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The Glory of Christmas
By Charles Swindoll
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1999 J. Countryman, a Division of Thomas Nelson Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Birth of Jesus Christ
Christmas comes each year to draw people in from the cold.
Like tiny frightened sparrows, shivering in the winter cold, many live their lives on the barren branches of heartbreak, disappointment, and loneliness, lost in thoughts of shame, self-pity, guilt, or failure. One blustery day follows another, and the only company they keep is with fellow-strugglers who land on the same branches, confused and unprotected.
We try so hard to attract them into the warmth. Week after week church bells ring. Choirs sing. Preachers preach. Lighted churches send out their beacon. But nothing seems to bring in those who need warmth the most.
Then, as the year draws to a close, Christmas offers its wonderful message. Emmanuel. God with us. He who resided in Heaven, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, willingly descended into our world. He breathed our air, felt our pain, knew our sorrows, and died for our sins. He didn't come to frighten us, but to show us the way to warmth and safety.
THERE IS ONE WORD THAT DESCRIBES THE NIGHT HE CAME–ORDINARY.
The sky was ordinary. An occasional gust stirred the leaves and chilled the air. The stars were diamonds sparkling on black velvet. Fleets of clouds floated in front of the moon.
It was a beautiful night–a night worth peeking out your bedroom window to admire–but not really an unusual one. No reason to expect a surprise. Nothing to keep a person awake. An ordinary night with an ordinary sky.
The sheep were ordinary. Some fat. Some scrawny. Some with barrel bellies. Some with twig legs. Common animals. No fleece made of gold. No history makers. No blue-ribbon winners. They were simply sheep–lumpy, sleeping silhouettes on a hillside.
And the shepherds. Peasants they were. Probably wearing all the clothes they owned. Smelling like sheep and looking just as woolly. They were conscientious, willing to spend the night with their flocks. But you won't find their staffs in a museum nor their writings in a library. No one asked their opinion on social justice or the application of the Torah. They were nameless and simple.
An ordinary night with ordinary sheep and ordinary shepherds. And were it not for a God who loves to hook an "extra" on the front of the ordinary, the night would have gone unnoticed. The sheep would have been forgotten, and the shepherds would have slept the night away.
But God dances amidst the common. And that night he did a waltz.
The black sky exploded with brightness. Trees that had been shadows jumped into clarity. Sheep that had been silent became a chorus of curiosity. One minute the shepherd was dead asleep, the next he was rubbing his eyes and staring into the face of an alien.
The night was ordinary no more.
The angel came in the night because that is when lights are best seen and that is when they are most needed. God comes into the common for the same reason.
HIS MOST POWERFUL TOOLS ARE THE SIMPLEST.
WHEN GOD WANTED TO DEFEAT SIN, his ultimate weapon was the sacrifice of his own Son. On Christmas Day two thousand years ago, the birth of a tiny baby in an obscure village in the Middle East was God's supreme triumph of good over evil.
Untethered by time, [God] sees us all. From the backwoods of Virginia to the business district of London; from the Vikings to the astronauts, from the cave-dwellers to the kings, from the hut-builders to the finger-pointers to the rock-stackers, he sees us. Vagabonds and ragamuffins all, he saw us before we were born.
And he loves what he sees. Flooded by emotion. Overcome by pride, the Starmaker turns to us, one by one, and says, "You are my child. I love you dearly. I'm aware that someday you'll turn from me and walk away. But I want you to know, I've already provided a way back."
And to prove it, he did something extraordinary.
Stepping from the throne, he removed his robe of light and wrapped himself in skin: pigmented, human skin. The light of the universe entered a dark, wet womb. He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow's hay.
Mary didn't know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.
Joseph didn't know whether to call him Junior or Father. But in the end called him Jesus, since that's what the angel had said and since he didn't have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.
... Don't you think ... their heads tilted and their minds wondered, "What in the world are you doing, God?" Or, better phrased, "God, what are you doing in the world?"
"Can anything make me stop loving you?" God asks. "Watch me speak your language, sleep on your earth, and feel your hurts. Behold the maker of sight and sound as he sneezes, coughs, and blows his nose. You wonder if I understand how you feel? Look into the dancing eyes of the kid in Nazareth; that's God walking to school. Ponder the toddler at Mary's table; that's God spilling his milk.
