"An Offer Too Good to Refuse"
Christmas Eve Dec.24/06 Luke 2:1-20; Heb 1:1-4
Christmas is about a special MESSAGE. Now messages are something we're used to dealing with in our culture - the information super-highway is here to stay. As people travel further and families find their offspring increasingly mobile, we rely on our communication systems to keep 'in touch'. This year especially, our own family will be collapsing the globe electronically: talking by VOIP with our son in Ottawa, by cell phone with our daughter in Korea who's visiting Thailand over the holidays, reading her blog and downloading her latest photos, chatting by MSN and webcam to our daughter in Australia, emailing the youngest daughter in Ottawa and checking the airline website to know when to pick her up at the airport...WHEN did sending and receiving messages get so complex? Not to mention the mushrooming of channels of TV, radio, video, and more traditional means of communicating that actually use paper: mail, flyers, newspapers - the list goes on.
But not all messages are meaningful; those that really matter are comparatively few. Cruising the info highway requires an ability to separate the useful messages from the 'spam'. Our brains are constantly filtering the important from the useless or even annoying - whether checking the phone messages on the machine, using call display to decide whether we really want to pick up, designing custom filters to halt the flood of unwanted emails, sorting through the bag of flyers that was hung on the doorknob, half-listening to the radio while sitting in the waiting room, or choosing to skip a commercial on TV: we become skilled, even ruthless, at weeding out unwanted signals.
Yet something within us longs to get 'good news'. As soon as we get in the door, we check the phone messages. When we turn on the computer, we check our emails first even though the work efficiency experts say not to. As if, secretly inside, we're convinced that some day our 'prince' will come and send that one magical message that will bring total fulfilment and completion to our mundane life!
But, back in reality, most messages seem to come for the benefit of the sender, not us. From fraudulent spam emails offering millions of dollars at a secret account in Nigeria, to lottery ads pretending we could afford the property taxes if we ever actually won that dream home, the signals from beyond are carefully crafted to manipulate us. These sly slogans would have us believe it's really to OUR advantage to fork over our hard-earned resources. Take, for example, a Toyota ad in one of the local papers (being a Toyota driver myself, albeit an '88 model): big bold red print smack dab in the middle of the page, "'Tis the Season to Get What You Really Want!" Now there's a twist on the Reason for the Season! Pictured are half a dozen new cars; let's pick the one selling for just under $20,000 for easy figuring. Finance is offered in eye-catching bold red at 3.9% for 3 years. Sounds pretty good. But pull out your magnifying glass and read the fine print. At monthly payments of $587, that comes to $1219 more than the retail price. That calculates to more than 6% of $20,000. How did 3.9 magically jump to more than 6? So - the manufacturer gets the wholesale price, the dealer gets the markup, the finance company gets their hefty cut, and you get your wheels. That is, IF (more fine print) you pay your freight and PDE (another $1000), licence, registration, insurance, taxes on top of all the rest. Bottom line - watch for the fine print! You're about to be manipulated.
The Christmas story in Luke 2 begins with a very ordinary human message, a dictator's decree: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." Emperors don't issue edicts for no reason; a census isn't just to keep bean-counters happy. No, a census paves the way for military recruitment (from which Jews were exempt) and taxes (from which they were certainly not exempt). This is a message that would TAKE something from people. Just the registration process itself spelled great inconvenience and expense for folks (especially when you're upper-lower class and your young fiancee is nine months pregnant). Yet this human message demanded a response; soldiers would make sure of that. The word sparked action. "So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David..." (Lk 2:4) And the young family's first child was born in a crowded town, in a backyard barn, because there was no room in the inn. A consequence that would have caused Caesar in his ritzy palace no lost sleep at all had he known about it before issuing his far-flung decree. As far as he was concerned, "'Twas the season to get what HE really wanted."
The message of Christmas is quite different from usual offers. God's invitation is truly Good News, not to manipulate us but to benefit and save us - yet it also demands a response.
The nativity is a communication from on high - conveyed in a surprising format: God incarnate wrapped in rags. John's gospel states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us." (Jn 1:1,14) God's speech or message to His creatures became a human - Jesus. The Son communicated or revealed the invisible Father: John writes, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (Joh 1:18) The author of the letter to the Hebrews says, "in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son..." (Heb 1:1-2) God's trying to get some message across to us through Jesus.
So just what is this offer that's 'too good to refuse'? God's offer, unlike Toyota's, doesn't have four wheels but four parts. First, LIGHT. Hebrews (1:3) says "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." Jesus shows us God's beauty, His love and healing strength, His mercy, purity, righteousness, and justice; these qualities shine through Jesus' days on earth. John (1:5,9) says, "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood ...The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world." In Luke's account, the angel appeared when the shepherds were surrounded by night; the glory of the Lord shone around them.
