What difference does Christmas make?

cross-and-manger“What difference does Christmas make?”

Galatians 4:1-7

Preached at African Nazarene University Church

Nairobi, Kenya

Sunday, December 16, 2012

– Read passage in the NLT, followed by opening prayer –

I.          INTRODUCTION

What difference does Christmas make?

Is it just about eating chicken, going up-country to visit with relatives? Or, in my native country, drawing on German customs, is it just about making cookies and putting up a fir trees with lights and decorations?

What difference does Christmas make?

To answer the question, first we must change the question.

The word “Christmas” never appears in the Bible. It comes from Middle English prior to the 12th century, and refers to the mass devoted to Christ celebrating Christ’s birth.

So really, we instead should ask:

What difference does the incarnation make?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we change our greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Merry incarnation.” That would take some getting used to! But it would be a more accurate description of what we’re actually celebrating. It is the feast of Christ’s coming to earth to save us.

John 1:14 (KJV) tells us: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

In the same way, the Apostle Paul thought long and hard about what difference Christ’s coming to earth made. As a Jewish man, his first concern was to relate the old thing that God had done through His covenant people with the new thing God had done through Christ. That’s really what Galatians is all about.

So in Galatians 4:1-7, we find at least three answers to the question, “What difference does the incarnation make?” The answers to that question can be summarized in three words:

1) freedom

2) adoption

3) inheritance

II.        THE INCARNATION MEANS FREEDOM

First, the incarnation – the eternal Christ coming to earth – means freedom.  Jesus was born not too, not too late, but right on time. That’s what verse 4 tells us. Yet he came with a specific mission in-mind, as part of God’s rescue operation.

Illustration: Navy Seal killed freeing doctor

This week we learned the news of an American doctor who was kidnapped by the Taliban outside of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. With careful planning, a team of Navy Seals liberated the doctor, but there was a price to pay. One of the young seals was killed when struck by a bullet. Freedom comes with a cost.

Application: God sent his only Son, Jesus, on a rescue mission, to a place where humanity had been taken captive. Galatians 4:3 says: “We were slaves to the spiritual powers of this world.”

It’s not clear what these “powers” referred to. Some commentators, however, see a reference to demons. That certainly fits with some of the healings that Jesus performed, such as the women who had been bent over double for 18 years. The Lord healed her, and when the religious leaders criticized Jesus for having healed her on the Sabbath, he replied:

Wasn’t it necessary for me, even on the Sabbath day, to free this dear woman from the bondage in which Satan has held her for eighteen years? – Luke 13:16, NLT

Pocket-Compass-Image-Credit-Solar-NavigatorPaul speaks not only about freedom from malevolent spiritual powers, but freedom from the Law. It’s important to understand what he is getting at. Paul is not saying that the Christian need not obey the ethical principles of our faith, such as the 10 Commandments or the two Greatest Commandments, to love God and neighbor. What he means is that before we only had an external guide to holy living. Now, we have an internal compass, and that compass is the Holy Spirit! Verse 6 says that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts. Jesus promised that the Spirit of Truth would guide us into all Truth (John 16:13).

III.       THE INCARNATION MEANS ADOPTION

What difference does Christmas make?

Christmas means incarnation. Because Christ came, we are freed from the power of Satan and no longer have to rely only upon the Law to guide us. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us to guide us in the path we should go.

But besides freedom, the incarnation also means adoption. What a promise! Paul says in Gal. 4:5-6 (NLT):

“God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because you Gentiles have become his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, and now you can call God your dear Father.”

God is called many names in the Old Testament, but God is rarely called Father. When God is portrayed as a Father, it is only to the people of Israel.  But now Paul is saying that God should be addressed as Father not only by Jews but (radically) also by Gentiles! And by the way, when he says “Gentiles,” that means Kenyans and Americans and French and Congolese and….the list goes on. My brothers and sisters, that’s you and me!

Bilquis Sheikh, author of I Dared to Call Him Father
Bilquis Sheikh, author of I Dared to Call Him Father

Bilquis Sheikh, a Muslim Pakistani woman who came to Christ, wrote a popular book entitled I Dared to Call Him Father. She learned through Jesus that God is not a distant God, an angry God, but a loving God and that this God is perfectly revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ.