"You wonder how long my love will last? Find your answer on a splintered cross, on a craggy hill. That's me you see up there, your maker, your God, nail-stabbed and bleeding. Covered in spit and sin-soaked.
"THAT'S YOUR SIN I'M FEELING. THAT'S YOUR DEATH I'M DYING. THAT'S YOUR RESURRECTION I'M LIVING. THAT'S HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU."
The Gift of Salvation
WHAT A GOD!
Ponder the achievement of God. He doesn't condone our sin, nor does he compromise his standard. He doesn't ignore our rebellion, nor does he relax his demands. Rather than dismiss our sin, he assumes our sin and, incredibly, sentences himself. God's holiness is honored. Our sin is punished ... and we are redeemed. God does what we cannot do so we can be what we dare not dream: perfect before God.
The conclusion is unavoidable: self-salvation simply does not work. Man has no way to save himself.
But Paul announces that God has a way. Where man fails God excels. Salvation comes from heaven downward, not earth upward. "A new day from heaven will dawn upon us" (Luke 1:78). "Every good action and every perfect gift is from God" (James 1:17).
Please note: Salvation is God-given, God-driven, God-empowered, and God-originated. The gift is not from man to God. It is from God to man.
Grace is created by God and given to man.... On the basis of this point alone, Christianity is set apart from any other religion in the world.... Every other approach to God is a bartering system; if I do this, God will do that. I'm either saved by works (what I do), emotions (what I experience), or knowledge (what I know).
By contrast, Christianity has no whiff of negotiation at all. Man is not the negotiator; indeed, man has no grounds from which to negotiate.
Imagine coming to a friend's house who has invited you over to enjoy a meal. You finish the delicious meal and then listen to some fine music and visit for a while. Finally, you stand up and get your coat as you prepare to leave. But before you leave you reach into your pocket and say, "Now, how much do I owe you?" What an insult! You don't do that with someone who has graciously given you a meal. Isn't it strange, though, how this world is running over with people who think there's something they must do to pay God back? Somehow they are hoping God will smile on them if they work real hard and earn his acceptance; but that's an acceptance on the basis of works. That's not the way it is with grace.
And now that Christ has come and died and thereby satisfied the Father's demands on sin, all we need to do is claim his grace by accepting the free gift of eternal life. Period.
Forgiveness of Sins
The first step to joy is a plea for help, an acknowledgment of moral destitution, an admission of inward paucity. Those who taste God's presence have declared spiritual bankruptcy and are aware of their spiritual crisis. Their cupboards are bare. Their pockets are empty. Their options are gone. They have long since stopped demanding justice; they are pleading for mercy.
They don't brag; they beg.
They ask God to do for them what they can't do without him. They have seen how holy God is and how sinful they are and have agreed with Jesus' statement, "Salvation is impossible."
Oh, the irony of God's delight–born in the parched soil of destitution rather than the fertile ground of achievement.
It's a different path, a path we're not accustomed to taking. We don't often declare our impotence. Admission of failure is not usually admission into joy. Complete confession is not commonly followed by total pardon. But then again, God has never been governed by what is common.
FOR MOST OF US, the word repentance conjures up images of medieval monks in sackcloth or Old Testament prophets rending their garments in anguish. But repentance is much more than self-flagellation, more than regret, more than deep sorrow for past sins. The biblical word for repentance is metanoia in the Greek. Meta means "change" and noia means "mind," so literally it means "a change of mind."
Repentance is replete with radical implications, for a fundamental change of mind not only turns us from the sinful past, but also transforms our life plan, ethics, and actions as we begin to see the world through God's eyes rather than ours. That kind of transformation requires the ultimate surrender of self.
Confession does for the soul what preparing the land does for the field. Before the farmer sows the seed he works the acreage, removing the rocks and pulling the stumps. He knows that seed grows better if the land is prepared. Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts. "There is a rock of greed over here Father, I can't budge it. And that tree of guilt near the fence? Its roots are long and deep. And may I show you some dry soil, too crusty for seed?" God's seed grows better if the soil of the heart is cleared.
And so the Father and the Son walk the field together; digging and pulling, preparing the heart for fruit. Confession invites the Father to work the soil of the soul.
CONFESSION SEEKS PARDON FROM GOD, NOT AMNESTY.
Repentance is the process by which we see ourselves, day by day, as we really are: sinful, needy, dependent people. It is the process by which we see God as he is: awesome, majestic, and holy.