What darkness is threatening you? What area of your life is needing God's light? Darkness comes in many forms - health troubles, financial scarcity, relationships falling apart - in all these areas, chaos or darkness may threaten to creep in. Jesus brings healing, reconciliation, and freedom when we walk with Him as Guide. He brings light.
Second, God's message in Jesus means LIFE. John writes, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life..." (Joh 1:3f) Hebrews 1(2f) notes the Father "made the universe" through Christ who is "sustaining all things by his powerful word". The Greek means to bear up, carry, or support; Jesus is your 'life support system', whether you're aware of it or not. He gives life meaning and purpose; we're more than just a chance combination of molecules, more than merely a compilation of animal instincts and appetites. The Creator has endowed us with minds, consciences, and spirits capable of discerning God's will, communing with Him in prayer, loving and obeying Him. He directs us to find our goal or purpose not just in glorifying Him but loving one another. Jesus brings life.
Third part of God's special offer: Christ brings GRACE into the world. A fundamental motivator in human experience is fear of shame or guilt; longing to be justified and declared fault-free despite our innate human tendency to sin.
Why did the angel bring the great news to the shepherds, of all people? Well, shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem looked after the sheep that would be offered as sacrificial offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. The angel was introducing them to the Lamb of God who "takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). Elsewhere the New Testament describes Jesus' glory as 'full of grace and truth'; "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (Joh 1:17) He's the one who makes forgiveness possible! Hebrews 1(3) says Jesus "provided purification for sins". He sponged up our mess and took it away, at the cost of His own life. Grace is what makes the gospel wonderfully "good news", as the angel said: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today...a Saviour has been born to you..." His very name, Jesus, means that God SAVES us from our sins (Mt 1:21). He took the bloody penalty box for our trespasses.
The fourth aspect of God's offer is TRUTH. Jesus came gloriously 'full of grace and truth', reality, He is the final fact of the matter. Hebrews 1 says God appointed Him "heir of all things...[Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." He's at the key position of ultimate power and control in the universe. Life isn't about me, it's about HIM - life is more than just a consumer craze to fill our appetites, getting what WE really want. He is the One with whom we finally have to do, whom God has appointed to be judge of the living and the dead (John 5:22; Acts 10:42).
Why was Jesus born at Bethlehem? It was the town of David, the royal or kingly line. It was Biblical practice to 'anoint' kings to designate their leadership was official, from God. 'Christ' means Messiah, Anointed One - head honcho. So the angel said to the shepherds, "Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ [lit.the Anointed One] the Lord." (Lu 2:11) He's the 'Big Kahuna', the Captain of the cosmic team, the Boss or Master. Jesus Christ is the One in relation to whom all our significance (and the weight or importance of our life) will be determined.
Because Jesus represents the Truth of the matter, Paul could remind the church at Corinth: "...We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." No small babe in the manger then! Paul advised, "So we make it our goal to please him..." (2Co 5:9-10) The season's not about getting what we really want, but pleasing the Lord. Have we really truly yielded to Him? Are we loving God as sacrificially and persistently as the Wise Men? Are we spreading the word like the lowly shepherds who couldn't stop broadcasting the wonderful developments?
Many messages in life can be ignored. If it's spam, we delete it without a second thought. If it's junk mail, we recycle it. If it's commercials, we ignore them - or seize the opportunity to see what's on the other channel.
But we'd better pause before we hit the Delete button on the message of Christmas, God's living Word - Jesus. Caesar's decree was a man-based one, aiming to control and manipulate, squeezing more money and manpower from the serfs. But Joseph and the thousands of other Jews didn't dare ignore the decree: each went to their own home town of family lineage to be registered. How much more we need to respond to God's message! We need to say to one another like the shepherds, "Let's go" - and they hurried to see what God was doing.
Don't be fooled - although it's just a verbal message, and no Roman army is going to enforce it, God's invitation or offer is vital. Faith is one of those intangible things to which a verbal offer is aptly suited. You have a choice to either believe it or ignore it. If you believe the message about Jesus, the Bible promises He will give you the right to become a child of God, born supernaturally (Jn 1:12). The apostle Peter declared, "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Ac 10:43) Or in the words of the heavenly host the shepherds heard, "on earth peace to men on whom [God's] favour rests" (Lk 2:14) - in other words, those with whom God is pleased on account of their accepting the message as true and putting their trust in this surprising Saviour.
But if you push the Delete button - if you class God's Word as 'spam' and walk away rejecting His truth - you're in great danger. The Bible has some very stern warnings: "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks." ..."If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left..."..."How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot...who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" And, "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb 12:25; 10:26,29,31)
I'll wrap up with this poignant contrast between Jesus' first and second coming. "The Lord Jesus Christ whom we exalt at Christmas is not just a baby in a manger. He is not a character in a children's story. He is far more.
Do you get the message? (pause) Let's pray.