The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 18, 2016
When preaching about Christmas, pastors may emphasize moral lessons: that we should become as humble as the Son of God who became a helpless baby born in poverty or as self-sacrificial as the Christ (that is, the Messiah) who gave up heaven to take care of those suffering on earth.
If, however, Christmas is only about exacting moral demands, it only crushes the spirit under the weight of such requirements.
May we never miss that the main point of Christmas is to reveal, not what we should do, but what God did out of love for us! Christmas tells us that God came to save us and to be with us always, that God went to great lengths to enter the human race, to rescue us from self-destruction, and to initiate a friendship with us by which we can know Him personally and intimately.
During His gestation in Mary’s womb, Christ was given two names: Jesus, meaning “God saves”; and Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”. To understand this tale of two names is to understand God.
The angel told Joseph in a dream to name the baby in Mary’s belly “God saves”. For by Jesus God would be descending into the deep pit into which we have fallen by our own fault, but from which we cannot extract ourselves, and would be, if we let Him, lifting us up and out, and higher than they’ve ever been before.
In effecting that saving of our lives, however, the Son of God would have to give up His own life.
The great explorer and naturalist, John Muir, passes on a true story that members of the Thlinkits, a native Alaskan tribe, told him about of a chief of theirs who had died twenty years before. This chief’s story illumines what the Son of God did as Savior.
The Sitka and the Thlinkit Indians had been fighting for years, and their war had over time grown so intense and brutal that one Fall, as the cold weather settled in, the Thlinkits could not, for fear of their lives, venture out to the salmon streams and berry fields to procure the winter stock of food. As a result, the Thlinkits were facing death by starvation in the snowbound months ahead.
So one day this Thlinkit chief entered the fortified camp of the Sitkas and announced he wished to speak with their chief. When the Sitka chief appeared, the Thlinkit said, “My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon streams and berry fields for winter supplies; and if this war lasts much longer, most of my people will die of hunger. Our two tribes have fought long enough; let us make peace. Then you brave Sitkas go home, and we will go home; and we will set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late.” The Sitka chief replied, “You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You’ve killed ten more of our people than we have killed of yours. Give us ten of your men to kill so as to balance our blood-account; then, and not until then, will we make peace and go home.”
“Very well,” replied the Thlinkit chief. “But do you not see that I, as chief, am worth ten common warriors and more? Take my life then, and have peace.”
The noble offer was accepted. The Thlinkit chief laid down his arms, stepped forward, and was murdered where he stood. Peace was thus established, and lives were saved.
Christ came to give Himself as a sacrifice and to save our lives by the shedding of His own blood. He volunteered to die in our place and so enable us to live. He could substitute for us because as the Son of God He was worth more than all of us.
The Son of God was called Jesus because He was the means by whom God saves. He was also called Emmanuel because He was the very presence of God drawing near and staying near, God-with-us. He enables the God-saved to lead God-accompanied lives.
By Christ God joined the human race, moved into our neighborhood, and set down roots in the Spirit. He has to this day remained on the premises, and on call, to be there for us at any time and in any place.
And it is not just that He is the most constant of companions, but also the most helpful and supportive. For those who trust Him with their lives, He lifts spirits, empowers lives, sees people through the worst times and enables them to emerge victorious at the end.
When we could not come to the Divine being because we are just human beings, God comes to us by becoming a divine-human being at Christmas. Thus, though we cannot reach God under our own power, we can reach God through that man born in Bethlehem, just like we can reach any man or woman. We can follow Him, one human being walking in the steps of another, and so walk with God.
And in Christ God walks with us, often unnoticed, sometimes ignored, but always there, and always better able to help us than we could help ourselves.
Twenty years ago, Deputy Sheriff Lloyd Prescott, dressed in street clothes and looking like any other instructor, had just finished teaching a class at the Salt Lake City Library. After the students had left the room and he had packed up his materials, he stepped into the hallway and spotted a gunman herding 18 hostages into a nearby room. Prescott joined the group as the nineteenth hostage and walked into the room with them. Once they were all in, the gunman locked the door behind them and announced that he was going to execute each of them one after another. Immediately, Prescott identified himself as a cop and a scuffle ensued. In his wrestling with the armed man, Prescott managed to pull out his hidden revolver and, without an alternative, fatally shoot the would-be killer.
And all the hostages escaped death unharmed.
At Christmas God dressed Himself in street clothes and joined the ranks of those held hostage by sin and forces of evil. At Calvary He fought our opponents, bent on killing us, and delivered us from them free and safe. And what He did long ago, He still does to this day for those who let Him.
The tale of two names is the tale of a God of grace making His ultimate demonstration of His intent to save us and to be with us always. Let us celebrate the One born at Christmas, and rejoice in Him always!