The True Meaning of Christmas
Epiphany Sermon for 2003| Romans 3:23-31| Rev. Rolf Preus
They came from the East. They traveled many hundreds of miles. It must have taken months. They were not Jews, but they came to worship a Jew. They came in search of the King of the Jews. While Herod saw the newborn King of the Jews as a threat, He was not threat. He did not come into this world to take away anyone’s political power. He came rather to take away sin. And since it was not only the Jews, but all people who were sinful, He came to take away the sin of the world.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This is the bitter truth that must be faced before there can be any worthy worship. We come to Jesus to cry out for forgiveness because that’s what we need. God doesn’t need anything from us. We need everything from Him.
“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Who are they that are “justified freely by His grace”? It is those who have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. All have sinned. All are justified freely by His grace. God says to all sinners that it is by His unmerited love that they are forgiven. To be justified means to be forgiven. When sins are forgiven the sinner becomes just or righteous. God doesn’t justify sinners by requiring the sinners to make themselves righteous. They cannot do so. Every attempt to make oneself righteous simply compounds the sin and makes it worse. Nothing is more offensive to the holy God than a sinner who is self-righteous. Sinners can no more make themselves righteous than bathing in filth can make one clean.
“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We are justified by Christ’s redemption. He intervened and He obeyed the law in our stead. He paid the debt of obedience to the law that we owed. He set us free by paying the ransom price. That ransom price was His obedience all the way to death. But it was not enough that He should obey the law that we failed to obey. He also had to suffer the full penalty for our disobedience.
“Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood.” A propitiation propitiates someone. To propitiate someone is to pacify him. It is to turn his anger away. It is to make him peaceful. God sent Jesus in order to be the propitiation for our sins. By dying, He bore all of God’s anger against sinners. The only way that God’s anger could be removed from us was by Christ bearing that anger in Himself. That is what happened. Jesus shed his blood and pacified God.
Faith receives this treasure. This is what makes us so wealthy. When God’s not angry with you, heaven is open for you. The glory from which you fell is given back to you. When God’s Son has borne all of your sins and has set you free from being judged, your future is filled with joy and hope. “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” It is through faith. It is not by means of working. Christ did the work. Faith receives what Christ gives. Faith that receives Christ is expressed is worship of Christ. Faith and worship are inseparable. The main reason why folks don’t worship Jesus is because they don’t believe in Him. Worship is our expression of faith. How we worship expresses what we believe. To worship the newborn King of the Jews was as high a privilege as the Wise Men could ever have hoped for in this world. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh they brought to Him were confessions of their faith.
“To demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.”
Listen to these words: “that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” It is right, fair, and just that God justify those who believe in Jesus. Why? Because Jesus has redeemed the world. Because Jesus has borne the anger of God against the world. Because Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
It is right for God to justify sinners who believe in Jesus. All man-made religions find this claim offensive. How can God say that a sinner is righteous? Isn’t that a lie? How can a holy God say that sinners who are not holy are holy? What kind of injustice is that?
But they don’t understand! It is for Christ’s sake. God justifies sinners not for their own sake but for Christ’s. It isn’t because of what the sinners did; it is because of what Christ did. The true Christian faith is not trusting in what we sinners can do to make ourselves righteous. It is trusting in what Christ has done. The Wise Men didn’t travel to Bethlehem as if this pilgrimage would win them God’s favor. They came to worship their Savior. They came to bow down before the One whose coming was heralded by prophets, angels, and a star. They came to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel , and they came in confidence that it was not only to the physical seed of Abraham that the promise was intended, but to all people everywhere. They came from a place where superstition and error reigned. When they arrived in Bethlehem they found the young Child whose righteousness exceeded all of the holiest works of the holiest people throughout history. They found the only innocent Child ever born. They found the reason a just a holy God could rightly forgive undeserving sinners.
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
This is what Christmas is all about. It is about being justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. On December 25 we celebrate the birth of Christ. On the Twelfth Day of Christmas we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men to see the Christ Child. This day is as important as the other. Christ’s birth would have been of no benefit to us if He hadn’t come specifically to us Gentiles.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, my ancestors were stumbling in the darkness of pagan delusion. They lived in fear of evil spirits and they prayed to false gods. The fact that the holy family welcomed the Wise Men from the East proves that the barbarians from the North were to be welcomed as well. When Norway was Christianized a thousand years ago, it was according to the will of God. The rain shower of Christ’s gospel saturated that nation and few Norwegians today take the faith seriously. And so it is here in America . The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.
Still the light shines wherever Christ’s gospel is proclaimed. When sinners are taught to set aside any reliance on their own works and to trust instead on Christ alone, they are justified. God reckons to them the righteousness of Jesus. That is, God credits to every believer the obedience of the Christ born in Bethlehem . This is why we have confidence that God is our God and we are His people. This is why we are sure that God loves us. God sees us as we really are. He sees us are we are without the façade of piety and goodness that we construct for the benefit of people who are watching. God sees the sin we commit every day. His light shines in the darkness and exposes it for what it is. And it is as God sees our sins and we are afraid of Him that God announces to us that for Christ’s sake our sins are forgiven and we are righteous in His sight. When we believe this, it is God’s own miracle inside of us. When we believe that God really has forgiven us all of our sins and removed their penalty and guilt from us, we know the true meaning of Christmas.
The true meaning of Christmas is that sinners are justified and forgiven by God solely because of what Jesus Christ has done. God announces to us the absolution and by His grace we believe it. It is ours. It is ours because God says so. It is ours because Jesus came into this world to save sinners, and so He came to save us.
To be justified by faith means that God doesn’t see anything sinful in us. Folks who reject the doctrine of justification by faith alone are rejecting Christmas and the Christ of Christmas, but they seldom realize this. In fact, they insist that by teaching salvation by works we are honoring God. They think that teaching salvation by grace alone by faith alone through Christ alone without our good deeds is dishonoring God’s law. This is because they suffer from the central delusion of the devil. That delusion or lie is that sinners must overcome their own sins. If you believe this lie, you will never be free. And the Bible so clearly contradicts this claim.
“Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”
Did you hear that? St. Paul is saying here that when we insist that we are justified by God without our works, without doing anything good at all, solely and only through faith in Christ, that we establish the law. We don’t tear it down. We don’t deny it. We don’t denigrate it or show disrespect to it. It is showing the supreme disrespect to God’s law for people to claim that they have obeyed it and deserve to go to heaven on that account. We show true respect for God’s law when we admit that we have failed to obey it and when we claim Christ’s obedience instead of our own. I have failed, but Christ did not fail. I have not silenced the law’s demands, but Christ has. I have not pacified God and set his anger aside, but Christ has. And since I have done nothing but get myself deeper and deeper into trouble out of which I could never escape, I will not trust in anything I think, say, or do. No, I will rather trust in Christ alone.
The human heart will by nature believe that the road to heaven is paved by our good works. It is the nature of sin to believe that it is not sin. That is why every faith except for the Christian faith is a false faith. This is also why so many nominal Christians who sincerely believe that they are Christians are not Christians at all because they are trusting in their good works instead of in Christ.
The truth by which the church stands is the truth that God justifies and saves sinners like us through faith in Christ alone. This truth gives all the glory to God. This truth brings comfort to us when our consciences are afraid. This truth distinguishes between Christianity and all human religions. This truth is the foundation for our Christian faith and the guarantee of everlasting life. Amen.