Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.
Merry Christmas! It is a joy to see you all here on this Christmas Sunday morning. It is at this gracious time of the turning year that we most need each other, most need to hear the word of God, and most need to give thanks for the greatest word of all, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, who came down at Christmas to be with us and to save us.
God spoke this word to us on the first Christmas long ago, a word of comfort and encouragement, a word that “met us where we were” and helped us get back on our feet.
It wasn’t always so, of course. Originally, as the old, old story goes, God wanted just to be with us, to stroll with us in the garden and take the evening breeze, to take it easy and treat us with the familiarity of a loving parent with loving children gathered around playing on the grass. But did our many-times-great-grandparents leave it that way? You know the story. Did they relax and take it easy and trust God? Nooooh! They went for the fruit salad, the one that God had told them was full of toxic ingredients and would do them no good. So it was that we lost that easy familiarity with God, that one-on-one personal relationship with our creator. We didn’t take him at his word, and so his word became a curse: our ancient ancestors were evicted from the garden of Eden, condemned to a life of hard work, pain in childbirth, and the ulimate sentence of death itself: fitting punishment for those who seek to become as wise as God before their time.
Now, God did not abandon us, of course, but did have to change the tone of his word to us. Instead of his own loving word delivered in person, he sent the Law and promise by intermediaries — Moses and the prophets — and the Law treated us as a disciplinarian does while the promise awaited fulfillment.. After all, we’d earned all the discipline God could hand out though our disobedience, and we were not ready for the promise! So the word of God became the words of the Law given through Moses.
We all know the power of words, how a word spoken in anger can resound and echo for years, nursed in a wounded heart to come back and bite you unexpectedly. And we know that a word of love spoken at the right time can do just the opposite, sometimes far more than we could imagine.
Let me give you a real example of what a difference there is between harsh and loving words, and what an impact they can have.
There was once a country church in a small village, where a boy was serving as an acolyte at the altar. As he was presenting the wine for the priest to fill the chalice, the boy accidentally dropped the wine cruet, and it shattered on the floor making a terrible mess. The village priest barely controlled himself and shouted out, “Leave the altar and don't come back!” Meanwhile, halfway around the world, in a great cathedral, a similar scene was being enacted. An acolyte was serving the bishop at the high altar, and in just the same way accidentally dropped the cruet of wine. The bishop paused and looked the boy in the eye, and with a smile said softly, “Someday you will be a priest.”
Well, you may say, such accidents must happen dozens of times. And so they have. And no doubt harsh or kind words have been spoken. But in this case, the first boy did leave the church and he never came back. His name was Jossip Broz, better known by his adopted name Marshal Tito, leader of communist Yugoslavia. And the other boy did become a priest. Fulton Sheen grew up to become a bishop, one of the greatest Christian communicators of the last century, the man who brought the Gospel to television.
So it is that the disciplinarian’s harsh words may well have the opposite effect from what was intended. The harsh command and the strict regimen do not produce the desired results. Saint Paul spoke eloquently of this in his letter to the Romans: how all the Law did was to make us aware of our sin, but did nothing to help us out of it.
And God knew this too, and more. God knew that his own harsh words to Adam and Eve, “Get out of the Garden of Eden and don’t come back,” would, in the long run, not bring an end to wrongdoing. Though our ancient ancestors had tasted of the fruit that gave them the ability to tell good from evil, still some of their descendants, starting with Cain their firstborn son, would chose the evil rather than the good. So God saw that further instruction was needed, that a time of preparation and discipline was needed to supplement the common sense that helps people to tell good from evil. And so God sent the Law to further instruct his people. But God also knew in his infinite wisdom, that times of discipline come to an end; and the time comes for the promise of freedom to be fulfilled as, instead a disciplinarian, God sends his own Son as a great high priest, to help us as one of us by showing us the way of forgiveness. So it is that God, in the fullness of time, when things were ready and ripe and receptive, sent another word in place of the Law of Moses, a personal word, a priestly word, a word of forgiveness, full of grace and truth, a word not spoken by the prophets, but by God himself, his own Word, the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that in some mysterious and incomprehensible way was God in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be!
God sent his Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, God from God and Light from Light, who was from before time and forever, down into the womb of the Virgin Mary, in which was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is God’s Word to us in these latter days. This is his Word spoken not by intermediaries or messengers, however gracious and righteous, but by God himself. This is God’s Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem us who lived under the law, so that we might be freed from the law of discipline and come into our promised inheritance as children of God, and, yes, as priests of his kingdom!
And because we are children of God and share in Christ’s eternal priesthood, — having been restored by God through the act of his Son coming among us as one of us — we are able to join with God’s Son in calling God our Father, through the power of the Spirit at work in our hearts.
So let us give thanks, my sisters and brothers, sisters and brothers of Jesus our Lord and Savior — let us give thanks this Christmas season for the greatest gift of all, the best word ever spoken, knowing that even if we occasionally fail and falter and drop a wine-cruet, God will look upon us with forgiveness and grace, and speak to us a word of comfort and truth, assuring us that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The story of Tito and Sheen is based on an account in James W. Hewett?s Illustrations Unlimited.