, it really isn’t something new. Millions of cars have been manufactured and sold and driven before you got yours. It’s only new in the sense that it’s the latest in that long series dating back to the Model T. If you were to buy new in the sense that Jeremiah uses the word “new”, you would be buying a new mode of transportation that was unheard of before you bought yours.
God’s new covenant is new like that! And here’s why it had to be something new, never seen before. Who had broken the covenant with God? You can’t name a single name. You could come up with a long series of names from the Bible, but the list would have to be much longer than that. Because really the whole human race had broken the covenant with God. Your name would be on that list and so would mine. But how can the whole human race enter into a new covenant? They can’t. That’s the problem God solves with Christmas. God enters the human race, God becomes a human being, without ceasing to be God. God becomes one of us in that manger inBethlehem. God becomes our covenant representative. Jesus who knew no sin paid the penalty for our sin on the cross. Jesus took our place. Jesus assumed the role of the covenant breaker. That’s what it took for God to enter into a new covenant with us. That’s how much God loves us, that God figures out such a surprising and ingenious way to do it and went to such lengths to get it done. Why Christmas? Because God loves us. But I hope you’re beginning to see that true as this is, the whole story of how this truth played itself has a little more to it. That is, if we want to explain Christmas and not just enjoy it.
One more thing by way of explanation, and then we’ll close with one of my favorite Christmas stories. I just want you to notice the terms of this new covenant, made possible by the birth of Jesus. It’s right there in our lesson from Jeremiah: “I will put my law within
them . . . I will write it upon their hearts . . . I will be their God . . . I will forgive their iniquity . . . I will remember their sin no more.” Did you catch that? I will, I will, I will, I will, I will. It’s all about what God promises to do. It’s not about what we are expected to do. It’s a covenant of grace. It’s not a covenant of works. We can’t do a thing to make this new covenant. God did it for us. We can’t do a thing to deserve our new covenant relationship with God. All we can do is say “thank you”. And the way we say thank you this Christmas is by inviting Jesus into our hearts, to do for us what we cannot possibly do for ourselves.
Now the story. It’s about a man whose father had told him the same Christmas story every year while he was growing up. The story went like this.
A little boy was so poor, he only had one toy. It was a matchbox car. It was all broken up — dented roof, two missing wheels, peeling paint. But it was his only toy, so it was very precious to him.
He went to church on Christmas Eve. He knew the custom was to bring money to the manger to present to the baby Jesus. Well, he had no money. All he had was his matchbox car. And he wanted to give it to Jesus. So as the people were arriving for worship and bringing their gifts forward, he walked right up and gave Jesus his broken up matchbox car.
An usher saw the little car in front of the manger. It didn’t belong there. It was his job to keep things tidy. So he kicked it away and it tumbled into a corner. The boy saw it there, on its roof, with its two wheels spinning, just like a real wreck.
Everyone stood to sing the processional hymn, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The priests marched up the aisle. There was a crucifer carrying the cross and acolytes carrying the candles. They got to the altar and they froze. There was a hush in the church. The boy strained to look and what was going on. It was the baby Jesus. He had come to life. He was crawling across the floor to the matchbox car. He picked it up and carried it back to his manger. Then he became plastic again, with one change. He now had a smile on his face as he held that little car.
That’s the story this man remembered, the story his father had told him every Christmas for as far back as he could remember. As he grew up he decided the moral of the story was that he shouldn’t be so greedy about getting nice presents. He should remember that little boy with the broken toy.
But as this man grew up, his thinking about this story changed. He discovered that his dad was not exactly a model human being. His dad went to church every Sunday, but his behavior during the week was not the best. His dad was a hypocrite. That silly story he told was just his attempt to act like he was a Christian when it was so obvious he wasn’t.
As the years passed though, the story took on a new and a deeper meaning. This man realized he was a lot like his dad. He was far from perfect. He kept confessing the same sins over and over. In many ways, he felt like a failure. That’s when he remembered that old matchbox car story. And he realized for the first time why his dad so loved to tell it. It wasn’t a moral lesson teaching his son to be less greedy. It wasn’t told by a hypocrite who was trying to get his son to think he was a saint. He was telling the story for himself.
My father was that broken car with the two wheels missing. He considered his life a failure. He longed to be forgiven. He had known rejection. That’s why he kept going to church. Because he knew that when he offered himself to God, when he offered himself to the baby Jesus in that manger, he would never, never be refused. (story told by Brian Ragen)
Why Christmas? Because God loves you so much that God came into our world and will come into your heart, to accept you, broken as you are, to never, never reject you, and to change you from the inside out. God does it all. All that’s left for you to do is to say thank you, to walk up to the manger, and to invite the Lord Jesus in.
It’s so simple, God. And yet the depth of its meaning we will never fathom. Your new covenant. Your decision not to give up on your sinful, wayward people, but to take on our flesh in thatBethlehemmanger. Break through whatever is keeping us resistant still to your love. May we accept your embrace. Amen.