In French, there are two forms to address others, the “vous” form (which is polite and respectful) and the  “tu” form, which is familiar. French Protestants have always drawn criticism because in their prayers, they also use the “tu” form with God.  It’s the form of intimacy, of relaxed and comfortable talk within the family.

This is what Paul is getting at. Before, he is saying, you were on formal terms with God. You were like a minor under the care of a governess. But now you have come of age. To use the terms from John Wesley, your faith is no longer that of a servant, but that of sons and daughters. As Christians, we are part of the family!

And how about you? Do you dare call God your “Father”?  You, too, can be part of God’s family by confessing your sins and putting your faith in Christ alone.

IV.       THE INCARNATION MEANS INHERITANCE

So what difference does Christmas make? What difference does the incarnation make?

Because Jesus came, we can be free.

Because Jesus came, we can be adopted into God’s family.

Finally, because Jesus came, we will receive an inheritance.

Let’s look again at v. 7 –

“Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are a child, everything he has belongs to you.”

What has been given to us? Because Christ came to earth, what is our inheritance?

Paul doesn’t get into detail here to answer this question, but the New Testament helps us answer this.

–       First, we receive the Holy Spirit. We already saw that when we spoke of adoption.

–       Secondly, we are recipients of God’s grace. When Paul was sick, God said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you…” God gives us power to overcome.

–       Third, we receive the forgiveness of our sins and purity. In Acts 26:18, God tells Paul that this is the message he is to preach, forgiveness and sanctification.

–       Fourth, our inheritance is love. 1 John 4:7 explains: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”

So far, what have we received because of Christ’s coming? It all sounds pretty good! Holy Spirit? Grace? Forgiveness? Purity? Love? Count me in, God!

But there is something else that is part of our inheritance as followers of Jesus. It’s a something else that points beyond the incarnation to the Cross. Paul says in Philippians 1:29 (NIV)–

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

Did you see that phrase? “It has been granted to you…” What are we talking about? We’re talking about inheritance.

Illustration: Will you get coal in your stocking? (show stocking as visual aid)

As a child, I loved hanging my “stocking” on the wall next to the other five stockings of my brothers. Legend says that Santa Claus sneaks into the house and leaves presents under the tree, and also candy inside the stockings. I remember my mom giving us a solemn warning: “You’d better be good, or else instead of leaving you candy inside your stocking, he might just leave you coal.”

Application: When we think about our inheritance because of Christ coming to earth, we don’t mind the “candy,” the good things we’ve been talking about. But when we end up with suffering, we might be tempted to think that – like a mean Santa Claus – God has left us “coal” in our stocking.

Yet when Paul writes in Galatians 4:7 – “everything he has belongs to you” – does that “everything” not sometimes include things that are tough, like suffering?

Paul says:  “It has been granted to you…to suffer.”

cross-with-nailThis is my gift to you! This, too, is your inheritance because Jesus came.

And we look at that and think: “Why did God leave me coal in my stocking, when all I wanted was candy?”

Today, we are going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. May I suggest to you that if all the Cross means is suffering, then we would not be celebrating the Lord’s Supper today? For God’s gift to us is only a gift because it is not suffering alone. It is suffering that ends in triumph!

For if the incarnation points beyond itself to the Cross, the Cross points beyond itself to the Empty Tomb.

Ours is a Resurrection faith.

V.        CONCLUSION

What difference does Christmas make?

To ask that question is to ask: What difference does the incarnation make?

Because Christ came, we have freedom, freedom from the power of Satan and a new guide that goes beyond the law, the blessed Holy Spirit inside our hearts.

Because Christ came, we have been adopted into God’s family. Now, we can call God our “Father.”

And because Christ came, all that God has belongs to us. We have an inheritance, gifts of the Holy Spirit, grace, forgiveness, purity, and love.  And though it may at first seem hardly a gift, God in Christ gives us the gift of suffering that ends in triumph.

Today, we celebrate Christ’s coming into our world, the incarnation that points beyond itself to the suffering of the Cross and the triumph of the Resurrection.

Today, we remember Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we take it as a means of grace, God’s way to strengthen our faith and remind us that Jesus – who already came once – will one day come again.

Shall we pray?

–Give communion instructions. Remind people that it is open for all Christians. —

———–

Photo credits

Manger: Graham Baird

Compass: Universe Today

Bilquis Sheikh: Kelly Garcia

Cross: CrossWays Net

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