St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
So what will you be exchanging this Christmas?
You might have already opened a Christmas gift this evening. When I was little, my family would usually wait until Christmas morning to open presents, except on those rare years when my brother and I prevailed upon our parents to open just one of the shiny, wrapped packages under our Christmas tree. If you are one of those folks who’s already gotten to at least one gift, did you like it? Was it everything that you’d been expecting? Chances are that when you’re opening presents this Christmas, there will be at least one that isn’t as welcome as the rest. Even if you went to the effort of distributing a detailed wish-list to your friends and family this year – you know, in an effort to be “helpful” – you might receive an unexpected gift or two that you think should really go elsewhere, like back to the store.
Especially in years past, before the advent of the retail gift card, the days following Christmas would see crowds of shoppers heading back out to the stores to exchange unwanted gifts. Nowadays, gift cards make getting a gift for someone a whole lot easier. Some people say that gift cards are thoughtless, showing little care on the giver’s part. I think, however, that a gift card can say, “I recognize that you know what you want and can use much better than I do!” Thanks to things like gift receipts, though, you can still give someone a gift that shows you care but understand if they could use something else instead. And so, masses of people will still descend on stores in the days after Christmas to exchange items or gift cards for whatever it is they think they really want.
In his letter to Titus, Paul encourages a different kind of exchange. He’s not talking about stuff like presents, though. This Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God’s grace has entered into our lives through Jesus – and Jesus reshapes our lives.
Have you ever gotten a gift that you knew you shouldn’t exchange? It might have come from someone who cared deeply for you, so you didn’t want to hurt their feelings by taking it back. So you put it away on the back of a shelf in a closet somewhere to store it away. It’d still be available to you in case you ever needed to break it out and show it off to the person who’d given it to you. Do you treat God’s grace the same way?
Does the life that Paul describes, one that renounces ungodliness and worldly passions, sound about as attractive as a package of new socks underneath the Christmas tree? Sure, it’s probably useful, but why would you want to put that on when there are so many other options out there? Even so, when you need it, you drag it out of the closet at least a few times a year and put it on and show that it’s still around. If that’s the case, you’re not really living the life that God wants for His people. It’s easy to get caught up in your own desires, always wanting what you don’t have, living primarily for yourself. That’s the way of our sin, everything that would turn you and me away from God and His love. Living as a false Christian, putting on a show without seeking to make use of God’s gifts, is unrighteousness and ungodliness. It’s rejecting both the gift and the giver. And God has a great gift for you this evening!
You and I are here tonight because God came to our world to bring about our salvation. That word, “salvation,” points to the greatest gift you could hope to receive. It’s life – life in a restored relationship with God that is far better than anything that the world has to offer. It doesn’t wear out. It’s new every day. The more you experience it, the more you see how much it is to be lived in the here-and-now and not stored away on the back of some shelf in a closet for some later time. Salvation, life lived with God, is here for you, now, in Jesus.
Your life is connected with his life. Christmas celebrates the miracle in the manger, God coming to be with us as a human being and Savior. That’s part of the story of salvation that we have through Jesus. It continues through Good Friday, which recalls his suffering and death on the cross that made our salvation possible. It rings out of the empty tomb on Easter, showing the Savior’s victory over the grave. It climbs the mount on the day of Ascension, when he sent us to live as his people while also eagerly awaiting his return in glory. As Paul writes, Jesus gave himself to redeem you and purify you so that you could live life with God, zealous in sharing that life with the world around you.
Jesus gives the best gifts. Though, unlike the gifts that you or I give, Jesus’ gifts are all about the exchange.
Jesus exchanged unrighteousness for righteousness. He took your repeated pursuit of worldly passions to the cross so that it would die with him. But Jesus doesn’t just take it and leave you empty-handed! In exchange, he has given you his perfect standing before God the Father. He has purified you. In God’s eyes, you are that beloved child in the manger. You are His own.
Jesus exchanged isolation for community. You are no longer out there in life all on your own. In Christ, you can call out self-centered living for the lie that it is. Jesus has made you a part of the body of which he is the Head, his community of saints in the Church. As his disciple, you can be zealous about doing good works not because you need them for salvation – Jesus has already given you that restored life with God – but because those good works support and care for the people around you.
Jesus exchanged death for life. Death came into the world through humanity’s doubt of God’s love and has been crushing us ever since. Earlier this week, one of my old friends died following a decade-long battle against a rare and aggressive cancer. But he, his wife, and family are members of this community of saints that is Christ’s Church. We know that death is not the end for those who live in the salvation that Jesus has brought into the world. This isn’t a fiction used to make death less painful – that consequence of our broken world still hurts all those who lose loved ones. In Jesus, you can have a certain, blessed hope of life that death cannot defeat. The baby born in Bethlehem took death to the cross, then left the grave on the third day to show that death’s power had been broken.
As you celebrate our Savior’s birth in the days ahead, enjoy what Jesus has given you: the gift of righteousness and godly living, the gift of community with his saints on earth and in heaven, the gift of life that doesn’t end at the grave. Don’t stick them up on a shelf; instead, go and put them to use. Live in God’s grace in the here-and-now, His great gift to you. The Holy Spirit will keep working in you, training you to keep on laying down ungodliness and worldly passion under the cross. Jesus will take them from you and give you God’s grace in their place, all out of love for you.
So what will you be exchanging this Christmas?
other sermons in this series