"The Christian needs the church to be a repenting community," proclaims Richard Neuhaus. "The Christian needs the church to be a zone of truth in a world of mendacity, to be a community in which our sin need not be disguised, but can be honestly faced and plainly confessed."
It was not by accident, I suspect, that the first of the ninety-five theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door read,
"WHEN OUR LORD AND MASTER JESUS CHRIST SAID 'REPENT,' HE WILLED THAT THE ENTIRE LIFE OF BELIEVERS BE ONE OF REPENTANCE."
If you are in Christ ... you are guaranteed that your sins will be filtered through, hidden in, and screened out by the sacrifice of Jesus. When God looks at you, he doesn't see you; he sees the One who surrounds you. That means that failure is not a concern for you. Your victory is secure. How could you not be courageous?
Picture it this way. Imagine that you are an ice skater in competition. You are in first place with one more round to go. If you perform well, the trophy is yours. You are nervous, anxious, and frightened.
Then, only minutes before your performance, your trainer rushes to you with the thrilling news: "You've already won! The judges tabulated the scores, and the person in second place can't catch you. You are too far ahead. "
Upon hearing that news, how will you feel? Exhilarated!
And how will you skate? Timidly? Cautiously? Of course not. How about courageously and confidently? You bet you will. You will do your best because the prize is yours. You will skate like a champion because that is what you are!
Freedom from Guilt
TO BELIEVE WE ARE TOTALLY AND ETERNALLY DEBT FREE IS SELDOM EASY. Even if we've stood before the throne and heard it from the king himself, we still doubt. As a result, many are forgiven only a little, not because the grace of the king is limited, but because the faith of the sinner is small. God is willing to forgive all. He's willing to wipe the slate completely clean. He guides us to a pool of mercy and invites us to bathe. Some plunge in, but others just touch the surface. They leave feeling unforgiven....
Where the grace of God is missed, bitterness is born. But where the grace of God is embraced, forgiveness flourishes....
The longer we walk in the garden, the more likely we are to smell like flowers. The more we immerse ourselves in grace, the more likely we are to give grace.
HUMAITA, [A PRISON IN BRAZIL], HAS AN ASTONISHING RECORD. Its recidivism rate is 4 percent compared to 75 percent in the rest of Brazil and the United States. How is that possible?
I saw the answer when my inmate guide escorted me to the notorious punishment cell once used for torture. Today, he told me, that block houses only a single inmate. As we reached the end of the long concrete corridor and he put the key into the lock, he paused and asked, "Are you sure you want to go in?"
"Of course," I replied impatiently, "I've been in isolation cells all over the world." Slowly he swung open the massive door, and I saw the prisoner in that punishment cell: a crucifix, beautifully carved by the Humaita inmates–the Prisoner Jesus, hanging on the cross.
"He's doing time for all the rest of us," my guide said softly.
In that cross carved by loving hands is a holy subversion. It heralds change more radical than mankind's most fevered dreams. Its followers expand the boundaries of a Kingdom that can never fail. A shining Kingdom that reaches into the darkest corners of every community, into the darkest corners of every mind. A Kingdom of deathless hope, of restless virtue, of endless peace.
Righteousness: Right Living
IT'S QUIET. It's early. My coffee is hot. The sky is still black. The world is still asleep. The day is coming.
In a few moments the day will arrive. It will roar down the track with the rising of the sun. The stillness of the dawn will be exchanged for the noise of the day. The calm of solitude will be replaced by the pounding pace of the human race. The refuge of the early morning will be invaded by decisions to be made and deadlines to be met.
For the next twelve hours I will be exposed to the day's demands. It is now that I must make a choice. Because of Calvary, I'm free to choose. And so I choose.
I choose love ...
No occasion justifies hatred; no injustice warrants bitterness. I choose love. Today I will love God and what God loves.
I choose joy ...
I will invite my God to be the God of circumstance. I will refuse the temptation to be cynical ... the tool of the lazy thinker. I will refuse to see people as anything less than human beings, created by God. I will refuse to see any problem as anything less than an opportunity to see God.
I choose peace ... I will live forgiven. I will forgive so that I may live. I choose patience ...
Excerpted from The Glory of Christmas by Charles Swindoll Copyright © 1999 by J. Countryman, a Division of Thomas Nelson Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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