From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.
Devotional Text: Matthew 1:21
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 14, 2017, and you’re listening to Day 12 of my series of Advent podcasts. This song is Chicago’s version of “Little Drummer Boy,” from their 2014 album What’s It Going to Be, Santa? The LP.
Our scripture today is one verse: Matthew chapter 1, verse 21. This is the angel speaking to Joseph, who tells him, “She”—meaning Mary—“will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
I’m a connoisseur of Christmas movies, Christmas TV specials, and Christmas episodes of TV shows, most of which—at some point or another—get around to talking about the “true meaning” of Christmas. Have you noticed? And usually the so-called “true meaning” will have something to do with love of family and friends, faith, generosity, charity, the importance of giving rather than receiving.
As good as these virtues are, they aren’t specific enough: The true meaning of Christmas begins with this fact: we are all helpless sinners. We have broken God’s law a million different ways throughout our lives—and probably three dozen ways before breakfast this morning.
By nature, we are rebels against God and his kingdom.
Think about this: Just a few weeks ago, Bowe Bergdahl, was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged by the army. Bergdahl was that soldier about ten years who went AWOL from his base in Afghanistan, was captured, and spent five years as a POW in Taliban custody. After he went missing, hundreds or thousands of fellow soldiers risked their lives trying to rescue Bergdahl—and many Americans considered him a deserter and a traitor. At least one presidential candidate advocated bringing back the firing squad for deserters like him. And many agreed.
All that to say, what would these same people have God do with us? We are traitors to him and his kingdom. We commit treason against his rule over our lives every day! We have made ourselves enemies of God, the Bible says.
But in the same breath that we talk about this bad news, we need to also hear the good news: As the New Living Translation puts it in Romans 5:7-8: “Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”
And this is ultimately the meaning of Christmas: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
When we receive the gospel through faith in Christ, our status before God changes. God no longer treats us as helpless sinners, as traitors, as enemies. He treats us as his children. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
There was condemnation before… But there is none now. None whatsoever. Did you hear that? Because of God’s rescue plan, made manifest at Christ, God is not holding your sins against you anymore.
And you say, “Yes, Pastor Brent, but I still sin.” Yes, you do. “But you’re saying that even the sins I’ve committed after I repented, after I believed in Jesus—even the sins I’ve committed today—you’re saying that even those sins are forgiven?” Yes, I am. “You’re saying that God isn’t angry at me for those sins, either—that he’s not holding them against me?” That’s right: every sin you’ve committed—past, present, and future—forgiven through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands,” Paul says in Colossians, was “nailed to the cross”—once and for all.
Years ago, when I started out in ministry, I didn’t preach this “bad news” of the gospel very often—which is to say, I didn’t preach the gospel very well at all. I was reluctant to talk about how sinful we are, in part because I thought, “Most people I’m speaking to are already Christians. They don’t need the gospel anymore. By all means, they need it at the beginning of the journey of Christian faith, but once you’re already on the road, well… They don’t need the good news so much as ‘news you can use’—you know, practical application of biblical truths.” That’s what I told myself—seems crazy to me now.
Why wouldn’t my church need the gospel—when one parishioner has an affair that wrecks his marriage; another has a gambling problem; someone else goes to rehab; another has an eating disorder. These are just normal, average, every day churchgoing Christians—who are sinners, who find themselves in a terrible crisis, and who need to hear the good news once again: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
They need to be reminded that our salvation depends entirely on Christ, and not one scintilla on our own effort, our own success, our own performance. We contribute nothing that counts toward our salvation—nothing we can claim credit for or boast about.
What does Paul say in Galatians? “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus accomplished everything for us.
Just recently, I heard an interview with a once prominent pastor who had a personal crisis within the last few years, which caused him to lose his job, lose his church. He admitted that in the wake of this crisis, he considered killing himself—he wrote a note and everything.
And when I heard this, I recoiled. I didn’t feel compassion for my fellow sinner; I felt judgment: “How could he even contemplate suicide? Was he ever even saved? How can he call himself a Christian!”
(As if my sins are more respectable than his! Give me a b-r-r-reak!)
Anyway, why did I feel judgmental toward this former pastor? Because… because… a small part of me secretly believes that salvation depends at least a little bit on us. We have some standard we have to meet. We have some bar we have to clear.
And so long as I feel that way, no wonder I feel guilty—because God must be constantly disappointed in me! Jesus may forgive me—reluctantly—but I won’t.
Oh, Brent… Hear the gospel again… Hear the story about the prodigal son in Luke 15:.
The prodigal son is you… Look at the father’s love. See how he watches for you to turn around; he’s running toward you—embracing you, kissing you. He isn’t angry at all. He’s treating you as his beloved son. What have you done to deserve this?
And the answer is, “nothing at all.”
The final song is by Keith Green from his 1977 debut album For Him Who Has Ears to Hear, an album Bob Dylan once named as his all-time favorite. The song is “When I Hear the Praises Start.”
Thanks for listening. See you tomorrow!